02. August 2010 · Comments Off on Noggin’ Bloggin’/Product Review, Headblade (100802) · Categories: Memoir

About a month or so ago I got another trim at another one of those discount “Master Care Hair Care Performer Care Clips Care” places and realized that the “stylist” was messing with my hair in such a way as to make sure the ever growing thin spot on the crown of my head was covered.  Sigh.  Beautiful Wife, bless her heart, insists this isn’t technically a comb over.  Just one reason I love her, she doesn’t slam my ego at every turn.

Since I retired from the Air Force (can you believe it’s been three years?) I’ve tried various and sundry hair/beard configurations.  While I’d like to have the patience to go for Billy Connolly in “Boondock Saints,” the best I can really hope for is Jeff Bridges in anything from the last dozen years, but with a Monk’s Bowl where the crown of my head is.  I don’t think The Dude prevails with a bald spot.

A couple of Saturdays ago, it was hot and we hadn’t quite got the air conditioner thing worked out for the summer yet and I had beads of sweat running down my neck and back etc., so…out came the clippers.  A quick buzz and then into the shower with the good ol’ Gillette and poof, back to the cueball look.

I’ve tried going back to AF short.  I’ve tried medium.  I’ve tried medium-long.  With my hair thinning more and the weird color pattern that seems to refuse to balance out, and the fact that it’s just plain easy, I think I’m going to keep it shaved at least for the foreseeable future.

So six years ago when I first shaved the dome, I tried this thing called a Headblade.  It’s a razor specifically made for shaving your head.  It looked cool.  It’s well-designed.  It’s got kind of a YinYang logo.  They supported the UFC.  It was an American invention from the 90s, back when Americans were still inventing things that worked better.  But I digress.  Six years ago when I first tried the Headblade Classic, I pretty much shredded my scalp.  It used a two-blade cartridge and I never quite got the balance of the thing.  You’re supposed to put NO pressure on the blade end.  I somehow couldn’t get my hand to to figure that out.

The latest version, the Headblade Sport, ran $12.99 at my local Walgreens and works so well it’s kind of scary.  Yes, it looks like half a Hot Wheel.  And it’s got three blades vs two so the blades are a bit more pricey.  However, one pass and the hair was gone, leaving all the skin intact and smooth as a baby’s butt.  So not only did it shave amazingly close, it did it with LESS irritation than my (insert ridiculous number)-blade face razor because I only had to make one, maybe two passes to get the hair gone.  I don’t know if it’s the wheels or the three blade configuration or that I’ve mellowed considerably over the past six years, but this thing works!

01. June 2010 · Comments Off on Personal Barsetshire · Categories: General, Literary Good Stuff, Memoir, Old West, Working In A Salt Mine...

In January, 2007 I had just launched into the first book about the German settlements in the Texas Hill Country – a project which almost immediately came close to overflowing the constraint that I had originally visualized, of about twenty chapters of about 6,500 words each. Of course I blogged about what I had described as “my current obsession, which is growing by leaps and bounds.” A reader suggested that “if I was going for two books, might as well make it three, since savy readers expected a trilogy anyway.” And another long-time reader Andrew Brooks suggested at about the same time “Rather then bemoan two novels of the Germans in the Texas hill country, let them rip and just think of it as The Chronicles of Barsetshire, but with cypress trees!” and someone else amended that to “Cypress trees and lots of side-arms” and so there it was, a nice little marketing tag-line to sum up a family saga on the Texas frontier. I’ve been eternally grateful for Andrew’s suggestion ever since, but I have just now come around to thinking he was more right than he knew at the time. Because when I finally worked up the last book of the trilogy, it all came out to something like 490,000 words – and might have been longer still if I hadn’t kept myself from wandering down along the back-stories of various minor characters. Well, and then when I had finished the Trilogy, and was contemplating ideas for the next book project, I came up with the idea of another trilogy, each a complete and separate story, no need to have read everything else and in a certain order to make sense of it all. The new trilogy, or rather a loosely linked cycle, would pick up the stories of some of those characters from the Trilogy – those characters who as they developed a substantial back-story almost demanded to be the star of their own show, rather than an incidental walk-on in someone elses’.

I never particularly wanted to write a single-character series; that seemed kind of boring to me. People develop, they have an adventure or a romance, they mature – and it’s hard to write them into an endless series of adventures, as if they stay the same and only the adventure changes. And I certainly didn’t want to write one enormous and lengthy adventure broken up into comfortably volume-sized segments. Frankly, I’ve always been rather resentful of that kind of book: I’d prefer that each volume of a saga stand on its own, and not make the reader buy two or three books more just to get a handle on what is going on.

So, launched upon two of the next project – when I got bored with one, or couldn’t think of a way to hustle the story and the characters along, I’d scribble away on the other, and post some of the resulting chapters here and on the other blog. But it wasn’t until the OS blogger Procopius remarked “I like that you let us see the goings on of so many branches of the same family through your writings. The frontier offers a rich spring of fascinating stories!” This was also the same OS blogger who had wondered wistfully, after completing reading “The Harvesting” about young Willi Richter’s life and eventual fate among the Comanche, first as a white captive and then as a full member of the band. And at that point, I did realized that yes, I was writing a frontier Barsetshire, and perhaps not quite as closely linked as Anthony Trollop’s series of novels, , but something rather more like Angela Thirkell’s visualization of a time and place, of many linked locations, yet separate characters and stories. Yes, that is a better description of how my books are developing – not as a straight narrative with a few branches, but as an intricate network of friends, kin and casual acquaintances, all going their own ways, each story standing by itself, with now and again a casual pass-through by a character from another narration. And it’s starting again with the latest book, I’ll have you know – I have a minor character developing, a grimy London street urchin, transplanted to Texas, where he becomes a working cowboy, later a champion stunt-performer in Wild West Shows . . . eventually, he is reinvented in the early 20th century as a silent movie serial star. The potential for yet one more twig branching out into another fascinating story is always present, when my imagination gets really rolling along.

So – yes. Barsetshire with cypress trees and lots of side-arms, Barsetshire on the American frontier as the occasionally wild west was settled and tamed, a tough and gritty Barsetshire, of buffalo grass and big sky, of pioneers and Rangers, of cattle drives and war with the Comanche, war with the Union, with Mexico and with each other. This is going to be so great. I will have so much fun . . . and so will my readers.

02. May 2010 · Comments Off on Land, Lots of Land · Categories: General, Home Front, Memoir, Veteran's Affairs, Working In A Salt Mine..., World

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze,
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,
Send me off forever but I ask you please,
Don’t fence me in.

So, I came to a decision about a week or so ago, one that I sensibly should have come to a couple of years ago . . . except that a couple of years ago might not have been the time, either. This was just one of those things that I don’t think about very much, except twice a year when I have to figure out how to pay the taxes on it. Yes, when I get the bill from the San Diego assessor’s office for the three acres and some of unimproved howling wilderness that I own – that’s when I remember that yes, indeedly-do, neighbors – I am a landowner. It’s a nice little tract, which would have been covered with black oak, pine trees and mountain laurel, on the edge of a national forest – save for a plague of bark beetles throughout the 1990s, topped by a massive forest fire in 2003. But everything should be fairly well grown back by now – look at how Yellowstone looked, a decade after fires there. I saw the pictures in the National Geographic; natural cycle and all that. As far as So Cal goes, my land is so far back in the woods that they have to truck in sunshine. The roads are graveled, but the electrical lines have crept gradually in, as other owners built little cabins on their patch of Paradise. Me, I have only visited it once in twenty years, although I have a fair number of pictures.

About halfway through my career in the military – a career spent almost exclusively overseas, my daughter and I came home to visit my parents, who had retired to build their own country hideaway. For one reason or another, I thought – well, I shall retire eventually, and why don’t I start by purchasing a bit of land close by, something that I could build on? Having lived in a series of drab rentals and equally drab military housing, the thought of a bespoke home of my own was understandably enticing. And so, my parents drove me around to look at some nice little bits, eventually focusing on the mountains near a charming little town called Julian. We hadn’t actually fixed on a suitable tract – but my parents knew my tastes by then. Basically, I bought my property on their advice. Used a reenlistment bonus granted when I re-upped for a second hitch in the Big Blue Machine for the down payment, and religiously for the next ten years or so, I mailed a check to an address in Ohio. I don’t think I thought about it too much then, either. I think I was stationed in Utah when I came to the final payment – even then I had written to the former owner, asking plaintively if June or July’s payment would be the last, for I had rather lost track.

So – I had the property; now to sort out how to build a house on it. When I finally returned from overseas, I had pretty much resolved that I would buy a house to live in for the rest of my time in the Air Force, rather than continue pouring money down the rental-rat-hole. I’d continue working until the mortgage was paid – then sell the house and use the equity to fund a new house on my land. When I first formulated this plan, I had kind of half-expected that my last active-duty tour would be at a base of my choosing: the assignments weenies for my career field used to be rather good at this. You could retire in a town where you already had done the ground-work for a post-service career, bought the house, got the child or children established in a local school. Lucky me – I got sent to Texas. Which was third on my list, by the way – but I did buy the house.

