The Good Years

by Leland M. Hawes, Jr.

From The Gator Growl No. 72 for July 1961. Winner of Prose Non-Fiction laureate award.

The American has "been lucky in finding a succession of young eager beavers to work hard for a year or so to keep their association alive and then drop out. If half a dozen American big bugs got tired at about the same time, the American could fold up fast."
--Alf Babcock, 1949.

After sweating out a chronicle of quarter century of AAPA scintillating successes and frequent frustrations, I couldn't help but smile at Alf Babcock's dour prediction in the perennial Alf's Cat.

Alf was advocating the consolidation of all the competing amateur press groups, suggesting that the only logical course was for us AAPA "bugs" to hop over into the National. As usual, the mere suggestion stirred up a brief flurry of Declarations of Independence, then the issue was laid to rest for another year or so.

But my smile was not prompted at the never-ending furor that seems to be precipitated by the mention of "amalgamation." It was a wry smile of satisfaction that the American had somehow survived the very conditions Alf had forecast would lead to a quick foldup.

For the period since 1949 has brought some dormant spells when both big bugs and little bugs appeared to have succumbed to the anesthetizing effect of a Flit gun. More than once, it looked as if AAPA were snoozing off to Eternity. More than once, it seemed that a comfortable hobby playground were sliding off the precipice to a Happy Hunting Ground.

Invariably, some of the big bugs aroused with a start and sounded the alarm. Inevitably, there were the soul-searching inquiries: What are we doing wrong? Why can't we hold members? When can we sustain activity on a year-to-year basis without a special tub-thumping crusade?

Inevitably, there have been answers -- some of them considered correct, most of them rated ridiculous . . . We've forgotten the "true" concept of amateur journalism . . . We've lapsed into too much "sweetness and light" . . . We've gotten too snobby in our outlook . . . We're not cordial enough to newcomers . . .

As one who has been "bugged" with the hobby nearly 20 years, I have done my share of supplying glib answers. Some still seem valid to me, others all wet in view of subsequent experiences.

Once, when I was younger and naiver, I thought the panacea for all AAPA's problems was enforcing a constitutional "activity clause." In other words, crack the whip on every member every three months and require him to Be Active -- Or Else. Fortunately, noone took me too seriously; otherwise, there've been some years all of us would have been "bugged out" for not hopping at the right time!

Still, this experience of spending two months researching and recalling the American's year-by-year tribulations has left me with a new batch of conclusions. For patterns do appear, and trends do develop over a quarter century, and unless you're up to your armpits in history you may be totally unaware of them.

First, what characterized a "good year"? I won't attempt to define a "good year," other than to generalize by saying it was a time when there were lots of papers -- for the publishing of amateur journals is really our only basic barometer.

In almost every "good year," we had a strong president -- a leader whose personality somehow inspired (or perhaps permitted) a spontaneous flow of activity.

And usually we were blessed with an alert, talented official editor, able to set a brisk "tone" for the administration.

On the basis of analyzing the results from the years when AAPA appeared to be genuinely on the upgrade, we have developed a detailed composite portrait of a strong president.

He doesn't "throw his weight around" as a demonstration of power; he pits most of his energy into publishing (a sort of pump-priming, if you will) -- and into "preserving the domestic tranquility."

That last qualification may draw its share of cat-calls, but it was included with calculated seriousness. Amateur journalists seem to be a particularly touchy breed of feline -- and, being temperamental types, they can "get their backs up" over the darndest things! It doesn't take much to blow the whistle on a raucous battle behind the garbage can -- and somebody's always getting hit with the lid.

An impatient president can get awfully riled up over some of the spoiled tomatoes tossed his way. A strong president ducks, holds his nose (as well as his temper), shrugs off the minor disturbances, and philosophically pumps away at his press. When a giant-sized firecracker catches him in a tender spot, he squelches it as decisively and as impersonally as possible.

If he's lucky, he's aided by a strong official editor who plans every issue of American Amateur Journalist, assigning topics to reliable writers on contemporary subjects. He cannot trust to fate that an inspired coterie of contributors will spring forth in response to his requests for material. He must be persistent -- pesky, at times -- for amateur journalists are notorious procrastinators.

