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Jon Wilkman

Jon WiIkman Interview

Author of Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles

 

Floodpath

 

Jon Wilkman is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Along with a number of documentaries about Los Angeles, he is the author of an illustrated narrative history of the city, Picturing Los Angeles. His new book, Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles, chronicles the events that lead up to the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam, as well as the aftermat, and relevance to today. An Amazon Book of the Month, Floodpath is considered a definitive account of the disaster that took the lives of nearly 500 people 50 miles north of Los Angeles. The event was a tragic turning point in the life and career of William Mulholland—one that would ultimately ruin his reputation and legacy as the man who brought water to Los Angeles. I sat down with Jon recently to discuss his work on both the book and the upcoming documentary film of the same title.

 

Where did you grow up?

 

In the San Fernando Valley suburb of North Hollywood., Growing up in Los Angeles, like every kid, the only history you learned about were the missions and statehood of California in the fourth grade, and that was the last you heard of it. All of the other history we learned took place on the east coast. So when I graduated from high school, I was interested in history and culture. Why would I want to hang around here?

 

What did you study in college?

 

I went to Oberlin College in Ohio. And one of the great things about Oberlin is that you were free to explore. I had a major in sociology, but I had enough credits for a history major or an English degree. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to work in documentary films, so that sent me to New York, where some fortuitous events led me to one of the best places to work at the time, CBS.

At CBS I worked on a documentary series called The Twentieth Century, which was a great show. And then I worked on a science series, called The Twenty First Century where I met a lot of people who were designing the world we live in today. The internet was just beginning, and they talked about lasers and satellites, things that were new at the time. They talked about their vision, and they were pretty much right.

After fourteen years in New York, I came back Los Angeles and I saw the city in an entirely different way. It was more than just Hollywood and the Beach Boys. L.A.’s a very interesting city. And that’s when I got hooked on Los Angeles history. I produced a series for KCET called The Los Angeles History Project, which was the first TV series that looked at Los Angeles history in a systematic way, this was around 1988. And that’s when I first learned about the St. Francis Dam disaster.

 

I watched the video trailer for the documentary film on Floodpath, which is a companion piece to your book.

 

Working with my late wife and partner, Nancy, I actually started the film well before I wrote the book. Most of the interviews I conducted, many of which are in the book, were done as early as 1995. There were twenty interviews with survivors of the disaster. They’re all dead now. It’s one of those things. When you are an independent filmmaker, you go from one project to another. There were periods of years when I didn’t work on the St. Francis dam project, but it was always in my mind.

 

Did the documentary come first?

 

Yes, I first started researching it in the 1980s. I hope the book will be a way to attract interest in the film. I only need to complete a few more sequences, including computer-generated photo realistic animation showing the collapse of the dam, and re-enactments of the night of flood.

 

You interviewed the granddaughter of William Mulholland.

 

Yes. Catherine Mulholland, her grandfather’s biographer, has since died. I have the last taped interview with her. I knew her socially. She gave me several boxes of her own research about the collapse, which really helped with the book. I told her that I couldn’t promise anything, and that I would come to my own conclusions. I was honored she trusted me.

 

She didn’t care if your conclusion was positive or negative.

 

She said she’d been burned by others who’d interviewed her. The story is burdened by the movie, Chinatown, which was a wonderful movie,

but more fiction than fact. It contributes to appreciating the complexity of William Mulholland. He’s either the devil incarnate or untarnished icon. In fact there wouldn’t be a city of Los Angeles with William Mulholland. And yet he made some terrible miscalculations with the St. Francis dam. What I tried to do was to tell this as a complex, nuanced story. And so often what you do in books is you look at it in the present, when you know everything. But when I wrote the book, what I wanted to do was to put the reader in the time frame. So what the reader knows is what anybody knew at any particular time back then. The story reveals itself. There were things that happened that weren’t really understood until later. And what I hope I accomplished in doing that is to get people today to think in the same way. It gets them involved in the story as it unfolds in real time..

 

Mulholland also built the Mulholland Dam, overlooking Hollywood. I remember you writing about how it was lowered after the collapse of the St. Francis dam, which was a virtual duplicate.

 

Safety concerns after the St. Francis Dam required the city to lower it. There’s an image of it in Floodpath, looming over downtown Hollywood, which it still does, but obscured by a earthen berm and trees and shrubs.

 

How did you go about finding all these people to interview?

 

One of the pleasures of documentary work, and certainly writing a book, is the research. One aspect of the story that had been underplayed, and again what attracted me, was how this is a great disaster story, and a technological detective story, and courtroom drama also reflects on how history is written. Clearly, it’s the deadliest disaster in the history of twentieth century America. Why isn’t it more well-known or written about?

 

I told several people about your book, and they reacted the same way. They sort of remember hearing something about it.

 

One of the subtexts of the book is how history is written, and particularly how Los Angeles history is written—or not written. I discuss many aspects of this in Floodpath. Many of the victims were Mexican-American farm workers, not the majority, but a sizeable number. Even people who know of the tragedy, don’t know the story of these mostly farmworkers. I wanted to interview everyone involved. So early on, I brought in some Spanish-speaking friends, and they helped us find eyewitnesses and families of the victims that were Mexican-American. We also went through the Spanish press to see how they viewed the story. And a point I make in the book is why they should be included. And how more people are interested in their story today, then perhaps in the past.

When you visit these small agricultural towns along the floodpath, most of the people, and their families, have lived there for generations. So when you inquire at a local historical society, or talk to old-timers in the area, they know, and will tell you, “Oh, you should talk to this person—their mother was caught in the flood.” Or so and so was a little kid at the time.” One lead takes you to another. So my wife Nancy and I began to meet these people, and they would tell us about other people. In some cases you can look at a newspaper of the time and see the names of eyewitnesses. When you look at a phone directory today, you can see that this person still lives in town.

 

How was the story reported in the Mexican press?

 

La Voz de la Colonia was the Spanish language newspaper in Santa Paula at the time. It was basically a one-man operation. They didn’t have a lot of money. In general, they didn’t have the means to report what the bigger newspapers were reporting, but they covered local events. On the editorial page, they also had a chance to reflect on the disaster. The Anglo press would divide them into Mexicans and Americans. But the Hispanic population didn’t see it that way. The editor of the newspaper said, “We are not a race. We are Mexicans and Americans.” He had a very modern idea of American culture. It was an idea that was not popular at the time. You have to remember that in the 1920s, it was a pretty racist society. There was even a proud KKK chapter in Santa Paula.

 

What was the hardest or most interesting part of writing Floodpath?

 

The hardest part about doing this book, Floodpath, but also the most fun, was you already know the ending, you know how it’s going to turn out. So how do you write about, and make it interesting for the reader? That was the most challenging part of the book. You’re constantly trying to keep the reader involved. It happens in the first chapter, the dam is down and everyone has died. So the average reader would look and see that there’s another 250 pages. So it worked to my advantage, as you wonder what’s in these other pages. There’s got to be something interested. So you sort of lure people in. And the story is being told in real time. So you are engaging the reader with events as they unfolded back then. The reader tries to guess what caused the dam to break — was it dynamite, was it an earthquake – what was it? So slowly you uncover the truth about how and why it happened. And then you get to a point where all the official reports are in and you think that’s that final word. And you eventually learn that—no, not really. There are a lot of possible answers. From a writing point of view it was one of the biggest challenges, and the most fun.

What also what attracted me to the story, most people will look at it and say, oh, what a sad event. But it’s also reminder that we have this infrastructure today that is in serious need of repair. The dams and bridges across this country were built decades ago. This tragedy could happen again. So it’s a wake up call, to look at some of these aging structures. Even if they’re maintained, which many are not, they’re still fifty years old or more. They need to be upgraded and properly maintained. There are 4,400 dams that have been determined to be susceptible to failure.

Every time you think this story is over, there’s another aspect to it. So at the end of the book, when you say, it’s finally over, there’s still another chapter that talks about other dams that are at risk of failing—that could collapse. And nobody is doing anything about this.

That’s part of the problem in the making of the St. Francis Dam in 1928, that there were no laws requiring state supervision. That all changed after the collapse. The entire dam safety movement was a result of this St. Francis dam. So that’s great, all the newly built dams after that were deemed safe. But if nobody maintains them, they aren’t safe.

Today, they’re beginning to fill the Owens Lake again, and bring water back to the Owens Valley. And it seems that today a resolution is coming. There’s now a chance to correct these errors of the past. In Los Angeles now they’re trying to reclaim the concreted-in L.A. River.. The question today is how do you create a liveable and sustainable urban environment.

 

When you first started working on Floodpath, did you have a publisher? How did it go from concept to publishing?

 

I saw this new book as a national story. Through a friend on the east coast I found an agent at William Morris. He sold the book to Bloomsbury publishing They’re one of the top publishers in the world. It was a very smooth process. I wrote a treatment and that was how I got the book sold. The writing went relatively quickly because of all the research I had for the documentary film. We had cabinets fill of material. I had an idea of the structure. I had all these photos and interviews and newspaper clips. So I had everything I needed to complete the book in a timely manner. I could have written Floodpath ten years ago. But I was lucky I didn’t. One of the real obstacles to research was accessing the DWP archives. It wasn’t that they were inaccessible, but no one knew where they were or how to do find specific information. Fortunately for me, DWP hired an archivist who began to sort all the material. So I had access to all this information that was never available before., in cluding internal memos and notes from the field.

 

How did you turn all this research material into a narrative?

 

I really wanted to write Floodpath in a nonfiction narrative style so it has dialogue and description in it. But every bit of dialogue has a justifiable source. So when someone says something, I have a record that that’s what they said.

The difference between standard fiction and nonfiction is the narrative style. In nonfiction, unless you have a diary, you can’t get into a character’s mind, but you can tell people what they said and did. For Floodpath, a major resource to do this was the transcripts of the Los Angeles Coroner’s Inquest But when I started researching, nobody seemed to have a copy. It had disappeared — a major reason we didn’t do this book sooner. From my research, I knew the transcript was about 800 pages. But I didn’t have it – nor did the LA City Archives, or even the DWP. So one day my wife Nancy was researching at the Huntington Library and she came back and proudly announced she’d found them in the obscure collection of a retired engineer. I knew then I could do the book and the documentary film.

There’s a lot of engineering information in Floodpath, but I was fortunate to have the help of J. David Rogers, a geological engineer who’d spend decades studying the disaster. As I was writing the book, he vetted a lot of the technical information. But the book is written for a general audience. It’s not just for academics or engineers.

 

Why isn’t this disaster better known?

 

To me, that was another major mystery to be solved. One of the reasons why people don’t remember was that everything was settled fast—people got paid, houses were rebuilt, the valley was restored. That’s what most people wanted. They wanted to get on with their lives and not slow progress. People wanted to put the story behind them, and have it disappear. Also, the DWP and the City of Los Angeles had no reason to keep the embarrassing memory alive. Atr the same time, a the great era of dam building in the 1930s and 40s was about to begin and engineers didn’t want to create what they thought was unnecessary public doubt after the failure.. The Hoover dam was being planned at the time. Lastly, it wasn’t long before Americans were more concerning by the Great Depression and looming World War II. The story of the St. Francis Dam got engulfed by other bigger stories.

 

I think this story could not only make a great documentary, but a dramatic film as well.

 

Well, there’s some discussion about making it into a TV mini-series. But we’ll see how that progresses. There are a lot of intriguing elements to this story, with William Mulholland and his enemies, and the Valley and the dynamiting, the courtroom drama, and the rise and fall of a great man. It’s all contained within this tragic event.

 

Who are some of the documentary filmmakers that inspired you?

 

I think Frederick Wiseman is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers. But starting in the late 1950s, I was watching Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow,

and the See It Now series on CBS, which took a more journalistic approach. In the 60s the Cinéma Vérité movement started, because the equipment allowed you to run around and sych the sound. So I was at the very beginning of that. A documentary filmmaker is sort of like a teacher. You go and find something out, and then you tell people about it. When you show people what you’ve produced, they’re learning something for the first time. I find that satisfying and fun.

 

Have you ever written any fiction?

 

No, just nonfiction, and documentary filmmaking work. The pleasure of doing nonfiction is you’re up against the ultimate arbiter – the factual truth, If you’re writing fiction, you can have your characters say and do whatever you want, because you created them. But with nonfiction you’re always up against the facts. And that’s how you have to play it. It’s a challenge. To me, that’s true with any artistic medium, where the really great work is done within a form. I never thought I would be a professional writer. I liked to write. I learned I was good at it. And almost before I knew it, along with making documentaries, I was writing nonfiction books like Floodpath.  It took more than 20 years, but I hope readers will think it was worth it. It was for me.

 

Thank you very much for your time. I hope everyone reads your new book.

 

 

JON WILKMAN

Produced as a companion to the new book Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles, this ninety-minute documentary will include interviews with survivors, rare stills and footage, and 3-D computer graphics that recreate the collapse and aftermath.

SHORT PREVIEW OF FLOODPATH DOCUMENTARY

 

 

 

 

Shay Siegel

Don’t Quiet Down Please

By Shay Siegel

 

I was voted ‘quietest’ in high school, an achievement that required me to send in an embarrassing picture of myself doing the “shh” sign to the yearbook committee (see below). Because being ‘loudest’ is where it’s really at, right? Apparently. It wasn’t one of those things that I developed one day because some traumatic incident occurred that scarred me for life or anything like that. No, I have always been shy. It kind of became the signature thing about me as I grew up—not quite the trademark everyone would strive for. The quiet girl—a la Hampton Bays High School 2008 yearbook.

 

Shay

Me silently hating the yearbook committee.

 

I was diagnosed “selective mute” at age seven. Now, I know what you are thinking, “Is that a thing?” I am here to tell you that yes, it is a real thing. I wouldn’t speak to anyone other than family and a few close friends. So, you see I was selecting whom I would be mute to. I am proud to report; however, that I am no longer selectively mute with the exception of Terrance who I am afraid will remain selected because quite frankly, he deserves it. I don’t see myself as just ‘the quiet girl’, but it isn’t as if I can show people the rest of who I am right when I meet them. That is not something that quiet introverts do. I’m not the person who will spill her life story in the first fifteen minutes of meeting her. i.e.: “Hi, I’m Sandra, OMG that cake looks so good. Is that hazelnut? I have the BEST hazelnut cake recipe, passed down from my grandma. The secret is just a pinch of salt, funny how one ingredient can totally change the recipe, right? Anyway, I really shouldn’t be eating cake, I have this wedding coming up and I have to fit into my dress. Strapless dress! Ugh, that cake really does look good though, maybe just a bite.” Now, me, I usually just say “Hi, nice to meet you.” And, it’s most likely barely audible at that.

In a previous life, I was a European gentleman who was protesting Parliament. At least that’s what one of my therapists told me. After all the sporadic therapy over the years and all the different interpretations as to why I have so much trouble speaking, this one finally did it—she found the cause of my anxiety and shyness. She is an “energy healer” who can sense things in other realms. So, when she told me that I was a Scandinavian activist many lifetimes ago who was beheaded for what he had said at a political hearing, I had no choice but to believe her. I am all for blaming problems on past lives.

Even though I now know the cause of my selective mutism, it doesn’t quite make the speaking pressures any easier. It has been within the last few years that I have really had to accept that this is who I am. When I started the fiction program at Sarah Lawrence, I didn’t realize how much speaking there would be in the writing program. Isn’t this why writers are writers and not speakers? Apparently not. And it isn’t as though these are big classrooms like say a lecture hall or maybe a basketball arena. No, these are tiny rooms with round tables and sometimes as few as seven students in a class. You can’t hide. People do not forget that you are there. And you certainly cannot stand up and explain that you have a condition due to your colorful past as a European Greenpeace activist—not that I would ever stand up to make an announcement anyway.

When I was younger, in school, I used to write notes for my teachers when they would ask me a question. Things such as, “the correct spelling of banana is b-a-n-a-n-a,” (I was a fantastic speller). This writing of notes didn’t only take place in school; it translated to my home life as well. Not my actual home life because my parents were puzzled as to how I had so much trouble speaking to others, but was as loud and annoying as an incessant, buzzing mosquito at home. One time I tried to sell my sister the leftover cheese off my plate at a restaurant, and I would frequently tell my dad to ‘bring all he’s got’ when he’d take me shopping. I would run through the house screaming, porpoise on the bed, and my friend and I even started a “band” where I was the lead singer. But, these instances were all about who I was comfortable with. I used to go over my best friend’s house everyday, and her mom was a receiver of some of my infamous ‘substitute for voice interaction’ notes. One day I was at her house and while we were prancing around the yard on our stick horses, we discovered that her cat, Midnight, had kittens. My friend told me to run into the house and tell her mom about the newborn felines. This is the effective way in which the selective mute child delivered such information:

 

shay siegel

 

My family used to joke about hoping that no one ever got sick or injured around me because I would be too shy to call nine-one-one. I’d like to think I could have overcome the shyness and risen to the occasion when faced with a real crisis, but thankfully I never had to find out. That phone call would have been brutal—only because I’d have to talk to a stranger, of course—and perhaps would have led to my own illness. i.e.: Severe panic attack.

Most people consider being shy a bad thing because we are all expected to not just have lots to say, but to actually say it. We live in a world where exterior success and image is valued over who we are on the inside. You must show who you are! So, of course, those who don’t struggle with social situations won’t realize that shy people do most likely have a lot to say. As a result, you have the teachers who will feel they have to force quiet students to participate by calling on them in class. If I had a nickel for every time I heard, “Now, Sharon, what did you think of that?” Well, I’d have a lot of nickels. It’s not like I’m not paying attention, if anything I’d bet I’m listening more intently than most. It’s called selective mutism! And then, there are all the people who feel the need to keep repeating, “You’re so quiet!” Why thank you for stating the obvious and pointing out that there is something different about me, moreover, suggesting that this difference is wrong. Why not just push my insecurities to the surface, people? How would they feel if I went around saying, “Oh my gosh, you’re so fat!” or maybe “Whoa, you’re extremely smelly!” I’d say it’s probably an equally pleasant experience to hear about how quiet you are every single day. And, for some reason it’s acceptable to point this out, but not to point out weight and hygiene issues. Of course, I’d never say those things anyway. Not just because they’re quite rude, but also because I don’t say much to strangers.

This is who I am, and I have mostly made peace with it. There is a certain girl, let’s call her Marian. She really helped me come to terms with my shyness. Not because she is a nice person who discussed it with me, but because she is the loudest, most annoying human in the world that has to make every situation about herself. (Refer to ‘Sandra’ on page two). So, I had to say to myself “Well, I’d rather not say a word than sound like a cackling hyena from The Lion King all day long.” I would not strive to be someone who talks a lot but doesn’t say anything.

Do I feel stupid when I sit through my classes or at work not saying a word? Sure. But it isn’t logical for me to tell myself I’m going to be the liveliest participant in a group discussion. I’ve tried telling myself that before and my real self knew I was being a damned liar. Sometimes accepting who we are is half the battle. The other half is finding a profession where there is as little human interaction as possible.

 

 

BIO

Shay SiegelShay Siegel is from Long Island, New York. She received a B.A. in English from Tulane University in New Orleans where she was a member of the Women’s Tennis Team. She recently completed an MFA in Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has appeared in The Montreal Review, Burning Word, Mouse Tales Press, The Cat’s Meow for Writers and Readers, The Rusty Nail Literary Magazine, Belleville Park Pages, Black Heart Magazine and Extract(s). Her website is www.shaysiegel.com.

 

 

 

vertigo book cover

“The feeling of falling, which was not falling”

A review of Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

Dorothy (US), 2015; And Other Stories (UK); Tramp Press (Ireland), 2016. 123pp

 

Vertigo Joanna Walsh

Review by Ruby Cowling

 

Struck with vertigo, suddenly things are not what you thought. You’re dizzy, disorientated, and it turns out the world is not, after all, what your brain has been constructing every day through its normal sensory feeds. Actual physical vertigo is not pleasant, but a literary style that steps away from the one we know best is exciting, and Joanna Walsh’s approach in this collection certainly does that.

This is not to say that her stories are obscure or “difficult”; I’d hesitate to even label them with that damningly nutritious word “experimental”. They are full of recognisable situations, humour and relatable moments. It’s just that she goes directly for “the truth”, without all the niceness that the mainstream short story slips into so easily. She unhooks herself from common expectations of narrative, in turn untethering the reader from the standard, safe experience of reading short fiction.

Short stories in the form we know best – the form you find in weekend magazines or in annuals from big, safe publishers – typically feature a little aching moment of truth at their heart, which is wonderful, of course; it’s an authentic experience, a quiet, humane offering in a noisy and brutal world. But too often they’re under pressure to deliver that moment up to the reader in a nice velvet-lined box of comfort and familiarity (a named character, going about business you recognise (even if in an exotic setting), working up to a relatable moment of realisation or change). The lid of that beautiful box gently closes at the end of the story, reassuring you of solid ground. However, instead of apologetically working up to a tentative assertion about Life, Walsh just states a truth and kicks it around – no box, no lid, no tethering it to reassuring elements such as softly-introduced character or plot. Because she pulls no punches in her stories – simply stating facts, observing behaviours and honestly presenting the kind of psychic darkness that usually gets fudged – the peculiar is made powerfully universal.

There is so much in this collection: so much intellectual and emotional content, so many direct gestures toward the biggest, scariest parts of human existence. No wonder we get dizzy. One of her skills is to achieve an almost-real-time expression of thought. Internal reality moves quickly and the resulting impression is that we are inhabiting a real mind. “A man sits down at the table next to me. I wonder whether he is French, whether he is foreign, whether he is a tourist. I also wonder whether I could say hello to him, in French or in English, whether we would like each other, whether we could sleep together.” Aren’t characters in cafés supposed to mull things over in a Stately And Important Way, using their observations of the people around them to Come To A Subtle But Profound Conclusion? Once again, we are untethered from expectations, unhooked from the usual steady, authorly manipulation of time. Walsh gives us a more honest experience, and we are giddy.

“The first effect of abroad is strangeness,” says the opening story’s narrator, and it’s because we are “abroad” stylistically that it feels strange at first. But my argument is that these stories are more radically realist than the standard so-called lyrical realism. Drowning, the final story, may be one of the more accessible stories in the collection (perhaps deliberately, so that we think we’re back in safe waters and are even more emotionally unprepared for the stunning ending), and even here Walsh doesn’t shy away from admitting that “the abyss” is real, and although it is “your family who would not like to see” it, it is nevertheless a real part of lived experience which must be acknowledged, however vertiginous that makes us feel.

* * *

Some of the fourteen stories are very short and focused, addressing quite viscerally the internalities of humanhood – and, all right, of womanhood. Here, I get hesitant. It’s essential not to circumscribe Walsh’s intellectual ambition by claiming her focus is “women’s experience”. It’s easy for it to seem that way, because her narrators are female, and because of her “otherly” narrative form – the “other” arguably being aligned with the feminine. She speaks powerfully and concisely of the experience of “failed girls”, and many of her detailed observations encompass clothing, food, and the specific ways people touch each other and use language to manipulate their relationships. Historically, these have tended not to be Great Literature’s dominant concerns; I don’t have a PhD-length space here, so let’s quickly agree that this is because clothing and food have been part of the domestic realm and the significance of the domestic has been side-lined, and that if a writer includes these, the writing ends up with the label female interest. This is not a complimentary epithet: it still carries the accusation of smallness, weakness, intellectual parochialism, so I am loath to bring it up at all. But there is still that political paradox in which you have to marginalize yourself to point out that your voice is not yet, and should be, part of the mainstream – so, there, I’ve brought it up.

These female interest stories are stark and muscular; full of invitation, full of provocation, full of the acknowledgement of the non-separation of body and mind. This latter position has been a concern of feminist thought, and there are certainly explicitly “feminist” moments here (“I’ve heard him shout at her to pick up the telephone, as though she were his extra hand”, says the narrator in Claustrophobia, about her parents). But even to label these as “feminist” is to put a boundary around them: to say, well, that’s an argument, that’s a position, an opinion – instead of a fact. Hence my hesitation to bring up any of these terms.

What Walsh does, in her refusal to use standard story conceits or a banal lyrical realist style to soften the blow, is to bring all this female interest material into the realm of hard fact – of unapologetic, undeniable truth – reminding us that women’s intellectual lives are actually being lived, in reality. They are not a special interest or a theory. They are real.

It still feels radical to be intellectual, in fiction, from a specifically female perspective. It gives us vertigo. “There’s something about our un-control, no men to watch over us,” notes a character in Claustrophobia, a story in which the narrator’s father dies. “What if it never stops?” In these moments vertigo is giddy possibility: freedom, danger, adventure, the sudden removal of the gravitational force of embedded power structures.

* * *

For reasons I’ve just alluded to, clothing is a neglected node of social significance; Walsh’s narrators notice clothing and its meanings perhaps more than any other writer I’ve read. Indeed, the book opens with Fin de Collection, a plot-light exploration of a Parisian department store and its stock (and its customers). In later stories, her eye for clothes is that of an artistic sociologist: she knows what these colours and shapes and fabrics and choices mean. Nurses’ uniforms in The Children’s Ward are unsettlingly the same blue as the attendants at petrol stations; in Relativity a grandmother’s “shades are mint, peach, lemon, blueberry, cream. She dresses as she would like to see her granddaughter dressed: edibly.” A daughter’s “short pink skirt with lace” ignites the title story. And in the Paris of Half The World Over, the young women tourists “are all dressed the same, in the current fashion. The older women are dressed either more primly or more provocatively than the older women, but always in reaction to them.” The iterative effect of these observations is that they are not the stuff of flimsy domesticity but a type of forensic anthropology.

Walsh is preoccupied with the disorientating experiences of contemporary life; its shocks; its threats; the things that throw us off balance. And what delights me most is that she doesn’t shy away from any of it: she doesn’t pull the cozy blanket of standard narrative over the dark and difficult things. Like family. In the complex, multi-generational story Claustrophobia, children are mentioned in passing as “blind lumps of my flesh, detached…”, while the narrator wrestles more centrally with the meaning of her own mother. In The Children’s Ward babies and children are the pulsing, “beeping” heart of the horrific tension of being a parent at all. This story is strung out with the hopeless terror attached to parenthood, the supremely attached status a mother has, against her own will. Young Mothers takes this further: the mothers have become children in the way they dress, behave, and speak, even though it is mysteriously important to everyone that the contract remain “kids be kids” and “mothers be mothers”. Do we get soothing resolutions to these unsettling scenarios? Of course not.

It’s brave and essential to lay out so starkly the details of life – and often, women’s lives – in all their uncomfortable ambiguity. Not to say that laying things out starkly means there are no layers of meaning – quite the opposite; this book is full of those. But the layers of meaning aren’t here because of that standard, MFA-story, show-don’t-tell manipulation. They’re part of the honest presentation of the complexities we negotiate as we go through life, as “good people, who can hardly live in this world, which continues almost entirely at our expense”.

Vertigo is packed full of the stuff we’re afraid of and attracted to, in the way we’re attracted to wild animals and cliff edges and the disconcerting behaviour of other humans we’re close to. And ourselves. The overall experience is exciting in the way only a truly original reading experience can be.

 

 

BIO

Ruby CowlingRuby Cowling is a British writer currently living in London. Her work has won awards that include, The White Review Short Story Prize and the London Short Story Prize, and has been shortlisted in contests from Glimmer Train, Short Fiction, and Aesthetica, among others. Recent anthology credits include I Am Because You Are (a Freight Books collection of work inspired by the theory of General Relativity); Flamingo Land and Other Stories, from Flight Press; and Unreal City: Constructing the Capital, a book of fiction and non-fiction about London, from Cours de Poétique.

Elizabeth Johnson

Chartwell Manor

by Jennifer Elizabeth Johnson

 

 chartwell manor

 

“Forgive and forget all the while, love and pain become one and the same in the eyes of a wounded child”
Pat Benatar

 

*Some of the students’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.

 

Have you ever as a child, been so victimized by a caretaker that you carried the scar well into adulthood? Many of you have, so let me ask you this instead: What if you found out later on in life that other children had been terrorized to a greater extent than you had by that same person? Let’s add another layer: What if you suddenly learn that said perpetrator did prison time for some of the most egregious of his crimes? What would your emotional reaction be? Would you feel sorrow for those with the bigger scars? Would you feel relief or joy knowing that the abuser was punished? What happens when you realize that what happened to you could have been worse, and was for many others?

I went to a nightmarish, Kafkaesque boarding school when I was eight-years-old.   I was a terrible kid, unquestionably, and needed to be separated from my younger sister, Laurie, for her protection. I was a breech birth. I had tried to exit the womb butt first, folded into two slabs of infant meat, with my feet pressed against my head. There was an oxygen shortage and as a result, I had minimal brain dysfunction, which later resulted in a severe behavioral disorder. Or maybe it happened because I fell in the bathroom when I was still a baby and hit my head on the tiled floor, hard. Could it be that my preexisting condition was exacerbated by my father’s unforgiving parenting style? Whatever the reason, I was a monster, but these issues didn’t’t surface until I was two, which is when my sister Laurie came into the world.

According to my parents, I was jealous of the new infant, and I would act out in ways that they weren’t equipped to deal with. I would engage in frequent tantrums, throw things and punch holes in my bright pink bedroom wall. I stopped eating most foods, especially vegetables. My father’s version of this is that it did it all for attention, even though that attention came in the form of a beating. I preferred negative attention to none at all.

As I got older I didn’t get along with other children. Rumor has it that I threw a brick at another child, and that I wasn’t nice to animals.  But nobody suffered my wrath more than my little sister. My mother claims that from a very young age my father beat me mercilessly, and that I turned it around onto Laurie.

My parents’ marriage was an unholy union, to say the least. They fought constantly, and when I was five, my dad moved out, followed by acrimonious divorce proceedings. My mother had to take on the task of policing my sister and me on her own. After the divorce, my father moved to a slum in Piscataway, New Jersey, while we remained in Kendall Park. My sister and I only saw him once every other weekend, so my mother, for all intents and purposes, was a single parent. I can still remember a day when I was especially vicious to my sister. My mother was on her own with the two of us in tow. She needed to run a quick errand, and didn’t’t want to deal with the hassle of packing us up in the station wagon. I was seven-years-old and Laurie was five.

“Let me babysit,” I said.

“That’s a terrible idea,” my mother answered.

I begged. “Pleeeeeaaase? I promise I’ll be good”

Against what I suspect was her better judgment, she agreed. She was barely five minutes out the door when I was on top of my sister, who was lying on our grey velvet sofa, with my knees in her chest, pounding on her with closed fists and a dragon-like malevolence. For reasons I can’t recall, I really wanted to do damage. I was filled with an unidentifiable rage.

My sister’s harrowing screams must have been audible from outside the house because upon her return, my mother bolted through the door, made a B-line for the couch, pulled me off of my sister, and threw me to the floor. I don’t begrudge her that. I’d do the same thing as a parent. I still experience guilt for everything I did to Laurie, but that day stands out in my mind because I was so out of control, that I believe there was some chance I could have killed my sister if my mom had come home mere minutes later. It was a terrifying prospect for my mother. Geographical separation was the only effective solution, so at eight years old I was sentenced to Chartwell Manor for an undetermined amount of time.

* * *

Chartwell Manor, named for Winston Churchill’s estate, was located in the town of Mendham, New Jersey in Morris County. It was run by Terrence and Judy Lynch or as I like to call them, The Lynch Mob. I did three years time there before I was released. The headmaster was a sadistic British man in his thirties. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, spoke in a thick British accent, and had dark hair perfectly parted to one side. His body was slightly rotund and he had a round, cherubic shaped head, which gave him a deceptively innocuous appearance. We were instructed to refer to him only as “Sir”.

His wife Judy was a very large and curvy American woman. She had enormous breasts, a macro-booty and always wore a big, dark brown bun on the top of her head.  She wore form-fitting, dark colored dresses.  I had never seen such a big derriere in my entire life. Her hips moved so much when she walked it was easy to picture her shimmying down a narrow corridor, swinging them left and right, hitting the walls each time. She was cold, stoic and just as intimidating as her husband was. She rarely smiled, and sometimes beat the girls viciously. Although I never witnessed it first hand, one student claims that they saw her beat a girl with a riding crop for what felt like an eternity. Another stated that he and his friend looked on helplessly as she punched a twelve-year-old girl in the face, knocking her to the ground for the alleged crime of having kissed a boy. Judy wore a large diamond wring in the shape of a crystal doorknob, so her punches did some damage. Every time she entered a room, most of us were in the habit of disappearing, whenever that was an option.

 

chartwell manor

 

“Sir” would have made a great post-apocalyptic dictator. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized just how unhinged he was, and only very recently I discovered that he was far sicker than I had previously imagined.

I can still conjure up a pretty clear image of the day I was taken there for the interviewing process.  We stood at the top of his majestic, sanguine colored staircase as he smiled at my mother and I with that phony, Muppet-like joviality. He looked a little to Pillsbury Dough Boyish for either of us to sense any type of peril.

The large, stone mansion was regal and elegant, stunning to some, I imagine. The building contained The Lynch’s living quarters, the classrooms and the boys’ dormitory. The foyer was huge, with classrooms to the left and a large dining hall to the left of the classrooms. Elegant French doors connected all three sections, and French windows graced the entire building. So did chandeliers.  Red carpet covered every room in the building except for the dining hall and classrooms, which had painted brick and hardwood floors, respectively. The carpeting gave the place a Stephen King like quality and seemed to reflect The Lynch’s blood lust. It extended from the foyer to the double, wrap around, mansion style stairs, to all of the second and third floor hallways, which featured Sir’s office, the Lynch’s apartment, a payphone, and boys’ dormitories.

“Have you ever been to sleep away camp, Jennifer?”, Lynch asked me. I smiled and nodded. “Well this is a lot like that,” he said, grinning.

It turned out that except for the element of living away from home; it was nothing like sleep away camp. I had lived in several summer camps. I remember arts and crafts, roasting marshmallows, volley ball games, campfires and the lush greens of Pennsylvania campgrounds. I don’t remember ever having been beaten or humiliated by a person of authority at such a place.

As I ran in circles around the majestic staircase I overheard Mr. Lynch tell my mother, “Our specialty is hyperactives.” or something to that effect. As his eyes followed my frenzied little feet scurrying around, it didn’t occur to me at the time that he was probably thinking about the beating he’d be giving me, had not been for the presence of my mother. He saw a wild beast in me. I was the shrew, and he was damn sure going to tame me.

The boys outnumbered the girls about five to one. There were approximately sixteen girls and eighty boys, so the girls lived down the road in a separate little cottage, which was actually a five-bedroom house. Each room except for our housemother’s was color themed. There was a red, orange, green, and purple room. The walls were white, but the bedding and carpets had a color scheme. I lived in all of them at one time or another. There was a payphone for collect calls in the downstairs hallway.

The girls’ dorm was a kind of hell in and of itself, despite the lack of “Sir’s” presence there. There was only one bathroom where the older girls picked on me constantly; always trying to force me to take baths I didn’t think I needed.  They called me names: “ugly”, “greasy hair” and others. We had a lovely housemother named Barbara Sainsbury for a brief time during my tenure there, but Olga Reimer, who was far more unpleasant than any of my coeds, soon replaced her. What a nasty old hag Olga was.  She was also British, but much older than the Lynches. I don’t know what her relation to Sir was, but she was a pretty good stand-in for him in terms of excessive discipline. I remember wondering what was wrong with British people, having had such limited exposure to them at that time. I can vaguely recall her dragging me by the hair on more than one occasion. She loved to tell me what and idiot I was. “You’re an idiot, Jennifer. You really are. You really are an idiot!” she’d say in a piercing, high-pitched voice and hoity British accent.

 

chartwell manor

 

In the beginning, I went home every weekend. I’ll never forget the first time I returned Sunday night sobbing in my mother’s car. My mother had moved us New York City, so it was a little over an hour’s ride to the school. After we drove up the long winding driveway and past the snow covered forestry that spanned the distance between the girls housing quarters and the mansion, I begged my mother not to leave me there. I wouldn’t even know how to describe the feeling of terror and abandonment. Mr. Lynch had no love for me. My mother had to drag me to the door and drive away as quickly as possible.  Later that evening, I called my mother, still sobbing. Much like prison, collect calls were the only option.

I would dial zero and the number and when the operator came on line I’d say. “Hi, I’d like to make a collect call, my name is Jennifer.”

My mother always accepted the calls when she was home, at least it seemed that way. But she was back on the dating scene, so sometimes she was out and some babysitter would answer the phone. I hated those nights. On this particular evening I made the mistake of calling my mom from the mansion payphone, just down the hall from Sir’s office and the couple’s apartment.

“Mom please don’t make me stay here. I hate it here. I’m so homesick and they’re so mean!’’

“You’ll get used to it Jen, I promise. It’s just going to take some t…”

My mother barely made it through a sentence before Sir grabbed the phone from my hand and demanded that I go wait for him in his office. As I headed in that direction I heard him talking to my mother.  He was eerily composed. “No worries, Mrs. Johnson. Jennifer is just a little agitated right now. I’m going to try and calm her down.” He hung up the phone.He stormed back to his office and began striking me left and right, mostly on my head and face. “How dare you make a scene like that?!” he told me. I begged him to stop hitting me and finally, after about five or six blows he shoved me out of his office. I practiced what I would say to my mother the next weekend when I went home again. This man was lying to parents. Surely, she would understand that this gulag was no place for her daughter.

Well I wasn’t withdrawn; in fact I started spending most weekends there. My parents decided that I needed to get used to the place, and that taking me home to be with my Mom or Dad was just too disruptive. I’m fairly certain Mr. Lynch was behind this decision. Like most sociopaths, he could be extremely charming and convincing when he had an agenda. Parents saw an entirely different person than we did.  They saw Fred Rogers. We saw a draconian prison guard. Lynch could be so charming at times that many parents donated money to the school on a regular basis, and one student even told me that her mother had put the Lynches in her will. My mother believed that Mr. Lynch was a good disciplinarian who was acting in my best interest, and that my tales were just the result of the active imagination of children.

My mother was wrong, and I made all of my future calls from the girls’ dormitory. Shortly after my escape at age eleven the school was investigated for allegations of child abuse.  In the year of 1976 Lynch’s accusers were unsuccessful in their pursuit of justice. What I discovered recently is that school did eventually shut down in 1984, when I was nineteen years old, after the headmaster Terrence Michael Lynch was sentenced to fourteen years of incarceration, for the ritualistic sexual and physical abuse of young boys. There is also a great degree of speculation that some of the worst abuses were never brought to trial and remain undocumented: incidents including sex trafficking and the creation of child pornography, which was all said to have taken place during Chartwell’s annual excursions to Europe.

Lynch only served seven years of his sentence and was released in 1997 only to become a volunteer at a Beginnings, a substance abuse rehab center where he molested grown men in a similar fashion, in spite of the fact that he was branded under Megan’s Law. Apparently, he wasn’t only a pedophile; anybody vulnerable was fair game. As reported by Kevin Coughlin, of The Daily Record a local Morristown paper, in 2009 three survivors of Beginnings received a total of 780,000 for the abuse they endured under Lynch’s care. More will be revealed later in the essay, but if you’re feeling curious, dubious, or impatient here is one of the sourced articles:

No Spank

* * *

If I had to choose a room at Chartwell as the most ominous place on the campus, I’d have to go with the foyer. We would all stand there downstairs, on that god awful crimson carpet, lined up according to grade in our school uniforms for what Sir called assembly. The uniforms were absurd: navy blue blazers with the Chartwell Manor insignia, with grey skirts for girls and grey slacks for boys.  Both sexes had to wear a tie. I looked ridiculous standing in front of the mirror. Who dresses like this? Was this a British thing too? Mr. Lynch would stand at his podium in all of his eccentric glory, and preach to us about nonsense.

