Saturday, December 22, 2012

Heilige Nacht, Holy Night - A Christmas Flash

1914 Christmas Truce. German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment with British soldiers of Royal Warwickshire Regiment in No Man's Land. Photo by UK Govt. now in public domain.
HMSO has declared that the expiry of Crown Copyrights applies worldwide.

As we were unpacking the decorations for our first Christmas together, Tim picked a blue cylinder out of the box and proferred it with raised eyebrows.

"Really? A decorated gun shell for Christmas? Does Stuttgart have some meaning I'm not aware of?"

I cradled the object in my hand. "Yes, it does. My great-grandfather treasured this; he said it was the one gift he'd gotten that held the true meaning of Christmas. There's a story behind it. Let me show you what he wrote at the Home before he died."

We'd been in the trenches for three months. You can't imagine the sort of cold that sinks into your bones when you're living in the mud, exposed for days and nights on end. And the shelling! It was enough to drive you right round the bend sometimes. It was early on, and we still talked about the war as though it would end in a matter of months.

For some of us, it was our first time away from home. We were men, fighting a war, and we were boys, missing our families and the comforts of a warm fire and a Christmas tree. While we saved bits of paper and labels from tins to make chains, and scavenged branches to erect sad little trees on the parapets - this was before the land had been shelled into complete barrenness - I also thought about those poor blokes lying dead a few hundred feet away.

We had not been forgotten, of course; many received packages from family, as well as Princess Mary boxes* with a greeting from King George V. 'May God protect you and bring you safe home.' It's a bit of a paradox, I suppose, that those reminders brought both happiness and sorrow, as they made 'home' seem a place imagined in a long ago life.

That Christmas Eve we shared food and token gifts amongst ourselves, and were just posting the new watch when a familiar tune floated through the air. We were, you see, so close to the enemy trenches that we could hear each other quite well in the icy air. The melody was Oh Christmas Tree, although the words were in German; my friend Joe took up the tune immediately, and before long we were all singing together. The Germans began to sing more loudly, and before long our side was belting it out in a sort of good-natured competition. When the song ended, there was shouting from both sides; not the bloodcurdling yells of 'going over the top', but cries of guten nacht, hello, Merry Christmas, and some ribbing among the men about their respective musical talents.

Eventually I fell asleep, and was roused at 4 to stand watch. There was a lot of movement over in the enemy trenches, and to my surprise a figure slowly materialized on a far parapet. A German soldier was holding up some sort of stick with a cloth attached. 

'You not shooting. We not shooting', he called. Another figure appeared next to him. Slowly, they began to walk toward the No Man's Land which was between us.

Joe was awake as well, and I pointed at the Germans. 'You think it's a trap?'

He booted his chum Lionel awake. "Hey, what do make of this?"

Lionel peered over the top as well. "Hell, they're probably just as cold, lonely and miserable as we are. I'll slip out and you two keep an eye peeled." And with that, Lionel slithered out, first lying there, then rising to his knees with his hands in the air. 'Guten tag! Guten tag! Gesundheit!'

So we approached each other, as word spread and more men on both sides left the relative safety of the trenches for the wide open land between. We called to each other, in our own languages, in the broken bits that we knew of the other's, and in the universal signs of smiles and outstretched, weaponless hands. We met, not as soldiers but as men, brothers for a short time engaged in that most sacred yet bitter task, which no one should have to perform on Christmas Eve.

We buried our dead.

The ground was frozen like iron, and though we struggled and swore the burial was also done with humility and tenderness. Though we could have used the boots and overcoats, there were none who saw fit to take them. We extracted from their pockets the papers and letters, photos and mementos from those they'd left behind. I saw one German soldier holding a picture in his hand; and he showed it to me, his eyes unabashedly wet. 'Kind'. He reached into his own pocket and produced a similar photo; the children bore a remarkable resemblance. 

On an impulse, I produced a tin with a few cigarettes in it. He opened it and removed one, then handed it back. 'No, for you,' I answered, gesturing that he should take the entire thing. Somehow, I wanted to give a gift, a real gift, springing from nothing but goodwill. I wanted it to feel like Christmas. With a smile, he accepted it and rummaged around. 'You,' he said as he produced a small painted gun shell. He flipped up the top - it had been made into a lighter - and the flame danced in the night. 'You,' he said again, placing it in my hand and closing my fingers on it.

Both sides were waking and stirring as first light broke on the horizon. The strains of Silent Night/Stille Nacht floated gently over the battlefield. Heilige Nacht/Holy Night. 

Never has the phrase 'Peace on earth, goodwill to men', meant more than in the midst of a terrible war when men sent to hate and kill reached out to each other in peace and friendship.

Together, Tim and I used that gift from long ago to light the candles on the table.

Merry Christmas.

* "Princess Mary boxes" were metal boxes engraved with an outline of Princess Mary and filled with chocolates and candies, cigarettes, a picture of Princess Mary and George V's greeting to the troops.

While this is a fictional story, there are many accounts of the WW1 Christmas truce of 1914 which occurred spontaneously at various points on the front lines.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Invisible Quilt - An Old Post

During this holiday season, there are many who are facing pain, grief, and loneliness. So I have chosen to re-post Invisible Quilt, a piece which was written a few months  ago for a close friend in time of need. Happy Christmas to all who have been blessed, and I wish peace, strength and healing for those who need it.

I have a gift for you, my friend, one which I hope will remain with you always.  Something that will keep you warm during the cold dark days, though the corners may grow threadbare and the down become thin from hugging it so much.

It is made from squares of memory whose half-forgotten patterns come alive the more you remember;  familiar patterns of joy and sorrow, vestiges of old spills, geometric shards of dreams and laughter.  The delicate, even stitches of time hold it together, and though many may eventually pull free there is nothing which will make it completely unravel.

You cannot see it but I hope that you can feel it;  the invisible quilt of love and friendship wrapping itself around you.

May it warm and protect both you, and yours, forever.

Join Romantic Friday Writers

Monday, December 10, 2012

Cheers, Cavanaugh Blogfest

Welcome to the “Cheers, Cavanaugh BlogFest.” Many of you know Alex Cavanaugh as author, blogger, co-host of the A to Z challenge, and tireless promoter of fellow writers and bloggers. But there's a lot you don't know about him. Hence the blogfest; not only to recognize Alex's special spot within the community, but to resolve the burning questions surrounding his mysterious identity. While I seldom do blog tours or promos anymore, Alex was one of my first followers and has been a faithful reader. In keeping with my policy of biting the hand that feeds me, here is my entry for the Blogfest.

In +/- 20 words, what does Alex look like?
Alex looks like a cross between Jon Bon Jovi and Leonard from Big Bang Theory. Picture it, I dare you!

In +/- 20 words, who could play Alex in a documentary? (Living or dead.)
The Invisible Man

In +/- 20 words, who does Alex remind you of?
My 9th grade science teacher, also into movies, sci-fi. He used to spin the planetarium star projector to make us feel sick - for fun! Always willing to tutor a struggling student.

In +/- 100 words, (excluding the title) write flash fiction using all these prompts:


Alex Is A Shore Bet!

I always wondered why no one knew what the famous Alex Cavanaugh looked like. But then I saw this contest, Googled a few things, and was amazed at the answer! Alex is apparently the head of IWSG which I found out is the International Wader Study Group. So he obviously spends most of his time in blinds watching shore birds. This must be how he developed his ninja skills. I'll bet the idea of the Cosbolt fighter originated from watching cormorants dive after prey! It must get lonely out there in the marsh, with only his notebook and guitar to keep him company. But thanks to guys like Alex who study seabirds, we know interesting things like the fact that baby Fulmars projectile vomit in the face of predators. Remember, you heard it here first! So if you ever get to meet Alex, give him a friendly wave and retch.

*Remember, readers, it's fiction! I'm fully aware that IWSG stands for Independent Writers Sharing Goodwill. Or something like that.  

