Denver Bar Association
September 2012
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Denver Lawyers’ Arts and Literature Contest: Nonfiction Writing Winner Charles E. Norton


 

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harles E. Norton is a shareholder with Norton, Smith & Keane, P.C., specializing in trial and appellate advocacy for local governments and private parties who have claims against local governments. As a child, Norton spent his summers reading, and one summer he undertook the project of writing an account of his cat’s life, patterned after Joy Adamson’s “Born Free.” Norton has written largely for his own pleasure and for limited audiences. He sees his writing, either professionally or for pleasure, in similar measure: “I think that nonfiction writing (or fiction, for that matter) about general subjects really helps legal writing, and vice versa. I think all nonfiction writers are ultimately trying to persuade the reader to see reality in the same way that they do. ... Great legal writing is not simply technical; it is persuasive and it has to appeal to the heart as well as to the mind.”

Read a Q&A with Non-Fiction Writing Winner, Charles Norton

 

 

 

An Essay About Mom and Dad
by Charles E. Norton

My parents were not great.

When I write this, I should also, in good lawyer’s fashion, provide a definition of what I meant by the word “great.” I use the word in the grand, old, precise 19th Century sense: “of a size, amount, extent, or intensity considerably above the normal or average; big…”

By this standard, Genghis Khan and Dwight Eisenhower were “great”; Adolf Hitler and Abraham Lincoln were “great”; Jonas Salk and Steve Jobs were “great.”

My parents did not marshal armies to subdue empires; they did not bend their nation to their will, and cause it to redefine itself as a political community; they did not develop a cure for a disease that had afflicted humanity, or market technologies that changed fundamentally how people live. And, so, they were not “great.”

But my folks were very intelligent and very hard working; kind and compassionate; passionate but private; fun loving and very, very funny; oriented to notions of honesty and honor and not very much interested in commerce. Perhaps most striking of all, they were truly courageous and adventurous.

I have now passed through the stages of life that my folks experienced when I lived with them full-time. I have learned that some of these qualities that they had are compatible with “greatness”; and others are simply not. And so I have become deeply grateful for being born into this family that was not “great.”

Dad was born in Niagara Falls, New York, in April of 1913. He worked very hard as a boy and a young man, delivering milk from a wagon seven days a week, for $6 a week and then ushering in a vaudeville theater at night as he got older.

It would be a mistake to be too Dickensian about all of this. There was a lot of fun in Dad’s young life too, especially anything that had to do with sports. As Mom would later say, if any activity involves a ball of any shape or size, your Dad will take an interest in it. And so there were sandlot baseball games every evening in the summers; a lot of touch football, which evolved into tackle pretty quickly; and some basketball, although neither it nor football came close to the stature of baseball for Americans in the 1920s.

Dad graduated from high school in the late spring of 1931. Mighty industrial America had hit the skids. The unemployment rate nationally hit 25 percent; it was probably higher in the factory towns of upstate New York. Dad was lucky enough to get work shoveling coal in the train yard and later hired in at the carborundum plant as a “stationary engineer.”

All the while, the romanticism that was so much a part of the young boy who loved to read “Ivanhoe” and Zane Grey was struggling to express itself. Dad hitchhiked and rode the rods on a train to get to Indiana; he worked on a farm for a month or so and came home. He tried to join the French Foreign Legion, but fortunately for my future existence it was Bastille Day and their office in New York City was closed. He then found his first career at Mitchell Field on Long Island in 1937, when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the age of 24.

Dad completely took to the Air Corps and the Air Force. He loved the camaraderie and the adventure, the military pomp and circumstance, and the disciplined sense of purpose. He became a master sergeant very quickly, and served as a crew chief in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy during World War II. He received the Legion of Merit in North Africa for designing a system for maintaining and repairing Allied aircraft and keeping them in the air continuously. After the war, he served in Alaska, flying in B-29 patrols close to the Bering Strait.

Mom was born in Appleton City, Missouri, in 1918. Her parents came from a long line of steady and industrious German farmers. Grandpa Henry Renken married Grandma Kate in 1912, and in 1920 decided to buy a farm in eastern Colorado near the town of Flagler.

Mom was the center of her parents’ lives in all respects. When you look at her pictures from the 1920s, you can see that eastern Colorado was a frontier; in one photo, she is wearing a homemade gingham dress and playing with a turkey. She was an only child, and so developed as both daughter and son for proud parents. Mom was a fantastic cook, but also a dead shot with a .22 caliber rifle; she sewed her own clothes much of her life, but she could also ride a horse bareback all day.

Mom came to Denver in 1937, and went to work for The Denver Post in 1938, where she stayed until 1955. She worked as a “girl Friday” doing a little bit of everything, including selling insurance, editing the in-house newsletter, giving people the location of polling places by phone on Election Day, taking tickets a few evenings a month at the old baseball field at Merchant’s Park, and even putting together skits and pageants on special occasions.

Mom loved The Post and everything about it, including the reporters, who ranged from very thoughtful and gentle people to guys who lived on whiskey and cigarettes and who would just as soon punch you in the nose as debate you if they thought your point of view was ridiculous. It was through her contacts at The Post that she met Dad, who was stationed at Lowry Field.

I suppose I could say that their early relationship involved a smoldering passion, but that would be a lie. It was a forest fire. You can see it in the pictures; Dad photographing Mom, sitting by a stream in the mountains, wearing shorts with her legs stretched out, Dad trying to show how beautiful she is, but never quite being able to capture it to his satisfaction. Her pictures of him have that same quality; a big, handsome guy in a suit and a fedora, cigarette hanging from his lower lip, carrying their bags as though he might just leave or might just stay. He was the pirate king, and he had taken the farm girl far away, but no further than she had taken him.

