If you ask a writer how or when they knew they wanted to write, there’s usually a story. Here’s mine:
On a Saturday in September of 1976, I met Ray Reitz. My friend, Noreen, had asked me to ride with her from where we lived in Elkhart, Indiana to Chicago, Illinois to visit Ray, who was in a rehabilitation hospital there. She told me that Ray was just two years older than me and that he had recently been paralyzed in a diving accident.
During the two-hour ride to Chicago, Noreen told me that Ray was also from our hometown and had broken his neck while swimming in a local creek several weeks after his high school graduation. She said that Ray was a quadriplegic and could not move his limbs below his shoulders.
When I first met Ray, he was quiet and the conversation between us was very awkward. I was 16 at the time and he was just 18. Even though we had never met, I recognized him from school.
Ray had been a senior during my sophomore year and I had noticed his athletic good looks in the school hallways. Later, he told me that he had played tennis for our high school and had been half of the number one doubles team during his senior year.
Shortly after that September visit in Chicago, Ray came home to Elkhart and moved in with his aunt who felt she could care for him. I began visiting him every week and over time we developed a close friendship. Sometimes we would watch TV together, but most of our visits were spent talking and listening to music.
Often, I would stop to see Ray after school and he would be asleep when I got to his room. I would study or sit quietly and wait for him to awake. When he did, he usually said something like, “What are you doing here?” or “Don’t you have anything better to do than watch me sleep?” His dry sense of humor always made me laugh and I knew he enjoyed our visits.
I would tell Ray about school and my classes and the stories I was working on for the school newsmagazine, Genesis. I paid attention to anything going on with the tennis team because I knew that would interest him. Since he was only two years older than me, he still knew a lot of teachers and kids at our high school and he seemed to like hearing about all the “normal things” that were going on. Sometimes I took friends with me to visit Ray.
Looking back, I was probably a lifeline for him to the carefree youth that he had lost the day of his diving accident. As our friendship grew, he would let me feed him and hold the straw to his mouth when he needed a drink.
If his aunt was out and we were there alone, I would empty his urine bag, but he never liked for me to do that. I would tease him and ask if he’d rather pee the bed, but he would just look away. Having had teenage boys myself now, I know it must have been a very embarrassing thing for him to handle.
On a rainy Saturday in the spring of 1977, we were at his aunt’s house watching a Cubs game and talking. I asked Ray if he would consider letting me interview him and write an article for our high school newsmagazine about his accident and how it had changed his life. He said he would think about it and give me his answer the next time we were together.
During our next visit, Ray said it would be okay for me to write about him and he gave me a list of names of some of his tennis teammates and poker buddies to interview. I spent several weeks finding them at school and setting up interviews during the lunch hour or at night by phone. Most of the guys were happy to talk once I told them that Ray had given me their names and said it was okay.
I worked on the article for several weeks. Because I didn’t have a typewriter, and it was long before anyone had personal computers, I always wrote my articles in longhand on notebook paper at home, and then typed them in the Journalism room at school during my lunch hour.
I was the oldest of three children in my family and the house was always too noisy for me to write before everyone went to bed, so I would write my newsmagazine articles late in the evening. After my brothers were asleep, I would spread out my papers of collected research and my dictionary on the kitchen table and begin writing. Faintly in the distance, I would hear bits of Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show coming from my parent’s bedroom TV.
To this day, I remember the night I wrote the article about Ray. It was the first time I ever prayed before writing. Because he was my close friend, I wanted to get his story right. I wanted it to be factually sound, but I also wanted it to reflect the way he really felt. I wanted Ray to like the article I wrote about him because his friendship meant so much to me. I wanted to tell his story and the stories of many others. I wanted to be a writer.
I worked on the article until well past midnight and I wrote the entire article in one sitting. As I wrote, I made a list of some facts I wanted to double check with Ray after school the next day.
The next day during lunch, I typed my pages of writing from the night before and then took it to Ray to read after school. He corrected a couple of small details and we discussed some of the quotes from his friends. Overall, Ray seemed pleased with what I had written, and I told him the article was scheduled to be in the final newsmagazine issue of the schoolyear.
In the summer of 1977, I spent a lot of time with Ray. I was working at a soda fountain in a local drugstore, and after work, I would tell him about my co-workers and all of the customers who came to the lunch counter. We often listened to music together and just talked, but if Ray was having a really good day, his aunt would help me get him seat belted into my mother’s big red Buick and we would go for a drive. Ray was still a teenager and he spent most of his time in bed or in his wheelchair, so our drives were a welcome outing for him!
One evening late in the summer, we were sitting outside under a tree in his aunt’s yard and he asked me to lean toward him. I did and then he suddenly turned his head away and his expression became dark. He said, “If only things were different…I don’t have anything to offer you.” We never talked about that night.
In September of 1977, I started my senior year and I continued visiting Ray as often as I could. I was the “Feature Editor” for the school newsmagazine and was also in Varsity Singers and involved with several other school clubs. One morning near the end of October, I got called out of Chemistry class to go to the main office.
The school principal and Mrs. Dean, my Journalism advisor, were waiting for me. They were both smiling. I had no idea what was going on. Mrs. Dean told me I’d won a national high school writing contest sponsored by the Columbia University Scholastic Press Association.
“I submitted your article about Ray and I kept quiet about it in case the committee didn’t think it was as good as I did. The local newspaper wants to do an article on you and Ray and your friendship. They should be here soon to take our picture together.”
“Do I have time to make a phone call?” I asked Mrs. Dean.
“Are you going to call your mom?”
“Yes, but first I want to call Ray.”
The story of Ray’s accident and all that happened after, our friendship, and the writing competition I won, ran in our local Elkhart Truth Newspaper on Christmas Eve of 1977.
Ray and I remained close while I finished high school and even after I left for college. After my years at Purdue, I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and we didn’t see one another very often. During those years, Ray took college classes and later became a computer analyst for the Internal Revenue Service in Indianapolis. He won several awards for his work, including a presidential citation for designing innovative computer programs. Ray died very suddenly in March of 2003 and I didn’t find out until several months later. He was only 44 years old.
I’ve never stopped writing.