If you aren't already following, you can check out Alex's blog here.  And Alex - all kidding aside - 

Thank You! 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Broken Windows - Flash Fiction

      I try not to be judgmental, but Gloria looked anything but glorious when we met for coffee. Her chipped nails were so distracting that I found myself rearranging my silverware repeatedly just to keep from staring.
     "I'll just have an English muffin," she said quietly as I perused the menu.
     Irritated, I slapped the menu down harder than I meant.
     "Seriously? You're going to nibble bread and then sit and stare while I stuff down a well-deserved lumberjack special?"
     The hurt look just sent an aggravating ping through my already jangled nerves.  I dug around in my purse for some aspirin and came up with a tube of Korres body lotion instead.
     "You should get some of this. Awesome stuff. It would do wonders for your cuticles, and it's only twenty bucks a pop. In fact, we should hit the mall after breakfast."
     Gloria picked at the offending digits.
     "I really shouldn't. Besides, I...umm...don't have that much cash and I left my credit card at home."
     Well, this was turning into a real funfest. I was regretting the breakfast invite already. 
     "Tell me about your new project, Kristin. You've been so busy, we haven't had time to talk much lately."
     "Oh, it's just a volunteer project to take up some of my time.  The Hubs hated it at first because we had to reschedule our tennis games, but now he's on board.  We go down into the south ward - you know, it's not nearly as scary as I thought - and look for people who have homes that need cleaned up or fixed up. Then we make a list and the social workers check 'em out and see if they need other help. You know, the Broken Windows theory. A rundown building becomes a place for vandals, drug dealers and stuff.  Sometimes a little negligence is the sign of impending trouble.  Let it go, and things deteriorate.  Catch it right away, and you can maybe save somebody before they hit the skids.  Its all about paying attention to the little things, and I must say that I'm very good at it."
     For a moment, I wondered if I sounded stuck-up, but shrugged it off. Besides, our orders had arrived and I wanted to concentrate on the feast before me.  Tough to do, with Gloria looking around and fidgeting.  Suddenly, I couldn't wait to get out of there.  I ate half and pushed the rest away.
     "If you aren't going to take that, can I have it? For the neighbor's dog," she added.
     "Whatever. You know I can't stand leftovers. Unless it's steak or duck.  Remember when we used to go to Lamberto's and drop a couple hundred bucks? We should do that again."
     Which sounded like "Never".  Well, OK, apparently our days of chumming around were drawing to a close. It happens. Time to move on.
     "Well." We engaged in one of those awkward hugs where the arms sort of flail and don't fit and both parties wish it hadn't happened.
     "Give me a call sometime."
     She won't. I won't. I climbed up into the Rover and watched as she walked across the parking lot.  Didn't see the Cooper. Puzzled as she made her way toward a banged up Toyota.  Must be a loaner. But I didn't have any more time to waste, as I was due at the Broken Windows Alliance in two hours and I still needed to get my hair highlighted. 



Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Luck, Thanksgiving, and a Mouse In the House

It's been six months of seemingly unabated bad luck. The HVAC unit needed replaced, followed by the water heater, dishwasher, radon fan, and water heater. The giant spring on the garage door broke in half, leaving the cars stuck inside the garage for a day and a half. And now I've got an unwanted squatter - a mouse, or possibly mice - in residence, just in time for the holidays. The Pest Man Cometh today sometime, at which point I'll find out whether I'm running a one-night rodent hotel or a brothel.

Happy Thanksgiving.

I went through my usual litany of how lucky I am to have a house that needs repair since some don't have a roof over their heads. Lucky to have things like dishwashers and water heaters. Lucky to have a car even if I can't get it out of the garage. Lucky to have friends and family to share the holidays with.

All true, but sometimes you gotta just scream about the little things. Mr. or Mrs. Mouse got a loud, long cursing out, including some brand-new combinations of very old terms. The garage door received a sound kick. The rest of the household appliances have been put on warning - they all saw what happened to the toaster which slung its final piece of toast on the floor a few weeks ago.

I must say, I felt a little better for a few minutes. Then I felt vaguely ashamed. It didn't solve anything, as it has yet to be proven that appliances and rodents understand/respond to human language. But what determines who's house will appeal to wildlife, which neighborhood will be leveled by a tornado, which toaster out of 1000 will develop a pitcher's throwing arm, which of 50 applicants will get the job which they are all qualified for and all so desperately need?

Luck, I guess.

Just as it was luck the other day that saved my life. Lucky that the BF walked over to a park bench to tie his shoelace, else we would have been standing next to the light pole that was completely sheared off at its base by an out-of-control car. Lucky that the light pole was there, else she might have hit us both anyway. Lucky that the pole fell into the street, which was empty of cars, instead of on us or someone else. Lucky that the fluid surrounding the wrecked car was only antifreeze and water, not gasoline. Lucky that the car ended up 20+ feet away from the fallen wires.

Lucky that no one, including the occupant, was killed or severely injured.

I suppose we all struggle with the question of why some things happen as they do, why bad things happen to good people, why one survives and another does not. Whether one consults science, faith, stars, or chicken innards, there don't ever seem to be any solid answers. I wish I had one for you, but I don't.

I do know that I'm not as thankful as I should be for what I have. Especially since the victims of Sandy are still struggling with complete devastation in many areas. I simply cannot imagine how they many of them are coping, and my heart breaks for them.

This Thanksgiving will be a quiet and reflective one, shared with those I love. To all of my readers, wherever you are, whether you are celebrating a holiday or going about your life: please drive a little more carefully, love your family and friends a little bit more, give what you can spare to those in need, take a moment or two and give thanks for what you have......

Happy Thanksgiving!


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Remembrance - Re-Post - Flash Fiction

Very lights, phosgene, duckboards and bully beef; a secret language which only we spoke, words that left a metallic tang like the water I sipped from his canteen. He said I could never use I'll be back. Goodbye, see ya, but not that. Because Leslie had said don't worry Gran, I'll be back, only to be swallowed by the unspeakable mud of Landers. I didn't know where Landers was, exactly, but I knew that it was somewhere over the sea, and that nothing ever grew there but the skeletons of trees and barbed wire. The sun never shone; it rained or it misted or it stormed, with great rolling booms of thunder and squalls of shrieking metal. Sometimes the farmers still turn up shells, planted but never blooming, with their ploughs.

He had a clay pot of poppies on his porch. I wanted to pick one, it was so beautifully, vividly red; but he said no, those are my friends and I understood it to mean that they were really and truly his friends, come back to life as flowers, and so I watered them and talked to them, and to the ones which withered away I gave a decent Christian burial beside the house. The house itself seemed weary of things, leaning to one side and sighing to itself on occasion.

He had to have been old, but sometimes when I walked beside him he seemed young and vibrant and smelled of soap. I loved the scent of freshly cut grass in the summer, but he held a hand to his face and went inside. Grass and mayflowers are the smell of death, he would say, more to be feared than the stench of the lines, for the dead cannot do you harm.

On July 1, every year, we went into the yard and we had a picnic of corned beef, crackers, and tea. The flower pot from the porch was our centerpiece, and before we ate we stood, and he lifted his glass and said solemnly Gentlemen, when the barrage lifts* . It made me feel important to be a part of it all, though I did not understand.

People must have thought him a strange man, for they never spoke to him or acknowledged his existence. But then they must have thought me a strange little girl, for they seldom spoke to me either. One day I was sent away to boarding school, just like that, with one battered suitcase and a paper bag lunch. It was a girl's school, and it might just as well have been another country for I didn't speak the language or know the customs. I got the occasional letter from home it's just for a few years and how nice it must be for you to finally have friends and finally, after a while, such dust everywhere, they've torn down the old shack next door, an eyesore it was, no one's ever lived there that I can remember.

