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In memoriam: Thanks for sharing 'The Right Stuff'

By JIM BUSEK • Jun 5, 2018 at 10:00 AM

The writer Tom Wolfe died a couple of weeks ago.

Maybe you were not very familiar with him and his works, but he was really important to me.

In fact, if you have enjoyed some of the columns I have written over the past 40 years, you could have thanked Tom Wolfe for his inspiration.

My first Thinking Out Loud column was published in September, 1977. And the next 50 or 100 of them were pretty uneven. When I read them now, many of them make me cringe: I was trying so hard to be clever and funny and make stories out of nothing. Self-conscious, strained. Ugh.

But by 1979 I was starting to get the hang of it, learning what worked and what didn’t, finding my voice as a small-town, amateur columnist.

1979 was also the year Tom Wolfe published “The Right Stuff.”

Perhaps you only remember the mediocre movie with that title. But it was the book that was great. Really great.

It was about America’s original astronauts, the so-called Mercury Seven: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.

But it wasn’t the subject matter that got me. It was the way it was written. Not like a typical non-fiction book, but like a vivid, real-life novel. The language was colorful and realistic. The descriptions put me right in every scene.

I remember I was driving to Washington, DC for business just after starting the book at home. And every time—I mean EVERY time—I stopped for more than a couple of minutes to eat or get gas (other people filled your tank in those days), I would read another page or two of that book. I almost literally could not put it down.

And after I was done, I really wanted to be able to write like that.

I never got there, of course. Almost nobody ever did. Tom Wolfe was master of the so-called new journalism, reporting in which the writer includes his or her own observations.

But I had all the same elements to work with for my modest little newspaper column: the everyday people and activities of our community. And as the years passed, I infused more and more of those stories with some Tom Wolfe, some new journalism.

The stories readers tell me they have liked the best are the ones in which I was able to do it most successfully. They are the ones that read a little differently than all the other stories in the paper that day.

I thank Tom Wolfe for much of that.

I also thank him for an interview he did on “60 Minutes” a few years ago. It was just after his triple bypass open heart surgery. In that interview, he brought up another concept I have found helpful. It takes a little courage to confront it, but, still, I like it.

Tom Wolfe said it changes your view of the world to simply ask yourself “how many days do I think I have left?”

If, for instance, like me you think you might have another 20 years, that’s a little over 7,000 days. Not such a big number. And certainly not big enough that you would want to waste a single one of them by not paying attention or living them fully.

I do that now with other things, as well. Full moons, blooming dogwood trees, mountain hikes, visits to my college Homecoming, all kinds of things. When I quantify how many times I have left to experience those things or activities, I try to savor each one.

All in all, I owe a lot to the late, great Tom Wolfe. For me, he truly shared the right stuff.

 

Jim Busek is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] hotmail.com.

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