Or we’d be out driving, my father at the wheel, my mother beside him, me in the back, gazing through the window at the passing scenes, then –
“Flug!” my father would say.
My mother would wake out of her reverie. “What?” And then she’d look out the window as we rolled past a busy Gulf station. “Oh, Basil!”
A block later he’d intone, “Deeps Timil,” in his rich actor’s baritone.
My mother would present him with one of her patented scowls. “Oh don’t be ridiculous!”
I’d pinch myself, trying not to burst out laughing when I realized that “Deeps Timil” was “Speed Limit” backwards. My father adored backwards words. A father in one of his novels – probably an alter ego – named his daughter, “Devorppa Klim,” which of course was “Approved Milk.” Magical backward words appeared everywhere, even in our own names. Sometimes, his blue eyes twinkling but with a straight face, he’d introduce himself to strangers as “Lisab Llewrub.” I learned that if I ever felt bored with plain old Fred Burwell, I could always switch it around to Derf Llewrub and pretend I was Welsh.
If you wonder where my Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary comes from, it’s the spirit of Basil Burwell perched on my shoulder, whispering into my ear.
My father once confessed to me that he thought of himself as an unsuccessful man. That surprised me. How many fathers did I know who could say they’d acted professionally for more than a decade and appeared in films with such oddball names as Park Avenue Logger and I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany? But in the 1940’s he left the world of Hollywood and summer stock and became a master teacher, both of the theater and of English literature and creative writing.
He’d always loved to write and he couldn’t resist telling stories. How many times had I bugged him for the further adventures of “Georgie Kleenex?” Especially after the beloved, flimsy character had somehow floated all the way to the moon? He liked to point out that one of his first published stories, “The Flag that Set Us Free, published in the famous Story magazine in 1944, was based on one of his schoolboy stories that had received a C+, possibly due to his incorrigibly bad handwriting. Story editor Whit Burnett urged him to “think long” and in 1954, the historical epic, Our Brother the Sun, became his first published novel.
A Fool in the Forest, which appeared in 1963, was his personal favorite. It was an autobiographical novel about a young man fresh out of high school in 1929, experiencing a wild summer with a troupe of actors at a summer theater set in an old fashioned amusement park.
When I first became interested in writing, Dad would take my penciled rough draft and cover it with red pen corrections, comments, and suggestions. Then we’d sit down and talk about it. I knew I was getting somewhere when less and less red marked up my work.
Perhaps Dad had so many strong passions he couldn’t simply hue to one path. To my mind he was an extremely successful man – a fine actor and director, brilliant teacher, published author, delightful storyteller, and a warm and generous father and mentor.