I came home after a time, and insinuated myself into the life of a small town. Once a year, on July 1, I go to the local pub and loudly drink my toast. Someone will ask what it means, and I will tell them. I work two jobs and, bit by bit, I am paying for the piece of land which lies beside my childhood home. There is nothing there, not yet, just rutted mud and the odd brick or stone. The grass is growing, slowly, and I lie upon a patch in the sun, idly twining the stem of a poppy between my fingers. They have grown, once again, of their own accord, children of the ones I buried long ago.
1. *Author's note: traditional In Memoriam newspaper notice:  9th and 10th BNS., K.O.Y.L.I. - To the undying memory of the Officers and Men of the above Battalions who fell in the attack on Fricourt (Somme) on July 1, 1916.Gentlemen, when the barrage lifts.”

2. “Gentlemen, when the barrage lifts.” This was a toast made before the Somme attack of the 9th and 10th Battalions of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Twenty-four hours after the attack, 800 men had been reduced to 80 men and 4 officers.
3. The smell of the gas phosgene is often described as that of newly mown grass or hay.

I wrote Remembrance quite some time ago, but thought I would re-post it once again in honour of Veteran's Day.

And here is "In Flanders Field"

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

by John McCrae, May 1915

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Blogging From A to Z: The Challenge, the Site, the List

Hi readers -
Been quite a week, with the storm and the clean-up underway, the shortages, the suffering. But there have been beacons of hope; people rescuing each other, feeding each other, sharing and offering solace. Remember to appreciate whatever you have, and hug your family and friends today. And vote.

No new fiction here today, but I do have a guest post over at the Blogging From A to Z site with a few ideas for next year's challenge. (Because it's never too soon to think ahead, right?)

Everybody have a groovy Tuesday.


Monday, October 29, 2012

Magpie Tales 141 - Flash Fiction

Magpie 141 photo prompt

"Taking shelter in the dead is death itself, and only taking all the risk of life to the fullest extent is living." - Rabindranath Tagore

Sweet couple. In another life it is me kissing Julius goodbye.

A shower heralded the end of summer and, unbeknownst to us, the beginning of the end of our world. They said the rumors could not be true; I gave no thought to shoes, which one day we'd be forced to do without, or to my hair, which would be shorn and tossed aside. We allowed the heavens to soak us to the skin, turning our mouths to each other instead of the skies.

It is so long ago that his memory has been nothing but an occasional brushstroke upon my consciousness. The rain is, by turns, a fearsome enemy awakening my instinct for survival or a solvent sending bitterness and regret into the earth where they belong. Either way, it is a reminder that nothing in this life lasts forever.

I have never used an umbrella since that day.

Want to join in? Click the link below the picture. Write a poem or short vignette using the picture featured in the Magpie post as your inspiration. I chose the added challenge of keeping it to 150 words.  

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Rain's Gonna Come - Short Story

A young adult story originally posted on the site Figment. Around 2000 words.

     The neon lights wink outside of my window, and while the other men mumble and curse about not being able to sleep, I greet the city lights and noise with relief. Once upon a time the broad expanse of the Great Plains sky, black velvet strewn with diamonds, made me catch my breath; but that memory is from long ago, and lies buried and covered with dust. It was the Black Dust which drove me here, to a life of beds shared with strangers in a tenement, of hours spent sweeping up entrails at the slaughterhouse, of hunger and cold and the smell of unwashed bodies. While there may be no good way to die, there are some that are better than others, at least in my mind. I'll take my chances here.
      I was 10 when we packed up what little we had and left Philadelphia for the Great Plains. The government was still offering free land to anyone who would settle and farm on it; and Daddy had gotten hold of a pamphlet from the railroad offering free passage to anyone who would settle in one of the towns springing up along the lines. When we got to Watson's Junction, there wasn't much but a couple of nailed together shacks and stakes in the ground. Daddy bought a horse and wagon outfit, some tools and food staples, and we set out to stake our claim.
      Those first nights out in the open were magical. The air was clean and sweet, the breeze soft, the sky endless. We worked hard during the day, building what was called a “soddie” - a hut built with blocks of sod, shored up by wooden lathes and with a tarpaper roof. At night my brother and I curled up together and whispered till we fell asleep. Daddy plowed every day, the wheat and corn grew till they were over our heads, and after a year's time we could get a loan to buy a tractor and plow even more. There was even enough to buy me a pony named Brownie. We built a barn to keep Brownie, the draft horse named Violet, and a couple of cows, and after that my folks had quite a time getting me to sleep with the family instead of with the animals. I loved drifting off with the smell of hay and horses, listening to the slow grind of teeth chewing grain and Brownie snuffling and shifting in his stall.
      Then the rains disappeared, and the ground dried up. The second crop was plowed under, and everyone broke even more sod to plant. It was hotter than blazes, month after month, and pretty soon you couldn't find a green thing anywhere. I couldn't sleep for the heat, the arguing from my parents, and the dust which had started to creep in no matter what we did. Momma wet sheets and draped them over our beds, dabbed petroleum jelly in our noses, taped up the windows, but the dust just kept getting in. The worst was the bugs that came out at night. Hundreds of spiders and centipedes lived within the sod walls, and I could hear them moving at night, feel them crawling under and over me so that I thought I'd go mad. The dark became a moving, smothering, crawling thing, waiting for me at the end of every blazing day. I begged to sleep in the barn, but they wanted me close at hand in case of a storm. Not just any storm, but one which was the particular curse of the Plains.
      The Black Blizzard.
      I spotted the first one, and mistaking it for a rainstorm ran shouting and laughing to fetch the family. But as I approached the house, Daddy was heading for the barn and Momma yanking the wash off the line.
      “Jack! Run and help your father close up the barn! Hurry up!”
      Puzzled, I glanced over my shoulder and stopped dead in my tracks. What had looked like rainclouds a few moments ago had transformed into a seething, roiling coal-black mass coming clear down to the ground. Daddy was already out of the barn and running for the soddie so I ran too, for all I was worth. Inside, we started to stuff newspaper into all of the window cracks. Within seconds, it was pitch dark. The wind threatened to tear off the roof, and choking clouds of black dust were coming in everywhere. I could feel it gritting between my teeth, stinging my eyes, and clogging my nose. Even the light from the kerosene lantern couldn't cut through the murk. In the darkness, I prayed for it to pass and for the barn to hold – there'd be nothing to protect the animals if it collapsed.
      It felt like it lasted forever, like the world would end and we'd all be buried by this monstrous thing, made all the worse by not being able to see it.
      That was the first dust storm. The second caught us out on the road, and Daddy tried to outrun it in the truck. Midday, but it turned to night once again as we were engulfed. The headlights made no difference, and there was so much dust piled on the road that we couldn't even see it sometimes – Daddy had to keep sticking his head out the window to try and follow the telegraph poles, even though the grit nearly blinded him and took the skin off his face. We made home, but just barely.
      After that, a new sound was added to the night; the persistent, racking cough of Daddy's dust pneumonia.
      We continued to bake under the relentless sun. The few rainclouds that developed piggybacked on dust storms and dropped nothing but sparse mud droplets. With no grass or fodder for the animals, we took to salting tumbleweeds and using them as feed. Still, they lost weight. Daddy shot the steer, hoping to sell it for meat, but it was so skeletal nobody would take it so we butchered it ourselves. The insides were full of dirt.  One by one we had to shoot them all, leaving Violet and Brownie to plow if the tractor was taken for not paying the loan. But one morning, Brownie didn't greet me; he stood miserably, eyes unblinking and a stream of brown mucus hanging from his nostrils.
      “We've got to put him down, Jack,” Momma said firmly. “You don't want him to suffer any more.”
      I wanted to say that we were all suffering, and that no one was going to put bullets in our heads. I was angry, and I thought of trying to hide Brownie at a neighbor's place. But one more look at his silent suffering convinced me that Momma was right. And since he was mine, it was only right that I should be the one to do it. I buried my face in his neck, breathing in the scent, and he feebly tried to nuzzle me. I could hear each painful, raspy breath that he struggled to draw. My throat was so tight that I couldn't even whisper goodbye, but we'd never needed words anyhow. I put the muzzle of the rifle to his broad forehead, looked into his trusting eyes, and pulled the trigger.
      That night I dreamed that Brownie had wings like Pegasus, and that we were flying far, far away from here. I awoke, startled, and happy for that one blessed moment. Then I heard the infernal winds rattling the roof, and my father's tired voice.
      “I don't think we can recover from this. We've lost just about everything. The only thing we've got plenty of is dust, and we can't spend it or eat it, though it ain't for lack of trying.” He coughed and spat. “Just one more loss and we're gonna have to pull up stakes and try our chances elsewhere. Even with a Depression on, there's got to be somewhere better than this. I keep telling myself to hold on, just hold on long enough and it'll all turn around. But I'm losing faith mighty fast.”
      Just one more loss, I thought. Daddy could save us – if I made him. I waited until I heard them slip into bed, listening for their labored breathing. Grabbing the can of kerosene and some matches, I made my way out to the barn in darkness, scuffling my feet to warn away any snakes that might be lurking. I knew the way by heart, and eased open the door. The smell of livestock still clung to the old building, and I took a moment to run my hands over Brownie's old bridle, still hanging on an old nail. My hand came away with dust, of course. It only took moments for the stuff to settle on everything. The International tractor, the Grand Detour plow – those metallic monsters that stripped the prairie, fueled dreams, and seduced farmers into magnificent debt – sat silent and hulking in the corner, a useless shrine to the god of prosperity. I would send them off in a Viking funeral, freeing us to leave this hell and start over. I poured out the kerosene, leaving a trail for the lit match, then stood at a safe distance to watch the flames leap against the night sky.
      It was only when the barn was fully engulfed that I woke my parents. Daddy struggled, cursing, with his boots and finally ran off without them, but it was far too late to do anything but watch. Years ago there would have been danger of the fire igniting the prairie and spreading into town, but with nothing but hard-baked earth the fire simply devoured the barn and then burnt itself out. We were left, again, in darkness.
      Momma lit the lantern as we gathered around the kitchen table. I drew a pattern in the dust and sipped some black coffee; not the best thing for a 15 year old, but then the water was so dirty it couldn't be much better. I waited eagerly for Daddy to announce that we'd all be packing up and leaving this place for good.
      “Well,” he began, turning his head to cough and spit a blackened gob on the floor, “I reckon the insurance money might be enough to buy some seed, and a nag to pull the plow. With all the foreclosures going on, we should just be able to afford it. And since Jack here's big enough to help, we might get a couple acres put in. There's a feller coming to town next week, claiming that if he sets off enough explosives it'll seed the clouds and bring rain. Could be right. Anyhow, we've lasted this long. Surely, one of these days the rain's gonna come.”
      Rain's gonna come. Those words would be forever emblazoned in my mind, embodying all that is hopeful yet futile in this life. I would hear them, over and over again, as I tossed and turned at night, in between the imagined sounds of bugs crawling, a sick man coughing, and the soft whicker of a beloved pony calling to me to save him.
      Two weeks later, I left my home, family, and past in the middle of the night without a backward glance. A two hour walk got me to the tracks where I could swing aboard a freight train headed east. If I was caught, the charge for vagrancy was four months on the chain gang at hard labor, but there wasn't much that could scare me anymore. I had plenty of good company, and sitting on the edge of a boxcar with a fresh breeze blowing over me felt like heaven. Maybe millions were fleeing the cities, but I was fleeing toward them – places where the wide open sky wouldn't press down on me, where even the poorest people didn't have to eat yucca roots and tumbleweed like cattle, and where the air might stink but it sure didn't come and suffocate you in the middle of the night.
      Maybe the rain will come, but I won't be sitting there waiting for it. I'll be making my own future, here in the city where I'm never left completely in the dark.