 

chartwell manor

 

Assembly met several times a day. Of all the images of rooms at this school this one stayed with me the strongest, because it’s where Mr. Lynch was the least restrained and the most venomous. It was in this room that Mr. Lynch repeatedly subjected us to his terrifying psychobabble, knowing full well that many of us were too young to understand it. There was nowhere to go and nothing we could do about it unless we wanted beatings, so we would stand there and listen to him, until he dismissed us.

He was our personal evangelist preacher, only unlike a TV evangelist; we didn’t have the option of turning him off. I didn’t understand most of what he carried on about, but the gist of it was about debauchery and disobedience, and the subsequent consequences. Just like any talking head on The 700 Club, he used fear and propaganda to keep us in line.

He would start with a stern yet serene tone of voice, and then get progressively louder and more delusional, waving his hands around while he yelled about drugs, lust, or whatever his scourge du jour was. One of his favorite topics was the benefits of corporal punishment. He never tired of hearing himself “reassure” us that he beat us out of love.

I’ve been interviewing former students, and many of them actually believed that Lynch’s declarations of affection were genuine. While they feared Sir, they also considered him a father figure, and felt desperate for his approbation. According to some of the boys I interviewed, this betrayal of trust was perhaps the most detrimental aspect of the abuse. The pain that some carried around later in life was so unmanageable that many suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, with memories of the abuse repressed well into their twenties and thirties. A few former students responded to my research with reactionary contempt, which I can only imagine stems from the pain associated with these memories, and the need to suppress them.

Beyond the usual “If I don’t beat you, you won’t learn, and if you don’t learn you won’t survive in the world” bullshit, I mostly just recall random words during these assemblies. The only other word group that comes to memory was “Fuck fuck fuck! Lovely, lovely!” His hands seemed to fly every which way as he said it. He was trying to make a point about how ugly curse words were, and what sinners we all were for using them. Other words that I recall hearing were “sin, lust, bedlam, anarchy, drugs, honor, whore, virgin, pure, slut, zeppelin, woman, and temptation.

Terrence Michael Lynch was the first to teach me about the virgin/whore complex. As far as he was concerned girls should be “pure.” He spoke with great contempt about a girl from his school days called “Mattress Mary” who he referred to as a “slut.” The oldest students at Chartwell were 15-years-old. Since teenagers are wired to be both sexual and curious, some heavy petting was inevitable, and occasionally one of the female students was made an example of, in the worst way imaginable. First they were slut shamed in front of the whole student body, and then beaten. I can’t remember the exact words Sir used, but at eight-years-old I knew what a tramp was, and I knew that you could only be one if you were a girl.  I also knew that if you did happen to be one of the girls caught in some teenage dalliance sanctioned by Mother Nature, Sir would convince the rest of us that you were a Jezebel of the worst kind, capable of the darkest of sexual transgressions. Yes, we were the perverts: Projection in action: Calling Dr. Freud! What occurs to me now is that Sir was jealous of girls, because they were the object of the boys’ affections. Judy Lynch was said to have done routine “virginity checks” on some of the older girls. Officials tried to make a case against her as well, but the state lacked witnesses who were willing to testify.

I can’t remember which fundamentalist brand of Christianity Sir embraced, but in light of the fact that I now know that was a convicted sex offender, it’s so much easier to connect the psychopathic dots. It’s fairly common knowledge that there is a strong link between sexual repression and sexual deviation, and the more an orator follows the narrative that “sex is dirty and shameful” the bigger pervert he either currently is, or is destined to become. You know the saying: “Me think thou art protest too much” or something like that. While I attended Chartwell there were at least two girls who were either expelled or withdrawn for sexual “indiscretions”. The official story was that they were expelled, but I knew what a pathological liar Sir was, so I questioned everything.

Dianna Carrington and Courtney Abbot both left Chartwell Manor for these reasons, but not before they were branded with both a physical and psychological Scarlett Letter. Bruising students was commonplace. I remember going home with a giant bruise on my ass, although on that particular occasion it was Mrs. Lynch who had savaged me. My mother was strangely unaffected when I showed it to her. Shortly after Dianna left, her parents decided to take Sir to court. They were not impressed with the welts on their daughter’s backside. The girls were set to be witnesses. Some time before her parents were scheduled to come The Lynches pulled all the girls into a classroom for “rehearsal.”

“Miss Carrington’s parents are going to ask some of you some questions.” Sir told us. “They’re going to ask you if we beat you here and you’re to tell them that we don’t. Is that clear?”

We all nodded in agreement. Nobody was going to martyr herself to this cause. Thankfully, Dianna’s parents never approached me.  I don’t think I would have been brave enough to tell them the truth.

* * *

Assemblies were bad enough when Sir just went on some random diatribe, but once in a while he required an actual victim: someone to accuse, mock or terrify for no good reason.  I can remember at least two times when I was the victim of choice.  I was one of the students he hated, so I was targeted disproportionately. Nothing was more dreadful than being singled out as this man’s personal plaything, especially in front of the whole school. I had seen him do it to others.

Even at eight I was enough of an independent thinker to know that something was horribly wrong, even when he targeted other students. I had seen him make an announcement that someone clogged up one of the boys’ toilets, and then look around for a scapegoat. It didn’t take him long to point to a eleven-year-old and say “Mr. Green, you have a very guilty look on your face! Go up to my office and wait for me.!“ This is how Mr. Lynch adjudicated our alleged crimes. Apparently, he wasn’t a big fan of the American justice system, where actual evidence is required before a sentence is passed.

Not much later, I was accused of a more serious crime. During the weekends most of the students went home, so the girls would sleep in the empty boys’ rooms in the mansion dormitory. During such a weekend, a male student’s belongings were ransacked and his musical apparatus was smashed. I knew nothing of it and had nothing to do with it, but damned if Il Duce let that get in the way of administering his own special style of justice.  After he ranted about the alleged vandalism that took place, he announced without hesitation that I was the guilty party.

“Miss Johnson!” he said. “You broke that boy’s radio just because you didn’t have one of your own! Get up to my office! We’ll be docking your student account to replace it!”

So just like that I was simultaneously losing money, having the entire student body turned against me, AND I was getting a beating? The combination of rage and fear I experienced was unimaginable, because I was so angry I wanted to kill him, but also so terrified all I could mutter was “But I didn’t do it! It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!” which as you can imagine, was not effective.

I never went up to his office so I didn’t receive that beating. I refused to get a beating with a wooden hairbrush for something I just didn’t do. Luckily, he had so many other kids to beat or violate that day that he must have forgotten about it. I later discovered that it was commonplace for some of Lynch’s former victims to return to the school, often in a drug or alcohol addled state, in order to vandalize the property and steal cars, money and other things. In all likelihood I was taking the rap for someone Lynch no longer had access to.

One of final acts of retaliatory vandalism against the Lynchs: Terrence and Judy’s gravestone was “christened” by a former student.

Calls to my mother were frequent. “When can I come home?” I asked after returning from Thanksgiving break. My homesickness was always worse after visiting my mom or dad.

“Christmas,” she said.

“Christmas?” I asked. “Christmas is like six weeks from now.’’

“It will go by fast, you’ll see,” she said.

Sometimes I begged her. “Let me come back home,” I’d say. “I promise I’ll be good.” But she’d heard that before.

Christmas break would come and go with all the excitement and subsequent heartache that came with seeing family for only a couple of weeks. Christmas and summers were the longest breaks I got from Chartwell, but the longer I was home the harder it always was to go back, although after the first year I was more resigned to the sadness.  I believe the psychoanalytic term is “learned helplessness” It wasn’t like my parents were going to listen to me anyway.

The aforementioned bruise was a consequence of smoking. At the time I lived upstairs with the older girls: Karen, Anita and “slutty” Courtney. There were four of us in the room, and sometimes some of the boys would sneak down from the mansion to the girls’ dorm in the middle of the night. We had a ledge right outside our window, where the boys would hang out, although I have no idea how they got up there in the first place.  My roommates and the boys woke me from the deepest of slumbers. I let out a grunt. I was tired.

“Go back to sleep. You’re dreaming,” Courtney would say over and over again. Eventually I was fully awake. There wasn’t much point in trying to sleep. The girls were all up smoking and talking. I had little interest in smoking at the time, but Courtney said “She’s a witness, so she has to take a security drag.” So I did. I sucked on a cigarette and blew out the smoke immediately without inhaling. The very next morning after my roommates had gone Olga entered the room to do some cleaning and began sniffing.

“I smell cigarettes. Jennifer, were any of the girls smoking in here? I had intended to lie, but became so nervous I just gulped a little and then heard myself saying “Yes” in hesitant, almost whisper like tone.

Later that day all four of us were beaten with the wooden side of a hairbrush. We all sat in the Lynch’s living room and when it was our turn, Mrs. Lynch took us to their bedroom and ordered us to lift our skirts and pull down our underwear. She remained very quiet during the beatings. She hardly uttered a word the entire time we were all in there. Sometimes the quietist villains are the scariest. When my turn came around I tried to block the first blows with my hands, but that hurt just as much. The burn on my ass was intense and I screamed. It was the worst pain I’d ever experienced. I’ve never been so relieved as I was the minute it was over. I don’t know how many lashes I received, probably about ten, but I believed that the grapefruit size bruise that spanned both cheeks had a story to tell.

Child protection laws rendered it illegal to leave long lasting marks, especially bruises. I don’t remember how, but I was familiar with these laws, so I assumed that naturally, this would be the tipping point for my mother. She couldn’t ignore bruises like that, could she?  Her reaction to the bruise was similar to all of my other complaints of abuse. “What did you do?” or “I’m sure they didn’t mean to leave a bruise like that.” I think she felt trapped and conflicted with her lack of choices, which caused her to ignore inconvenient truths. How else does one justify such victim-blaming statements?

On another occasion Sir saw fit to humiliate me during an assembly, for no reason in particular. He was explaining that a new girl from a foreign country had just become a student, but didn’t speak any English.

“You have to talk softly to her,” he said. “Not like Jennifer Johnson. Don’t say ‘Helloooo!’” he said, while making loud, guttural sounds, as though he were mimicking an actual monster. The students laughed as I teared up. It didn’t seem to matter that I was the new girl’s only friend, and had been spending my free time taking her around, pointing to objects and saying them in English so she could repeat and learn, which she seemed to greatly appreciate. I was absolutely mortified. After the laughter died down he asked,  “Is Jennifer crying yet?” with a big shit eating grin on his face. To his great satisfaction, I was.

Mr. Lynch did this to me on more than two occasions, but these were the most memorable. Perhaps my behavioral problems were so severe that I deserved a beating now and again. But I can’t recall any “fair” beatings.  Justified disciplinary actions are far less eventful than flagrant acts of abuse, so the abuse what I remember.

The thing is, I knew he was wrong. I knew that what was happening to me was not normal. I knew it was unjust. I often wonder if this has something to do with the fact that I was raised without religion. Most kids accept what happens in their childhoods as the norm, but I had a better bullshit detector than most, and I wasn’t even remotely impressed with fake father figures with misguided God complexes. I hated the man, through and through. I understood his intentions.

* * *

I can’t remember why, at the age of eleven I was finally withdrawn. Maybe my mother’s guilt got the better of her, or maybe she believed that I would be less violent after living in such punitive, despotic circumstances. I honestly don’t recall many the details of my visits home because as bad as they might have been, it was always better to be home. For this reason, I can’t reliably tell you if I struck Laurie less often or with less malice during visits home or after my tenure at Chartwell. What I can tell you is that I was still a very angry child, probably more so than I had been previously.

What I didn’t figure out until adulthood was that the man was just bat shit crazy. Before that, I was too busy reflecting on how evil he was and how much he had hurt me.  I didn’t have the emotional resources left to consider his illness.  After some processing, the guilty verdict remains in tact. I have no pity for the man and his sickness.  He’s harmed too many people to cash in on any of my empathy. As one victim stated,  “ The ruined lives this guy is responsible for is staggering.”

Brendan Burt was a student in the early eighties right before the school was shut down. He told me that Lynch would routinely bring him into his office, order him to pull down his pants, fondle his genitals, penetrate his anus with his finger and then beat him. He also informed me that on one occasion Lynch threatened to break his mother’s arm if he told anyone about the abuse, and that sometimes after beatings Lynch would congratulate him for “taking it like a man.”

Perhaps one of the most disturbing accounts revolved around a year long epidemic of bowel incontinence that took place in the boys’ dormitories. According to Brendan, some of the boys were defecating in their beds, and the afflicted students were all assigned to designated rooms. “Those rooms should have been quarantined,” he recounted, since the odor was so foul. None of the girls were affected, which suggests it was not the result of a contagious illness. At first I thought it must have been caused by rectal damage resulting from sodomy, but an equally plausible scenario is that it was psychosomatic; students were soiling themselves to keep Lynch away from their rectums. Apparently, some students just stopped wiping themselves after a bowel movement, probably to the same end.

I understand that Lynch died in 2011 after becoming very ill during a trip to Cuba. The official story is that he went there with a group of missionaries, but it is widely suspected that this trip was intended as a sex tour for pedophiles, although I cannot confirm or deny this.

* * *

The worst part about this for me is that my mom had always been dodgy when it came to being accountable for having sent me to this school in the first place. We had blowouts about it every Christmas for a while, until my stepfather Phil, made a point of convincing my mother to accept some blame for what had happened.

I remember wailing, sitting on our soft off-white sectional sofa, all facing one another surrounded by ravaged gift-wrapping paper and an all-white-lit Christmas tree several feet away.  I don’t remember how the conversation started, but I remember saying something like “I came home with a huge bruise on my ass and you sent me back!”

“How do you know you had a bruise? How could you see it?” Yeah, she really asked me that.

“In a mirror!” I said

“What mirror?” my mom answered.

At this point my stepfather Phil intervened. “Gretchen!” he said with a shocked look.

This was the Christmas that put this subject to rest. By her own admission, Phil was the only man my mom ever really loved. She didn’t love my father or my first stepfather. Phil was her one and only true love, so his opinion mattered. My mom realized that this was the time to stop belittling me, and take my complaints about Chartwell seriously. I was about twenty-two or twenty-three and this was the first robust apology she’d ever given me. It was heartfelt, and all I ever needed from her.

“I’m sorry Jen, I’m sorry I sent you to such a horrible place. If I had to do it over I would choose another option. I wish I could take it back, but I just can’t. I was a young mother and I didn’t know how to control the situation. I had no support from your father or anyone else. The seventies were a very mother-blaming era. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time.”

There was truth to a lot in that. They didn’t know then what they know now about ADHD. Every time there was something wrong with a kid it was just assumed that the mother was fully culpable. My mother was working full-time, taking care of my sister, and going through rancorous court proceedings with my father regarding retroactive, unpaid child support. Consequently, she had deluded herself into thinking that a military type environment would protect Laurie for a time and set me straight. She was correct about the former, but mistaken about the latter.

* * *

I googled  “Chartwell Manor boarding school abuse” just recently, and several articles popped out at me. In the internet age with so much information at my disposal, I wonder why I never considered doing this earlier. All these years it was just a button tap away. It might have given me better clarity into the depths of Lynch’s twisted inner workings.  I guess I thought it was all behind me.

According to an article published in 2006 by Peggy Wright also from the Morristown, New Jersey Daily Record, boys were routinely lined up naked, beaten, and molested through various ceremonial manifestations. As Wright points out, Michael Uhl described Lynch as having “a forceful, hypnotic quality that compelled students to obey him, even when he bent them over his knee to beat them with a slipper, his hand, a brush or paddle”.  The article also explains that Lynch “went to prison for seven of a 14-year sentence for sexually abusing boys by spanking them, squeezing their genitals, or giving them enemas.”

I spoke to Mr. Uhl on the phone for five hours recently. Due to the statute of limitations, Uhl was the only student from our era to successfully sue Lynch. His lawyer argued that the memories of the abuse were so painful that Uhl had repressed them until his twenties,

so effectively that he was sending Lynch yearly Christmas cards, even after he had been incarcerated for his crimes. Lynch used various techniques to indoctrinate students. What I remember specifically is being forced to watch the Sidney Poitier movie “To Sir With Love” every year. I also remember graduation ceremonies, where graduates were forced to sing “Thank You Very Much” from “A Chorus Line”. Our yearbooks were filled with self-aggrandizing statements written by and about Lynch in the third person. The pervasive theme in all these examples seemed to be the unending gratitude we should all feel for a person who was essentially, our kidnapper.

Some of Wright’s anecdotes came from students like Andrew Fleisig who claimed he got a “bare-bottomed spanking” just for crying when he arrived at Chartwell for the first time. Sound familiar? Student Glenn Head, who attended Chartwell around the same time I did, claimed that Lynch was fond of “beating the boys, and then cuddling them when they cried.”

Some students claim that they were commanded to masturbate in front of Lynch, while others say that he forced them to perform oral sex on him. Still others have stated that Lynch sodomized them. The school offered an annual trip to Europe for one thousand dollars, which was a lot of money at the time. My parents were broke, so I never went myself. In retrospect I’m grateful for my parents financial limitations, because some-of the worst abuse was said to have occurred on these trips. Since laws regarding the consumption of alcohol are more relaxed in Europe, Lynch allowed the students to drink beer and wine. One student claimed that he was drugged, raped and filmed by a group accompanying Lynch. That student has since committed suicide. He confided in Uhl about the incident, and for this reason I am unaware of his identity. Since then, I have heard of at least four other boys who took their own lives sometime after leaving Chartwell. I did specifically seek out information about suicide in my research. This was all mentioned to me through casual conversation. If you consider the fact that the percentage of former students who are in touch with one another is a mere fraction of all Chartwell alumni, it would be logical from a mathematical standpoint to assume that there were many more, perhaps dozens who took their own lives.

Many students such as Sam Jacobs and Kevin Steiner struggled with substance abuse. Some became criminals. Kevin Steiner died in a car accident, during which time he was in and out of rehab and stealing cars. At one point he stole Lynch’s cars. Sam Jacobs became a convicted rapist at the age of 14, mere weeks after Lynch had sodomized him.

Brendan internalized the blame and engaged in self-sabotage in the form of heavy drug abuse. He didn’t know why until the age of 30, when visions of Chartwell were revealed in a dream. “I barely slept for the next three years,” he told me. Both Mike Uhl and Brendan Burt had managed to keep the memories at bay until adulthood, but in both cases all their recollections came flooding back in a single defining moment, like an emotional tsunami. In Uhl’s case it occurred when Lynch sent him an odd, metaphor riddled, parable from prison, which contained a strange message about embracing victimhood.

But Lynch abused children even before the creation of Chartwell Manor. Bill Moore was a Jewish sixth grader in the 1960s at Somerset Hills School in Warren, Somerset County where according to former teacher Jerry Amedeo Lynch was fired when the owner discovered he was spanking children. The sexual abuse was only discovered after Lynch left, when students felt safe enough to start talking.  Not only were students beaten, forced to parade naked together and selected to cuddle in bed with Mr. Lynch for intimate TV time, Wright explains how Moore described a scene to him where “Lynch would hold part of a comb to his upper lip and imitate Adolf Hitler.” In 2006 Lynch volunteered at an adult rehab center called Beginnings where he molested men, presumably because he no longer had access to children.

His Beginnings victims say he posed as a real doctor to facilitate molestation, and asked to be called “Dr. Mike” In an ironic twist; it was Lynch’s parole officer that landed him the position at Beginnings, on account of his “experience” as a headmaster, in spite of his status as a registered sex offender.  Lynch pleaded guilty to three fondling charges, after which he did spent only ten months in a county jail. The short sentence probably had something to do with how well he was well connected with the local police, to whom he gave expensive bottles of scotch every Christmas.

* * *

The year of 1984 completed almost two decades of Lynch abuse that fell under the radar of law enforcement. I was nineteen that year, and wished I’d heard about his incarceration then. It might have given me some closure earlier. I also might have been able to write this essay while the Lynches were still alive, exposing them to the entire country. I had never realized that I was actually one of the lucky ones. There are undoubtedly countless survivors as well as causalities.

“Sir” Terrence Michael Lynch is dead and in the ground, but his legacy of tyranny will live on a long time. According to extensive psychological research, it is likely that many victims’ stories will bleed into generations of families to come. Jacobs is a case in point.

After a great deal of research I discovered that Sam started sexually abusing girls in early adolescence and at fourteen, raped a girl at knifepoint. According to Sam, Lynch had attempted to sodomize him shortly before, but was unable to complete the act, because Sam screamed so loudly from the pain that Lynch retreated for fear of exposure.

“He would beat me, molest me, and then rub my butt and tell me how much he loved me,” Sam told me. “He was like a father figure.”

“That’s probably what fucked you up the most,” I said.

“It definitely is,” he responded.

Sam committed his first offense as an adult in the year of 1977 and spent ten years in prison. As far as I’m concerned, this is Lynch’s handiwork. I don’t excuse Sam for his behavior, as I believe he made a choice to rape. I firmly believe however, that he would not have become a rapist if it weren’t for the years of abuse he endured.

Sam was released from a treatment facility in 1987 and in 1994, married and had a daughter, but was divorced shortly thereafter on account of heavy drug and alcohol use. He was re-incarcerated from 2002-2006 on a stalking charge. According to court documents from 2006 and 2009, Sam was sentenced to remain at a sex offender treatment facility under a civil commitment mandate, in spite of the fact that he had completed his prison sentence and hadn’t committed an actual sex crime in decades.  Because of the stalking incident, the court decided that he was still a sexually violent predator, even though the stalking charge was ruled as a non-sexual. He is still being detained today.

Sam and I talk on the phone a lot these days.  He told me that Lynch abused him sexually, physically and emotionally with frequency and severity. “ I don’t hate women,” he told me. “When I raped those girls I never really wanted to hurt anybody. Some of them fought back and I let those girls go, because I didn’t want to be violent. I didn’t realize that rape was violent or harmful. I was insecure and didn’t know how to talk to girls. Lynch took away all my control. I thought this was the only way to get it back. I thought it was the only way to prove that I was a man.”

“Didn’t your victims cry?” I asked him.

“No, actually, they just begged me not to hurt them. I told them I didn’t want to hurt them. During my incarceration I underwent a lot of therapy. It wasn’t until then that I realized what kind of damage I had done. Before that, I actually believed that they enjoyed it. I even went down on a few of them before I raped them, so it could feel more like seduction than rape”

Earlier, I had sent Sam a heartfelt letter along with a copy of my latest version of the memoir and some copies of articles regarding Lynch’s incarceration. He said that the pictures of Lynch in the article filled him with terror and that he cried when he read my letter. I don’t think he is accustomed to people treating him with empathy.

“Sam,” I said. “You do realize that when your victims see pictures of you they have the same visceral reaction. You get that, right?”

“I do now,” he said. “I really regret hurting those women. I was an asshole.”

Sam Jacobs was a handsome, young boy. When he was only four years old his father put him in Lynch’s care at Somerset Hills where Lynch was then headmaster. After Lynch was fired from Somerset and created Chartwell Manor, Sam’s father allowed Lynch to take his son with him. Research conducted over a number of years indicates that a child’s conscience and capacity for empathy is not fully formed before the age of six. Some people remember a very different Sam Jacobs than the one that the psychologists, lawyers and inmate staff know today.

The Sam Jacobs I briefly knew as a kid was sweet and playful, never mean spirited; at least not to me. There were plenty of bullies there. He was not one of them, despite the fact that I was an awkward, skinny little girl with buck teeth, six years his junior, who was bullied by many. Amedeo, who was also Sam’s teacher from Somerset recalls Sam as “a great kid.” Lynch robbed Sam of both his innocence and humanity. He never stood a chance. His tragic story gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “school to prison pipeline”

So how do I think and feel, now that I know what I know? I’m sad for his male victims, but thankful that he didn’t molest girls, at least as far as I know. As unpleasantly as I experienced those three years, I take comfort in the fact that I wasn’t a young boy or teenage girl at Chartwell Manor. I now wonder how many former students have become pedophiles themselves. I’m happy Lynch did some hard time, but I wish it had been longer. I’m disgusted that a registered sex offender was given the freedom to abuse again with such apparent ease and negligent oversight.

How many other victims are now out there hurting people? And who will their victims hurt? How many lost, broken Lynch souls are running amok without refuge? These are questions few of us can answer. We only know that the infamy of the man we knew as “Sir” and “Dr. Mike” is likely to live on well after our lifetimes, and that is the most unsettling aspect of all.

 

 

BIO

Elizabeth JohnsonJennifer Elizabeth Johnson has a BA in sociology, studied creative writing at Austin Community College. She currently lives in Newark, New Jersey. She’s lived in five countries and is a cinephile who believes that dubbing movies in another language is a grave crime against art. She wishes Bernie Sanders was her father.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bloodline

by Janet Damaske

 

 

My mother had the best set of legs; anyone who ever saw them would agree. They didn’t see much sun and they didn’t go on forever like some great legs do, but they were dancer legs, always working, twirling, pointing, flexing, barely ever still.

When she got the call that her cancer had come back for the third time, she and I were standing in a subway station. When I saw her face fall, I sat down on a bench and lowered my head, my eyes resting on those legs. They were still for longer than a moment. But when they started moving again, her body stayed still and her left leg straightened and stiffened, while her right leg swung forward, kicking back, toe pointed. I heard her words, quietly spoken, but kept my eyes on those dancing legs and hung onto a shred of hope.

My daughter Grace, now 4, got her Grammy’s legs. They have more definition than one would expect in a tiny person, solid little calves, a miniature version of my mother’s, with the right calve a bit larger than the left. Her legs do not work with the skill that my mother’s did and her toes are never pointed, but they move just as fast and often. Legs pumping, arms flailing, she dances and skips and she runs, towards me, away from me, sometimes stumbling, always counting on me to steady her, no matter where I am.

Grace and Mom missed each other by six months and seven days. I took the pregnancy test in the hospice house where my mother was dying of ovarian cancer. She cried and then laughed: “I bet that’s the only pregnancy test that’s ever been taken in this place.” It was April then; we thought if only she could make it to Christmas, she’d get to meet my second child. But she was gone by May.

In the weeks when my mother lay dying, Grace was taking form – her heart pumping blood; her brain and spine developing; her tiny nose, toes, fingernails, all brand new. I cannot decide how I feel about this, that at the precise time my mom’s heart was slowing pace, as her body was shutting down for its final rest, Grace’s was booting up. The little girl whom Mom and I had spent years envisioning slipped right past her Grammy, leaving me hopelessly shouting, “You missed her! You missed Grammy! She was JUST HERE!” And to Mom, “Tell me you can see this child. Tell me you aren’t actually missing this.” One is here and one is not.

And now, I see my mother’s legs and her petite hands and her long, narrow fingers and the walnut shell shape of her eyes in my 4-year old girl. I wrap her folded hands in mine and cup them to my face, breathe her in. I never meant to see my mother in my daughter, but I do, and I am grateful, but also troubled.

My mother got her good looks and her hot temper from her mother. Her love of music and her nervous energy came from her father. And, it seems, the mutated BRCA2 gene that we discovered in the years before her death came from him as well. This imperceptibly small error lay along the Chromosome 13, where one particular gene, whose job is to suppress certain cancers, breast and ovarian among them, simply does not work. The BRCA gene ended my mother’s life long before her body should have ever shut down.

I can’t say I was shocked to learn years after her death that the exact same mutated gene ended up on my own Chromosome 13. I have her green eyes and her inability to lie and that tiny dimple at the top of my left ear. I have her nervous energy and I have her bloody BRCA2 mutation, and I have a terrible suspicion that my daughter does too.

“Will Grace have to do what you did?” My 7-year old son asks on our way home from karate.

He refers to my double mastectomy and my bilateral salpingo-oopherectomy, though he doesn’t entirely understand what he’s asking or what’s gone on. My breasts and ovaries and fallopian tubes are gone now, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot to him. He has been told there will be no more siblings, which he’s responded to with relief more than anything. And he knows that if he puts his hand on my chest I will flinch, not out of pain, but because I’ll never get used to this numbness. I’ve been scraped out and refilled, and what is there now is hard, foreign, and entirely man made.

“I hope not, Noah, but I really don’t know,” I say, looking in the rearview mirror as Grace, buckled in her five-point harness, stares sleepily out her window.

When he was 5 and she was 2, and I had just learned I was BRCA positive, I had my breasts removed to prevent my near 50 percent chance of getting breast cancer before age 70. My toddling girl stared at me in bed, poked at my bandages and stared at the drainage tubes protruding out of my skin. “That hurt, mama? Your booboos hurt? Why did you get boobies at the hospital?” The words are used interchangeably and over time, it sticks. Booboos, boobies, they are the same.

My tiny nurse watched over me in the weeks that followed my mastectomy, nestled up to my side, sometimes standing over me as I awoke from medication-induced naps. She’d stay an arms length from the tubes dangling from my chest, but she was not afraid of the rest of me. She’d run her tiny finger along the bandages, and later, along the bright red scabbing lines, and later, along the fading scars. She’d check on me by the day; she’d comment on my improvement. “Oh! Better! The booboos look great, Mama! No more boobies!”

If ever I’d been forced to picture this time of my life, breasts removed, a sense of disfigurement sweeping through me, it was my mother who was standing over me, feeding me comfort and warmth, with soft words and soup from a can. But in her place, a not quite three foot, fuzzy-headed, pacifier-addicted, heavy-breathing, sweaty morsel of energy. She fed me plastic chicken thighs in tiny blue bowls made for stuffed animal tea parties and I felt better.

Early this year, when she was 4 and I, 36, a spike in a routine screening test resulted in a surgery my doctor advised I have as soon as possible, and so out came my ovaries and my fallopian tubes and any hope of one more pregnancy. I came home exhausted and infertile, and began my recovery by sleeping through the day. Grace peered in on me, listless on the couch, that late Friday morning, and then quietly mentioned she was tired too. She walked up the stairs and slept, three long naps within that one day, broken up only by mealtimes. She hadn’t napped in over a year and she’s never napped since. She will likely not remember this day, but I always will.

I did not expect to accept empathy from a 4 year old or nurturing from a 2 year old, but I suppose she started holding me up long before I even met her, perhaps from the moment I realized a life was starting in a place that only sees death. A chance of hope, subdued indeed by my own shame at envisioning a future while those residing in the same space were reaching back into their lives once lived or, worse, simply at a standstill, just waiting to die.

Because I never really believed my mother was actually dying, even as she lay on her deathbed, she held her place in my daydreams, right plunk in the middle, holding the new baby while I chased my son. Still, today, she is there in my head, coming in the front door of my home, whisking the kids away to the park, laughing as she closes the door behind her and runs to catch up with them.

The room across the hospice house hall must have welcomed and parted with at least five people in the six weeks we were there. I always knew when the end had come; calmly whispering nurses, sometimes with tears, followed by a noticeable increase in activity in and out of the room. At some point, our door would get quietly closed as the room across the hall was emptied. I listened and watched as it all took place, every time, and still I could not picture the moment that this scene would be ours to experience.

Things were perhaps more settled in our room, but our shared desperation became more palpable by the day until we could not help but acknowledge it. My mother took the lead, and in stunned, silent resolution, we followed. One day, she asked me to bring my laptop to her bed; we spent that afternoon online buying clothes for her grandkids in ascending sizes to cover the next several years. Another day, she sat the family down to explain where all Christmas decorations could be found. Other days, she talked about where she wanted her clothes to go after she was gone. On the nights when it was only she and I, we talked about baby names.

Most days, I lay next to my mother in a reclining chair and sometimes I crawled into bed with her, unable to put any space between us. At times, I sobbed until I could hardly breathe, and when my mother, sinking deeper, could no longer calm me down, the thought of my little boy and the tiny person I was supposed to be making usually did; I’d catch my breath, anyway; I’d pause to breathe. I wondered if a fetus could survive this sort of stress. Hang on, please just hang on, I thought, hand on my stomach, eyes on my mother.

I hovered over her in those final weeks, checked her feeding tubes, brushed her hair, added blush to her cheeks, and, later on, I sat towards her head and dripped water from a sponge, the slowest drips, every few minutes, onto her lips and her tongue.

What I wanted, every minute, just one more lucid moment with her, and then one more, until the day came when I was too afraid I’d waste her energy if she gave it to me. I begged my father to stop trying to make her talk because I wanted her around longer. He looked at me frantically and I covered my face, knowing full well I had chosen her stability over his.

And there I was, both daughter and mother to my mother, holding on for dear life.

The years following my mother’s death were uniquely lonely and humbling for all of us. I did not stop it – or even realize it – when Grace, in her infancy and in all her innocence, somehow took the reins and blindly guided us along. I welcomed her neediness, my hands in motion all day, changing diapers, offering milk, wiping spit-up, thrusting something new into the life of our family.

I never meant for Grace to help save us from our grief. But it couldn’t be helped. Born into a family in mourning, this six-pound morsel seemed to have passed her maternal grandmother in the night. Six months and seven days after our loss, here was Grace, reflexively grabbing our thumbs and not letting go, and we could not help but feel a relief akin to rescue. It was never fair, but it couldn’t be helped.

And now she is a child. I look towards this little girl and, it seems, I’ve created a miniature version of myself. I see her fine, scraggly hair and hear her raucous, unapologetic laugh. I watch her in her shyness, stepping back, observing, and I see her, in moments, tangle her words in her tongue and quickly ask me to erase what she said. I see her head in the clouds and her eyes on me and, as I look back at her, I see my own reflection.

But oh, how I want a map of her genes, to be assured that if we magnified her Chromosome 13, it would look exactly like her daddy’s and nothing at all like mine. Perhaps the day our coded strands were grabbed and combined at random was a lucky day for her. I am full of doubt, but for now, what more can I do but hold onto the chance that her shapely leg gene and her boisterous laugh gene lie on any other chromosome than 13? Perhaps her BRCA2 gene is entirely intact and we have somehow broken this wearisome, worrisome pattern.

Each morning, she slowly emerges from her room and walks downstairs, a late riser like me, with her arms outstretched. She’s getting big now, but I lift her up and she collapses in my arms. I pat down the thin layer of hair that covers her head, pull it out of her face and look at her. “I missed you last night!” I say, and it’s true. Because, after all, this is a love story. It is a love story with perhaps more complexities than other love stories I’ve been able to tell. It’s a love story between a daughter and a mother and a grandmother, though two of us have never met. Here are three Davis girls who, in and out of life, have held each other together, swapping roles, instinctively grabbing ahold of one another in desperation or support. Yes, we are daughters of BRCA, but more importantly, what runs through our blood is fierce love, an intuitive need to heal each other’s pain, an energy that endures on and on and on. We dance on until we’re entirely out of breath.

I was not there the morning my mother died. After weeks of sleeping on a hospice house couch, I began to think that if this baby did have any chance of surviving, I needed to spend my nights in my home, make steps towards some sense of balance. The last evening we spoke, she was barely conscious and impossibly weak; she had not moved on her own in days. I sat on the left side of the bed, leaned over her head and kissed her again and again. “I can’t say goodbye but I need to watch out for this baby,” I said. “I think I need to go home tonight, Mom. How can I go?” I laid my head and arms upon my mother’s tiny body and shook with sadness, soaking my face and her sheets. And then I felt a hand on my head, the gentlest touch, now smoothing my hair. I looked up and saw her face, drenched in tears, and I saw she was nodding. I will miss you so much, said the sorrow in her eyes. But you need to take care of my daughter and my grandbaby, said their twinkle, still alive, amidst the green. At some point that night, and I don’t know when, I lifted my head, rose from her bed, and slowly walked to the door.

 

 

 

BIO

Janet DamaskeJanet Hope Damaske is a stay-at-home mother with interests in writing, reading, editing and psychology. After earning her BA in psychology with a minor in creative writing at Hamilton College, she worked for several years at a rehabilitation center for people with mental illness, providing job training and running a writer’s group for creative therapy. She later moved onto a career in medical publishing, where she continues to work part-time. Janet currently volunteers with several non-profit organizations in her hometown of Winchester MA, where she lives with her husband and two children. She writes a blog, which can be found at http://jhdamaske.blogspot.com. This is her first published piece.

 

Kristian Hoffman

David Bowie Diary Entry

by
Kristian Hoffman

 

I was introduced to David Bowie because of a Rolling Stone article about “Hunky Dory.” Yes, I was THAT pedestrian. But it seemed sort of “gay-ish” with that Lauren Bacall cover, and piqued our nascence stirring for an outrageous representative, and our perhaps too forgiving love of all things British. Atypically of the time, my friend Lance Loud had already schooled me in the fine art of shoplifting, and, being a completist, I drove down to Tower Records in L.A. and proceeded to steal everything in the current David Bowie catalogue, which included The Man Who Sold the World, Mad of Words, Man of Music, and a few British import 45s. It was love, and some befuddlement, at first listen.

Then the local record store on Coast Village Road, in Santa Barbara, from which I regularly sneaked out LPs under my faux Portabello Road Pepper-adjacent epauletted jacket, happened to have a whole cardboard box of Bowie’s ill-reviewed Deram 1rst LP, for 10 cents apiece! I actually think I paid for that. I was confused by the Newley mannerisms, and didn’t care for the lumpen “comedy” moments, but was intrigued enough that when “Images” was released, I easily fell profoundly in love with “In The Heat Of The Morning,” a song I have occasionally attempted to perform, with varying, but not altogether unpleasant results, ’til this very day.

It’s hard to imagine a time when I could make out a diary entry as specific as the one I have included here. By the time I moved to NYC in the 1970s, the bridge between the NY Dolls and the CBGBs/Max’s scene was so dizzying with daily incessant adventure and event that I could barely keep track.

But I thought I’d share with you an actual diary entry from 1970, when a fairly unsophisticated child trapped in the rusticating environs of Santa Barbara suburbancy had to share, if only with ‘Dear Diary” his fledgling experience of “La Bowie.”

 

Kristian Hoffman (ACTUAL) Diary Entry
March 7, 1973

 

Last night I went to see David Bowie at the Long Beach Arena with Michele and Delilah Loud, both sisters of my long time “best friend” Lance Loud. Both endearing little nippers in their own way; however I must confide in you I like Michele’s “own way” a trifle more than Delilah’s — I know comparison is odious – but if it’s unfair, that’s just fine, because it’s MY BOOK. It’s just that Michele really laughs when she sees old people fall down.

Anyway, Mr. Bowie (I will resist the temptation to make Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms. jokes, but won’t resist it very well) has been one of my very few self-indulgent, coveted, and clipped fave raves lately, and his concerts are “events,” or at least time markers in my life right now. And they are also nice fillers of comfortable small talk for letters to “friends” (still one of my favorite words, along with the meaningless “special”) which otherwise might have been embarrassingly short.

I can chat about him, express concern, delight, and even interest in his hair dressing methods, his clothes, and of course the latest albums, which I can play OVER AND OVER again — a real redeeming feature!

And besides, he’s just so great — he’s made his entire life into a great show, and if the “jams” are too long, the romantic interest makes up, as do the cute idiosyncrasies, so worthy of classic fan magazine write-ups.

On the way down to Long Beach in my fairly recently purchased Chevy Vega ($2,000.00 new, as I recall; I asked for it in silver because I thought that was Andy Warhol-esque), we had to stop for gas at a strange freeway turnoff near the venue, and some stranger who could be kindly described as rumpled, but less kindly described as “homeless” or “a bum” accosted the girls and asked, “Where are you going?” They kindly but a little trepidatiously replied, “To see David Bowie!” The apparently culturally attuned vagrant replied excitedly, “Jane Boo? I LOVE Jane Boo!” without further incident.

