I was a published poet at the age of fifteen.
Now, before you all start murmuring amongst yourselves about how that Ben must have been a child prodigy and it’s no wonder when you really get to know him, let me tell you rest of the story. Anyone remember Paul Harvey and “the rest of the story”? Harvey had a radio program for about a hundred years, I believe, and we often listened to it when I was high school as we drove down to the Rexall for some lunch. I think “the rest of the story” was Page 3. Page 1 was the setup to the story – something like a couples 1000th wedding anniversary, Page 2 was advertising for something Harvey sounded very passionate about, then Page 3 was the punchline, as it were, to the story from Page 1 – something terribly heartwarming.
Anyway, the rest of the story. I’m not sure exactly when I started writing, but there was a wonderful little story about three pebbles (probably titled Three Pebbles) that I wrote for my second-grade teacher, Miss Emory – so around the age of seven at the very latest. I even glued three little pebbles to the page. I suppose I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic.
Seems my mother kept absolutely everything. Well, perhaps not everything, but a lot. I think she had that story of the three pebbles (with the big red “A” written at the top, of course) for a long time. It was not, unfortunately, among the things she dragged out as she was dying, to give back to me. It’s too bad. It was really quite riveting, as I recall. Writing came relatively naturally. Dad was a newspaper editor, mother liked to write poetry and inspirational essays. My father was published on a regular basis – I suppose you would be, too, if you were the editor and controlled what got published. His book of poetry, Moods of the Prairie, was first published in the mid-sixties. My mother was also published over the years – in places like Home Life magazine. In fact, she had a poem, “The Fabric of Love” published in that magazine in 1967.
But, back to the story. Mother and I found out about a poetry competition sponsored by Spencer Publishers of North Hollywood, California. The publisher’s address was on Victory Center. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? A one dollar registration and handling fee was to accompany each entry. There were four prizes, $25, $15, $10, and $5, for the four best poems submitted. We each decided to send in a poem. Looks like the entry deadline for that year was December 1, 1967 – my fifteenth birthday. We were quite excited. Fame and fortune were, obviously, just around the corner.
We received a letter letting us know that our entries had been received, that all the entries would be published in a book entitled Poetry Parade, that copies of the winning poems along with the winner’s names would be sent to those who enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope with their entries, and that copies of the book could be had for $3.50 each (1967 dollars). I don’t recall the cost of the shipping and handling. At any rate, we decided to order two copies, one for each of us. I, however, had the honor of ordering the copies. At fifteen, it really did seem like an honor to be the one ordering the books that were to make us famous. You may not remember, but there was a time when you could order things through the mail by sending postage stamps totaling the cost of the items ordered. I order lots of stuff that way. I don’t believe I mailed stamps for this purchase, however. No, a purchase this important called for real, American cash.
Excitedly, we waited for word of the results of the contest. I seem to remember feeling that so much was riding on the results of this contest. When you’re fifteen, I think it feels like most things have a lot riding on them. Finally, word arrived through the mail. Sadly, neither mother nor I were the grand prize winner nor, for that matter, even one of the runners-up. Well, fame and fortune are such fleeting things anyway and hardly even important, don’t you think?
The poem I submitted was “From This Hill”, by Benjamin E. Eakin. I wrote it June 11, 1967 in Glorieta, New Mexico. No, my memory is not that good or, even, good at all. My mother kept a typed copy of the poem that she’d laminated and it had the date right there on the page. I typed it with my own fingers on an honest-to-goodness typewriter – Remington, I think, though it’s probably not really pertinent to the story.
Here’s the poem.
From This Hill 1
by Benjamin E. Eakin
From this hill in front of me,
I see the things I want to see,
This land upon which I have trod,
Was made by the one – the only God.
Upon that mountain where I once stood,
I saw the works that God called good,
The very works that now do lie,
In the very ditch of life to weep and cry.
Why has love been left at the gate,
Left – to be replaced by that word called hate,
A word that today we hear so much,
We repel the thought of God’s Holy Touch.
From this hill in front of me,
We could see the things that are good to see,
If people on the right path – only would stroll,
For God has a purpose – and also a goal.
You may notice that some of the rhymes are a bit forced, as well as the wavery pentameter. Hey, I was fifteen. Give me a break, will ya?
In due time, our copies of the book arrived. It’s a paperback with sort of a muddy-colored, textured cover. I’m not even certain which poem my mother submitted for the contest. What? How can that be, you ask? The letter said all entries would be published in the book, didn’t it? The answer is really quite simple. It’s spelled s-c-a-m.
