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!