Anyway, Michele and I sat, rather conservatively dressed, next to a sparkling and glittering Delilah, whose whole-hearted commitment to a sort of strumpet/contempo prom queen attire is one of her best features, and exchanged turns with the binoculars while waiting with avid attempts at breathlessness for SOMETHING to happen.

It finally did – the lights went down, and as the communal oooh-aaah loosened itself free, a reluctant and somewhat washed-out crowd, a spotlight revealed that, NO! It wasn’t Mr. BOO-wee. It was just the hitherto unnamed “Supporting Act”, which turned out to be JUST THAT – a mediocre, if fashionably imported, ’50s revival band called Fumble with a pleasant lead vocal that failed to even whisper the rumor of competition to the obvious rival in the field, Sha Na Na.

I allowed myself a modicum of irateness because OF COURSE it was an insult to the negligible part of the crowd who had come to see Davey-Baby, and NOT just to make the scene. But even though it didn’t seem like it, Fumble was over soon enough.

Then the already familiar Clockwork Orange-ified Beethoven came on, with the same old familiar strobe, and David and band did “Hang Onto Yourself” with Mr. B in the first of FIVE costumes: a slick white tapestry (with culottes) suit and orange patent leather space boots.

Then a couple more quick rockers and a switch into gold lame, which was quivering and quavering on the edge of fashionability (DANGER! DANGER!) but still looked pretty keen. Mr. B had not brought the “show” that Lance had ranted and raved over, but had brought a quite nice horn section, and a mellotron, so “Space Oddity” didn’t sound quite so much like a rich kid’s home movie, and “Suffragette City” took on a pleasantly pregnant tone.

Then, in “Width of a Circle”, he changed during the ENDLESS GUITAR BREAK (evidently part of the ENDLESS things that showbiz has given us to ponder, and be endlessly ponderous) into the UGLIEST DRESS which Lance calls a “KAFTAN”, which was white satin with those green and orange sort of bird/rainbow deals on it that reminded me of a nice plastic bib to protect a loving but appearance-aware mother from baby’s messy strained pears, and he billowed about in that for a while before settling on an invisible chair to sing “My Death,” which was the FIRST song the crowd warmed up to, oddly enough.

I mean – I like that song – but in my automatically condescending frame of reference towards “THEM,” it never occurred to me that “THEY” would like it.

Then he stood up and these “mysterious” green-clad figures emerged from the shadowy sides of the stage, each grabbing a sleeve from Mr. B’s outstretched arms, and as they pulled back, the costume pulled off “LIKE MAGIC” to reveal the looniest outfit I had seen in a coon’s age.

It was this skin tight sort of double-knit pantsuit with a silly Penney’s stripes and squares pattern on it, completed with detached leggings and sleeves. The main part of it might have been a tank top, except that it extended up the middle of his chest with the sort of turtleneck collar. And of course his sometimes self-consciously posturing bare feet were a sight for sore eyes, or an eyesore, because I had always wondered if he was really THAT white all over.

So — ON with the fluffily light green feather boa, and a vamp with an ENDLESS cigarette holder (to add to that ENDLESS list) to the tune of a great new song called “Time,” during which the rest of the group re-emerged with a bare chested Mick Ronson, who, mere moments before, had sported a fetching black patent leather outfit, and a bass player ensconced in some sort of madcap bird costume – VERY SPACE AGE OF COURSE – with the stupid but fetching little growths curling out from his shoulders.

Oh dear, am I beginning to sound, heaven forbid, like Star Magazine’s fashion editor?

Well, at least I won’t have to bother to remember it all, because, you – dear diary – will remember it for me!

Anyway, B made his ultimate bid for Piaf-dom with that song “Time,” and then pranced around for a few more songs before ending with the aforementioned “Suffragette City,” only to come back for an encore of “Jean Genie” in a white satin jump suit and white iceberg clogs transparently appropriated from the New York Dolls’ Mercer Arts shows, which caused him some consternation and a very near fall. He kicked them off in the general direction of a pretty enthusiastic crowd. What a show!

But that crowd – they were too boring and wishy-washy to rush the stage, and although Delilah and I tried to fend off the brutish security guards and scramble down the aisle, we were thrown back into the backs of an already despairing audience who were heading towards the exits. What are floor seats floor if not to overcome security? So we sat there in our seats, soaking up energy with no release, and that was time enough to nervously ponder the prospects of just GETTING OUT OF THERE before we were trapped in a jumble of bumbling Long Beach-ites. Almost before the encore was over, Michele, Delilah and I rushed out to the parking lot, and, finding all the exits barricaded for some obscure reason, drove my trusty Vega right over the curb – where it teetered agonizingly for a moment next to the screaming “No Stopping At Any Time” sign, and headed back to Santa Barbara. Jane Boo!

 

 

BIO

Kristian HoffmanKristian Hoffman was the founder and main songwriter for Mumps, his CBGBs era punk/pop combo with Lance Loud of PBS’ “American Family,” also being a member of the Contortions, the Swinging Madisons, and Bleaker Street Incident. He went on to become musical director and songwriter for Klaus Nomi, musical director and songwriter for Ann Magnuson, musical director for Rufus Wainwright, and toured with the Kinks’ Dave Davies for five years.

He has since released four solo CDs, while playing keys, touring and/or songwriting with Congo Norvell, Abby Travis, El Vez, Jane Wiedlin, Prince Poppycock, Timur Bekbosunov, Lydia Lunch, and many more.

 

Maximum Compound: Mug Shots

by Stephanie Dickinson

 

“Anything with glitter is great. The girls go crazy over that. We use it for make-up and art so when you see a card with glitter, send it.” — Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

CLINTON, NJ. Edna Mahon Correctional Facility for Women

Maximum Compound revolves around the sun but the air’s darker and more confined. Understand these aren’t the femme fatales and sex selling dahlias, not the thieves and drug dealers, not the welfare cheats or DUI violators, these women are the violent offenders. They don’t pull up in a Porsche; they’re transported under armed guard. They’re young, they’re ghetto, white trash, a few are middle-aged college-graduates, some will get their GED here and take college classes, others will become senior citizens, some will die here. They’ll arrive pregnant, psychotic, post-traumatically stressed, they’ll deliver their baby here, or have a hysterectomy. They’ve got dreads, and natural blonde locks, they’re tattooed like a graphic novel and wearing the last address of their baby daddy inked on their wrist. Many of these women have killed or kidnapped an employer, neighbor, husband, child, a stranger. Maximum Compound women arrive encumbered with their crimes and the weight of their sentences. They arrive put upon and willing to use anyone.

 

“I need to get some favors if it’s possible. I’m really struggling. I have not been getting my state pay for the last 2 months. I have 1 bar of soap to my name. Is there anyway you can send me $30 by next Wednesday so I can order? I feel like a bum. Also can you call this number for my friend Shanikah and tell him to write her or email her. He lives in Newark but has a house in Summit NJ. Happy Holidays

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

It’s a rule bound world, a world where dance competitions and making birthday chili and rice for your girlfriend co-exist with fight blood on the floor. Although time is filled with a job, a routine, a mess hall schedule, real time stales. It pools around you, goes stagnant, and doesn’t flow. Each day is similar from the view of a locked world, a day hard and long to get through, and the years flying away. There are no hickories and maples and quaking aspen, no huge-eyed deer. No smell of burning pretzel dough. No strolling into a Starbucks for a coffee tall. No dressing to go out looking edible as tiramisu. The outside world stands still, remembered. The inmates in Maximum Compound count their absence from the outside in decades. Television is their one window. Rules, rules. Yet life teems here—new inmates arrive, new friendships, new loves, new hates. I’ve been a friend to this prison planet, this Maximum Compound where the most dangerous women in New Jersey live, the ones who the media portray as topping the depravity index. EMCF lies outside Clinton, a two-hour trip by car from Manhattan, but for those visitors without vehicles, there’s a prison bus that leaves from Midtown on Friday evening and arrives eight hours later. All must prepare to be searched, and to stow their possessions in a locker, before visiting an inmate. No water, no sodas, nothing but your flesh covered appropriately, i.e. no halter tops or bustiers.

 

Can you please find me an image or 2 of Woody Woodpecker, Angry Birds, and Stewie from the Family Guy. My friend needs 3 more copies of gothic lettering. Books must arrive via the publisher or Amazon, but Amazon consistently leaves out the packing slip.”

—Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870-C

 

mugshot #1: Krystal RIORDAN

The reason I’m drawn to this world is Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387. She’s pictured here in sneakers and the white, knee-length shorts and white, short-sleeved t-shirt inmates wear in warm weather. Summers in the New Jersey heat there’s no air conditioning to cool inmates in Maximum Compound only the administrators can control their climate. Winters, Krystal wears grey sweats, an undershirt, a hooded sweatshirt, and tie-up boots. Visiting days, blocks of two hours, a photographer comes and the inmates can pay for pictures with their commissary money. Everything runs through commissary, the real food, the fun food, Tampax and toothbrushes, shampoo and stamps, sneakers and underwear. Krystal is a beauty, her height 5’10”, her skin, the plush pale of an eighteenth century beauty whose face never sees sun and whose lady maid dusts it with a lead powder. Incarcerated for nine years, she’s moved farther beyond the headlines that once focused on her as if she was guiltier than the perpetrator, as if a male’s lust and aggression could be understood, but not a female who doesn’t to stop an attack on a fellow female. On July 26, 2006, Jennifer Moore, age 18, was abducted after a night of underage drinking. Jennifer’s friend drove them in her mother’s car to Manhattan from New Jersey, to go clubbing. The girls parked in a No Standing Zone and when they returned, discovered the car had been towed. The night has interested me since first seeing Jennifer Moore’s picture on the New York Daily News cover. Teen Missing after Night of Underage Drinking. Her face appears as if born underwater of the half-fish, half-human species, dreamily sloe-eyed as if she’s looking over your shoulder. It’s a mysterious face, her half smile like the Mona Lisa’s. The next day the teen’s body is found in a Weehawken dumpster and a pimp and prostitute are under arrest. Weehawken, New Jersey. The ménage à trois that ends with one girl dead, the other girl charged as an accomplice, and her boyfriend confessing to kidnapping, murder, and rape. The city built on the rock cliffs overlooks the Hudson, the pristine waterway that Henry Hudson, the great navigator, marveled at like the Hackensack nation before him. Manhattan lies just across the river and from the ferry launch Weehawken’s cliffs appear as pedestals for trees and stone mansions—like dreams half-remembered in the sleeping heads of robber barons.

 

 

“I used to get a lot of mail but I never wrote them back. “I’m glad you’re in my life. I asked my Mom if she would be interested in talking to you. She said she doesn’t want to dig into the past. That time was hard for her. The Media following them. People they thought were their friends stopped talking to them. She said when she goes out people still whisper behind her back. She will be 70 in November.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

And it was a mugshot I first saw of Krystal Riordan on the cover of the New York Daily News. Hooker Watched boyfriend kill teen. Arrested at age 20, the prostitute girlfriend of ex-con and small-time pimp Draymond Coleman, she had watched him beat and strangle eighteen-year-old Jennifer Moore in a Weehawken hotel room. Panicked, frozen, she’d not tried to stop him. Although, she’d left the room during the assault, she’d alerted no-one and had used the venting machine to buy a soda. This act was caught on the hot-sheet hotel’s video camera, a shabby black-and-white world where green plants, blue water, and air didn’t exist. Sure he would kill her next, she’d split into two beings, one watching herself from a distance. Not quite a robot programmed to obey him, but loyal to a fault. Wearing a pink tube top with spaghetti straps, a nose piercing, and silver necklace, her lips looked caught in mid-tremble. The mugshot that captures her soft face and frightened eyes speak their own truth. Draymond had cracked wide open, he’d snapped. Terrified, she helped him clean the dead girl’s body, and together they disposed of Jennifer in a nearby dumpster. A public defender represented her. Her sentence: thirty years. The maximum. Tabloids had a field day with the story—the underage girl/victim, a hooker, rape and murder. Fox News blamed the victim, pointing out Jennifer’s scanty attire as if a halter top had made the teen deserving of her rape. What should have been a teenage misadventure, an impulsive flirtation with the forbidden, led to ultimate consequences. Bloggers portrayed Draymond Coleman as a force of nature, bestial, hardly human and uninteresting, while they pilloried Krystal as if she were the murderer. On the escort circuit I imagine her blinking her blue icicle eyes but warm icicles. Later she will tell a friend that Draymond had sex with Jennifer after she was dead. In county jail Krystal stared at the floor for month, not speaking.

 

“Please look in the jewelry section for a cross and chain (Walkenhorsts.com caters to Institutions). The cross no larger than 1 inch by 1 inch. The chain no longer than 12 inches. I want to give Krystal a cross for her birthday. It is the only necklace they allow.”

Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870-C

 

&

After you’ve befriended an inmate, the Maximum Compound of requests comes at you, things that only someone on the outside can finesse. “Please help me buy a toy for my daughter’s birthday from Kmart or Toys R Us. Some type of fashion design kit of lip glosses or a cute purse from Hey Kitty.” You who can make duplicates of court documents, who can goggle and download welfare applications, who can Xerox copies in full-color of the nameless photographs that come in stacks. The photographs are so old especially those of the outside: photos of three girls sticking out their pierced tongues, arms thrown around each other; girls in indigo-blue robes graduating, choir girls singing; girls in slinky club clothes blowing lipsticked kisses. Some photos are so taped they stick to the glass of the Xerox machine and you feel the heft of something precious in your hands, many are of children—brown-eyed boys and girls ages 2 to 7, infants in flannel footsie pajamas, many of the children’s photos are old and those pictured have grown and left behind the selves they are here, but to their mothers the children are fixed, they do not change. The new photographs are from the inside of Maximum Compound—a parade of women in pairs standing before colorful wall painting (as if an altar) wearing winter’s grey sweats or summer’s teeshirts, lovers, friends, cellmates. The newest inmates have Facebook pages and you can look up their profile and page and print pictures from their photo gallery, but no pictures with gang signs or middle fingers or else you can color out hand signs with a marker, but please do send information i.e. the inmate number and address to dirt buddies, (friends from the cradle to the grave).

In Maximum Compound a Santa comes on Christmas. The state pays for the holiday bus that brings children of inmates to Edna Mahan. Here for photographs the inmates wear beige dress slacks and mannish short-sleeved shirts.The pretty mother, heavily tattooed with arms crossed over her chest, stands next to Santa, a scowling black man in red suit and dazzlingly white beard. He’s an inmate from the men’s prison and the baby boy on his lap is howling. On the back of the photo the 20 year old mother Evy Shine has written, “My baby boy don’t like Santa. Me and my Prince Duce.”

 

&

When Krystal first entered the locked land of EMCH she had a cell to herself and worked on the grounds detail. She mowed lawns, painted, waxed floors, took out the trash, and moved people from Maximum to Minimum Security. After almost nine years into her time served her public defender requests through the courts for a sentence reduction. It is denied. Here everyone likes her, both inmates and guards, but that can change in an instant. A slight. A perceived insult. She rarely criticizes anyone and never the prison. Every word leaving or entering the correctional facility is monitored. The Edna Mahan website itself says: “Incoming general postal correspondence may be read as frequently as is necessary to keep safety and security or watch any problems regarding any inmates.” And then a new inmate punches her in the face in the mess hall. Krystal defends herself and finds herself taken to solitary confinement, so too the new inmate who rumor says is psychotic. The only way Krystal could have avoided punishment would be to let herself be hit.

 

“Can you send this to Shaniqua Pierre. Hey Puddin Cup, I was going through my stuff and found letters from you. I really miss you and need you in my life. You were and are my better half. You know we always find our way back. I love you so much. I will be down there on Saturday. Maybe we can get some time together. Write me back on here. Stephanie will send it to me. I wish you were with me right now so I can do some things like we did in Ad Seg.) I didn’t want to leave. I could have done my whole time with you in there. Well I love you. I miss you. Love Always. Snuggle Bunny.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

In solitary you have quiet time 23 hours a day. 3 showers five minutes each a week. No commissary so Krystal stops eating. She lies on her bunk remembering movies she’s seen. In one a jet stream opens the sky with its tail of mist. Clouds herding, long blue tusks and storm brewing. Panning shots of the Greek caves, temple ruins, islands—chunks of burning lamb over the sea’s fire. If you talk like that with the street pimps their eyes roll back. On the third day she starts making her own movies up. She stars in them. The fine restaurant in Acapulco and on her cocktail fork the white of a shrimp with red vessels. Dessert’s a flaming baked Alaska. Dining out takes three hours. She stars herself as the Marriott maid who cleans the room of Tristan Wilds from The Wire, a hot black actor under 30 Soon they’re both sprawled in the chaises, the remains of breakfast, scrambled eggs and muffins, spilled over. Raspberry jam and butter for lube. She wears a long billowing white robe. The robe’s spreads across the aquamarine pool’s surface like a napkin. The blue is the color of her eyes, she dives in. Here is another movie the one in which she escapes Draymond and her own fate. Her blond hair is matted. She’s wearing a long skirt and a tube top. There are red crumbs around her nostrils. The bell clerk is from Guyana, (like the one at the Park Avenue Hotel) and he’s fallen in love with her. It is the Park Avenue Hotel and the murder hasn’t yet happened. “That lout must have hit you,” he says. “I want to take you away from this place.” She’s picked Jennifer Hudson from Dreamgirls for the role. Funny, it’s a woman she’s cast in the role of a man. “I don’t know how it can be but your face takes my heartbeat away. You are just the right pretty for me.” They are in a tropical country and Krystal’s wearing a thong. She shouldn’t be half naked like that in her fiancé’s Guyana with mosquitoes like small birds and disapproving eyes everywhere. You smack your arm when you feel them drinking their blood meal and your hands come away wet. But soon the woman-man and Krystal are naked and making love.

 

“Steph, me and Nicole were damaged when we got adopted. I would always tell the Riordans they weren’t my parents. I just wanted to go home. I feel like I’m losing it. Please don’t think I’m crazy but I’ve been smelling sometimes lately…I don’t know what it is. But it’s triggering something in me. It’s a bad feeling and my stomach starts to turn. I get scared and want to go somewhere and throw up. I think the smells goes back to when I was young and my uncle was touching me.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

In solitary there is time for life review. Krystal is 29 years old. The child of a prostitute and a drug dealer, Krystal spent the first five years of her life in a dirty apartment sharing a bed with her two sisters, growing up hungry and neglected, nights the oldest sister would ferry out into the wilds of the kitchen in search of food, pilfering the empty cupboards and refrigerator, coming back with treasures of dill pickles and canned ravioli. Tomato-mouthed little girls nestled against each other. Then the night men would visit, brought to the bedside by her mother. The silver bellied men. There are fishes who build nests in the weed-choked waters, like the stickleback, with its long body and strong jaw. The mother lays the eggs in the seaweed nest, and the father fans water over the eggs, then he guards the hatched offspring until they are ready to leave the nest. Krystal’s birth parents were less nurturing than the stickleback. Once the wan blond girl started school, in the fluorescent’s objective light the neglect was apparent. Now Eva has reached her 49th year and her picture on the people profile finder shows Krystal’s biological mother living in Connecticut and still married to Krystal’s father. The tiny photo shows a black-haired woman dressed in grey stretch pants tights bent over and mooning the camera, so what you mainly see is her buttocks. In Charlie’s photo he wears a white t-shirt imprinted with a pot leaf and exhales a gigantic cloud. When Krystal closes her eyes and tries to remember her early years, there’s nothing there but her uncle stroking her hair and then his fingers moving over her, touching her.

 

“As far as the “work” goes, most of the men were okay. A few jerks. The police were the worst. One put a gun to my head. Another put a knife. They would force you to do favors for free. Usually some weird stuff. How would you feel about me putting you on my phone list? It can only be a land line. I think one goes in within a few weeks.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

Krystal once lived at night and slept days. She worked in the world’s oldest profession inviting strangers to enter her body. I want to ask her about the sex, and while I’ve asked her about the murder, I’ve not gone too near the sex. Did she always use condoms? How did the work make her feel? How much of it was straight sex? When her ad read full-service what did that mean. What kind of men did she attract, and how did she find them? craigslist? I read on-line that one of the escort services Krystal worked for accused her of cheating them out of their percentage.

“My sister Nicole hasn’t been seen or heard from since December. She’s getting high again. Steph, you send me books. My family hasn’t sent me one book in 8 years. I don’t think they understand the whole commissary concept. I have to order everything, nothing is given out. I need to order clothing, sneakers, food, cosmetics, personals. You’re really my only source of income.”

— Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

Krystal tells me of being sent to Elan, the exclusive boarding school for troubled teens. Her adoptive parents, partners in the Greenhaus Riordan accounting firm, don’t know what to do with her. She’s ruining their reputations. Once at Elan she’s made to write a letter to them confessing her sins. She’s never had sex, never had a boyfriend, yet she’s forced, this virgin molested before the age of five, to call herself a whore. “It was a lockdown residential school. I was there for three years. If I’d never been sent there, I might have had a full basketball scholarship. The scouts were watching me from junior high on. In group therapy I started to believe I’d done all those things.” And in Elan she meets other troubled teens, many will later appear in police blotters some charged with murder. After graduation Krystal escapes to New York City, moving in with a girl she went to Elan with. The girl works as a prostitute and initiates Krystal into the trade. You don’t need a resume. No references. Men desiring her enough to pay money for her favors makes her feel beautiful. A princess in a fairy-tale. Placing ads on craigslist, calling herself Lisa, offering the $150 special. The good money buys her clothes and a truck; the good money attracts Draymond Coleman, the husky ex-con.

 

Please send Antoinette Carter the Cristal Bic Pens. Please send ASAP. Her numbers are #179192E/761091. Well I love the Halloween cards. I can’t wait to use the glitter for make-up. I also received Love Highway today. I will start it tonight. Don’t worry I won’t be mad. Your friend Krystal

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

Sometimes she dreams of returning to the weathered buildings of Weehawken—its sooty cliffs. The Park Avenue Hotel, a single-room occupancy, five-story brick dungeon in the middle of the block, is gone, torn down after the “notorious murder of an 18 year-old girl” in one of its rooms. A senior center has taken its place. Is that a sign that Krystal will be 50 upon her release, almost a senior? Thelonius Monk spent the last years of his life in Weehawken. And Monk’s syncopations might have been playing on WBGO in the taxi ferrying the soon-to-be murdered Jennifer and her Good Samaritan through the Lincoln Tunnel and into the cliff city. The jazz musician’s genius—tinkling piano like the bebop stirring of ice in a mixed drink, like one of the many—the blue licorice, the amaretto—the doomed teen had consumed that night. Across the street from the now senior citizen center there’s still the Dunkin’ Donuts where Candida Moore wishes Jennifer had sought shelter. Krystal staggers into the darkness, “Hey, wait,” she calls to the girl in white mini and black halter. Who doubts that Jennifer is still out there wading into the darkness. Alone.

 

“When you love someone too much, you can’t see past that person. That’s how I felt about Dray. I thought I couldn’t live without him. I can’t compare the way I loved Dray to the way you love Rob. But if I did, I hope that wouldn’t offend you. I never considered myself a strong person. People say if they got the time I got. They would kill themselves. They ask how I do it. Why I’m so nice.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

The Krystal who lives behind bars seems freer than the baby-faced prostitute trapped between her pimp/boyfriend Draymond Coleman, the funny charmer, and Draymond, the killer ex-con. Letters still come from him. “You showed me true love and I didn’t know how to handle it. I thought it was all a game, but it was true. You put your name on your body. You had my baby. You gave me everything. Now it’s all gone thanks to my stupid ass.” There are paragraphs of complete sentences with no misspellings, letters written in a delicate cursive. “We’ll be Natural Born Killers,” he told her after Jennifer’s last breaths. It surprises me to see the handwriting, and think of the same hand breaking every bone in a young girl’s face. Yet Krystal’s never forsaken him. You could interpret that as a great weakness or a strength. “I’m no longer in love with him but I still care for him. He has no one else.” Yes, Krystal bore him a baby girl who Child Welfare Services removed after finding marijuana in the infant’s blood. The night of his arrest Draymond claims that he’d picked up a working girl at the Port Authority. “I am not a wholesome man,” he tells police, “but I am no murderer.” Wholesome, such an odd word to choose. My mother’s generation used it to describe a good girl, a wholesome girl, what they hoped for in their daughters.

 

“Krystal and I can both have 24 pens sent to each of us, and I found a place that will send 24 pens, including shipping and tax, for about $16.50 in total. The pens would be very helpful in many ways to us. I will e-mail you the info when I get a chance (website, item #’s and costs).”

— Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870-C

 

Eight years after the murder, the inmate Krystal is bitten by a spider and her elbow and forearm swell up. When the redness starts to fade, another bite appears on her arm, and on her leg. Krystal goes to Medical and is told the spider’s venom has caused a blood infection. The poison is oozing out through those spots. The spots are like weeping red eyes that open on her torso. Where the poison seeps out it eats away at her flesh, leaving deep and painful wounds. The inflamed sore on her leg makes it impossible to walk and then the soaring fever sets in. Antibiotics and Motrin are at last prescribed. I wonder if Dray is finally leaving her body. Pour rum over yourself and strike a match—ultimate flambé. His dark poison, his love.

 

* * *

 

 

BIO

Stephanie DickinsonStephanie Dickinson, an Iowa native, lives in New York City. Her work appears in Hotel Amerika, Mudfish, Weber Studies, Fjords, Water-Stone Review, Gargoyle, Rhino, Stone Canoe, Westerly, and New Stories from the South, among others. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her recent novel Love Highway, based on the 2006 Jennifer Moore murder. Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, was released in 2013 by New Michigan Press. Her work has received multiple distinguished story citations in the Pushcart Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and Best American Mysteries.

 

 

 

UFO image

The Y Factor:
“Deep Nasal Passage” Reveals Pre-Launch Secrets of
The X-Files

by
Paul “Watch the Skies” Garson

 

You might have been there on the night of Friday, September 10, 1993 when the new The X-Files TV show broke cover, appearing for the first time on the Fox Television Network. I say “there” in the sense that you were sitting in front of your television and probably like millions of other viewers never getting up even to pee during the nine seasons of over 200 episodes. Maybe the operative word was “spellbound.” And just maybe, just maybe I had something to do with your mesmerization and the subsequent babbling of the mantra “I Want to Believe.” Why? Y? Because I was the guy that got contacted initially to make a presentation about the current UFO scene to the show’s creator, Chris Carter at Twentieth Century Fox Studios in Century City, some months before the X-Files even debuted.

Why was I the Go-to-Guy for the Out-of-this-World info? Now I am not aware personally of a deep nasal implant of an alien probe, nor have fleeting memories of floating up through my ceiling. But I have met many who have. So maybe it had something to do with a feature article that I had written for the now lost OMNI magazine, a quality publication serving up of science and science fiction first published in 1978, then having the plug pulled in 1995. My article concerned the UFO Abductee phenomena and centered around my meetings with an abductee counseling group. It also happened that for a while I was a field investigator for the Mutual UFO Network aka MUFON, the worldwide organization collecting UFO data since 1969. I had also been privy to various private meetings with the leading investigators, the likes of the late Budd Hopkins and Jonathan Mack of Harvard. And, yes, I had personally seen some pretty strange stuff in my time, well, okay, X-Files-ish, stuff. So someone must have read the article and clued Chris Carter in on me, plus it also helped that I was living in the neighborhood and could easily levitate on over in my creaky 1984 devolving Volvo.

So I drive myself over to the Twentieth Century Fox studios, and successfully pass the heightened credentials check at the security checkpoint, which amounts to my name on a clipboard. Either my car or I elicit a grimace from the guard, no doubt an actor waiting for his big break. I eventually find a parking space, and remember this is all pre-retinal scan, pre-GPS, and start meandering through the multi-cloned production offices until I locate one marked with “X-Files” on a small sign. I’m quickly ushered into a room that has a certain claustrophobic feel to it, no doubt heightened by the odd, very low ceiling. Not quite a bunker ambiance, but close. Chris Carter is there to greet me, as are seven or eight other young-looking guys and gals of his “crew.” My first impression was their “focus.” It was, well, intense. Under such scrutiny did I feel like a fish or maybe a merman in a fish bowl? Well, kinda. Was I was sweating under my fingernails as I held the notes I had prepared for my presentation? Well, perhaps a little seepage. I had been asked to focus on the subject of the paranormal aka “high strangeness” goings on, monsters, UFOs, etc. Because at that time I didn’t exactly know where the X-Files was going, I had put together a smorgasbord of weirdness in my presentation from my own files and experiences.

As I began going through a litany of wacked out worldwide events, I did feel a certain deficiency in the oxygen supply in the rather close quarters. A lot of people in a little room can accelerate the carbon dioxide levels. A side effect is wooziness, even memory loss. And the X-Filers all seemed to keep leaning closer and closer as I spoke. Forget the fishbowl, I was more like the bug under the microscope. Was it a mind probe? Or were they just somewhat hard of hearing after listening to all the weird electronic X-Files soundtrack music? Who knew? But in any case I don’t remember any of them uttering a single word as I rambled on for about 45 minutes. What did I tell them? It’s a bit of a blur now. I seem to best remember what transpired during my dreams after eating cheese late at night. Especially Mozzarella. Hmmmm. Let me close my eyes for a moment and dream cheesy thoughts. Ummmm.

Okay, that’s better. Well, now I’m pretty sure I cited the case of The Eskimo Village. The report concerned an Inuit Village nestled at water’s edge that had been found devoid of any of its many inhabitants. Racks of fish still drying in the air. Pots boiling over fires. The only traces were hundreds of footprints leading out of the village and then suddenly stopping en mass, not another step taken, as if the entire village disappeared into the frigid Arctic air. No trace was ever found of any of the villagers. And looking up from my notes, I saw the X-Filers still staring fixedly at me … shall I say, icily. I didn’t see anyone taking notes. Maybe they had good memories or thought my story was uh, fishy … or Eskimo pie in the sky… or? Wait, I don’t do puns, I was now certain the oxygen level was definitely dropping, the CO2 rising. Oddly, the X-Filers seemed to thrive on the new atmosphere, nostrils flaring, eyes bulging. I looked away, back to my notes.

What else did I mention? The Farmer in the Field story. It went something like this. One day this farmer, way out in the middle of nowhere, maybe Kansas or Iowa, walks out into his field and doesn’t come home for dinner of meatloaf and squash. His wife spends days looking for him in the fields, the meatloaf long grown cold. Then one day she hears him calling her name as if he’s nearby. Which he isn’t, because she can’t see anyone, not even a scarecrow in sight. But she returns to the spot for several more days, his voice there, but growing weaker, fainter … until one day it’s gone altogether. Then I go into the story about the guy back in the 1960s that shoots something tall and hairy and keeps it stuffed in a freezer at his cabin in the woods, photos of it showing up in a magazine, and people writing in about maybe it was manslaughter, and then zip, gone, all mention disappearing. I follow my presentation with the mass sightings of UFOs over Washington, D.C. in 1952, then the records concerning Alexander the Great and the Persians about to do battle when three huge “flaming shields” that drop out of the sky and scare the bejeesuz out of the war elephants which promptly turn tail and stomp their own troops. I seem to remember reeling off a litany of lunar anomalies and probably a mention of the Belgian UFO wave, plus a dozen more “vignettes” of things “not of this Earth.” There were dates and names and details to all these stories as I related them, but still not a pad and pencil in sight from the X-Files crew. What in Hell’s Bells name were they waiting for?

Finally I get to the end of my discourse, and there’s a long, what you might call pregnant silence. Then I think it was Chris Carter himself who finally says something. “Do you think there is a government cover-up about UFOs?” Now it’s my turn to be dumbfounded. I stutter a bit, then finally say, “Well, yes, of course.” Those were the last words out of my mouth. Then it was wham, bang, thank you ma’am, can you find your way to your car?”

I never hear another peep, much less a high-pitched humming sound, back from The X-Files production team. But I do watch once the show debuts. I think there was one episode about an Eskimo village. Yes? No?

Now, years later, and after this now public “confession” about my own “lost” X-files episode, I feel I have the right to make some comments about the newly resurrected X-Files show in 2016. For starters, Mulder is just bit more Muldery around the edges, while Scully, really trimmed down, is looking good some 14 years after the airing of the last of the originals. I can’t say that much for the “revised” story line, this whole schamoogle about UFOs being a secret U.S. government conspiracy. But then I gotta remember all the giant triangles floating blimplike and silently over hill and dale and the fact that U.S. aircraft technology has already advanced 20+ years beyond what we see, including the present day and virtually old hat stealth aircraft. State-of-the-art stealth is now probably totally invisible. Anything’s possible, right? Even Trump as President. So UFO’s from secret U.S. bases, no problem.

Then again I remind myself that the history of strange flying objects wobbles back literally thousands of years and that human knowledge has always been constrained by a combination of ignorance and ego compounded by panic stricken blind fear. So I say, nah! to the U.S. government owning UFOs. I remember that people got roasted at the stake for stating the earth was not the center of the solar system, and that until about 1920 scientists declared there was only one galaxy and we owned that. Now how many have they tallied … 10,000,000,000 … that’s ten billion galaxies of over 100 billion stars each. Do the math. And factoring into Drake’s famous equation about planets with advanced civilizations and your head starts buzzing. Wait a minute … what is that buzzing … do you hear it? Do you?!

 

 

BIO

Paul GarsonPaul Garson lives and writes in Los Angeles, his articles regularly appearing in a variety of national and international periodicals. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and USC Media Program, he has taught university composition and writing courses and served as staff Editor at several motorsport consumer magazines as well as penned two produced screenplays. Many of his features include his own photography, while his current book publications relate to his “photo-archeological” efforts relating to the history of WWII in Europe, through rare original photos collected from more than 20 countries. Links to the books can be found on Amazon.com. More info at www.paulgarsonproductions.com or via paulgarson@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

The Paul Garson Files

Silas WIllard Schoolhouse

The Opposite of Suicide II

by Kyle Mustain

 

The essay is obviously the opposite of that awful object, ‘the article’…
—William Gass

 

Over the years I formed this dream about my writing. Not a hard goal, like wanting to have a book published by age thirty-five. Instead my dream was immaterial: I wanted simply to know the feeling of being approached by a stranger, to say, “I’m sorry, but I just wanted to take the chance to tell you, I love your work.” After I published “The Opposite of Suicide” in the December 2014 issue of The Writing Disorder, that dream finally came true, many times.

I spent three mostly sleepless months researching, writing, and editing the essay I am most proud of. Then I spent over a year trying to get it published. When it finally hit the Web, nothing much happened at first. Then, about a month later, some parties discovered the essay, and used it to have me fired from my job as a substitute teacher. After I was terminated from my position, the essay went micro-viral, which means it was passed around a lot, among a very specific set of people—namely people from Central Illinois; people who lived near or had originally come from my hometown of Galesburg, Illinois.

I had mixed emotions about this, as I was glad my work was finally being read, but I did not believe I deserved to be terminated for it. As it happened, my dream did finally come true. People, most of them students at Galesburg High School, approached me in public.

Only what they said to me was: “I loved your article.”

Let’s get some things straight. The school district that fired me was not the same one I wrote about in the first essay. The school district that fired me was a rural community outside of my hometown. I had taken a position as a long-term substitute teacher practically over night after a teacher gave her resignation. It is still unclear to me why she left, but I know some controversy surrounded it, and that her resignation was asked for by the school board.

Before I move on there are still more things to clear up. In the first essay I kept the name of my hometown a secret. All of the identities of persons not related to me were given new names. With the exception of the underage students, I did not have to do this. I did it to maintain people’s anonymity. It was my piece of writing, my work, my opinions, and I didn’t want to muddle things for anyone else. I went to great lengths to conceal the name of my hometown and the school district for the aforementioned reasons, but most importantly to the points I was trying to make in the original piece: I wanted the message to come across that this could be anywhere in Small—or Medium—town, USA.

A major point I would like to make is that practically none of the first essay was about Lombard Middle School. That is the school I lived closest to when I was substitute teaching. I worked there probably 90% of the time I was subbing. No one who works at Lombard should feel like anything in the first essay was directed at them. I adore everyone I worked with at that school, both in the classrooms and the office. Truly, I felt at home there and believe that is the best school in all of the district.

More things to address: After I was terminated from the rural school district, I did call the personnel coordinator for my hometown school district and asked if I could have my old job back. She inquired the head of human resources. Within a few hours she reinstated my registration as a substitute teacher for Community Unit School District 205. The coordinator scheduled me for a date three weeks off. The first thought that popped into my head was, I have three weeks to find a new job . . .

A few days later I called her again and quit, even without having a new job.

Last item to address: In case there are any students of District 205 who are still confused: No, I did not commit suicide. I am very much alive, well, and living in New York City.

Let’s begin.

 

Operation Save Silas

This is a letter I wrote to the editor of the Galesburg Register Mail in early 2014:

Over the weekend a group of concerned citizens met to discuss alternatives to tearing down Silas Willard. When the question was asked, why the School Board would want the community to invest in a new building designed to only last 20-30 years, I cracked a joke, “They’re probably looking ahead to the future because in 20-30 years hardly anyone will live here anymore.” The room erupted in laughter, which quickly hushed into awkward silence. On our current path that could very well be the city’s future.

I moved back to Galesburg in the fall of 2012 after a twelve year absence. It has been my pleasure to serve this community as a substitute teacher for District 205 over the past year. As we near the summer, I am faced with the decision of whether to stay here. I have friends all over the world begging me to come live in their cities. New York, Chicago, Portland, these places all entice me. But I’m constantly giving Galesburg the benefit of the doubt; the chance for her to redeem herself to me.

One young couple I befriended in grad school relocated to Bloomington, Indiana. Now, parts of that city are as redneck as you can get. But others are quite simply stunning. Take a drive around that city and you will see historic buildings and schoolhouses, all preserved and modernized. Not just around the university, but the whole city has this vibe like things are actually happening there. That community has committed itself to maintaining a standard of beauty that cultivates a pleasant, inviting environment.

It is my belief and the belief of many people in this community that Silas Willard and buildings like it create that kind of pleasant environment within Galesburg.

At this meeting I attended over the weekend, two young couples living in the Silas Willard neighborhood said that school building was a major attraction to settling their families in Galesburg. Both young couples expressed that if the building were to be torn down, they would begin plans to relocate.

What I’m getting at is destroying landmarks like Silas Willard gives outsiders the wrong impression. If anything, it shows that we don’t care enough about our history to try to preserve it. There are less and less things that make Galesburg unique. Why would anyone from outside want to move here when it continually tries to make itself look like everyplace else? For that matter, why should anyone stay?

 

Urban Sprawl and Push-and-Pull

Think of this way: building outward and upward; building anew instead of reusing what’s already in place; corporate chains coming in, buying land cheaply instead of having to pay rent in preexisting structures, building their cookie-cutter stores instead of opening shop in unique, unused storefronts. After time, the cities who let this happen become littered with mini-malls (ironic play on “minimal,” ever notice that?). It isn’t long before these retail spaces, cheaper because of their lower overhead, take prevalence over the older buildings. Stores move out of the older buildings, leaving them uncared for so they end up becoming condemned.

Mini-malls and cookier-cutter franchise buildings look cheap because they are. They look sad and lacking in character because, well. And that is precisely the type of building going in as the new Silas Willard.