Let’s recap, shall we? We both sent in our entries, along with that $1 registration and handling fee. We both made sure our poems were a maximum of 32 lines and that each poem was submitted on a separate sheet of paper (typed or printed only, please) with “Annual Poetry Awards Entry” clearly marked on the page, upper left-hand corner. We each got a letter stating our entries had been received. We were both told all entries would be published in a book, whether or not you were one of the top four poems. Copies of the book could be had for $3.50 plus, I’m certain, shipping and handling. We both decided to order a copy of the book – one for each of us.
But, wait. Did, in fact, we each order a copy of the book? I think you’re beginning to see that the plot thickens here. You’re immediately suspecting the butler, I’m sure, but not so fast.
If you will refer back to paragraph six, third sentence, you will find that I said, “At any rate, we decided to order two copies, one for each of us. I, however, had the honor of ordering the copies.” This, it turns out, is the key to solving the mystery. Really, it’s quite elementary, my dear Watson. To the publisher/scam-artist, it appeared that I, Benjamin E. Eakin, had ordered two copies of the book, while Sybil Basham Eakin appeared not to have ordered even a single copy of the book. Don’t order a book, you don’t get included in said book. I mean, how are you going to know you weren’t included unless, of course, your son orders two copies of the book so that you end up seeing the finished product, after all. It was an almost flawless scheme to play against two hicks from Quanah, Texas. But, what are you going to do? We were in Texas. Spencer Publishers was in North Hollywood, California. We just didn’t have the gas money to show up at their front door, demanding to see the publisher about a refund.
But, did they have a front door? Doing a Google Map search for 3295 Victory Center, North Hollywood, California 91609 yields no real result, but instead sort of points to a post office near where the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio is today. For 3295 Victory Boulevard (without the Center), North Hollywood, California, the map shows a location near Petco and Starlite Liquor. It’s your best guess whether either of these locations were the home of Spencer Publishers in 1967, though I might favor the latter.
My pride in being a published poet took a bit of a hit. Still, there I was on the printed page. That was back in a time when I still had a signature. You could still almost read my name. These days, my entire signature comes out as kind of a B with perhaps a hint at an E scribbled next to it. Kinda sad, actually – a little like I don’t think I have enough time left in life to bother signing the whole name. Here’s my signature from the flyleaf of Poetry Parade #5, 1967, when my hands were still young.
Admittedly, not spectacular. You might very well think my last name is Eak. Still, it was the signature of a published poet. Now, you may think I was (am) a little full of myself. Okay, I’m pretty sure by now you’re really thinking I’m pretty full of something! And yet, many of you – no, I dare say most of you – have probably not been published – even if it was a scam. So there!
Now, in fairness to my mother since I don’t know which poem she submitted, here’s the poem she had published in Home Life (not, by the way, a scam), April 1967. After all, I subjected you to my poem, why not give you something better to read. Here it is.
The Fabric of Love 2
by Sybil Basham Eakin
Sunshine alone cannot forge bonds
Of marital love enduring.
Nor laughter weld with lasting strength
The invisible cords of faith;
But with self denial straining
To meet another’s deepest need;
With sorrows shared, and faith stretched,
Then extended in each despair,
Fragile threads of forgiving faith,
Mutually given, weave tears of
Tenderness and anguish into
Fabric inexplicably strong.
Nice, huh? I had no idea what it meant at the time. My mother and I were great pals – up until somewhere around the time I reached puberty. But, we still had our moments together – even if it was to be taken advantage of together. I was already hiding so many things from her. Turns out, however, she was hiding a lot of pain from me, too.
So, you see, my whole life hasn’t been spent in a sinkhole of despair. There have been glimmering moments here and there. Sure, it wasn’t Camelot, but there has always been a full dress rehearsal playing out in my head of what that might look like. And it’s important for me to remember these things now, just as it’s important for each of us to remember these sorts of things as time passes. We can hold on to all the hurt and pain we’ve accumulated over the years or we can try to look at them as lovingly as possible, then gently let them go. There may be a few tears, but the pain won’t really be all that upset about being released. Just take my word for it, okay?
“In short there’s simply not a more congenial spot, for happ’ly ever-aftering than here in Camelot.”3 So, write on, sisters and brothers. The poetry’s not all written yet – nor have you told all the stories of your own amazing life.
1 “From This Hill,” © 1967 by Benjamin E. Eakin
2 “The Fabric of Love,” © 1967 by Sybil Basham Eakin
3 “Camelot,” words by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe, © 1960 by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.