Compass Points

John McCaffrey
8 min readJun 27, 2021


There are some writers I like to call “ Chuck Yeagers.” If you’re not aware, Yeager was one of the greatest aviators in American history, the man who broke the “sound barrier” one sunlit day in 1947 over California’s Mojave Desert. His X-1 aircraft, christened on its side “Glamorous Glennis” in honor of his wife, was lifted to 25,000 feet and then released through the bomb bay of a B-29, soaring to 40,000 feet and exceeding 662 mph.

The feat was seismic, literally, but akin with military secretiveness, it was kept more or less under wraps. Yeager, however, kept testing craft and hitting record-breaking speeds for years after, but he was overshadowed by NASA and America’s race to get to the moon. The first astronauts chosen for the mission were lauded as the best “flyers” in the nation, when, in actuality, all in the know knew who really stood at the top of the pilot pyramid — Yeager. His undisputed hold as the country’s premier ace is artfully written in The Right Stuff, a fabulous book by the fabulous Thomas Wolfe. And in 1984 it was made into an award-winning movie (Sam Shepard was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Yeager).

So why is Frank Haberle a Yeager? I mean, he doesn’t fly fighter jets (at least I don’t think so), but he does break barriers — with his writing — operating up to now under the literary radar. But I think this will change with the upcoming publication (September 2021) of his new book, Shufflers, a collection of short stories based on his own experiences as a young man, embodied by the recurring character of “Danny.”

Here’s a description of the book:

In the tradition of Denis Johnson and Charles Bukowski, author Frank Haberle’s 48 interwoven stories will take you to minimum wage America of the 1980s, where opportunities are few and situations are precarious. Sometimes funny but always honest, ShufflersDanny lives on the outskirts of society, traveling randomly from New York to Alaska to Colorado to San Francisco and beyond, often cold and hungry, sometimes drunk and always struggling to survive. To get by he works as a ski lift operator, fry shack manager, jackhammer operator, and any other jobs he can get his hands on. Along the way, he learns about resilience and fortitude from the usually invisible characters who populate the outskirts of our world. Danny is trying to make a path to something better and avoid becoming just one more shuffler. is a grand tour of a world in plain sight, a world in which no one hopes to travel. What’s the most important attribute to have when you’re young and trying to find your way, especially if you’re lost, i.e. resiliency, a map, etc.

As good a writer as Frank is, he’s even better person. He’s kind and wise, thoughtful and inquisitive. He’s the one you want to sit next to at a wedding, or a park bench, and chat. So pretend that is what you’re doing, as he answers five questions about the ups and downs and “all arounds” of the male experience in youth and beyond.

Looking back on my twenties, I think that a map would have been less valuable than a good compass. A map is something that is printed for you and tells you where to go, but a compass-and I’m talking about one of those old, copper, rattly things on a lanyard they gave us in camp-tells you which way you’re going, not necessarily where you’re going. I feel that the natural compass I had embedded somewhere in my head as a child (I grew up in boarding schools, camps and on varied relative’s couches)-helped me find my way and protect my vital organs as a child and navigate precarious situations as an unanchored 20-something. But the compass was pretty dinged up by the time I reached my 20's.

I have a lot of regrets about my 20’s. I squandered opportunities, I sabotaged friendships and I undermined any kind of relationships. A lot of this had to do with alcohol, and a lot of it had to do with my childhood practices of protecting myself, emotionally and physically. I had a lot of good friends back there, and I lost them. But I got through it, and I learned a lot from it. I learned from the people who helped me out; by the people I worked alongside as a truck-loader, ski-lift operator, dishwasher, fry cook. I figured out how to survive, more often than not, on 4 or 5 bucks an hour in some dingy minimum-wage job somewhere, or to scrape through another semester of college (strung together over seven years), or I freeloaded, or I mooched.

And I got to do amazing things, because I was so disconnected. My friends finished college, got married, grew up. But I slept under the stars, many times in my 20s. I got to hitchhike thousands of miles, do a hundred itinerant jobs, live in crazy places and meet the most amazing people. I got to feel and experience a different kind of gratitude. I’m still so grateful for that opportunity.