From a US Department of Agriculture Pamphlet:

. . . total rural population has declined slightly for several years, as slowing natural population growth fails to offset net migration away from rural areas; this is the first time rural population declined since data became available in 1950 that could detect such a trend. At the same time, long-term trends continue to concentrate the most highly educated members of the working-age population in urban areas where the personal economic returns to higher education are greater.

This paragraph is extremely important. What it basically says is rural population in the US is decreasing, and that those who come from rural communities, then earn higher educations are choosing not to return to their hometowns. Keep this in mind throughout this essay.

15% of the US lives in rural or “non-metro” areas. That means people who call rural America “The Real America” are way, way mistaken. And since the Great Recession people have been migrating away from rural areas. Galesburg, with a population of 32,195 is just big enough to be considered a city.

However, despite the lower earnings available in rural areas, some individuals and families do migrate from urban to rural areas at all levels of educational attainment, as quality-of-life factors, lower housing costs, personal ties, or other specific opportunities motivate them to move or move back to rural America.

After I returned to Galesburg, I made several friends who grew up in inner-city Chicago or St. Louis, who actually chose to move to Galesburg because of reasons listed above. They saw greater opportunity for themselves in a small city than in the big city. So, there is interest for people from the metropolises to move to communities like Galesburg. Why not take advantage of that?

According to this study, education has a lot to do with the success of an area. It’s a no-brainer that we should be investing heavily in improving education. But currently there are cuts on education which puts us at an impasse.

The largest factory in town, Admiral (which became Maytag in the 90s), left in 2003. Let me just say there are many ways to court a company to set up in a town, but it can’t all be based on smooth-talking. The people who built those companies and run them got where they are by being shrewd. And when they do their research and find something as simple as the school district continually making poor choices with its money, it’s an easy conclusion that they are going to have trouble drawing talented workers to live there, so they decide not to take the gamble.

It’s a vicious cycle we’re on: Nobody wants to move there because nobody who lives there even wants to be there. I read essays and articles all the time by other writers whose hometowns are going through the same thing. And yet these small towns keep making the same mistakes over and over. Something trite should go here, some Horatio Alger shit about making America great again, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t right, either. I’m sorry, but ‘Murica just isn’t working.

The fact that we even have such an idiotic term as ‘Murica is indicative of a split in the American identity. We fight over this. How can we be unified on anything if we can’t even agree on what we are anymore?

 

Factors of Migration Push Factors Pull Factors
ECONOMIC Emigration away from area with few job opportunities Immigration to areas where jobs are more available; areas with more valuable natural resources, or new industries
CULTURAL Forced migration has occurred for these main reasons: slavery, political instability, and fear of persecution. People are attracted to democratic countries that encourage individual choice in education, career, and place of residence. After Communists gained control of Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, many people in that region were pulled toward the democracies in Western Europe and North America.

This is adapted from a chart on the Lewis Historical Society website. [http://lewishistoricalsociety.com/wiki2011/tiki-read_article.php?articleId=28] It breaks down the main factors influencing what is known and the “push-and-pull factors” of migration.

 

If the trend of push-and-pull migration away from rural areas is not a primarily economic anomaly, then the problem these numbers aren’t telling us is why people choose to move away from Rural America. This is not an inconsequential number—We are talking tens of millions of people fleeing their hometowns because of ignorance, bigotry, and hypocrisy. If we were to record all of these untold stories, just imagine what kind of impact it could have—to finally hold a true mirror up to the real ‘Murica and show it how ugly it really is.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Galesburg. It happens in places like Quincy, Pekin, Elmhurst. The list goes on of these fuck-up towns. They become self-homogenizing. Then they run themselves into the ground because of their lack of diversity.

When I was working on a piece about Carl Sandburg, I wanted to explore this idea a little more closely. I wanted some facts and figures, nothing too overwhelming, but a good sampling. I called the record keeper at Galesburg High School, informing that person I was an alumnus working on a paper for grad school. I asked if I could just have the list of the student rankings from the class of ’99, thinking surely this person could pull that info up quickly. She said she would do it, but I think once she got the sense of what I wanted the information for, she never sent it to me.

Now, Dad would have been all “Freedom of Information Act” on her and submitted a formal request. But I let it go. Besides, all getting that data would have done is confirm for me my suspicion: The top performers in my class did not return to Galesburg after getting college and post-graduate degrees.

In short, every year towns like Galesburg are losing all of their intelligent people. This says many things, and this information could be hit from several different angles to extrapolate all the different factors for why people choose not to go back. But I think it’s safe to conclude that this is indicative of a place that does not value intelligence.

Notice the repeating forms of rectangular geometry, perfectly parallel, and perpendicular lines. Buildings like Silas Willard that were part of the Prairie School Movement were visual odes to the landscape; designed to look as if they were part of the prairie landscape themselves. Unique, it can be truly said there is nothing quite like them in the rest of the world, and there are precious few left.

Notice the repeating forms of rectangular geometry, perfectly parallel, and perpendicular lines. Buildings like Silas Willard that were part of the Prairie School Movement were visual odes to the landscape; designed to look as if they were part of the prairie landscape themselves. Unique, it can be truly said there is nothing quite like them in the rest of the world, and there are precious few left.

 

School Board Face-Off

That letter to the editor of The Register Mail was never sent in. My father advised me not to. After he read it, he expressed his concern that sending that letter might endanger my job at District 205. The way he put it, “If the board members or any other high-ups read this and take it the wrong way, they could make your life very difficult—I wouldn’t put anything past these people.”

Well, I got nothing to lose anymore.

When the school board members strolled in for the special meeting over Silas Willard Schoolhouse, I was immediately struck by the grotesque image of fluorescent light bouncing off a row of pasty white skulls. Many of the board members and high-ups of the school district are facsimiles of the same archetype: pudgy bald white men way past their primes. I don’t have much of a place to speak, my grandfather was also a bald white man on the school board well past his prime. But that was also fifty fucking years ago.

Since the mid-1990s my father, Douglas Mustain, has been saving my childhood elementary school from being torn down. It repeatedly comes before the school board as if it is “a decision that has to be faced.” No, the building is perfectly sound, and would remain to be so for at least another forty years.

In 2006 he, my mother, and several other members of the community went to the school board with a well-researched argument he wrote titled PRESERVING SILAS WILLARD. The board limits public comments to three minutes at the podium. So, my father began reading from the document. When his three minutes were up, my mother, Sharon Mustain, stood up at the podium, stated her name, profession, address, then began reading where my father had left off. When my mother’s time was up, another member of Operation Save Silas stood up, gave her name, profession, address, then read from where my mother had left off. Members of the group followed in this fashion until the entire 8-page document was read aloud before the school board’s reluctant ears.

Whenever I read over that document, I love that my dad kept hitting the point that if the district chose to renovate the schoolhouse instead of build anew, they would have money left over in case they wanted to make some cool additions, really pimp the place out. That year Operation Save Silas was able to postpone the demolition of the building, yet again.

But, the school board was not finished with Silas yet. In the fall of 2013, they voted to destroy and replace the building. My father was outraged because they made the vote brashly and with no opportunity for the public to voice their say in the matter. An earlier iteration of the board had determined the vote would go to referendum. But, when a new superintendent of finance and interim superintendent of schools came in, they changed it to a board decision, taking the public’s voice in the matter out of the equation.

So, in the spring of 2014, we and many disgruntled community members got together every Saturday to brainstorm ideas for how to bring the school board around to our way of seeing things. We got the board to agree to hear us in a special meeting set for April 7, 2014.

It had been a busy week. My father and other members of Operation Save Silas met with each board member individually, suggesting what could be done with the $11 million the district would save by simply renovating. The more they appealed to their senses of reason, Dad began to feel a few of the board members had turned their minds.

All we needed was someone to make a motion for a vote. A majority vote would save Silas once and for all.

When the public comments time was over, every single board member made a statement about the schoolhouse. One remarked that previous iterations of the school board, going all the way back to the 90s, were “faced with the decision” regarding whether to tear Silas down because of its numerous life safety issues and poor conditions (which was actually all due to deferred maintenance). As he saw it, “this can had been kicked down the road several times,” and now it was this board who would finally bury the hatchet in this ongoing problem that is Silas Willard Schoolhouse.

Others from the board lamented that they had already voted on this matter the previous fall. By holding this special meeting, they were in fact doing us a favor, and going against protocol. So, a couple board members stated that overturning their decision would “damage the board’s credibility.”

That seemed to be the angle the board decided was best to play—that to save face, they could not possibly go back on a decision they had already made. Those of us pleading with them were simply too late. We should have been there in October, even though the board slipped that earlier vote by us.

The board president spoke and actually commended us community members for our hard work and time invested in contacting the board members. This inspired rousing applause from my fellow Operation Save Silas members. I could not bear to put my hands together for this man. We’d met a few times while I had been subbing, although he never bothered introducing himself to me. I guess by his expensive-looking overcoat I was supposed to just assume he was somebody important. He has a goatee, I have a beard. There’s definitely a divide between the kinds of people who wear goatees and those of us who wear beards—I know a tool when I see one.

He played aloof when he asked the district attorney whether there needed to be a vote. They both put on this spectacle of befuddlement; the district attorney shuffled some papers as if he was at that moment looking up the bylaws. He said, “This has never happened before,” then explained to the room that since the decision had already been voted on the past fall, there would have to be a motion by a member of the board before they could vote on the matter again.

The board president raised his eyebrows like he was so surprised and concerned that to go back on their vote would be such a major undertaking, going against all that important procedure stuff that they held so dearly. But, as if it was a favor to us hard-working constituents, he said he supposed he could put it to the board to ask if any of them would like to make the motion to have a revote on Silas Willard. Eyes darted from board member to board member. They sat back in their seats, pushed themselves as far away from their microphones as possible. Their faces directed downward to the table.

Meeting adjourned.

We got fucking played.

From the newspaper in 2006 when the community successfully saved Silas Willard from the school board’s wrecking ball. Gotta say, it’s pretty badass to see one’s parents in a human chain.

From the newspaper in 2006 when the community successfully saved Silas Willard from the school board’s wrecking ball. Gotta say, it’s pretty badass to see one’s parents in a human chain.

 

I Love My Hometown. Some of My Best Friends Are Buried There.

I didn’t actually hate growing up in Galesburg. I hated growing out of it. I hated that there was a gradual awakening that took place by my teen ages, that the person I was on the inside was at conflict with the person I was on the outside, which was the perception people had of me and the way I was expected to be. It’s hard to prove that, of course—what people’s expectations are of you, but there is unspoken mojo that goes on between people. It’s indirect. People say homophobic, racist, and otherwise bigoted things. Even though they may be directed at a third or more often fourth never-present party, it is a warning to everyone in immediate presence.

The underlying power of that message is that by striking out on your own and voicing your dissension with the popular opinion of those you are among, you run the risk of losing everything you have ever known. You will no longer belong. You will become isolated. And there’s great power in threatening someone with isolation.

This is a stupid fucking way of going about life.

I don’t hate Galesburg, but I don’t love it, either. I both love and hate it. There are places I love going there. There’s not a lot, but it has its charm. I hate most of it. But I do enjoy that the people who live there and I have common background. There are stories we can share, things we can all laugh about. I just hate how people seem to have cut themselves off; the way the rest of the world is advancing, but they aren’t.

So what do you do when you move back to your hometown that you feel ambivalent towards? As I found out in the first couple months after arriving, work was clearly not an option. There just weren’t any jobs in the area. My move to Galesburg was meant to be a short layover to get reacquainted with family and old friends. My dad needed some help at his law firm scanning about thirty-five years’ worth of paper files into PDFs. Problem was, he couldn’t afford to pay me very much. So, I started subbing to make some extra money. Then that turned into a full-time job.

It was a delight to get to spend more time with my family. With the exception of my younger sister, my parents have an empty house these days. I had just spent four years in North Carolina attending school and figuring out what kind of writer I wanted to be, albeit a mostly unsuccessful one. When I moved back I was certainly jaded from my experience in grad school and had developed a cantankerous attitude toward anyone who didn’t agree with my worldview. I arrogantly snapped at people with little or no provocation—I was not a pleasant person to be around.

Subbing helped me mellow out. As I was having success at it, I would recount my experiences to my mother and father at dinner, and I could see Dad reach for Mom’s hand under the table and squeeze her with excitement that I was getting on so well at being an educator.

See, my family has a long history with education. My father’s father, Reginald Mustain, was on the school board for fourteen years, many of which he served as president. My sisters Kristi and Kari both have degrees in Education and have had numerous teaching and coaching jobs since college. My younger brother Kirk has a provisional teaching certificate so he can teach full-time graphic design and computer science to middle and high school classes, and he has taught at the college level. On my mother’s side, her older brother Stephen Tegarden had a thirty-five-year career serving as principal and superintendent of schools all over the country.

One might say educating is in our blood. Even members of the family who do not teach are very invested in volunteering for the schools and sitting on boards.

So, when my father was squeezing my mother’s hand at dinner all those nights, it had to have been with the hope that I had finally found my calling. Teaching, after all, was something I could do and still continue to write in my free time—as a hobby.

Little did he know I was working on something. Little did he know how enraged I was becoming at the state of public education; that I felt compelled to write about it. I was running home all those nights after dinner to research all I could about the Columbine Massacre and put down my own tormented experiences.

Marble floors and this unique locker nook between two large classrooms is just one of the many sights we all saw as kids that we probably took for granted, but looking back, provided us the most original schooling experience in the district.

Marble floors and this unique locker nook between two large classrooms is just one of the many sights we all saw as kids that we probably took for granted, but looking back, provided us the most original schooling experience in the district.

 

Code-Switching

My favorite passages from “The Opposite of Suicide”:

We spend more time telling kids to stay away from drugs, alcohol, and smoking than we do teaching them how to identify the lower half of the periodic table of elements.

I realized I was gay by the age of twelve, but I tried to push it out of my thoughts. I felt guilty about it. Thought I could overcome it. I thought I was going to go to hell. Getting over that self-hatred is a process that takes several years. There is no doubt in my mind that has a long-term effect on a person’s psyche.

That last line is a notion I got from none other than N*Sync member Lance Bass. Bass came out publicly in 2006 after spending about a decade singing, dancing, and acting before the whole world. To keep something a secret not just from friends and family, but the entire world would be a hell of an undertaking. What’s especially messed up about it is we all knew Lance was gay from the beginning. So, why did he have to keep it a secret in the first place? Regardless, he did, and I heard him say once on his radio show that he is certain that being in the closet fucks up a person’s brain. So, I decided to drop that little chestnut in my essay.

Sidenote: I have never met a closet-case who wasn’t deeply emotionally disturbed. My out gay brothers and sisters will back me on this.

I recently watched The Way He Looks, a Portuguese film about two teen boys, one of whom is blind. The movie mostly follows the blind one, and the tension of the story is trying to discover if the new boy in town is gay. The movie had a happy ending, which gave me a weird feeling. I felt a little letdown that the new boy turned out to return the main characters’ affection. What a copout!

I’m accustomed to gay movies ending in the following ways: He’s willing to “experiment” a little, but he won’t take the plunge of acknowledging his love in public. Or they die in a suicide pact. Or they turn into terrible drunks and never achieve happiness. That’s how gay movies are supposed to end. Because that would have reflected my experience as a gay young adult.

As I was having this reaction, I stopped myself, and thought, What the fuck is wrong with me? Why was I bitter about these two boys finding love with one another? It’s because the environment I grew up in programmed me to expect the worst.

Where I live and work now, where I get my coffee, and the trains I ride with several million people every day, I don’t have to look over my shoulder anymore when I am looking at the profiles of other dudes on my iPhone. Funny how I felt more oppressed in a small city of 30,000 people, most of whom I knew very well, than I do in a city of 8 million strangers.

My voice has gotten lighter since I moved. Now, I wouldn’t say higher. My voice naturally has a deep register. But there’s just a little bit more of a softness to it. I’ve written about this phenomenon before. In particular, at the Pizza Hut I worked at in Iowa City, a fair amount of my coworkers were lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgendered. I noticed that all of the gay males who worked there, we all had this reflex to drop our voices an octave whenever we answered the phones. We had all learned this survival mechanism to, in uncertain company, put up these shields: change our mannerisms, how we talked, what we said, how we dressed. In linguistics this is known as “code-switching,” and everyone does it to some extent. But for many gay men, we are acutely aware of what about ourselves sets off homophobic reactions from other people.

So, when I worked at Pizza Hut I noticed that even over the phone, talking to faceless strangers, we were not willing to chance a homophobic interaction. I wonder who it was my coworkers pictured on the other side of the line. Their dads? One of their dads’s bigoted friends? Their preachers? What was going to happen? Someone calls their parents and says, “I called Pizza Hut the other night and Benji answered. You might want to have a talk with that boy.”

Who surprised me the most was Alonzo. He moved out of his parents’ house when he was 15, and ever since had lived primarily with other gay people who took him in. His life was full of the gay community; what the gay community has classically been for orphans like him. Alonzo was the most outrageously gay person I knew, and yet even he lowered his voice like the rest of us chumps whenever he answered the phone. That’s how deep it runs.

If you just take a behavior like that as a microcosm, then consider how many other things there are stacked up on top of that, how many ways people like me have to go about our daily lives because we are terrified, then you start to get a picture of how hard it truly is to be gay, and that it’s mostly because of how other people react to the way we naturally are.

Many people think there was a homophobic motivation behind my firing and that my illegal drug use from 16 years ago was scapegoating. I agree. Many people think I should sue. I disagree. Because I actually think the whole ordeal is fucking hilarious.

But honestly, I have to stop and think about this: While I was substitute teaching, pretty much every gay person I talked to about my job, asked: “How does being a teacher work out with being gay?” Which is pretty fucked up.

We’re engrained as a culture now to think that certain people are not eligible to be teachers. That’s how pervasive the fascism in public education is. And to boot, my gay brethren are keenly aware of where we are and are not wanted. For years I have noticed how many of my gay friends work in the fields of nursing and special education, especially in less populated parts of the country. Because trying to have a career doing anything else would be too hard a battle to forge, so many of us have settled for jobs within these industries that the ruling majority has deemed it acceptable for us to work in.

But I’ve noticed since moving to New York City I just don’t have that fear anymore. Living here I don’t have to watch what I say, how I sound, or how I look. I no longer have that closet surrounding me.

Life is so much better when you simply let people be themselves.

A major characteristic of the Prairie School architecture was creating open spaces within the structures. Things like this marble staircase and tall windows were just as iconic as the outside facade of the buildings.

A major characteristic of the Prairie School architecture was creating open spaces within the structures. Things like this marble staircase and tall windows were just as iconic as the outside facade of the buildings.

 

Victims of Deferred Maintenance

My father worked on four referendums to save extracurricular sports and activities from being canceled by the school district. We won two of them. After he won the final referendum, he and his collaborators established the Galesburg Public Schools Foundation, a nonprofit organization with the sole purpose of raising funds for District 205 to acquire things it needed, but were not within its budget. Their first and most major achievement was building an auxiliary gym and pool for Galesburg High School.

That took six years of my parents, brothers, sisters, myself, and somewhere between fifty and one hundred committed citizens to see through to fruition.

After we turned the keys over to the district, everything was peachy, right?

My father answers, “Well, no . . .”

Right away there was a humidity problem. The facility had a built-in state-of-the-art dehumidifying system, but the maintenance worker the district hired didn’t know how to run it. Several of the people who had overseen the construction urged the district to pay for a maintenance person to be trained how to run the dehumidifying system and be kept on staff.

A few years after the gym and pool were built, the district had to make cutbacks again. One of those cutbacks was they let go the one employee who knew how to run the dehumidifying system. They didn’t hire anyone to replace him, nor did they pay to have someone else trained. Now there’s rust on the beams and mold throughout the building. It’s going to cost at least $900,000 to fix the damage, which is three-quarters what the community raised to build it. The facility is only twenty years old.

“I know if they hired people who knew how to operate the system, they wouldn’t have a problem,” my father says, adding, “That’s just the way they do things.”

At some point after the gym and pool were finished, my father fell out of high opinion with the school board. I’ve heard it said a number of times this was because of jealousy—the powers that be felt insulted that my father’s organization could do things the district was incapable of doing itself. In regards to all the work, their reaction was “Thanks, but no thanks.” And, in retrospect, their naming the pool after him was a backhanded compliment. Dad can’t swim a front crawl to save his life. None of his children have ever participated in swimming as a sport. I, however, decided that because I would be the first person in my family to go through GHS after it was built, I signed up for swimming classes and swam in Douglas D. Mustain Pool nearly every day of the three-and-a-half-years I attended high school.

So, when it comes to ideological arguments about why the district should preserve Silas Willard, the board has no interest in hearing my father out. In fact, they may be adamant to tear it down because it’s him who’s fighting against it. To add insult to injury, the gym he raised $1.2 million to build for them is being sent down the same path of neglectful management as the Silas Willard Schoolhouse.

My dad can get a building built but does not have the power to save one from being torn down.

Originally built in 1912, Silas Willard Schoolhouse was added onto nearly thirty years later, giving it new life. This was commissioned by the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, headed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression; perhaps the single most socialist thing an American President as ever undertaken, but, hey, people needed work! Some might say we need something similar to be done for our crumbling infrastructure and public buildings these days.

Originally built in 1912, Silas Willard Schoolhouse was added onto nearly thirty years later, giving it new life. This was commissioned by the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, headed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression; perhaps the single most socialist thing an American President as ever undertaken, but, hey, people needed work! Some might say we need something similar to be done for our crumbling infrastructure and public buildings these days.

 

The “No” People

I’ve always found it deeply ironic that Carl Sandburg grew up in Galesburg. Not only was he one of the most famous writers of the twentieth century, he was equally known for his activism. Before he even became famous as a poet, he toured the country lecturing on Walt Whitman and socialism, tying the two together because he found Whitman’s writings to be inline with the tenets of socialism.

The Galesburg Sandburg grew up in was not much different than the one I grew up in. It was a deeply conservative community, even a hundred years ago. His father, August, was a blacksmith for the CB&Q Railroad. Illiterate, August was a staunch Republican. Carl knew from a very young age that he himself was a leftist. He and his father fought over the fact that August continually voted against his best wishes—August worked very long hours for very little pay. Carl could never get through to him that if you were working class and voted Republican, you were voting for the very same people who were exploiting you.

By today’s standards, while the people who vote Republican are not illiterate—but certainly there are still those among us who have never learned to read or write—but many people are brought up in our schools as non-literary. People who were not taught how to read properly, people who are poor at recognizing nuance, to grasp subtlety and lyricism. People who read everything at face-value and cannot recognize when they are being fucked with.

We should actually be quite alarmed by how many people referred to “The Opposite of Suicide” as an article. That in itself shows there are so many people these days who are literate only in the most rudimentary sense. I mean, even the man who fired me referred to it as an article, and he was superintendent of an affluent school district.

This is a short biography of Carl Sandburg in a textbook. One of the main things textbooks keep hitting in 6–12 literature is an author’s word choice. In the field of Rhetoric, the way an author phrases things is how she conveys her ideas, but it can also be the way she covers-up or omits certain ideas, certain facts that she and the people holding the purse strings don’t want the reader to know, that are better left unsaid.

Now, given that this bio is so, so short, I would not expect the writer to go too in depth, but let’s take a look at it:

Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) was a Pulitzer
Prize-winning American poet, historian, and
novelist. Born in Galesburg, Illinois, to
Swedish immigrant parents, Sandburg
decided at age six that he would be a writer.
Although, he had to quit school after eighth
grade to go to work to help support his
family, Sandburg continued to write. As he
pursued writing, Sandburg worked in a variety
of trades from factory worker to
newspaperman. He also became a well-known
musician and political activist. The
variety of Sandburg’s experiences informed
his writing, and Sandburg eventually gained
recognition as an iconic American writer.

This is all true. Sandburg did drop out of school when he was only thirteen. But this short bio, given to young, susceptible minds, makes it sound like he did it because his family was poor and he had to support them. That is only part of why. The main reason was most people didn’t go to high school back then. Back then young people had the legal right to choose not to attend high school. It cost more money to go to high school.

I wouldn’t expect a 50-word biography to go into this, nor would I expect the person who wrote it to know this information, unless they had done extensive research on Sandburg, but the family did pay for his older sister to attend high school. She passed her schoolbooks down to him and he used them to teach himself. That was a way for the family to cut corners: they sent the older one to high school, but Carl was equally educated, maybe even more so because he was learning at his own pace, within his own parameters. This may even speak to why he became so knowledgeable, so talented, and such a radical leftist. Because he was self-taught, there was no one pulling strings on young Sandburg. He did have mentors in the community, but he sought them out on his own.

The line “political activist” sidesteps the fact that he was an activist for socialism. Of course the bio is not going to mention that because textbooks intentionally avoid any language that could be construed as having polemic. Although if you read enough textbooks, you’ll see that they are intrinsically conservative. Actually, whenever the content from a selection is obviously left-wing, like the Civil Rights Movement, or Immigration, they tiptoe their way through these topics. I think it can safely be said most novelists, poets, and playwrights throughout history have leaned to the left—at least the good ones. But a textbook won’t call out a writer’s political beliefs, even if they are embedded in just about every single word he ever laid on a page, because the textbook is a product, and at the end of the day, that product has to be marketable to school districts who are known for being conservative.

The distillation of rhetoric is how misinformation spreads and breeds non-literary minds—Like students seeing a black and white photo of me on Facebook next to the word “Suicide” and assuming the worst, without having the inclination to read on.

Carl Sandburg left Galesburg at the age of nineteen. He knew it was time to leave when he became suicidal. Yes, young, mythic Carl Sandburg contemplated throwing himself in front of a train—which also happens to be how an absurd number of people die in Galesburg. Mostly because it’s a very effective way to do it, and as Sandburg thought himself, people might mistake it for an accident.

Sandburg instead reminded himself there was a great big world out there, so he decided to go see it. He left. And never came back, really. He saw Chicago. He rode the rails all over the country. He became enamored with getting to know strangers, wherever he could find them. This intensified his belief in socialism and the common good of the American People—not the ‘Murican People.

He ended up in Wisconsin, where at the time the Socialist Democratic Party was making major breakthroughs. Socialists from around the country were migrating there. The world was paying attention to the very groovy stuff that was going on in Wisconsin. Carl wanted to be part of it. And so he became a big part of it.

Galesburg’s favorite son, Carl Sandburg, who produced some of the most widely-read poetry of the twentieth century, who won the Pulitzer Prize three times, who left the world with everlasting gifts of his testaments to the common good of the masses and the evils of the rich, once upon a time wanted to commit suicide—Then he changed his mind and went and did the opposite.

Silas Willard Schoolhouse is set for demolition next summer. It would appear many of the people who would have fought for its standing have moved away.

#savesilas

Photo7

 

 

BIO

Kyle MustainKyle Mustain received his BA from the University of Iowa, and MFA from University of North Carolina Wilmington. His work has appeared in St. Sebastian Review, Medium, and the Writing Disorder. He balls every day.

 

 

 

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john lautner house

The Art and Architecture of Writing
Alan Hess Interview

 

Alan Hess by Nash

 

Alan Hess is a rare talent, he is both a writer and an architect. He has written several important books on architecture, including Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture, The Ranch HouseThe Architecture of John Lautner, Frank Lloyd Wright: Mid-Century Modern, and many others. Alan lives and breaths architecture and design. His mission, if you were to call it that, is to bring architecture—California architecture in particular—and all that it implies (education, preservation, appreciation), to the people. His work is both challenging and rewarding, which is to understand, educate and preserve the magnificent buildings that give life to our great cities, particularly here in Southern California—a place Alan calls home. Alan is a very busy man, always working on at least one major book or project. But he still made time for this interview, which we greatly appreciate.

 

Alan Hess Books

 

Let’s talk about some of the projects you’re working on now.

Right now I’m working on a book about California Modern Architecture, from 1900-1975. Most of the books I’ve worked on until now have been leading up to this idea. I’ve been writing now for thirty years. The first book was, Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture. I’ve mostly dealt with architectural issues in the west and the 20th century, suburbia and vernacular building types and their interaction with the high art architecture. And a lot needs to be said to pull together the entire story. I have a co-author, Pierluigi Serraino, so we’re working on it together.

 

What’s the status of the book now?

It will be published in spring 2017, so right now we’re trying to finalize the text. Hopefully in the next few months it will all come together. It’s a huge project, a little bit crazy.

 

It covers all of California?

Yes. It’s not an encyclopedia. It will give a framework for understanding the whole picture. It won’t include everybody and everything, but it will definitely bring in architects and types of building and trends that have not been given their due credit or attention. But it will include what is absolutely essential for understanding what California architecture in the 20th century was all about.

 

That sounds fantastic. I look forward to reading it. How do you go about constructing a book like this, with a subject so large.

We try to get away from a more traditional chronological architectural history, and away from the monograph of the individual architects, and show instead the inter-relationships between cultural trends, economic trends, demographic trends, as well as the inspirations and ideas of individual architects and their clients as well. The clients have a lot to do with architecture. Pierluigi and I are each writing half in individual chapters, based on what we’re interested in. So now we’re working on pulling it all together and making it cohesive. It’s still an unwieldy mass at this point. But it has a lot of interesting ideas and information.

 

When putting together a book of this size, how do you go about getting the images, permissions, and materials that go along with it?

That’s a very important part of this book. Pierluigi is an expert on architectural photo archives. Many of the sources have been unknown or have been neglected for decades. This book is not going to have the usual, expected photographs. It’s mostly going to be fresh, interesting images that have not been seen for decades—if at all. This will give everyone an idea of how wide-spread, and wide-ranging creative California architecture was in the 20th century. I’m very excited about these photographs. Frankly, though I’m a writer, I know most people buy my books for the photographs. So the publisher is helping to attain a lot of the rights. But we’re coming up with the images ourselves, from these new sources—which is one thing that will make this book exciting.

 

The Googie book has a lot of photographs you took yourself.

Yes, I consider myself an amateur photographer. I mostly take photographs to gather information. And some of the images turn out to be really interesting. I would like at some point to do a photography exhibit at a gallery with some of my older images. I started taking photographs in the 1970s when I was in architecture school. So a lot of the photos I took are of buildings that don’t exist anymore. So they have some value.

 

You studied architecture at UCLA. Where does the writing come from? How did you become a writer?

I’ve always been interested in writing, and I wrote for my high school and college newspapers. But I wasn’t all that good at it, and I didn’t really have something that interested me. But when I got into architecture school, I discovered after a while that I was really interested in writing about architecture, and the ideas of architecture. So I started to get the idea of writing seriously about the subject. There were a couple of books, this is in the late ‘70s, one by Steven Izenour, White Tower, and there was a book by Daniel Vieyra called Fill’er Up. These were small books, but on subjects that had never been written about before. White Tower is about the diner chain, and the other is about gas stations. That sort of vernacular architecture had never been given much serious attention at the time. But I was just fascinated by it. And the other book at the time was Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour and Denise Scott Brown. But all of these books helped me understand Los Angeles, where I was living and studying architecture. So the architecture made sense suddenly. And that gave me the idea to use words and writing to analyze architecture, just as engineering equations and scale models are other ways. So writing was another way for me to understand architecture and what you’re designing. And I started looking around for an interesting subject that nobody else had written about.

 

Googie is a classic book for anyone who’s interested in unique and unusual Los Angeles architecture. Now that many of the buildings have been torn down, it’s also historically significant and important.

That’s the thing. It becomes a historical or archival document. Another purpose, as I moved along and became more interested in historical preservation, one of the purposes of my books was to help historic preservationists. So they could go before a city council or planning commission and say look, this must be important, there’s a book written about it. That actually impresses a lot of people. And that was another purpose in writing these books.

 

You also did a follow-up book on Googie.

Yes, the publisher came back to me almost twenty years later, and asked if I‘d like to do an updated version. It was a fantastic opportunity, because my first book wasn’t exactly my best. So it gave me a chance to improve my writing, but also there was so much more research and so much more I knew, I was able to extend the book. It’s at least twice as long as the original.

 

Growing up, did you do any writing? Were your parents writers? What kind of work did they do?

My mother was at home and raised us kids. And my father was an executive at Ford Motor Company. So I was around cars a lot, which I definitely had an interest in,

which also turn up in my books. We would get a new car every year. My brother and I would argue about what color and what kind, or if it had powers windows, which were really big at the time. We lived in California, but we also lived in Detroit for a period of time. We were right in the heart of car culture. My dad was transferred around to different places as I was growing up. So my personal experience of those places – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago – these major car culture cities in which I lived, definitely influenced my writing and understanding of these subjects. The cars I loved most were the 1956 Lincoln Continental, and the 1939 Continental. It was one of the most beautiful cars, and was designed by Edsel Ford, Henry Ford’s son. In the last several years, he has become a very important figure to me because he was at the heart of American industry and its economy, as well as American styling and industrial design and aesthetics, as the president of Ford Motor Company. As a sort of relief from working for his father—who was just awful to work for—Edsel would go over to the styling studio and work with the designers. And he actually designed some of the classic cars of the mid century – the Model A, the Lincoln Zephyr, which was one of the first streamlined automobiles, and the Continental. He died young, which is why he’s not as well known or appreciated.

 

So you started writing in high school?

Yes, but it wasn’t until I was in architecture school that I really had a subject that interested me seriously.

 

You’re quite unique in that you’re an architect and a writer – you’re sort of a hybrid – which is great. You’re someone who’s an authority on the subject they write about. What drew you to architecture, or made you want to become an architect? Was it a building or architect you admired?

I’ve always been interested in architecture, not originally as a profession, but as a personal interest of mine. My grandmother always admired Frank Lloyd Wright, and I saw a number of his buildings. I lived in Chicago in high school, and there are a number of his buildings there, as well as Louis Sullivan’s—which are just extraordinary.

And I went to a college that was designed by Bernard Maybeck, the great Bay Area California architect—which was great. There was a history professor there, Charles Hosmer, who was very well known in the preservation field. Everyone has a professor who really inspired them, and he inspired me. It wasn’t until I had to choose between going to law school and architecture school, that I really made the decision.

 

Frank Lloyd Wright was the first architect to inspire you.

Yes. He was a brilliant designer. Just to be inside one of his buildings or houses, we can understand how space and materials and ornament can be orchestrated to make life better. Extraordinary designs. He was a genius. Wright’s whole persona and his family motto was “Truth against the World,” the idea of the artist as the heroic individual, who mastered the problems of the world. And as a young, naïve, idealistic teenage boy, that appealed to me as well. But I got over that, thanks goodness. Frank Lloyd Wright inspired Ayn Rand’s book, The Fountainhead, which I read at the time. I got over that, too.

But it was an important moment for me at the time. I realized that I would never be Frank Lloyd Wright. But I realized that I could be myself. I could follow my own interests in architecture, and be able to contribute something of value. That kept me going. And when I began to write about architecture, I realized I was covering subjects that no one else was writing about. I saw the value in them and was able to express the importance of a diner or a motel or a car dealership. These were structures that almost nobody else had an interest in as far as architecture, but I did.

 

You’ve also written several books on Frank Lloyd Wright.

I saw some photographs by Alan Weintraub. He had a real interest and talent in photographing organic architecture, like Wright’s and John Lautner’s, as well as many others. Organic architecture is very difficult to capture in photography because it’s not designed from one point perspective, it’s something else. So Alan and I got together and started thinking about books we could do together. Later he got a contract to photograph all of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings. So that’s where the series of books on Frank Lloyd Wright developed. I came up with a theme for each of the books. One is on his houses, one is on the Prairie School years, the mid century modern houses, the public buildings, etc.

For me it was exciting to come up with something fresh and interesting to say about those structures, and the ideas they had. I enjoyed writing them.

 

Name some writers who influenced your work.

Writers who are also architects or designers, like Esther McCoy, definitely a great writer; David Gebhard, a great historian and author; J.B. Jackson, cultural geographer; and John Beach—not as well known, but a friend of all of those people and a teacher at UCLA School of Architecture where I went. These are all authors who have some background in design, and are able to understand architecture and explain it in a way that art historians writing about architecture missed. They capture something about architecture.

As far as fiction writers, Jorge Amado. I spent time in Brazil, and his fiction about life there really captured the spirit, culture and people of Brazil. I also enjoy reading the fiction and non-fiction of Tom Wolfe.

 

When you start working on a new book, how do you begin – where do you start?

I’ve usually been thinking about it for a while, and I’ll start with some ideas and thoughts in my head. And then I’ll begin to pull together all the ideas I have. I’ll go and visit the buildings or places and see what strikes me. I’ll start talking to experts in the field, or the architects themselves, and in many cases I’ve been able to talk to the original architects. And that can be really fascinating. So it’s just a matter of finding an interesting subject, with something of value there, and trying to make it interesting. For me, writing is a process of discovery. I do not know what I’m going to write when I start. I sort of think as I write and figure out the direction of the project. That’s the fun of it—what makes it interesting. I just dive into the subject anywhere I can, and slowly the whole picture begins to reveal itself. I figure out what are the major points, the major landmarks, etc.

For my first book, I was interested in Googie architecture, but I didn’t know it was Googie architecture, until I started writing and learning more about the subject. I had seen these diners and restaurants before but had never really connected them. I started doing some research on the Bob’s Big Boy on Riverside in Toluca Lake. I called up Bob’s headquarters in Glendale and asked if they knew who the architect of the building was. They said it was Armét and Davis. So I called up Eldon Davis —their firm was on Wilshire Blvd. — and asked if they designed the Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake. He said no, and I thought that was the end of it. But then he said, but we did design Ship’s La Cienega and Norm’s and Pann’s, and he began to give this list of all the coffee shops they designed. And I suddenly realized I had stumbled upon one of the most important designers in the field. It was at that point during the research that it all came together and I realized there was a subject worth writing about. That’s really great when that happens.

 

How did Googie get published? Did you approach a publisher, or did someone approach you?

I did write up a proposal. Barbara Goldstein was the editor of Arts and Architecture at the time, and I told her about my project. So she asked me to write an article about Googie architecture, so that was published. And since I had a published article that gave me a little credibility. So I sent the article along with my proposal to at least a dozen publishers, who had published books on similar types of architecture. I got two responses as I remember, Chronicle Books was one of them. And there was an editor, Bill LeBlond, who saw something in it, so that’s how I got my first contract.

 

When you’re putting a book together, you obviously work at a computer.

My first couple of books I typed. I sat on the floor and edited the pages by cutting them with scissors and taping them together. And then my mother, God bless her, typed it up clean, and I then re-edited it with scissors and tape, and she retyped it. So I went through several drafts that way. That was like in 1984. I think in 1986 or 1987 I got my first computer, which simplified the process by a lot.

I work on a Mac now. I have an iMac, but I really do most of my writing on an iPad. So basically I can go anywhere and write. I used an app called Pages.

 

I’m going to name a few important architects, mostly known for their work in California, and maybe you can say a few words about each one, what they did, etc.

Let’s start with John Lautner, who you also wrote a book about.