I was born in 1954, and together we saw the American West in the last days before post-modernism and development caught up with us. We would camp every weekend in the late spring and summer, with a one or two week camping vacation thrown in for July or August. At first, Mom and Dad would take an old canvas tent from Sears and we would pitch it and break it down, rarely staying more than three nights in the same place. I saw Mesa Verde when the evening campfire programs drew 10 people on a busy night; Navajo men and women came from the reservation to dance fertility dances, and we knew that this land was not ours and never would be in the same way it belonged to the dancers. The three of us were the only visitors sitting around the fire one night at Capulin Volcano National Monument, with a park ranger and an old rancher telling stories of Spanish conquistadores, fur traders, and cowboys, with the refreshments consisting of hot strong coffee brewing on the campfire, a few eggshells thrown in to settle the grounds.

When I left home, I opted for a more orthodox life than they had lived; I went to law school and became an attorney, a fact that made them very, very proud. Those last years were kinder to Dad physically than to Mom; he and I hiked all 42 miles of developed trails in Chiricahua National Monument over six days when he had just turned 67. Mom’s knees became arthritic and bent, and her last years were in a wheelchair. But up until almost the end they still went camping together, now in a modest camper on the back of a Ford pickup, Mom still cooking meals for him from scratch, tending the fire, watching the hummingbirds, painting, and writing poems.

One night, when he was 79 and she was 74, they were camped at Sawmill Gulch in North Park. The temperature hit about 20 degrees, and I was sitting in Denver, really worried. I needn’t have; Dad had picked Mom up, and he carried her up to his bunk to be with him and to keep them both warm. They laughed as they slowly and awkwardly made this little journey; they had seen so much together, and lived lives that no one could ever repeat. They knew that they had lived their modest dreams to the fullest and there were no regrets.

In his third State of the Union Address, President Reagan famously said that “America is too great for small dreams.” I must respectfully dissent.

 

Q&A with Nonfiction Writing Winner Charles E. Norton

Tell us more about your work. What was the inspiration? What techniques did you draw on? What do you like about this work?

My inspiration came as much as anything from the process of growing older, and coming to understand my parents and their lives from a much different perspective than I had when I left home to go to college or even when they passed away, in the mid-1990s.  I think that for much of my life I took my childhood for granted; I certainly viewed it as a wonderful time, but I didn’t really consider that I had been given the opportunity to be exposed to two truly exceptional people and the old Colorado that my mother had known was passing from the scene.

The works of nonfiction that I admire most build emotional impact and power through a wealth of small details that give the reader an insight into the subject’s character.  Biographies of famous people always contain narratives of the big things they did; what proclamations they signed, or battles they won, but the reader is often not given much of a portrait of who the person actually was. Robert Caro is a good example of a different kind of biographer; his books about Lyndon Johnson give us real insight into where Johnson grew up, the insecurities he faced as a child, all of which tell us a great deal about what kind of president he became.

What I like most about my essay is that it tells the story of two people whose story would otherwise not be told.  I am very grateful for the opportunity to let many more people know who my folks were. Part of this is an outgrowth of my political philosophy, and my increasingly strong conviction that the United States is a country whose story cannot be fully told simply through the biographies of the great women and men who have furnished leadership in politics, business, and the arts, but instead must be understood through the lives of ordinary individuals in all walks of life.    

How did you become interested in writing? What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

As far back as I can remember I have been interested in writing; it was a direct outgrowth of my love for books.  I would spend a lot of wonderful time in the summer just reading what I wanted to read.  One summer, I undertook the project of writing an account of my cat’s life, patterned after Joy Adamson’s book, “Born Free.” I am afraid that while Tammy was a great cat, her life was not quite as interesting as that of Elsa the lioness, so the project expired after a week or two.

Why did you become a lawyer? What do you enjoy most about the profession?

I was torn between becoming a political science professor and becoming a lawyer. The job situation for Ph.D. graduates in political science in the mid-1970s was not good, so I opted for law school instead. One of my political science professors had taken his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and so he strongly suggested the law school there. It was a great fit for me; it allowed me to get terrific technical training while still pursuing a liberal arts education in many ways. 

I very much enjoy research, writing, and oral appellate advocacy. I also love the breadth of the experiences that I have had. If I am ever inclined to envy my law school class mates who do mergers and acquisition litigation, for example, I ask myself if they have been able to represent an outfitter for back country horse expeditions being sued by a rancher for not paying rental on a string of horses which the outfitter contended had a skin disease and were not fit for the intended purpose.  The case was tried in the old territorial court house in Fairplay and we had a full view of Mt. Silverheels the whole time.  While I love New York, I wouldn’t trade that experience for all the courts of Manhattan. 

Art and lawyering seem to draw on very different skills and different parts of the brain. How do you think being a lawyer helps your art, or vice versa?

I suspect that this question was intended more for folks in the visual arts than for writers.  I think that nonfiction writing (or fiction, for that matter) about general subjects really helps legal writing, and vice versa.  I think all nonfiction writers are ultimately trying to persuade the reader to see reality in the same way that they do; the great nature writers like Thoreau and Edward Abbey, for example, were convinced that if we all came to see the natural world as they saw it we would all become defenders of nature.  Great legal writing is not simply technical; it is persuasive and it has to appeal to the heart as well as to the mind.    

Tell us briefly about your background as a writer and as an attorney.

I graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1980 and I have been practicing law in Denver ever since.  If I really have a specialty (which I think my colleagues might question) it would be in trial and appellate advocacy for local governments and private parties who have claims against local governments.

I have written almost entirely for my own pleasure and for limited audiences.  I’ve written a history of my church, Capital Heights Presbyterian, as well as a piece about the Children’s Fountain at City Park, which was published in neighborhood newspaper.  I also keep up a lively correspondence with friends about politics, religion, and the arts.


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