Why would anybody care where I was born or where I went to school? If you do, here is the short version.
Born: December 8, 1947 in Herrin, Illinois
Parents: Elizabeth and Lowell Biggs. I’m an only child. If you know me, it’s easy to figure out why.
School: Washington Elementary School, Marion Il; Marion Junior High School; Marion High School class of 1965, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, 1965-66; University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana, 1966-68; University of Illinois College of Dentistry, 1968-72, awarded BS and DDS; University of Central Oklahoma, 1975-76, awarded MEd; Northwestern University Dental School, 1979-81, awarded MS; American Board of Endodontic, 1985, awarded diplomate status.
Work: 1969-1970, Radiology clerk at U of I R&E Hospital; 1970-72, security guard for Kane Security Service; 1972-75, U.S. Public Health Service Dentist; 1975-1979 Full Time Faculty Member at OU College of Dentistry; Two Months in 1979, Dentist at Lexington Assessment and Reassignment Center—Oklahoma Dept. of Corrections; 1981-1982 Full Time Faculty at OU College of Dentistry; 1982-2001 Half Time Faculty Member at OU College of Dentistry and Half Time Practice at Endodontic Practice Associates; 2001-2013 Endodontic Practice Associates.
First Short Story Published: “Gypsy Ghosts and Nicknames” in 2005 Red Dirt Anthology
First Short Story Sold: “Try to Kill You Days” in Cactus Country Anthology I, 2011
Grand Prize Winner 80th Annual Writers Digest Competition: “Boy Witch” 2011
Third Prize Lorian Hemingway Short Story Contest: “Soul Kisses” 2011
Storyteller Magazine People’s Choice Award: “Footprints” Storyteller Magazine Vol. 17 issue 3, 2012.
Oklahoma Writers Federation Inc. Crème de la Crème Award: “Twenty Percent Off” 2012
Owl Dreams: Published in 2013 by Pen-L Publishing
Real Biography: People are more complicated than dates and locations. I’m a card carrying human being and hope to remain one for some time to come. Here’s a synopsis of my life.
My parents: My mother was a hairdresser, freshly divorced from her first husband when she met my dad. People didn’t do things like that in the 1940’s. Men looked at divorced women with the same suspicion they harbored when shopping for used cars.
There were lots of men looking for wives when she was looking for a husband. Soldiers were coming back to United States after winning the second world war, full of post traumatic stress disorder—though the disorder had yet to earn a name.
Returning soldiers were in a hurry to marry good old-fashioned American girls and start having lots of babies to make up for all the lives lost fighting the Germans and the Japanese. Master Sergeant Lowell D. Biggs was one of them.
A friend set up on a blind date with my future mom (his future wife), but he wanted to make sure she was pretty enough before he actually accepted. They didn’t have Facebook in those days so he conducted surveillance the way he learned in Italy and North Africa. He hid in the bushes outside her beauty shop and watched her through the windows. It probably wasn’t the smartest way to go looking for a girlfriend but it worked.
Dad had a failed marriage under his belt too, so my mother’s divorce wasn’t a real issue. I guess my parents were ahead of their time when it came to the “till death do us part” section of the marriage vows, at least the first time around. My mother and he dated for two weeks and then got married—the sort of thing Brittany Spears and Kim Kardashian would do much later on.
Lots of people had whirlwind courtships after the war. The men had become acquainted with their own mortality and the women were listening to the ticking of their biological clocks. I was born a year after my parents were married, Dec. 8, 1947, part of the first wave of the Post War Baby Boom Generation.
My dad told me, “When your mom told me she was pregnant, I thought it was the end of the world.”
“Loved you right off when I heard you cry,” he said. “Since then, I guess I’ve been pretty happy.”
Well, that might be so, but I’m an only child.
So There I Was In Southern Illinois
Practically all the men were coal miners where I grew up. Southern Illinois was a weird little section of the USA. More in tune with the south than you’d imagine in the state where Abraham Lincoln got his start. People call that part of Illinois the foothills of the Ozarks. It’s nothing like the flat fertile farmlands of the central part of the state or the booming metropolis of Chicago.
Unemployment was a way of life. The men worked when the mines weren’t on strike and the women mostly stayed home and raised their children. My dad’s stepfather decided to break out of the economic cycle and buy a piece of land with proven coal. He set out to compete with Peabody Coal Company with nothing but a positive attitude and a shaky line of credit. It worked out about the way you would imagine.
He signed the mine over to my father and my dad’s half-brother about the time a flash flood filled the pit, drowned the equipment, and floated them all down river to bankruptcy. If you think a bunch of angry coal miners will buy the, “checkbook’s under thirty feet of water” excuse, I’m here to tell you they will not.
My mother had a positive attitude. She borrowed $7,000 from her family and bought a junkyard. That was during the enlightened fifties (think Mad Men) when women were legally permitted to do anything, but nobody expected them to succeed. Against all odds, she did.
Junkyards Are the Coolest Places Ever
You meet the most interesting class of people around a pile of junk. Unemployed miners down on their luck, local minorities down on their luck, mentally and physically handicapped citizens down on their luck. You’ve probably guessed the one thing they all had in common.
