Opinion: An audacious leap in pursuit of a dream

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A family photo taken around 1960 of (clockwise from left) John Petrakis, author Harry Mark Petrakis, Mark Petrakis, Diana Petrakis and Dean Petrakis. | Provided photo

The photograph I hold in my hands shows my wife, Diana, our three sons, and myself taken sometime in the years of 1960 to 1961. Diana is seated in a cushioned armchair with our youngest son Dean on her lap. I am perched on the wooden arm of the chair holding John, our middle son, between my knees. Mark is standing behind the chair.

Mark is about 12. He has close-cropped hair and a smile that hints at defiance. John, who is about 8, is also smiling but with a conspiratorial grin as if he were hiding some sly thought. Our youngest son Dean, about 2, sits on his mother’s knee. The look on his face is one of bewilderment. The three boys, graced with luminous dark eyes and handsome faces, were spared the legacy of their father’s craggy, uneven features and inherited their mother’s good looks.

My wife Diana and I were married in 1945, both of us then at age 22. We’d agree in later years that we were both too young. My qualifications for marriage and supporting a family were dismal. I had dropped out of high school in my sophomore year, was unskilled and still struggled with a gambling addiction. The first year following our marriage, we lived with my parents and five siblings in a bedroom vacated by a brother who had departed. In the second year we moved into a studio apartment in a 500-unit housing complex. Our studio flat had a Murphy bed that swung out of the living room wall. In summer when our windows overlooking the courtyard were open, the babble of languages resounded and the aromas of assorted ethnic cooking coursed through the hallways.

In the first few years of our marriage, my employment record only confirmed my futile prospects. I worked for U.S. Steel writing up production sheets for the rolling mills. I was a clerk in a liquor store, delivered prescriptions for a pharmacist and pressed clothes for a cleaner. I was a helper on a beer truck, and for a year I co-owned a small factory district lunchroom.

During this procession of jobs, I nurtured the dream I’d had since childhood to write. From time to time I managed to write stories and submit them to magazines. After five to six years of printed rejection slips, the next few years brought some personal notes from editors offering suggestions and encouragement. After 10 years of submissions, Christmas of 1956, when I was working as a real estate salesman, I made my first sale to the Atlantic Monthly. The sale of that story, “Pericles on 31st Street,” after 10 arid years of submissions was like a cloudburst on a drought-stricken land.

In the following year I sold several more stories. I also finished and then had rejected a half dozen times a novel I had been working on with the lugubrious title of Cry the Black Tears. I began another novel that I finished in about a year. That book, Lion at My Heart, was accepted in 1958 by Atlantic Monthly Press with plans to publish the following year.

That was where my literary endeavors stood in mid-1958, when my wife became pregnant with our third child. I had just been fired from a job I’d held for a year with the Simoniz Wax Co. Then my older brother, Dan, came forward with what everyone else but me thought was a rescue. Through his position as a senior manager with U.S. Steel, he obtained for me an interview that led to my being offered a job as a junior-level speechwriter/event-assistant in their Pittsburgh office.

I drove to Pittsburgh to take up residency while my pregnant wife and sons traveled by train. We rented a small pleasant cottage in the suburb of Whitehall, on a rural lane called Provost Road. Across the road, on a rise of hill, was an old Civil War cemetery dotted with tombstones marking the graves of both Union and Confederate dead buried side by side.

Our third son Dean was born during our residence in Pittsburgh, and I recall during his first months pushing him in his buggy around the old cemetery.

My employment with U.S. Steel was doomed from the beginning because my longing, whetted by the sale of one book and several short stories, was only to write stories. My position was also meaningless, including tasks such as making sure a steel executive had Pellegrino water in his hotel room. Finally, after a series of extra long lunch hour breaks while I browsed in a downtown bookstore, I was fired.

All I wanted to do was write. But the prospects of earning any kind of living to support a family of five, seemed far out of reach. Everyone derided my dream as “reckless” and “foolhardy.” My agent in New York, my publisher, my attorney and several newspaper editor friends warned me about making so rash a leap. Then my longing found an additional source of support back in Chicago.

My sister Barbara’s husband, John Manta, owned a large old house near the lakefront on the South Side of Chicago. The three-story gabled structure had once known days of gaslight elegance but had long since fallen upon hard times and was scheduled for demolition so that a motel could be built on its site.

The Manta sons, our nephews Leo, Frank and Steve had always been close and loving to my family. Now hearing intimations of my desire to freelance, they offered the old house by the lake as a residence, pledging to do whatever they could to make it livable and offering it to us rent-free.

Even with that bountiful generosity, the move was fraught with hazard. There would be no income except for the writing. Falling into debt, I’d have to work twice as hard and twice as long to bail us out.

What was needed first of all was support and approval from my wife, Diana. I understood all her protective instincts as a mother mandated she strongly oppose an action that would endanger her family.

Reluctant and frightened, making a great leap of faith, she supported the move I could not have made without her agreement. Buoyed by that faith, we took up residence in the old gabled house that the stalwart Manta nephews, a versatile carpenter named “Ziggy’ and I made livable as best we could. The house became our home for the next two years.

The first year freelancing, my income from writing was $1,200 and the second year $1,600. We survived by virtue of our rent-free premises and the bounty of our relatives, eating with my sister and Diana’s parents multiple times a week. Relatives donated clothing. By the third year, adding teaching and lecturing to my employability, we broke the barrier into survival.

There is a lesson in our story for any family faced with major decisions and major change. Good sense mandates caution. But accomplishment is spawned from courage. With my wife’s faith in me adding wings to my soul, I was able to make that giant, audacious leap that has allowed me to live my last half century as a storyteller.

Find more information on novelist Harry Mark Petrakis at harrymarkpetrakis.com.

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