15. November 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: Literary Good Stuff, Memoir
The Front Cover - if there was ever a dust-jacket, I don't remember it

The Front Cover – if there was ever a dust-jacket, I don’t remember it

Thanks to the wonders of the fully-engaged internet, I finally got around to finding and replacing a book that I had as a kid. It was a collection of poetry, with nice little introductions to each poem aimed at enlightening the junior reader. I certain that I had this book as one of my Christmas or birthday presents sometime between the age of eight – when I began to read confidently – and the age of twelve when I was doing so voraciously. I remembered the poems in the book better than I recollected the title: there was The Lady of Shalott, and The Highwayman, poems by Longfellow, Kipling, Edgar Lee Masters, William Shakespeare, Robert Service and Robert Browning, John Greenleaf Whittier, an excerpt from The Lays of Ancient Rome, a comic bit of verse from W.S. Gilbert, Coleridge’s’ Kublai Khan and a poem by Robert Nathan about two English teenagers venturing to Dunkirk in their own sailboat to rescue the British Army. The poems were enlivened by simple line drawings. Of course, some of these poems were further set in my mind by being assigned to memorize them in Mr. Terranova’s sixth grade class, but in its way, this slim little hardback book was an excellent short compendium of old poetical standards, of the sort that once everyone knew and could recite a verse or two from … or at least recognize an illusion dropped into ordinary conversation or in a popular novel.

Eventually, just about all our childhood books devolved on me. I was the first of my parent’s children to produce offspring, and they took the opportunity of packing up just about every scrap of the remaining kid-lit in their house upon the occasion of the Air Force offering a generous hold baggage allowance after that year that she spent living with my parents. They obligingly directed the packers to the kid-book library, the few personal items of mine left behind, and dispatched them along with my daughter’s hold baggage. But the book of poetry was not among them, although I did look for it, now and again. I can only think that perhaps it was overlooked, or had gravitated to the household of my sister or brothers. In any case, I missed it. All that I could remember was that it was called The Magic Circle. Fruitless looking for it by that name – until a year or so ago when I found it among the used book offerings on Amazon. Yes – that was that very same fabric cover, dark blue with a two-color embossment on the cover of a horse-mounted highwayman under a full moon. I added it to my wish list and ordered it some weeks ago – and there it was, arrived in the mail on Friday.

Yes, the very book that I remembered – although absent the inscription in the front from my parents, noting what birthday or Christmas that it was given to me. It’s about as lovingly worn as my own copy was – and someone took a pencil and wrote “Billy” in block letters along the long side of the pages, and “St Paul” along the top and bottom. But still – the book that I remembered so fondly. I didn’t remember that it was subtitled “Stories and People in Poetry” – but that was a thing obvious.

A Poem about George Washington - Illustrated

A Poem about George Washington – Illustrated

I leafed through it – noting that it was edited by Louis Untermeyer. I presume that he wrote the various introductory notes to the poems. And another thing that I noted too – the very maturity of the poems. I mean – it was a casual expectation up until recently that elementary- and middle-school children would eagerly read this material. I leafed – metaphorically – through several recent collections of poetry for children which didn’t contain nearly as many of the classic, heavy-hitter poets of the 19th century as this single volume did. Too many long hard words, I guess. Lots of more modern minor poets in the newer anthologies, most of whom I have never heard of, and materiel written specifically for children. And the categories for the poems were quite a bit more mundane. Looking through The Magic Circle, I see “Strange Tales”, “Gallant Deeds, “Unforgettable People,” “Our American Heritage” and “Ballads of the Old Days” among others. Practically an antique, this collection is – and dear to me because many of the poems were as challenging as they were stirring, not dumbed-down pap meant to be read in a safe space.

Anyway, I’m glad to have it back – even better than I remembered.