The editor who pleads in print for manuscripts to fill up his issues is foredoomed. He'll wind up with a hodge-podge of official reports, hastily hoked-up news stories of outdated events, and essays from axe-grinders.

The aggressive editor must be prepared to write an entire number himself, if necessary, for there will be dry periods when even his most frantic appeals won't produce a driblet of material.

Obviously, the president and the official editor are the key men in most "good years." They would be hobbled terribly if a mailer failed to mail, a secretary failed to keep records, or a treasurer embezzled the funds.

But all these calamitous situations can be remedied by a strong president who's in constant touch with his entire official board. He knows when trouble is afoot, and he has the power to take corrective action -- by removing the laggard from office for cause and by appointing someone trustworthy instead.

So my thesis stands: a "good year" is almost always dependent upon the presence of good leadership in the top offices.

In the absence of leadership, apathy and drifting begin dwindling whatever resources the association has been able to accumulate. For amateur journalism depends upon the continuing interest of its followers.

Simply because Freddy Fireball kept us all agog with a live-wire presidency last year, there's no guarantee that Delbert Dismal won't bore the hell out of us next year.

This brings us to another characteristic of a "good year": Does it take a shillelagh clobbering contest to keep everybody hopping?

The historical record is deceptive, for it would be easy to conclude that AAPA hit its peak during a period when bundles were peppered with personal attacks. But of how much significance was the outraged needling in the over-all activity picture?

The post-World War II years 1946-8 were tumultuous at times -- over issues that are barely remembered nowadays. What was all the fuss about? Mostly technicalities over election procedures and constitutional quiddities. A small segment of the membership was inflamed over "points of honor" and proceeded to cauterize "the opposition."

Of course, neglected in the furor was the fact that the end of the war enabled many a returned veteran to dust off his old press and clank away at his boyhood hobby. Unfortunately, just as many of the guys were beginning to enjoy themselves, the caterwauling got underway.

Disillusionment is evident in a number of editorial comments of the times, when disgust over the petty bickering set in. "Is this the hobby I used to enjoy?" seemed to be the reaction of a number.

Undoubtedly, it was felt sincerely at the time that the foundations of the association were endangered by these issues of procedure. But time has shown how foolish we were. And history has shown how many members we lost.

This plowing over past years has bolstered my conviction that the more loosely our Constitution is drawn, the better off we'll be. Certainly, we must have general rules and regulations to guide us. But they're simply conveniences to abet our essential reason for banding together: the writing, printing, and distribution of amateur journals.

A clear, concise framework for conducting the affairs of the association would suffice -- something flexible enough to permit steering "in the spirit of the law" as well.

Of course, no amount of precise terminology is going to get us an active leadership unless we elect it. A president can be as efficient as an IBM machine, following the by-laws to the letter, but he's a flop unless he can set a pace for stepped-up activity.

How can we escape the inertia and boredom that plague us in the "bad years"? No glib answers will do.

In this age of multiple demands upon the conscious hours of any citizen, the competition for time can be devastating for a preoccupation like amateur journalism. For it depends upon creative energies which once had few other outlets.

Today, the complexities of our Nuclear Age civilization leave too many of us content to consume the "Instant Culture" poured out in gigantic streams by television and by the publishing giants of the nation.

Is there room for individual expression in print any more? I think so. Amateur journalists may be contentious, they may be procrastinators, and they may be apathetic on occasion. But, when stirred into action, they still get a kick out of seeing their own handiwork in print.

The trick today is making the handiwork interesting enough to stimulate a response from an audience of kindred talents.

Lashing out with personal invective may be one way, but it has been convincingly ruled out as a means for holding together an amateur press group. There's another way, which I've mentioned before -- "conversation in print."

Sharpening our discursive wits strikes me as being a major need. For what could be more impelling than a long-distance "bull session by bundle"?

Traditional material still has its place in our publications, to be sure. But I sincerely believe that the added element of aiming topical material at the membership in a provocative discussion approach can make a difference.

For a constant banter of conversation-in-print will fulfill one of those objectives we've been craving for years: a lively interchange of ideas, producing more and more amateur journals.

Anybody for chatting?


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