There's an old saying that every man has at least one book in him. By that logic (sort of), every electrical contractor should have no trouble writing his or her own autobiography. At the very least we could all paste some of our accomplishments and deep-seated beliefs in scrapbooks for posterity.
The longer we live, common wisdom has it, the more can impart to family and friends — and anyone else we can buttonhole. People do gain perspective through experience, and electrical contractors do experience more human comedy and drama than most professionals.
That's why contractors should chronicle their adventures — the good, the bad and the ugly — even if it's never read outside the family. For some reason (probably fast-track schedules) electricians don't seem to write many autobiographies. Not even Edison — the most famous electrician, the guy who said genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration — ever wrote one. And who should know better than CEE News? When we hear about electrical books, or when one comes over our transom, we're here to tell you about it.
The Life & Times of Herman B. Turner arrived in the CEE News mailbox late last year. Mr. Turner's autobiography honored me (and embarrassed me a bit) by including one of these End Notes. The spiral-bound volume is really a homemade scrapbook of Mr. Turner's life as an electrical contractor and civic crusader.
He's a good guy and a well-known figure in his corner of the world, a town called Fulks Run in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. He's raised a big, happy family, did most of the residential and commercial electrical installation in his area, writes columns and letters for the local newspaper, and once single-handedly thwarted an ill-conceived Army Corps of Engineers dam from being built in his county. In short, by most measures, he's led a productive, well-spent life.
Turner founded Turner Electric Co. in Timberville, Va., to help keep local businesses running during World War II. He performed all the electrical work for the Zigler Cannery, which supplied food for the war effort. Once he flew his own airplane to Canton, Ohio, to get a new well shaft for Howard Zigler, owner of the plant. He loved flying and would often fly to other states to pick up parts.
“I wired about 300 houses for electricity when rural electrification became available to the farming communities,” Turner said. “I was just about the only electrician around at the time…I've also done a lot of commercial work and plant wiring in my time. I did electric motor repairing and electric rewinding in the shop that I built.”
Interesting stuff. But to be a fair, I found other parts of Mr. Turner's book to be of little interest to anyone outside his family. After all is said and done, it's a scrapbook — uneven in content, with no transitions between clippings and reminiscences. But that's OK — it's a good scrapbook. Like many Americans who try to recapture the magic of their youth, Turner paints idyllic scenes of young Tom Sawyers running around barefoot with fishin' poles, pulling monkeyshines in a normal, healthy American way. But that's OK, too — who can resist whitewashing the past with nostalgia?
The trick to writing a first-rate autobiography seems to be balancing triumphs, travails, transgressions and humiliations — the entire human spectacle. Nobody cares that men in white suits and hats once delivered milk in glass bottles to your house or that you could see a movie and buy a soda and popcorn all for a quarter at the Saturday matinee. Kids want to know if their parents were ever human like them, ever made mistakes, ever felt they didn't fit in. They want to know what it's really like on the job every day — even when they're chewed out by a boss or customer.
The best autobiography about the human comedy I've ever read is Harpo Marx's “Harpo Speaks,” written 40 years ago, just before he died. Harpo, a surprisingly good storyteller (considering he never uttered a word in public), led a more fascinating life than most of us — if not all of us. His book also avoids the two shortcomings of most of today's autobiographies: the wholesomeness of the good old days and the author's linear personal growth into becoming a perfect being.
Harpo, who literally was thrown out of the second grade into swarming New York streets, is wise and foolish throughout the entire book — though, ultimately, of course, he triumphs. Harpo's book also happens to be the best book I've ever read about New York City in its heyday, circa 1900-1950, in all its sepia-toned splendor. I happened to read the book just before 9-11 and thought it spoke volumes about what New York is and was. Sure enough, so did other editors and a new hardbound “Harpo speaks about New York” was in the bookstores at Christmastime.
Not everyone leads a life like Harpo's, but each life has unique perspective and purpose. So why not write a book that captures all your experiences? If you do, please mention me in it somehow, and then send it to me for a review. I'm going to a write one too, using Harpo's and Herman Turner's books as models. But first I'm going to try keeping my mouth shut and listen.