Sunday, March 04, 2001

Writers with the right stuff

        The author of The Right Stuff and A Man in Full accessorized himself with a white pocket handkerchief, powder blue necktie and spectator shoes, which look like spats. Tom Wolfe has added a windowpane pattern to his signature three-piece, ice-cream-white suit.

        Wearing these things, in my opinion, takes a lot of nerve.

        But this is a man who was brave enough to take modern life seriously and put a name to it — radical chic, the me decade, the right stuff. He wore a coat and tie into the pits when he researched stock car racing and to interview Silicon Valley dot-com billionaires in jeans and shirts opened to the waist. He seems to know where he fits in this world.

Taking a chance
               After writing for newspapers and magazines, he wrote his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, at age 57. “I was convinced nobody was going to read this thing,” he told a reporter several million books later.

        But he wrote it anyway. Then he wrote some more books, survived quintuple by-pass surgery and marked his 70th birthday here, speaking to 550 students at Seven Hills School Friday morning and to more than 500 of their teachers and parents and friends at lunch.

        I am watching Tom Wolfe though the ornate lattice of the balcony overlooking the Omni Netherland's Hall of Mirrors. Accomplished, successful, the son of an agronomist.

        And I am thinking of Art Massengill, the son of a farmer.

        It's a matter of education. And nerve, or course.

        Art — 64 years old with three years of formal education — is studying for his high school equivalency degree. He drives from his home in Goshen to Live Oaks Career Development Campus in Milford four days a week for three-hour classes. He works with math and reading tutors for another three or four hours every week.

        “I talk about it so much, I'm afraid people will think I'm conceited or something,” Art says. “But that's not it. I'm just thrilled.”

        Art grew up in the mountains of east Tennessee. When his tiny school closed, “My dad bragged that he was the only one who stuck to his word and wouldn't let his children be bused into the valley.”

A life on hold
               At age 16, Art gave it another try. After a year, his family needed him back on the farm again.

        “My mother and grandmother both passed away,” Art wrote in “A Tennessee Childhood,” which will be published this spring by the Ohio Literacy Resource Center.

        “Because I was the oldest, I cooked, cleaned, laundered the clothes and completed any other household chores.”

        And put his own life on hold.

        He came to Cincinnati when he was 19, married, had two children and worked at Borden Chemical Inc. until he was 62. He took disability retirement, suffering from congestive heart failure.

        “I'm on a couple drugs now that work real well,” he says. “And I just couldn't let loose of the idea of finishing school.”

        So, he is learning fractions and decimals. He is wrestling with commas and compound sentences. He will be a published writer this spring and, if all goes well, he will receive his GED later this year.

        “The piece of paper is important,” Art says, “but not as important as finding out what I can do.”

        Which takes a lot of nerve, in my opinion.
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