Monday, February 13, 2017

In memoriam: John Clark Pratt

I called him Dr. Pratt because it seemed appropriate. John Clark Pratt possessed a deep voice, military bearing, steely gaze. No surprise after 20 years in the Air Force, some of those in Vietnam (and neighboring countries), and then a stint teaching at the Air Force Academy.

At Colorado State University, he taught creative writing. He was the only writing prof hanging around the Eddy Building as I prowled around on a summer day in 1988. I dropped in. He gave me some of his time and, when I left, thought I had found the right place to get my M.F.A.

I was right. Dr. Pratt conducted one of my first writing workshops. He helped me fine-tune a sci-fi story that he thought was pretty good. You don't read too many sci-fi pieces in writing workshop. It's mostly dysfunctional family minimalism (DFM). No surprise, since most of the students are in their 20s and fresh out of their undergraduate experience and not too far away from their tormented youth. I was older, late 30s, fresh from a corporate PR gig and before that, years as a journalist and then a free-lance writer. If I had a tormented youth, it was way behind me.

I wasn't a better writer than my younger peers. I just wrote different stuff. I was used to being edited and revised and wasn't upset when others took a hand to it. So I published and kept writing, going through critiques, stopping to chat with Dr. Pratt along the way. He had published two great books about the Vietnam War, The Laotian Fragments and Vietnam Voices. In the latter book, he put together a pastiche of poets and writers, veterans and peaceniks. He had helped start the CSU Library's Vietnam War special collection. Nosing around in that collection, partitioned like a bunker in the basement of the old library, which in the late 1980s still had its card catalog and a new but rudimentary computerized system. While hanging out in the bunker, I discovered its future wars section. My first novel manuscript rests in that collection. It's the only way you can read it, if you're interested.

Dr. Pratt passed away Jan. 2 in Fort Collins after a long and gallant battle with cancer. We'd been in touch a few years ago when he was looking for a publisher for his new novel. Still writing, even as he battled the Big C. He wondered if my Denver publisher might be interested in the book. I asked. They were, but I don't think it worked out as the press vanished shortly thereafter. It felt good to do him this small favor. Then two weeks ago, I found out from a writer friend that Dr. Pratt had passed away.

Last week, I received a call from a woman whose club was preparing Dr. Pratt's household for an estate sale. She said she found in Dr. Pratt's library my business card and letter in a copy of my short story collection. She invited me to FoCo for a preview of the estate sale. I went.

It's too bad I no longer am accumulating books. My shelves are full, I have many boxes of books in the basement and I am retired. But I thought it might be a way to help in some way, maybe use it as a way to say farewell to Dr. Pratt.

My friend John met me there. He taught with Dr. Pratt and he too is retired. Linda showed us into the room containing Pratt's research books. The director of the Vietnam War collection had already been out to sort through the material. John and I found some collectible books that hadn't been priced as well as well as some wonderful early editions, especially of books from the 1960s. A row of Joseph Heller's books, including early hardcovers of Catch-22. John Updike, Ken Kesey, Kenn Babbs, Timothy Leary. Pratt knew them all, and was interested in all of the voices of the sixties. I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to have books that a mentor cared enough to keep?" The answer was yes. But I resisted. John and I found excellent copies of 1984 and Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, both of which we turned over to Linda for pricing. I found a first edition of James Burke's first novel,The Lost Get-Back Boogie. It was an LSU Press original and back before the author became Best-Selling NYT-Author James Lee Burke. English majors would like the fact that an excerpt of the book was first published in CutBank, University of Montana's excellent litmag. I found a big box of Vietnam War research material, including a Look Magazine cover with the header, "We're Winning in Vietnam." It was fall of 1967, just a few months before Tet.

I attended Dr. Pratt's funeral at Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church. His adult children recounted their memories and we had a few laughs. The Poudre River Irregulars, minus its banjo player, played a few tunes, closing out with "When Those Saints Go Marching in."

I am thankful that I had Dr. Pratt as a mentor. He saw things in my writing that I did not. He encouraged me when I needed encouraging. You never know what kind of impact people will have on you. It's important that you give them a chance and see what happens.

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