And then . . . well, things happened. It’s called life, which happens even when you have plans. One of those things which happened was that Texas – rather like bathroom mold – grows on you. Really; after a while, practically everywhere else seems dry and savorless, devoid of an exuberant sense of place and identity. And the countryside is lovely: east and central Texas is nothing like what it looks in Western movies. It is green, threaded with rivers lined with cypress trees, interspersed with rolling hills dotted with oak trees and wildflowers star-scattered everywhere. I put down roots here, made friends and connections, both personal and professional. I wrote books, set mostly in a locality not very far away, books which have garnered me readers and fans, and a partnership in a little specialty publishing firm. I have come to love San Antonio; which I have described for years as a small town, cunningly disguised as a large city. (Really – you can connect anyone with anyone else in this town in about two jumps. There’s only about two degrees of separation here. You simply would not believe how many people I know who are connected to other people I know. And I don’t even belong to the San Antonio Country Club, though I was a guest there, once.)

Another of those local connections is to a semi-occasional employer, the gentleman known as the Tallest ADHD Child on Earth. He runs a tiny ranch real estate bidness from a home office, but since he is hopelessly inept at anything to do with logical organization, computers and office management, I put in a small number of hours there, every week or so, just to keep his files and documents from becoming a kind of administrative black hole, sucking in everything within range. I put together his various brochures for the various properties that he has listings for – and last week, while assembling one of them, I was thinking all the while, “I so want a bit of that.” I’d rather have a bit of land, maybe park a little cabin on it for now, where I could go and spend quiet weekends. I’d rather have something I could drive up to in a couple of hours, rather than in two days. So, I told Mom and Dad to put the California acreage with a local realtor, and my friend the ranch real estate expert that I would be looking for a nice acre or two. It feels good, it really does.

I expect that I will eventually be driving a pickup truck. But the gimme cap, the gun rack and the hunting dog are still negotiable.

19. March 2010 · Comments Off on A 21 Story Salute · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, History, Memoir, Veteran's Affairs, War, World

Take a look at this

Looks nice, doesn’t it? Finally, in February, Alice and I finished the latest book project from Watercress Press, the tiny specialty subsidy press bidness which affords the both of us some kind of living and a fair amount of amusement, as well as entrée into what passes for the literary scene in San Antonio. Alice does the fine editing and some of the admin stuff, I do the rough editing and the author-wrangling, and keep the website updated. We hire an independent contractor to do the book design and layout, to ours and the author’s specifications; I must say that when the pocketbook permits, we can do some very nice, high-end books indeed: History, Texiana, memoirs, some poetry – that kind of thing.

A 21 Story Salute combines two of our favorites; history and memoir. Barbara Bir, the author/editor went around to twenty-one World War II-era veterans and a couple of spouses, and interviewed them about their experiences during the conflict, and about their lives afterwards. All were pretty interesting, in themselves, but a good few of them were downright fascinating; it depended, I think, on how good a story-teller they were.

Bob Ingraham, for instance: he had some great stories. He survived being shot down flying a Spitfire over Dieppe in 1942, and a round of imprisonment as a POW in Sagan, where he helped to dig the Great Escape tunnel. There were three American diggers, helping with Tom, Dick and Harry – he is the only one still living.

Clara Morrey Murphy, and her friend, Aleda “Lutzie” Lutz – Clara and Lutzie were two of the very first Army air-evac nurses – there is a picture of them in the book, trying out their flight gear, while in special training in 1942. They went on to air –evacuate patients during the campaigns in North Africa, Italy and France. Clara Murphy’s military uniform is now on display at the Brooks ‘Hanger 9’ aerospace medicine museum, in San Antonio. “Lutzie” died in 1944, when the air-evac flight she was on crashed into a mountainside in Southern France.

Eddie Patrick? He was the kid genius, when it came to radios and electronics: he wound up as a senior NCO at the age of 19, in charge of the comm gear, serving at a Flying Tigers airbase in China, well behind the Japanese lines.

Litzie Trustin was Jewish and born in Vienna. She escaped to England on one of the last Kindertransports, just before the war began in Europe in 1939. Returning to Europe to work with the American forces as a translator, she married a transport pilot and came to Omaha to settle down and raise a family – and to work for civil rights.

Bob Joyce kept a diary, all through his tour of duty as a B-17 radio operator, flying a series of nerve-wrackingly dangerous missions from Italy. He carried with him on those missions a pair of regular Army boots, his father’s rosary, a good-luck bracelet from his home-town girlfriend, and a $2.00 bill, so he would never be broke.

Ignatio “Nacho” Gutierrez never saw snow until he went into the Army for basic training. He and his unit came ashore on D-Day in the early evening of June 6th, 1944 – and he painted signs – and sometimes stapled them to trees himself – for the constantly-moving XIX Corps, First Army headquarters, all through Normandy and into Belgium and Germany.

During the war, Marshall Cantor directed the building of runways and scratch airbases on Ascension Island for Air Transport Command, and then moved on to do the same in New Guinea and in the Philippines. He met Ellen Berg, who was a nurse serving at a forward hospital in Papua, New Guinea. They married in 1944.

More excerpts and a few more pictures are at a section of Barbara’s website, here.

08. August 2009 · Comments Off on A Set of New Wheels · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, General, Memoir

So it turned out to be fairly painless, finding a sensibly-priced and in good-condition automobile to replace the VEV – which served long, perhaps longer than a good few people close to me, such as my father and daughter felt altogether comfortable with, especially as the frequency of unexpected auto malfunctions leaving me stranded by the roadside had begun to increase. Well, really – I could do the math. The VEV is a 35-year old car, with better than 200,000 miles on it, about the oldest Volvo that my local garage maintained, necessary replacement parts were getting rarer and harder to find – jeeze, even finding a replacement light bulb for the side running light at Riley’s or AutoZone was a flat impossibility, thank god I had a very aged packet of them buried in the bottom of the glove-box. So I considered that the VEV had crossed over the line from “reliable, comfortable, daily transportation” into the category of “classic automobile, carefully maintained and occasionally taken out to drive short distances mostly to show off its very special classic-ness”. Alas, not being well-paid enough from book royalties to keep and maintain that sort of car, it was time (well past time, to hear my daughter Blondie tell it) to move on. I put the VEV on EBay, where it has excited some interest and an acceptable bid from a buyer … and last week I consulted Craigslist and went the rounds of some private sellers, a couple of used car lots and finally wound up with a well-kept 1990 Acura sedan, henceforth to be called the GG, or the Golden Ghost. It has had only one owner, has much lower mileage than would be expected, was top-of-the-line when new, and everything – including the AC works very well, thank you. I don’t think I’ll ever have an entirely new car of any sort, but a 1990 is a considerable of an improvement on a 1974.

The St.Christopher ikon, which the last owner’s wife glued to the dashboard of the VEV, to keep it safe on the roads in Greece (and over all those miles ever since) has been transferred to the Acura, and with luck, the VEV’s new caretaker will be coming to collect it sometime this weekend.

(Comments still frelled … just send an email to me, if you are moved to comment on this once-every two decade phenomenon of me, getting a newer car.)

29. July 2009 · Comments Off on Time for Letting Go · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, General, Local, Memoir

So, it’s come down to this – I have to let go of the Very Elderly Volvo, AKA “The Pumpkin” which I bought from another NCO at EBS-Hellenikon early in 1982. It is a 1975 242 Volvo two-door sedan, which I drove all over Greece and Spain, across Europe and up and down the IH-15 between Southern California and Utah too many times to count, to Albuquerque and back, and from San Diego to San Antonio when we first came to Texas. I’ve had it fixed in five European countries and four Western states, but it is now at the end of it’s reliable life. There are two many little things wrong with it now, things that make it harder to drive, things that I can’t afford to fix, and every essay out of the neighborhood with it was a nerve-wracking experience, both for me, and for Blondie waiting nervously at home. Eventually, and as my daughter repeated pointed out, the likelihood that the VEV would break down in a bad spot, resulting in a degree of personal danger to me had increased dramatically. People had always been kind and helpful, during these incidents, but I really couldn’t go on trusting in Providence and the kindness of strangers for much longer. This had the result of limiting driving the VEV to within city limits – no long road trips, and then to within the radius of a AAA tow to my favored garage. This orbit gradually narrowed – only to the Hellhole job and back, and then one night I had an awful time getting it started. I began borrowing Blondie’s Montero for trips to work, and finally just left the VEV in the driveway, not even risking driving it within the neighborhood. And that essentially negates the whole purpose of having a car, never daring to take it out of the driveway. I had hoped that by this time I might be able to afford to have it rehabbed and made mechanically reliable – and although sales of both Adelsverein and To Truckee’s Trail are gratifyingly steady, neither of them are nowhere near #1 on Amazon.com (More like #100,000, give or take a couple of thousand – nice, but nothing enabling me to quit one of the day jobs.)

