Five pages a day, p.1
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       Five Pages a Day, p.1

           Peg Kehret
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Five Pages a Day


  Five Pages a Day:

  A Writer’s Journey

  Peg Kehret

  Albert Whitman & Company

  Morton Grove, Illinois

  For Carl

  Table of Contents

  { 1 } The Dog Newspaper

  { 2 } Polio

  { 3 } High School Days

  { 4 } Commercials, Cats, and Carl

  { 5 } Two Letters That Changed My life

  { 6 } Twenty-five Words or Less

  { 7 } Pretending to Be Someone Else

  { 8 } Cheers and Tears

  { 9 } Alzheimer’s Disease

  { 10 } At Last! Books for Kids

  { 11 } The Ideas Box

  { 12 } Helping the Animals

  { 13 } Polio Returns

  { 14 } Research and Revision

  { 15 } Talk, Talk, Talk

  { 16 } Sharing a National Tragedy

  { 17 } Happy Ending

  Acknowledgments

  Because this book covers the whole of my writing career, I want to recognize some of the people who have assisted me along the way.

  I’ve been fortunate to work with a few special editors who saw promise in my manuscripts and helped me mold them until they were the best that I could make them. For their dedication to excellence, my thanks to Rosanne Lauer, Abby Levine, Pat MacDonald, Kathy Tucker, and Arthur L. Zapel.

  After two false starts, I found the right agent for me. Emilie Jacobson, senior vice-president of Curtis Brown, Ltd., has negotiated the contracts for thirty (and counting) of my books. She’s done it with efficient good humor and has always given me sound business advice. I hope to meet her someday.

  No writer walks alone. For various kinds of help and encouragement, I thank Caity Anast, Joan Arth, Dave Barbor, Barbara Brett, Donna Brooks, Joe Ann Daly, Grace Greene, Sherry Grindeland, Carolyn Haney, Mary Harris, Chauni Haslett, Susan Hawk, Magda Hitzroth, Julie Hovis, Mimi Kayden, Kathy Kinasewitz, Hise Levine, Stephanie Owens Lurie, Susan Myers, Annette Nall, Sharyn November, Roger Page, James Panowski, Phil Sadler, Denise Shanahan, Peggy Sharp, Meredith Mundy Wassinger, and Sharon Wuest.

  I also thank the Author’s Guild and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for their advice, legal assistance, and idealism.

  I’ve tried to be accurate and honest in this book, but some of the memories go back a long way and details could not be confirmed by other people. Any errors are mine alone.

  { I }

  The Dog Newspaper

  I began my writing career at the age of ten when I wrote and sold the Dog Newspaper. This weekly publication, which cost five cents a copy, reported on the local dogs.

  I interviewed every neighbor who had a dog. “What exciting thing has your dog done?” I asked.

  People responded, “All Fluffy does is eat, sleep, and bark at the mailman.” Or, “Max’s only excitement is his daily walk on the leash.” Such answers did not lead to important news stories.

  I didn’t give up. “If your dog could talk,” I asked, “what do you think he would say?”

  “Feed me,” was the most common answer, followed by, “Let’s play.”

  What could a writer do with such boring material? The solution sat at my feet, wagging his tail.

  The first issue of the Dog Newspaper featured my dog, B.J., on the entire front page. Although his life at that time was as uneventful as the lives of the other neighborhood dogs, B.J. had a unique background.

  Uncle Bill, my mother’s younger brother, was a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II. While in Germany, his unit went into a town that had recently been bombed. As they searched for survivors in a destroyed building, they came across a mother dog and her litter of puppies. The mother dog was dead. So were all the puppies except one.

  The soldiers, who had seen far too much of death and destruction, carefully lifted that little brown dog from his littermates. One soldier tucked the puppy inside his jacket to keep him warm. The men fed him from their own food supplies, shared water from their canteens, and decided to keep him as the company mascot.

  From then on, wherever Uncle Bill and his comrades went, the dog went, too. They named him B.J. because he was a Big Job to take care of, especially when they were fighting a war.

