THE CLICHÉ APPLIES: It’s been a long and winding road. I was born in Chicago in 1948. My father was a German Catholic country boy from a small town in Missouri, who discharged from the Navy in Chicago after WWII and married my mother, a Polish Catholic ingénue from the woody countryside of Wisconsin who fled south, lured by cigarettes, cocktails, and the rhythm of bebop and the Big Band sound. My father hated Chicago. He missed the squirrels, the crickets, the frogs and fireflies, the crowing of roosters, the savory smell of wood smoke, and his mother’s down-home cooking. He longed for a town with no taxi cabs or traffic lights or pizza by the slice or people of color. Four years and three kids later he prevailed, and we five departed Chicago for the rolling hills of Missouri…where my mother was miserable. She squandered no love on her in-laws—she considered them hillbillies—and the antipathy was mutual. Two years later, the family having grown to seven, my mother prevailed, and we moved to St. Louis, where, soon after, due to the great Caucasian Migration to the suburbs, we were the only white family on the block. My little playmates, next-door neighbors Tyrone and Oscar, are resurrected on the pages of Inside the Mind of Martin Mueller as the characters Lloyd and Quincy.
In 1956, we crossed the Mississippi River to a small town in Southern Illinois where every family was white. We added sibling number six and I spent the next ten years finding every excuse to leave our claustrophobic little house and wander till the wee hours. Nearby was a railroad track and on hot summer nights I would lay on my smelly mattress and listen to the approaching train whistle grow ever louder, then disappear into the dark. Gogi Grant’s haunting rendition of The Wayward Wind moved me:
The wayward wind is a restless wind,
A restless wind that yearns to wander,
And he was born, the next of kin,
The next of kin to a wayward wind.
The spirit of these years is captured in my short story, Bead by Bead.
In the summer of ’66, I left home and hitch-hiked to Southern California, where I let my hair grow, lost my virginity, and learned to surf. Thumbing home to finish high school, I was diverted to Mexico, and returning across the border south of Yuma, Arizona, was arrested in a stolen car driven by a whiskey drinking outlaw biker from Waco, Texas with a pistol and a pound of pot. An innocent passenger, I was released, but I had tasted the spice of life and was loath to return to school.
School was for kids.
On the far side of the world, the Viet Nam war raged. A high school drop-out, I was drafted and sent to Korea, where I smoked dope and took black-and-white photos of crumbling statues of Buddha in remote mountain graveyards, and was introduced to the mysteries of oriental sex, an experience memorialized in my flash fiction piece, A Kim in Every Camp. I was eighteen and loving life. I was discharged as undesirable for possession of marijuana, but not before getting my GED. I returned to the Midwest (with a detour to Berkeley, California, for the first of many acid trips) and enrolled in Southern Illinois University where I fancied I would get a Ph.D. in Philosophy. I wrote a clever paper comparing the works of Nietzsche and Heidegger and asked the young resident creative writing instructor, Douglas Hobbie, author of Boomfell and Being Brett, for an assessment of my brilliant work. He read it and said forget it; I had nothing new to say. Anything worth saying had already been said. Write fiction instead, he advised. In fiction I would find endless possibilities for being whomever I chose to be.
Hobbie’s love of fiction was infectious. I took his classes and placed a short story in the school’s literary journal, Sou’wester, entitled The Outlaws Of Linn Valley. Hot damn! I was a published author on my way to a promising literary career! Meanwhile, however, I had become involved in the flourishing marijuana trade, a rare commodity in the Midwest in those early days. Drug dealing then did not carry the stigma it does now, that of sleazy social pariah. It was a form of protest, a kind of back-door political activism. One was an outlaw, an anarchist, a non-conformist, a latter-day Robin Hood, who defied the new prohibition for fun and profit, not just another tax-paying, sycophantic Citizen Of The Empire (as I thought of the straight world then). It was a viable career alternative that promised lots of action. Writing could wait until I had something to say. I would engage the world, gather material, and return to my typewriter one day to mold it into a compelling collection of tales of my outlaw days. Hobbie tried to dissuade me, saying: Writing is action. I quoted Bernard Malamud’s character, Willie Spearmint, in The Tenant: Action is my action!
For the next several years I was one of a select group of enterprising outlaw entrepreneurs who lived in their own society. We flew first class and stayed in the best hotels. Ran truckloads of Mexican marijuana from the border towns of Juarez and Nogales, and boatloads of Columbian Marijuana from the Gulf Coast. Profits were funneled into quasi-legitimate enterprises: rock concerts, taverns, galleries, movies, and political careers.
But like the rainbow-colored sand of a Tibetan Buddhist mandala, my little empire was suddenly swept away. In 1977 I was found guilty of possession of a large amount of marijuana and sentenced to ten years in prison. I appealed and lost, assumed an alias, and became a fugitive. For the next five years I crisscrossed the country living by my wits and eluding apprehension, but when my money and my options ran out I abandoned my romantic notions of outlaw and desperado and surrendered. It was time to begin the next phase of my life. I spent from 1983 to 1987 in an Illinois State Penitentiary, a memorable and enriching experience. I completed my Bachelor’s Degree through a Southern Illinois University Extension Program; joined an inmate drama group, the Comet Players (resurrected in the novel Penitentiary Tales as the Players of Conviction); produced a video extolling the virtues of the prison’s Vocational School; enrolled in a Writers’ Digest fiction writing course; wrote a few short stories, and kept an extensive journal. Taped to the walls of my cell were the affirmations: It’s of no use to wait for your ship to come in unless you have sent one out; Making, making, someday made; Take the hard road; and I am a great writer, I am a famous novelist. I was programming the future…or myself into it.
Where I’m Going To
FOR A QUARTER CENTURY after my release, I was the tax-paying Citizen Of The Empire that I had so long ago foresworn, but I kept my dream alive, publishing a few short stories, and a memoir, The Book of Chuck, a memorial compilation of the poetry and prose honoring my late elder brother, CB Luetkemeyer III.
In 2012 I retired from a humdrum career in Yellow Page Advertising Sales in San Francisco and was accepted into the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. I dusted off my prison journal and upon it based my thesis, subsequently expanded into a novel, Penitentiary Tales: a Love Story, published in 2019, an account of the adventures of Dean Davis, a thirty-something, educated, straight white male from the affluent community of Sausalito, Marin County, California, who is sent to an Illinois prison dominated by a daunting, mixed-race population of inmates from the mean streets of Chicago. How will he do his time? How will he change? In the same year, I wrote and published Inside the Mind of Martin Mueller, the story of a man of wealth and taste who believes the prison he is an inmate of is in the basement of his country estate, and whose mission in life is to “reassemble the scattered shards of the shattered Over-soul of mankind.” In the Spring of 2023, five years after moving to the quaint, artistic community of Jacksonville, Oregon, I published My Year at the Good Bean Café, a quirky work of metafiction, a story about itself and its own creation, that explores the nature of identity, the process of becoming, the imponderable intelligence of the Universe, and the magic of art in all its manifestations.
In the interim, through the auspices of the prisoner advocacy group Exchange For Change, I have taught The Craft of Fiction to inmates of the Florida Department of Corrections.
Still to come are several novels in varying stages of completion, a memoir, and a multitude of short stories, all reflecting the material gathered on my long and winding road. And when they have been written, and I have gotten to where I’ve been going for a long, long time…I hope to see you there.
Thanks for stopping by.