Saturday, December 31, 2011

Tijuana Bull Fights/Republican Presidential Debates

I’ve spent the last three or four months totally engrossed by the continuing Republican Presidential Debates. Now that they seem to be over, at least for the time being, I find myself reminiscing for some unexplained reason about the Tijuana Bull Fight I attended over 40 years ago.

The debates have gotten pretty mundane of late. Each candidate has staked out his own territory and is now dancing with the girl he brought to the dance.

I don’t know why I keep watching them except to say it’s just so much fun. Bless their hearts the candidates are doing everything in their power to put on a good show, which is why, I think, they remind me so much of the trip I took to Tijuana to watch the bullfights back when I was stationed in San Pedro.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Boy Scout Camps, Mail Chutes, The Emily Morgan Hotel Across from the Alamo, and the Brother of the Mayor of Rochester, New York

Hell on Earth, a love story made good use out of a lot of unrelated events by giving the task of relating them to a caseworker. I reason I gave him this power is because I believe that even seemingly unrelated events often have something to do with each other—if you look hard enough. Not always, but sometimes.

This line of thinking, if it does nothing else, does give coincidences new meanings and increased importance because, now, you never know.

I was a boy scout in the late 1950’s in Rochester, New York. In spite of the brutal winters and rainy springs our troop managed at least one campout every quarter. We camped at the J Warren Cutler Scout Reservation but simply referred to it as Camp Cutler. We had great times but I can honestly say that after I doused the flames of my last campfire and rolled up my sleeping bag for the last time, I never gave Camp Cutler another thought. There were just too many other things going on.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The French Broad River

I live in the vicinity of many rivers that are named after prominent people. There’s the Elizabeth River named after the good Queen Elizabeth and the James River named after the equally good King James. I went to school a few miles north of the Charles River, originally named the Massachusetts River by Captain John Smith, but later renamed the Charles River by the good King Charles himself.

What better way to honor someone than to name a river after him or her—at least that was the case before so many rivers started turning up polluted, making the honor a dubious one. Nevertheless it is the thought that counts.

It is very important that when one comes upon a river in need of a name that an appropriate name be chosen. It is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. That is why I am a little disappointed by a river I recently came across in Tennessee that ran through and around the city of Pigeon Forge—and yes, I do think naming a city is just as important as naming a river and will soon address the issue of Pigeon Forge—but for this blog, we are talking about the naming of rivers—specifically the naming of rivers after people.

I was traveling the interstate when I suddenly found myself on the French Broad River Bridge going over the French Broad River, when it occurred to me that some people could be very cynical and equally hypocritical. "Who," I wondered, was this famous and at the same time infamous French broad?"

And what, I would like to know, did this French broad do that made everyone like her and at the same time, not like her that much. Sure they named the river after her but no way were they going to use her real name.

“We’ll just call it the French Broad River,” declared the townsfolk. “Everyone will know who we’re talking about.” What did this French broad do to make the people love her so and at the same time hold her in such little regard?

A google search for “famous French women in the Pigeon Forge area that may or may not have had a bridge named after them” turned up no French broads whatsoever but did note that a fire in 1856 destroyed the county courthouse and all the records of the early settlers. So maybe her name went up in smoke.

I guess we will never know the name of the old French broad.
But we can still honor her every time we cross her.
Here’s to you, French broad, gone but not forgotten, recognized but not really.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Abraham Lincoln Playground - Part One

Abraham Lincoln School metamorphosed into Abraham Lincoln Apartments


Most school playgrounds today are ghost towns if there is not an official community sponsored event going on. If they had their way most kids today wouldn’t be caught dead hanging around a school playground—even though they are designated safe zones or maybe this is because they are designated safe zones.

It was just the opposite when I was a kid because we didn’t know where else to go. As we grew older we would find our way to other places but in those early days everything seemed to start and end at the playground. My world through about the sixth grade ranged no further than about four or five blocks in every direction from my house. That put Abraham Lincoln School and its playground on the western-most border of my very small world. There was rarely a need to venture into the frontier that lay beyond it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

My Greatest Day in Baseball

One of the first books I remember reading was My Greatest Day in Baseball by John P. Carmichael and others. Published in 1951 by Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, it told, as stated on the very first page, 47 dramatic stories by 47 famous stars.

I read and reread all the stories because in the mid-1950’s baseball was still the national pastime and baseball players were still the greatest of American sports heroes. But the story I read the most was that told by Warren Spahn—the pitcher who would go on to win 20 or more games 13 times and more games in his career than any other left-hander in major league history.