A companion story from this Dust Bowl series can be found at What Follows the Plow

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Funeral - Nonfiction

It was during the drive to the cemetery; I was scrabbling for a purchase on the limo seat as we slalomed through traffic, the fossilized cigarette smoking driver (who had yet to utter a word) gently humming under his breath.

No, wait.

It could have been when I answered the door, and hysterical laughter burbled up as my husband's ashes were delivered in a cardboard box within a glorified shopping bag, emblazoned with the company's name. (They were kind enough to enclose a coupon for $200 off of my own arrangements, should I need them.) You see, in making all of the other arrangements I had forgotten to order an urn.

Perhaps it was while I was ejecting some relatives who were snooping about the house, looking in closets and wondering out loud about the deceased's personal habits.  Or threatening a "friend" with physical violence after he was warned not to take pictures of the coffin, but slyly tried to do so anyway.

Nope. It was definitely when someone's eyes traveled slowly over my outfit and stopped, gazing fixedly at my shoes. Trainers, actually.

In throwing together some clothes for an unexpected emergency, I hadn't packed any dress shoes.  And after slogging through days of arrangements, I hadn't the emotional or physical resources left to go shopping.

Hence the casual footwear.

I obsessed over it, believe me. I felt tired, embarrassed, angry and heartsick. What kind of person was I?

That's when I remembered the granddaughter re-telling a favorite story about her grandma. When Grandpa died, Grandma (who was always very careful with her appearance) had arrived at the funeral with two different shoes:  same style, but one was black, the other blue.  It became a treasured family tale. 

It would be lovely to bring forth children in a pastel nursery with no muss, no fuss, the mother perfectly made up and smiling the whole time, surrounded by a picture perfect husband, children with scrubbed angelic faces and the family dog, also smiling benignly.  It would be equally charming to live a happy, healthy and fulfilling life, then pass away quietly and painlessly surrounded by the same loving and perfect cast.

It doesn't happen that way.  Life is a messy business; family can be the lifeline which keeps us from drowning or exasperating to the point of wanting to shove them out of a fifth story window.  We live, we love;  laugh, cry, scream, pull our own hair out (or secretly wish it was someone else's). We fight and we forgive, support and regret, speak and leave things unspoken. We can only try our best, and minimize the damage as we go. Death will come, sooner or later, to us all, and then it is up to the living to continue as best they can, cherishing memories, eventually putting guilt and bitterness aside as unneeded baggage.

It isn't the shoes, but the path which really matters.

Author's note: all of the incidents related are true, although cobbled together from a few different events.

Friday, October 5, 2012

In My Own Fashion - #FridayFlash Fiction

When I was 14, I got my first tattoo.  Back then nice girls didn't do that sort of thing, and especially not those from families with wealth going back to the country's founding. I had to go into the city cesspools to find someone to do it, and that journey alone garnered me the admiration of my pearl clad peers.

Soon everyone was getting tatted up, and no one glanced twice at my diminutive, blood dripping skull.

The diamond stud set in my chin drove my grandmother to mass every day for a month; but eventually, even the priest was sporting a piercing in his off hours.

Once I came into my rightful inheritance, my English Bulldog Rosie wore only the finest designer garments and an emerald studded collar.  Alas, it seemed as though everyone was outfitting their cherished pets, and no one looked twice at Rosie, who soon died from a broken heart (although the vet seemed to think it was his diet. As though I would feed my pet dog food!).

The chrome wrap on my Bugatti was copied by a teenie bopper, everyone is getting into the Japanese bagel head fad I sported for an evening, and there's no sense in trying to compete in the outrageous breast category - I'm far too petite to consider a 102ZZZ cup size.

But now I think I've finally found a suitable means of demonstrating both my prodigious financial resources and my cutting edge sense of fashion. It wasn't easy to find a doctor, but when you've got money nothing, and I mean nothing, is out of reach. Pun intended.

I knew I'd find a surgeon somewhere who would do the job.