John Lautner was one of the greatest architects of the twentieth century. He worked with Frank Lloyd Wright, of course, but what I admired about him, and he told me this, was while he was a student and apprentice with Frank Lloyd Wright, he didn’t design that much. He said he was just absorbing and watching. It was only after he left Wright, and moved to Los Angeles and opened his own office, that he then began to really develop his own crucial way of designing. So many people who worked with Wright were so overwhelmed by the brilliance of Wright, that they pretty much just copied Frank Lloyd Wright. But that wasn’t good enough for Lautner. He had to digest it and make those ideas his own, and carried them on further than Wright. That’s one of the things that makes him so, so important. Taking some of those seminal ideas of Wright’s, bringing them to Los Angeles and applying them not only to houses, but also buildings of everyday life, like the original Googie’s coffee shop, and other drive-ins he did, and car dealerships. He saw virtually any kind of architecture as a legitimate architectural challenge to him, and to re-think everything from the fundamentals. I did an articles about him Fine Homebuilding magazine. And there was one house, I think the Mauer house in Los Angeles. And I asked him, where do you start on a design like that? And he said, “The hell if I know. I sweat a lot.” So the idea that someone who was as creative as Lautner, sweated over where to start on a new design, just impressed me to no end. So he took every project seriously in that way to dig down to find something original about it and to translate it into a design.

Sheats Goldstein Lautner House

Sheats Goldstein residence, 1963 – John Lautner, architect

 

Richard Neutra.

Another great Los Angeles architect. I think he is misunderstood. He is usually praised and famous for being an Austrian, and for designing International Style buildings here in Los Angeles. And that’s partly true. But I think what is important about Neutra is not what he learned from studying architecture in Vienna before World War I, but how he responded to the environment of Los Angeles after he arrived here. He was fascinated by our construction methods, our indoor-outdoor lifestyle, our vernacular architecture of drive-ins, billboards and gas stations, and the influence of the car on architecture. He was a good enough architect to be influenced by all the new things going on around him here.

 

A. Quincy Jones.

Another fascinating architect, because of his variety. It was a perfect time in Los Angles, when the city was booming and there were all these different types of buildings. He worked on schools, housing, offices, car dealerships restaurants, you name it. And he was able to design a lot of different things, but in a very individual way. He was in many way Mr. Establishment, dean of the school of architecture at USC, and he had a lot of influence on many other architects – very well respected. Lautner was more a maverick, more on the edge, often misunderstood and criticized for his designs because they were so unusual. And Quincy jones was in the center of the profession. He and Lautner were friends, they appreciated each other’s work. And I think Lautner influenced Quincy Jones early in his career – in some of the early Quincy Jones houses in particular, there’s some very strong Lautnerian ideas about them.

 

Rudolph Schindler.

Schindler is one of my favorite architects. He was a lot like Lautner, but he started twenty or thirty years earlier. So he had a very different sort of career. He was known as a gregarious and fun loving individual, and that comes across in the buildings he designed—very creative.The first time I saw his own house on Kings Road on an architecture tour, and his wife, Pauline Schindler, was still living there, and I met her. I saw the house before it was restored. It’s concrete slab walls tilted up. Some of the interior walls were painted, pink as I recall. And it wasn’t that strongly constructed, so it had been altered over the years. But nonetheless, even through that, I could see that it was sort of the beginning of California Architecture, indoor/outdoor life, the way the outdoors carries into the interior space itself. Just brilliant on Schindler’s part, to be able to put together something like that. And like Neutra, Schindler was trained in Austria before WWI. But he allowed himself to really engage with Los Angeles—and the culture, and the materials, once he got here. I wrote an essay for the L.A. Review of Books, and the title was Schindler Goes Hollywood. And the idea was that Schindler and the other very good architects of California, didn’t just come here and start to do what they had been doing elsewhere. They interacted, and understood, and lived the culture that was here, and that changed their architecture. And schindler is probably one of the very best examples.

 

Gregory Ain.

Ain is another very good California architect. He worked with both Schindler and Neutra. He was a real socialist. A lot of architects that studied with him told me that he really believed, that the purpose of architecture was to improve the life of the average person. And so he tried in a couple of places to do some cooperative socialist housing. He never quite succeeded at it but the designs themselves are very, very nice.

 

Joseph Eichler.

Eichler was not an architect, he was a builder. He hired architects like Quincy Jones, Anshen & Allen, Claude Oakland and others to do his architecture, so he chose the very best. This is not to discredit Eichler, but he was often times credited with bringing modern design to mass produced housing—tract housing. There were a number of other really good architects and builders who were interested in modern mass produced architecture, like William Krisel and Dan Palmer– they were also doing modern tracts, and in some ways even more dramatically modern. There were quite a number of examples of modern architecture available for the average person in tract housing.

 

Palmer and Krisel.

In some ways their work was sort of my discovery during a book I wrote with Andrew Danish, Palm Springs Weekend, on midcentury architecture design. I never heard of Palmer and Krisel until I did the research for that book. They did a number of tract homes in Palm Springs. And fortunately, Bill Krisel is still around, so I was able to get to know him and interview him and see his archives first hand. And learn what it was like. He knew everybody and he did really interesting work himself. Their work deserves a lot more credit because they really did modern architecture. They were really devoted to bringing good modern design to the average person. And that was supposed to be one of the fundamental ideas of modernism, at the very beginning, from the Bauhaus, they were trying to make it for the average person. And Palmer and Krisel were one of the few architecture firms to achieve that. Gregory Ain was a great architect but he was never really able to build on a mass basis, and have that sort of impact. So I admire that, it cements their place in modern architecture in California. They were partners from the 1950s to the early 1960s, then they split and went their separate ways. I was able to interview Dan Palmer as well for a book I did on ranch houses before he passed away. There is a new book coming out in February 2016 about Krisel’s work in Palm Springs, in which I wrote one chapter.

William Krisel House

House designed by William Krisel

 

Cliff May.

Cliff May was a designer, a building designer. He had more impact on architects than most architects knew. And the reason why is fascinating. He did carpentry, he built furniture, he was a musician with a band, and he had an entertainer’s promotional attitude about his work. He understood people. And he was one of the people who understood the power of the image of the ranch house— the California ranch house. They were the adobe haciendas of the nineteenth century, and these wood shacks out in the country. And he realized there was an inherent glamor and certainly an architectural character to them—living indoors and outdoors and simplicity. And he was able to capture that in his custom designed, and mass-produced homes as well.

 

Edward Fickett.

Edward Fickett, is another name that had been long lost in terms of the general public. Certainly other architects knew him. And I was able to write about him in my book about the ranch house, so he could begin to be appreciated for what he really accomplished.

And in fact I grew up in one of his houses in Pasadena, a ranch house tract home. My parent’s bought the house in Hastings Ranch, brand new. And years and years later I had learned that He had designed Hastings Ranch. It’s more of a traditional ranch house, not modern, but nonetheless. He’s definitely one of the major architects of Southern California. His was known for his tract housing, which was quite extensive, and for many other types of buildings. That was one of the reasons I got into writing about architecture in the first place, was to let people know about these neglected talents. They need to be a part of our understanding of Los Angeles.

We need really good books written about these architects, like Edward Fickett and Gregory Ain. In recent years there has been a few good books written about Cliff May. There are a number of architects who deserve really good books. And I try to encourage other people to write them.

 

William Pereira.

I live in Irvine, which is a master planned community designed by William Pereira fifty years ago. It opened in 1965. Pereira was one of the major corporate offices in Los Angeles. He was usually critically neglected and dismissed, and initially, I didn’t think much of his work, until I started to do some research on him. And I began to realize that my entire concept of him was wrong. As I began to look into his buildings when I moved to Irvine, it really spurred more of my interest in his work. He is one of the major Southern California architects who shaped the region. He designed several key buildings that defined the way people lived, worked and played. He designed CBS Television City, a television studio at a time when television was brand new. So he designed this facility that is still in use today, with all the changes in the media. He also designed Marineland, a new type of playground out by the ocean for the citizens of Southern California, this urban metropolis, a place to take the kids, and learn. He designed LAX as well (along with Welton Becket and Paul Williams), he designed this jet port, before the jet airplane was even in use. And then he planned Irvine and the new university there. Suburbia was growing, but it was being criticized. Tract housing was often a hodge-podge, very randomly planned, and not coordinated. And Pereira, as a planner, said we can do better than this. It was sort of miraculous that the new city project of Irvine and UC Irvine came together. It’s a really interesting story. He took the ideas of suburbia and organized its elements in a way that made sense. There was a diversity of housing types. You were part of nature when you lived here with generous greenbelts. You had schools, libraries, shopping, swimming pools — everything you need in life, and you could walk to these places, so you didn’t have to be dependent on the car. This was the early 1960s when he designed all this. It was just extraordinary. In his career he really conceived and developed many of the ideas that made up Southern California. And he did it with style. Another building he designed was LACMA, which is the cultural capitol of Southern California, at a time when Los Angeles was the most modern city in the world. And there’s talk now that they want to tear this down, this cultural icon.

CBS Television City, 1952, designed by William Pereira

CBS Television City, 1952, designed by William Pereira

 

Paul Williams.

The socio and cultural history that his career represents is fascinating. An African American in Hollywood, and what he had to go through to become one of the most successful architects in California, throughout the mid century. It’s a great story, and he was a really good architect. He’s often called the architect to the stars. He built a lot of really big and beautiful, mostly traditionally styled homes. But he did a lot more than that. He did office buildings, he did housing tracts, he also did housing tracts for the African American community, here in Los Angeles, and in Las Vegas. After he stopped doing traditional styles, he adopted modernism, and modern methods, and was just as masterful. He is equally important as a role model and an architect. His influence on other architects is really important. There are a lot of people who got into the business because of Paul Williams.

 

Let’s talk about how you work. How much time do you spend writing each day? How much time do you spend on the internet, doing research? What is a regular work-day like for you?

Well, I spend too much time on the internet. I don’t know if email is really a blessing or not. But I usually start by checking my emails in the morning. I check Facebook. There’s a lot of good information on FB if you look in the right places. There are a lot of good sources for books and information going on now, also historical subjects. I do my creative writing in the afternoon, which includes writing and editing on various projects.

 

What do you know about William Mellenthin?

Not a whole lot, that he was a builder, very successful, building the traditional ranch style homes. When searching for specific information like this, a lot of it can be found on SurveyLA.

But we continually lose archives and historic information on figure like Mellenthin. Many important architects and builders could be lost to history. Like Wayne McAllister, one of my favorite architects. He designed the Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake, and the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. But all of his drive-in restaurants, which were built in the 1930s, which were everywhere, are all gone. There isn’t one remaining. So the information and the buildings are so fragile.

 

Out of curiosity, who designed the Casa de Cadillac car dealership in Sherman Oaks?

Casa de Cadillac was designed by Phillip Conklin with Randall Duell in 1949, it was a collaboration. It was originally called Don Lee Cadillac.

 

What kind of advice do you have for writers today? How to get their work out there and be published.

It’s a lot different from when I first started. Publishing on the internet serves the purpose of getting the information out there the way books once did. I would encourage people to write about architecture. There’s so much we don’t know, and much that we need to document. I was really pleased to learn that some people who’ve written books, were inspired by my work. There’s a book coming out next year on Trousdale Estates that Steven Price is writing. That’s a great subject and deserves to have a book about it, but I just don’t have time to write everything. But thank goodness someone else is doing it. And other people are doing books on Paul Laszlo and Tommy Tomson, for example, fascinating little-known architects. There are plenty of other subjects that people could be writing about, to document—getting it down—for the rest of us to understand.

I didn’t intend to be a writer. I was interested in architecture. And that’s why I write. I don’t write to be a writer, but to further the cause of good design.

 

What other projects/books would you like to work on?

I have a long list of projects I’d like to do. A couple of really interesting architects. The most intriguing subject that I would like to write about is the 1970s and ‘80s of California architecture, that hasn’t really been covered. It was touched upon in the Getty show, Pacific Standard Time, which was a few years ago now. The people are still around and the story has not really been told. And trying to figure out what actually happened in that period, and do it objectively, is a really interesting challenge. Some of these people are around and are telling their own histories, but not necessarily the entire story. So I would love to cover the entire story in context.

 

Alan Hess Books

 

Alan recommends these essential books on Los Angeles architecture:

Five California Architects, by Esther McCoy

Exterior Decoration, by John Chase

Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham

Los Angeles: The City Observed by Charles Moore, Peter Becker, Regula Campbell

Holy Land, by D. J. Waldie

Google: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture, by Alan Hess

 

For more information about Alan Hess.

 


 

 

 

Michael Filas

Galileo’s Wake

by Michael Filas

 

I’m no narcissist, and I’m sorry if I sound like one. Awhile back I was put upon to join an academic conversation about Galileo with several distinguished Galileo scholars, but knew nothing about Galileo, so I fell back on what I knew—me. For that I apologize. I was trying to arrange a semester-long teaching gig at Florence University of the Arts, and I’d been working at my American university in Massachusetts to develop a faculty exchange at FUA because I wanted desperately to live abroad with my family for a semester, and nothing sounded so good as teaching writing, lecturing, and collaborating in Florence. When FUA announced they were holding a Galileo conference, I was encouraged to participate, and commenced a crash course in Galileo.

Learning about Galileo came at a cost, of course. My other projects suffered for lack of attention and my short conference trip to Florence cost a bit more than I got from my university to attend. My quest to teach in Florence, too, was ultimately gnawed down from a semester abroad to just a few weeks. I look forward to the short-term course, but it won’t be quite like living in Florence for three or four months with my family. How the plan changed, from a semester abroad into a few weeks, is a dull and aggravating story despite its bureaucratic twists and turns, occasional misdirection, and a whittling away of dreams. The good news is I did make it to Florence on academic terms. Whittled dreams notwithstanding, I went to Florence for four days and talked and listened to days of conversation about Galileo.

Bad form. Allow me to apologize both for starting off with complaints, and for talking about myself. I’m just getting the clumsy stuff out of the way first.

I submitted to the conference in Florence on the suggestion from a helpful vice president at my university who understood Westfield’s mission at FUA. He’d been to the conference before and recommended it highly. “The theme is Galileo,” he said, “you can write something about Galileo. It’s a great conference.” Just like that, as if Galileo expertise were mine for the asking.

“Maybe next year,” I said, having no knowledge of Galileo and no idea how I could fit him and his universe into my expertise. And there was another matter of how I could pay for international travel on top of my academic travel commitments in the states. To be honest, when he suggested it to me, I did not think I needed Galileo in order to get to Florence. I was wrong.

 

I covet my torments.

Mr. Galilei, if you want money and leisure, go to Florence.

[T]he rays of Your [Highness’] incredible clemency and kindness . . . Night and day [I reflected] on almost nothing else than how I, most desirous of your glory (since I am not only by desire but also by origin and nature under your dominion), might show how very grateful I am toward you.

By November, Livia was pregnant and his new brother-in-law, Taddeo Galletti, exigent. Galileo asked Michelangelo to oblige himself legally to pay his share. For himself, he wrote, he was tightly pinched. Michelangelo could not contribute and Galileo had to borrow another 600 scudi and obtain an advance on his salary to meet his running expenses and the obligations he had assumed to assist his siblings.

The young scientist’s work was held in great esteem by the professionals who assisted him in heading the mathematics department at the university of Pisa and then of Padua. Later Galileo would become famous as a great scientist, a broadly educated man, a good conversationalist, and a skillful debater. In addition he received fame as a writer and a musician. He brilliantly played string instruments and the clavichord. He also succeeded in drawing, painting, and writing sonnets.

 

For a mid-tier 21st century professor like me, scrambling to make a difference on my own modest scale, it is humbling, cripplingly so, to read about someone like Galileo, larger than life in every discipline he undertook. More apologizing seems in order.

When the VP at my school told me to write something about Galileo I struggled—my job is mostly about teaching, but I still make time to sustain a modest research career. I write about post-evolution, embodied technology, medical humanities—areas without abundant overlaps in astronomy, physics, or renaissance science. To make matters worse, I couldn’t really set aside the prose form I’d been working in for a few years—prose collage experiments, part fiction, part creative non-fiction. I apologize, then, for the jumps and non-sequiturs careening from my words to those of Galileo, his biographers, and his critics. My VP who recommended I do something about Galileo for the conference did not specifically recommend the collage style. To be honest he was probably unaware of my specialty, but alas, I had to do something I knew if I were to have any credibility at all. There are end notes for the non-memoir collage material, for credibility’s sake. And yet, for the reader disinterested in juxtaposition and cross referencing it may just seem like a disjointed jumble of language.

Did I mention that I went to Florence to deliver this paper? I apologized then too.

 

Although Galileo’s “Capitolo contro il portar la toga” has its zing from his annoyance over the rule of the robe and the stock association of academic dress with pedantry, it was a piece with his duller sonnets in that it was an exercise to master a literary form.

The ways of invention are varied, very
To seize on the good there’s but one that has worked
Look about for an evident contrary.
That means search out evil, it’s easily found
You’ve then Summum bonum [the greatest good], no trouble at all
Bad and good are as like as pence in a pound.

Your friends were baffled when you bowed to the Prince of Florence: science gained a wider audience. You always laughed at heroics. “People who suffer bore me,” you said. “Misfortunes are due mainly to miscalculations.” And: “If there are obstacles, the shortest line between two points may be the crooked line.”

Anyone will then understand with the certainty of the senses that the Moon is by no mean endowed with a smooth and polished surface, but is rough and uneven and, just as the face of the Earth itself, crowded everywhere with vast prominences, deep chasms, and convolutions.

With monuments destroyed and temples burned
Proclaims my greatness in fierce examples.

 

When I try and relate to Galileo as a man, as a person, I come up feeling like a flea staring down an elephant. I am so awed by his accomplishments that I feel under qualified to have even stood in the same city where he once wrote couplets and hashed out the architecture of heaven, of purgatory, and of hell. His crispy middle finger stands, centuries dead under glass in Florence, pointing towards heaven, towards mountains on the moon, but I feel like he’s pointing at me, shaming me for having gone to Florence only to talk about myself.

Galileo would surely have no patience with my star struck self deprecation. Though he understood flattery intimately, a man of his wit and serious purpose would eventually move the conversation to something more interesting than my fawning. When Galileo was faced with a giant that had come before him did he cower or apologize? No. He openly ridiculed Aristotle, whose vision of the earth-centered universe was the law of the land handed down from God.

 

We have it on Viciani’s authority that Galileo dropped different weights of the same material from Pisa’s Leaning Tower to show, “to the dismay of the philosophers,” that, contrary to Aristotle, they fell at the same speed. And he did it not once, or secretly, but “with repeated trials . . . in the presence of other teachers and philosophers, and the whole assembly of students.”

One of Berni’s [Galileo’s influence for his burlesque writing] favorite techniques was to treat a common subject in an elevated manner, “in praising [as Galileo characterized the method] the meanest things, urinals, plague, debt, Aristotle, etc.”

Circular motion has the property of casting off, scattering, and driving away from its center the parts of the moving body, whenever the motion is not sufficiently slow or the parts not too solidly attached together.

He never takes his adversary by abrupt frontal attack, but after a courteous greeting stands back to await the first blow. Going on the defense, he entices his opponent to advance. Suddenly he strikes where least expected, and profiting from the surprise, presses in, pushes back, knocks out his adversary, and withdraws without taking any further notice of the combat.

You greater ones, if it shall please the Good Lord and Your Serene Highness that he, according to his desire, will pass the rest of his life in Your service. For which he bows down humbly, and from His Divine Majesty he prays for the utmost of all happiness for You.

 

Let me attempt to drag Galileo down to my level for a minute. I have no sisters or daughters in nunneries, but I do have four sons, each born legally under wedlock and inheritors of my name. I’m twice married as compared to Galileo’s none. I’m probably a better Dad, too. There’s no evidence of Galileo having coached Vincenzo’s soccer team, or volunteering at the kids’ school. I’m probably better at committee work too, I’m guessing. No, while I’ve muscled through program building and mentoring young writers, Galileo was off with the lynxes, having intellectual seminar discussions and discovering, on his own, laws of gravity and earthly motion.

I have to reach for his period of house arrest, his blind years, in order to feel good about myself: happily married, fond of family life, and well employed in the comfortable middle of American academe. But like Galileo I have my own challenges, like scrapping for funds to help my projects along, pinching time from every corner to keep up with grading, meetings, orthodontia bills, and soccer practices. It takes a lot of work to be a husband and a father, a brother, especially in the middle-class where family connections are tight and frequent. Is the main difference between Galileo and me one of class? Was a hearty and healthy family life a casualty of his high-end career and unfettered thinking? I don’t think so. I can’t believe Galileo was meant to do anything differently than he did.

 

Galileo did not shirk the financial, only the emotional, responsibility of maintaining his children.

He began to suffer severe rheumatic attacks at the age of forty in 1604/5. He shivered in the summer of 1608 with a persistent fever. He was bed-ridden during most of the winter of 1610/11 with severe miscellaneous pains, sleeplessness, discharges of blood, and depression (melancholy).

I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei of Florence, aged 70 years, tried personally by this court, and kneeling before You, the most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors-General throughout the Christian Republic against heretical depravity, having before my eyes the Most Holy Gospels, and laying on them my own hands; I swear that I have always believed, I believe now, and with God’s help I will in future believe all which the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church doth hold, preach, and teach.

MONK: Hey! Hey! We’re slipping off! Help!
SECOND SCHOLAR: Look! There’s Venus! Hold me, lads. Whee!
SECOND MONK: Don’t, don’t hurl us off onto the moon. There are nasty sharp mountain peaks on the moon, brethren!
VARIOUSLY: Hold tight! Hold tight! Don’t look down! Hold tight! It’ll make you giddy!

Knights-errant travel light. Galileo divested himself of his daughters as soon as they became nubile. In 1613 he placed them in a nunnery of the Poor Clares in Arcetri just outside Florence, where they would spend the rest of their lives.

A small flame moves in us as from the glow of a dim torch.

 

Alas, the catch all comparison between Galileo and me has produced only this—that his contributions to our understanding of the universe and physics were astounding then and relevant still. My writing and teaching, under the American first-amendment protections of freedom of speech, are respectable contributions to society. Mine is not a shameful career, but neither is it close to greatness, or to impact beyond my generation. Is mediocrity in my professional accomplishments the cost of relative domestic beatitude and reliable good health? Even Galileo’s abjuration, rejecting his beliefs and discoveries to save his own life, even this conflicted act elevates his grandeur, and provides Galileo his heroic hamartia. My comparison is a fool’s errand because Galileo lived as a tragic hero and thrives in our shared consciousness as a hero still. If I am to be hero of any story it will be a comedy, I hope, with a happy ending and feasting, preferably in Florence, with a statue of Galileo overseeing the festivities. I don’t want the burdens of greatness, and as it turns out, I’m not worthy of them anyway. Galileo lived as he had to, juggling family matters and underground manuscripts in service to knowledge that would resonate through the ages.

 

Galileo’s behavior was not irrational but carefully calculated. He responded not as a philosopher, world builder, or frustrated prophet, but as a “competent courtier.”

His hair hung down; his skin, in its tiniest folds, is covered with marks of the mal français; his skull is affected, delirium fills his mind; his optic nerves are destroyed because he has scrutinized minutes and seconds around Jupiter with too much curiosity and presumption; his vision, hearing, taste and touch are shot; his hands have the nodules of the gout because he has stolen physical and mathematical treasure; his heart palpitates.

Strozzi and Ricasoli were leading lights of a serious literary club, the Accademia degli Alterati composed, etymologically, of altered, twisted, false, angry, and befuddled poets. There is good reason to believe that Galileo was a member.

Before he contracted this advanced form of melancholy around 1610, Galileo exhibited only the mild melancholic symptoms of uncertainty, protectiveness, circumspection, ironic humor, and scholarly arrogance.

[Galileo’s] poem tells something about his pursuits and attainments at the age of 25. Many sacred cows came to slaughter by his sharp wit: university officials, ecclesiastics, academics, philosophers, idiots. And many youthful preoccupations leave their marks: sex, wine, clothes, money.

Galileo’s exercise in the Bernesue manner did not raise his standing at the university.

But a broken spirit drieth the bones.

As a good gambler Galileo occasionally bluffed by raising the stakes on a losing hand—a technique he later identified with the propensity of his philosophical opponents to add reckless worthless arguments to bad ones. This criticism applied better to him. His later claims about experimental results and theoretical insights contained a quantity of bluff.

 

I’m almost done apologizing. Florence, for me, will forever be imbued with the mystique and grandeur of Galileo’s larger-than-life discoveries and struggles, with his martyrdom to science, with his architectural interpretations of Dante’s Comedia, and with the incredible wake and undertow he leaves in the city. But it is up to me to discover what Florence means now, to a middling American academic, and that too is a worthy cause. Let me avoid the pigeons and keep company with lynxes. Let me practice a literary form or two while I keep my family intact, out of nunneries, and out of debt. I abjure nothing, and without shame take no small pleasure in simply having cameoed as a professor in the same city where Galileo once learned, taught, and discovered the difficult truth that the earth is not the center of the universe.

The truth of the matter is that Florence didn’t come easily to Galileo either. He had to leave Florence to do much of his life’s work, and returned to Florence under house arrest for his last years. I once dreamed of living in Florence for four months, teaching and editing and writing for my keep while my family lived with me, and we partook of Florentine culture as temporary residents. The lived experience will be something less epic, for now. In spring I’ll go to Florence for a few weeks to teach a handful of my university’s students to write about Florence—that’s the plan my university has set up and it sounds inviting to me. Not epic, but my life isn’t really about the epic, if I’m being honest. When I’m in Florence I simply want to meet a few people and get to know Florence University of the Arts. I want to eat great food and see the skyline. I hope to avoid house arrest and public abjuration of any of my beliefs and accomplishments.

But however self-satisfied or humbled I may feel about going to Florence, representing my university and sharing my writing, I will always be haunted, just a little, by the idea of Galileo’s finger, pointing at me, reminding me that Florence is for accomplishing great things and enduring extraordinary personal suffering. Forgive me, then, this one last misstep should you sense that I am enjoying myself, savoring small accomplishments, and forgetting to reach for the epic.

 

A man such as I can only obtain a moderately dignified situation by coming crawling on his belly.

To whose Highness, besides the reverent service and humble obedience which every faithful vassal owes him, I feel myself drawn with a devotion which I may call by the name of love (for God Himself asks us no more than love), so that, setting aside my own interests, I would without hesitation change my fortune, to do his Highness a pleasure.

And if I know any heretic, or one suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor and Ordinary of the place in which I may be. I also swear and promise to adopt and observe entirely all the penances which have been or may be by this Holy Office imposed on me. And if I contravene any of these said promises, protests, or oaths, (which God forbid!) I submit myself to all the pains and penalties which by the Sacred Canons and other Decrees general and particular are against such offenders imposed and promulgated.

I wrote at the time when theologians were thinking of prohibiting Copernicus’s book and the doctrine enounced therein, which I then held to be true, until it pleased those gentlemen to prohibit the work and to declare the opinion to be false and contrary to Scripture. Now, knowing as I do that it behooves us to obey the decisions of the authorities and to believe them, since they are guided by a higher insight than any to which my humble mind can of itself attain, I consider this treatise which I send you to be merely a poetical conceit, or a dream . . . this fancy of mine . . . this chimera.

Alas! revered Sir, your devoted friend and servant, Galileo, has been for a month totally and incurably blind. This heaven, this earth, this universe, which I have enlarged a hundred, nay, a thousand fold beyond the limits previously accepted, are now shriveled up for me into that narrow compass occupied by my own person.

Oh, prime cause of my sweet misery!
To gaze upon those eyes was my destiny.

 

Collage Notes:

“I covert my torments.” Galilei, Galileo. Excerpted from a long poem translated in Heilbron, J.L. Galileo. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print. 85.

“Mr. Galilei . . . Florence.” Line spoken coolly by the Venetian CURATO to GALILEO in Brecht, Bertolt. Galileo. Trans. Charles Laughton. Ed. Eric Bentley. New York: Grove P., 1966. Print. 53.

“The rays . . . toward you.” Galilei, Galileo. Excerpts from a letter to Cosimo de Medici telling of the naming of the Venetian moons. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. (157)

“By November . . . his siblings.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 89.

“The young scientist’s . . . writing sonnets.” Scientists Vol. 2: Famous People. . . Incredible Lives. Text by Shevela Olga. Encyclopedia Channel/Film Ideas, 2008. DVD.

“Although Galileo’s “Capitolo contro il portar la toga” . . . master a literary form.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 60-61.

“The ways of invention are varied, very / . . . / Bad and good are as like as pence in a pound.” Galilei, Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 61.

“Your friends . . . the crooked line.” Lines spoken by ANDREA to GALILEO in Brecht. Ibid. 122.

“Anyone will then understand . . . convolutions.” Galilei, Galileo. Sidereus Nuncius or The Sidereal Messenger. Trans. Albert Van Helden. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print. 36.

“With monuments destroyed and temples burned / Proclaims my greatness in fierce examples.” Galilei, Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 86.

“We have it on Viciani’s authority . . . the whole assembly of students.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 59.

“One of Berni’s . . . urinals, plague, debt, Aristotle, etc.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 60-61.

“Circular motion . . . not too solidly attached together.” Galilei, Galileo. Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic & Copernican. Trans. Stillman Drake. 2nd Ed. Berkeley: U of California P., 1967. 132.

“He never takes his adversary . . . notice of the combat.” Belloni, Luigi, quoted and translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 22.

“You greater ones . . . happiness for You.” Galilie, Galileo, in a letter to the doge, chief magistrate of Venice, quoted in Van Helden, Albert. “Introduction, Conclusion, and Notes.” Sidereus Nuncius. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print. 8.

“Galileo did not shirk . . . his children.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 164.

“He began to suffer . . . melancholy.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 162.

“I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei of Florence . . . hold, preach, and teach.” Galilei, Galileo. “Galileo’s Abjuration.” The Private Life of Galileo. London: Macmillon & Co., 1870. Print. 396.

“MONK: Hey! Hey! We’re slipping off! Help! . . . It’ll make you giddy!” Brecht, Bertolt. Galileo. Ibid. 72.

“Knights-errant travel light . . . the rest of their lives.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 192.

“A small flame moves in us as from the glow of a dim torch.” Galilei, Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 86.

“Galileo’s behavior . . . competent courtier.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 240.

“His hair hung down . . . his heart palpitates.” Horky, Martin, describing Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 161-162.

“Strozzi and Ricasoli . . . Galileo was a member.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 11.

“Before he contracted this advanced form . . . scholarly arrogance.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 26-27.

“[Galileo’s] poem . . . sex, wine, clothes, money.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 60.

“Galileo’s exercise in the Bernesue manner did not raise his standing at the university.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 62.

“But a broken spirit drieth the bones.” Dialog by GALILEO in Brecht, Bertolt. Galileo. Ibid. 78.

“As a good gambler Galileo . . . contained a quantity of bluff.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 24.

“A man such as I . . . crawling on his belly.” Dialog by GALILEO in Brecht, Bertolt. The Life of Galileo. Trans. Desmond L. Vesey. London: Methuen & Co., 1960. 44-45.

“To whose Highness . . . to do his Highness a pleasure.” Galilei, Galileo in a letter to a Florentine Gentleman, Sig. Vesp. In spring 1609, to arrange for his return to Florence from Padua. The Private Life of Galileo. London: Macmillon & Co., 1870. Print. 49.

“And if I know any heretic . . . imposed and promulgated.” Galilei, Galileo. “Galileo’s Abjuration.” The Private Life of Galileo. Ibid. 397.

“I wrote at the time . . . this chimera.” Galilei, Galileo from a 1618 letter to Austrian archduke Leopold in response to a request for a sample of his work. Excerpted from Sobel, Dava. Galileo’s Daughter. New York: Walker & Co., 1999. Print. 82-83.

“Alas! revered Sir . . . occupied by my own person.” Galilei, Galileo from a 1638 letter to his friend in Paris, Elia Diodati. MacLachlan, James. Galileo Galilei: First Physicist. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print. 97.

“Oh, prime cause of my sweet misery! / To gaze upon those eyes was my destiny.” Galilei, Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 86.

 

 

BIO

Michael FilasMichael Filas is Professor of English at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where he teaches fiction writing and American Literature. He earned an MFA in fiction writing from San Diego State University, and a PhD in American literature from University of Washington in Seattle. His writing has appeared recently in Eleven Eleven, Specs, Fiction International, The Information Society, and Passages North. A native of Los Angeles, Michael now lives in Northampton with his family.

 

 

 

 

Denis Mulroony

Sucking Air: Above-Ground Pool Chronicles

by Denis L. Mulroony

 

 

In the summer of 1984, my father purchased for our family an above-ground swimming pool. The pool was placed in a corner of our backyard and was, as the law required, surrounded by a chain link fence. Its width was fifteen feet; its height was four feet, and in the height of usage, it was filled from dawn to dusk with the friends, enemies and acquaintances of my two brothers and me. With the exception of the Moreno family who had an in-ground pool, ours was the only one in the neighborhood.

The two pools could not be more different, however. The Moreno’s lavish watering hole was a bean-shaped masterpiece that would have made a Vegas casino owner jealous, and except for an assortment of professional landscaping, it assumed the majority of their entire backyard. At one end of the pool sat a circular hot tub whose overflow of steaming goodness spilled into a shallow end of four feet and warmed the entire body of water to bath-like temperatures. This wading area gently sloped into a spacious deep end that sunk to ten feet. Overlooking the crystal waters was a diving board with a legendary spring, and overlooking the entire scene was a sprawling deck complete with lounge chairs, barbecue grill and eating area. While the beauty of the Moreno pool was unquestionable, gaining access to it was another matter.   Mr. and Mrs. Moreno regulated admission as though as it were an elite country club and their two sons had no problem following suit, relegating our paltry construction as the place to be during the summer. While the Moreno’s oasis was an elite, serene, and controlled swimming experience, our four-footer was akin to a Chuck-E-Cheese: poorly supervised and a little dodgy.

Every summer since its genesis, our pool was overflowing with kids, their bikes littering our driveway, towels scattered around the lawn to dry, and looking back, I can say with total confidence that at least half of the kids in Parsippany peed in my pool at one time or another. My parents, in their typical laissez faire approach, did not care who was using the pool as long as they weren’t floating face downward in it.

As to how the pool was used, however, they had a few straightforward rules that were followed to varying degrees of obedience. My mother’s only decree was that the pool was hers from 3:30 to 4:30 each day, no exceptions. During this time she would float around the pool reading Danielle Steele, her torso on a raft while her legs drifted behind her. Meanwhile, my friends and I watched the clock and filled our time playing prison-rules basketball. By the time 4:30 hit, ten to twenty little hands gripped the chain-link fence as five to ten noses poked through the openings. My mother’s departure down the ladder corresponded with an army of ten year olds flinging themselves over the side of the pool like it was D-Day.

My father, on the other hand, whose patience was usually to a fault, possessed several hot buttons regarding his favorite, above-ground child. They were as follows: no food in the pool; no “whirlpooling”[i]; no wave pool[ii]; no wrestling, no jumping off the side of the pool; and most important, no screwing around with the filter. It serves as no coincidence that in the hours my father was working, these specific activities filled the majority of our days. We filled our bellies with sandwiches and chips, whirlpooled until we were nauseous, wavepooled until we were sea sick, wrestled, chicken-fought, marco-poloed, shark-and-minnowed, and jumped/dove/splashed until he returned from work, at which time we innocently practiced swimming laps and lightly tossed Nerf balls to each other.

Despite our resistance to authority, there was one rule that was followed at all costs: no screwing around with the filter. During the summer my father’s day started and ended with a calculated check of the pool’s mechanics. He would arise at the crack of dawn to turn on the filter for the day and then lovingly place two chlorine tablets into its basket. Upon his arrival home from work, he would return to the side of the pool to empty the basket of any debris and check the ph levels of the water. The checking of the ph levels was an intricate routine that required intense concentration and no interruptions of any kind; we were forced to stand completely still and utterly silent for the entire proceedings. My father, with the focus of a geneticist on the brink of discovering a new genetic strand, would fill both tubes of a tiny plastic beaker with pool water. He would then remove two little bottles whose chemical contents he would carefully drop into each tube. Once filled, he would cover the tops of each tube with his fingers and shake vigorously. It was then time for the reading. At this point, he would take his glasses out of his chest pocket and place them onto his face; simultaneously, he would bend down into an absurd crouch and hold the conjoined tubes against the sky with an extended arm to get an accurate reading. If the color of each tube matched the desired color of the code in the middle, then swimming could resume; if not, the pool would have to empty until the next day as it was deemed unsafe.

Despite my father’s concern for a clean and safe pool, the structure itself was a veritable deathtrap, capable of killing children in multiple, painful ways. I am proud to say that my friends and I did nothing to decrease the odds of a watery grave in any way. There were several factors that made swimming in our pool so treacherous. The first was the side of the pool, a four-inch piece of aluminum that capped off the walls. As two of our favorite games required jumping into the water (sharks and minnows[iii] and the golf tee game[iv]), our use of this precipitous high wire was frequent. Due to its frail construction, walking around the side of the pool was tenuous as it wobbled and shook with every step one took. Falling into the pool was obviously not a concern; however, hitting the land was another story. For reasons unknown to me, my father decided the best surface material for the area surrounding the pool was jagged rock. I am not sure if this reverse-moat was his attempt to keep us permanently out of the water or in it or if this was his feeble attempt at Medieval landscaping. Nevertheless, many people had the unfortunate experience of falling away from the water and tearing up their feet, legs and arms on the crags below.

Chemical and viral disease was also a threat at the pool. Every year during the last week of June, after we begged him for a month and the Morenos had banned us out of theirs, my father would announce that it was finally pool season. The next Saturday morning the Mulroony clan would make their way through the fence and gather around the pool in silence as my father gave directions for pulling the cover off. It should be noted that while in-ground pools, during the winter, are as empty as the a realtor’s soul, an above-ground pool remains filled with water and requires a floatation device and a cover, both objects designed to keep things (animals, leaves, garbage) out of the pool and thus maintaining the clarity and quality of the water. It should also be noted that this is only a theory, and every June when we took that cover off of the pool we were greeted with the blackest, most malodorous water I had ever seen. As my brothers were assigned to bleaching and hosing off the vile pool cover (a job I always questioned the assignment of two people for), it always fell to me to brave the murky, freezing water and skim out everything that had found its rest at the bottom of the pool.

It remains, to this day, the most horrifying experience of my life.

The memories of skimming the black, death water are understandably blurry. I remember shivering, dry-heaving, and crying as my brothers laughed at me from the lawn. My skinny, pasty-white frame stood in dire contrast to the oil spill we called a pool as I struggled to lift the leaves to the surface and dump them over the fence with the skimmer. Ultimately, leaves were the least of my concerns. It never failed that every year at least one animal would, for some inexplicable reason—part of me thinks my brothers put them there—choose our pool for its final resting place. I know this because during the formative years of my life I spent several Saturday mornings stepping on the rotted carcasses of squirrels, birds, rats, mice, and in an instance that elicited instant and violent vomiting, a possum. After locating the critter with my feet, I then had to fish them to the surface and dump them over the side of the fence as well. In these moments of horror, tears streaming down my face and sick gathering in my throat, my father would offer to take the skimmer and do the job from the outside the pool, causing me to always wonder why he made me get in the pool in the first place. Despite an intense phobia of dead animals and road kill that persists to this day, I suppose I should be happy I never got malaria or trench foot from the experience.