Spahn’s story in the book was about the 1947 season when he won his last four games—all shutouts—to win 20 games in a season for the first time. What I liked about him was that at the beginning of every new season, people would claim he was too old and washed up. And he would always prove them wrong.

Every year was the same. He’d usually lose all his games in April, win a handful in May and June and go into July with a half dozen wins or not much more. My friends would suggest I find a new hero. But once the weather warmed up, Spahn got hot and come September, as usual, he’d be closing in again on 20 wins.

Open to Interpretation

Open to Interpretation is a website that brings photographers and writers together. They will have an open competition for photographers based on a certain theme after which they will post the winners of that contest and open a new competition for writers to write, in 300 words or less, their interpretation of those photos. I chose this photo by Ron Horbinski for my interpretation. My piece, which appears below, was not chosen but I think this competition is a fine opportunity for writers and photographers.


It started with just a bubble and then another and another, suspended in space bumping but not breaking into each other and a hole here and there and then some more and the thing that you want to do more than anything else when you see them floating by is to link them up together because they seem like they belong together and it also seems like it is your job to bring them together; but how, that is the question, and it turns out, anyway you can is the answer and once you know that this is the answer it’s not so hard and you get right to it using tiny memory strings—strings made of what; ideas, I suppose, yes it could be ideas or it might be imagination or determination or inspiration or any damn
–ation under consideration but whatever they are and make no mistake about it they are real, they are strings of something and so you go about connecting this one to that and that one to this, this group to that bundle and this hole to that eyelet, to that gap, to that fissure and you step back to look at it and think to yourself, I just might have something here; and the truth is you do have something here that wasn’t here before, something that didn’t exist before you started putting all these units, these things, these tiny, little pieces together much in the way that a lifetime of events, experience, and interaction are neatly or unneatly; cautiously, hazardously, or haphazardly; purposely or accidentally spliced together to create an existence—an entity, a special something that didn’t exist before but now is real.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

1st Aviation Brigade HAWK Magazine

As I explained in Hell on Earth, a love story, my first writing job after my caseworker got me back on track was writing for HAWK magazine after being assigned to the 1st Aviation Brigade. But I really wasn’t a writer at that point and I definitely wasn’t a photographer.

About a month after being assigned to the 1st Aviation Brigade I was given my first assignment. My order were very simple: Fly to Pleiku, home to the Flying Dragons of the 52nd Combat Aviation Battalion, use up the two rolls of film I had been given, and come back with a story.
Oh yeah. And don’t come back with any standard helicopter pictures, whatever that meant.

What could possibly be standard about any picture I took on my first helicopter flight—one which was not being conducted a few hundred feet over some famous harbor or amusement attraction but rather at several thousand feet above rice paddies
from which an occasional flash could be seen that would quickly be attended to by one of the two gunners accompanying me.

I didn’t know what my
bosses were talking
about until I got back
to learn that most of
my pictures were one
variations or another
of this:

The 52nd CAB was involved in much of the heavy fighting in the area but was also engaged in a lot of humanitarian works, as were most of the units serving in Vietnam.

The story I put together wasn’t too bad for a first ever effort but the pictures were hopeless and magazines, especially military magazines, are very dependent on pictures.

I couldn’t fly back just to take more pictures so I was in a real quandary until the Brigade historian came to my rescue. He was an artist, a very good one, and was assigned to record as much of the brigade’s activities as possible through his paintings.

I went to him, explained my dilemma, and he went to work. Before long—actually a much shorter time than the three days it took me to take several dozen pictures of treetops—he brought me the finished product, the concept of which actually gave me the title for the story.

It was two dragons—one the good flying dragon that performed good deeds for the Montagnard people living in and around Pleiku and the other the bad flying dragon that made life miserable for the enemy that surrounded the people of Pleiku.

Several years ago I located the website for the 1st Aviation Brigade and recently learned that the artist/historian who came to my rescue is registered with it. I'm excited about being able to send him this particular blog post.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The French Revolution in a modern world

Most of my posts have something to do with Hell on Earth, a love story. But I don’t think the novel or anyone in it had anything to do with the French Revolution, with the possible exception of Foo Ling who, as we know, could have been anywhere, anytime, wreaking havoc. Nevertheless, I think the French Revolution is always something worth looking at

The American Revolution is what you get when intelligent men and women are willing to risk everything they have to be free.

The French Revolution is what you get when the rich and powerful become so arrogant that the poor and the weak are willing to risk everything just to get even.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dreams: Can't sleep with them, can't sleep without them

There’s no figuring dreams. They come and go as they please, when they please, if they please. The dream itself determines the setting, the situations, and the eventual outcome. Our minds are just the screen that the dreams need to bring them to life.