For tonight's gala, I'll be choosing a platinum based, ruby and diamond encrusted arm from my burgeoning collection of fashionable prosthetics.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Liberty - Flash Fiction

Descent Of A Horse Down A Mine-Shaft

The single bell signaling the cage to be lowered sounded at the wrong time of day; it would be hours until the coal miners' shift would be finished.  Multiple rings announced the unscheduled visit of an important personage, and so those below could only surmise that the rumoured pit horse was making its descent into the netherworld.

Old John, the stableman, summoned several of the youths working in a nearby gallery to stand by.  They were more than eager to drop their tools and steal a moment of respite, not to mention experiencing the  excitement of seeing whether the animal would arrive half-dead from shock, or even expired, as various legends maintained.  The pit ponies already occupying the stables 1500 feet down had been there when the boys first "went down" and likely would remain there until retired, when they were hauled back to the surface to go mad with sudden freedom.

The unfortunately named Liberty, bound and netted for safety, thus passed through the seasons of the shaft, having lost those from the earth above. Winter during the first cold, drafty 500 feet; Spring and its showers while passing through the water table; Summer with its breathless heat in the bowels of the earth; and finally Autumn, as he arrived at the stable platform, redolent with its scent of cut hay and livestock.  The horse was unfastened and lay, for a moment, in stunned lethargy; then climbed to his feet, trembling and with rolling eyes. He was led off peaceably enough by Will, the stableman's son, who was  lucky in that a crooked spine and damaged foot had ordained that he be deemed unfit for mining coal or working in the haulage tunnels.

Man and beast toiled in the bowels of the earth, day in and day out; and while Liberty learned to accept his work in dumb obedience, he never ceased to greet each new shift of men with a trumpeting whinny and several well aimed kicks at whatever was near. Perhaps in some sense he was capable of resenting his enforced bondage, or it might have been the few wisps of sun-soaked herbal scent that clung to the clothes of the men and stirred some long buried memory. No one was surprised the morning Liberty's call echoed through the veins, but the fact that it went on for some time, and that he refused to drag his cart beyond a certain point, did cause consternation. Even Will could not get the horse to budge. The foreman cajoled and finally dealt him a smart slap on the rump, only to be rewarded with a sly shifting of hindquarters which pinned him up against the rocky wall.

His curses were drowned out by a long, low rumble, echoing at first and then increasing as though a freight train was headed toward them. Men poured like ants into the loading area, sweat-soaked and black with the coal dust, calling out for comrades, and scrambling for the loading cages. Clouds of choking dust rolled toward them, and the miners hastily put out all lamps but one for fear of explosion, standing then in the gloom and waiting their turn to go up.

At long last there were only four men left. There had been no other movement of the earth, and it was deemed necessary to leave the pit ponies down below; they had fodder for several days, and once the mine engineers had deemed it safe, the men would either return to work below or try to bring the animals up.  The horses were treasured mates of the miners, and it broke their hearts to leave them behind, but they seemed content enough in their stable.

All but Liberty. He had seemingly made up his mind that he was not going back, balking and biting at them every time they tried to lead him away from the cages.  The three grown men, desperate to get to the surface, were all for leaving him to his own devices; especially the foreman, who now bore a certain grudge against the beast.  But Will was now determined to save him or to stay below with his friend, having learned the hard way that the animal was far kinder and trustworthy than many of the villagers.  When it became apparent that the boy's determination was "as hard as the rock around 'em", they debated the best means of getting all of them out at once. Old John struck on the idea of binding the horse and securing him to the bottom of the cage, thus allowing men, child and horse to ascend together.  The foreman was unconvinced, exclaiming that the struggling animal would interfere with the cage guides, sending them all crashing back down to the bottom. But Will had his own idea; he stroked and whispered to the now compliant horse, soothing him as they fixed the rig and attached it to the bottom of the cage.  The men stepped in, and as Will twined his arms and legs into the harness and hung onto the horse like a monkey, the foreman sounded the signal and the cage began to rise.

Up through the mine shaft they rose, the boy unmindful of the precariousness of his ride, the deathly plunge that awaited him should he slip or the horse struggle and pin him to the side. He sang quietly in the horse's ear and recited the prayers he'd learned in Sunday school. And Liberty, in the way that some animals do, seemed to sense what it was that was demanded of him and hung quietly during the long dark journey to the surface.

They were greeted with hurrahs as they came above ground; and since it had been ascertained that the far off cave-in had not cost a single life, the jubilant miners were given three days holiday to enjoy as they chose.  Liberty, who had never fully accepted his underground sentence and spent a scarce six months there, was overjoyed to return to the sun and open skies.  As the hero who predicted the cataclysm, perhaps saving lives in the bargain, he was given a place of honor in the miner's village, permitted to roam freely, help himself to their gardens and shelter wherever he chose. But it was to Will that he always returned, thrusting his head into the boy's window to his mother's consternation, clomping into the kitchen when the door was left ajar, and generally making a genial pest of himself.  And it was Will, as a grown man, who buried him under a favorite mulberry tree and painstakingly carved his name into a giant piece of coal.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Pigeon Who Became A War Hero - Flash Nonfiction

 “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.”

Photo: US Gov't. Public Domain

During World War 1, homing pigeons were frequently used to carry communications between front line troops and commanders/support personnel in the rear.  Troops carried pigeons with them in crates; when a message needed to be sent, it was written on paper, rolled up, inserted into a canister strapped to the pigeon's leg, and the pigeon was then released to fly to its coop in the rear. When it arrived at the coop, a bell would sound alerting someone that a message had arrived.

The US Army Signal Corps had been given 600 pigeons by the British;  many flew multiple successful missions, while others were shot down by enemy fire.  One, by the name of Cher Ami (Dear Friend) is credited with saving close to 200 men who became known as the Lost Battalion.

On October 3, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, more than 500 men of New York's 77th Infantry Division (the Liberty Division) were trapped in a  depression on the side of a hill, cut off and nearly surrounded by enemy troops, without food or ammunition. Allied troops were unaware of their location and American artillery units began to shell them. Quite a few were killed or wounded; by the second day, barely 200 men were still alive. With no other means of communication available, Major Whittlesey dispatched messages by pigeon. The bird carrying the first message "Many wounded. We cannot evacuate." was shot down. A second was sent with the message, "Men are suffering. Can support be sent?" As the soldiers watched, that pigeon also was shot down. Only one was left: 'Cher Ami'. He was dispatched with a note in a canister on his left leg. “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” 

He too was shot down.

And then, miraculously, Cher Ami struggled into the air again. Though badly injured, he flew the 25 miles to the rear, delivering the message and stopping the "friendly fire" barrage. (He arrived with one eye shot out and the leg holding the all-important message canister dangling by little more than a tendon.)

Army medics fought to save the bird's life;  he survived, but lost his leg and was given a wooden peg leg. Eventually he was sent to the US by ship, seen off by no less a personage than General Pershing, where he took up residence at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, but eventually died from his injuries.  Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal with an Oak Leaf Cluster by France for his wartime service and heroic flight. He was also inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931 and was awarded a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers for extraordinary service during World War I.

Further reading: Cher Ami by Marion Cothren
                            Cher Ami: a poem by Harry Webb Farrington 
                            The Lost Battalion by John W Nell
                            Fly, Cher Ami, Fly! The Pigeon Who Saved the Lost Battalion by Robert Burleigh 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Vuvuzela - Flash Fiction - Re-Post

Photo Credit: Caldwella via Wikimedia Commons

     “That player's apologetic grin,” said the guy next to him, “reminds me of the look on my hound's face when he's been caught crapping on the rug.”

