The Writer and the Airman
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.
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 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.
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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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...
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...:)