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Milton Lomask

ALTHOUGH I WAS BORN IN FAIRMONT, WEST VIRGINIA, the place I like to think of as "home town" is Maquoketa, Iowa, a farming community to which the family moved when I was three years old. It has been a long time since I last saw Maquoketa, but according to a recent letter from a boyhood sweetheart, who long ago married "the other fellow," it has not changed much over the years. The same spreading maples filter the hot summer sun and the same cornfields stretch away in a sea of yellow on the outskirts of town. Different mothers, as clucklingly watchful as my own, forbid different boys to swim in the "dangerous" Maquoketa River, and different boys continue to swim in it, even as I did long years ago.

Our family consisted of my mother, her brother and her parents. I never knew my father, who died when I was six weeks old, but I cannot complain of a "fatherless" boyhood. My grandfather, Leo Reinheimer, was father enough for a dozen lads. When not long ago I was asked to write a young peoples' biography of St. Jean Baptiste Vianney, the Cure of Ars, I used grandfather as my model - a compliment to the old man, to be sure, but one that he deserved. He and I were inseparable right up to the hour of his death, when I was sixteen, and in all those years I never saw him do a mean or cowardly thing; nor did I ever hear him say an unkind word about another human being.

During most of those happy years in Maquoketa, ours was the only Jewish family in town. Since there was no synagog, it was next to impossible to raise me in Judaism, so at an early age I was enrolled in the Christian Science Sunday School. One reason for this was that an aunt of mine had become interested in "Science." Another, I suspect, was that geographically the Christian Science meeting rooms were closer to our house than any other religious center in Maquoketa.

From the beliefs of Christian Science I parted reluctantly but deliberately during my college years at the University of Iowa. It was not a case of moving from one religion to another. At the time I concluded that religion itself was "excess baggage," something no one really needed-a notion that would wear away under the stress of time and maturity.

At the University of Iowa I "majored" in journalism, but at graduation, a newspaper job proved difficult to locate. It was the 1930's. People were talking about something called "the depression." Iowa seemed practically jobless, so I hitch-hiked south, stopping at the larger cities and offering my services to the local newspaper editors. In Oklahoma City a city editor turned me down with vigor. During the preceding weeks scores of experienced newspaper men had trooped through his office, begging for work. When I approached him, a whippersnapper innocent of experience, the harrassed editor blew up. I left his office literally in the air, tossed out like a bag of potatoes.

It was not until I reached the oil-country town of Palestine, Texas, that I lucked into a position on a small daily. It was a Pooh-Bah of a job. I did general reporting, sports reporting and society reporting. I edited the national news relayed to us by pony-that is, over the phone-from the United Press Bureau in Dallas. I wrote all the columns and tried to sell advertising.

One event of those Palestine days lingers in memory. In the evening the newspaper office was the Mecca of some of the young townspeople who liked to sit around and gab. And one evening the conversation drifted to the Civil War. As it grew somewhat heated, I was guilty of a gauche and hackneyed statement.

"So it's true," I ventured, "you southerners are still fighting the Civil War."

A young woman in the group put me in my place. "No," she snapped, "it's not the Civil War we're still fighting, it's the Reconstruction that came after it."

Her remark prompted me next day to visit the public library. There I discovered that my southern friends might be still "fighting" the Reconstruction, but they were not reading about it. The books on the Reconstruction shelf were layered with dust. I cleaned them off and read them all. It was the beginning of a hobby that came to a sort of cumulation five years ago when I began writing a book, Andrew Johnson: President on Trial (Farrar, 1960), dealing with the first Reconstruction President and, in my opinion, our most-misunderstood chief executive and one of the most remarkable.

I enjoyed the work in Palestine. It was a sad day when the boss informed me that he could no longer afford my $15-a-week salary. A few months later found me back in Iowa where I got a job on the Des Moines Register. There I remained for about five years, working in several editorial capacities. Followed a succession of newspaper jobs in St. Louis, New York City and finally in Chicago where I took time out to get a Master of Arts degree at Northwestern University.

When I finished my studies at Northwestern in 1941 a teaching job was waiting for me in a nearby collegebut before I could get to the job, Uncle Sam got to me; and I spent the next four years as an officer in the Chemical Warfare Service of the United States Army.

After the war I settled in New York, working first as a publicity writer for a book-exporting firm, later as an advertising manager for a chain of restaurants. In my spare time I wrote magazine articles and, with the late Whitford Kane, co-authored several plays, two of which were produced in a summer theatre. In 1950 1 left my job to write full-time, with some teaching at New York University and elsewhere on the side.

By this time my attitude toward religion had taken a drastic turn. This development started in 1939 when, as part of my newspaper duties, I was told to write an abstract of the first encyclical by Pope Pius XII. At this late date I no longer recall exactly what appealed to me in that document, which dealt with the function of the State in the modern world. Perhaps it was the Holy Father's carefully- reasoned condemnation of dictatorship at a time when so many of my people, the Jews, were suffering under Hitler in Germany.

At any rate, I began reading Catholic literature and occasionally attending Mass. Conversion did not come until 1949 when I was received into the Church at St. Joseph's in Greenwich Village, New York, on the Friday evening before Christmas. Insofar as a conversion can be explained in human terms, I believe my final decision was largely motivated by the example set by my Catholic friend, now my Godfather, Ray Neville, a Connecticut artist.

During my first year as a full-time writer, concentrated on magazine articles. Many of these were for The Sign and in the editor of that magazine, Father Ralph Gorman, C.P., I have found so good a friend and guide that I suspect him of commanding a private line to my guardian angel. Lately I have been writing mostly children's books, some of them biographies, some novels.

In common with many writers, I always employ people I've known as models for characters, even when those characters are historical. My chipper and humorous little maternal grandmother dominates a mystery for young people, ominously entitled The Secret of Grandfather's Diary. When I was asked to prepare a juvenile biography of that one-time juvenile delinquent, whom we now know as St. Augustine, I went back to grammar-school days to find a model for his saintly mother in the best and toughest of my teachers, the late Mary Hancock of Maquoketa, Iowa.

Friends tell me that I enjoy writing for the young because I'm childish. The statement is true, but what little success the books have enjoyed has not been because of this personal defect, but in spite of it. Books for children should not be childish because they are not directed to childish readers. The word "childish" applied to adults has not kept up with their years. I am satisfied with the letters I get from young readers that they are doing very well on that score. It is a grave literarycrime to feed children books written in baby-talk and oozing with false sweetness-and-light. Children like their history straight and their fiction believable and thoughtful. The many letters I get from them tell me that on this point the younger generation and this childish grown-up see eye to eye.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Books by Mr. Lomask Include four volumes in Farrar, Straus & Cudahy's Vision Books series: The Curé of Ars (1958), John Carroll, Bishop and Patriot (1956), St. Augustine and His Search for Faith (1957), and St. Isaac and the Indians (1956). General Phil Sheridan and the Union Cavalry (1959), is in Kenedy's American Background Books; he also coauthored St. Thomas and the Preaching Beggars (a Vision Book, 1957), with Father Brendan Larnen, O.P.; Ariel Books issued his book, The Secret of Grandfather's Diary (1958); his adaptation for young readers of Inuk by Father Roger P. Buliard, O.M.L, under the title My Eskimos (1956), is also a Vision Book.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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