On Writing, Tongue Sandwiches: What I Learned From My Dad

Charlie GelberMy dad had impressive sideburns for a 15-year-old.

Father's Day is right around the corner, and we're celebrating with the occasional post on the career and life lessons we've learned from the dads in our lives. Today, AOL Jobs staffer Mack Gelber contributes a story about a story (as told by his dad), which turned out to be an early career inspiration.

My dad, Charles Gelber, has a story--which has nothing to do with jobs, networking, or employment in any capacity--but it's a funny story and I thought I'd share it here.

When my dad was a kid, he was sent to school one morning with a note asking the teacher to excuse him for Rosh Hashanah, which was a few days away. This was in Scotia, New York, a village ("small town" would be stretching it) near Schenectady where the closest thing to a local landmark was the General Electric factory, which employed so much of the area it was inevitably referred to as "The GE." Suffice to say, there were not a lot of Jewish families in Scotia, New York in the late 1950s (although due to the high volume of redheaded Gelber kids, most people probably thought we were Irish Catholic).

Anyway, later that day the teacher called my grandmother, asking about the note Charlie had just handed her. A worried note crept into her voice: "What is this 'rash hashanah,'" she asked, perhaps holding a Kleenex to her mouth. "Is it contagious?"

My dad has a lot of stories like that. He has a lot of stories, period. That's what happens when you're one of nine brothers (yes, really) and never stop paying attention. There's the story about the time his high school band nearly opened for the Hollies; there's the story of his epic standoff with a tongue sandwich (this is what Jewish mothers fed their kids in the '50s); there's the time my grandfather spent weeks constructing his own sailboat, only to tragically, disastrously neglect to include a centerboard.

My dad has so many stories that, when I was 12 or so, he started writing them down and collecting them in what quickly developed into a complete memoir of small-town life during a decade of change--think Cheaper by the Dozen, but with more matzoh. The title? Centerboard.

He would write on the train commuting back and forth to New York, where he worked as an (Emmy-winning) editor and director of TV and film. Every day he would come back with another anecdote, another chapter, and after dinner he would print them out and have my mom and me read them over. I'm not sure what kind of editorial feedback he was expecting to get from a 12-year-old, especially one who'd only recently graduated from Animorphs and Star Wars novelizations to Stephen King. But I'd sit down with the fresh pages, still warm from the printer, and uncap the nearest pen.

I was reading the story about the teacher and her groan-inducing malapropism. Here was the setup: my dad, eight or nine, handing over the note with my grandmother's writing. Here was the payoff, the climactic phone call: "What is this 'rash hashanah'? Is it contagious?" Maybe he'd also included some details of the classroom, some tangential dialogue or thoughts on the teacher's haircut. But I would read the story and make my notes. I would sit with him after, and as we discussed the pages I began to realize that, along with every story, there was a perfect way of telling it. My dad didn't need my notes, though--if my mom and I were laughing, he would know he was on the right track.
Charles GelberThis is what Photoshop looked like in the late '60s (it's a publicity shot for my dad's college band). He's the top left guy in the magic bottle.

I got older. I started to gravitate toward writing, contributing music reviews to my high school paper and making a few tentative attempts at fiction, which at that point was focused primarily on people getting blown up by tanks. Meanwhile, my dad polished the memoir and started sending it to agents. He got one, but the book never sold. Turns outpublishers are more inclined to pick up memoirs if they're written by celebrities or survivors of extreme tragedy or horror. My dad was neither, although he might've made a case for the tongue sandwich at the time.

But good writing has a way of finding its audience, and eventually my dad found his. He started running a blog about vintage guitars, a topic he'd been passionate about since the days he was playing in psychedelic bands and those "vintage" guitars were practically brand new. While he still edits, he's parlayed his writing into a successful guitar business centered around the Gibson ES-335, his six-string holy grail. He now operates a storefront out of an old train car in Kent, Connecticut.

For me, though, my favorite work of his will always be Centerboard--which, to paraphrase an oft-repeated statement about the Velvet Underground (I'm trying to stick with a musical theme, here), wasn't read by nearly enough people, but inspired at least one of them to become a writer himself. And while I've done enough writing at this point to know that the perfect telling of any story is something that's perpetuallyout of reach, I also know that if you can get people laughing, you're doing at least one thing right.

Also, I can't think of the Jewish New Year without picturing grievous skin conditions.

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