I once worked as a deck-hand on an ammo ship. The joke aboard was that if a disaster happened—a fire or explosion—the ship wouldn’t go down.
Uh-uh. She’d go straight up.
As we crossed the Pacific, I read The Egyptian Book of the Dead, an ancient treatise on how to prepare for death. I told myself that I read it in order to get into a war mood. On the day we spotted the green coastline of Vietnam, I put a quotation from the book on the messroom blackboard:
“Death is before me today, as the odor of lotus-flowers, as when one sitteth on the shore of drunkenness.”
A couple of hours later I went back to the messroom and found that someone had erased most of the quotation. It now read:
“...before me today...drunkenness.”
Since then, I’ve been rewritten many times, but never as well.
Yes, I have been rewritten many times. A TV episode I wrote once was so heavily edited that the aired episode had one line intact from my original script. Another time, an executive producer wrote on the manila envelope that held one of my scripts: “CAUTION! Toxic material!”
After spending a year as a staff writer for Days of Our Lives, I was fired. I convinced myself it was because I was older than the other writers. Yeah, that was it: ageism.
After that, my agent kept calling General Hospital and managed to set up a meeting with the executive producer. On the day I went to meet with her, my agent phoned me: “Call me as soon as they offer you something,” he said.
I went to the General Hospital studio at the arranged time. It was in a part of L.A. that had been pleasant 80 years ago but now had cars and trucks—their guts disassembled—sitting on lawns. A neighborhood of Spanish graffiti, barred windows, and scruffy kids on tricycles. The studio had stubbornly remained in that area, inside a locked compound. I drove in, parked, went into the building, and then sat in the waiting room.
I waited an hour. Then another half-hour. Finally, the producer came out.
Without even looking at me, she said: “Please tell your agent to stop pestering us. We’re not going to hire you.” She turned quickly and left.
That was it. The meeting was over. It had lasted 10 seconds. Maybe less.
I left the building, got in my car and drove just outside the lot, parking on the street. Jesus! For a month I’d watched General Hospital day after day until my eyes bled. I got to know the characters. Learned who they were. Learned their back-stories.
While I’d watched a month’s worth of episodes, I jotted down notes. Ideas about where to take the characters, what kind of short and long story-lines could be developed. I had my notes with me when I’d gone to the meeting but never got the chance to use them.
So now, in my car, I looked at them. Blah-blah and blah-blah have an affair. Blah-blah and blah-blah strengthen their marriage. Blah-blah and blah-blah have a problem with a child. Blah-blah gets a life-threatening illness. Blah-blah finds religion. Blah-blah opens up a rock club. Blah-blah-blah-blah...
It was all painfully unoriginal. I was grateful I didn’t have the chance to embarrass myself even more: it would only have made that meeting worse, if that was possible. I crumpled my notes into paper balls and threw them into the back seat of the car, on top of my tux, laid flat across the back seat.
I’d brought my tux because I had no idea how long the meeting would last and had a black-tie affair later that afternoon. I changed clothes in the car and quickly became an object of amused spectatorship: little kids stopped playing to watch me struggle to put on my tux pants, which had shrunk since the last time I wore them.
The gala was something called “The Environmental Awards Show,” invented and bankrolled by Ted Turner, who decided it would be a good idea to reward TV shows and movies that showed sensitivity toward the earth and all living things. The Days of Our Lives writing staff was being honored because we’d done a storyline in which a young, pretty female doctor campaigned against a factory whose waste polluted the air and poisoned a local river.
The truth is, no one on that soap staff cared a mouse dropping about the environment. It was an exercise in stupid soap tricks: we did it in order to make a new character instantly sympathetic, but Ted Turner liked the storyline and thought the show deserved an award.
For reasons I still don’t understand, I decided to go to the event, even though I’d already been fired from the show. I’d be sitting with ex-colleagues who’d give me that phony-sympathy look you use on someone who’s been booted from a job you still have. A rational person wouldn’t have gone. But my showbiz career was sinking quickly and I wasn’t feeling rational.
I arrived early at what had once been the MGM lot and walked around in my too-small tux, staring at sound stages.
In the 1980s I worked on that lot for more than five years. My then-writing-partner and I did a version of Pirates of the Caribbean years before someone else wrote the mega-hit that became a feature-film franchise. There were days, while working on Pirates, that my head was deep into sailing ships and derring-do and the New Orleans of hundreds of years ago.
Sound stages look very much like the warehouses used for storing cargo on docks, so while I was on the MGM lot waiting for the environmental gala to begin, my mind drifted back not only to my years on that lot, but also to my own seafaring years, to ships I’d worked on as a deck-hand, to exotic ports in the Far East.
For me, Vietnam, during the war years, had been a surreal, grotesque amusement park. Disneyland for the weird. Everything was suffused with the overwhelming smell of frying fish oil, kerosene, urine, cheap perfume, tropical rain, lush vegetation, and garbage.
My mind drifted from Vietnam in the 1960s to New Orleans in 1700 to Culver City in the 1980s. My thoughts were a jumble of images: sound stages, cargo warehouses, pirates, sailing ships, ammo for a useless war, goods shipped halfway round the world, soap operas...the things I’d done and places I’d been all overlapped—fueled, I suppose, by that dreadful meeting I’d had a couple of hours earlier.
Suddenly, while walking around at MGM, I lost my bearings. For at least a couple of minutes, I had no idea where I was, or what year it was. I felt life telescoping: all years and places compressed into the blurry present.
She ain’t goin’ down. Uu-uh. She goin’ straight up. Yo-ho-ho, it’s a pirate’s life for me. Tell your agent to stop pestering me. First your money, then your honey, then you lose your shoes. How will this play in Peoria?
I was disoriented, dizzy, hyperventilating. Where the hell was I? When was I?
And then I went deeper into the rabbit-hole. What had my life been worth, after all? Some of it had been spent delivering ammo and other goods to a vile war-zone, and getting paid a bonus to do it. Some of it had been spent writing scenarios intended to lull people into a stupor so they’d buy whatever the sponsor of the show was selling.
It wasn’t my scripts that needed rewriting, it was my life. Was it too late for that?
I came back to my right mind, my right time and place, and in the end, I didn’t go to the environmental awards show. I just couldn’t.
I staggered back to the parking lot. After some wrong turns, I finally found my car. I slid inside and sat there, sweating. I threw off my tux jacket and cummerbund, loosened my pants. Took a few deep breaths.
The only image that came to mind was that long-ago messroom blackboard.
...before me today...drunkenness.
The memory of that perfect rewrite burned brightly and helped guide me, like a lighthouse, through a dark night at sea.
has been a journalist, merchant seaman, and TV scriptwriter; has had more than 100 articles published in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Penthouse, Jewish Journal, Serving House Journal, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Santa Fe Writers Project, and many others; has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and 2015; and is co-author of The Eagle Mutiny, a nonfiction account of the only mutiny on an American ship in modern times:
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Featured Retrospective in this issue.]