08. November 2015 · Comments Off · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, Memoir, My Head Hurts, Rant · Tags:

… when I used to be a feminist, and proud to think of myself as such. This was back at the time that I was a teenager, and being a feminist meant you earnestly believed that women ought to have the same opportunities for education, professional advancement, credit for personal and business purposes, and perhaps to be seen by a female ob-gyn, and generally have a wider range of choices when it came to what you wanted to do with your life. Even then the bra-burning drama and other minor theatrics seemed kind of pointless. Back in the day, as now, bras were expensive … and unless one had prepubescent-sized breasts, it was uncomfortable to go without!

Seriously – when I was a teenager and looking at my prospective life, – the feminism of that day appeared to be about having interesting and fulfilling alternatives in life. Believe me, Granny Dodie was shoving me energetically in the traditional direction of inevitable marriage to some nice guy I met in college or *shudder* high school, since she and her contemporaries had bragging rights over the quantity and accomplishments of their respective great-grandchildren and she and Grandpa Alf weren’t getting any younger, and the little girl across the street whom I used to play with when I came to visit them, why she got married at 18 and had a baby already! It was the lockstep nature of it all, that put me off, more than anything. Because I wanted some adventure, first.

There were only a couple of respectably acceptable professional options, unless one was totally driven, unusually talented, and single-minded, to boot. There was being a nurse: Guh! I hated scrubbing the bathroom, the sight and smell of vomit made me heave … seriously, I think I learned what I did then about nursing was all from reading Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, and I most definitely didn’t want any part of that. Then there was being an elementary school teacher; nope, I knew that I definitely did not have the patience – or the toleration for idiocy that was required even then, in those college programs dedicated to turning out education majors. Secretary … no, no, a thousand times no. (Although I did eventually put in a few years as an ‘admin assistant, which is what they now call what used to be an executive secretary.) I could type fairly well, but learning Gregg shorthand? Might as well learn Morse code and be done with it. There was also the glamorous occupation of being a stewardess … but I had as much affinity for glamor as I did for vomit.

So – the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s opened up a whole new and gloriously adventurous choice of professional occupations to us, and ones in which a woman would not just be the only one, or the only one of two or three in any particular profession, or class, or office. When I first went to military journalism/broadcaster school, there were three women in my class of about forty. By the time I departed the military, I had been told that the journalism/broadcaster courses were running about fifty-fifty. Quite a good few of the women I knew in my first hitch were the first, or maybe the second women in their various military specialties, since all but a handful of the most direct combat related fields had been opened up to anyone – male or female – who could meet the physical requirements and score high enough on the ASVAB to qualify. It was a great time to be a feminist; the big battles for acceptance, for educational and economic quality had been fought and won, and women of my age could enjoy the fruits of victory.

And then feminism … or those females wholly identifying themselves as professional feminist activists developed a serious case of boredom, or maybe shriveled, bitter little man-hating and resentful souls, perhaps upon discovering that all the big fights had been won already – and in some cases, won quite a while ago. The so-called feminist intellectuals discovered that busy women, reveling in those new opportunities, those new-to-them professions, or perhaps even just reveling in being able to choose freely to be wives and mothers … didn’t always toe the line of acceptable feminist thought. I began to note – yes, I did subscribe to MS Magazine – that the editorial voice, and that of the contributing writers was increasingly snotty, exclusive and doctrinaire … it was as if you weren’t really a feminist in good standing unless you were a vegetarian, single-mother, a liberal, employed in the academic world, and for extra points, a lesbian of some color or other. For me, this reached an absolute nadir with the rubbishing of Sarah Palin by the establishment feminists; a woman who combined a successful marriage, active in her husband’s business, and launched a political career starting locally and moving up to the level of state governor without being the spouse or spawn of an establishment politician was just not a good feminist for the professional activists – whose snobbery was nearly as vicious as their calculated scorn? That was about the final straw for me.

And now, we have the current crop of pathetic professional feminists; whining about guys looking at them, clumsily trying to flirt with them, making mildly risqué jokes between themselves, or wearing shirts with pictures of classic science fiction babes with blasters on it, complaining about near-to-invisible micro-aggressions, re-defining bad and later-regretted sex as rape, and about how a Catholic University not funding birth control is just the most unjust thing evah! Put a fork into current feminism, it’s done already.
Seriously, sometimes reading the latest blatherings of what the special feminist snowflakes complain about is to wonder if they don’t really want to go straight back to some neo-Victorian sheltered bubble, where their sensibilities are as delicate as blown-glass Christmas ornaments, and there is never a harsh word spoken. Those 19th and early 20th century women who campaigned for women’s rights are probably revolving in their graves so rapidly that you could generate electricity from them at the antics of these whining, passive-aggressive and vindictive spoiled children.

