By on September 5, 2013
Airman W Christian Ward, circa 1991, before I was "Mental"

Airman W Christian Ward, circa 1991, before I was “Mental”

“There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.” Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes

 In 1992, I lived just outside of Kaiserslautern Germany. I was a year into my “practice” marriage and enjoying Europe as much as I could on $845.10 a month.

Like any good 21-year-old, I had dreams and goals, most of them delusional. The US Air Force was never plan “A,” hell it wasn’t even plan “B.” I figured it might be time I decided what I was going to do when I grew up.

In the midst of my meandering through life trying to find my purpose, I decided I could be an automotive journalist. After all, I love cars, I love motorcycles and I can write (despite some evidence to the contrary.)

But how would I get there? Google was 5 years away and AOL was still figuring out chat rooms. No, back then you had to get your pornography and career advice via purely analog means. There was no entry in the encyclopedia on how to become an automotive writer. I didn’t know any automotive writers and I didn’t have family members “in the business.” But I needed advice, so I reached out to the person that I admired most and I did so in the manner you reached out to people in those days. I wrote a letter.

I wrote to Peter Egan.

Airman W Christian Ward, before I was “Mental.” I was irreverent, undisciplined and my hair was too long. Not much has changed.

I was irreverent, undisciplined and my hair was too long. Not much has changed

During this time, a large portion of my meager salary went to car and motorcycle rags. I never missed an issue of Car and Driver, Automobile, Motorcyclist, Sports Car Illustrated or European Car to name a few. But my most anticipated publications were Road & Track and Cycle World, and I am not saying that because of our current EIC’s contributions to the former. No, I read those two periodicals for the writings of one man; Peter Egan. I had read his work since I was in high school. His stories punctuate my lifelong love affair with vehicles. My standard reading practice was to turn straight to his column, then any articles he wrote and then read the rest of the magazine cover to cover, ads included.

 

I keep this on my nightstand, even though I had read all of the columns as they were printed.

I keep this on my nightstand, even though I had read most of the columns as they were printed.

 

Amazingly, two months after I mailed my letter to Mr. Egan care of Road & Track in California, Peter Egan replied from Wisconsin. It was a single page, typed on a typewriter and on Road & Track letterhead. Yes, that the whole letter probably took him 5 minutes, but he bothered to take those 5 minutes. He had returned to Wisconsin two years prior, so there was no secretary or office admin section to do the work for him. No, this was Peter Egan himself, taking the time to return a letter to a puerile 21-year old. He sat at a desk, fed paper into a typewriter, crafted a response, signed it by hand, then typed an address on the envelope, placed a stamp on it and dropped it in his mailbox. Sometimes I can’t be bothered to respond to a text, but a man who is paid to write performed all of those actions for free.

The letter was simple, honest and gracious. He gave me solid advice, told of his own route and added that a key to his success was enduring rejection slips and having a patient wife who was willing to live on a meager salary. It is worth mentioning he still married to his college girlfriend Barbara.

He closed by wishing me luck. I genuinely believe he meant it.

I framed that letter and it has hung in every home I have lived in for the last 21 years. It hung on the wall behind me in January of last year when I wrote a short piece about my MG Midget. I am by no means a writer, but I am learning. I may not have to endure rejection slips but I do get feedback. I enjoy doing this and hope to continue. It took some time and the world has changed, but Peter Egan convinced me to try.

sg1

If you don’t know, Peter Egan is retiring. Citing his age and some health issues, he is reducing his vehicle fleet and simplifying his existence in order travel more. Like our EIC; he is a musician, has an affinity for the blues and is passionate about guitars. A lifelong history buff, he recently followed the trail of Billy the Kid with along with his wife in a Wrangler. He has promised to contribute articles to both Road & Track and Cycle World, but his columns are no more.

Two years before my arrival on this mortal coil, he was trundling through the jungles of Vietnam, but at a mere 42, I am also in the twilight of my career.  So it’s not a stretch for me to draw a parallel with Mr. Egan. It has been a long 22 years and at the same time; it has passed all too quickly. I am healthy, but I am weary of the deployments. I miss my wife. Like him, I want to spend more time with the woman I married. Unlike him, I want a new gig so I will travel less. So it is time for me to retire as well, at least from this career.

Which lands me in the same place as I was two decades ago. What am I going to do when I grow up? While I could probably just email him this time, maybe I should write Mr. Egan again.

I cannot say I am happy to see your columns finished, but enjoy your retirement good Mr. Egan. You earned it.

And sincerely, thank you.

W. Christian Mental Ward has owned over 70 cars and destroyed most of them. He is a graduate of Panoz Racing School, loves cartoons and once exceeded the speed of sound. Married to the most patient woman in the world; he has three dogs, a Philosophy degree and a gift for making Derek and Jack wonder if English is actually his first language.

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19 Comments on “The Writer and the Airman...”