  B. J. grew bigger and stronger as he traveled with the soldiers, tagging along on every mission and somehow surviving even when the men were too busy to pay attention to him.

  As the soldiers fought to protect the free world, B. J. did his duty, too. He slept with them in foxholes: he trudged long miles across burned and barren land; he helped search rubble for signs of life. Most of all, he offered love and laughter to a group of lonely, weary men who were far from home.

  When the war ended, the soldiers rejoiced. Soon they would be going home to their loved ones. But what about B.J.? They knew they could not leave him in Germany. The German people were faced with the task of rebuilding their cities and their lives; no one wanted to bother with a dog, especially a dog who belonged to the Americans.

  The men decided to chip in enough money to fly B. J. back to the United States. Then they had a drawing to see who got to keep him. Each soldier wrote his name on a slip of paper and put the paper in a helmet. The winning name was drawn: Bill Showers! My uncle.

  Uncle Bill lived with my family, so B.J. was flown from Germany to Minneapolis, where my parents picked him up at the airport and drove him to our home in Austin, Minnesota.

  I was nine years old and delighted by the addition of this wire-haired schnauzer (at least, we thought he might be a schnauzer) to our household.

  According to Uncle Bill, B.J. understood many commands in both English and German. Since none of us spoke German, we had no way to prove this claim.

  B.J. quickly became my dog. Although B.J. was overjoyed when my uncle arrived home after his discharge, Uncle Bill did not stay in Austin long. He got married and headed to the University of Minnesota, where dogs were not allowed in student housing. B. J. stayed with my family.

  I showered him with loving attention. I brushed him, tied ribbons on his collar, took him for walks, and read aloud to him. B.J. seemed especially fond of the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories, which were favorites of mine as well.

  B.J. had lived with us for a year when I launched the Dog Newspaper. He was a fascinating front-page subject, and the first edition of the Dog Newspaper sold twelve copies.

  Even though my lead story required little research, this sixty cents was not easy money. All those interviews about the neighbor dogs took time. Also, I grew up before there were copy machines, so I couldn’t just go to the local copy center and run off twelve copies of the paper. Using a pencil, I wrote every word twelve times. Then I delivered my newspapers and collected my pay.

  B.J. and I became famous on our block. Neighbors were enthralled by the story, and I gobbled up congratulations on my writing the way B.J. ate his dinner. All of my customers agreed to purchase the next issue of the Dog Newspaper.

  Giddy with success, I immediately began writing the second issue. The neighborhood dogs were still every bit as boring as they had been a week earlier, so I decided to repeat my winning formula and use B.J. as the main article again. Since I had already told the only unusual thing about my dog, this time I wrote a story called “B. J.’s Gingerbread House.”

  Our new washing machine had arrived in a large cardboard box. I kept the box to create a special house for B. J., who slept in the basement every night.

  I spent hours decorating the box, copying a picture of a gingerbread house that was in one of my books. I colored curlicues; I blistered my hands cutting designs in the cardboard; I painted flowers on the sides. The gingerbread house was absolutely breathtaking.

  At bedtime that night, I took B.J. down to the bas
ement and put his blanket in the beautiful gingerbread house. I petted him and kissed him and told him I knew he would sleep well.

  The next morning, I couldn’t believe my eyes. B. J. had licked the glue from the cardboard, creating a sticky mess in his beard, and had chewed the house into dozens of pieces. He pranced toward me through the wreckage that littered the floor.

  This story was quite a bit shorter than the story of B.J.’s rescue from a bombed-out house in Germany—and far less interesting. I filled the rest of issue number two of the Dog Newspaper with stirring reports such as “Rusty Knocks over Garbage Can” and “Cleo Chases Cat.” After I delivered my papers, I eagerly waited for more compliments on my exciting journalism. None came. The next issue was even worse. Since B.J. still had done nothing newsworthy, I used the front page to describe what a beautiful and great dog he was. The other dogs, as always, got brief mention on the back page. Desperate to fill the space, I even wrote a story titled “Skippy Gets a Bath.”