At no time was death nearer than when my brothers and their friends would join us for a swim. I am amazed that no one ever had to be carted away to the morgue, myself in particular. While my ten-year-old friends and I leaned more toward organized pool games, my brothers’ teenage friends expressed an interest in acrobatics and violence. Together, they formed an illegitimate family of sadistic circus performers whose routine consisted of grabbing me and throwing me as high as they could into the air with little or no concern to my safety, the aluminum side of the pool and the rocky terrain constant hazards. As I was both slight in build and submissive in nature, I was the perfect carnival prop and was recklessly flung eight to ten feet in the air or simply tossed between two of them. On the rare occasions that I protested my use as a projectile or as they inevitably grew bored, their activities would turn even more sadistic. While their friends preferred chicken fights[v] as an aquatic alternative to torture, my brothers omitted the competition element and went straight for the payoff, simply dunking me under the water in fifteen second bursts (like skipping the main course and eating dessert first). As I fought under the water on those afternoons, struggling to escape to the blissful sky above and earnestly praying for gills, I was never quite positive that they wouldn’t actually kill me.   Having never really been shown any affection from them in the ten years prior, I was pretty sure that they dreamed of a world without me in it- the couch would become bigger by 33% as would the rations of cookies, ice cream, and chips; my room would become a personal gym/love den where they would bring their unwitting teenage girlfriends who had no idea they were cold-blooded conspirators.   I suppose that the only thing stopping Leopold and Loeb was fear of retribution from my father as my water-logged corpse would undoubtedly clog up his precious filter. Ironically enough, the only thing that sucked more air than the filter during those years was my lungs, in-between dunks from my brothers.

As was the custom, my father insisted that we close up the pool each Labor Day, regardless of the weather. Despite our protests, we dutifully inflated the ineffective floatation device and fastened down the plastic cover to the aluminum sides of the pool with water-filled milk cartons. The entire process took about half an hour, longer than a game of sharks and minnows, neater than a wavepool, tamer than a romance novel and less fun than attempted murder. As I peered into the crystalline waters, the site of my near-watery grave, I always got so sad, not because I almost died there but because for nine weeks we really lived. For our father, it would be ten more months until he resumed his love affair with the filter; its affection would be replaced with various projects at his basement workbench. My mother would devote herself to three months of Christmas preparations and two months of holiday cleanup. My brothers would return to high school, sports, girls, partying and when time permitted, the contemplation of patricide. As for me, I usually rode my bike to the Moreno’s house with my fingers crossed and a baby-blue golf tee in my pocket, hoping for a few more days of summer.

 

[i] “Whirlpooling” or “Whirlpool” was a game where the inhabitants of the pool circled the perimeter of the structure in the same direction at the same time, thus simultaneously creating a vortex and pissing off my father to no end. My father claimed the whirlpool effect caused the filter to, as he put it, “suck air”.

[ii] “Wavepool” was a similar game only in the propensity to cause the sacred filter to “suck air”; it was played by simply grabbing any floatation device and making the biggest waves you could. It was accompanied by hooting and hollering and usually ended with the garden hose being inserted into the pool to reestablish a water level above the filter line and prevent air to be sucked by it.

[iii] “Sharks and Minnows” was a game of skill and strategy where one person begins as the shark and treads water in the middle of the pool while the minnows stand perched above the water. The object of the game is to jump into the pool and swim to the other side without being tagged by the shark. If you were tgged you fulfilled the shark role as well. This continued until there was one minnow left. (Potential for filter clogging: minimal)

[iv] “The Golf Tee Game” started with everyone standing on the side of the pool. One person held a baby-blue golf tee in their hand and jumped in to place it on the bottom of the pool. Everyone tried to get it first as it floated to the surface. As with any game, score was intensely kept and physical contact was encouraged. (Needless to say, this game was a lot more fun at the Moreno’s house.)

[v] “Chicken Fights” were gladiatorial contests where smaller, younger victims were placed on the shoulders of larger people and pitted against each other until one of them was thrown under water. Punching, scratching, pulling and pushing were the rule.

 

 

BIO

Denis MulroonyDenis L. Mulroony is a part-time writer and full time educator with twenty years of experience as a teacher, coach and currently, a high school principal. He earned his D.Litt. from Drew University and his undergrad from King’s College.  He is an eager writer and essayist who hones his craft whenever time allows (usually after his wife and kids go to sleep). Denis’s creative non-fiction has been published in the Atticus Review, Inkwell.org, FortyOunceBachelors.com and Survive Parenthood Magazine. He only uses his middle initial for writing purposes and when trying to compensate for being less-than-photogenic (see author photo).

 

 

 

John Spencer Walters

The Importance of Casket Readiness

by John Spencer Walters

 

I just received a lovely letter from the Neptune Society informing me that persons of my vintage are choosing in large numbers to have their rotting bodies cremated. The missive fails to indicate specifically, but I assume that the good people of Neptune are soliciting post-mortem incinerations only. Perhaps the letter is purposely vague to include those willing to accelerate the inevitable. I consider excessive and presumptuous the urgency with which Neptune spurs on the Postmaster, “time sensitive information enclosed.” I’ve often thought of doing the job myself but I lack the courage necessary to inflict pain upon my palpably rotting body. The contents of my mailbox reveal daily that Neptune is not the only commercial buzzard circling relentlessly above.

One thing I can remember without prompting is that I’ve entered the penultimate stage of existence, a leading indicator of which is that even though I’ve begun to drool I’m still able to drive myself to the liquor store, where well-meaning attendants ask (much too insistently) if I require help toting that half gallon of Johnny Walker to the car.

As long as the sun shines brightly on my liver spotted head, I will not allow the funeral industry to hasten my death. Though I’m certain as one can be of my near term survival, I comport myself as if death were imminent, dressing always in such a way as to be casket ready or oven worthy, as the case may be. I wear a sport coat, even to get groceries. If the trip to the market rises to the level of an outing (includes a stop at the pharmacy or dry cleaners), I accompany the coat with a tie. I’m considering wearing a tie to bed, in the event that death is merciful and takes me in my sleep.

Why, you may wonder, should anybody dress formally after having toiled forty years in a uniform he has longed to shed, perhaps even shred? In retirement you’re as inclined to compromise your comfort as you are to set an alarm clock. Why should you forsake cargo shorts in favor of gray flannel slacks? You’ve earned a stint of unmitigated leisure. You require a reason more persuasive than merely appearing spiffy upon arrival at Cheerful Charlie’s Funeral Home.

Simply put, nothing needs to be turned on its head quite so compellingly as a few beliefs cherished among retirees, to wit: upon retirement the typical American male consummates THE DREAM, unloading every reminder of time spent in button down confinement, trading the wing tips for well-worn flip-flops, lounging in his favorite sweats, the ones that pair splendidly with the baseball jersey, so much so that they evoke the specter of formal attire, unbecoming of his new found freedom and clearly violating the unwritten dress code to which the American male retiree unflinchingly (and unabashedly) adheres. While tossing the jersey to the closet floor he notes the unwelcomed presence of a charcoal brown suit, which somehow evaded the U-haul on his epic post-retirement party trip to the consignment shop. He settles on the wife beater T as his “go to” shirting, largely for its liberating effect on that which he has no doubt is a fetching shock of hair growing on his upper back. He reserves the baseball jersey for October, and for weddings and funerals at which he considers his attendance inescapable.

I strongly advise against this practice, this line of thinking. For those males aged 62 years and older, your need has never been greater than to dress like those sartorially resplendent adults of the 1940s and 50s. I ask my aged male brethren to carefully and objectively study their physical appearance. Even without rose-colored glasses, a rush of delusional thoughts fills your brain, which you embrace as perfectly plausible. You imagine your age defying face appearing as a Google pop-up, the caption to which encouraging viewers “to read further and discover this 63 year old grandpa’s secret to looking 30.”

Clear your mind of all such chimera. Allow reality to take control of what remains of your cerebellum. Note that the lines on your face, which for years you dismissed as mattress indentations, are now pronounced and sufficiently deep to transport water. Your eyes are drawn to one such rivulet carved into your forehead. You follow its path and realize that it’s shaped much like the I 695 Beltway around Baltimore. You need help and imagine it arriving in the form of a Lamborghini, followed by a head-to-toe- skin transplant, which you imagine as powerful palliatives, if only you could afford these. Don’t despair. You can obtain a measure of grace and dignity without breaking the bank.

Nothing is as affordable as dressing well to compensate for the unsightliness of old age—all the while keeping you looking sharp for your inevitable date with the funeral pyre. Do this, if not for yourself, then for your community, which already is blighted from excessive exposure to gnarled, ancient flesh. It matters not how fit you think you may be. Elderly flesh requires more not less clothing. The over-the-calf socks are a good idea when combined with a nice pair of slacks, but never with a pair of Bermuda shorts. You can rehabilitate your community’s aesthetic by unburdening it and yourself of the Bermuda shorts, all bottom wear, really, that fails to cover your ankles. Please retain, and tenderly care for, the navy blue blazer.

Ask yourself whether swimwear is really necessary in life’s final chapter? The answer clearly is no. Find a recreational activity that calls for a superabundance of outfitting, perhaps fencing or snowmobiling. Why should I care either about the beautification or greater edification of my community, you ask? Your community, as with all things that don’t meet with your approval (which includes just about everything) can go to hell!

I’m aware that old age offers no gift greater than the freedom to disregard what others think. This gift often impels us to enter into situations for no purpose other than to tell somebody, preferably a snot-nosed kid, to fuck off. I get it. It’s one of my great indulgences. It’s the one thing that makes tolerable the infirmities of old age. Indeed, I’m a charter member of the HEHE Club (Hate Everything, Hate Everybody), an elite organization established specifically by, but not limited exclusively to, old timers. It demands only that its members demonstrate the unremitting surliness of a grizzly bear.

That said, I hope to awaken your highly developed social consciousness for which you were famous but which succumbed effortlessly to the comforts of middle class living. Whether by the grace of God or by force of superior talent, our generation developed a rich culture worth sustaining. The young have rendered it barren. As you examine our cultural landscape, hideous in nearly all of its aspects, are you not aroused by the desire to edify it, even if only in some small way. Consider the music, but for your sake don’t dwell on it. Our young people have done for music what ISIS has done for Islam, taken it back to the sixth century, otherwise known as The Age of Alvin and the Fucking Chipmunks. Consider the state of literacy—but again don’t dwell on it. Our grandkids can neither read nor write—neither can their teachers. Ours may have been the last generation to produce persons of intellectual depth, musicians who actually played musical instruments, who wrote songs demanding an audience whose IQ’s exceeded 60.

You may think that it’s only fitting that civilization die with us. Music and literacy are in a state of moribundity, and even though we no longer can do the kind of heavy lifting necessary to give life to these, we can put an arthritic shoulder to the wheel in an effort to salvage at least one vestige of civilization. We can show younger generations how to dress like adults.

In closing remember, too, that death is rarely merciful. Too often death is preceded by an extended institutional stay, where you will languish, too enfeebled to dress yourself. This task is left to nursing home staff, perhaps in your case a fun loving bunch known for hilarity, who relieve their drudgery by “dressing up” the residents. Imagine the staff collapsing in merriment as they admire their handiwork: you lay in bed staring blankly at the ceiling, wearing a sundress, your heavily rouged face accented by blonde hair extensions. There’s no telling what indignities you may suffer in your addle brained oblivion. In the charge of strangers, you have no idea how foolish you can look, which is one more reason to dress yourself smartly, and make the most of it, while you are able!

 

BIO

John Spencer WaltersJohn Spencer Walters has published several award-winning academic journal articles, in addition to a monograph, U.S. Government Publication: Ideological Development and Institutional Politics, from the Founding to 1970, which is as dense as its title suggests.

 

 

 

Tad Bartlett

Head Space

by Tad Bartlett

 

 

While I’m writing this essay, on a weekend in between drafts, Nicole and I pack up our three kids and go to visit her parents at their boat house overlooking Lake Pontchartrain. It’s the day before my father-in-law’s birthday, so I’m carrying his presents in each hand as we walk up the stairs to the main room. I’m focusing on the stairs in front of me. I have everything balanced and don’t want to trip. I forget about the low overhead clearance of the ceiling before the landing, that it’s low enough that I should duck. I fail to duck, and bang the top of my head hard into the ceiling.

“Not again,” I think, angry at myself, stunned, dizzy, trying to get out of the way as my two boys and little girl push past me up the stairs. A high-pitched whine, like a fine-tuned turbo engine, fills my ears. A gray curtain drops in front of my vision. Four days later, when I’m adding this intro to this essay, the headache won’t have stopped, the unsuccessful search for easy words will continue, and I’ll still have a stumble to my step.

 

* * *

 

On March 2, 2012, the National Football League announced it was investigating New Orleans Saints officials and defensive players for operating a system of bounties, pooling money and giving cash awards for deliberate hard hits on opposing players, hits that often resulted in the opposing player leaving the game. As a result of that investigation, two months later the NFL suspended four Saints defensive players: defensive captain Jonathan Vilma for one full year, Anthony Hargrove for eight games, Will Smith for four games, and Scott Fujita for three games. Vilma filed a federal lawsuit to fight against his suspension two weeks later, followed soon by a suit brought on behalf of the three other players by the NFL Players Association.

The first meaningful skirmish in the litigation took place on the morning of July 26, 2012 in U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan’s courtroom in the imposing brutalist federal courthouse on Poydras Street in downtown New Orleans. Vilma was there with three of his attorneys, including Peter Ginsburg, stick-thin and hatchet-faced under thinning gray hair; and Duke Williams, a big man, built like he may have been a football player himself once. The League had a representative down from the executive offices in New York, along with five attorneys from New Orleans and Washington. The Players Association and the other three suspended players added three more attorneys to the room. They were all gathered for Judge Berrigan to take evidence and hear testimony on behalf of Vilma, who had requested a temporary restraining order to lift his suspension and allow him to go to Saints training camp—commenced that same day in the heat and humidity of the Saints’ practice facility in suburban Metairie, Louisiana—while the legal issues were pending.

To win his temporary restraining order, Vilma would have to prove a “likelihood of success on the merits” of his case. While there were esoteric legal issues involving the Collective Bargaining Agreement and principles of labor law, on the facts Vilma would have to show Judge Berrigan that it was likely he could prove he did not offer stacks of cash during defensive meetings for the players to take out Kurt Warner or Brett Favre or other opposing players, that he and the Saints defense only engaged in legal tackling under the rules of the game, that even legal tackles could be “big hits,” and that injuries suffered by opponents were just part of the game and not the result of a nefarious bounty scheme.

The public had a chance to see much of the League’s evidence during releases of documents and affidavits from the investigation, and the players had, as the Alabama country folks I grew up around liked to say, a heap of ‘splaining to do. I was in the courtroom that day for my job, but I had personal thoughts on the day’s issues, as well. While I was a huge Saints fan, going into that hearing I was pissed at Vilma and the other players and coaches. To me, the released documents showed them to be a bunch of entitled athletes celebrating hurting people, then saying anything to try to get away with it. In team meetings, they’d shared pictures of the opposing quarterbacks they’d left crumpled on the field, exhorted each other to “destroy each quarterback” and “kill the head,” awarded money for “cart-offs” and “knock-outs,” and promised to pay for any fines levied by the League. In public, they acted flabbergasted that the League executives would get upset at them for “just playing the game.” Boys would be boys, and what’s the harm? It felt like high school writ large, the football players out smashing mailboxes on a Friday night for laughs and no consequences.

 

* * *

 

I had my first diagnosed concussion when I was nine. I was in fourth grade. I was playing “chase” at recess. I don’t recall if I was the pursuer or being pursued, but the pursuit had taken us around the playground equipment. This was in 1981, when playgrounds were still all metal and rust and sharp edges and hard ground, before today’s rounded corners and plastics and “play surfaces.” We ran at full speed around the merry-go-round. Trying to be clever, we changed directions several times in mid-orbit so that the chase might collapse on itself. I remember running fast in one direction, the merry-go-round full of laughing kids rotating the other way. I remember the feeling of air rushing past me, and exhilaration. I remember turning my head to look behind me. I remember the sudden collision with a friend as I faced forward again. I remember the breath being knocked out of me. I remember falling sideways toward the merry-go-round, flailing my arms out. I remember my head making contact with the edge of the rotating metal platform, just behind my left ear.

I don’t remember anything else until five or six hours later, when my mom got home from work and woke me up. I was lying on top of my bed. I’d apparently gotten up from my fall, gone back into class when recess was over, finished the school day, ridden my bike a little more than a mile home, let myself into the house, and laid down on my bed and passed out. My mom took me to the emergency room and I got my first concussion diagnosis. In those days, that came from nothing more than a penlight shined in my eyes and resulted only in advice to my Mom to “keep an eye on him the next few days” and an admonition to me to “watch where you’re going, young man.” No CT scans or MRIs. No medications or orders of bed-rest.

 

* * *

 

The main strategy for Vilma’s case against the League was, in large part, to demonstrate that football is inherently a rough game. His attorneys wanted to drive home the point that defensive players engage in violent contact as a routine part of the game, and that it would be preposterous to suppose that defensive players would be able to control their hits to differentiate them from the routine to such a degree as to underlie a bounty system, that such a bounty scheme would be neither necessary nor feasible.

After Vilma testified for an hour, his attorneys called up a succession of current and retired Saints defensive players. First up was Troy Evans, for several years the Saints’ special teams captain and a back-up linebacker who had played with Vilma before retiring and starting a school bus company back home in Ohio. Evans was a solid block of a man, full of right angles, blonde hair spiked up over a square-jawed face.

Peter Ginsburg, Vilma’s attorney, asked Evans, “Is the NFL a violent game, in your opinion, Mr. Evans?”

“Yes.”

“You and your teammates are expected to deliver big hits. That’s your job, isn’t it?” Judge Berrigan watched Evans intently as he answered Ginsburg’s questions.

“Correct,” Evans responded. He elaborated, “A big hit is—how do you classify it? A big hit is obviously a high-speed—probably—collision that would result in sometimes the defender and sometimes the offensive player violently getting taken down, which in turn makes the crowd go crazy.”

“I was going to ask you about that,” Ginsburg said, his finger moving down his legal pad, as if Evans had jumped ahead of script. “It has an impact on the crowd, obviously. Correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Does it have an impact on the team, your team?”

“Absolutely. Just euphoric, natural, celebratory—it’s part of the game. Hard hits just kind of—it’s like slapping the table in this room.” Evans slapped his hand hard on the small table in the witness box. “Everybody would jump.” Sitting at one of counsel tables, I flinched.

Ginsburg smiled. The reporters sitting in the gallery tapped away on their laptops. Ginsburg asked, “Do those kind of hits also have an impact on the opposing team?”

“Absolutely. One side of the crowd gets loud, and the team gets jumping up and down; and the other team is picking the other player up, and the crowd goes quiet.”

 

* * *

 

I didn’t play football as a kid. I played soccer. I played it for twenty-two years, from ages five through twenty-seven. In Selma, Alabama, of all places, we had a thriving league operated by the local YMCA, with two three-month-long seasons each year, one in the spring and one in the fall, and a traveling team of all-stars in several different age groups that traveled throughout the South. I played in the Y league from five until fifteen, and was on the traveling team beginning when I was ten. We weren’t the typical jocks in town. Instead, we were largely an odd collection of speedy and spirited misfits whose coaches ran us and trained us until we were resilient and smart about the game in ways you wouldn’t expect kids from Selma to be.

My next three diagnosed concussions were from soccer. It wouldn’t sound so bad to say that I had three concussions in twenty-two years of soccer, but in reality those three concussions came in a four-year span starting when I was twelve.

The first one was at an all-star game in Montgomery. An aggressive player from a Montgomery squad and I were in the air challenging for a head ball. I got the ball, and he got my head. I remember a few minutes later that I was on the sideline, vomiting, but telling my coach to put me back in. I don’t remember the space in between, or the ride home to Selma after.

The second soccer concussion was the next year. Kicked in the head.

The third one came two years later. It was the consolation game in the final round of the state tournament. We were fighting for third place, and the game was close. It had been raining all weekend and the field was a mess. The opposing team lined up for a corner kick. I was guarding the back post. The corner kick sailed into the box past our keeper. An opposing player settled the ball to the ground, then kicked it toward the back post. There was no way our keeper would be able to cross the mouth of the goal to make the save. I left my feet, launched so that I would intersect the ball’s trajectory. I’d like to think I headed the ball clear and that we won the game, securing third place in the state, before I hit the side goal post. But if I’m being honest and not just relating the myth of me, I can’t really tell you what happened in that game, other than that I hit the side goal post with my head. I have no idea if I saved the ball, or if we won the game. No idea.[1]

 

* * *

 

Vilma’s next witness was Randall Gay. Gay grew up an under-sized but highly recruited all-around player from the small town of Brusly, Louisiana. He’d been a star defensive back on LSU’s 2003 national championship team. He made the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent, and was a member of the 2004 Super Bowl champion team his rookie season. In 2008 he signed with the New Orleans Saints, where he played for three years, including as a member of the team that won the 2009 Super Bowl.

When Gay entered the courtroom, his suit was a little looser than Vilma’s and Evans’s had been. He wore a bright orange tie, but the knot was slightly askew. He gave Vilma a brief but nervous smile as he passed the plaintiff’s table. When he raised his right hand for Judge Berrigan to administer the oath, it trembled.

Vilma’s local counsel, Duke Williams, conducted the direct examination of Gay, as Ginsburg took a seat next to Vilma. Williams had a casual, garrulous tone. He first tried to put Gay at ease by exchanging pleasantries about their respective nick-names, “Duke” not being Williams’s given name. “I understand you have a nickname,” Williams said to Gay, “correct?”

“Yes, sir,” Gay said, stifling a grin. “Blue.”

Williams smiled. “I may call you ‘Blue’ at some point today, but—”

“That’s fine,” Gay said.

“Do you prefer to be called ‘Blue’ instead of ‘Randall’?”

“I’ve gotten to love them both,” Gay answered. I started to feel anxious for Gay. He seemed ill-fitted to the setting. There was that loose suit and askew tie. Then there was the hand tremor, which was continuing, and the inconclusive almost-grins. Something seemed not quite right for him. I quietly rooted for him to calm down.

Williams turned to the line of questions about the nature of the game. “Now, as a defensive back in the pro game, you do a lot of hitting, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How would you characterize the hitting that you guys do back there in the secondary?”

“Well, a lot more than a lot of us really want, especially for a small guy like me, but it’s a lot of contact. No matter how you put it, you’re going to get hit.”

Williams bulled through the point. “That’s what you’re expected to do, isn’t it?”

Gay sighed, looked down in his lap where he was trying to stash his trembling hands, then back up. “If you want to play, you better.”

Williams pushed on, oblivious to Gay’s discomfort. I wanted him to stop, move on to someone else. I couldn’t put a finger on it, but I was feeling for this guy. “Even if a guy weighs thirty, forty-five, fifty more pounds than you, you still have to take them down as best you can?”

“Even when a guy weighs even more than that,” Gay said, “because sometimes you go against guys a hundred pounds more than you, and you better get them down or they will find somebody else to do it.”

Williams kept going down this line of questions, though he’d already made his point and then gone beyond it. “In that position, you’re not just doing all the hitting. You’re not dishing out all the punishment. You’re taking some too, right?”

“Oh, yeah,” Gay said, “because if not, I would still be playing football.”

Williams looked down at his notes. Perhaps he realized that this wasn’t part of the case, to show the actual harmful effects of this violent game they were trying to portray to the court. So he changed the subject, trying to get to some basic timeline testimony. “Now, how many years did you play with Jon Vilma as your teammate?”

Gay looked back at his lap, then up to the ceiling. He tried to smile at Judge Berrigan, but she didn’t smile back, so he looked to Williams again. “Well,” he said, drawing it out with a pause. “We came in around the exact same time, because I was a free agent and I signed with the Saints and I think either he got traded to the Saints right before I signed or right after …” I could see he was trying to reconstruct a string of events to find the answer to Williams’s simple question. He paused, then concluded, “But we came in together.”

Williams looked at Gay for a beat, then asked what I’m sure he hoped was another simple, factual question. “He was the team captain, wasn’t he?”

“Well, I don’t know about that year,” Gay said, and Williams’s face fell. “He may have been. My memory isn’t that good, but he was—you could tell he was a team leader from the beginning.”

Williams tried to shift gears again. Perhaps he wanted the court to hear if Gay appreciated Vilma’s team leadership when he was injured, or perhaps he just wanted to establish whether Gay had been in all the team meetings. Williams asked, “Did Mr. Vilma—while you guys were with the Saints, did you—were you ever on Injured Reserve?”

“Yes.”

“Did you—what year?”

“Oh, my last year I went on Injured Reserve because of a concussion my last year.”

Williams soon gave up on his direct examination of Gay. Gay looked relieved when Judge Berrigan told him he was excused from the stand. He practically ran out of the courtroom.

 

* * *

 

Between my fourth diagnosed concussion and the fifth one, twenty-four years passed. In the interim there were plenty more hard hits.

My junior year of college, there was the collision on U.S. Highway 231 just south of Sylacauga, Alabama. I was driving my then-new girlfriend, Nicole, and two more friends up to hike and camp on Mount Cheaha. It was a crisp day. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” by Bauhaus, was playing on the car stereo as we approached the intersection with Alabama Highway 38.[2] We had a flashing yellow light and the cross-traffic on Highway 38 had a stop sign and flashing red, so I didn’t come off the accelerator much as I saw an ivory-colored Nissan Maxima approach on 38 and slow down. When the Maxima suddenly sped into the intersection, I had no time to stop, and we t-boned it hard. The police report estimated from the short length of the skid marks that we likely hadn’t slowed below fifty miles per hour before the impact. Despite the seatbelt, I spider-webbed the windshield with my forehead. But the initial pain I complained about in the ER was my shoulder where the seatbelt had dug in, and my knees, which had left two holes in the dashboard. Those pains faded quickly, but I suffered headaches for several weeks.

Then there was the summer trip to the beach a decade later. We’d rented a house on Dauphin Island. I woke up at daybreak one morning to the sound of waves crashing. I’ve always loved body-surfing, and the break that morning was irresistible. Long, steady, four-foot faces, curling east to west, one after another, a low-pressure system somewhere out in the Gulf. Without waking anyone else in the house, I slipped into a swimsuit and swam out to where the bigger waves were breaking. I waited until the perfect wave stood above me, its front crest teetering, ready to crash down. I dug hard with my arms and kicked out in front of the wave to match its speed, was swept up to the top, and felt the curl start to rumble beneath me. I tried to hold my body stiff and stay on top, but found myself suddenly out too far, my upper body in mid-air, and then the wave threw me down its face, the whole weight of it crashing down and pile-driving me head-first into the sandy bottom. As my face dragged against the sand, I began to see silver stars at the periphery of my vision before I lost orientation. Seconds later I was at the edge of the surf-zone. My head was pounding. My face stung. I put my fingers up to my right forehead and temple, then brought them out to where I could see them. They were covered in blood. After a few minutes of sitting there, I went up to the house and admired my bloody, scraped-up face in a mirror. I was proud of that one, in the stupid way you can be when you’re only freshly into your thirties, and forgot completely about the headache.

Several years later, about to turn forty, I was less stupid about my health. I was going for bike rides in the mornings before work. On one ride, a slip of my foot as I tried to get my shoe back into the clips on the pedal after I’d slowed for a car at an intersection, and somehow, clumsily, I twisted over my handlebars and hit the pavement hard. The dumbest, simplest thing, but I was in the middle of the road with my helmet cracked in three places. I picked up my bike, waved off the motorist who had just gone through the intersection, and went and sat on the side of the road for a few minutes. Then I got back on my bike and turned around and went back home, abandoning the rest of my ride. I felt a little fuzzy as I tried to put thoughts together, and wondered if a hit hard enough to crack my helmet may have done worse damage on the inside, but after a few days I felt fine and forgot about it.[3]

 

* * *

 

After Gay’s testimony, the hearing moved through testimony from the Saints’ interim head coach, Joe Vitt, and defensive players Scott Shanle, Sedrick Ellis, and Jonathan Casillas.[4] The final player to be called to the stand was Roman Harper. From the moment he entered the courtroom, he was on a different level than the other players who’d testified. Other than Gay’s tremulous appearance, the rest had been competent and on-message, but they seemed like what they were, football players in a courtroom. It wasn’t their natural element. But Harper was as at ease walking into Judge Berrigan’s courtroom as he was blitzing opposing quarterbacks from his safety position.

Other than Gay, the other players had worn well-tailored but largely conservative attire, had spoken precise answers in restrained voices. Harper entered the courtroom in a powder-blue suit, wide lapels, and an open-collared shirt. But where that could have come off as too casual for a courtroom on other people, or even costume-ish, on Harper it looked sharp. Put together. When he answered questions, he spoke in a loud but relaxed voice that included everyone in the courtroom in the tale he had to tell. I somehow felt for the short time he was on the stand as if we were buddies. He didn’t smile out of nervousness, or out of some conspiratorial camaraderie with Vilma, or to curry favor with the Judge or the lawyers. He smiled because he was confident and because he was happy in his space.

“Where did you play college ball at?” Williams opened up his direct examination.

“University of Alabama, 14-time National Champion,” Harper answered.

Williams dove into the line of questions about the inherently violent nature of the game, but as they moved through the testimony, Harper rejected the word, “violent,” and tried to get those in the courtroom to understand the game as both a brotherhood—among both teammates and opposing players—and as a response to what the crowd demanded.

Williams asked, “Based on your experience and your observations as a college and professional football player, can an entirely legal hit sometimes hurt somebody?”

“It can hurt both sides, actually,” Harper said. “I’ve been in those collisions where it’s just large men running into each other at high rates of speed, and collisions are going to happen; big hits, things like that will occur, and sometimes guys get injured. I’ve been hit a few times.”

Circling to his theme, Williams asked, “Would you say, among other things, that the NFL is a violent sport?”

“It’s a violent sport,” Harper began, but then he shook his head and restarted his answer. “It’s a gladiator sport.” When he said this, his countenance was serious, and it was clear he wasn’t boasting or engaging in hyperbole, but reaching for a genuine historical referent. “I hate to use the word ‘violent,’” Harper continued, “because people think violence is guns, knives, things like that. I think it’s a gladiator sport where guys are actually grown men, they get out there and compete in front of a large crowd. It’s all about winning. We are going out there to compete with each other. It’s a blessing to be in this business, and we all understand that, but I would never want to say it’s a violent, violent sport, but it is a physical sport. It’s a gladiator sport. We are all out there competing to try and get out there and earn a living.”

Williams began to key in on the language that appeared in the evidence presented by the League about talk during Saints defensive meetings, language that appeared to back up the allegations that Saints players had a bounty system to reward deliberately targeting opposing players. “In your experience, and you can go back as long as you want to, even when you played when you were a younger boy—is it true that football talk, locker room talk, meeting room talk between coaches and players, it’s pretty rough, profane, and violent talk at times, or gladiator talk? I know you don’t like the word.”

“Yes, sir, it’s pretty brash. The thing is, when you are younger, you can try and motivate guys, ‘Hey, guys, if we win this game, let’s go to McDonald’s. Let’s go to Pizza Hut.’” Harper flashed a smile, and everyone in the courtroom suddenly remembered their own childhoods and team trips to McDonald’s, possibly even if they had never played a team sport. Harper continued, “And then as you get older, those same things don’t matter anymore. You have to take care of your body. Nobody wants to get excited about McDonald’s. You can always go buy McDonald’s. That’s not going to be the same case. Then as you get older, college, it’s more about the buckeye on the helmet or a different stripe or different things, you know, getting out—girls. You know, they get girls if they make big plays and things like that that enthused other guys.

“Now that you are in the League, you get out there, you have to rowdy guys up, you have to talk it. Not everybody cares about girls. Most guys are married and things like that. Nobody cares about McDonald’s because we all can afford that. Now you have to go out there and use different angles and different ways, choose your words to try and fire guys up and get them going. And that’s where you can kind of get it misconstrued because you’re working with grown men. We all have our different factors of motivation. When you try to get a group of grown men thinking the same angle, with the same mind-set, that’s what you want to try and do; sometimes your words can be misconstrued from the outside looking in when they don’t know exactly what you mean. That’s what it’s about, trying to get everybody on the same page to go out and try to win the game.”

Williams seemed enthralled with Harper’s take on the game and on the locker room bravado and brotherhood. “Forget about the money,” Williams said. “Vilma holding up cash in his hands or stacking it up on a table or stuffing it in an envelope. I don’t care.” And really, by that point, who cared about that in that courtroom? This all seemed to be about something more. “You have never heard him suggest or tell another player that they should go out and intentionally injure a player on the opposing team; is that right?”

“Yes, sir, that is correct. No, sir, he has never said that. This is a privilege to play this game. Nobody wants to take it from anybody. It’s a brotherhood. We all are trying to go out there to earn a living, and we all understand that. I would never want to try to intentionally hurt anybody. Injuries do occur playing this sport, but nobody wants to intentionally hurt somebody. We are all trying to earn a living for our family and friends.”

“You often have good friends, sometimes very close friends on opposing teams, right?” Williams asked.

“Yes, sir. All the time—I grew up playing with a lot of guys on other NFL teams and things of that nature. So nobody wants to hurt anybody. We are just out there competing at the highest level, and we definitely enjoy it and we all love to do it. We’ve been doing it since we were kids.”

 

* * *

 

By the beginning of 2013, I was wearing thin. At work, the Vilma litigation had taken as many twists and turns as a Barry Sanders touchdown run, and we were awaiting a ruling from the court on motions to dismiss Vilma’s lawsuit; while at the same time our other cases were going full-tilt. In late August 2012, I’d added going-back-to-school to my full-time law practice, starting in the MFA program at the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans. On the home front, our third child, Lucie, was nearing ten months old and proving to be much more energetic than her brothers had been at that age.

On January 17, 2013, Judge Berrigan issued an order dismissing Vilma’s claims, bringing that litigation largely to a close. I began to look forward to a retreat with my writers’ group at the end of the month to a cabin in some low mountains in Tennessee. On January 31, the day we left on our retreat, the copy of Rolling Stone that arrived in my mailbox and that I threw in my bag with my other books and writings contained the story, “This is Your Brain on Football,” by Paul Solotaroff.

Solotaroff’s story detailed the horrors of repeated head trauma, which can result in a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or “CTE.” According to Solotaroff’s article, CTE develops as small clumps of brain cells essentially short out, then begin poisoning other clumps of brain cells, with disastrous effects—depression, mood swings, violent outbursts, and suicide, or, in other cases, an eggshell-headed victim where one insignificant-seeming bump to the head can lead to sudden swelling of the brain and quick death. The kicker is that CTE can’t be diagnosed using current scanning technologies, and can only be positively determined in a post-mortem examination of brain tissue. Suffering from the ill effects of multiple concussions, retired NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide the previous spring by shooting himself in the heart, so that his brain would be left intact to be studied by researchers.

As I began reading the Solotaroff article, I thought back to Randall Gay, whose trembling testimony had struck me so profoundly. Gay, in his tremors and his unspoken difficulty in answering the questions, was a living example of the result of the gladiator mentality that Roman Harper had followed up about in his own testimony. Even during a hearing that wasn’t actually about concussions, I had quietly registered that connection. As I reflected on that while reading Solotaroff’s article, the article then turned on my own experiences:

Each year, according to one study, up to 3.8 million Americans suffer a concussion on playgrounds or in contact sports, and the majority of them are children. That’s a staggering number, both in human suffering and the costs exacted on their families. It is also very surely an undercount. “The large majority of concussions don’t render kids unconscious, so neither they nor their coaches know they’ve happened,” says Dr. Robert Cantu, chair of neurosurgery at Emerson Hospital, the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) and the nation’s leading authority on concussions. “Boys in particular don’t tell us when something’s the matter. The real number is way north of 4 million.”

I sat up a little straighter in my chair in the cabin in Tennessee as I read the rest of the article. I hadn’t experienced many of the symptoms discussed in the article, but I began to wonder. I thought I could understand my instinctive relating to Gay during the hearing the previous summer. At the same time, I took comfort that I didn’t suffer from the continuing headaches mentioned in the article, from confusion, from any of the rest of it. I was mentally sharp and had to be in order to continue as a lawyer and a writer.

The night we arrived in Tennessee, it began to snow. The cabin was on a remote hillside looking down into a tight holler, a frozen creek at the bottom. Our car could only get halfway up the steep, rutted dirt drive before we had to leave it and walk the rest of the way. For three days, everything was about writing, and about being a writer in a community of writers. The stress that had been building up in me began to unwind, and I began to regain a focus I felt I had been losing. The day we left, a Sunday, the sun shone down strong and melted the snow and thawed the ice. The sky was a deep blue. I’d gotten exactly what I needed out of the weekend. I could sense there was a fragility to the peace I felt, but it was peace nonetheless. We said good-bye to those in our group who had come from other places, and our New Orleans contingent, five of us, began the eight-hour drive home.

In Warrior, a town in north Alabama, we stopped at a Jack’s Hamburgers for a quick lunch. It had warmed into the low 50s, and there were some tables outside, each one topped with a red fiberglass canopy with a scalloped edge, shaped to look like a jaunty umbrella to shade the table. Inside, the restaurant was chaotic, and the peacefulness I’d left Tennessee with began to ebb. There was a Twilight Zone feel to the place. All the customers were scrubbed clean and dressed well, and all seemed to be carrying bibles, as if we’d just walked in at the end of a church meeting. They gave us strange looks. We were scruffy, for sure, after three days in the cabin. The two males among us needed a shave. I sensed distinct distaste on the faces of several of the other restaurant patrons to see our group all together. I ordered my food first. It was hard to get the order in because the restaurant manager was yelling abusively at the counter clerk for getting a previous order wrong.

By the time I got my food, I wanted nothing more than to get out of that restaurant, so I headed for the door to the outside seating area. I slipped open the door and aimed for one of the tables, focusing only on the table and on putting my tray down and on being out of that place. I didn’t look up at eye level to see the canopy. The hard, fiberglass canopy. I rammed the top of my head into the canopy edge, which forced me down onto the seat. I sat there, stunned, while the rest of our group came out and ate. I had a hard time focusing on their conversation. When it was time to go, I told my friend, Maurice, that I’d hit my head. I tried to laugh it off, but when he asked if I wanted him to drive, I quickly gave him the keys. I was dizzy. The rest of the drive home, whenever I started to drift off Maurice would punch me, then engage me in conversation. I remember the drive home on Sunday perfectly.

On Monday, when I got up, I had a throbbing headache, radiating out from where I’d hit the canopy. I took some ibuprofen, then drove my boys to school, went to work, worked a full day, then went to fiction workshop that night, went through two and a half hours of workshop, then drove home. By all subsequent accounts, I participated fully in the day, though several people told me later that they’d noticed me wincing and grabbing my head from time to time.

On Tuesday, I still had the headache, and noticed I otherwise didn’t feel quite right. I thought of it at the time as “dizziness,” but in the barrage of new terms I would learn over the next few months I would re-term the feeling as “disequilibrium.” I took some more ibuprofen, then I took the boys to school again and went to work. While sitting in a meeting around ten that morning, I had to put my head down on the conference room table. One of my partners asked me what was wrong, so I told her that I’d hit my head “the day before” and was feeling nauseated, and that the lights were too bright. I offered up no resistance when she told me she was going to drive me to the emergency room. After a consult with the ER doctor and a CT scan, it was determined I’d had another concussion, and that I was experiencing post-concussion syndrome. That was a new diagnosis for me.

When Nicole came to the hospital to pick me up, I asked her if she thought I should still go to fiction workshop that night or if I should call my professor to tell her I couldn’t make it. That’s when I figured out I was mistakenly thinking it was Monday, and that I’d gone through all of the actual Monday without knowing it or remembering it.

The pain grew worse each day. Light was unbearable. My appetite dropped to nil. My children’s voices were torture to me, and they’re not loud children. I couldn’t walk a straight line. I was angry often. I was angry that I couldn’t sit upright for more than fifteen minutes. I was angry when my partners told me not to come into the office. I was angry that the pain wouldn’t stop. For the next three and a half weeks, I spent my time largely in our bedroom with the lights off, my head buried under a pillow. I would try to keep up with work via email, only to learn later that my colleagues had gone to each other with emails I’d sent them, concerned over the multiple typos and lack of general coherence.