How to know when you hit a defining moment in your life — and what to do with it if you do recognize the experience.

I’m not really proud of who I was then, but I had a lot to go through, and I got through it-and I’m proud that I got through it. And I was always a nice guy. And now I look back on that time, and I can laugh at myself and forgive myself. Yeah, I was a screw-up of tremendous proportions, but I always found a way to extract myself from the holes I dug for myself. Thank you, deeply-embedded, dinged-up brain-compass!

I remember a particularly bad period in my mid-twenties when I was walking up 23 rdStreet looking for cigarette butts and money people dropped, and walked straight into a friend I knew in college, who told me they needed a data entry clerk for $6 an hour in her office-and I couldn’t NOT take the job. And that job became, later, an employment-immersion into homeless shelters and soup kitchens and foster homes of the 1980s. And an entirely different moment happened five years later when, burned out from that job, I met somebody on a bus with a backpack who had just come back from Alaska, and we talked for an hour. And 3 months later I was bumming around in Alaska, and gave up drinking forever. I’d say defining moments come when they come, and when they do, they will find you. You don’t really have a choice.

What is the thing that has best served you as a father?

But you also have to be open, and willing, and ready to let that defining moment hit you. When you are young and searching, it doesn’t matter what you’re searching for. It’s much more important that you’re just searching. It’s really important to listen and be open to others. But it’s also important to learn and trust that you have a compass, that all that experience with school and family-no matter how mundane and senseless it may seem-was actually hugely important, and shaped your ability to make good decisions.

What role does being philanthropic/charitable/not material focused have on happiness?

From when the first of my three children started to communicate-which happens a whole lot sooner than you think-I was pulled into their imaginary world, the magical world that children see and live in. Allowing myself to get pulled into that world, to really try and see the world the way a toddler sees it, to play with them, became really one of the happiest places I’ve ever been. It allowed my kids to grow up happy and secure in their creative stuff and gave me a huge outlet to be imaginative and creative. Everything had a song, a name. So I’d say, if I was giving advice on this, it would be to let the kids take you into your long-suppressed, totally goofy imagination, and fly with it.

I’m really grateful that I get to work in a world where I get to see and meet and hang out with real people. I work in the basement of a Settlement House in The Bronx, and I’m really very grateful to spend time in that world. The people I work with are so nice! Prior to this I was working in midtown Manhattan for a while, in what I call the nonprofit education-industrial complex, and everyone was trying to practice corporate norms and act corporate. I was unhappy and felt lost in that setting. Work should be about people sharing common goals and working together toward something. Working in the basement of a community center, I get to build relationships and collaborate. There’s more money in midtown, but it’s an unhappy place.

Where do you see young men today failing and where are they succeeding?

As for material happiness, when I was in my 20s I was only happy when I had a backpack and boots on and I was on a trail somewhere; I made it a practice to smoke my last smoke and not drink in the woods. It took a few days. But it’s more important what it does to your head. I once went for a 300 mile hike with a great friend, on the northernmost clip of the Appalachian Trail; we hardly spoke the whole time we were out there. It clears the brain. That, to me, is happiness.

I’m actually much more impressed and inspired by the 20-something young men and women I meet today than with the previous generations. Failure is not an option; you are mandated to set this world straight. You guys are amazing-you’re coming into adulthood with commitment and conviction and drive. You are finding your way and you are going to save this world-I really mean it. I feel like when I talk to someone in their 30s and 40s and 50s today, they are dying to pull out their phone and stick it in your face to show you something they think they ‘have,’ because they have it on their phone. You 20-somethings make eye contact; you communicate; you are well-read. You are a generation with a very strong compass.


Frank Haberle’s debut story collection, Shufflers, about minimum wage transients during the

Reagan era, is available for pre-order through your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes and

Noble, from Flexible Press



internal photo courtesy of author

Originally published at on June 27, 2021.



John McCaffrey

John McCaffrey is a writer and a professor at The Rochester Institute of Technology.