  Issue number three was a publishing disaster. Few people read it, and the only person who purchased issue number four was my grandpa. Less than one month after its launch, the Dog Newspaper went out of business.

  I believed my writing career was over. My mistake, I thought then, was always putting my own dog on the front page. Now I realize that having dull material was an even bigger error. World the Dog Newspaper have succeeded if I had featured Rusty or Fluffy or Cleo? Probably not, because Rusty, Fluffy, Cleo, and all the other neighborhood dogs hadn’t done anything special.

  If Fluffy had gotten lost and been returned home in a police car, or if Cleo had won a prize in a dog show, or if Rusty had given birth to puppies, then perhaps the neighbors would have wanted to read my articles.

  Now I know that if I want people to read what I write, I must write something that they find interesting. I need exciting plots, unique information, and fresh insights.

  When I wrote the Dog Newspaper, I was so caught up in the fun of creating a newspaper and getting paid for my work that I lost sight of my audience. What was in it for them? Except for the first issue, not much.

  B.J. took one more plane ride, from Minneapolis to Fresno, California, where my parents moved shortly after I got married. He loved the California sunshine and spent his old age sleeping on the patio. He lived to be sixteen, a good long life for an orphaned puppy who entered the world during a wartime bombing.

  No one bothered to save any issues of the Dog Newspaper. I can’t imagine why.

  { 2 }

  Polio

  When I was growing up, one childhood disease was feared above all others: polio. There was not yet a polio vaccine, and polio epidemics swept through the country each year, killing hundreds of people and leaving thousands more paralyzed forever. Although some adults got polio, the disease struck mostly children.

  Little was known about how polio was spread. Since epidemics usually occurred during the spring and summer, parents often kept their children away from crowded places such as swimming pools or movie theaters during warm weather in the hope that they would avoid contact with the disease. Children were warned not to drink from public water fountains. Some parents didn’t allow their children to play in parks or playgrounds. Each time a new case was diagnosed, the panic increased. Fear of polio spread even faster than the disease itself.

  My parents insisted that I wash my hands thoroughly before eating, made sure I got enough sleep, and encouraged me to ride my bike. Despite these good habits, I got polio when I was twelve years old.

  I don’t know how I got it. I hadn’t met anyone who had polio. There wasn’t an epidemic in Austin that year and I hadn’t been anywhere else, yet one day in September, my legs buckled while I was at school. When I went home for lunch, my hands shook so much the milk sloshed over the edge of the glass. I felt sick and weak. Alarmed, Mother sent me to bed and called our doctor. The next day, tests showed I had polio.

  Austin was a town of thirty thousand, not far from the Iowa border. The hospital wasn’t equipped to treat polio cases so my parents took me to the Sheltering Arms, a hospital for polio patients in Minneapolis.

  Because polio was so contagious, I was immediately put in an isolation ward. Not even my parents were allowed in the room with me. To protect themselves, the doctors and nurses wore gowns, masks, and gloves.

  Groggy from a high fever, I soon fell asleep. When I woke up, I was paralyzed from the neck down. Terrified, I called for the nurse. She came, but could do nothing to help me.

  The strict no-visitors rule deprived me of what I needed most: the comfort of my parents. The worst part of those first days of my illness was not the pain or the paralysis. It was the misery of being all alone.

  Any serious misfortune can leave a victim wondering, Why me? Why was I paralyzed while my friends continued their ordinary lives? At the time I was too sick to wonder. Later I decided there is no answer. Everyone has good and bad luck at times; things happen that we can’t control. By chance I was exposed to the polio virus, and by chance I had a severe case. There was no “reason” that I got sick, no one to blame, nothing to point a finger at.

  The old saying that bad news comes in threes was true in my case. The original diagnosis of paralytic, or spinal, polio was followed by the news that I also had respiratory polio, which makes it hard to breathe, and bulbar polio, which impairs the ability to talk or swallow. Having one kind of polio was bad enough; having three kinds was over-whelming.

