As I see it, birth is terminal; life is intended to be an adventure, and man probably isn’t top of the food chain. In fact, we could all very well be livestock on an earth-planet-farm, benefiting the actual top of the food chain whose tables we’ll all eventually grace somewhere deep down under on our voyage to perdition or to its alternative, which I believe will be whatever we want it to be in the end, that final spark in our speck of dust. In my heaven, our eternal imagination will be granted the choice of whatever we want or need it to be when our time comes.
When you’re six feet ten inches tall, any way you look at things, you can’t help seeing the world a little differently than others. I am different. My feet haven’t been in bed for the better part of fifty years.
Being tall doesn’t make me more clairvoyant or more incisive—I’m not implying that. As a kid I wet the bed just like anyone who’ll admit it. My height has always afforded me a certain air. It’s not a more uppity, better-than-thou certain air; tall literally affords me more oxygen, especially in a crowded room. It’s a natural fact, and because I can breathe better than other people in most gatherings, with less nostril flaring and motion for my glasses, my take on life and the world at large, as seen from my vantage, is usually in focus and fairly fundamental. People are always asking me how the weather is up where I am. I always want to be there for the little guy, so I tell them. I’ve never once said, “Down in front!” to anyone shorter. I’ve never had to.
But let’s start with the truth. Six feet ten inches is a slight exaggeration.
My actual height was first put through the stretcher when I was turning seventeen. My university’s head basketball coach first taught me on the bigger scale, and that lying was his early message to my beginnings of a proper Jesuit education. He insisted players be measured in their shoes, to intimidate opponents, and then he even exaggerated that height a tad in the printed basketball programs. So I’m shorter, maybe six feet eight and a half or even nine or nine and a half inches. I’m not certain what to believe now, but I still bump my head on most door-frames and am still called on to clean the tops of refrigerators or to answer the age-old question I have been asked at least once every single day of my life since I was thirteen …
Yes, I played basketball.
Now don’t you lie and pretend you wouldn’t have asked. You may even have added, “I’ll bet you just had to reach up and drop it in.”
My best education always came from my dad, father of eight—Michael C. Antil Sr. My dad was a ninth-grade dropout (as a result of the death of his father) and a self-educated marketing genius who read himself to sleep every night. Among other noted accomplishments my dad created the Duncan Hines baking brand in the early 1950s. He could complete a New York Times crossword puzzle in fifteen minutes while driving, telling his passenger what words to write in the squares. When he wasn’t busy enjoying life, he was sharing his views of this big adventure we’re all on.
“If we’re lucky,” Dad would say, “we get an early nudge on our adventure”—life—“with reminders along the way that this is all a dream. Works best if we keep it in motion, just as a clock ticks it away, and be certain to make an adventure out of any single minute or two in every single day or two of our journey. Oh, we have to work and eat and sleep as warm as we can, and take care of others, but there’s not a thing stopping us but our own self from taking a moment in the day to smell a rose, and let our mind wander; or from picking up a four-leaf clover, or climbing a tree, or just flat-out daydreaming or even finding a penny or just plain smiling at someone.”
He would tell me that the lucky hints and reminders we get along our journey of life can be from something as small as a made-up story at bedtime, or a sentence or two from such aficionados of adventure as Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Faulkner, no telling who else—and, of course, my dad. They didn’t write books. They wrote compasses of journeys and adventures from their own imaginations … to make our adventures better. I always favored my recurring nightmare; I sensed it was inspired by my bare feet sticking over the end of the bed. In it I would wake in a cold sweat, jumping up as I heard and watched the massive River Queen steamboat splashing towards our raft in the dark, and then me, Jim, and Huck jumping off as it crashed through that chapter into the next.
I remember like it was yesterday the day I told my six-foot-six-inch dad I wanted to quit college. He stopped what he was doing and drove to Cincinnati and took me out for a cup of coffee.
“You have a full scholarship, son, and you’re passing. Why do you want to drop out?”
“I don’t want to drop out, Dad, I want to quit.”
“What do you want to do, son?”
“Dad, you sent me five dollars a week all the time I was in college. I want to thank you. I made another twenty dollars a week writing compositions for guys. I got three dollars for an A, two dollars for a B, one dollar for a C, and no charge for a D or F. I got so I could write hundred-word compositions walking between classes. I want to be a writer, Dad.”
“Won’t you miss your classmates and teammates, son?”
“I’m eighteen and a sophomore. Nearly everyone here is back from serving in Korea and all in their twenties. For a whole year they’d pass me on the school path and say, ‘Hey, Stretch, ya getting any?’ and I’d say, ‘Sure am, every week,’ thinking they meant money from home.”
Dad did his best to keep a straight face.
“Well then, son, you get a phone book and write down the name and address of every advertising or public relations agency in Cincinnati, and we’ll see what you have as a writer. Son, life is best with very simple rules. First rule is never doing anything just for the money. Second rule is that no matter what a person chooses to do in life, if they do it better than anyone else they’ll always make a good living and will never know failure. And finally, if you want to be a writer, then it’s best you learn early: marketing has got to become your Mississippi. Mark Twain may be your namesake, granted—but even Samuel Langhorne Clemens had to go out, knock on doors, and sell his books one at a time. The early ones didn’t just pop off the store shelves.”
Then he bought me a new suit. A suit for a near seven-footer in the early 1960s wasn’t all that easy to come by. They didn’t exist. With my new suit and list of advertising and public relations agencies in hand, Dad rehearsed me on my entrance.
I would carry a big box of long-stemmed roses with a satin ribbon around it. He told me to spend my days going to every agency in the area—plowing the field, he called it—and then spend my nights writing—planting the seeds. It sort of went like this:
I’d walk into an advertising agency lobby in my nice new suit, carrying a box of long-stemmed roses. I would hand the box to the receptionist and announce with a sense of urgency, “These are for the president of the agency.” Without fail, the receptionist would stand up, take the box, and hurry them back to the president’s office. The president would stop what was going on in his office, look at the box … and open it. Inside the box he would see a snipped-off rosebud at one end of it and an envelope with a card in it in the middle. The president would pull the card from the envelope and read it:
“The long stem is in the lobby!”
Without fail, the president would walk out into the lobby, catch my eye—stare up at me, amazed at my height, and bust into rib-tickling laughter while inviting me back to his office for a chat, coffee, and some writing assignments.
My early writing career, in marketing and training, was such a fun journey I have a book coming out—a marketing novel—about it.
As my dad would always tell me, marketing would be my Mississippi one day.
I hope you enjoy my occasional spur-of-the-moments and passions, what sparks my campfire on any particular night or gets my dander up, and feel free to respond and give me your point of view.
Thanks for listening.
Jerome Mark Antil