     James (not Jim, why shorten an already one syllable name) barely caught the words above the noise in the stadium. A most distracting noise, like a swarm of angry bees or a kazoo band gone mad underwater. It spoiled the game; and the World Cup was the one thing which he'd scrimped for, longed for, and fought for with his wife April for months. Her frugality, her pale anxious face, her soft voice, placating, pleading, had driven him wild. True, she was faithful and kind, and she always relented on things eventually. He was convinced that she lived to please him, and that sort of mild yet constant attention had become cloying.
     So when the woman in front of him turned around (he flinched guiltily; he'd been admiring the fine curve of her neck), it was only natural that he would be struck by her exotic beauty.
     “You're from America,” she said, as though it were some magical land and he, a mysterious stranger.
     James smiled agreeably. “That's right,” he said.
     She turned around and resumed watching the game. The vuvuzelas hooted in rising and falling waves like migratory birds. They were no longer a nuisance, but rather the backdrop to a grand drama; James fancied that he'd fallen in love.

     Later, he followed her through the crowd, keeping close, taking every opportunity to unobtrusively breathe her in and make his presence known. A fine sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead. She was so obviously out of his league that he had to have her. He wondered if the white shadow on his ring finger was obvious.
     When she stopped to adjust her shoe strap, James bumped into her, apologized, and then asked her out. She said yes.
     Thus began a whirlwind of dinners, club dates, walks through the streets in a soft rain, days spent under the glaring sun. They clung, they fought, they made it up tenderly; she refused to spend the night, holding him off with an enchanting smile and fire in her eyes. He had begun to dream, vividly, of living here in this strange country with the heat in his blood and and the scent of her on his clothes. His home fell further and further behind, April paling into absolute insignificance.
     James asked if she could ever envision their living together. She said yes.

     Only a week, and yet he was perusing the daily papers for jobs and apartments, neatly checking off his List Of Things To Do. Which included April, of course, there at the bottom and just after “buy a used car”.

     He told his new love that he was “involved with someone” back home, that he would need to tidy things up a bit, but that he would return in a few months. He asked if she would wait for him, and she said yes.

     At the train station, James waited impatiently for her to show up. He resented her being late, stealing what precious time remained to them. Eventually she appeared, carrying a leather overnight case.
     “You forgot some things,” she said, dropping it at his feet.
     James was taken aback, and a cold knot slowly began to form in his depths. He watched her lips shape the words even though it took some time for them to register in his mind.
     “I'm sorry, but you needn't come back. It was lovely while it lasted though. I'll never forget you.”
     Her face belied the sentiment.
     James managed a choked whisper.
     “But why?”
     Her fierce eyes were now those of a tiger; gleaming, watchful and wild.
     “I just wanted to see if I could have you. How far you would go. I'm really quite content to live on my own.” And with that, she turned and walked away.
     So he stood at the edge of the platform, unable to move forward, unwilling to go back, and watching with impassive eyes the light of the oncoming train, as a lone vuvuzela sounded mournfully in the distance.

This was originally posted back in 2010 for the A to Z challenge.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Hunger Dames - A Hunger Games Parody #FridayFlash

"Happy Hunger, Dames! And may the Pudding be always in your flavor."

My name is Catkiss Neverclean. I am eighty-seven years old. I live on Floor 12 of Pangeriatrica, the place where everyone over 65 was sent after the great Uprising. The young people live in the glittering tech bubble of the Krapital, surrounded by their gadgets and feasting on endless supplies of wings and nachos; pudding and early bird specials are expressly forbidden. What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears by talking to a lighted board and then driving up to a window?

Once a year, in retribution for our rebellion, 2 of us women (the old men are long since gone, having succumbed to a sedentary life of beer, bacon and belching) are chosen from each floor to compete in a gladiatorial contest.  I have volunteered in place of my beloved sister Priss, since she is blind in one eye and can't see out of the other. Besides, she is a far better choice to remain and care for our 72 cats, since hunger often gets the better of me and ... well, never mind.

I touch the gold pin at my throat for good luck. It is a MockingGull, our symbol, a creature which devotes its life to eating, squawking and crapping. I am sitting in my UpEZSeat as the countdown begins, wondering if I will be able to get to my weapon of choice, thinking about my childhood friend Hale (but definitely not hearty anymore) and my new possible love interest and co-contestant Pita (her face kind of looks like one, come to think of it).

The lift rises, and I hear the legendary announcer Clothesless Pimplesmith as his squeaky voice surrounds me.

"Hotties and Bros, let the Hunger Dames begin!"

Four hours later, the first of the women reach the Cornutopia, a golden foot filled with things we will need; muscle rub, laxatives, support stockings, tea. I see that old biddy Beatrice has scored a Raskal motor chair and is chasing down another contestant who is struggling with a case of pull-ups. Something catches my eye; a Grabber, its chrome pole shining in the sunlight. I snatch it up and head for the nearby trees, with Ethel from Floor 2 hot on my heels and shrieking like a banshee. I stumble and fall, fortunately landing on an Inflatable Donut. I whack Ethel a good one with the Grabber and relieve her of her false teeth and wig before crawling to the safety of the forest.

With the wig and my reading glasses, I start a fire and roast a squirrel I managed to snag with the Grabber. It's tough, but I use the dentures to soften it up a bit first. I knew they'd come in handy.  As it grows dark, I hear the cannons and count them; my goodness, only 2 of us left! I silently thank Jack LaLane, Richard Summons and Dr. Iz for all of their helpful advice on aging healthfully and gracefully over the years. The Krapitalists won't get that from watching marathons of Joisey Shore!

Since I haven't slept the night through since I was 60, I hobble through the dark and arrive back at the Cornutopia just in time to survey the bodies in dawn's early light.  Pita and I briefly struggle over the family size Super Antacid (the squirrel didn't sit well with me) until I hear the sound of snick snick swush snick snick swush which heralds an old fart with a walker. Horrified, I see that the Krapitalists have somehow reanimated my arch enemy Beatrice, who is now advancing upon us. I remove my support stockings and orthopedic shoes and construct a bolo to trip up the 6-legged monstrosity; it crashes face first into a bedpan, and we leave it struggling and cursing on the ground, doomed to death by sheer exhaustion.As we discuss what to do next, we both suddenly nod off.

The voice of Pimplesmith interrupts our impromptu nap.

"We are all so bored watching this that we have decided to change the rules and let both of you live."

Pita and I look at each other. In a way, I'd been hoping that she'd kick off so I could help myself to her stash of Megamucil and Gello Pudding cups. I see her eyes narrow, and I wonder what plans she has for MY hidden goodies. After all, a case of Special Kitty Yum Yum treats will feed her for months - and it's far tastier than the Monday meatloaf.

"You b*&ch," she screams, as though reading my mind, and aims her yellowed, nicotine claws at my throat. I fumble in my apron pocket and, coming up with a tube of Capsaicin rub, squirt it in her rheumy eyes.

"Oh wait. this might get good after all," squeals the announcer's voice again. "We rescind the previous rule change. It's on!"

Realizing that we are now setting a bad example for the rest of our Pangeriatrists, I whisper to Pita "There's just one way that we can both survive." I explain my plan, and she hesitantly agrees. We both give the time-honored salute - 3 fingers raised, followed by 2 being lowered - and slowly, creakily, begin to bend over.

It's wonderful to hear the fright in Pimplesmith's voice. "Hey, what - oh no - I think they are going to - "

We slowly begin to hike up our dresses, bottoms turned toward the cameras.  We are willing to sacrifice everything; our self-respect, our honour, our modesty. And the watching Krapitalists will have to live forever with what they see. A MockingGull agrees with hee hee har and even the owls chime in with moon moon moon.

"Stop! Stop! Hotties and Bros, I am pleased to present the victors of the Hunger Dames, Catkiss Neverclean and Pita Malarkey! I give you the Attributes of Floor 12!"

I am Catkiss Neverclean, and now the Krapital hates me. But hey, there are worse things. Besides, I now have a lifetime supply of pudding.


*Based on the book The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Friday, August 17, 2012

Movie Trailer "Flight": Can An Airliner Fly Upside Down?