  • avatar

    W (if I may be so familiar) – this is a great post, and Peter Egan is one of my favorite writers in the entire world. He somehow catches the soul of machinery and I’m sorry to hear that he is retiring. You’ve certainly surrounded yourself with some amazing scribes on this site.

    Thanks again for the reminder that it’s time to write Mr. Egan myself – just to thank him for a lifetime of columns.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    Sometimes, when we’re not sure of our direction the best thing we can do is just ask someone

    • 0 avatar
      Pig_Iron

      Good advice. My problem is I ran out of people who could give it (good advice that is – I can, and did, get plenty of bad). Sometimes it helps to have people support you while you think out loud, then the right path just seems to appear.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    When I was young I wanted to be an automotive journalist. But life intruded and I ended up writing about very different topics.

    I still greatly enjoy reading about automobiles — and have an overstuffed bookshelf to prove it. But in retrospect I’m kind of glad I didn’t realize my early dreams.

    Why? It’s a big world out there, with lots of other interesting and important things to write about. Meanwhile, the automotive press is — dare I say — rather insular and provincial.

    To be more concrete, imagine being on the staff of Car & Driver during its agonizing fall from greatness. Surely there are better ways to spend a life.

  • avatar
    mcarr

    Peter Egan was always my favorite writer back when I subscribed to the car rags. For some reason, I remember the description of the 460 V8 in his Ford van tow vehicle as “the 8 hammers of Thor”.

    I was never much of a writer, but I loved cars and I thought I might pursue a career in something automobile-related. I even interviewed at a dealership for a sales position, but during the interview, I realized that the job required absolutely no knowledge about cars. Actually, that pretty much disqualified me on the spot.

    • 0 avatar
      Pig_Iron

      In college, my English prof said “Read! I don’t care what you read, as long as its something you love, because reading makes you a better writer”. His only rule was that it had to be published, because that meant it was proofed and edited. That in turn meant is was technically (writing wise) correct. I did, and he was right.

  • avatar
    Fordson

    Peter Egan is just the best. Man, I just identify with him.

    I will really miss his column in R&T.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Mr. Ward ;

    I think your writing is just fine .

    Mr. Egan along with several other Auto/Moto Journalists , are nice Men as well as gifted Writers .

    -Nate

  • avatar

    Thank you, Mr. Ward, for the tribute to Peter Egan. You’ve summed up my thoughts as well–I’ve been a subscriber of Road & Track for almost thirty years, primarily because of his columns and stories.

    I’m also a recent reader of TTAC, primarily because of stories like this, and the other unvarnished takes on new cars and automotive news.

  • avatar
    bachewy

    Retirement from the military – best decision you’ll ever make. It’s scary but you’ll find your own way.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Your story hit a nerve.
    There is a similar fellow in the Electronics community, Forrest M. Mims III.
    Being myself an electronics engineer, I read all his articles, books and even built several of his published projects.

    During my first year of marriage (1980) both myself and my wife were laid off. With a job freeze in the market, I started doing odd jobs, including building some speaker baffles for sound reinforcement that I would lease. To increase the efficiency, I designed and built a biamplified scheme with an electronic crossover. Nowadays, this is very common, but back then it was very novel.

    Long story short…someone suggested for me to write an article for Popular Electronics, and that way I could sell some kits. But I didn’t know how to do it. So, just like you, I wrote to Mr. Mims c/o Popular Electronics. And similarly, I received a personal, very encouraging, most helpful letter. It started my 30 year stint writing for US, British and Australian electronic mags.

    Unfortunately, I lost the letter. I bang the head to the floor when I remember.

  • avatar
    kuponoodles

    First, Thank you for your service to our country even if it was not your plan B, even if it was your plan Charlie-Foxtrot

    Second, You’re being too hard on yourself.
    I will attempt to give you advice despite being your junior.
    I will start by drawing a parallel.
    Current numbers indicate that less than 1% of the population has ever served. Even if the sister services laugh at us “Chair-Force” guys, we took the oath of enlistment, just the the dumb-@ss to the left and to the right.

    We all love cars, motorcycles, all things mechanical, that’s why we are here. Few of us try to make a commitment of it as a hobby, fewer still try living out of it.

    The parallel? you’ve chosen the route-less-travled, either you’re glutton for punishment, or you feel that hard work has its own rewards…. or maybe you really are just mental.

    Don’t compare your success with that of Mr. Peter Egan. Or rather, if you do, don’t dwell on it. How do you think Peter Jones feels? I agree Egan’s writing is better but it was Jones’ article “love machine” that made me take MSF and blow money I didn’t have on my first bike. And I didn’t have the common courtesy to write him a letter. sorry. If you inspire other people and is making a living, that’s what’s gonna keep you sane.

    i.e. why do people stay senior enlisted? take on extra duties like First Shirt? Honor Guard? To fill the gaps that are needed whether they are recognized or not.