Some days all I could do was sleep. Some days and nights I only slept fitfully, waking every few minutes. I missed class for the first two of those weeks, then began to go again, but Nicole had to drive me there and pick me up. When I tried to drive, I couldn’t make sense out of the lane markings on the road.

When I got in to see a neurologist, he confirmed the diagnosis of post-concussion syndrome and prescribed diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory, and a series of different pain-killers until we found one that actually at least took the edge off. He also prescribed nortriptyline, originally formulated as an anti-depressant but now prescribed commonly to manage pain in patients with post-concussion syndrome.

By April, I finally felt the curtain that seemed to separate me emotionally from everyone around me begin to lift. More often than not, I was mostly clear-headed again. The times I found myself searching in vain for a word or for the name of the person I was talking to began to come less frequently. By June of that year, I was off the anti-inflammatories. By September I was able to go off the pain killers except for a few days a month, and was taking only the nortriptyline on a regular basis. After a year and a half, I cut the nortryptiline dose in half. Six months later, still experiencing a few days of crippling pain every few weeks, I theorized that it would likely be better to still have occasional pain without medicine than have the same occasional pain with medicine, and went off the nortryptiline altogether.

I’ve held on to the end of the prescription for the painkillers and a large bottle of ibuprofen just in case one of the bad periods gets really bad, which they do sometimes. In researching post-concussion syndrome, I’d learned that, if symptoms weren’t clear by twelve months, they would likely never fully go away.

I know the pain is about to return in full force when the ringing in my ears turns up. The ensuing pain runs along two axes. Imagine a drill boring down into my head at the point of impact, extending down a couple inches. Then imagine a second drill perpendicular to that one, going in one side of my head about an inch below the top of my head, through the first axis, and out the other side. And then it radiates from there. Sometimes disequilibrium comes with the pain. Sometimes nausea. My old bouts of depression feel more ominous. I continue to blank on words and names from time to time, some times worse than others. I’ll forget conversations. It’s been two and a half years now. Even this far out, I had a three-day episode last week that was almost as bad as the immediate aftermath of the concussion. Stress—common, of course, for litigators and graduate students—can trigger the worse headaches, or sometimes they just come with no precursor.

The rest of the time I have a constant low-grade ringing in my ears and a background amount of pain. The only alternative to living with the pain is not-living with the pain.

Through all of that, through the paranoia about CTE, I wonder if I’ll end up like Randall Gay. Through no athletic heroism of my own, through no gladiatorial exploits or brotherhood-protecting machismo, but essentially through plain high-spirited living combined with a propensity to klutziness, I know about the misery and mystery of the multiply concussed brain. I think about Harper’s explanation of football players’ gladiator approach to wanting to give the crowds what they scream for, voluntarily subjecting themselves to the hard hits they know are coming, and I wonder if my own hard hits—knowing full well what has come before—aren’t any less voluntary.

These choices we make. On a recent trip back to Dauphin Island, I had my two boys—now 12 and 9 years old—out in high surf with me. It was those long, straight sets again. I was teaching them how to ride the waves. They would emerge from the tumbling foam, a whoop on their lips and a soreness in their bones, and would swim back out into the break with me. I’ve let them try out soccer, too. It didn’t take with my older son. My younger one, though he’s not very good at it yet, seems to love the sport. And my little girl, now 3, is following up behind them. I wouldn’t deny any of them these things I love about living.

But I wouldn’t—I won’t—let any of them play football. I recognize my hypocrisy and the fundamental contradictions. Is this just another symptom? Cloudiness of brain, cloudiness of heart? All of us, including my youngest, yell for the Saints on Sundays—“Go Saints! Get him!” Our lusts, our adulations, our living.

 

 

Note regarding sources:

The following articles were relied on by the author to corroborate his recollection about the New Orleans Saints’ “bountygate” investigation, and to confirm details regarding the players involved: Larry Holder, “New Orleans’ Saints bounty scandal timeline as Sean Payton prepares for return,” NOLA.com (Aug. 30, 2013); Mike Triplett, “NFL’s evidence against New Orleans Saints is legitimate, but it won’t end the debate,” NOLA.com (June 18, 2012); “Saints Agree to Terms with Randall Gay,” NewOrleansSaints.com (March 2, 2008); Jim Kleinpeter, “Former LSU, Saints Cornerback Arrested,” NOLA.com (May 9, 2013); and “Randall Gay among latest ex-players to sue NFL,” Associated Press (July 20, 2012).

The “bountygate” litigation in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana fell under the caption of Jonathan Vilma, et al. v. Roger Goodell, et al., 12-CV-1283 c/w 12-CV-1718 & 12-CV-1744. The Temporary Restraining Order hearing occurred on July 26, 2012. The excerpts from that testimony contained herein are taken from the transcript prepared by official Court Reporter Toni Doyle Tusa, CCR, FCRR.

Rolling Stone magazine’s coverage of football’s concussion issues, relied on by the author here, include Paul Solotaroff, “This is Your Brain on Football,” Rolling Stone, Issue 1175 (Jan. 31, 2013); and Matt Taibbi, “The NFL’s Head Game,” Rolling Stone website (Sept. 12, 2012).

The author also relied on the following additional sources in research for this piece: Eckart Kohne, et al., Gladiators and Caesars: The Power and Spectacle in Ancient Rome (Univ. of Calif. Press, 2000); Peter Rudegeair & Sharon Begley, “NFL’s Junior Seau had brain disease from blows to the head,” Reuters (Jan. 10, 2013); and Tim Anderson, et al., “Concussion and mild head injury,” Practical Neurology (Nov. 23, 2006), 6:342-357, at p. 354.

[1] After that season, I was more tentative on the field for a few years, mostly riding the bench on my high school team, before I found my spirit again and made the team at Spring Hill College my freshman year. In the final practice before our first game, I broke my ankle. I spent the next four years helping to bring a tough and all-in brand of the game to four intramural championship seasons, that first year as a hobbled coach and the last three years as a player-coach. After college, I played in any pick-up games I could find for a few years and in intramural leagues again when I was in law school.

[2] “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was on a mix-tape I’d made a few weeks earlier. Something occurred during the wreck that left a glitch in the mix-tape at the moment of impact, such that for about five seconds in the middle of the song, the tape plays the music on the opposite side backwards before “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” comes back on. Every time I listen to that mix-tape (now ripped into my collection of .mp3s on my iPod, with the glitch intact), I recall that moment of impact.

[3] These three incidents weren’t the extent of my non-diagnosed head traumas. I’m constantly forgetting others. In proofreading an early draft of this piece, a close friend reminded me of another time when I hit my head on a low roof overhang at a lodge during a writers’ conference in Petit Jean, Arkansas in 2011 (I was dancing, badly), and wandered off into the night, where he and some others found me lying on the ground an hour later. There’s also the time I hit my head on the edge of the roof of a golf cart I was trying to jump on during the 2013 Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, trying to hitch a ride down to the book tent from the main venue at the state capitol. There may be other times I’m not recalling, as well. The point is, I’m extraordinarily clumsy, and often don’t account for where my head is in relation to other objects. It’s downright embarrassing.

[4] Of the witnesses who testified that day, only Coach Vitt remains with the New Orleans Saints currently, as the Assistant Head Coach and Linebackers Coach.

 

 

BIO

Tad BartlettTad Bartlett’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in print or online at the Oxford American, The Carolina Quarterly, Euphony Journal, The Rappahannock Review, Bird’s Thumb, The Subtopian, and Double Dealer, among others. He’s earned an MFA in fiction at the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans; and is a graduate of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and Tulane University Law School. He is a founding member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.

 

 

 

0
The Blitz

The Blitz

by Liz Gilmore Williams

 

As a . . . Pearl Harbor survivor, I am often asked what ship I was on. When I reply that I wasn’t on a ship
but was stationed at Hickam Field, I am usually asked, “Where is Hickam Field?” The Japanese certainly knew!
―Master Sgt. Thomas J. Pillion

 

On December 7, 1941, Ernest Galeassi, a private in the Army Air Corps’ 324th Signal Company based at Oahu’s Hickam Field, got up, shaved, dressed, and went to mass, then to the chow hall for breakfast. He walked back to the barracks and sat down on its front steps, looking across the airfield. He soon spied planes almost grazing the barracks’ roof, planes marked with the red rising sun of Japan, dubbed the “meatball,” by the GIs. As the planes zoomed overhead, Galeassi yelled inside to those in the barracks, “We’re being attacked!” He ran two blocks to the motor pool as an ear-splitting boom sounded from Pearl Harbor, the first target. Black smoke billowed over the naval base. Hickam’s air raid siren blared.

While Galeassi sprinted to the motor pool to move the company’s trucks under some palm trees, my dad, Herb Gilmore, worked teletype in Hickam’s Bomber Command Signal Office in the Base Operations building―the centrally located nerve center of the base. He relayed new developments from one headquarters to another and sent and took orders for the Commanding Generals. Only his helmet and the building protected him. Outside, dive bombers whined, machine-gun fire chattered, and bombs thundered.

A lineman truck driver in Herb’s company, Private Thomas J. Pillion, and another signalman drove a truck full of field wire, telephones, and other equipment to Base Ops. Japanese bombs hit the hangar line and hangars, whistling past Pillion and his colleague, Bill Kokosko, as they arrived at Base Ops and huddled under a palm tree. The smell of gunpowder filled their nostrils.

Lt. Col. Guy N. Church, the ranking Signal Officer, drove up in his staff car and got out with his arms full of sporting guns. He handed Pillion and Kokosko each a shotgun but no ammunition. They left the guns at the message center. As they exited Base Ops, Japanese planes splintered the Hawaiian Air Depot, hangars, and hangar line. Pillion and Kokosko ducked under the building where a grating had been removed. Minutes later, they headed to their company’s supply building. Meanwhile, Air Corps gunners manned the parade ground―without cover―and got mowed down like blades of grass, to be replaced by more gunners.

The bombing stopped for about 30 minutes. Ambulances began picking up the wounded. Then the bombers returned, blasting Hickam for another 15 minutes. This time, some Japanese planes exploded from anti-aircraft fire. Every time an enemy plane blew up, everyone stood up and cheered as if at a baseball game. The enemy hammered supply buildings, the base chapel, Snake Ranch, and guard house.* The sparkling, new consolidated barracks shook repeatedly with the force of the explosions, which splattered food, trays, and the bodies of men in the chow hall. Almost all of the 100 Japanese bombs dropped on Hickam hit a target. Reportedly the most heavily bombed building on Oahu, the consolidated barracks burned for four hours. Bodies lay everywhere.

Though at first some men at Hickam wandered about, panic stricken, most took heart and fought back, firing .50-caliber machine guns, Thompson submachine guns, Colt .45s automatic pistols, and even World War I-era bolt-action Springfield rifles. They may as well have thrown their guns at the bombers. Thirty-five AAF planes took flight, some engaging the enemy and others in pursuit, unaware the Japanese had already left the area. Hawaiian Air Force fighter pilot and heir to the grape juice fortune, George S. Welch, shot down 4 of the 29 enemy planes destroyed that day, the first American to down a Japanese plane.

 

This iconic photo shows Hickam's brand-new barracks in flames after the Japanese attack. The truck at the base of the flag pole belongs to Herb’s company, members of which were fixing a damaged cable. The tattered flag in the photo later flew above the United Nations charter meeting in San Francisco, over the Big Three conference at Potsdam, and above the White House on August 14, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered. (Signal Corps photo from Herb’s collection)

This iconic photo shows Hickam’s brand-new barracks in flames after the Japanese attack. The truck at the base of the flag pole belongs to Herb’s company, members of which were fixing a damaged cable. The tattered flag in the photo later flew above the United Nations charter meeting in San Francisco, over the Big Three conference at Potsdam, and above the White House on August 14, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered. (Signal Corps photo from Herb’s collection)

 

Pillion and his buddies spent most of the day running field wire and supplying field telephones to bomb squads and headquarters groups. At night, the cratered parade ground and burning vehicles made passage almost impossible when Pillion and another signalman, Jim Bagot, drove back to Base Ops. At midnight, the air raid siren wailed. Spotlights beamed on more planes overhead, U.S. Navy planes. Everyone with a weapon shot at them. The sky lit with red hot tracers, Pillion and Bagot dove for shelter under Base Ops. Feeling secure, they laughed, probably from nerves, and lit cigarettes. “Sgt. Herbert Gilmore” told them to put out the smokes. “Go to hell,” they replied.

Like Herb, men from all signal companies at Hickam stayed at their posts to radio, teletype, or phone messages at a moment’s notice during the attack. The switchboard operators handled thousands of calls every hour. Linemen repaired severed or damaged lines. Those who stayed on duty in the Base Ops building, like Herb, should have received medals of recognition but did not, according to Pillion’s oral history of the attack: “Everyone in the company performed the duties for which they were trained without question. I was proud to have served in the 324th Signal Company.”

Oahu suffered horrifying carnage and wreckage: more than 2,300 men died and 1,100 were wounded. AAF posts on Oahu lost more than 200 men, with 700 wounded. Though Hickam lost 121 men, with 274 wounded and 37 missing, the attack claimed no lives in Herb’s company. Of the Hawaiian Air Force’s 146 planes, 76 were lost; an additional 128 army planes were damaged island-wide. Forty explosions had rocked Honolulu, all but one the result of U.S. anti-aircraft fire. Honolulu lost 48 civilians, 3 fire fighters, and 4 government employees.

During the attack, known in Hawaii as the “Blitz,” untried troops responded as veterans. Silver stars and purple hearts decorated the chests of 233 men at Hickam afterwards.

I looked through one of my father’s scrapbooks to see if any of his buddies had been cited. There, among their poems, messages, and names and home addresses, I found two signatures of awardees in Daddy’s company: Joseph P. Miszczuk, of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, and John S. Lopinsky, of Summerlee, West Virginia. Lopinsky, an outstanding baseball player for the Hawaiian Air Force, played on a volleyball team with my father.

The night of the Blitz, critical units headed for wooded areas beyond the base, on 24-hour alert. The bomber command moved to its forward post, which it used until the next day. Herb’s company sent enough signalmen along with the command to maintain 24-hour communications.

Like disaster evacuees, Hickam’s men found shelter under trees or blankets that night or in pup tents, unlocked family quarters, or wherever they could sleep. Under a moonlit sky, a blackout cloaked all light on the ground to help thwart an invasion. Neighborhood wardens patrolled to see that residents shut off lights and covered windows with black cloth; those who failed to do so could be arrested.

Frenetic activity took place immediately after the Blitz. All important buildings in Hawaii received a coat of camouflage paint, including Hickam’s beautiful water tower, and Honolulu’s Aloha Tower, then the tallest structure in Hawaii. The military convinced 200 or so “lei women” to weave camouflage nets instead of leis. To prevent Japanese landings, the military strung barbed wire along the beaches. All paper money in the Territory was recalled and burned to prevent the misuse of U.S. currency if Hawaii was captured. As in World War I, people began planting vegetable gardens of eggplants, lettuce, carrots, sweet potatoes, and onions. Children started toting gas masks everywhere they went.

The military convinced the governor of Hawaii to declare martial law. The authorities arrested civilians, including 370 Japanese, 98 Germans, and 14 Italians, to prevent them from aiding the enemy. Martial law remained in effect for three years. Like grounded teenagers, the once light-hearted islands succumbed to curfews, rationing, and endless regulations.

Herb, like many Americans, viewed Japan’s unannounced attack as sneaky. As the United States declared war on Japan on December 8, 1941, Americans rallied―none more than the airmen, soldiers, sailors, and marines on Oahu. They wanted revenge.

 

*The Snake Ranch, so named because “You walked in but crawled out” was the enlisted men’s beer hall.

 

 

BIO

Liz WilliamsLiz Gilmore Williams worked as a writer and editor for more than 20 years in Washington, D.C., for two agencies of the U.S. Congress, a trade association, and a few consulting firms. Her essay, “April Love,” won an Honorable Mention award for creative nonfiction in the Virginia Writers Club’s “Summer Shorts” Contest for 2014 and was published by the Indiana Voice Journal in February 2015. Her essay, “The Last Time,” published by the Wilderness Literary Review in January 2015, was the most read piece in that online issue. Both essays and her story “The Blitz” derive from her book, No Ordinary Soldier: Discovering Daddy in My Parents’ Letters from World War II, for which she is seeking representation. She received an MA in American studies from the University of Maryland and belongs to the South Carolina Writers Workshop and the Charlotte Writers Club.

Twitter: @warletterlover
Website: www.warlettersfromwwii.com/

 

 

 

Sarah Parris

NaNoWriMo – What Is It and Will It Eat Me?

by Sarah Parris

 

To most people November is a simple month, a lull between Halloween and Christmas where you get a week to eat turkey and be merry. To elementary students it’s the time of year to learn about the pilgrims and the Indians, and Christopher Columbus. To me it’s time to write a novel. National Novel Writing Month is a yearly event that thousands of people across the world participate in annually. The rules are simple. You have the thirty days of November to write 50,000 words, and all 50K must be written within the month.

To many this sounds crazy. I agree. To write over 10,000 words each week? Near impossible! Except that I have done it twice now, and look forward to it again next year. Why, you may ask. Why would I put myself through this? The answer is more complicated than you might think. That I love to write should be a given, but it’s not just about that. There’s something exhilarating about the mad dash, the craziness to get it done, the desperation to reach the goal, the endless nights of typing away when the rest of the world has long fallen asleep. I imagine it’s like running a marathon. You go and go and go, and when you finish it’s like you’re standing on top of the world. Plus, there’s the undeniable satisfaction of having a fat stack of paper by the end that you can mold into a story.

There are two types of writers when it comes to NaNo – the plotters and the pantsers. Plotters, like myself, spend the weeks leading up to November plotting out our stories, planning the characters and their backgrounds, charting maps of their worlds and figuring out how characters will get from Point A to Point B. This is well within the rules, as long as none of the story is actually written until November begins.

Pantsers, on the other hand, go into their stories blind and figure it out on the way, writing by the seats of their pants – hence the name. They trust their characters to lead them into the unknown and to find their way out again. They come up with the map and the history as they need it. This type of writing offers its own kind of excitement for the writer, and is well-suited to those who appreciate the flavor of spontaneity in their writing.

But no matter if you’re a plotter or a pantser, your goal is the same – write, and write quickly. NaNoWriMo is designed such that the writer is forced to slam out a story before she has time to think about it too hard. Creativity’s worst enemy is the writer’s inner-editor – that voice in the back of the mind that questions and criticizes everything, analyzes a story to death even before it’s born. The constant demand of NaNo to keep an eye on the outrageous word count goal presents writers with an opportunity to not only find out what they’re made of, but to hash out their raw ideas before they have time to quash them. Only after the month is over is the inner-editor released from whatever cell it was thrust into on November first, and once again allowed to clean up the typos, order chapters chronologically, and run continuity checks on characters and plot holes.

In fact, so much is done during NaNo to try and get that little editor out of the writer’s head that there are mini games and challenges that force the writer to expel it from thought. The NaNo community all but depends on these when the going gets tough, and writers in need can always find each other on the NaNoWriMo site when they need motivation or a writing buddy.

Word wars are mini-challenges that a writer takes against herself or others that encourage her to write as fast as possible without stopping to question her thoughts. In a word war the writer sets a timer for however long she likes (my favorite is ten minutes), and within that time writes as many words as she can possibly slam onto paper. If two or more are playing, the person with the most words wins. This almost guarantees that there will be typos, so much so that the five-minute word war has been universally dubbed the “Fifty-Headed Hydra” among the NaNo community. The nick-name was born when one writer’s five-minute word war yielded only three correctly spelled words; fifty, headed, and hydra.

Sprints are a variation on this theme wherein the writer is challenged to sprint to the nearest thousand words of their document in as short a time as possible. For example, if my document were sitting at 32,500 words, I would have to write 500 more words to make it to 33,000. Obviously, these can be more or less difficult depending on the last three digits of a manuscript’s word count. Blessed be the writers sitting at 32,997 at the beginning of a sprint.

Another strategy for those who fall behind in their writing is the dreaded 10K Day, a tactic I have had to employ a couple of times. The name is self-explanatory. The writer undergoing this challenge must write 10,000 words by the end of the day. I have only completed it once, the first time drawing close with about 9,000 words. I have heard tell of writers who have topped 15K in a single day. I salute them, and also wonder what kind of bionic fingers they have traded for their human ones.

Often when I talk about NaNo to others I’m met with awe and incredulousness. Several people have told me they simply wouldn’t be able to think of something to write 50,000 words about. To them I say I used to think the same thing. When my friend asked me to do it with her the first time I truly wondered if I would be able to make it to the end. What kind of story could I produce that deserved that many words? What could be worth that much of my time, that much devotion? But as I wrote, I discovered that my story came alive under my fingertips.

I had started the month with a rough idea of my story and the world it was set in. I had written other stories in this fantasy world for years and had a good idea of how the world worked. My characters were more of a mystery. I had my protagonist, a young girl of twelve years, a man, aged twenty-seven, both born with magic in a world where it does not come often to humans, and general of the goblin army. How were they connected? How would they meet? How would this story affect the overarching story of my world? I didn’t know, and I couldn’t know until I plunged in blindly. I only allowed myself one question – ‘what if?’ What if the goblin general were holding the girl’s mother as a prisoner of war? What if the girl set out on a mission to find her? What if the young man joined her along the way?

As I continued to write, thoughts came flying into my head that I couldn’t explain. I suddenly knew why my young protagonist thought her mother was in the goblin country, why the pixies in the southern forest were so angry all the time, why the goblin wars had gone on for so long, and exactly how evil my evil queen was. The longer the month stretched on the more frantic I was to finish. So much so that I holed myself up in my bedroom for the entirety of Thanksgiving break, only emerging to eat. Meal times were the only moments my family saw me, so engaged was I in my characters and the world I had created. I believe that can happen to anyone who finds a story they truly want to tell. It doesn’t take someone special to complete NaNo. It takes passion and dedication.

There are other challenges similar to NaNo. One of them, Camp NaNo, is associated with NaNoWriMo. It is held every April and July. Unlike in the November NaNo, Camp NaNo participants set their own word count goals, as small or as large as they like. The only rule to winning is that you hit your mark.

For script-writers, there is a challenge called Script Frenzy. This used to be hosted by NaNoWriMo, but due to decline in interest they were forced to let it go. The challenge stands, however, for anyone who wishes to write 100 pages of script in a month.

National Poetry Month is in April, and so is National Poetry Writing Month for those who want to test their hand at writing a poem a day in April.

Short storyists have claimed May as National Short Story Month and for those who wish to try it there is a Story A Day challenge where participants write 31 stories within the month.

There are also monthly writing challenges available through many social media sites, such as the #500words page on Twitter where participants are encouraged to write 500 words a day and post their progress for their followers to see. This is meant to get writers in the habit of writing every day.

I think one of the appeals of these challenges is that they’re not limited only to writers. Everyone is welcome as long they have stories they want to write, or even if they want to challenge themselves to do something new. So whether you’re a new writer or an expert, keep the tradition going! Set those pens to paper and show the world what you’ve got!

 

 

BIO

Sarah ParrisSarah Parris lives in Missouri with her family. She is a recent graduate from Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri where she earned a BFA in Creative Writing in 2015. Her stories are typically set in fantasy realms and center around young female protagonists. She presented a short story at the national Sigma Tau Delta convention in Albuquerque in the spring of 2015.

 

 

 

Ron Yates author

Kintsugi

by L.D. Zane

 

“You really shouldn’t go back into the house.” Dori, always the reassuring voice of reason, was concerned.

“And why not? I still have some things in the house which are mine, and I have the right to collect them.”

“This isn’t about rights. It’s about being smart and not giving them ammunition to use against you. And because your attorney advised against it. With you no longer on the deed, he said they could consider it trespassing. Knowing your brother, he’s just crazy enough to press charges.” There was no anger in her voice. It was more like trepidation, bordering on fear.

“He only advised against it. He didn’t say I shouldn’t or couldn’t do it.”

“It’s the same thing and you know it.”

“Maybe so, but how will they know when they’re in Florida?”

“There’s no maybe about it. Besides, I wouldn’t put it past him to have the neighbors watch the house and report to him. You know, Ian, you’re sounding like a child throwing a tantrum. I don’t know why you hired and paid for an attorney if you’re not going to follow his advice.”

 

I was one of a triad of owners of the house in which I grew up—the other two being my older brother and his mother. Even though she is our biological mother, I long ago stopped referring to her as my mother. I just refer to her by her name—Gertrude. My brother doesn’t feel the same way.

She caused the divide when I was born, about three years after my father returned from the battlefields of Europe. Gertrude had raised my brother, Henry, alone for the better part of two years—a year while my father was still in Europe, and another while he was recovering at an Army hospital in Kentucky from a third wound he suffered—this one at the German border, while serving with Patton’s Third Army. She insisted that since she bore the burden of raising Henry for the first two years of his life, and my father really had no bond with my brother after his return, that I would be his responsibility. “This one is yours,” Gertrude said to my father, matter-of-factly. Like two once-friends kids returning baseball cards.

I’ve never been sure why she felt that way. It didn’t seem natural. None of my friends’ parents ever did that—at least as far as I knew. Maybe she was just tired, didn’t really want me, or was angry at my father for leaving her, regardless of the circumstances. Nonetheless, it was a responsibility my father gladly and wholeheartedly accepted. I was his son, and my brother was hers. There was never any sense of kinship between me and my brother and his mother. It was like two separate and distinct families living in the same house.

My father would take me everywhere. He would only take Henry if he asked to come along, which wasn’t often, or when we went somewhere as a family—like on vacation, or to an Army reunion, or to visit my father’s family in Chicago.

When my father drove a delivery truck for a restaurant food service company, he would take me to make a weekend emergency delivery. The truck had a manual transmission with a huge shift lever on the floor, and he would let me shift it into gear. At eight years of age, that lever seemed as big as me. He would say, “Ready…go!” and I would push or pull the lever to the proper gear as he depressed the clutch. I had to use both hands and all of my strength. Even if I would grind the gear into place, he would always tell me I did a great job, and tousle my tangled crop of red hair.

He, too, had red, wavy hair—like many of his siblings and family members—and a fair complexion which accented his blue eyes. At six-two, and now in his early thirties with the same physique as when he left the Army, he was a strikingly handsome man with movie star looks, who always drew the gaze of ladies—even if he was with my mother, or they with another man—and even from a few envious men.

The man had a quiet intellect. With only a high school education, he could still finish The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in about an hour without the aid of a dictionary or thesaurus. Although he was a congenial guy who could make you his friend in an instant with his easy smile and soft-spoken manner, my father was a man of few words and fewer nuances who always kept his own counsel. When he spoke, there was no ambiguity. You listened.

One event still stands out. He took me by train to Philadelphia at a time when there was still passenger train service from our small town. He didn’t ask my brother to come along. Other than my trips to Chicago—which were cloistered visits to see my uncles, aunts and cousins—it was my first trip to a big city with my father as a personal guide. He stopped a policeman to ask directions to a museum. The officer had a blasé demeanor and didn’t look approachable—until my father addressed him. Each instantly recognized the other was in the war and began to chat.

“Ninety-Fifth Infantry Division. The Iron Men of Metz. Patton’s Third,” my father proudly stated.

“The Big Red One,” the officer responded with equal pride standing almost at attention.

“We fought and slept in the same mud and dirt,” my father said somberly.

“You bet we did, and we lived to tell about it. What can I do for you, soldier?”

“My son and I need directions. Can you help?”

The officer listened, then took out his note pad and wrote down the directions to the museum, and even suggested a few other sites of interest. My father introduced me to the officer, who shook my hand. After a few more minutes talking, they shook hands and slapped each other’s shoulders as they said good-bye, as if they were long-time friends. I suppose in a way, they were. I swear if the officer would have been allowed to do so, he would have used his police car as a taxi for us! My father was that good, but it wasn’t a front. He was genuine; the real deal. The best natural salesperson I have ever met.

My fondest memories, however, were of when I helped my father cook. He didn’t get the opportunity all that often with his work schedule, but how he enjoyed it when he did. The TV shows of the day portrayed a mother who stayed at home and prepared meals, and a family who sat for dinner in the dining room at a set time every day. This most definitely was not our home.

Gertrude owned a woman’s dress shop, and my father—before he finally landed a job with the post office and had a predictable schedule—rarely sat for meals with the rest of his family. He usually ate alone late at night, most times after his family was already in bed which, in retrospect, still saddens me. Perhaps that’s why I still would rather not eat than eat alone. But when he was able to do so, mostly on the weekends, he did the cooking. My brother and I were thankful, as Gertrude really had no desire, nor talent, for cooking. To this day, I do not eat at any place that advertises meals: Like Mother used to make.

One of my father’s favorite pieces of cooking equipment was a big blue, glazed ceramic mixing bowl. I don’t know where he bought it, but I always assumed it was secondhand—probably a throwaway from one of his restaurant customers—being it already showed wear with numerous chips around the edges which exposed the white ceramic. Not good enough for a diner or restaurant, but more than good enough for our eating establishment.

He would always invite me to help him mix the ingredients du jour. We would both get our hands into the bowl—my small hands squeezing around his large hands—and enjoy feeling the texture of the mix. We didn’t talk much. We didn’t have to. Our smiles said it all.

 

“So … let me understand this—you want to sneak back into a house which you couldn’t wait to leave, and even went so far as to have your name removed from the deed, all at the risk of being charged with trespassing to retrieve an old mixing bowl. Did I get it right, Ian?”

Her tone started out sarcastically, morphed into incredulity, and ended with her being totally pissed off. I was relieved she was on the other end of the phone.

“It’s not just some old mixing bowl. It was my father’s, and now it sits in the dark, behind a cupboard door, over a stove, in an empty house.” I was passionate in my defense and could hear my voice rise. But it wasn’t anger I was feeling. All I could think about was how my father came home late at night, and ate his dinner alone at the kitchen table by the dim solitary light that was built into the range hood, while the rest of us were comfortably asleep. Not once did I get out of bed to join him, or ask how his day went. Now I felt ashamed for being so selfish. All he ever wanted to do was make a little boy—his son—smile, and asked for nothing in return. Now that bowl was alone, and this was my opportunity to redeem myself; to make sure it never again sat in the dark alone. “I won’t let it happen again, Dori.”

“Let what happen again?” her tone becoming decidedly softer.

“Never mind. You wouldn’t understand. I’m going to get it.”

“Okay, Ian. But think about this. What if your brother makes an unannounced visit to the house and is standing there when you walk in? Do you have any idea what will happen next? Do you even care?”

I remained silent, and she filled the void.

“All hell will break loose, Ian. He’s crazy enough to have you arrested.” Her voice was starting to crack with tears.

“I’m not afraid of Hell, Dori. I’ve been there enough times in my life and made it through without the Devil even knowing I was there,” trying to make light of the situation. “Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time I was arrested.”

Her voice rose in anger: “You were a teenager then—a juvenile, goddamnit. Can’t you see the difference? Now you’re an adult where you can’t hide behind your age. You’ll have a real adult record.”

“You’re making more of this than it is, sweetheart. Nothing like that will remotely happen. I’ll be in and out before anyone knows I was even there.”

There was a very long pause. “Dori … are you still there?”

“Fine, Ian. Do what the fuck you want,” she said between full sobs. “You always do,” and hung up.

 

It was true what she said. All of it. Around the age of ten my maternal, bookie grandfather started to mentor me. He had no beef with the way my father was raising me, other than he thought I was growing up too soft. They both got along because he respected my father for his service in the war. My grandfather had fought with the British in WWI after emigrating from Czarist Russia and he, like my father, was a man of few words who always kept his own counsel. He thought of my father as more of a son, than Gertrude as a daughter, and made that known to both at every opportunity.

My grandfather taught me how to fight: how to survive on the streets by using my wits and my fists. At ten he also taught me and my best friend, Mikey, how to run numbers without getting caught. By the age of sixteen, Mikey and I were his collection agency. But it was my fighting and truancy which brought me into direct contact with the police on almost a daily basis.

My father didn’t like what I was doing; he had bigger plans and dreams for me, and tried to reason with me and my grandfather. I would just retort by saying I would be okay, that nothing bad would happen to me. My grandfather—who stood an inch taller than my father—would smile, put his hand on my father’s shoulder, and respond to him in his fading Russian accent, “Larry … I love the boy, your son, and I would never let anything bad happen to him. He’s a good boy. He just needs to learn the ways of the world. You and your brothers did growing up on the streets of Chicago, and you turned out to be a good man. So will he.”

Except I didn’t, and my father reacted. There were several incidents, at different intersections in our lives, and all had a profound and defining effect on the relationship between us. The first was when I was about fifteen. My father was now working for the post office and was able to sit with his family for dinner. Dinner, when made by my father, was one of the few times I would join him and Gertrude. This time, Henry was home from college for the weekend and we sat and ate as a family: my mother and Henry on one side of the table, and my father and I on the other. I sat to my father’s right.

That night I wasn’t particularly hungry. I was in a hurry, as I needed to attend to my errands, as my grandfather euphemistically referred to his illegal dealings. I finished only about half of my meal, then stood up. My father, without even looking at me, said in his firm but quiet way, “Sit down and finish your dinner, Ian. You’re not excused.”

“I’m not hungry, Dad, and I have some things to do. Thanks for the dinner.”

“I said sit down. I won’t tell you again.”

I sat back down, and then my mother chimed in with her two cents. “There are children in China who are starving, and they would love a meal like this.”

I was, and probably still am but to a lesser degree, a consummate smart-ass. I said, “Then send my meal to them.”

The back of my father’s right hand caught me squarely across my nose and sent me flying backward off my chair onto the floor. I had been hit in the face many times in fights, but I was always prepared. No hit to the face, before or after my father’s, ever caught me more by surprise, or caused such shock. He never struck Henry or me—ever. That task was always left to my mother, who prosecuted that endeavor with great skill and sadistic satisfaction. Henry sat there transfixed, utterly speechless at what had just happened. I have never asked him, but I have no doubt he felt some smug pleasure that his father’s golden boy had just been knocked on his ass—by his patron saint, no less.

My father turned slightly and raised himself from his seat, reached out his hand to me—which I took—and pulled me up from the floor. He handed me a napkin to wipe the blood from my nose. He then grabbed the chair and stood it upright. I was still reeling from the hit as my mother rushed over and ushered me to the sink. There, she soaked the napkin in cold water and directed me to hold it over my nose with my held tilted backward. I saw her shoot a sharp stare toward my father, but he wasn’t looking. He kept his head down and continued eating as if nothing had happened. It was then that the tug of war over to whom I held allegiance began.

My mother calmly said, “Ian, go to your room and lie down until the bleeding stops. You can finish your dinner later.”

“He’ll finish his dinner now, Gertrude,” my father said without looking up. “There’s only one dinnertime, and this is it. Ian, sit down and finish your dinner.”

There was a pause, a very long pause, to see which master I would serve. They were two people calling the same dog, waiting to see which one the dog would run to. I sat down.

My father looked at me and, with an even, low tone, spoke: “Don’t you ever speak to your mother in that manner again. Ever.”

He continued eating. I didn’t respond, because no response was necessary. Both Gertrude and I had our answers. She and father may not have had the most loving of relationships, but there was still a strong sense of generational honor—and Gertrude was still his wife.

My father and I never spoke of that incident until almost twenty years later—a year before he passed away—when I came to visit. I was sitting next to him on the couch, both of us watching a ball game. His hair had faded to auburn with streaks of gray, but his mustache remained fiery red. He was still a handsome guy. As much as I enjoyed being with him, I wasn’t smiling this time. He had a sixth sense that I wanted to say something. My father picked up the remote, pointed it at the TV to turn it off, and lit up another Lucky Strike.

“What’s on your mind, Ian?”

I thought about playing stupid and just saying “Nothing.” But I knew he wouldn’t believe it. Besides, the man deserved the truth, especially after all the hell I put him through when I was younger. “Do you remember when you hit me at the dinner table?”

He took a drag on his cigarette. “Yes, I remember. What about it?”

“Well … I just wanted to say that I’m sorry for the way I behaved and spoke to Mom, that’s all.” I was hoping for an apology in return—something that would show me how he felt about striking me.

Instead he put down his cigarette, looked straight into my eyes, and said, “It took you long enough, but that apology is owed to your mother, not me.” With that said, he turned away, picked up his cigarette, and clicked the TV back on. I should already have known how he felt, because of a discussion I overheard about fifteen years earlier. I just wasn’t as smart or insightful as I thought, and didn’t connect the dots.

The summer after I turned eighteen I was arrested for stealing a car. It wasn’t the first car I stole, nor was it the first time I disappointed my father, but it was the first as an adult rather than a juvenile. The judge gave me a choice of either four years in the military—at the height of the Vietnam war no less—or four years in the county prison. If I served honorably, my record would be expunged. If I went to prison, I would have a record forever. What a choice—either possibly dying in Vietnam, or living with a record. Both my father and grandfather—for whom I decided to no longer work, after an irate customer, during one of our collections, caught me in the head with a bat causing a two-inch gash which required a dozen or so stitches—convinced me the military was the better of two evils. I joined the Navy.

Before I acted on that decision, I came home earlier than usual for one of my father’s weekend dinners. I was always hungry. Running numbers, fighting and collecting bad debts from deadbeat customers will do that. My parents were in the kitchen and didn’t hear me come in. I could barely make out the conversation as they were talking softly, but something told me it was one which I didn’t want to walk into. I stayed in the dining room, but still in earshot for the last part of the exchange.

“When are you going to get rid of the blue mixing bowl, Larry? It’s so chipped, and it’s not like we can’t afford a better one. And speaking of damaged goods,” my mother sanctimoniously stated, “I can’t wait for Ian to leave. Perhaps then we’ll have some peace knowing that the next knock on the door won’t be the police.”

I peeked around the corner and saw my father turn toward my mother to address her question. “You’re right, Gertrude. This bowl is a piece of shit. But even damaged goods still have value and purpose.” His response was a culmination of all the death and misery he had seen and experienced in his life. Silence from my mother. My father had made his point, but I didn’t make the connection.

He reinforced those feelings later when he was the only one to write or visit me, while I was recuperating for four months in a Hawaiian hospital from wounds I suffered in ’Nam. My river boat was the sole target of an ambush while on a classified mission with two other boats. I was the only survivor. Not one call, letter, or visit from Gertrude or Henry; just my father. And yet, I still didn’t get it. God was I dense.

It wasn’t until some five years after his death that I told my mother, in one of our rare civil conversations, that I had apologized to my father. I then, finally and formally, apologized to her for my comment. She thanked me, but what she said next was yet another bat to my head. “I never saw your father cry, but he cried that night in bed. Your father never forgave himself for hitting you, Ian. As you know, your father was a man of few words, much to my chagrin. But I cannot tell you how many times, right up until his death, for no apparent reason at all, he would blurt out: ‘I should never have lost my temper and hit him, Gertrude. He didn’t deserve to be treated that way.’ Through all of the disappointments and heartaches, he always loved you, Ian. Always.” This time…this time, I finally got it. But I didn’t feel relieved or vindicated. I felt repentant.

Given the nature of my relationship with my mother, I have often wondered if she told me to assuage my torment, or to add salt to that open wound. I would like to think it was the former, but believe it was the latter.