Nevertheless, practically everything in a dream can somehow be tied one way or another to what’s going on in our real-life physical world. It’s the epitome of using someone for everything it can get and giving nothing back in return.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Peerless Wine Store

I only mention the Peerless Wine Store in one line in Hell on Earth, a love story, which is kind of unusual because I could probably write a whole book about that one job. The thing is, delivering booze for the Peerless Wine Store was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had.

Lowell seemed to have an almost unparalleled number of bars for a city its size. But sometimes a bar on every corner is not enough. That is why there were more vans delivering booze in Lowell than most cities have delivering pizza and the Peerless Wine Store was just one of the many enterprises dedicated to keeping shut-ins, pie-eyed.

On just a single beer run I was likely to deliver a bottle of whisky to the house where Jack Kerouac lived as a boy, deliver a case of beer to a house across the street from where Kerouac might have been drinking at that very moment, or deliver three bottles of wine to a kindly old lady—unscrewing the top off one before hiding the other two behind the sofa, and then finally make one last stop at the house of Mrs. Roussamanus to deliver her gallon jug of wine.

We never talked and I don’t even know if she spoke English but Mrs. Roussamanus was one of my more interesting customers. Anna, the owner of the store told me everyone in her family had passed away. About once a week she would call the store to have a gallon of wine delivered. She was a massive, friendly, lovable woman, probably in her 70’s but possibly in her 80’s who suffered from an illness of some kind that made her whole body shake like a rustling fruit tree in the middle of a hurricane. Anna said the wine just helped her to get through the day.

She understood the language of tipping and always took good care of the boys who delivered her wine. This is how the wine deal would go down.

I’d put her gallon jug of Port on the table, assume the ready position and wait. As I was doing this she would have already begun her approach, shuffling and lumbering across the room like a several hundred pound bowl of jello, grinning in anticipation because she knew I was anxiously awaiting the prize she was about to throw my way. By the time she reached the table her whole body would be pulsating like a jackhammer but her arms and hands would be shaking the most. I glanced down at what I knew to be my tip as the moment of truth grew near. The only question was would we be able to complete the transaction.

I was in position; my feet firmly planted on the linoleum floor and my hands at the ready for the missile that I knew was coming. Her large trembling hand closed in on the unsuspecting banana lying innocently on the table. Suddenly with her grin now an uncontrollable smirk, and in one surprisingly agile motion her hand dropped down, scooped up, grabbed what was once a banana but was now a weapon and tossed it across the room to where I stood waiting. I threw my hand out in a calculated response, intercepted and seized that banana like I would the brass ring on a merry-go-round, pulled it down out of its mid-air trajectory, stuffed it into my pocket, thanked her, turned and walked out the door. My job was done.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


A similar version of this post was originally published under the title, Memories of hand-in-hand images, in October 1988 in the Virginia Beach Sun.

There is this elderly couple that I would occasionally observe walking through the lobby of a building where I delivered mail. I remember them stepping out of the elevator, arms locked together, and taking short, shuffling steps to where I would be distributing the mail. Neither of them walked with the greatest of ease, and one could easily and humorously speculate as to who was helping whom.

There are not many details to my recollection of this couple other than that short shuffle that I would sometimes observe. But I thought about them the other night a while back at—of all places—a skating rink where kids, mostly teenagers, were whizzing around just as smooth and as graceful as most people only dream about.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Fall

Life is all about waiting for the other shoe to fall and getting out of the way before it hits you. The first shoe is just the set-up—the act of a straight man and who ever remembers the lines of the straight man?

The second shoe is the punch line and is accompanied by a drum roll. Battaboom!

A fire alarm went off the other night while my wife and I were staying in the Emily Morgan Hotel across the alley from the Alamo. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a warning that the Mexican army was back in town but I was absolutely positive that there wasn’t a fire. That’s because I, like most people, have a long history of dealing with fire alarms going all the way back to my early days at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School. And the thing is, there is never a fire, it is always a drill.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Purgatory vs. Transient Barracks

In Hell on Earth, a love story, Hank spends a little time in a transient barracks when first arriving in Vietnam. There is also a strong suggestion that Erebus, home to his caseworker and others managing the sentences being served on Earth, might be some type of Purgatory

I don’t think anyone has ever had a real good idea of just what Purgatory is, where it is, or why it is. It is a place we can easily accept in general terms—a kind of halfway house on the way to heaven. However when we get down to specifics—tolerable pain and suffering to pay for minor sins—pain and suffering that can be reduced to some extent by deeds and prayers we do or someone does on our behalf, well the whole idea gets a little bit complicated.

