Vladimir Nabokov once claimed that his purpose in writing was simply to “get rid of the book” that had been stewing inside him.
This explanation may seem to lack a certain finesse that one would expect to hear from the acclaimed writer of Lolita and Pale Fire. But as a general statement about writing, it’s one that’s echoed endlessly by other dabblers in the literary arts – including Burlington’s own Richard Parker.
A retired property manager who has recently embarked on a budding career as a novelist, Parker has made the somewhat counterintuitive decision to begin his authorial exploits with an autobiography. Yet, in justifying his choice, the 72-year-old Burlington native strikes a chord downright reminiscent of Nabokov.
“I’ll be honest with you: I just wanted to get it out of the way,” Parker admits. “If people ever started reading my books and wanted to know something about me, I’d already have the autobiography finished.”
The long answer to Parker’s motive for writing is a bit more complex.
“I initially started during the pandemic,” he recalls, “and over the years, I had jotted down notes about things that had happened to me…So, I decided that I was going to organize all of this stuff. I started writing, and I realized that I couldn’t stop. I started remembering all this stuff. And as I was sitting at my dining room table, typing away, the stories just kept coming and coming.”
Parker’s life story begins quaintly enough in 1950 – a time when his hometown of Burlington was still in the flush of the post-war boom that had energized much of the nation. His father, B.C. Parker, was a veteran of the Second World War who had moved to the city after his discharge to work as an engineer for the defense contractor Western Electric. B.C. had initially set his family up in a duplex apartment along Hilton Road, not far from the grounds of the company’s now-shuttered manufacturing plant.
Some of Parker’s earliest memories are about the odd jobs he did for his father – an entrepreneurial dynamo who went on to found B.C. Parker Real Estate, which his son went on to operate until his retirement. Even at the age of five, the young Richard Parker would try to pitch in at a driving range that his father had managed along South Church Street.
“I had a tobacco stick with a can nailed to the end of it,” he recalls, “and I used it for scooping up golf balls.”
By the time Parker was old enough to formulate his own plans for the future, the idea of working for his father seems to have lost some of its luster. But the U.S. Military, which was deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War at the time, needed all the help it could get. So, when he graduated from high school, Parker made the inspired decision to enlist in the Navy, and in lieu of the torrid jungles of Southeast Asia, he secured an assignment in the windswept barrens of Iceland.
Few places on earth may seem more remote from the action than this small volcanic island just south of the Arctic Circle. But Iceland also happened to lie along a major sea route that the Soviets had used to send submarines into the North Atlantic, and so this NATO ally proved the ideal location for a listening post where the U.S. could keep tabs on its archrival.
Parker recalls that the Navy was able to use sophisticated subterfuge to pick up the Soviet subs as they slipped out of their homeport in the depths of the Arctic.
“The propellers would cavitate and make a lot of noise,” he recalls. “So, the Navy installed underwater microphones. They hooked them together with wires and ran those wires back to the surface…we picked up these subs as they came out of Murmansk.”
Parker’s superiors were chary enough to realize that, to act on this intelligence immediately would effectively give away the location of their undersea “bugs.” The Navy would therefore wait until the subs were much further south before deploying its own boats to intercept them. For as long as this program continued, the Soviets never discovered how the Americans were able to track their movements with such regularity.
Parker would remain at this Icelandic posting for three years. During that time, he married a woman from the U.S., who joined him on base until his tour ended in 1974, at which point, the couple moved back to Burlington and started a family.
After his discharge, Parker found that he needed a new source of income to support his growing household. So, he went to work for his father, who by then had launched the real estate firm which his son later inherited.
“Dad was a real estate appraiser, and he also had a contract to manage property,” Parker recalls. “The first properties that he managed were the Brookwood Apartments on Front Street. So, I learned to paint apartments; I learned how to plunge a toilet; and I had a lot of grass to mow.”
Parker admits that he never became deeply involved in the administrative end of the business while his father was still active and hale enough to handle these operations. But all that changed when his father passed away in 1989, leaving the family firm to his son.
It was quite the crash course in business management, but Parker soon gained his bearings, and it was during his turn as the sole proprietor of B.C. Parker Real Estate that he got much of the fodder for his future avocation as a writer.
Parker’s encounters with tenants provide the basis for some of the more colorful episodes in his autobiography. There is, for instance, the time that he checked in on a renter and found that she had died in her bed. An even more dramatic moment occurred when he was confronted by a tenant’s ne’er-do-well brother, who had just been let out of prison.
“The guy came in here with a sawed-off shotgun,” Parker recalls. “He had been looking for someone to ‘take out’ because his brother had gotten a[n eviction] notice…I told him ‘get that shotgun out of my office,’ and he said, ‘I’ve got a license to carry it.’ I said ‘I don’t care. Get that gun out of here.’ So, he took the gun back to his car and returned with a metal pipe.”
Parker eventually convinced this volatile ex-con that he wasn’t going to be intimidated into restoring his brother’s lease. Even so, the experience was jarring enough to Parker, who had been alone in the office with the thuggish interloper, that he made the decision to invest in a security system for the real estate firm.
Parker’s lonely stint at the top ended about 10 years ago when he recruited his son-in-law Brandon Sower to help him manage the company. He and Sower eventually decided to rename the firm RedStone Property Management, a moniker that it bears to this day, and about two years ago, Parker formally yielded to reins to Sower, who now serves as the company’s president.
Although Parker continues to drop in on the family business, which is located next door to his own downtown Burlington home, his decision to step back from the firm’s day-to-day operations has left him plenty of down time, which grew even more ample after the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to some ongoing civic commitments, including his long-time tenure as chairman of Burlington’s planning and zoning commission, Parker is now increasingly devoted to honing his craft as a writer. While he has yet to take the definitive step of submitting anything for publication, he has commissioned someone to print 50 copies of his autobiography. In the meantime, Parker has completed his first work of creative fiction – a “murder mystery” whose premise sounds very much like a sinister pairing of Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
“It’s called A Gathering of Crows,” Parker says, “and it’s about a callous man who shoots an innocent crow, and the crow’s partner comes back for revenge.”
Parker acknowledges that he would like to get this book published once he finds someone to edit the manuscript. He also attended a creative writing seminar earlier this month in the hope that he’d pick up some pointers to help him break into the industry.
In the meantime, Parker has turned his attention to a new novel – a sci-fi thriller about a botched effort to deflect an earthbound asteroid.
“It’s called The Mayors of Texarkana and the End of the World,” he adds, “and I’m over halfway through.”