  On the third day, still burning with fever, I was transferred to University Hospital in Minneapolis. My breathing was so shallow that the doctors feared I would need to go into an iron lung, a machine that would help me breathe. The Sheltering Arms couldn’t care for patients as sick as I was.

  At University Hospital, nurses draped an oxygen tent over my head and shoulders. This thick sheet of plastic, held up by a frame, was three feet above me, with the sides hanging down to touch my bed. Oxygen was released inside the “tent.” The room looked foggy through the plastic, but the oxygen eased my breathing.

  I ached all over, my throat hurt, and except for turning my head from side to side on the pillow, I couldn’t move at all. Severe muscle cramps knotted my leg and arm muscles, but I couldn’t shift position to ease the pain. When I wanted to roll from my back to my side, a nurse had to help me. If my nose ran, someone had to wipe it for me. When I itched, I couldn’t scratch. I was trapped in my own body.

  My parents, dressed in hospital gowns and wearing masks and gloves, came to my bedside. I realized they were allowed in because the doctors were afraid I would die.

  From the moment I found out I had polio, a fear of death had lurked in the shadows of my mind. Twelve-year-olds aren’t supposed to die, I thought, yet I knew it could happen. I saw the same fear in my parents’ eyes and wondered if my life was nearly over.

  Mother and Dad were forbidden to touch me and could stay for only a few minutes each time, but I felt safer knowing they were there.

  They held a straw to my lips and coaxed me to drink. They offered food, too, but the fever had taken away my appetite. My throat hurt, it was hard to swallow, and I was flat on my back. Even in good health, it’s difficult for a person to eat or drink lying down.

  After eight days, my fever broke. Soon after that the oxygen tent was removed. I was going to live.

  Although the life-or-death crisis was over, I was still paralyzed, and so the long process of rehabilitation began. There was no cure for polio, but the doctors thought the Sister Kenny treatments, named for the Australian nurse who first used them, might minimize the lasting effects.

  The Sister Kenny treatments consisted of hot packs and muscle stretching. I had both each day. Woolen cloths were dipped in tubs of steaming water, wrung out, then draped on my bare back, arms, and legs. The first time I had the hot-packs treatment, I was sure the nurse had made a mistake and over heated the water.

  “My skin is burning!” I cried. “The water is too hot!”

  “It has
to be this hot to help you,” the nurse said.

  I soon learned that after the first searing moments, the hot packs felt good because the moist heat made my cramped muscles relax. When the cloths cooled, they were removed and fresh hot packs applied. Each time, I closed my eyes, dreading the first few moments when another steaming cloth hit my bare skin.

  Physical therapy followed the hot packs. The frequent muscle spasms I’d had during the acute stage of polio had tightened my muscles, and they needed to be gradually stretched back to normal before they could regain strength.

  The stretching hurt, and I dreaded my twice-daily sessions with the physical therapist. She had no patience with my tears, and I dubbed her “Mrs. Crab.”

  My parents returned to Austin. Dad needed to go back to work, and now that it was clear that I would live, visiting hours were again enforced.

  A kind intern, Dr. Bevis, listened to my silly “knock, knock” jokes, gave colorful reports of the University of Minnesota football games, and encouraged me to work hard at my exercises. “I want to see you walk again,” he said. I promised him I would try.

  My eight-year-old roommate, Tommy, was in an iron lung. This tube-shaped machine enclosed all of him except his head. Bellows pumped air in and out of his lungs, causing them to expand and contract.

  Tommy and I listened to the “Lone Ranger” radio programs. As we cheered for our hero, the soft “swooshing” sound of Tommy’s iron lung provided an odd accompaniment to the “Lone Ranger’s” stirring music.

  At night, I missed my parents and worried about my future. How could I ever lead a normal life?

  One morning, after three weeks of paralysis, I lay in bed rehearsing a new joke to tell Dr. Bevis. By then I had a full-blown crush on him, and my daily jokes were a way to get him to spend more time in my room.

  As I waited for his visit, my leg itched. I scratched the itch, then realized what I had done. I scratched again, to be sure I really could do it. The fingers on my left hand moved back and forth.

 
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