Friday, September 30, 2011

"Trees" by Joyce Kilmer and me

I wasn’t always a writer of prose. There was a short time a very long time ago when I wrote poetry—damn good poetry.

I was reading a book about the Appalachians, which had a chapter about the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest—the only never-logged woodland in all of Appalachia. The naming of this choice natural treasure was obviously inspired by Kilmer’s famous poem, “Trees.”

Reading the story of the forest, Kilmer and the poem reminded me of an incident that happened more than 50 years ago when I was in the third grade at Abraham Lincoln School in Irondequoit, New York.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Thrill of It All

Hell in Earth, a love story was just an idea in my head or it was an idea put in my head by Foo Ling or was it an idea put in Hank Johnson’s head by Foo Ling. But what if I got it wrong or Foo Ling was just pumping Hank or me with misinformation?

What if God and his management team on Erebus aren’t dissecting every single little thing we do and breaking it down into good or evil and then devising elaborate schemes to punish the evildoers? Might there be more to life than committing sins and being held accountable for sins?

Recently I was listening to Frank Ifield’s 1962 hit, “I Remember You.” The high point of the song, the line that I haven’t been able to get out of my head, goes like this.

“When my days are through and the angels ask me to recall—the thrill of it all, I will tell them I remember you.”

Although presumably not divinely inspired (and I realize there is no way of knowing for sure), this line does present a different perspective of God and his relationship to mankind than the divinely inspired Bible. The Bible essentially describes a judgmental God—the tough-love old Geezer in the Old Testament and the more gentle spirit in the New Testament—but always someone who is keeping tabs.

The God of the Bible is absolutely obsessed with how mankind handles the concept of right and wrong. It’s all pretty basic; don’t sin and you go to Heaven, do sin and you go to Hell and like Santa Clause, God is keeping a list.

It’s true that God gave us free will, and in essence, said we have a choice but warned us to make the right choice.

But He also gave us human nature. Even though there is this constant right versus wrong struggle going on within each of us, on the whole, my bet is that God is not that surprised by what we as a race do. Furthermore, I don’t think He even cares.

Except for exceedingly bad and almost universally agreed upon evil persons (Hitler, Attila the Hun, Stalin, Hannibal Lecter), I don’t think God is all that disappointed by the “sins” we commit down here and given the situation that He, Himself, created, I think He expects them. Frankly, I think God has too much going on to even be keeping score.

Consider this: If you were a supremely powerful, all-knowing being capable of building a universe out of nothing but a whim and a prayer, patient enough to let it develop over billions and billions of years*—most of which can only be described as very down time—and yet at the same time creative enough to let a race of humans evolve from virtually nothing into beings actually capable of understanding, to a degree, almost everything in that universe, up to a point, wouldn’t it be mighty petty to just sit up there in heaven and keep track of all the things these humans do wrong?

Maybe God isn’t a judge so much as he is an artist. And if He is an artist wouldn’t He be far less interested in what we did wrong and much more interested in how did we like it. In other words, wouldn’t He want to know what did we like best? What was “The thrill of it all?”

*Note: To get a better concept of just how long a billion years is, consider that if years were money, a billion years would be the equivalent of the cost of a cruise missile, which if dollars were miles, would be the equivalent of 2,000 round trips to the moon.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Stories of Rufus and Jessie

In Hell on Earth, a love story, I wrote about a story I didn't get published in the newspaper. The paper had run a story on the front page about placing a cardboard picture of a rhino in the zoo to make one of the rhinos (Jessie) jealous and induce her to mate with the other rhino (Rufus). They never did a follow-up, which I thought was kind of strange since it was such a strange story to begin with. I sent them this story but apparently in the newspaper business, when it come to stories about rhinos, the policy is one and done.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

There, Their and They're

Millikan High School of the Long Beach School District was on the news yesterday. CBS was there to do a feature story about teachers losing their jobs and what they’re doing to find new ones.

Nothing new there. We see that story almost every day in the news. Been there, done that.

Right. Except that I really was there and sort of did that. It was 1976 and I was a student teacher at Millikan attempting, among other things, to teach a third-year English class the correct usage of there, their, and they’re.

Readers of Hell on Earth, a love story will recognize that school, although unnamed in the book, as the one that Hank Johnson left in order to seek out the wisdom of Foo Ling in solving the problem of what to do with his life.

The teacher in the CBS story is coaching basketball on the side and trying to get subbing jobs. That is probably the best way to attack the problem.

And what was Foo Ling’s advice to Hank?