So, we’re going to put it up for sale, with the trunkful of spare parts included, in hopes of attracting the interest of someone with a mad passion for re-habbing classic Volvo sedans. I know they are out there, and it may take a bit, with the combined mighty second-hand sales organs of E-Bay and Craigslist. Knowing that Blondie and I were essentially sharing one car, and that our schedules would be completely incompatible, once she goes back to school this fall, Dad offered to straight-up buy me a car last weekend. He specified a budget that he was OK with, and suggested a 90’s Honda Accord with about 150,000 miles on it, as being tops for ease of maintenance and reliability, and old enough to be affordable. So, over the last two days, I ran a fine-toothed comb over all the Craigslist ads in San Antonio offering Honda Accords, and made the discouraging discovery that Dad’s target sales price of $2,000 pretty much limited to me to something not much more reliable than the VEV, and anything less than that was truly a beater. $5,000 seemed to be the going rate for what I really needed, and one dealer advised us that if I located any Accords on the market in decent condition and in good repair for less than that, to jump on it at once. We had actually found one – owned by an elderly lady who’s son was selling it, as she was unable to drive any more. It had high mileage, and needed a new compressor, but was in excellent condition otherwise, and had only the one owner – but as the car dealer had warned, that sold twenty minutes before we were to take a look at it.
Dad and I have settled on a low-mileage 91’ Acura sedan, at a price of a little less than $3,000, through the good offices of a dealer on O’Connor Road. Why we had to drive all over town, before finding the perfect car a mere hop-skip-and-jump from the house is just another one of the ironies. It’s sort of a pale gold color, was high-end with all the bells and whistles when new, the interior features buff-colored leather upholstery (somewhat worn, admittedly) and the exterior is pristine – no dings, dents or scratches. It seems to have had only one owner, who took excellent care of it. I test-drove it yesterday – it has a very smooth ride, turns on a dime, feels much more solid, and the AC works, too.

So, I shall have it by the end of the week, most likely – and perhaps I will feel better about emptying out all the stuff on the VEV – the maps in the glove-box, the odd things in the trunk, washing off the dust and the bird-crap, and taking some pictures of it to appeal to the auto-restorer who will – with luck, decide that he or she wants it for their next project.

Time for letting go. Of everything about the VEV, but the Greek medallion of St. Christopher on the dashboard, which the Greek wife of the guy I bought it from all this time ago stuck there. That goes onto the Acura – it did a good job for thirty years, and should be good for thirty more.

23. May 2009 · Comments Off on Movies & Memories · Categories: General, History, Memoir, Military

TCM is showing war movies all weekend – right now is one of my favorites: “Battleground” about the Battle of the Bulge. As I sit here watching the 101st spend winter in Belgium, surrounded by Germans, with the fog keeping them from seeing much of anything, I remembered my own trip to Bastogne – not my first, but the one that meant the most to me.

It was November, 1988. I forget the exact date: either the 10th or 11th, a Thursday or a Friday. I know that I had graduated from NCO Leadership School the day before, at Lindsey Air Station in Wiesbaden. This was my travel day to drive back Florennes Air Base, where I had 60 days left on my tour, and I thought Bastogne was an appropriate place to visit at that particular time of year.

I didn’t pay much attention to WWII history before I was stationed in Belgium. In my high school history classes, we rarely got past the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, if we got that far. I had heard of the Battle of the Bulge, but had no idea what it was, why it mattered, or where it was fought. Then I spent a year in Florennes, not far from the Ardennes Forest, maybe a 90 minute drive from Bastogne.

I learned about WWII history, that year. It was all around me, in my face no matter where I turned. Then one late-summer day, some friends & I stopped in Bastogne on our way to Luxembourg, and I learned about America. About determination, steadfastness, and courage. About a single word answer that an American General gave to a German emissary, when invited to surrender. My hazy memory is telling me that my friends climbed on the tank in the village square, and we took their pictures (I didn’t, but only because I have acrophobia, and it was too high off the ground for me).

But that’s not the trip I was reminded of when I saw the fog surrounding the men in the movie. It was the Veterans’ Day trip. The trip with snow on the ground, with fog. And a deep silence, which is why I think it was the 10th, not the 11th. I cannot imagine that the Bastogne Memorial would be empty and silent on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of any year.

I walked silently on that hallowed ground, thinking about the soldiers who had bled & died there. That day’s fog was their shroud, and seemed to also be a time-machine. I stood on one side of the road, and all I saw on the other side were the ghostly shadows of trees poking through the fog. I could almost see the frozen, exhausted, out-numbered GI Joes, mostly hidden by the fog, dodging from tree to tree, ducking & covering, with the weather as deadly an enemy as the Germans.

I said a prayer for them, those who fought and died, and those who fought & survived to fight again elsewhere, before I got back in my truck and headed towards home.

I pray for them again this weekend, a weekend that will be spent remembering them and all like them, and honoring their sacrifices.

13. May 2009 · Comments Off on I Thought It Was Your Turn · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, General, Memoir, Military

So, I rather giggled over this link, courtesy of Da Blogfadddah this morning, about a funky breakroom refrigerator, the righteous cleansing of which sent seven people to the hospital, and grossed-out everyone else within smelling range; I’d bet anything that some sort of air intake vent was within or near the area in question, and that was how everyone in the building got to share the experience. That’s how it worked but in a pleasant way, at AFKN-Seoul. Our microwave was directly underneath such, and whenever anyone nuked a bag of popcorn, everyone else in the building would smell it and get hungry; one person would set off a whole chain reaction of other personnel with the serious munchies.

I don’t recall the unit refrigerator there having a serious funk; unless it might have been momentarily generated by the Korean staff’s kimchee box lunches. But bless them all, Miss Radio Yi, Miss TV Yi, Miss Finance Office Yi, Mr. Pak, Yu Mi the Receptionist and all the others, even the Boot Odishi – they were all terrifically fastidious about all that sort of thing. Never any qualms or worries about the AFKN refrigeration, but I couldn’t say the same about the previous unit refrigerator, at Det 8, Hill AFB Combat Camera.

We had a nice little break room there, with a television, and shelves for all the little snack items sold by the unit snack fund; an assortment that was so varied and usually so well-stocked that frequently had people from other units wandering in to buy their candy bars, snack cakes, soft-drinks and bottled ice teas from it. Alas, the refrigerator often fell far below the standard held by the rest of the break room. Well, what can you expect, when there are nearly a hundred people in the unit, counting military and civilians, TDY visitors and all, many of whom bring a lunch and store it in the refrigeration? It is just one of the immutable laws of the universe that leftovers will be forgotten, that healthy bits of fruit will be forgotten in the bins, to grow mushy and disgusting, and that whole colonies of mold will stake out new territories inside plastic containers, and bottles of condiments will be abandoned, far, far after their “best-if-used-by-date”. Eventually, when people passing by in the corridor outside the break room could detect the funk from the refrigerator – which happened about every month or so – someone would be voluntold to sort it out.

This usually translated to posting a notice on the fridge, notifying everyone of the date, warning them if they didn’t remove, they would loose – then arming oneself with a large double-weight trashbag on the chosen day and ruthlessly dumping everything left into it. The refrigerator usually didn’t have much sticky crud stuck to the shelves or bins, so a quick wipe-down with Clorox and hot water usually did the trick, setting up a fairly clean slate until next time.

But on one particular occasion, the reek from the fridge was especially noticeable; it had a sort of grab-around-the-throat-and-squeeze power about it, and was reaching a considerable distance down the central hallway in either direction. Obviously, there was something especially rancid, simmering away in the back forty of the refrigerator – and just by luck, I was the one administering the monthly cleansing. Really, I didn’t find anything much out of line, until I got to a thick plastic zip-lock bag, pushed to the back of one of the lower shelves … and there it was. I knew as soon as I maneuvered it carefully out of the refrigerator and towards my trash bag, swathing it in another couple of layers of plastic, just for good luck.

Before I did that, I called in some witnesses – I wanted to make sure that everyone else saw it as well; an 18-20 inch long whole fish, head, scales, tail and all, gone impressively rotten, but still recognizable, in about a cupful of unspeakably murky fluid. Everyone agreed, looking at it and uneasily at each other, that someone had gone fishing over the weekend, several weeks previously. For some reason, they brought in the fish to the unit – perhaps to present to someone else – and then forgotten it in the break room fridge.

Well, no wonder the smell was so bad, that month, with a dead fish molding away in the back.

20. February 2009 · Comments Off on The Other Ones · Categories: General, Memoir

I know I haven’t been writing here much.  Haven’t had much going on that I wanted to write about.  The one big thing on our minds around here is something I’m not very proud of, but thought I’d throw it out here and see if the half dozen of you who still come around might find it interesting.

My family is going through what millions of families have been going through over the past year or so.  We’re looking at losing our house.  Now we didn’t buy a house that we couldn’t afford, and we didn’t get a mortgage that exploded one day.  Life happened and the economy happened.  I lost my job and didn’t find a new one for a month and a half, then my wife lost her job and didn’t find a new one for a month and a half, and we had utilities to pay and food to buy and we fell behind in our mortgage.  Our lender is NOT willing to work with us to bring down the payments or to put what’s missing on the end of the loan.  They want a payment and a half until we’re caught up.  And the way the cost of living went up and didn’t really come back down, we can no longer really afford the mortgage payment much less a payment and a half.  We’re the other ones.  The ones you really don’t hear about much.  We didn’t do anything wrong, we bought the place in good faith.  We never thought we’d be trying to choose between paying the mortgage and paying for food.  What really kills me is that if we get rid of cable, cell phones and internet, we’d still be short.  I’ve never been in that position before.  We’ve tightened our belts before, but even if we do now, it doesn’t matter.  What really kills me is that we’re making more now than we were when we bought the place.  Kinda makes me crazy.