    As for Mr. Egan’s retirement. I’m sure someone will rise to the occasion, even with premature announced death of printed media. Hell, even TTAC has regime changes and new writers coming through.

  • avatar
    CanuckinPA

    “What am I going to do when I grow up?”

    I just turned 60, and voraciously read Mr. Egan and his colleagues in my misspent youth. Car magazines were the Playboy of my youth (although I did read the articles in Hef’s magazine) ;)

    Probably why I’m still a gear-head at my age.

    As I told my mother at my birthday party, “Growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional.”

  • avatar
    psychoboy

    Like many here, I grew up on a steady diet of Road and Track, Car and Driver, and Motor Trend in the 80s and 90s. Before the immediacy of the interwebs, car nuts had to wait until the magazines came out three months later to see what the Frankfort or Detroit auto show had to offer. I’m not sure Generation Why and those who follow will ever truly understand that.

    Like more than a few here, I was hooked just looking at the pictures. But, when you have a month to kill until the next issue comes along, you start reading the articles. Before too long, the pictures take a back seat to the words. You start to care more about the interview with the newsmaker towards the front than about the freshly waxed curves were the staples used to be bent over (remember back when magazines had staples?….another thing GenY will never understand).

    Eventually, some of those stories ring a bell in you, and you find they are generally penned by the same guys over and over, and you find you are no longer looking forward to the next magazine; instead you are waiting for the next article by your author of choice. My personal favorite was (and still is) Brock Yates. Mr Egan ranked a very close second, followed (geekily enough) by Dennis Simanaitis. Those men, and others like them, told stories of places, times, events, and concepts that I’ll never see in ways that made me feel as though I had lived them. They brought questions to mind that I’d never thought to ask, and I’ve chased some of those answers ever since.

    Mental, as you step into your next collection of events, know that you provide an inspiration to those of us who cannot be you, no matter how we might try. You, and those like you have more opportunity now than Egan, Yates, et al ever had to reach an audience those guys could only wish to reach. Please take the time to make sure you always try to reach your audience just as deeply as those men reached you. Quantity is no substitute for quality.

    To Mr Egan, Mr Yates, and the others who made my second and third decades vibrant experiences with your words, thank you for your service. You’ve inspired a great many who will hopefully carry on your work.

  • avatar
    mnm4ever

    Hey, I joined the Air Force in 1991 too, perhaps we passed each other during basic training?? I also spent a lot of money on car magazines and have always enjoyed Mr. Egan’s writing. I bet we would have been friends!

    Anyway, congrats on a long career and on your upcoming retirement. You will be fine, by the way, every job I have held since active duty has been influenced by my relatively short military career. Someone in your position and experience will have plenty of opportunity. And for years I have regretted not staying for my 20, you made a good choice and you will enjoy that retirement check now when added to your civilian career.

  • avatar
    snakebit

    W., I had a similar notion as you, but because I went to college about 60 miles from the Road and Track offices, I decided to drive to Newport Beach on a day when I had no classes. Jonathan Thompson met me in the office lobby and answered my questions about preparing for a career writing about cars. First, he said, stay in school-editors like to know that you can stick with one thing for four years. Second, try to learn mechanical engineering if you don’t already have a background in it. That would help you if want to write for Road and Track, Car Life, or Cycle World. Third, don’t major in journalism, but if your school offers classes in feature writing or there’s a school magazine that you can join, go in that direction instead.

    During the week that I paid R&T a visit, they had just finished road tests of the Datsun 240Z and Lamborghini Miura S, and the Datsun was still outside the offices.

    I’m not surprised that Peter Egan retired, even though he’s now a little closer to the new R&T offices in Ann Arbor, MI. Combining R&T and C&D in Michigan is like combining Peter Egan and Brock Yates, if that were still possible, which it’s not. The net and automotive blogs are the new sources for news and road tests, but the fine automotive magazines that we looked forward to each month really are gone, it’s just the current owners don’t have the good sense to turn the lights off, yet.

  • avatar
    Type44

    I, too, once sought Egan’s advice as regards writing.

    I also received a personally-typed response! I do still have the letter hiding somewhere in a big box of otherwise-embarrassing correspondence.

    Thanks, Pete. I hope we’ll hear from you frequently in your retirement…

  • avatar
    threeer

    Holy cow! You mention K-Town and Calvin and Hobbes in the same article! My hero! Despite your misgivings of service in the AF, thank you nonetheless! My parents moved to K-Town in 1991, just a few years after my dad had retired from 26 years of active duty. In the twenty+ years that they remained there, I travelled many a kilometer around the KMC area during my college years and well after that.
    As for Calvin and Hobbes…I still am saddened that Watterson put up his pencils so long ago. That man had true vision.
    Great article…the closest I ever got to being published in an auto rag was my painful story of a two-day oil change on my 1974 BMW 2002 that I submitted to the Roundel…:)


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Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • Tycho de Feyter, China
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India