Well. Foo Ling thought that the best thing that Hank could do was get into door-to-door vacuum cleaner sales. Hank didn’t stay in the vacuum cleaner business much longer than he stayed in the student teaching business and that was probably good for everyone. Nevertheless, Hank would just like all teachers and all door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen to know that they’re there doing their jobs a lot better than he could have done.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Small talk in Baton Rouge

On my recent road trip to California I found myself just west of Baton Rouge on Highway 10 and in a strange conversation with a sheriff. He stopped me, told me immediately that I was speeding, but that he wasn’t going to give me a ticket. But he did want to talk and ordered me to step out of the car. What he knew about me was my name, I lived in Virginia Beach, VA and had no tickets or outstanding warrants.

In Hell on Earth, a love story, Hank had some pretty strange conversations with Foo Ling where they both appeared to be talking in circles. When my conversation with the sheriff was over I felt like I had just stepped off of the same merry-go-round that Hank and Foo Ling rode on.

“Where are you coming from?” he asked.
“Opelika,” I said.
“Do you live in Opelika?”
“No, I was visiting a friend. I live in Virginia Beach.”
“Where are you going to?”
“San Antonio.”
“Why are you going to San Antonio?”
“Well, I’m not really going to San Antonio. Well, I am but I actually going to Fullerton, California to visit my daughter.”
“Why are you going to San Antonio then?”
“I’m meeting my wife there and we’re going to visit the Alamo. She’s flying down and I’ll pick her up at the airport.”
“She didn’t want to drive with you?”
“Well, I wanted to drive and she didn’t want to drive so I guess you could say she didn’t want to drive with me but the main reason was she didn’t want to drive.”
“So she’s just going to San Antonio and then flying back? And you’re driving to California to see your daughter?”
“That’s correct.”
“Doesn’t your wife want to see her daughter in California?”
“Yes, she does and she’ll be flying out there in September.”
“And will you be driving out to meet her?” he said sarcastically and I was sure that he wasn’t expecting an answer.

I watch Law and Order on TV so I know a little bit about what the police can and cannot get away with and I was just about ready to ask him if he was going to charge me with anything and if he wasn’t than I was going to leave when he told me to get back in the car and drive safely. None of his questions pertained to speeding and the sense that I got from this conversation was law enforcement always has the terrorist thing going on the back burner.

And if the terrorist thing is going on the back burner and you’re a traveler (X), you definitely want to be going from Point A to Point B and back again. You don’t want to be (X) going from Point A to Point B with a stop in Point C and another stop in Point D where you meet up with (Y), who flies in, stays a few days and then flies back to Point A to await your return in two weeks, while you continue on to Point B. I’m only glad I didn’t mention that between Point C and Point D I went to Point E to visit cousin (Z).

Friday, August 5, 2011

Letters to the Editor

As readers of Hell on Earth know, writing letters to the editor was often the only newspaper writing Hank did. The only drawback to letters to the editor is that there are not enough of them. The number of papers is decreasing as is the space given to letter writers. This is too bad because what we need most in this country right now is responsible public discourse.

Letters to the editor are being replaced by a little thing called “comments” on the Internet. There are hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of articles appearing on the Internet daily about every subject imaginable and at the end of each article for the small price of becoming a member someone can record a comment to the article they just read. The most important thing to know about these “comments” is that they do not represent responsible discourse.

Let’s look at how a Letter to the Editor(LETTER) differs from a Comment on a Website(Cow).

In the first place, a LETTER requires a real name whereas a COW can get by with something like Snookyburger or Catinmouse or Waggler.
A LETTER also requires a real address while a COW can be sitting in a bar in Tijuana with a laptop and a margarita or at a prison for the criminally insane—not that they don’t have a right to an opinion but wouldn’t you like to know this piece of information.

Just as it has to be written by a person with a real name and a real address, a LETTER has to have a real idea. Oh, it can be misguided or extreme or even very, very confusing but, bottom line, it has to be something that can be expressed in real words, which is the way responsible people communicate with each other. A COW writer only has to know where to find the #, @, $, &, !, and % keys on the keyboard.

There is always a real possibility of a LETTER turning into a real discussion with different people with different ideas joining the dialogue. This is not the case with COW’s where a reply of “##$@%” to “!!###$#@” followed by the rebuttal, “Oh yeah, #&$**##!#!!!” is really more like a time bomb waiting to go off.

The web, it turns out, isn’t really the place to go to find responsible discourse, which is too bad because a future where the top row of a keyboard becomes the main means of communication is going to be a real %##!$%#&&(*)^^%$# and I ain’t &%%$#!@@!#$ whistling Dixie.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Fact or Fiction

In Hell on Earth, a love story, when I decided to have Louis D’Amato hide a stash of cocaine inside his wife’s vacuum cleaner, I didn’t know how believable the story would be. I was merely looking for something that would scare the hell out of Hank and cause him to move 3000 miles to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It wasn’t until the final days of production that I discovered this article.

