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.