African American customers drove wagons pulled by mules, loaded with scrap iron they salvaged from around town. That was the 1950’s right into the early 1960’s. The wagons were built on automobile frames and rolled on bald Goodyear tires. A regular steampunk kind of conveyance.
White customers drove pick up trucks loaded full of copper wire (probably stolen from the mines), brass and aluminum from who knows where, and special metals like bronze, titanium, block tin, and mercury.
Most of our clients had occasional brushes with local law enforcement. My mother and father donated money to everyone who ran for sheriff. “For good will,” my dad explained. “Keeps their minds on things besides junk yards.” It only had to work long enough for him to load his inventory onto a train and ship it to St. Louis.
Many of the characters in my stories come from those junkyard days. Double amputees who walk on stumps. Grown men who think they have supernatural powers. Boys who will chew up razor blades for fifty cents apiece. Women so ugly they make babies cry but carry pistols to keep unwanted lovers at bay. The most colorful people in the world have spent time around Biggs Iron and Metal Works in Marion, Illinois.
How I found love in a graveyard
I fell in love with Margaret Anderson way before I needed to shave. We lived within two blocks of each other, went to the same junior high and high schools, but we never dated until after we graduated high and I realized it was not beyond the realm of possibility. Everybody told me she was a thousand times too good for me (her mother thought it was closer to two thousand), and it was so obviously true I wouldn’t ask her out on a date. She was old fashioned enough she wouldn’t ask me either, so her sister stepped in.
The sister had a flare for drama (still does I guess). She pretended to be Margaret, and invited me to a family barbecue at their cabin on the lake. I accepted as soon as I got my breathing under control. Margaret was better looking than I was, smarter, funnier. Her family was better educated than mine. They were more sophisticated, which you’ll probably understand wasn’t too difficult.
It was a short drive to the cabin but it was long enough for me to use up my entire inventory of sophisticated conversation topics. I knew a couple of Bob Dylan songs, and some interesting facts about people like Carl Jung, and Werner Von Braun. I could pronounce Frederich Neitzche’s name flawlessly and recite a complete list of the kings of France (all those Louis make it pretty easy). But by the time we reached our destination I’d already slipped into more familiar territory like how to sort copper wire by diameter, and how much muscatel wine could be purchased for a pound of brass.
Then we pulled up to the cabin, and I saw my future father-in-law cooking hamburgers on a grill while the rest of my future in laws sat around on tombstones waiting to be fed.
Tombstones! The Anderson family cabin was built in a graveyard.
Margaret had given me no warning. Not one family member jumped off a headstone and said, “I guess this looks pretty weird,” or “Bet you can’t guess why this was the most economical lot on the lake.” Nobody mentioned the five hundred pound Zombie gorilla at the picnic. Not even me.
My first thought was, “I have gotten hooked up with the Adams family.”
My second thought was, “Maybe this will work out after all.”
I Was Probably the Worst Dental Student Ever
I started dental school at University of Illinois in Chicago in 1968. Some of you will recognize that year and that location as the luckiest break Richard Nixon ever had, the 1968 Chicago democratic convention.
Some people called it anarchy, some called it a police riot. To me, that’s just how Chicago was. The trouble didn’t stop when the convention ended. There were police barricades, race riots, anti war demonstrations, bombings, shootings.
I lived in a public housing project for most of the first year, right across the street from Cook County Jail. Then I moved to a series of deteriorating suburbs on the outskirts of the ghetto. My house was robbed. My car was stolen twice, once right off of a police impound lot. I contributed marginally to my own support by working part time as night watchman in a steel door company in Cicero, Illinois, and then in an ink factory in a suburb with a name I don’t remember.
Things were pretty bad back then, and I decided it was all the fault of the dental school faculty.
I got all socially aware but was too busy finding myself to look for anything like real answers. I joined demonstrations, passed around petitions, tried to organize a strike or two. I did all kinds of things without first checking out the facts and then was really surprised when they didn’t match up to my concept of reality.
The faculty resented it. The nerve of some people.
Well I finally saw the error of my ways, which sometimes happens when your back is against the wall. I did what I was supposed to be doing all along and graduated.
Some of the faculty turned out to be sort of nice—go figure.
Easternmost Dentist in the United States
For three years I was a Public Health Dentist on the eastern edge of the continent. Lubec Maine, in case your interested. Right across the narrows was Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, where FDR was staying when he first contracted polio. It was one of the most beautiful and weirdest places I have ever lived.
Here are some facts about that part of Maine:
The actual easternmost point in the U.S. is called west Quoddy head.
The tides are twenty-five feet high.
Rivers on the coast flow backwards during certain times of the day.
People think you have a southern accent if you come from Illinois.
A sixty-plus year old transvestite with a beard and several missing fingers lived next door to the building where I worked. His hobby was trapping tourists inside his house. It looked a lot like a shop—complete with a sign over the entrance. He’d hide in the shadows and step in front the doorway after they had ventured inside. They had to listen to his life story until he got bored telling it. He had a very high boredom threshold.