The only thing that MIGHT save us is if there’s anything in the President’s Magical Bailout for us.  Our problem?  We don’t want YOU paying for OUR mortgage.  We’re seriously against that, and besides, from everything I’ve read, we’re not really the folks the President is trying to save.  Our lender didn’t screw us over, they didn’t see the economy tanking either.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t have lent us the money in the first place.

So we’re looking and believe we found a nice little rental house.  I’ve been trying to contact our lender all week but all I get is voicemail.  Apparently, we’re not the only ones wanting to talk to them.

We’re going to lose our house and I’d like to feel worse about it but after all the figuring we’ve done I just can’t.  We simply can’t afford this place.  God help us if the hot water heater or the a/c or the furnace died.  There’s no way to replace them.  God help us if we had anything happen to either of the cars, which we NEED to work.

We can’t keep going like this and that means letting them foreclose.  That hurts.  I tend to be on the proud side in case you’ve missed that part of my character over the years and we’re going through all five stages of mourning.  I’m going to really miss the backyard, but I’m thinking we can get to the foothills easier once we can buy a tank of gas without worrying about we have enough money for food.

27. December 2008 · Comments Off on Life and Times of a Bowerbird · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, History, Literary Good Stuff, Memoir, Working In A Salt Mine...

A bowerbird, or so I read years ago in National Geographic, or Smithsonian, or one of those other popular magazines with a bent towards science and nature, was a native bird species peculiar to Australia and the farther reaches of New Guinea, which had the curious habit of decorating its nest with all sorts of colorful bits of this and that – glass, shells, colored leaves, pieces of glass and plastic, berries – anything and everything which caught it’s eye and which it liked enough to pick up and take home, arranging it with all those other finds in pleasing patterns. This apparently makes sense to the bird doing the arranging, because they seem to be quite set on those patterns. They will, according to researchers, also restore bits that are deliberately disarranged back to the pattern which they chose. It also seems, according to the internet (which I turned to in confirming this tiny and almost useless bit of knowledge – hey, it’s on the internet, so it must be true!) it is the male birds who do this, so this is where this simile falls apart. I am, and have always been of the female persuasion and pretty happy overall with that designation, although in a truly just universe, I would have preferred looking a hell of a lot more like Audrey Hepburn, as well as having her mad dancing skilz.

But I do have somewhat of a similarity to the bowerbird (of whatever sex) because I collect stuff, random stuff that is attractive and catches my eye, and which I can arrange in attractive patterns. I do this when I write, or more specifically when I am reading and researching for what I am preparing to write. I never know what particular bit will engage my interest – and some items are very odd bits indeed. I keep coming back to them, and by this I know that they must be an element in the story. For “Adelsverein” I kept returning to the Goliad Massacre of 1836, to the kidnapping of children from the Hill Country by raiding Indians, to a throw-away comment in an old memoir – a then-senior citizen recalling that his youngest sister actually wasn’t of his blood, she was an tiny orphan found and rescued from the Verein camp on the Texas Gulf Coast, never able to recall her real name. I also kept circling back to the recorded memory of an elderly woman, recalling proudly that she was 90-something and didn’t need glasses to thread a needle – and also recalling that the husband she loved, and had been married to for only 13 years, being taken away by the Hanging Band during the Civil War and hung, for the crime of being a Unionist in a Confederate state – all this, in spite of her attempting to sneak his revolver to him. Reading about these tiny events was like getting a small electrical shock, or perhaps recognizing something that I had known in another lifetime. These combined with any number of other bits and pieces of frontier lore, with small and humble items seen in museums, with paintings and sketches of scenery, daguerreotypes and memoirs, even a 1850’s travelogue by a famously observant political writer who did a horseback journey through antebellum Texas and the south. Thrown into this mix are my own visits to various places in the Hill Country, my own first-hand observations of clear green rivers, their beds paved with round marble-white gravel, sessions with subject matter experts in frontier arcane, the memory of certain people and conversations — and then arrange it all in a somewhat-logical pattern. Just like a bowerbird, although my own bower is a famously complex excel spreadsheet of a dozen and more categories, organized by month and year. All those pretty, shiny bits are plugged into the place where they seem to me to belong.

In a year or two, there is a book come out of it, all; a ripping good adventure yarn with the added benefit of having the very best bits of it based on historical fact; not bad for a bowerbird.

08. December 2008 · Comments Off on Decking The Halls… · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, General, Memoir, Military

…and the boughs, and the front of the house. Blondie and I are staying in Texas this Christmas, so we got out the Christmas tree and the various tubs of ornaments, and strings of lights. I can’t claim that we do anything remotely like the full Griswald when it comes to Christmas cheer, but we do put together a very nice traditional tree, with presents underneath and all. It’s an artificial tree – sorry. The only live trees available in Texas are half-dead by the time they are bought, are hideously expensive and shed needles all over, coming and going. The current tree is, alas, artificial and sheds needles (in the form of narrow, needle-like slips of plastic) – but was not expensive, even the first year that Blondie bought it. And it actually looks very nice, once decorated, and with equally artificial springs of poinsettia inserted between the branches, to fill in the gaps. We will leave the giant inflatables, the miles of lights, the bows and the herds of wire-form deer, the banners and ribbons and all to the various enthusiastic neighbors. Really, I wonder what the Chinese workers who manufacture this stuff think of it all … the giant inflatable Santa riding a Harley, the teeter-totter with Santa on one end, and three fabric reindeer on the other, and the eight-foot tall snow-globe a family of carolers and a blizzard of plastic fluff whirling around inside. Probably wonder about the sanity of the American consumer, not to mention their aesthetic taste. Frankly, I haven’t got the energy that some of them have, to redecorate seasonally – not just at Christmas, but every month.

I do like our own Christmas tree, though – it’s quirky, just like Mom and Dad’s tree used to be, with a similar accretion of ornaments. When Mom and Dad’s house in Valley Center burned some years ago in the Paradise fire, one of the first things that Blondie and I thought about missing was the Christmas stuff. At the time, we were pretty sure that some things had been saved out of Mom and Dad’s house. After all, we had been drilled on the eventuality of fire for years. We were fairly certain that in such an emergency, no one would spare a thought for three crumbling cardboard boxes full of Christmas stuff, stashed in the rafters of the garage – the garage which turned out to have been the first to go up in flames. Gone the 1930’s Santa-Claus lights and the crumbling four-colored printed carton they had come in, decades since. Gone the Anri Christmas angels that I had sent from Italy, the pipe-cleaner and bead ornaments that JP and I had constructed in grade school, the assorted blown-glass balls, the red and white stockings with our names knitted into the tops, which Granny Jessie had done for each of us; for Mom and Dad when they married and produced us all. Gone the hand-knit stocking for Blondie that I had bought for her at a craft-fair in Utah, with a black kitten knitted into the pattern, and her name that I had added in chain-stitch… all of that gone to ashes, which were scraped up by a bulldozer and carried away, in preparation for rebuilding the house.

Our traditional Christmas stuff is now devolved on my own collection, as eccentric as ever my parents assembled, for I now have a record of celebrating thirty years of Christmasses on my own, and all the ornaments to go with it. I only occasionally was back at Mom and Dad’s for Christmas during the time that I was overseas. In the meantime, in between time, I generated my own collection. The oldest of the lot – thirty felt-covered round ornaments, trimmed with lace, gilt ribbons, fake seed-pearls and jewels, to adorn the little plastic tree in my room in the barracks in Japan, when I first went overseas. These were augmented with a flock of little birds, made of satin and ornamented with silk embroidery – they came from India, and I bought them at a base Christmas bazaar at about the same time. Both sets have proved fairly indestructible – since they can stand a drop to a hard floor. For a couple of years while in Greece I bought a single box of ornaments from one of the high-end catalogue retailers every year: the paper-mache globes covered with red and green curlicues, the stuffed teddy-bears with little scarves, and the vintage wooden airplanes are from that period; the airplanes looked especially fine, hanging from the ends of the branches, as if they were whirling in some endless tree-shaped dog-fight. There are the terra-cotta ornaments from Portugal that look like ginger-cookies, and dozens of traditional German wooden ornaments; little Santas on the backs of whales, or in the basket of a dirigible, angels and little sleds with piles of presents, Father Time with a tiny golden key… all those bought when we were in Spain and I went TDY to Germany every January for a broadcasting conference. A handful of Anri flying angels – those bought when we passed through Rome on our way to Spain. All very traditional and conventional … until we get to the three Enterprise spaceships, and the shuttle-craft, with their tiny blinking lights. I bought the first of those when we came back to the States, the very year they brought the Star Trek ornaments out. I wish I had a Tardis ornament, but I don’t even know if they make one. The rest of the tree is filled with things bought on sale, usually after Christmas and saved for the next year. Blondie contributed four blown-glass ornaments she bought in Egypt, when she went there in 2001 for Bright Star. Those are hung very carefully at the top of the tree, being not nearly as hard-wearing as my own first Christmas ornaments.