I especially liked the part where authorities believed that the cocaine was hidden in the vacuum cleaner when it was being refurbished in Juarez, Mexico. When I absolutely, positively couldn’t bring myself to knock on another door to sell a vacuum cleaner, I began working in the back of the store refurbishing old machines. I guess it is just a sign of the times that now we even ship that crummy job out of country. Unbelievable.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Connecting the Dots

When I wrote Postal Service I didn’t have a name for my main character until I was pretty far along. I wanted to reference Johnny Cash’s rendition of The Ballad of John Henry since I was a carrier and the Postal Service was banking its future on machines that would replace the clerks and carriers. Once I put that song in I decided to name the mailman Henry Johnson, which quickly became just plain Hank.

Since Hell on Earth, a love story is the story leading up to Postal Service, Hank picked up his second leading role. But I wanted to pay tribute to another singer in this book.

John Prine is a great songwriter and storyteller. Like Hank, he was also in the Army—Hank in Vietnam and John in Germany. Some of Prine’s most famous songs dealt with the Vietnam War and the similarities don’t end there. He also just happens to be an ex-letter carrier who delivered mail in Chicago, which is where Eddie Repulski set the door-to-door vacuum cleaner selling record of 60 machines in one month.

In Hell on Earth I write about the Bob Hope Show and the influx of GI’s coming to Long Binh to watch it. There was a fairly large amphitheater but it was not big enough to accommodate everyone. So many of the men were content to watch the show from the top of a telephone pole “the way John Prine listened to Little Richard sing Tutti Frutti on a beach in Indiana when he was nine years old.”

A novel can be many things but it is almost always a string of individual and often unrelated events that when brought together somehow gives new meaning to them all. Take a little war, an interesting part time job, a lot of other not so interesting jobs, a favorite song, an idea you get riding home from a date one night, a Charles Bukowski poetry reading on Halloween night and before you know it you have a book staring back at you on the computer screen. And that’s not all you have.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fullerton, California

I was recently in Fullerton visiting my daughter and her husband. The three of us attended the Thursday night Farmer’s Market and I learned about the website Here is my Fullerton story.

In a nation that talks about the American small town in the past tense I would like to say that the small town atmosphere we all long for is alive and well in Fullerton. With a population of 132,000, Fullerton isn’t a small town but the Fourth of July fireworks show—free and easily accessible to everyone and the abundance of block parties going on that day—made it easy to think I had stepped back in time. In fact the last block party I attended may have been back in New York in the 1960’s.

I have been to many firework displays over the years but the playing a patriotic music to accompany the show is also a practice unique to Fullerton—at least in my experience. This was my second Fourth of July in Fullerton and I expect to be back again next year.

There is a section on the Fullerton Stories website entitled “Word on the Street.” Let me tell you what the word is on the 2500 mile-long Route 40, probably one of the longest streets in the country. I was driving in Oklahoma on my return to Virginia Beach and had stopped at a MacDonald’s. I was wearing a Fullerton tee shirt and walking to a table when a couple stopped me. They said they lived in Fullerton many years ago. I smiled, told them I had just been visiting my daughter there and thought that was the end of it. But he wasn’t finished. He leaned over and added, “Tell your daughter we are very (and he emphasized the word very) envious of her.

So that is the word on the street.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Stellar Visitors Everywhere

In Hell on Earth, I write about a lot of events that seem to be tied together even when they occurred many years or often decades apart. Maybe that’s just the writer in me trying to tie things together.

One such event was the publication of my first free-lanced article in the LA Times entitled Tall Tales about a Stellar Visitor. There was just a short mention of the article in the book but there was much more to Tall Tales about a Stellar Visitor that made the event important enough to include in the novel.

The story starts on a quiet night in San Pedro when Cecil and I are sitting in a bar discussing the world and how we could fix it if someone gave us a chance. A man sitting next to us, possibly recognizing our unutilized potential announced to us that he was from Alpha Centauri and that he was down here observing. We spent the next several hours quizzing him to see if he was legit. I believe at one point we put a lighted match inside the heel of his shoe to see if he could feel pain. We also played a little pool with him to see if he had any superhuman skills. We also allowed him to buy numerous rounds to possibly determine just how big of an expense account someone traveling from another star might have to play around with. What we learned was that yes he could feel pain and no he didn’t have any special skills and yes aliens did travel quite comfortably. In the end we couldn’t reach any conclusion as to whether he was telling the truth and eventually returned home and forgot about the alien.

