Snapshots: The Reduced Fat Autobiography

John is an able boy and he has done above-average work. He is serious, conscientious and most dependable. He is very much of an individual. — Elizabeth Flahive, teacher, Locust School, May 1965

I must admit that my second-grade teacher had me pegged. I wouldn’t accuse her of nipping on the tub-and-tile cleaner if she were to write the same things about me today.

I am the product of a suburban childhood in leafy Garden City, New York, where I spent my time ably playing baseball, seriously listening to rock music, conscientiously watching Marx Brothers movies, and dependably avoiding my grandmother’s evil rice pudding.

My future was foreshadowed by the little newspapers I pecked out on our typewriter about daily events: the cat’s shenanigans, what my mom was incinerating for supper, my dad’s commuting misadventures, etc. But I thought nothing of it at the time.

I wanted to be a baseball player!

Dear John, To the freak who’s not a freak — You’re the strangest person I know or can be that way if you want. You’re insane but you can return to be the most thoughtful person I know. You’ve got a lot going for you — especially your sense of humor (or lack of). — Tom Moore, classmate, Garden City High School, June 1975

There is still truth to that inscription in my yearbook, but I plead innocent to the charge of insanity.

Tom’s presence on the varsity gymnastics team qualified him as a “jock.” My shoulder-length hair and reverence of Pink Floyd qualified me as a “freak.” But Tom had another reason to think of me as a tad odd. I’m sure he knew no one else called “Two Sheds” — a nickname given to me by pals who pinched it from Monty Python’s sketch about composer Harold “Two Sheds” Jackson. For the record, I never had even one shed, but Monty Python spoke to my lemon soul.

“Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation?” — Yossarian in Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Whilst reading Catch-22 in 12th grade, I felt an overwhelming urge to write something as profoundly funny and truthful as Heller’s novel. I also identified with Yossarian, the bewildered Army Air Force captain in a swirl of absurd madness during World War II. My situation was not as dire, but my adolescence felt that way. I just had to scribble my take on all of it.

So I bought a small, blank, black hardcover book and created characters for my friends, myself, and other significant people in our lives. I titled my screed “Childhood’s End: A Saga of Eternal Torment” — thereby establishing subtlety as the hallmark of my writing style. I inflated actual events to apocalyptic proportions, but my friends recognized themselves and the kernel of truth at the heart of each scene.

Their laughter and praise encouraged me to scribble on.

I think your final paper was written with much stronger, more forceful and interesting language than the earlier papers — I think you have done a lot in one semester. I don’t think you have yet found a way to look at the particularities, the textures, of the texts you’re reading. Still, I am very pleased with the progress you have made. — Professor Clark Rodewald, Bard College, January 1978

Whilst steeping in a rich broth of scholarly volumes at Bard, I bloated into a serious artiste who was determined to author Great Works of Fiction. I ended up cranking out a horridly overwrought “serious” novel as my senior project. In lieu of an E (for effort), I received a merciful B+ mainly because Professor Rodewald noticed that I was kind of serious about this writing thing.

Moments after graduating in May 1979, my porch lantern flickered with the notion that authoring Great Works of Fiction would be a truly grand way to die of malnutrition in the rain. And so I confronted the challenge of finding a more practical path to plying my craft in a manner that would keep a tarpaper shack around my carcass.

John is going to be a journalist whether you admit him or not. So you might as well admit him, let him benefit from your program, and remove him from my wig once and for all. — Professor Clark Rodewald, Bard College, circa January 1982

I have taken the liberty of merely recounting Professor Rodewald’s epistle of recommendation to the admissions committee at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He did tell me that he wrote something along those lines. I had spent three years writing freelance reviews of rock bands for a free music rag called Good Times while enduring bad times at a series of mundane jobs (bursar clerk, hotel cashier, kite salesman). My goal was to pontificate for Rolling Stone, where I’d served as an intern during my junior year at Bard, but I discovered that I needed training in journalism if I wanted to earn any filthy lucre in the profession.