A friend sent me a link to the trailer for the movie Flight featuring Denzel Washington, which brought up the question of whether an airliner could actually perform/survive a rapid descent and inverted flight.

First, some disclaimers. I'm not an aerospace engineer, flight instructor, etc. Obviously, the movie isn't out yet so I don't know the sequence of events or details of the action. That being said, there have been instances of commercial airliners performing aerobatic maneuvers including barrel rolls and inverted flight (albeit for a brief period).

Test pilot Tex Johnson famously rolled a Boeing 707 at the Seattle Seafair in 1955.

In 1985, China Airlines Flight 006, a Boeing 747, suffered an engine flameout, rolled and plunged almost 30,000 feet, finally leveling out at 9600 feet and making a safe emergency landing. Safe despite the fact that the wings were bent, landing gear doors ripped off, 2 landing gears left hanging by a thread, the hydraulic system ruptured and empty, large chunks of horizontal stabilizers (the flat thingies on the tail) ripped off, and part of the left outboard elevator (control thingy on the wing) gone.

In 1995, Fed Ex Flight 705, a DC 10, was in flight when an attempted hijacking took place. During the struggle, there were moments of inverted and near transonic flight. The Captain, even though injured, managed to safely land the plane, even though it was well over its maximum designed landing weight due to fuel load and he was forced to make sharp turns which strained the DC 10's design limits.

Here's a photo of an Airbus A400M doing a steep wing over (not quite inverted) at Farnborough.

Last, in Sept 2011 an ANA (All Nippon Airways) Boeing 737 made headlines by rolling over during flight - because the co-pilot thought he was turning a knob to let the pilot back into the cockpit after a bathroom break, but it was actually the rudder control. The plane recovered, and as in any well executed roll the passengers barely felt a thing.

As a special treat, here's a YouTube video featuring Bob Hoover, one of the greatest aviation legends of all time. The first part shows "stopped engine" aerobatics; if you go to the last third (around 2:09) you will see video of Bob pouring a glass of tea while executing a roll.

                                                         View Bob Hoover Video 

Happy flying!
Boeing 707 at Peterson AFB. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, USAF

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Terras Irradient - Flash Fiction

"I'm bored. Let's go play with the c.a.ts."
"OK. Which toy? The bobber on a string or the new laser pointer?"
"The pointer. It's so funny to see them chase it. Oh, and then there are the ones that suddenly realize how ridiculous they look and pretend that they didn't see a thing."
"I like the ones that get all scared and start running in circles. Silly beasts."
"Just don't forget, they can do some damage if they get hold of you, even if you are bigger and smarter.    Destructive. I can't for the life of me understand why we keep them around."
"Entertainment, I guess. And they can be kind of cute."
"Watch this. I'll blink it on and off a few times, then zip it across the sky real fast. That always freaks them out."
"And then they start yowling yyyoooeeefffooohhh!"
They collapsed into giggles.

The Halt memorandum, Jan 13, 1981, concerning unexplained lights near RAF Woodbridge, Rendlesham Forest,  Suffolk, England. Photo of document courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Terras Irradient - Let them illuminate the lands.
c.a.ts - carbon-based aerobic terrestrials

Monday, June 25, 2012

What Follows the Plow - Flash Fiction

Dust storms could rise as high as 2000 feet or more.

"To be more concise. Rain follows the plow."
                                          --Charles Dana Wilber, 1881, in     
                                        "The Great Valleys Of Nebraska"
You hear about a stroll down memory lane, but sometimes it's like a walk down the main street of a ghost town, nothing but empty storefronts and boarded up windows.

"She's too young. Besides, I need her to help me today." Ma had much more to add, but a racking fit of coughing interrupted. I took the wet sheet from her and fixed it over Jacob's crib, carefully tucking in the sides. I'd slept with a kerchief over my face, and yet I still awoke with grit between my teeth and swollen eyes. It was just something you learned to take for granted, like plugging your nose with petroleum jelly or ignoring the muddy color of the water you got to drink.

I looked at Da with what I hoped was my most heart breaking expression.  He smiled and handed me a tin can and a wooden spoon. Secretly disappointed, I took them, casting a sidelong glance at the club by the door. If I was a boy I bet I'd get a club or at least a stick.

"Ah, Meg, it's what needs done and a day out besides. I reckon the cousins will all be there; most of the town, matter of fact. I'll keep an eye on her."

Jolting along in the truck, sucking on a horehound drop Da had miraculously produced, I let the heat lull me into a sort of half-sleep. Somewhere in the back of my mind were waves of tender green, cool breezes, the soft smell after rain.  I knew that they existed, somewhere, just like I knew that I had once owned a pair of spotlessly white shoes with tiny buckles. Now there was nothing but dust as far as the eye could see. We'd slaughtered the starving cows and found their lungs and stomachs full of dirt. Cut our veins, and we might even bleed dirt. 

After a few miles we passed more vehicles, some of them overloaded with passengers, kids hanging on the back or on the running boards. I'd never seen so many people, and I could feel my stomach tightening up with anticipation. We pulled over and parked with what looked to be about a thousand others; mostly farmers and kids, a few government men, and one with a bull horn shouting directions above the noise. I spotted Cousin Toby right off the mark, and tugged at Da's sleeve, pointing. Toby was about fifteen then, big as a man but still willing to carry me on his shoulders and make dolls for me out of whatever he could find.

"Can I go with Toby? Please?" I flung my arms around Da's waist, burying my nose in his shirt. He smelled of sweat, and animals, and tobacco.

"Mind you stay with him, then. I want to be able to find you when we're done. You got your tin? Good. Don't wear yourself out, there's chores to do when we get back or your Ma will skin both our hides."
We lined up, all of us, and marched, kicking and stomping, shouting and singing, the men wielding sticks and boards, the children banging on metal pots, tin cans and cow bells. There wasn't much to see at first, but then they rose up before us, out of their hiding places, frantically trying to keep ahead. We drove them forward, narrowing our lines, forcing them toward the fences in the distance. I was panting and hoarse, sweating and trembling by the time we got to the holding pens. I was starting to feel funny, like the time I'd been sick with fever; the ground shimmied and shimmered, my throat ached, and suddenly I was sorry I'd begged to come along.

The holding area fairly boiled with the long-eared creatures as the people fell upon them, chasing them, clubbing them, picking them up and swinging them against the fence posts. I squirmed and tried to get out of the way as the full horror of the scene registered. One of the rabbits stopped at my feet, sides heaving, eyes almost white with terror, and as I stooped down to touch it Toby smashed it across the head with a chunk of wood. Da was outside the fence to my left, scooping up armfuls of dead jackrabbits and tossing them into a truck.

I vomited, a thin stream of the morning's gruel laced with snot and the ever-present dust. A strange man lifted me off my feet and deposited me outside the fence beside a plump woman, who wiped my face with her apron and gave me a sip of water from a jar.

"There, there, too much excitement for you little ones. Sit a spell and rest till your folks claim you."

You can know things, but not KNOW them. I don't know how else to say it. The jackrabbits ate what precious little sprouted in the fields. They ate the scrub trying to cling to the earth and hold it down from the wind. There weren't enough bullets to kill thousands of them, and even if there were, nobody had the money to buy them. I knew we had to get rid of those rabbits. It was the ferocity, I suppose, the sheer glee in all of the killing that got to me. But you can't blame people who've lost everything, watched their children die, livestock starve, if they reach the point where they've got to take it out on someone or something. You surely couldn't spit in the eye of God, as my Aunt used to say. He's too far away and why waste the moisture. I spit anyway, a pitiful fleck in the dust.

I was sorry as soon as I did it, because Da snatched me up from behind and was legging it back to the truck as fast as he could go. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I whimpered, but the wind snatched it away as soon as it left my lips and then I realized what we were running from.