A few months later I picked up the LA Times to find an article about 22 Oregonians who had sold all their possessions and vanished in preparation for a rapture event they believed to be right around the corner, where most rapture events seem to be waiting. These faithful were led by the Bonnie and Clyde of the rapture movement, Marshall Applewhite, who called himself Bo and Bonnie Nettles, who went by the nom de plume Peep. Get it? The obvious question with these kind of stories is how much of it can or should we believe. In my article I related the story about the man in San Pedro from Alpha Centauri, if in fact he really was from Alpha Centauri and if in fact we really were in San Pedro. Again that should have been the end of it but just as some wells never go dry some stories never die.

Twenty years later, living in Virginia Beach, I picked up the paper again to read that 39 members of a cult group, “Heaven’s Gate,” had successfully committed suicide to coincide with the passing of the comet Hale-Bopp overhead, which apparently was their ride out of here. No word on whether the rapture was successful but get this, “Heaven’s Gate” was led by the dynamic duo Bo and Peep.

Put all these things together—the man claiming to be from Alpha Centauri, the Oregonians following Bo and Peep to nowhere, my article debunking the hysteria surrounding these missing Oregonians based on my actual meeting with an alien in a bar, and then the re-appearance of Bo and Peep in yet another trip to nowhere and I decided the episode earned at least a mention in a novel involving more than a little unexplained coming and going and at least a few stellar visitors.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Fact or Fiction

What came first, the chicken or the egg?
What came first, the fiction or the fact? Or are they the same?

I wrote the fictional story, Hell on Earth, a love story that bears more than a little semblance to my own life. The main character in my story, a likable guy named Hank, who is, in fictional life, me, is writing a story about his life—much like I am doing. What a coincidence.

So, there you have it. One facet of my life is writing a story about it, which is the reason why one facet of Hank’s life in Hell on Earth is writing a story about his life. But there is a problem.

I think what I am writing is a fictionalized account of a real event.
So does Hank, since he is, in fact, the fictional me. But he doesn’t have a clue.
In my story, I have him being manipulated by outside forces, ones that he is unaware of, forces that lead him to write Hell on Earth, the novel, coincidently, that I wrote.

So a better question might be, “Who’s in charge?
The fictional answer is obviously, “The Erebians.”
The Factual answer: “Beats me.”

Friday, June 10, 2011

I Know These Kids From Somewhere

Dalat was one of my favorite cities in Vietnam and this just might be my favorite picture. Unlike most of my assignments, I wasn’t working with any particular unit. I was only writing about the city, about a university in the city and about how the city was trying to stay as far away as possible from the war.

This boy and girl followed me most of the day and pretty much forced me to take their picture. I really didn’t think I had anything until I got back to Long Binh and took a closer look. What I saw was my sister and myself twenty years earlier. The two of us were inseparable—whether in Rochester or in Lowell, Massachusetts visiting our mother’s family. As the first two grandchildren on mom’s side it goes without saying that the two of us were the subject of countless photographs.

Each one captured us standing next to each other, sitting next to each other, lying in the sand on the beach next to each other or poking our heads out of a car window. We posed on steps, in doorways, in front of picnic tables and behind any prop put in front of us.

Even in those simpler times my sister wouldn’t be walking the streets in pajamas and I’m not even sure if they had flip-flops in those days and even at that young age she was too stylish to go with this particular buttoning arrangement. On the other hand, I can say with certainty that this was my style from the beginning. The only shirts I ever remember were striped shirts and sneakers were the only shoes I ever remembered wearing.

But what I like most about the picture is that this boy and girl, and I assume they were brother and sister, were joined at the shoulder, elbow, hip, knee and ankle.
There is no denying that these two kids had captured our pose.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Angelina, the waitress at the pizzeria

The name of the sinner banished to Hell was going to be Rasmoth from the beginning. I don’t know why but like all names, after awhile it grew on me.

Hank Johnson, didn’t exist until I wrote Postal Service but once the writing of Postal Service became an integral part of the Hell on Earth story, I had to make Hank Johnson the earthly reincarnation of Rasmoth.

Angelina was a different story. She went through more name changes than Prince Rogers Nelson.

Sometime between when I first got the idea for Hell on Earth back in 1974 and when I finished it in 2011 I bought a couple of Louis Prima albums at a garage sale. I liked his sound but that would have been the end of it except that somewhere along the line Mazda also discovered “The Lip,” then “Jump, Jive an Wail” was back on the radio and suddenly there was a whole new world of Louis Prima enthusiasts. I found myself buying some CD’s to replace the scratchy albums I had stored away.