It’s more than a Christmas tree – it’s a sort of family history, a history that only families know.

30. October 2008 · Comments Off on You’re Voting For Who? · Categories: General, Memoir, Politics

Michele over at A Big Victory has a new post up about The Politics of Friendship.  You should go read it.

I’ve lost a LOT of friends over the years due to politics.  Some were people I’ve literally known my entire adult life.  Some I’ve known longer than that.  When I stopped calling myself a Democrat and started calling myself an “independant with libertarian tendancies” it got some uneasy laughs when I was home on leave.  You see, Chicago was, is, and probably forever will be a Democrat town.  It makes people nervous when you speak against the Machine…it’s sort of like making fun of the cops, the mayor, the archbishop and the mob all at once…because, well, you are.  People look over their shoulders to see who’s around when talking politics in Chicago…just because. 

More than that, some Chicagoans, for reasons I can’t explain, are PROUD of their radical roots.  They’re proud of The Democrat Convention of ’68.  They’re proud that they had their heads beat in by a cop in Lincoln Park while they “remained non-violent.”  I’m sure there are people who are proud of their association with Bill Ayers.  When I was in high school in the 70s, hippies were cool.  Hippies were legendary.  Hippies are what many of us aspired to be.  Art was important, business and the military were to be sneered at.  Yeah, I know, looking back I can see that I was very, very naive about the ways of the world.

Anyway, as I got older, I became a lot more conservative than I was in high school.  College helped with some of that, the Air Force pushed me a bit further to the right, although I’ve never been able to accept a lot of what “real” conservatives hold dear.  I know I probably wrote this last election cycle, but it’s still true.  I’m too liberal for my conservative friends and too conservative for my liberal friends.  I voted for Bill Clinton twice and I don’t regret it.  I voted for George W. Bush twice and, mostly based on his opponents, I don’t regret that either. 

This year I’m just not all that emotionally invested in the election.  I don’t even want to argue with people I enjoy arguing with.  I’m not voting FOR anyone, I’m voting against someone, knowing that the guy I’m voting for, at best, doesn’t suck as much as the guy I’m voting against…at least that’s what I hope.  ‘Cuz seriously this year doesn’t give us any great choices.  I’m not arguing that much this year about politics.  Maybe just a little at work when I hear someone say something incredibly stupid or just plain wrong.  And this is the first year where I’ve defended both candidates over some seriously deranged rumors flying around a break room.  “No, he’s NOT a Muslim, and so what if he was?/Okay, she spent $150K on clothes, he spent $5M for a freaking stage he used once.” 

I shouldn’t lose any friends this year.  The ones that have already decided to have nothing to do with me based on politics are long gone and at this point, far away.  Most of them, truth be told, left me behind when I joined the Air Force.  They never got it.  The ones that left when I voted for W, I get the feeling were just waiting for a reason to take me off their Christmas Card List. 

07. October 2008 · Comments Off on Life Just Got a Bit More Interesting · Categories: Memoir, That's Entertainment!

So last weekend I decided to try out for a play at a small community theater here in town.  I wasn’t familiar with the show but the outline looked like there were a couple of small character roles that I used to do so well.  I was hoping to ease my way back into theatre after an almost 15 year hiatus.

Talked to the director on the phone last night and she wants me to play the title role.

I’m still in “Holy Crap” mode.  More later.

05. October 2008 · Comments Off on The Other Marketplace · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, General, Memoir, Working In A Salt Mine..., World

Blondie and I went out to what may be possibly the most marvelous permanently-revolving street market in a permanent place, this afternoon: Busey’s Flea Market, on 1-35 North, along about the other-wise invisible town of Schertz. It’s about fifteen minutes brisk driving outside the San Antonio city limits. As Blondie describes it, it’s a yard sale on steroids, a range of three long parallel sheds extending uphill from the frontage road. The front of Busey’s is adorned with a gigantic concrete armadillo. It’s been freshly repainted this year, business must be good, although one of the regular stallholders lamented that the rents had been raised, which drove out a certain number of old regulars. Damn if I could tell the difference, though. Actually, it seemed like the pickings were unnaturally good. The stall with the WWII and German aviation memorabilia was as unattended as ever. Will has tried to buy stuff there, and been frustrated because no one can ever locate the person authorized to make sales. The guy with the nice and orderly selection in books was having a going-out-of-business sale, but that was the only harbinger of immanent change.

See, there are a number of different tiers of vendor at Busey’s – the well-established ones with medium-deep pockets and long-term plans have a space in one of the sheds, with a locking door, although what sort of permanence that can mean, when the shed is roofed in un-insulated tin and the walls are made out of something-not-very-permanent-at all… 2 x 4’s and tissue paper, I suspect. Never mind – the permanent vendors have their stalls packed so full, and their premises so well-organized it is obvious they are not going anywhere soon. Not without the aid of a couple of moving-vans and some strong backs, at least. Carpets, hardware, antiques, military surplus, books, kitchenware, Mexican ceramics … and all that. And more. Much, much more. There are a also a good few vendors of fast food – ice cream, hot dogs, BBQ sandwiches, chili-cheese fries (an interesting and artery-clogging combination, sort of the entrée-course variant of a deep-fried Mars-bar) and thank god, cold water. There is also a curendera/palm-reader advertising her ability to tell the past, present and future, a pet store with an array of birds, and today a guy outside the venue, offering Chihuahua puppies – very cute, light-chocolate colored with white feet. Yeah, The Lesser Weevil would have liked them very much. “For me? Thanks very much for the lunch!” The cats, however, would have preferred the birds.

After the permanent, enclosed stalls, there are the tables, under one of three long awnings, rambling up the hill. People back their cars and pick-ups up to their pitch, and unpack what they have – plants, ironwork, DVDs, spurious folk art, tools, garden ornaments, house wares, small and large appliances— practically anything you could imagine. Blondie insists that the pros – who hit all the yard sales, swooping down with lightning fast-speed and scooping up the good stuff — they show up at Busey’s with their gleanings within a day or so. They also hit the various ‘everything marked down-absolutely must go! sales, and thrift stores instantly when the new donations are put out. Their stock must come from somewhere, after all. Some of this still has the original tags still on it. These vendors, although regular, have the chore of packing it all up and taking it away every Sunday afternoon. Be warned – they usually start at this by about 3 PM.

The last tier of vender must be those people who are not regulars, who have a table for a weekend only. Dad always said that those are the vendors whom are most likely to offer really good bargains – they just want to get rid of it for a so-so price. Unlike the regular vendors with a permanent pitch, with doors that can be locked, they are not canny and not particularly knowledgeable about what they have to vend. This is where the stunning coups are made, where people buy something for a couple of dollars, and turn up with it on “Antiques Road-show” a couple of years later. This afternoon, Blondie scored a pressed-glass bowl of deep black glass, nearly half an inch thick. She got it for $12 dollars, and according to one of the permanent dealers, something like that could sell at Busey’s for about thrice that. Deity only knows how much to an expert – but we liked it. It met the criterion of being strong and thick enough to kill someone if you hit them with it.

Me, I would only love to be asked to host a TV show where the challenge would be to entirely fit out a whole house with the gleanings from a place like Busey’s and assorted other local thrift stores. Furniture, linens, curtains, knick-knacks, wall art, kitchen fittings, china and glass – the whole thing, at drop-dead bargain rates .

I don’t have an agent – if the Home and Garden Network is interested, let us know through this website… Oh, and we were only going there to look for drawer pulls for the 1880-1920 dressing table that Blondie picked up for $25 dollars at a yard sale. She beat the pros to it. The backs of the drawers are all dove-tailed… but the front of it was such a wreck, that’s why the pros gave it a miss.

11. September 2008 · Comments Off on Fox News is Showing Footage from 9/11/01 · Categories: Memoir

…and all over again, I keep choking up.

Work should be interesting.

27. August 2008 · Comments Off on I’m Liking This “Work” Thing · Categories: Memoir

So one of the guys I work with quit unexpectedly yesterday.  He’d given his two week notice on Monday after he’d complained about getting more duties without more pay and then when he came in yesterday, 15 minutes late because  they weren’t willing to accommodate his “need” of coming in and leaving a half an hour earlier than the rest of us because of heavy traffic…he quit.  Ummmm, isn’t that called “rush hour” and doesn’t the rest of the world live with it every day?

I don’t remember the last time I saw someone just “quit” a job.  Here before lunch, gone after.  Didn’t say I word to me…who’s getting all of his duties plus my own.  Quite honestly, I’m still kinda bored.  I don’t see where he was working all that hard, but he’s older than me and has a disability, not one that I can see effects his ability to do office work, but what do I know about his life?

Thank you United States Air Force.  Where other folks see too much work, I just see a quiet, normal day…kinda boring.