John remains at the top of his class. He was never short of story ideas; he did thorough research; found sources and got them to talk; he could recognize it when he found something new and substantial and realized it belonged in the lead; he worked with speed and care; he has a wide range of interests and is well informed. He is ready for the world right now. — Professor Harry Arouh, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, January 1983

Those kind words from my professor very nearly made me weep.

I had spent the first semester anxiously grinding my molars in a rented room on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where big tenacious mosquitoes bred in an airshaft outside my window. While I tried to sleep at night, whole squadrons penetrated a hole in the screen and made the darkness sound like the main runway at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. I was driven to the brink of yowling madness by a neighboring tenant who played Marvin Gaye’s song “Sexual Healing” endlessly whenever I was writing on deadline. 

Then there was the landlady’s ghastly one-eyed pooch that often dragged my clothes out of my room and deposited them with the dust bunnies down the hall. I was reduced to a jumpy, dusty, hollow-eyed, skeeter bite-covered apparition, but I still received that heartwarming progress report from my teacher and a $500 scholarship award for excellence. Twas enough to blow my dusty hat in the brook.

John Rolfe has been promoted to Senior Editor at SI For Kids. Since the first days of SIFK, John has helped set the standard for writing for kids with work that is fun, funny and informative.  He has filled in wonderfully as an editor these past several months. It will be a great asset to the magazine to have him in a place where he can apply his touch to more stories. — Managing Editor Neil Cohen’s memo to the staff, June 1997

I achieved a lot in the last place I ever expected to work. I’d gotten into sports writing at Columbia after succumbing to a new passion for hockey ignited by the dynastic New York Islanders. After stumbling out onto Broadway clad only in a master’s degree sheepskin, I was directed by a classmate (I wish I could remember who) to SPORT magazine in June 1983 and spent five years toiling my way up the step stool from Assistant Research Editor to Associate Editor, occasionally traveling about the country to write about horse racing by dint of my being the only one on staff who knew anything about it.

After SPORT was sold and moved to Los Angeles in 1988, I applied for a reporter’s position at Sport Illustrated For Kids, solely in the tactical interest of positioning my carcass under the same roof that sheltered the vaunted Sports Illustrated.

Writing for kids was a challenge that gave me a ride on the squirrel train, but I mastered it. The thrill of launching a new publication, and my belief in its mission of encouraging kids to read, kept me suitably engaged until I summoned to SI’s website in November 2006. Along the way, I even squeezed out nine biographies for SI For Kids Books: Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, David Robinson, Nolan Ryan, Jim Abbott, Jerry Rice, Grant Hill, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Frank Thomas. I was an author after all!

Now John at the bar is a friend of mine. He gets me my drinks for free. He’s quick with a joke or to light up your smoke, but there’s someplace that he’d rather be. — from “Piano Man” by Billy Joel

There’s more to my world than sports, and since 2000 I have been writing about the vicissitudes of family life (the grist for my book The Goose in the Bathroom), my travail commuting via rail to Manhattan, and the glorious aggravations of driving a school bus. Much of my work has appeared in Gannett’s Poughkeepsie Journal, for whom I also wrote a weekly social-political rant called “Taking It Personally” that frequently attracted torch-and-pitchfork-bearing mobs to my lawn.

After leaving SI in 2016, I created this website as a home for my scribbling, particularly my blog “Hellions, Mayhem & Brake Failure” about my adventures as a school bus driver, a noble profession I entered in February 2018 and have come to love.

I sincerely hope all this wonderment causes you mirth.

The old fart inside was now breathing freely from his perfume bottle atomizer air bulb invention. His excited eyes from within the dark interior glazed, watered in appreciation of his thoughtful preparation. — from “Old Fart at Play” by Captain Beefheart

Whatever. I trust that these snapshots of my life have given you a clearer sense of me as an able, serious, conscientious, and dependable individual who has done above-average work while avoiding his grandma’s evil rice pudding and using his pig iron control tower for something besides a rain barrel. Life has been an interesting journey. I’m looking forward to chronicling the rest of the trip.