For a long time I had Rasmoth going to a diner after completing the story that led to his banishment to Hell but decided instead to offer a little tribute to Louis Prima by having him visit Angelina, the waitress at the pizzeria.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Flying Silos

I was in the last days of my army enlistment and because I had told my CO that I wanted to write for a newspaper, I was in the early days of my two-month internship with the San Pedro News-Pilot.

As the story in Hell on Earth relates, it was really a judge at the gates of heaven that wanted me to be a newspaper writer, but who knew. I was doing my best to impress my editor but the truth is I was doing very light feature stories and probably wasn’t going to make a name for myself in the short time allotted.

And then one day something happened. It may have been due to interference from some outside force or it may have just been dumb luck. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. But I stepped outside my apartment on the upper end of 20th Street in San Pedro, looked down at Los Angeles Harbor, and saw a raging fire and columns of smoke coming from the silos that lined the docks.

I returned to my apartment, grabbed my camera and began taking pictures. It could have easily resulted in just a lot of pictures of smoke, just as in Vietnam I took a lot of pictures of treetops; but this time I got lucky.

As I snapped away, I saw through my lens one of the silos explode and go airborne and suddenly, in an instant, I didn’t just have a picture of a fire but now I had an awesome picture of a fire and a silo looking like it had just been launched from Cape Canaveral —one that was easily newsworthy.

I brought it to my editor and they published it, which would have been good enough but then something better happened. The next day he told me that the picture had gone out over the wires and other papers, I seem to remember the Cleveland Daily Plain being one of them, had picked it up.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Looking at Herkimer

My daughter is visiting her husband’s family in Herkimer, NY this week. Herkimer is a town I can never forget. It is about mid-way between the two pivotal cities in my life when I was a kid, Lowell, Massachusetts and Rochester, New York. A lot of what I write draws from events that occurred in these towns.

Our early trips between the two cities were by train and I remember very little about the countryside passing by outside the train. Inside the train it was a different story. I remember going back and forth from one car to the next with my sister, much to the annoyance of the conductor and the other passengers. I also remember one drink after another from the water dispenser using those cute triangular paper cups that I never see anymore. It was about a 13-hour trip so I also remember that at some point we would both get sick.

In time we began taking the trip by car, always using routes 2, 5 and 20, roads that passed through every town—and I do mean every town. It was a longer trip this way—usually two days and while mom enjoyed the scenery us kids found it very tedious. As with the train, we usually showed our displeasure by getting sick at some point.

In 1957 one of the marvels of the 20th century was created. The New York State Thruway followed the same route as the other roads but usually traveled far enough away from the towns that the only way you knew they were there was because the exit signs announced them.

Herkimer sits on the banks of the Mohawk River and what I remember most about it is that it was big enough that I knew it was there and at the same time it was small enough that I could see the whole city at one glimpse. We never casually just found ourselves in Herkimer and we never needed a sign telling us where the city was. The city, itself, called out to us and to other travelers as we drove by, “Hey, travelers, this is the city of Herkimer.”

There are other similar cities. Albuquerque and Salt Lake City come to mind. But Herkimer is the one I remember from those trips where we must have passed through or by a hundred villages, towns or cities and seemingly none ever stood out from the rest.

Unlike a lot of cities, if someone tells me they’re going to Herkimer, I can picture in my head exactly what they’ll see when they get there.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Why a Pornography Writer

I knew when I started my novel Hell on Earth that becoming a newspaper writer was going to be Rasmoth’s punishment but I didn’t know what sin would send him to Hell (Earth).

I was going back to Rochester in 1975 for Christmas break with two ex-CSULB students. We were three complete strangers whose only involvement with each other was driving a non-stop, cross-country marathon from about 4:30 Friday afternoon when they picked me up after my last class until 6:00 Sunday evening when we arrived in Bristol, Virginia. You can learn a lot about someone in a 50-hour car ride. Most of it you forget because you never see them again but some of it sticks.

The girl, whose car we would be riding in, was quitting school and returning home to Connecticut. She was having some problems with her fiancĂ© or was hoping to become engaged or wanted to break the engagement off. It was something like that and I only remember that she wasn’t very happy about going home.

The guy, on the other hand, was very relaxed. He had graduated the previous year with a teaching credential much like the one I was working toward and was teaching composition at a local junior college. He also had another job that provided him with a little bit of extra spending money.

He wrote pornography inspired by pictures a publisher would give him. He told me that when he finished a story he would shuffle the pictures and come up with another different story.

The thought of a composition instruction writing pornography on the side had never crossed my mind, and he could have even been making it all up, but once I knew that the job existed, or that at least one person was doing it, I knew that I had found my condemnation-to-Hell sin for Rasmoth.