Robert Hitt Neill Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 8, 2007

And again Neill says to read

Came in the other evening and picked up the phone to listen to the messages. The second one was from younger friend with whom I’d done some television business, shooting probably one of the most memorable commercials that has ever been produced anywhere.  

It only ran a couple of times, and his brother paid me to see that it was properly viewed, before we switched to a second ad produced the next day. But it wasn’t the ad itself that was so memorable: it was the collective efforts of all hands, the cook, and a contingent of helicopter occupants!

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Years later and hundreds of miles away from the Mammy Grudge, the filming site, I was still hearing about that commercial from folks we had no idea would get involved.

Having said all that to get your attention, I’m headed in another direction entirely.  

The caller had left a message to the effect that he wanted me to speak at his church on a certain date nearly a month away. I checked the calendar and called his house to tell him I could do so. His wife answered, and when I asked for her husband, she replied in a hushed voice, “Can he call you back? He’s reading to Joseph.”  (I hope I’m getting the name right; like I said, she was speaking softly.)

What a commentary on proper parenting! I’m not quite sure how old Joseph is, but I don’t think he’s school age yet, as I recall. But his daddy is reading to him, obviously after he’s been put to bed.

This is not a column on Joseph, nor his daddy. This is about doing right with your kids; doing something that will start them off well in life, and if done with passion, will carry them through life with the proper perspective.

Too many parents nowadays park their kids in front of the idiot box (the aforesaid TV) and let them watch whatever is on until time for bed.

“Reading to Joseph.” I remember my mother reading to me, and Big Robert would occasionally pull out his favorite book of Robert W. Service Poems and give me a taste of the cold and ice of the Arctic in stories like “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” or “Dangerous Dan McGrew,” or “A Sourdough Story.”

My grandmother would often come and stay with us for weeks at a time, and she’d read stories of adventure like “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped,” by Robert Louis Stevenson, or of animals like “Smoky” by Will James or “Silver Chief” by Jack O’Brien.

My cousin Margaret, years older but a victim of rheumatic fever, babysat me a lot, and she introduced me to the Wizard of Oz, Uncle Remus, Robin Hood, Huck Finn, and Peter Pan. My grandfather was an avid Zane Gray fan, and he read me (then I inherited his collection!) those western stories by the man who knew Billy the Kid and Jesse Chisolm and Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill. I still get down “Knights of the Range” to re-read every couple of years.

“Reading to Joseph.” I speak at a lot of writers conferences, as well as to creative writing classes in high school, college, and (strangely to some) to seminary classes in prison. That’s a later column, okay?

The best piece of advice that I can give to anyone of any age who aspires to being a published, or even polished, writer is this: READ!  You have to read to build up a vocabulary, and you cannot get that by watching television or movies or listening to the radio.

One has to see the printed word on the page to know when to use “to, too, two,” or “there, their, they’re.”  Lots of other examples, but the only way (well, maybe there is one of those subliminal ways) to learn to write correctly is to READ!

“Reading to Joseph.”  Praise the Lord that my elders read to me – I know, you’re saying, “Shoot, they didn’t even have TV when Neill was a kid!”

True story: one summer some mule gypsies came through putting up TV antennas on rural houses, and Big Robert had one installed on our house – two years before he ever bought a TV set! Then Momma put it in the living room, where you had to be clean to recline. Therefore, I really didn’t watch TV when I was young, sho’nuff.

“Reading to Joseph.”  Well, I told the young mother, “No, Ma’am, you don’t need to get him to call back.  Just tell him I’m free on the night he mentioned, and I’ll be there whenever and wherever he says. He doesn’t have to call me back until I get out of prison next week.  You just let him go on…Reading to Joseph!”