 

A few days after that last stormy conversation with Dori—in spite of her protests, in spite of my attorney’s advice—I stopped at the old house. It was night, and there was a single light on in the living room. I walked straight to the kitchen, also illuminated, but only by the light under the range hood. I stopped for a moment, fully expecting to see my father eating his dinner. That should never have happened, I thought.

Over the stove, behind the cupboard door, sat the blue bowl. I needed something in which to carry it—something inconspicuous. I spotted a large brown bag—the kind the grocery stores still offer as a choice between paper or plastic—and promptly put the bowl into it. Then I threw in a couple of other items and quickly left, hoping none of the spying neighbors had ratted me out to my brother or the police. Driving to my new apartment I felt relief and satisfaction—like someone who just rescued a hostage without being spotted or apprehended.

I parked the car and opened the passenger door to retrieve my backpack and the brown bag lying on the front seat. After slinging the backpack over my left shoulder, I grabbed the bag with my right hand. That blue bowl, that old blue bowl with the weight of all of its memories, was too much for the bag. Before I could place it on the ground so I could shut the door there was a tear, a clumsy attempt to grab the bag, and then a sickening crack as it hit the sidewalk. I wasn’t sure if the sound came from my heart or the bowl. I stood there for a few moments in somber shock, trying to comprehend what had just happened. Then I cradled the bag, now full of my shattered plans, in my arms, and raced up the stairs to my second floor apartment, as if it were a dying patient I was attempting to get into the emergency room before it expired.

Five pieces. All clean breaks. I spread out a dish towel and carefully placed the pieces onto it. I stared at it, willing it to heal itself. What have I done?

I walked to the den, sat down in my lounger, lit a cigarette. It was about the time I usually called Dori, but we hadn’t spoken, or even texted each other, since that last tearful call two days earlier. Do I tell her what really happened, or just put on a happy face and say nothing? I decided I had to tell her the truth. She would find out sooner rather than later. Besides, Dori had become my confidante, and I didn’t want the relationship to be encumbered by lies or omissions of the truth. I had to walk into that minefield.

“Hi, Ian. Funny you should call.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I was about to call you. I wanted to apologize for the way I went off on you the last call.”

“No apology necessary, sweetheart. Everything you said was true. I’m sorry I was such a rock head. But thanks just the same.”

“How was your day?”

“Work was fine, but I need to tell you what happened after work.” Stepping into the unknown, I recounted all of it. “I never should have put the bowl on the bottom. That was stupid.”

I hoped to garner some sympathy. Instead, there was dead silence on Dori’s end. I was now in the center of that field of explosives, and saw no clear path by which to extricate myself safely. When Dori finally spoke, the whole field started to explode around me. She made no attempt to hide her anger.

“No, Ian … stupid was you entering the house. The bowl didn’t break because of your stupidity. It broke because of your arrogance.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means just what I said, you arrogant, selfish, son of a bitch. All you thought of was yourself. You really didn’t give a shit about the bowl, or you would have taken better care to make sure it was protected. And you certainly didn’t consider my feelings. You just wanted to stick your finger in your brother’s and mother’s collective eye to say, ‘See? I can enter the house when I damn well feel like it and take what I want.’”

“That’s not.…”

“Shut the hell up, Ian. I’m not through.”

I felt like I was back in ’Nam, in the middle of a horrific firefight with no ammunition. That minefield was tearing me apart. Why on earth did I ever enter it?

“I’ll give you credit, Ian. You’ve been in some tough spots in your life and always managed to come through on the plus side. But that didn’t make you stronger, or more humble, confident, or thankful. It made you cynical and arrogant. What is it you always said? ‘I’ve done so much, with so little, for so long, that I now believe I can do the impossible with absolutely nothing, forever.’ I used to think that was cute and clever, and, in some way, I admired you for your strength of character and tenacity. Now I see it for what it really is, for what you really are—a spoiled, arrogant child who can’t stand to have things not go his way. I know you had to repeat that mantra to keep you going, but you’ve said that bullshit line for so long, you actually started to believe it! And that’s what really scares the shit out of me.”

The tears started to come through the phone again. “I thought I was starting to really know you. But I now realize that’s not possible, because you don’t even know yourself. Knowing you is like attempting to put your arms around fog. Get a grip, Ian. And when you can admit what you’ve really become, then maybe, just maybe, you and I can have a relationship that’s built on something more stable than delusions of grandeur. I gotta go.” She hung up.

Dori was right…again. I still wasn’t connecting the dots. Had the bowl meant that much to me, I not only would have taken greater care when I transported it, I would have taken it when I moved. But the bowl did have meaning to me; it connected me to my father—the one parent who loved me unconditionally. I did the right thing, but for the wrong reason. It wasn’t the first time.

I volunteered—yes volunteered—for combat duty in Vietnam, even though I had already graduated from Submarine School and was attending the Navy’s advanced communication courses. And not for some patriotic reason, but because Mikey—my best friend and accomplice in my youthful, nefarious enterprises—who enlisted as a Marine, was killed halfway through his Vietnam tour. I wanted to avenge his death. After I recovered from my wounds, I served five more years on submarines. Again, not because I wanted to serve my country or because I had a great love of working in the depths of the sea, but because I was doing something most people didn’t have the balls to do, and it also gave me the time I needed to hide from the world and recover emotionally from ’Nam.

The right things, for the wrong reasons. The story of my life. Dori knew what I had done, but she didn’t know why I had done them. She was on the cusp of understanding it all, and that scared the hell out of me.

 

Several days after that last call from Dori, I confided to a friend at work all that had gone down. Within earshot was a young girl working part-time while she attended graduate school. Though she had been there about a week, I had never made the attempt to introduce myself—a hangover habit from my days in the Navy, especially Vietnam.

While on a smoke break a couple of days later, she came over and introduced herself to me, and asked if we could talk. I was expecting her to ask me about work and how she could do her job better. Instead, she hesitated for a moment and then sheepishly said, “I overheard your conversation with Alex.”

I stared at her and remained silent, not knowing where this conversation was going. She continued: “I studied in Japan during my junior year in college, and became fascinated by the people, their history and culture. My graduate work is an extension of that experience.”

“That’s interesting, Bailey, and I wish you well in your studies. But what does any of that have to do with me?”

Bailey responded timidly, hearing the less-than-enthusiastic tone of my voice: “I believe I have a solution for your bowl.”

“How’s that?”

“Have you ever heard of kintsugi?”

“No. What is it?”

“It’s the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.”

“Terrific. Let me know where I can get my hands on some of those materials. For me, it’s going to be super glue.”

“But people use glue to hide the damage.”

“Precisely. Who wants to see the cracks?”

Bailey explained, “The philosophy behind kintsugi treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object—something to celebrate, rather than something to disguise. An art form, if you like. The life of an object is extended by transforming it, rather than allowing its service to end just because it’s become damaged goods.”

Damaged goods. That caught my full attention. Perhaps my father was using kintsugi intuitively: attempting to extend my life by transforming me into someone of value and purpose—not by disguising my flaws, but by having me recognize them, and understand that they, too, are a part of my history.

“Thanks for the advice, Bailey. I’ll give it serious consideration. Really.”

“You’re welcome. The bowl apparently means a great deal to you, and it deserves a better place than stuck away in a cupboard to be forgotten. I may be going out on a limb, Ian, but my guess is the bowl isn’t the only thing you want to repair.”

I could feel a small smile form on my face. “You’re a smart, intuitive young lady and wise beyond your years.” I paused briefly, then said, “We should be getting back in before they start to miss us.”

As we reached the door to our office, I stopped and turned to Bailey. “I apologize for not introducing myself earlier. Just an old, outdated, and stupid habit. I’m delighted we had the chance to chat.”

 

Several months after I moved into my apartment, I was finally unpacked and had my new place furnished and decorated. It was time to open the doors to my friends for an inaugural dinner. The apartment was ideal. I occupied the second and third floors of a completely renovated and refurbished, three-story, Victorian mansion located in what they now call The Historic District of the city. It had all the room and amenities I ever wanted. More so, it was the first place I could really call home since my divorce years earlier.

The apartment wasn’t the only thing that went through transformation. Bailey’s comment continued to gnaw at me like a river slowly, relentlessly, carving out a canyon. I still believed in my mantra, and came to the conclusion there was absolutely no reason I couldn’t transform myself. My life, my relationship with my friends and my children—and especially with Dori—depended upon it, now. I didn’t have the luxury of several thousand years. My relationship with Henry and Gertrude? Well, that would have to wait for another epiphany.

After about an hour of socializing, I ushered everyone into the dining room, which I had kept hidden behind closed doors until that moment. The spacious room with its ornate, but tasteful, woodwork was the crown jewel of the apartment. Its high ceiling was adorned by a Victorian-style chandelier in the center. Under it sat a period-appropriate cherry dining room set I found at an estate sale, which rested regally on a lush, pale oriental rug with a simple, graceful, multi-color design. The centerpiece of the room was a stately fireplace bound in exquisitely carved mahogany, capped with two mantels which framed a mirror.

As the guests were about to be seated, Suzanne—the better half of a couple I had known since before my divorce—looked at the mantel above the mirror and said with childlike wonderment, “This blue bowel, Ian. It’s so unique and beautiful. Simply elegant. I have never seen a piece of pottery decorated in such fashion. Where on earth did you find it?”

I glanced over at Dori, who gave me her crooked smile, and nodded her head, as if to say: Go ahead, Ian. Tell the story. You’ve earned it.

I put my drink down, and pushed my hands into the pockets of my pants—a tell of mine since I was a kid, when I was about to share some secret. I glanced down reflectively, then raised my head and smiled at Suzanne. “Have you ever heard of kintsugi?”

 

 

BIO

L.D. ZaneI served seven years in the Navy, which included a combat tour in Vietnam on river boats, and five years aboard nuclear-powered, Fast Attack submarines. At 65, my life is quieter now: anything would be quieter than my military venture. I am a member of the Pagoda Writers Group, and find that I’ve been devoting more and more time to my writing. I write under the pen name L.D. Zane.

Stories published: Red Fez, Solomon’s Shadow, February 2015; Indiana Voice Journal, One Out of Three, March 2015; Red Fez, River of Revenge, April 2015, Remarkable Doorways Online Literary Magazine, The Box, May 2015, and The Writing Disorder, Kintsugi, June 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah Sarah writer

My Month in Marijuana Sales

by Sarah Sarai

 

This story begins with Camp Fire Girl Mints and ends with a puff of smoke from a tightly rolled joint. But first a word from my mother. The only movie she ever barred me from seeing was Butterfield 8. Like that was even necessary. Pollyanna with Haley Mills was released the same year, for chrissakes, and I was really young although I might have liked Psycho, also released that year, me loving suspense. Anyway, to defy my mom, my next-up sister T- dragged me to a theater on Ventura Blvd. to watch Elizabeth Taylor slink around in a black slip and drink whiskey with Laurence Harvey. Much later I fell in love with Taylor and Harvey but in the movie theater, I was bored. Bo-red.

Time passed, I became a high school senior. T-, five years old than I am, became a hippie. Our mother worked as a bookkeeper for her Christian Science church. Pop did what pops do – plied his trade and stopped off at bars. One afternoon, T-, who no longer lived at home, walked in through the back door with a key of dope. Weed. Marijuana.

Like hay, a key, or kilo, of weed is comprised of leaves, sticks, and seeds. Hay, tightly packed and bucked into the barn as a bale is identifiable in black-and-white and Technicolor. Hay sings, hay dances, hay strums. In Oklahoma, Curly courts Laurey, the ladies curtsey a ballet, curtains blow in a window flung open to a musical agrarian fantasy with no small amount of hay.

So T-, who was living in Topanga, needed money for an “illegal abortion.” I remember her saying that exact phrase. She knew of a doctor in Orange County and announced I was helping. I would love to describe myself as being pro-choice, as I am now, but really, I grappled with what to feel, said nothing, and just set up the card table. Wielding a long kitchen knife, T- began to break up the key. The thrust of the blade on the bale was fierce and satisfying – she let me at it, too. My sister measured one-ounce parcels of dope, dope is what we called it, into baggies and instructed me sell to my classmates. She had her hopes.

Let me back up. Remember Camp Fire Girl mints, those glistening dark chocolate sticks lined up like Madeline’s schoolmates in a rectangular box, beckoning with their sharp mintyocity and dark chocolateness? As a young Camp Fire Girl, say ten or eleven, I could not sell more than five boxes. I can’t explain why except that I was in that near-paralytic state which has chased me throughout this life and probably will into the next. My mom had to buy out my inventory. Seriously. If there was a Camp Fire Girl bead in salespersonship I did not earn it. Wo-he-lo, nonetheless. Wo-he-lo means peace. That’s Camp Fire Girl speak.

Flipping in time, again, to 1967 and the mandate that I sell, I was flummoxed. Eager as my sweet mother was, or maybe resigned, to shield me from life’s lessons, I did not think she would now buy up baggies of marijuana – what? – and share with the ladies in her church – no cigs, no booze, no caffeine (except for the buzz from chocolate mints). Christian Scientists were not our target market.

Although I was not friendless at school, I was not in any in-group and certainly was not the cool outsider girl who can deal pot under the bleachers. Somehow or other I sold three baggies – three ounces. One was bought by another outsider girl and two by male classmates whose appearance at my house had my parents so excited for me, they ordered pizza. One of the dope-buying classmates is now nationally respected in his field so I’ll leave it at that.

To return to my point, in Southern California in 1967 I moved three judiciously packed baggies of good dope. The Doors, Procol Harum, Sly & the Family Stone, Cream, Wilson Pickett, Jimi Hendrix, Chambers Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield – all celebratory of the grooviness – were part of the musical score that year, and I could move only three baggies. (For the record, Aretha Franklin was queen that year.) My sister unloaded the rest and was able to do what she needed to do. When I left for college she gave me a baggie and as a precautionary warned me not to let anyone know I had it. In the middle of my first semester, I opened my dorm room door. Everyone was smoking. Let the fun begin.

I am convinced I would be a better and happier person today if I had sold more dope, or more Camp Fire Girl mints. If I had the personality that enabled me to sell. I would be more convincing, more outgoing, self-assured, able to close deals for raises or new jobs. Win over people, make new friends, be rich, be happy, be American. But I am not that person. But I’m here to tell my tale. And T-, who warned against the dangers of weed once she stopped smoking and dropping, is still here, too.

 

 

BIO

Sarah SaraiSarah Sarai’s short stories are in Gravel, Devil’s Lake, Storyglossia, Homestead Review, Fairy Tale Review, Weber Studies, Tampa Review, South Dakota Review, and other journals; her story, “The Young Orator,” was published as a chapbook and e-book by Winged City Chaps, Her poetry collection, The Future Is Happy, was published by BlazeVOX; her poems are in journals including Ascent, Boston Review, Pool Poetry, Thrush, Yew, and Threepenny Review. Links to her book reviews, poems, and stories are on her blog, My 3,000 Loving Arms. Sarah is a contributing editor for The Writing Disorder and a fiction reader at Ping Pong Literary Journal published by the Henry Miller Library. She attended grammar school and junior and senior high in the San Fernando Valley. She now lives in New York.

 

 

 

Audrey Iredale

What They Don’t Tell You About Cancer

by Audrey Iredale

 

What they don’t tell you about cancer is that some healthcare establishments may not have your best interests at heart. The solutions with the most opportunity for success in your personal situation may not be the most profitable for the medical community.

Many questions arise after discovery of a life-threatening illness. If you were diagnosed with cancer today, what would be your reaction? Who would you tell first? Would you keep it from your loved ones in an effort to shield them? If you believed your days were numbered, how would you decide to spend them?

Would you panic or approach the issue with a scientific focus and begin educating yourself about the options? Would you blindly trust doctors to select treatment for you, or would you research different methods and their statistics of success and make your own decisions? Would you look for support from your closest friends and ask for advice, or keep it quietly to yourself? You may think you know how you would react, but a life threatening diagnosis can scare you into doing things you would never contemplate otherwise. What they don’t tell you about cancer is that knowing the answers to these questions before receiving a diagnosis is critical.

I have experienced this emotional journey from the perspective of being a close relative of the patient. I have watched several people from my family succumb to cancer after conventional treatments failed to save them. Poisoning the body with toxic substances, in an attempt to eradicate cancer cells, does not appear to have a good long term success rate.

My father suffered a horrible death after receiving chemotherapy and radiation, when I was in my early twenties. I watched him disintegrate from a healthy rock of a man into a frail thin bald apparition of his former self, isolating himself and withdrawing from everything and everyone he loved. I listened to him take his last ragged breath, as I sat with him for hours that turned into days, in the V.A. hospital room on the 5th floor.

Due to the severe emotional trauma induced by the carnage I had witnessed in close proximity, I decided then and there that I would not submit to extremely invasive and damaging medical procedures if a future cancer was discovered in my body. Throughout subsequent years, I kept a constant vigil of cancer prevention measures and it remained one of my darkest fears.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2014, I was only three years older than my father’s age, when his monster was discovered. It is a gut-wrenching feeling, when you hear the words. The finality of it crashes down like a boulder. I sat in the hallway outside the imaging suite, still in my hospital gown and cried, feeling more alone than I ever had in my life.

The truth of your own mortality is overwhelming. What they don’t tell you about cancer is how many extreme states of emotion you will experience, in a very short time span, and how many times you will change your mind about how to handle the situation.

I found myself faced with many difficult decisions about treatment. Medical advice sounded frighteningly familiar and ultimately unsuccessful. Traditional cancer treatments have evolved into a one-size-fits-all scenario created by a for-profit pharmaceutical industry.

“Cancer happens to other people,” you lament, “this wasn’t supposed to happen to me.” This wasn’t part of the script in the epic adventure of your life. All plans must change, all dreams are forfeited. Your world will never be the same again.

The primary concerns, flooding your mind, will be of your children and who will look after them and champion them after you are gone. Even if they are grown up, with children of their own, they were not supposed to be obliged to continue without your guidance and assistance, at least not at this early stage of the game. The sadness is suffocating.

You firmly instruct your spouse, (through your hiccups and tears) of his vital responsibility to watch over them and support them in your absence. Then you begin to cry uncontrollably, when you think of him, your best friend, who will be left buried in so much debt after you are gone that recovery will be near impossible, and you feel ridiculously helpless.   You have already seen what happens to people as they endure mainstream cancer treatment procedures. You fear that soon, you will no longer be capable of doing physically demanding work. You wonder if, in the near future, you will be able to maintain employment at all.

Suddenly the realization hits that all future financial projects and expenditures must be of the sort he can pay for and maintain by himself. You begin to initiate estate planning procedures. You explain that now, he must be organized and begin doing more things for himself.

“Yes dear,” he chirps, rolling his eyes. He drops his shirt and socks on the floor beside the chair and leaving his dirty dishes on the table, shuffles off to watch Family Guy on Netflix.

You show him where your journal files are kept, in the computer. You tell him that your oldest daughter is to take possession of your data archives and millions of digital photos.

Then you begin to look at your single friends and imagine planning for your own replacement. Laughing, you tell him, he will be “given to Cindy, or Debbie, or Kathy,” whomever you have deemed worthy to step into your shoes and complement his life.

“But don’t I get to try her out first?” he laughs, with a playful jab.

“Not ‘till I am gone,” you frown, wondering if it is such a good idea after all.

There is a critical need to shed light on some of the events that transpire in the lives of real people who are living with cancer. Many of my own questions went unanswered due to the lack of explicit information available to the general public. I demanded graphic details from medical providers, regarding what would or could happen, in every imaginable scenario. I insisted on being provided with a photograph of the monster upon removal. A full color, life sized print of the primary tumor was produced and contributed by the surgeon.

However, some of the treatment details were not explained, such as how it really feels when lymph nodes have been removed and your arm fills up with painful fluid, all the way to your wrist, or to lose underarm sensation due to intercostobrachial nerve damage, making it difficult or even dangerous to shave.

Drawing on the statistics I have seen in my own personal life, I made the extremely difficult decision to reject recommended cancer therapies. It became my primary focus to survive despite the overwhelming odds. I decided if my time on this earth was greatly reduced, I did not want to spend it in my bed, or crawling to the toilet bowl to puke. Cleaning up great chunks of my hair from the shower floor, did not sound attractive. I did not want the elation of six months of remission, followed by the heartbreak of an aggressive onslaught of secondary cancer, brought on by the very radiation used to destroy the remnants of the primary tumor. As a singer and photographer, I could not afford cataracts and vocal cord damage to plague my final hours no matter how brief they may prove to be.

Already possessing halfway decent research skills, and an impressive arsenal of mental data, regarding nutrition, gained by years of chasing recovery from an emotional eating disorder, I was armed with the necessary tools. Medical personnel spewing frightening statistics from a tunnel-vision perspective, failed to persuade me to submit to their latest forms of torture and permanent mutilation. The surgeon righteously insisted that she must administer some tough-love regarding her recommendation of endocrine therapy and post-surgical radiation. Ultimately, against medical advice, I refused all of the above in favor of less-invasive holistic medicine.

Futile negotiations commenced with the insurance company to allow coverage for guidance from a naturopathic physician, but I stood my ground and paid out of pocket for the support and validation that told me I was indeed on the right path. Google and I burned the midnight oil for many hours, scouring experimental alternative-healing and specifically targeted nutrition solutions.

I reflected upon the despised biology course from the past college semester, for knowledge of cell function, mutations and relationships between protein and enzymes. Because cancer cells are a mutation, they do not have the capability of adapting to using fat for fuel. Therefore they can be forced to commit programmed cell-death, by replacing all or most carbohydrates with high quality fats and moderate proteins.

What they don’t tell you about cancer is that it doesn’t just happen to one person, it happens to whole families. Your significant other, or persons close to you, may disagree with your treatment choices.

“You should not rule out western medicine,” advises a good friend, and senior histologist of 30 years.

“I’ll support whatever choice you make,” promises your husband, but when he hears your decision, the fear in his eyes is unmistakable.

“So you’re just going to DIE!” your daughter shrieks, “Is that it? Then WHAT are the rest of us supposed to do? YOU are the mastermind! YOU are supposed to live ’till you are eighty-something, like HER!” pointing to her grandmother.

“Well, considering that no one listens to me most of the time anyway, I think you will all be fine,” you accuse.

“Well, you’re going to need chemotherapy and radiation and your hair will fall out, but maybe it won’t be so bad,” warns your Aunt, matter of factly.

We’ll see about that.

Self pity and reclusive tendencies beckon. Some days after work, it is unclear if you are capable of climbing the stairs to your bedroom. You are unable sleep for more than a few hours before awakening with emotional dread or some new physical symptom, whether imagined or legitimate. The mood swings are vicious and agonizing.

“I can’t do this anymore!” you whimper to your girlfriend, in full melt-down mode after work one afternoon, “Nobody cares if I am dying! And you better not tell anyone at work I am sick, because I could lose my job, if they think I will be a flake and not show up!”

“I care,” she corrects, “you are just hungry and too afraid to eat.”

“You’re right, I want to eat an entire extra cheese pizza, WITH crust, but I can’t,” you admit, “so I am going to bed.”

She stands by you, no matter how rude you have been to her.

“If we can have solar panels installed at no cost to us, we should do it for the green impact,” admonishes the husband.

“What do I care about the planet? I’m dying and nobody cares about helping me! I cannot deal with any more stress. I will not tolerate construction crews crawling all over this house!” you snap.

“I hear ya,” he agrees.

“I don’t even want to go to work anymore,” you blurt, “what’s the point anyway?”

“Then don’t go,” he soothes, shrugging.

You get a little bit of rest and things look different in the morning. You continue working, but the accelerated fatigue at the end of the day is frightening.

“Let’s buy new furniture!” you squeal, abruptly opening the garage door to startle your husband into dropping a wrench. “We could max out the rest of the credit cards, because you will have to file bankruptcy anyway, after I’m dead!”

“Ok, whatever you want dear,” he grins.

Five minutes later you are more interested in figuring out how to pay the latest stack of hospital bills and deciding whose feet are small enough to fit into your outrageously extravagant shoe collection, in case the monster ultimately returns in triumph.

What they don’t tell you about cancer is that the rest of your life continues, regardless of your physical illness or your mental state, and you must find a way to compartmentalize the emotions and move forward. No matter how healthy you feel right now, or how encouraging your latest test results, evil could be stalking you around the next corner. You will never be free from the shadow.

Every twinge of pain, every headache, every symptom of any kind strikes a note of terror in anticipation of the monster’s return. The horror of your own mortality is a powerful incentive for change. Efficiency of familiar crutches and comfort mechanisms fade in the face of your predicament. The fact that it is “five o’ clock somewhere” loses its delicious meaning. You can no longer have a Margarita at the end of a stressful day because your body will metabolize the alcohol as sugar and may feed stray cancer cells. You are obliged to eat cold meals at work because using the microwave would compromise the nutritional value of the food, by changing the shape of the proteins.

Removing as many carbohydrates from your diet, as is possible in a first world setting, eliminates the majority of food cravings. Eventually you begin to lose interest in meals, because most seem to contain one luxury or another that you can no longer afford. You find yourself unable to consume enough calories to support your daily activities. Eating for survival rather than entertainment dominates reality.

Supplements of raw plant-based protein shakes and concentrated whole-food capsules replace many meals and snacks. Your habits have undergone a drastic makeover. Blood work reveals astounding results. Your cholesterol is down 30 points and tests show no evidence of disease. You may be healthier than you have been in your entire life, as long as you can stay one step ahead of the monster’s encore.

The distractions of time-consuming guilt-induced activities disperse as survival takes priority.   The weight melts off you by the hour and when you can find energy, you jubilantly dig into the cavernous depths of your closet, finding long lost treasures of clothing you haven’t been able to wear in decades. People remark how good you look.

At what cost?

The relief is exhilarating; the renewed hope intoxicating. You decide to document your journey in a blog, utilizing that abandoned domain you bought last year. The posts will contain all the graphic details you had been denied about this most terrifying disease. You will provide others with answers to some of the questions about physical symptoms, making difficult decisions, dealing with family and friends and all the emotional issues that happen along the way.

If you survive five years or more, the alternative treatments you have selected will be immortalized for those who choose to follow. If you do not live to tell the tale, at least you will have illuminated critical aspects for those behind you on the path.

What they don’t tell you about cancer is that nothing has really changed. We are all dying from the day we are born and none of us know how long we may dance on this planet. Everyone must seize the opportunity to live in the present and not waste a minute feeling sorry for ourselves. Maybe this year could be the best yet?

 

NOTE: Inspiration for this article is credited to Philip Gerard for his essay, “What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes.” (from Moore, Dinty W. The Truth of the Matter. NY: Pearson Longman, 2007. pp 151-156.

 

Works Cited

Campbell, N. Simon, E. Reece, J. Dickey, J. Campbell Biology Concepts & Connections, Seventh Edition. Boston MA: Pearson Education, 2007.

Mercola, Joseph. Mercola.com Take Control of your Health. 16 June 2013. 06 11 2014 <http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/06/16/ketogenic-diet-benefits.aspx>.

Moore, Dinty. The Truth of the Matter. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.

 

 

BIO

Audrey IredaleAudrey Iredale lives in the beautiful Sonoran Desert city of Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband and three precious rescued kitties. They have three daughters and two grandchildren. She studied Language Arts at community colleges in California and Arizona and graduated Phi Theta Kappa with a 4.0 GPA. She has been writing and singing since childhood and works in technology manufacturing.

http://audreyiredale.weebly.com/

 

Paul Garson author

The Twice Fought War: Ethiopia 1935-1945

by Paul Garson

All photos and documents from author’s collection

 

Ethiopia Map 1935

In the early 1930s Italian Colonial aspirations included much of The Horn of Africa including Libya, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

 

Once upon a time there was a country, sometimes known (in Europe) as Abyssinia, other times as Ethiopia. Or, if you were Italian and drawing maps of the continent of Africa for future conquests … Etiopia. In addition Ethiopia was a predominantly ancient Christian country tracing that history back to the first century A.D. In 330 A.D. Christianity was declared the state religion and eventually the only region of Africa to survive as such following the expansion of Islam in the area. Some even claimed it was the secret hiding place of the Ark of the Covenant.

 

mounted  warrior 1898

1890 Illustration – Mounted Ethiopian Warrior
The image appeared on an Italian pharmaceutical company’s advertising card printed in the 1930s. Although he still carries a shield, the soldier also shoulders a modern military rifle rather than the vintage flintlocks relied upon by the majority of his countrymen.

In 1906, the same year that Einstein set forth his Theory of Relatively that changed the face of science and the Great San Francisco earthquake changed the face that city, Ethiopia was granted its internationally recognized independence with Great Britain, France and Italy among those signing the historic document.  But within five years Italy would invade nearby Libya and begin carving out chunks of northern Africa for its colonies.  As the European powers began devouring African resources, Ethiopia still managed to survive intact, and furthermore, in 1923 was recognized by the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) as a full-fledged member of that international community.

 

ethiopia Sellasie coin 1937

1937 – Coinage and Carnage
Along with the image of Emperor Selassie, his name appears in the abugida script form of Amharic, the country’s national language, and the second most-spoken Semitic language worldwide after Arabic.

* * *

While it went through a period of various potentates as rulers, a new leader appeared that would put Ethiopia firmly back on the world map. The face of Emperor Haile Selassie appeared on the November 3rd, 1930 cover of TIME Magazine. His titles included “King of Kings, Conquering Lion of Judah and Elect of God.” The text of the story stated, “Certainly the new Emperor is the greatest Abyssinian ruler of modern times.” That bit of hyperbole proved prophetic. TIME again placed him on its cover on January 6, 1936 selecting him as “Man of the Year for 1935” for his courageous efforts defending his country from the invasions launched by Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

 

ethiopia 225th departs for Ethiopia 1935

Banner of War
Standing by their battle flag, officers of the 225th Infantry Regiment of the 14th Italian Expeditionary Force prepare to depart for East Africa in 1935.

* * *

The Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935, lasting 17 months, would presage the European war that would erupt in 1939, and as such could be seen as one of the sparks that ignited that conflagration.

Since Mussolini dreamed of recreating the glory of the Roman Empire, he needed colonies to expand fascist Italy along with his own ego, thus Ethiopia became his target. The rest of Europe shrugged their shoulders for the most part. The attitude is summed up by the following quote from discussions at the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs on October 3, 1935, the eve of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia.  “One can see now how thoughtless it was of the League of Nations to admit Ethiopia, a country which does not deserve other nations risking a war to protect it.”

As the war ground on, the modern Italian forces found themselves generally victorious, but on December 22, 1935, after Ethiopian troops managed to repulse an Italian attack, General Rodolfo Graziani launched airborne gas warfare including bombings on January 10 that killed thousands of Ethiopians trying to escape Italian advances, more gas attacks following in March. An estimated 300-500 tons of mustard gas were deployed, personally authorized by Mussolini along with the use of flamethrowers.

 

son and father warriors 1935 Harar

October 1935 – Mobilization in Harar, Ethiopia
Responding to Emperor Haile Selassie’s call for the defense of their country, an Ethiopian warrior and his young son prepar to leave for war, the boy acting as his father’s “squire” and carrying his rifle and gear. Like most of the soldiers facing the Italians, both go barefoot into battle.

* * *

On May 5, Italian General Badoglio and his troops triumphantly entered the capital of Addis Ababa. Eventually some 150,000 Italians would occupy Ethiopia, but the occupiers found themselves tasked with controlling over 1,000,000 sq. kilometers of some of the harshest topography in the world and home to some of the most tenacious and courageous peoples, many of whom joined in a protracted guerilla war.

Initially official international response was minimal. The only country to protest the Italian aggression and occupation was Mexico. A year later, five other countries…China, New Zealand, the Republic of Spain (fighting its own civil war against Fascism), the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were the only nations not to recognize Italy’ right of control over Ethiopia. However by 1940 only Stalin’s Russia recognized Selassie as the rightful leader, since at the time and prior to the isolationist leaning U.S. entry into WWII, America was considering acknowledging Ethiopia as part of the Italian empire.

 

ethiopia officer telegraph 1935

Ethiopian Royal Guard Soldier
Still bearing the original tag affixed to an album photo in 1935,  an officer of the Telegraph Corp is shown in his dress uniform complete with lion fur fringed epaulets and cap. Unfortunately the country’s communication system was such that the military had in most part to rely on runners and there was but one field telephone in service.

* * *

On June 30, 1936, after Italian forces occupied Addis Ababa forcing him into exile, Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie made a personal and electrifying appeal to the League of Nations which had convened in Geneva, Switzerland. His speech, warning of the threat of Fascism, was heckled by the Italian representatives, but brought him into the world spotlight as a champion of his people and an inspirational call to defend the weak against the violently strong. His statements included the following prophetic warning:

“If a strong government finds it can destroy a weak people, then the hour has struck for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment. It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.”

His words went unheeded, the League taking no action. On February 19-21, 1937 Addis Ababa was the scene of a bloody massacre of some 10,000 civilians including half the younger, educated population, shot, beheaded, and bayonetted by Italian troops with the pretext being an attempted and failed assassination attempt against Marshal Rodolfo Graziani the Viceroy and Governor General of Italian East Africa. It was one of the largest mass murders prior to the start of WWII.

 

ethiopia hanging

Souvenir Photo
An Italian soldier snapped this image of blindfolded Ethiopians as well as his pith helmet wearing comrades during one of countless public executions.

* * *

The Italians also operated notorious prisons, including Nokra located on an island on the Red Sea where prisoners suffered a mortality rate of 58%. The general Fascist attitude toward their colonial subjects was summed up by Gen. Badoglio when he stated, “the whole population of Cyrenaica should perish.”

In another instance, the Italian commander Graziani, employing Somali and Libyan mercenaries along with his Italian troops, successfully launched the decisive battle against the Ethiopian resistance on the Southern Front in mid-April 1936. His summary report of the victory indicated some 650 Italian casualties while the numbers exceeded several thousand Ethiopians. He commented, “Few prisoners as is the custom of Libyan troops.” While under Italian command who voiced no disapproval, the Libyans implemented their own “total war.”

Conquering Italian Troops 1937

axis Mussolini oct 1943

1937 Photo -Conquering Italian troops in High Spirits

Eventually an estimated 500,000 Ethiopians died as the result of Italy’s invasion and occupation, a genocidal policy that history relegated to its dusty back pages.

Italy would continue to control Ethiopia while the world lurched toward WWII. Then on June 10, 1940 Mussolini decided to enter the World War on Hitler’s side in order to share in the spoils. His forces attacked France via the western Alps, but suffered from poor leadership and freezing temperatures, obsolete weapons, without even adequate cooking pots or winter clothing. In the ensuing border area battles, the French sustained 40 killed, 84 wounded, 150 missing. The Italians lost 631 killed, 2,361 wounded and 600 missing not to mention some 2000 cases of frostbite. Later in Greece, Italian forces were driven back again, in this case losing some 14,000 dead and 25,000 missing. Hitler was called upon  to rescue his Italian allies by sending in his own troops and as a result did not meet his original schedule for attacking the Soviet Union, losing precious time, and perhaps the war in Russia and the War itself.

 

ethiopia Selassie man Oerlikon 1935

Attack on Dessie – Emperor Selassie Fights Back
The photo shows the Emperor at the controls of a Swedish made Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun. While the scene appears posed, it recreates an actual event. After learning that Selassie would be inside the vacated Italian consulate building, the Italians dropped bombs on the city, causing moderate damage and creating panic in the civilian population who had never experience aerial bombardment. The Emperor went unscathed while the bombing of civilians brought international attention.

* * *

In late January 1941, British and its Commonwealth troops (Indian, Nigerian, Ghanaian, South African, East African), launched attacks from bases in Sudan and Kenya against Italian-occupied Eritrea and Somaliland. By mid-February, 1941, Italian troops in Eritrea had sought sanctuary in the rugged mountains, for the most leaving their outposts in the hands of the Allies. By late March, German and Italian forces were evacuating by ship from Eritrea as British forces continued their successful operations against them. In one of the large engagements fought at the Battle of Keren involving tanks and infantry, the British recorded 536 killed, 3229 wounded while Italian casualties totalled some 6500.

On April 1, the Eritrean capital city of Asmara surrendered as an open city, the Allies collecting 5,000 Italian prisoners, the remaining forces making an effort to escape back into Ethiopia. By April 4th, Italian troops had fled the capital of Addis Ababa under threat of imminent capture by British forces who shortly took the city without opposition. On May 5, Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie made an historic return to the capital, marking to the day that he had been forced to flee Italian forces five years previously.

By May 16, Amba Alagi, the last major Italian stronghold in Ethiopia, lacking drinking water and counting nearly 290,000 casualties, began surrender negotiations. On May 17, 1941, Duke Aosta, the Viceroy of Italian East Africa, surrendered to the British followed on November 27 by the surrender of General Nasi, thus effectively ending Italian control of the area although some Italian guerrilla resistance continued until Italy surrendered in 1943, thus officially ending the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. It was Gen. Badoglio, the conqueror of the Ethiopians, who replaced Mussolini as Prime Minister after the dictator’s fall from power. Badoglio then surrendered Italy to the Allies.

Italian forces in East Africa would be captured en mass by Allied forces and during fighting on the Eastern Front alongside their German allies 87, 795 Italian personnel were killed or MIA, another 35,000 wounded. Over the ensuing decades, Italy was only able to repatriate the remains of 10,542 of its soldiers from the Russian Front, and of those only 2,799 were identified.

 

victory celebration

Selassie portrait

Victory Celebration
A rare private snapshot shows Emperor Haile Selassie standing on the main street of Addis Ababa on May 5, 1941, the day of his return to the liberated capital. The roadway is lined with smiling troops while two young riflemen aim for the cameraman. Today, May 5 is still celebrated as “Ethiopian Patriots’ Victory Day.”

temporary comrades

Temporary Comrades-in-Arms
The body language of an Italian Alpini trooper and a German Army corporal standing at their guard post could be interpreted as reflecting the differences between their individual and national personalities.

* * *

After the overthrow of Mussolini and as a result of the Armistice of Cassibile on September 8, 1943, Italy was split between the pro-fascist forces allied with Nazi Germany and anti-Fascist forces with Allied allegiances. The Germans exacted brutal reprisals against the Italians they saw as traitors, executing thousands and sending thousands more into slave labor.
Italy paid the price in blood, nearly a quarter million of its military killed and another 150,000 civilians perishing, a significant percentage caused by its former German ally.

1948: Aftermath
War crimes charges against Fascist Italy, while assaulting pre-WWII Ethiopia and during the war in Greece and Yugoslavia, were never officially recognized or prosecuted as the both the post-war Italian government and the Allies preferred to ignore them—in fact, actively denying and covering them up since they were now more concerned with the threat of the Communist Party in Italy. However, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, late Italian ruler of Ethiopia, was sentenced in 1948 to 19 years in prison for his collaboration with the Nazi Party. Although he only served four months. (He later became active in a neo-fascist party, dying of natural causes in 1955 at age 72. Public money funded a monument to him in 2012.)

 

 

BIO

Paul Garson SelfiePaul Garson lives and writes in Los Angeles, his articles regularly appearing in a variety of national and international periodicals. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and USC Media Program, he has taught university composition and writing courses and served as staff Editor at several motorsport consumer magazines as well as penned two produced screenplays. Many of his features include his own photography, while his current book publications relate to his “photo-archeological” efforts relating to the history of WWII in Europe, through rare original photos collected from more than 20 countries. Links to the books can be found on Amazon.com. More info at www.paulgarsonproductions.com or via paulgarson@aol.com

 

 

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