Three decades ago, Wall St. Journal reporter, A. Kent MacDougal came out of the closet, revealing his addiction to socialism. At the time, I considered a similar coming-out, but, with probably another thirty years to continue my own deception, I opted to wait. At 90 - next month, it's time to confess.
Some folks get hooked on drugs or cigarettes. Others turn to gambling. Most have a more wholesome addiction, such as gardening, cooking, googling, or playing with all those electronic communication gadgets I'll never learn to use. For me, during the past fifty years, it's been The Los Angeles Times letters column.
During those five decades, I've been a frequent submitter of letters. Some make it into ink. Most don't. I've lost track, but if you count those that ran in Sports, Business, Real Estate, Calendar and other sections that no longer exist, it's dozens.
They didn't all carry my name because I used aliases. When I sent my first letter to The Times in the early 1970s, there was little oversight for authenticity. Following a rule established by Harrison Gray Otis when he created the "Letters from the People" column in 1886, the editor asked for a name. The editors of the 1970s also asked for some things Otis didn't require: an address and phone number, but no one seemed to check. My phone never rang and my letters appeared without an advance notice. That lax oversight resulted in the printing of a letter carrying the name of a professor at Cal State Fullerton...who was the victim of identity theft before that term was in common use. Even that didn't end the use of aliases.
Actually, I use many aliases. An alias seemed apt, since I expressed controversial opinions, and I didn't want crank phone calls from critics who preferred to track down a writer and send insults, rather than send a rebuttal to the letters column.
Choosing an alias became a challenge. When I wrote a critical letter about the City of Industry, I combined the names of two pioneers there and became Roland Workman. A letter about the state death penalty carried the last name of a social reformer who served as warden at San Quentin. One day I had two letters in the column on the same subject, but stressing different points. One was signed with a pun, "Eddie Torreal," seemingly a Baldwin Park Chicano.
My most common alias was R. E. Mucko. In those days, initials were acceptable, so I picked two and combined them with a pseudonym another letter writer had pinned on me almost fifty years ago. After I challenged his viewpoint in another paper, signing that letter "name withheld", in response, he called me "MUC," an acronym for "My Unknown Critic". I added a 'K' and an 'O', and said it was short for 'muckraker'. Ever since, I have been known to colleagues as "Mucko".
All that alias stuff nearly ended when The Times finally drew a firmer line on bogus names. I sent a letter to the Business section in the late 1980s. The editor called... and asked for Mucko. Since then, I have rarely used an alias in other sections of The Times, and never in the letters column on the editorial pages.
There were a couple of names that I once thought might have avoided scrutiny: Forrest Woods from Bakersfield, for example. He turned out to be legitimate. I still wonder about Anchor, of Oceanside, whose letter on the same subject edged mine off the page.
Now, decades later, I've given up my addiction. In the old days, you had to type the letter and mail it to the editor. Because of that, few readers bothered to write. But, in this day of electronic transmission, the letters editor gets hundreds of letters each day. The competition is so intense that only a few writers get the satisfaction of seeing their piece in print.
Now I only write for The Spoof. And that's an addiction, too