I used to say that the Air Force was the easiest job I ever had after being a drug store clerk, mover, roofer, tin man, bartender and a photo lab chemical engineer…not to mention the very few acting and other theatrical paying gigs I had.   Everyone’s asking me if I’m “okay.”  I keep telling them that most of the time in the Air Force I walked into an office weeks, if not months, after the person I was replacing had left.  I’m fine…really…no worries.  If I can’t handle it, I’ll let you know.

I want to giggle like a fool when they ask how I’m doing.  Seriously.  After a year in a call center taking up from 60-100 calls a night, making LESS than I’m making now, this job seems like an absolute breeze.  It helps that I’ve been doing this kind of work for 23 years.  It helps that I don’t have a list of additional duties a mile long to go with them.  The guy who runs the facility is also the safety and security guy.  The IT guy actually shows up, and I’m not kidding, within 10 minutes after calling him!  I KNOW!

So I’m getting an education in the civilian work force…I’ve already learned they can just fire you, even when you admit you’ve messed up, and you really can just up and quit without any notice.

Question for you all…should I just keep taking on more work until I’m comfortable, Air Force style, or should I pad my limit a bit?  I’m not sure I even know how to do that, but thought I’d ask.

12. July 2008 · Comments Off on RIP Tony Snow · Categories: Memoir, Politics

There are a few news anchors who I honestly enjoyed watching and who I actually trusted.  On the top of that list was Tony Snow.

I don’t think I enjoyed Presidential press conferences more than when he was the Press Secretary.  When he gave his previous colleagues the look, I’d just giggle my butt off.

Rest well sir.  Well done.

29. June 2008 · Comments Off on Life Just Got Very Interesting · Categories: Memoir

So…when you’re working for an award winning customer service company, what’s one thing you don’t think you should do?  Well, you absolutely should not allow yourself to get frustrated and simply say, “I’m done.” and hang up on a customer.

Knew I blew it when I did it.  Copped to it right away.  Didn’t matter.  I’m now part of the unemployed.

I’m terrified but also relieved.  Which tells me a lot about how I really felt about the whole thing.  I’m good with people most of the time.  But I’m seriously not cut out  to be one of those people who can be “nice” 40 hours a week.  I tried.  Was even getting better at it.  Couldn’t keep it up.

For those of you who are the kind of folks who do the, “God doesn’t close one door without opening another.” thing.  I’m right there with you.  I know things are going to be okay, I’d just like a peek at the God’s plan every now and then.

And I seriously wish my sub-conscious would let my conscious head know when I’m done working someplace.  I would have been nice to have a new job lined up BEFORE I messed this one up.

24. June 2008 · Comments Off on Marjorie Serby Robertson · Categories: Domestic, Memoir

There are people who come into our lives when we least expect them. People who have no business being there, actually, but thanks to a serendipitous moment in time, they are. A chance encounter when walking across a college campus over 25 years ago led to my friendship with one of the most wonderful women I have ever known.

Marge and me, 2003

Marge Robertson taught Social Work at my University. I was a social work major, so you’d think we’d meet. But the classes I took weren’t the ones she was teaching, and so she was never my instructor. But our paths crossed outside the library one day, and she stopped and listened to whatever was on my heart at that time.

She became a sort of mentor for me. I would go to her with my confusions about life and college and whatever, and she would listen, calmly and caringly, and when I left, nothing seemed as insurmountable as when I had arrived.

Life took me far away from my college town, but I always knew she was there, in the house where she and her husband raised their children. I tried to visit her on the times I went back to college town. It didn’t always work out, but those visits merged with our occasional phone calls and annual christmas/hannukah letters to help us keep in touch with each other’s lives.

I had the opportunity about 10 years ago, to tell Marge, face to face, exactly how much her friendship and encouragement had helped me over the years. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and she gave me a role model of how to be a human being, alive and caring in a world that often seems bent on destroying those who care.

That wasn’t our last visit, thank goodness. It’s just one that swam to the surface of my consciousness last Saturday, when I read the email I had hoped to never receive. I’ll have no more visits with Marge.

Marjorie Serby Robertson, 77 of Valparaiso, passed away Tuesday June 17, 2008 at the VNA Hospice Center. She was born November 15, 1930 in Chicago, the daughter of Abraham and Geraldine (Herzog) Serby. Marjorie was a Psychiatric Social Worker and Professor of Social Work at Valparaiso University and a member of Temples Beth El and Israel. Her other involvements included League of Women Voters, Planned Parenthood, Adult Learning Center board of directors, Whispering Pines board of directors, Porter County Mental Health Association, Chemical People Task Force, Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, and president of Moraine House board of directors. She was instrumental in the establishment of the school social worker program in Porter County and of the state-wide association of Juvenile Justice Task Forces.

Her funeral was today, 700 miles north of me. I couldn’t take a moment of silence at the appointed time, because I was in the middle of a conference call. But as soon as the call ended, I took time to reflect on my friend, and to thank God for our friendship.

I am a better person because she was in my life. The world is a better place because she lived. And I will miss her, in ways that I have not yet begun to realize. She was a constant in my life, always available, always caring. She will still be a constant, but it will be in my heart. But that’s ok – it’s where she’s always been, for as long as I’ve known her.

Shalom, Marge. Thank you for sharing yourself with the world around you, and with me.

04. June 2008 · Comments Off on Bo Diddley Died…And I Missed It · Categories: Memoir, That's Entertainment!

One of the weirder parts of growing up is what stops being important as you grow older. Once upon a time in my life, I could tell you who was in what band in what year and if I didn’t know, I wouldn’t rest until I found out. Rock’n’roll took up a huge part of the data storage space in my head. Debating over which was a better album, “Greetings from Asbury Park” or “Born to Run?” was my version of, “who was the better player, Jordan or Pippen?” Some folks are into sports in a maniacal way where they can recites seasons and stats, I was good at bands and songs and who wrote what and what was happening when they wrote it.

Bo Diddley died on Monday and I didn’t know about it until this morning. I found out while surfing more blogs that I haven’t visited in awhile. Apparently he’d been ill for a good while. I didn’t know that either. I may have heard about it, but it obviously didn’t stick with me.

I’m sad about his passing. His shave and a haircut rhythm was stolen by just about everyone who tried to play the blues or blues rock. I’ve got four different versions of “Who Do You Love?” in my iTunes collection. I was relieved to find out that his original is among them, my favorite being from The Band’s “The Last Waltz.” I can’t begin to tell you how many songs I have that use shave and a haircut.

What hits me even stronger is the fact that it took two days for me to notice. There was a day when I’d be so tuned to what was going on in music that if I didn’t know about from the radio station I was perpetually listening to, then I would have found out because a friend would have called me to commiserate about the loss.

I’ve become one of those, “it’s just music” people. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t consciously think, “I don’t have time for all this music stuff. I’m going to listen to less music as I get older.” It just happened. And while the grownup I’ve become acknowledges that it’s only natural for such things to go by the wayside as “real life” takes up more of my time, my inner rocker is terribly disappointed in me.

30. May 2008 · Comments Off on RIP Harvey Korman · Categories: Memoir, That's Entertainment!

Harvey Korman passed away last night.

Some of my fondest family television memories are of watching Harvey Korman and Tim Conway on the Carol Burnett Show.  The best sketches?  The ones where Conway cracked Korman up.

I remember my whole family, from my Gramma down to lil me laughing so hard we cried as those two clowns performed.

And can anyone forget the delightfully degenerate Heady Lemar (That’s Headley!).

Thank you for the laughs Sir.  You will be missed.

On a side note, there’s just no television show that the whole family can sit and watch and have THAT kind of belly laugh together with anymore.  I think CBS could play those old shows in primetime today and get a HUGE audience.

06. May 2008 · Comments Off on It Was Just So Right · Categories: Memoir

Today Beautiful Wife, Boyo and I took a long drive up into the mountains to say goodbye to one of our oldest and dearest friends. She has a real name, but for the sake of anonymity, I’ll refer to her by one of her sillier nicknames, Bambi. No…she was never an exotic dancer, she just played one on AF Dormitory White Boards. No…I won’t elaborate on that at this time either. Suffice it to say that she and my wife left me a note one day that got me razzed for weeks after.

Anyway…our friend Bambi passed away a couple of weeks ago. We’d known her almost 20 years. Now, I don’t have to tell you military folks how rare and wonderful it is to have a friend who stays in touch with you when you leave. I mean everyone SAYS they’re going to stay in touch and you might get an occaisional Christmas card, but you know, out of sight, out of mind. Bambi wouldn’t put up with that. She stayed in touch. From me in Korea, to us in Germany, Hawaii, Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming…to us finally coming home last year. Bambi was our friend. She stayed in touch. While I was in Korea, she let Beautiful Wife crash at her place when she got too lonely missing me. Whenever we came home, she “borrowed” Boyo to go to movies, McDonald’s, the dollar store, you name it. I’ve got to say, quite honestly, she was a much better “Aunt” to our son than my sister or my wife’s sisters.