"Roller!" he hollered as he yanked open the truck and tossed me onto the front seat. People were scattering in all directions, snatching up children, dragging along friends, running for their lives. Peering out the car window, I saw it coming, and I knew it was the end of the world. I thought maybe I had brought it on.

Billowing, boiling, damned near pitch black and yet shot through in places with rainbow hues, the monstrous thing bore down on us. Da floored the old truck and shot onto the road, fingers clenched on the steering wheel and his face white under the dark streaks of sweat.  I recalled every Bible verse I'd ever learned and began to recite them under my breath. I realized I knew a lot, as they got passed them out at Sunday school for punishment.

It kept gaining on us. At last, we wheezed to a halt along the side of the road. Da fished out a blanket and tore a piece of his shirt off, wetting it from his flask and tying it over my face.

"Lie down, Littl'Un" he said softly. I curled up on the seat, and I felt him lie down over me, covering us both with the blanket. He smelled of sweat, and dead animals, and tobacco.

Maybe he saved my life. Maybe God did, to spare me for other things. Maybe Da's in heaven now, and if he is then I hope he can ask God to give me just this one thing, and I'll never ask for anything again.

For rain to follow the plow.

*Roller was another name for the monstrous dust storms which plagued the Dust Bowl during the 1930s. Another term was Black Blizzard. They could reach as high as 2000+ feet and black out the sun. Pictures courtesy of Wikimedia - Public Domain, US Gov't Photos.

Tags: Depression, Dust Bowl, drought, Midwest, Great Plains, climate, crop damage, heat, environment, manmade disasters, 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Beating the Blog Tour Blahs - A Few Ideas For Authors and Tour Hosts

After an abbreviated discussion with author Toby Neal about her post Is the Blog Tour Dead , I thought I'd do a little post on the subject as well. (I'm typing with 2 fingers, so it'll be short). No, I don't think the tour is dead - it's still a great way to get the word out on a new book release. I do think, however, that with the number of authors and book releases, that saturation is a problem as well as (sometimes) a lack of imagination. There are some great bloggers and reviewers out there, but let's face it; after reading a half dozen interviews with the same author, often with similar post titles, one's eyes can begin to film over.

Here are some ideas I think might jazz things up a bit.

Interviewing the Author:

The usual subjects include childhood, favorite books, influences, creative process. How about including a few personal recipes, cocktails, personal DIY hints, etc.  What kind of car do they drive? What would they do if they won the lottery? Interviews don't HAVE to be serious...

About the Book:

Remember Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil? An entire industry grew up around that book, including various tours of landmarks, restaurants and cemeteries. You can do the same thing with a novel.

1.Interview one of the characters. Make it fun - create a talk show similar to Oprah, Dr. Phil - or Jerry Springer. For Alex Cavanugh's CassaFire tour, I created a fictional aviation magazine and interviewed his character Byron, who is a Cosbolt pilot. You could use a fashion magazine, professional journal, etc. as a vehicle to reveal more about a particular character and their background. heck, you could even do a resume or criminal record! (No, they are not always the same.)

2.Does the novel take place in a fictional town? Write up a Destination Guide for it. Is the action centered on a bed and breakfast? Do a fictional review of it.

3.Use the novel's setting and include interesting information and little-known facts about the location. (Because of its many bays and waterways, Louisiana has the longest coastline of any American state: 15,000 miles. There are no tooth fairies in Spain, but there is a tooth mouse named Ratoncito Pérez.)

4.Newspapers are a great source of ideas. Does a character die? Write an obituary. Murder, adultery, suicide? Fodder for a fake tabloid headline. Has the author created a space vehicle? Design a For Sale ad or a repair advice column.

5.Don't forget that culture/time period is also a great resource. For example, if the book is set in Victorian England, include a few facts about the era, or statistics. (In 1851, a boy born in inner Liverpool had a life expectancy of about 26 years. Much of the food consumed by the working-class family was adulterated by foreign substances, contaminated by chemicals, or fouled by animal and human excrement.)

6.Finally, try different sorts of promotional contests. Challenge readers to post pictures of your book in unusual locales (if it's hard copy), create artwork inspired by the story, or an acrostic based on the book title. Use your imagination and make it fun!

Remember, boredom is an insidious enemy so try and make your blog tour stand out in some way. If you're hosting a fellow author, promoting their book is not just a great way to be a supportive member of the writing community - it's also an opportunity to showcase your own skills and creativity. It's a win/win situation for everyone.

So, that's my 2 cents for the week. While I'm happy to promote via Twitter, Google +, Triberr and a featured authors page, I don't generally participate in blog tours because the focus of this blog remains flash fiction stories. 

My hand is better, but not greatly so. Staying away from typing has been a help, so I hope to ease back into blogging over the next few weeks. I've missed it! Hope all of you are well and keeping (mostly) out of trouble. :-)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Sunday Snapshots - From Da Vinci's Wooden Tank To Fireless Locomotives

Some photos from last weekend's trips: a visit to the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg to see a display of Da Vinci's inventions, brought to life, and to the Strasburg Railroad museum for some more modern inventions.

Photo at right:  a circular, human-powered, 20-foot wide wooden tank designed by Da Vinci. Many of his inventions were made possible by his breakthroughs in converting power from one form to another via gears and cogs, screws, pulleys, etc.

Printing press. Leonardo's press was not a new design; his contribution consisted of suggesting improvements on an existing system.
Forerunner of a machine gun. Unfortunately, the other photo didn't come out which better showed the horizontal array of gun barrels.

And from there, we jump forward in time to the steam era.

Above:  the PP&L Fireless Locomotive "D". Fireless locomotives were developed for use in places where the standard fired locomotive - and its attendant sparks and hot cinders - posed a hazard. A fireless locomotive was filled with steam from an external source; since that limited range, they were primarily used as switchers and shunters. This beautiful streamlined model was built in 1940 for the World's Fair in New York. Afterward, it was delivered to Hammermill Paper in Erie PA but at 90 tons proved too heavy for their rails. It was then sold to Pennsylvania Power and Light and was in service as a switcher until 1969.

Coudersport and Port Allegany snow plow. Built by the Russell Company between 1889 and 1894, it's believed to be one of the oldest in existence. It retired in 1945 and stood on the C and PA property until 1971. A gorgeous restoration job.

The Tahoe was in service on the Virginia and Truckee Railroad (V&T) for 51 years beginning in 1875.  A Mogul-type engine (2-6-0), The Tahoe was last used in April 1926; the engine was retired to the Carson City engine house and remained in storage until being re-activated during World War II. It was sold to Clifford C. Bong Construction Company in August 1942, and was used during the war. After the war, No. 20 was restored at Bong’s Arcadia, California yard. In 1968, the Tahoe was sold to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for preservation.

Photo: Former N & W 475 "runs around" to re-couple at the back end of the train and haul us home. 

Across the street from the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum is the Strasburg steam railroad which runs short excursions. Our motive power for the day was Strasburg Rail Road #475  a former Norfolk and Western M class 4-8-0 steam locomotive. (Number designations such as 4-8-0 refer to the number and alignment of the wheels.) It was built by the Baldwin Locomotive works in 1906 as part of the N&W's first order of class M numbered 450–499. It is the only known 4-8-0 operating in North America.

#475 has undergone a few modifications and appearance changes over the years, and performs other jobs as well as hauling passengers through Amish country. In July 2008, #475's tender was re-lettered to "Strasburg" in the N&W font.On February 12th, 2010, #475 was brought out of the shed to plow the nearly 10ft of snow left from two blizzards. That night, #475 was back in N&W appearance, renumbered to #382, and had its smokestack and cowcatcher changed for a Lerro Productions photo charter on Opening Day, February 13th, 2010. The next day it was back as the old #475 .

The inside of our restored passenger coach. They really do beautiful work at the museum.

Hope you are all enjoying your weekend. Thanks for stopping by!