A deaf man who could scream but could not talk followed grocery shoppers through the Lubec A&P. He made noises that sounded like a combination of Tarzan yells and feeding time at the zoo. None of the locals paid him the slightest bit of attention, which made newcomers wonder if rumors about LSD flashbacks were actually true.
We had a store in downtown Lubec that kept an inventory of groceries in order to meet a minimal state requirement for selling beer. There were cans of tuna and lobster in that store that were fresh about the time FDR came down with polio. The proprietor wouldn’t sell anything except for beer and beer accessories, even if you had a real hankering for antique canned fish.
I got a lot of much needed dental experience in Maine. I also met two friends, Mike and Jeanie Gougler, who have stuck with me through thin and thinner and thinnest, when I was going through changes that would have discouraged almost anyone.
After three years in Lubec, those friends, my wife, and I were ready to move on.
“I’ll go anywhere,” I told my good friend Mike.
“I think I can find us jobs in Oklahoma,” Mike told me.
“Well, almost anywhere,” I said. But by then it was too late.
Oklahoma was going to be a stop over
My wife and I moved to Oklahoma in 1975. I thought we might spend a few years there and then move on to someplace better. I’m a baby boomer. I grew up believing there’s always someplace better.
The state was nothing like I thought it would be, and truth be told it’s probably isn’t really like I think it is now. I took a job at the OU College of Dentistry as clinical director of something called the TEAM program. Essentially I was teaching dental students how to set up and operate a private practice. That was something I had never done but somehow that didn’t bother me—or dental school administration—and strangely enough I think I did a pretty good job.
It was a privilege to teach dental students. They were smart, polite, focused on graduating, and they all had that strain of humor outsiders believe was unique to the late great Will Rogers. OU dental students were almost universally easy to teach, quick to grasp concepts, and grateful for my efforts—nothing like I’d heard teaching is supposed to be—and there were no pesky parents around to make my life miserable.
I would have kept that job forever except for one thing. The TEAM program was funded by a grant, and the grant ran out. So I decided to go to graduate school and specialize in endodontics. That’s Root Canals for the uninitiated.
People frequently ask me how I decided on that specialty. I used to tell them I came to one day and I was half way through a graduate program, but here’s the real reason: It was a skill set I could master and it paid a lot of money.
Simple as that.
There was a two-month gap between my job and my graduate program, and I filled it by doing dentistry in a prison.
I met rapists and murderers, and robbers and car thieves and mixed media criminals. Since I wasn’t on the parole board they didn’t mind telling me all about their crimes. Those crimes turn up in my stories from time to time, with the names and details changed so the perpetrators’ relatives don’t hunt me down and kill me.
I met a man who escorted several Sirloin Stockade employees into a walk in freezer and shot them.
I met a man who had been shot in the face with a twenty-two caliber pistol and didn’t go to the doctor because, “Those guys report gunshot wounds.”
I met a Vietnam Vet who murdered his wife and her lover and was just about to be paroled to Hawaii after serving twelve years.
I met a good-looking young man who was serving time for rape. He was released when I left for graduate school and by the time I returned he had already re-offended numerous times and was resentenced to over 200 years.
Scared Straight was on TV while I worked in the prison. Lifers in a New Jersey penitentiary interacted with juvenile offenders and tried to intimidate them into changing their criminal ways. It made prison look pretty scary.
“Is it that bad in here?” I asked one of the inmate orderlies in the dental / medical facility.
“Well,” he said. “You have to take up for yourself, but it ain’t nothin’ like when my grandpa was inside.”
Chicago was a lot like I remembered
I really thought I would like Chicago the second time around. I was seven years older by the time I went back to grad school. I had two children and no overwhelming social causes. I was way more mature than when I lived in the Windy City the first time. It was a big bustling metropolis second only to NYC. I had to like it, right?
Well . . .
I learned this much about Chicago: It’s no city for someone without money.
Northwestern Dental School was a fantastic experience. The faculty was great. The school was great. It was located by the John Hancock Building near the shore of Lake Michigan. But it was still in the city.
The first outline of a human body I ever saw drawn on a sidewalk was one block from Northwestern. Unfortunately my two children were with me at the time. I had just gotten around to explaining the hard-bitten truth about Santa Clause and now this?
By then, my wife and I were pretty sure we didn’t want to stay in Chicago. We could have gone practically everywhere. I had the Northeast Regional Board, the Illinois board, the Oklahoma board, and the board of the U.S. Virgin islands, and that extended my licensure possibilities to all the states that had reciprocity agreements.
One day I came home from graduate school singing one of the few songs with lyrics I can retrieve from my music-defective storage system.
Oklahoma. You know we’ve got the best state song in the whole world. When I opened the door I heard my wife—who can stay on key better than I can—singing refrains from the same song.
We took it as a sign.
We know we belong to the land
That’s part of the lyrics to the state song in case you haven’t heard.
My wife is a travel agent. We’ve been through most of Europe, including Russia, a lot of Asia, parts of Africa and the Middle East, A good part of Central America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Caribbean. I love to travel, but I’d rather come home to Oklahoma than any place in the world.
It was a great place to practice dentistry. It’s a great place to write fiction too.
Check it out.