Burning One's Bridges to the Past, the non-fishing story that begins on page 85 of this issue, is perhaps an unlikely one for a sports magazine to be publishing, but then it is the work of an unlikely author—Charles Willeford, a 20-year Army man turned English professor.
At the age of 12 Willeford read Crime and Punishment and became so hooked on Dostoevsky that, he recalls, "It look me 10 years to get over being depressed." By 13 he was writing poetry and working in the summer as a lifeguard, a job of which he says, "Any horseplay and I threw them right out." No one had to be rescued all summer, which was fortunate, in view of the fact that, by his own account, Willeford did not know how to swim.
In 1932 he found himself bored with the eighth grade, so he ran away from home "to see what was out there." He had been a straight F student, but in the school of hard knocks he improved. In Arizona, for example, he tried boxing, fighting his first match to a draw against a 35-year-old opponent; Willeford at the time was 14. At 16 he joined the Army, and a year later, in the Philippines, he published a song, "Something about the girls at Legaspi Landing." When war broke out he was sent to Europe, where he loaded up on medals, "including two Purple Hearts." When not getting shot at, he was writing. He published a book of poetry, a novel about a used-car salesman (High Priest of California) and once, between hitches, he went to New York with the idea of becoming an actor, but he ended up augmenting his income by submitting quotes to columns of bright sayings by children. "I made them up," he says. "Kids aren't that bright."
By 1956 Willeford had served his 20 years, so he took his pension and retired to Florida. There he applied for a grant, to write another book, but was told that he could never be a serious writer without a college education. So he enrolled at Palm Beach Junior College, where he recalls that his freshman composition teacher was upset when he sold his term paper.
May 6, 1973
To date Willeford has written 11 novels and has recently completed the screenplay for his latest, Cockfighter (SI, May 22). Currently he is on leave of absence from his teaching post at Miami-Dade Community College, having taken time off to write his 12th novel—working title, Shark-Infested Custard. He likes the Miami area despite the constant reminders of fishing, which he has always detested. "I've never run into a fisherman who actually liked to fish," he says balefully. "Even fly-fishermen. They talk about skill, but all they really want is to show up the other guy."
So much for children and fishermen. Willeford seems to mean these things, but he does have his less irascible side. He enjoys swimming in his apartment pool every day, and he even claims to like the high crime rate in Dade County. "It provides a writer with an exciting environment," he explains.