Now she had health problems. I’m not going to go into details, but she was getting better. She’d lost some weight, she found a job that she loved and was able to show up every day she was supposed to. She was happier than we’d seen her in a very long time. She was supposed to come over to watch reality shows and have dinner with Beautiful Wife and Boyo (I still work nights) but she called and said that she wasn’t feeling good, she’d be over the next week.

Her brother found her a few days later. She’d passed in her sleep.

So we went to her funeral today. A very nice ceremony in a small chapel up in the mountains, followed by a shorter graveside service. Bambi’s brother had asked us if we knew what the “The Reggae Version” of “Over the Rainbow” was, because Bambi said that was one of her favorite songs and after a bit of scratching my head I figured out it had to be the Bruddah Iz version of “Over The Rainbow/It’s A Wonderful World.” I burned a copy for the family and they played it at the graveside. If folks hadn’t been crying yet, the tears were fully flowing now. The kids and some grownups were also blowing bubbles (per Bambi’s request) through their tears and the scene was kind of silly-sad and surreal. Just like Bambi would have wanted it. We completely forgot how Bruddah Iz closes that song. He sort of does a Hawaiin scat at the end. Sort of silly, kind of whacky. Me and Beautiful Wife got the giggles. So did a couple of other folks though they covered it better than we did. Bambi loved that part of the song, did a silly lil dance to the “Hoo hah, coo coo cha chuwhaw.” and that’s all we could picture in our heads. She got us…one last time…just like a good friend should.

03. May 2008 · Comments Off on Elegy for Meek · Categories: Critters, Domestic, General, Memoir

Meek the cat had to be put to sleep this week. He was one of Blondie’s cats, the other being Sammie From Across the Road – like Sammie, he took a look at my daughter and fell into deep, abject adoration. Unlike Sammie who did have a home (although it was overrun with small, yappy dogs) and people who wanted him, Meek was a dumpee. That is, someone who had him as a pet, and thought enough of him to neuter him… and then dumped him. At some point the veterinarian deduced that he had been hit by something which had injured one of his legs, floated a rib which nature did not intend to float, and left him with a small hernia on his chest. Those injuries were at least a year old and healed without the aid of medical care. Until last fall Meek was one of the semi-ferals who hung around Blondie’s workplace, a former little frame house turned office premise just off the I-35 in Selma, Texas. There was a small coterie of these cats, some of whom were tameable and whom my daughter fed and worried over, especially when one of her favorites was hit by a car and killed quite messily. Meek was the other one. He took to following her into the office, waited for her on the porch and generally gave every indication of deep and undying devotion. One morning she left to pick up office supplies and Meek followed her car down the drive, out onto the access road and appeared to have every intent of following her onto the highway on-ramp. Obviously, he had decided that if he couldn’t live with Blondie, he didn’t want to live at all.

So he came home with her, after a short side trip to the vets, where he was given all the appropriate shots and tests, judged to be clean of feline AIDS, intestinal parasites and fleas (not ear mites, which proved to be persistent). He tolerated the dogs, formed a pair-bond with Percival, the little Russian Blue that I tamed with great care a number of years ago, and generally lived the lush life as a cat of the First Degree.

He was white, with brindle spots, and had beautiful jade-green eyes, which were set off by dark eyelids, as if some cat-beautician had lined them with kohl. He was a talky, responsive cat, and zeroed in on any lap with the speed and precision of a heat-seeking missile. He loved to hang out in the evening with us, watching TV in the den – if not on Blondie’s lap, on the arm of the sofa next to her or on the window sill above her head.

Late one evening this week, Blondie thought he seemed lethargic – and most distressingly, was straining over the litterbox without producing any urine. We know what that portends in neutered male cats. (I lost one of my early cats to it – an awful, heartrending experience at the vets’ and the cat still died of it.) Meek was at the veterinarians next day. Since he had eaten and drunk normally that morning, and was able to produce a small dribble, the veterinarian had a very cheerful prognosis; yes, it looked like he had a tendency towards feline cystitis. They gave him the first of his pills, advised us to switch over to a special food for this kind of problem and were about to release him to go home when he crashed right in front of us.

It looked and felt for all the world as if he was having a sort of feline panic attack. I had my hands on him; he was shaking violently and his heart rate was through the roof. The veterinarian said “Oh-oh… that doesn’t look good.” She asked to do some quick tests. They came back showing nothing good. He was already in crisis. There was a surgical option, but it cost a bomb and there was no guarantee. It’s a chronic condition – it could have happened again next month or next year. His old internal injuries may have even exacerbated that condition . So, we did the kind thing. Blondie held him. He was so happy to be in her arms, he was purring up to the very end. The veterinarian, who was also crying as she put the drugs into the shunt in his leg said “At least you can say that you gave him the very best eight months of his life!”. Last night, when we related this to Mom and Dad, (who have had to do this with about half a century’s worth of beloved pets), Dad said very kindly, “You can’t save ‘em all, you know.”

Well, you can’t – but you can give them the best eight months, or eight years, or whatever.

07. April 2008 · Comments Off on The Joy of Lex · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, General, History, Memoir

Odds on, the first thing that anyone walking into any of the various places that I have lived- starting with the enlisted barracks in Japan in those dear distant days when female troops lived in a female-only dormitory was something along the lines of “Gosh – have you read all of those books?” To which the answer was some kind of polite rephrase of “Of course I bloody have! Did you think I had put them up as decorating elements?!!”

Yes, I have books. Lots of books; books in the bedroom, books in the den, books in the hallway, books in the living room and even a shelf of them in the kitchen – what better place for the cookbooks, pray tell? There aren’t any in the bathroom; first of all, the light isn’t that good and secondly there isn’t any place for shelves.

I used to buy books that I liked, just so that I could have copies of my own, which I could read any time I felt like it. Then I wound up overseas, where English-language bookstores were few and far between, and the Stars and Stripes Bookstore was pretty limited; if you saw it there and thought you might want to read it – better buy it quick, because it wouldn’t be there next time, and even though the base library did their best – well, there were other seriously committed readers out there. (When I moved from Spain, the packing crew had a pool going, on how many boxes of books there would eventually be; 63 and no, I don’t know what the winner got. Probably had many cervezas bought for him, after they finished nailing up the packing crates.) And then I came home, and discovered second-hand stores and services like Alibris, and the online behemoth which must not be named because they are behaving like total d**ks in regard to POD publishers… oh, off-topic. Never mind. Books, the topic was books, the love for (or addiction to!) and constant acquisition of such.

Now, I review books, for Blogger News Network, and for iUniverse Reviews, with the result that I get a constant trickle of books from other writers asking for reviews through the Daily Brief or the IAG. But writing books myself is another splendid excuse for buying more; for the research, you see. The shelves of my writing desk (built by Dad for Blondie’s use, but too big for her room) are now crowded with Texiana and various books on aspects of the Old West. I had a fair number of them already – it’s as if I knew there would be an eventual use for that Time Life series about the Old West. It’s not so much the text in that case, but the pictures.

Blondie and I went to the library book sale on Saturday, at the Semmes branch on Judson road. There’s always a crowd for this, the room where the sale is set up almost instantly achieves a ‘black hole of Calcutta’ degree of heat and overcrowding. Fortunately, most of the people lined up for admittance –many of them armed with large plastic tubs and canvas shopping bags – are intent on the novels or the children’s books. I am on the lookout for more Texiana and western stuff – especially with illustrations, especially with contemporary – that is contemporary 19th century artists. I need pictures of all sorts of things; horses and wagons, of old forts and plains river valleys covered with buffalo herds, of buildings and animals and people, something for my imagination to fix upon, so that I can build all the other living elements around it.

I scooped up a couple of prizes almost at once – Don Troiani’s American Battles and a thick coffee-table treasure-trove called “The Art of the Old West: From the Collection of the Gilcrease Institute” which has color plates of practically everything, and a collection of Frederic Remington’s black and white magazine illustrations – all for considerably under 20$.

There’s enough pictorial stuff in those books alone to start me off with ideas for another book of my own. My only problem is that I am running out of shelf-space for all of my necessary research materials – but it’s a happy problem.

(Cross posted at the IAG Blog)

06. April 2008 · Comments Off on Big Screen and Operatic · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, History, Memoir, Military, Veteran's Affairs, World

Being a child of the later baby-boom, of course I remember seeing Charlton Heston on the big screen – the very big screen at the drive in, when Mom and Dad packed JP and Pippy and I into the back of the trusty jade-green Plymouth station wagon for an evening at the double-feature. We were all in our pajamas for this sort of excursion, with our pillows and blankets in the back; lamentably, we usually fell asleep before seeing very much of the first feature, let alone the second.

But I do have a hazy memory of him as El Cid, in desert exile, seen through the windshield of the Plymouth, between Mom and Dad’s heads, as Ben Hur – especially the bone-crunching chariot race – a very much better one of him as Moses in The Ten Commandments – this one at one Pasadena’s gloriously ornate picture palaces, and of him as the devious and worldly Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lesters’ Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers. Mom always said it was because of his background in classical theater, that he could swish about in historical costume so convincingly.

So, he was about the biggest star that any of us had ever heard of, when he came to Zaragoza, Spain sometime in the late 1980s, and the Public Affairs office informed us that we had a chance for an interview. We were all of a twitter; Zaragoza was kind of a backwater – I used to compare it to Bakersfield – and whereas it had a lovely old downtown, a cathedral (two cathedrals), a Roman bridge and a Moorish castle, practically everywhere else in Spain had better, more beautiful, more historic and better preserved. Our radio and television broadcasters there had practically no chance of doing celebrity interviews; I saw more interesting and famous people come through Sondrestrom, Greenland than I ever did in Zaragoza.

What was he doing in Zaragoza, of all places? Filming the commentary for this program series, on location in the old Alcazar; of which he said jokingly during our interview that it was practically the only castle in Spain that he hadn’t been to before. We were the only news outlet to get a TV interview with him on that trip; he was terribly busy with the location shoots, and it wasn’t the sort of enterprise that needed additional publicity anyway. We all liked to think that it was because of his service connection that we even got in the door. He couldn’t have been more gracious or considerate to our two nervous young airmen who shot the interview.

No, I did not do the interview; I came up with the questions for our staffer to ask, since the ones suggested by the Public Affairs officer were embarrassingly amateurish. We all watched the raw video of the interview afterwards and marveled – because he was a pro. We could use practically every second of the footage we taped, he was that good. Most people we did interviews with were nervous, fidgety and stiff. They radiated discomfort; it came off them in little wavy lines that you could almost see, like those used in cartoons to signify a stink. We usually had to spend a lot of time putting them at ease, and a lot of video time and editing to just get something useable that didn’t make them and us look like idiots.

But Charlton Heston sat still, graciously playing to the camera – (Of course! He was an actor!) – he didn’t fidget nervously. His responses were thoughtful, smooth, as composed and literate as a small essay or sonnet. No awkward umms and pauses, no false starts; he was at ease, completely comfortable and polished to a high gloss in a way that most of us- even those who had interviewed various currently popular celebs before – had never seen. He wasn’t just a star; besides being a military veteran, he was a total pro in a way that you rarely see these days.

(Note – I am a bit off Amazon.com, and protesting their recent decision to pressure POD publishers into using their print service by sending all my links for books and DVDs to Barnes and Noble. Take that, Jeff Bezos!)

04. January 2008 · Comments Off on Random Thoughts on Interstate Highway Travel · Categories: Ain't That America?, Critters, Domestic, General, Literary Good Stuff, Memoir, Site News, Working In A Salt Mine..., World

Topmost on my list of such thoughts is – oh, god, it’s good to be home! It’s good to be able to sleep in ones own bed, to stretch out and not have cold feet, cold hands, cold-whatever-body-part-winds up pressed against the side panel of the Montero and is just a thin sheet of metal and some miscellaneous plastic bits removed from the frigid, wind-whipped New Mexico or West Texas weather.

Oh, yes, it was bloody cold out there; there was no snow to show for all that cold, but some nice patches of blowing dust and sand. The winds kicked up the day before we left Mom and Dads and made such a racket we couldn’t sleep that night anyway – and followed us all the way across three states. Nothing says “I want to go home” quite so much as vacating the area at 2 AM.

The best thing about departing in the wee hours on New Years Day – no traffic, once you finish dodging the drunks. There was one suspiciously careful driver, weaving gently down the Valley Center grade, which Blondie felt obliged to try and call 911 about – but all we got was it ringing about twenty times and then an answering machine. On 911; I guess they had their hands full. And the driver we were worried about didn’t look to be the reckless sort of drunk driver.

The “Starbuckifaction” of the coffee-drinking element has spread it’s what some would claim is an insidious influence far and wide, yea my brethren even to the truck plazas and gas stations along the interstate highway system. The Flying J/Pilot stores provide a surprisingly excellent selection of coffee… and have half-and-half on tap. Not just exclusively that ghastly powdered chalk non-dairy “cream” muck, thankyouverymuch. Extremely drinkable and for about a third of the cost of an equivalent at a Starbucks. No demerara sugar, though, but I expect that to appear by the next time I do a long, long road trip.

Oh, and speaking of coffee in the wee hours, I must pour scorn and derision upon the Carls Junior, just off the 1-8 in the eastern suburb of San Diego where we attempted to purchase some handy breakfast comestables and coffee at 4 AM. Yes, I know it was 4AM on New Years Day and the single unfortunate young person running the place was so junior as to make drawing fuzzy end of the lollipop and working that shift inevitable… but still; no breakfast items? We were told that only lunch items were available… oh, and sorry, the coffee brewer wasn’t fired up. And payment could only be made in cash. Yeah, so he wasn’t senior enough to have the keys to the debit-credit card processor or the coffee urns, but lunch items at 4 AM? Jesus jumping key-rist on a pogo stick, the whole damn reason for 24 hour fast food places is to dispense coffee!

Gas prices – not to shabby once outside California, and Blondie’s Montero got very good mileage on the highway. We filled to the top four times and came in well under budget, having allowed for gas at $3.25 a gallon when we planned the trip. Most gas stations along the interstate in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona had it within a nickel of $2.90, either way.

What to call the road-kill count – Bambi Bits? Bambicide? Whatever it is, the deer population takes a hell of a beating; that stretch of 1-10 through the Hill Country is a veritable holocaust for them. As a stratagem to keep ourselves awake and amused after coffee ceased having the required effect, we counted road kill from Mile 300 to Mile 511 in the median, on the roadway and off on the shoulder. Not counting various nasty looking smears and blots on the paving, our grand total was 49 deer, 8 raccoons or opossum, 3 skunks, 3 large birds (turkey or guinea-fowl of some sort) and 23 U-L-O-M, which is our acronym for “Unidentified Lumps ‘o Meat”. At that, we probably missed about a third as many, off-sight on the opposite side of the highway.

So – we’re home – and when I get home, the first thing I find is that Eric at Classical Values posted a lovely review of “To Truckee’s Trail” and Da Blogfaddah linked to it. With a resulting uptick in sales through Amazon. Maybe I should go away more often. Oh, never mind – provision of good bloggy ice cream will commence as soon as I finish going through my email in-box.

12. December 2007 · Comments Off on The Perils of POD Publishing · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, General, Literary Good Stuff, Memoir, Working In A Salt Mine..., World

Strictly speaking, unless your last name is Grisham or King, Steele or Rowling or any other scribbling royalty lurking meaningfully on or near the of the NY-Times best seller lists, life is bleak and full of frustrations. And also very short of people who are nice to you as a writer and welcoming to you and your books. No wonder so many of them turn to drink, or otherwise crash and burn. Even the flash in the pan overnight successful ones fall to this– Grace Metalious, anyone?

Those of us at the bottom, toiling and marketing in obscurity take our little successes where we can, lonely beacons shining in a dark and generally frustrating world. Everyone who reads the Book and loves it, or recommends it to a friend, or drops a favorable comment in an on-line forum; that’s a light like Erandil in the dark places of the day. Not quite up there with royalty checks in three figures, but the trick to being happy is to be happy with what you have.

Last night I found a comment in a discussion forum about off-road vehicles; a contributor quoted a bit from “To Truckee’s Trail” about storage arrangements in Dr. Townsends’ wagon and drew a very neat parallel between that, and how modern off-roaders now install storage for long treks – that just about made my evening. Such crumbs as do nourish the writers’ ego on these long winter evenings after looking at my ranking on Amazon.com. It’s available in the Kindle format, by the way. Or so it appears. I think. Even if there is no picture of the cover or links to the reviews for the paperback edition. No idea from the admin responses in the author forum as to why… just another way that the non-royal scribblers are incessantly kicked in the teeth by a cold and unfeeling world.

Ah, yes – reviews; absolutely necessary to have in order to market your book. Think of them as word of mouth, made solid and permanent in print. In the grand halls of the literary industrial complex, competition is fierce to review the books of the scribbling royalty and the well-connected commentariat; even so, it will take months. Almost always, the book is made available to a select few way in advance, and rumor has it that sometimes reviewers are paid and quite healthy sums too. It’s a necessary step in marketing the book, think of all those lovely complimentary quotes on the back jacket, or in the first couple of pages. At a lower level – naturally the one occupied by other indie authors – are also paid… by getting a free copy of the book. It’s one of those nice little freebies available to those in the loop and I confess to having scored a nice little collection thereby. (I asked to review a book last month for no other reason that I looked at the description and thought what a wonderful Christmas present a copy would make for a certain friend.)

Alas, it has taken months and months to assemble my collection of reviews, and pushed back my marketing plan by a considerable period. Good thing that it is a POD book, as a traditional publisher would have pulled the plug by this time. On the other hand, a traditional publisher would have been able to squeeze a review out of the San Antonio Express News, whose book editor informed me snottily that their policy is not to review POD books of any sort, not even by local authors. Don’t know what their reasoning is, probably afraid of getting literary cooties or something. God knows there are some simply dreadful books out there, but last time I looked, quite a lot of them came out of the traditional publishers. Indie writing may be the next wave, just as indie movies and indie music have offered an alternative to the traditional Hollywood blockbuster and the manufactured and wholly synthetic mega-hit.

Next – why it’s an uphill fight to get the book into traditional bookstores, and why do I bother anyway?