06. March 2015 · Comments Off · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Memoir, Old West

Work continues – at a rather slow pace, admittedly – on the two books I have currently under construction, while I do research reading for them (in a small way) and work on projects to do with the Tiny Publishing Bidness. Which has just had two old corporate clients appear out of the woodwork; I don’t know how much we can do for the second, as the electronic files for their project are nonexistent, as their corporate history was produced and printed in about 1990. Thus technology marches on. I am wracking my memory, to see if I can come up with my own estimation as to when electronically-composed documents became the norm. I would guess around that time. I used to go back and generate training documents and various reports on a computer which also ran the automated music channel at EBS-Zaragoza in the late 1980s. This usually involved two large floppy disks (one for the operating system, one for my document archive) and a tiny screen of brilliant green letters on a black background. This writing process usually had me seeing white objects in shades of pink for at least an hour afterwards.
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(Wherein I meditate upon the relationship between military members and veterans, and the commander-in-chief – present and most recent last.)
I was not a voter especially enamored of establishing a ruling class, so I was not all that enthused about Bush 2. In the 2000 elections I was considerably annoyed that it was an unedifying choice between the scions of two long-established political families. I thought it was not a good omen, redolent of hereditary politics and an established aristocracy – and that there was not that much to choose between them. At this point Al Gore had not displayed anything of his hypocritical and self-serving fixation on so-called ‘global warming’ – and I basically flipped a coin. But as it turned out, post 9-11, my daughter’s commander in chief was Bush 2, and as it also turned out, his respect and consideration for the troops in wartime was a rock of constancy. To quote the line from the TV series Sharpe’s Rifles, “There are two kinds of officers, sir: killin’ officers and murderin’ officers. Killin’ officers are poor old buggers that get you killed by mistake. Murderin’ officers are mad, bad, old buggers that get you killed on purpose – for a country, for a religion, maybe even for a flag.” Bush-2 was the second sort – he might get you killed, but it would have been for a serious purpose. (Since this is a discussion of how our presidents appear to, or appeared in the past to relate to successive commanders-in-chief, I will not be drawn into a sidebar discussion regarding the wisdom of making war in Iraq or Afghanistan in 2002.)

My daughter and I both had the same opinion of Bush 2 with regard to the military; one of affectionate and mutual respect, which he has carried on in his private life. I suppose one of the best examples of that was on the occasion of his surprise visit to Baghdad in 2003 – when he appeared, the roar of applause and cheers was unforced and spontaneous. (No, it was not a plastic turkey.) One still reads now and again of Bush 2 and Laura B. still quietly coming to meet returning troops at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, or hosting disabled soldiers at private events and marathon mountain bike rides at the ranch, and mention is made now and again of their quiet and relatively unpublicized visit to Fort Hood after the Hassan shooting spree.

Which brings us to the present commander in chief, a man who has perfected the fine art of returning a military salute with a Styrofoam coffee cup in his saluting hand. I’d join in the outrage over this, but really – the man is only behaving in the manner that we have come to expect from him in regards to the military. He appears to like the perks, the toys such as drones and Air Force 1, the deference and being able to whistle up a uniformed rent-a-crowd at any moment, but he doesn’t possess the least particle of understanding of or respect for military tradition. One gets a sense that it’s a perfunctory effort – and that military people really aren’t quite real to them; just automatons, all dressed alike, to be dispatched to Africa because of an Ebola epidemic, to Benghazi to not defend the consulate, or to hold an umbrella … whatever. While he has bestowed honors for valor on individuals at White House ceremonies, and Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Biden have now and again made a stab at a show of support and concern for dependent family members, the sense is inescapable that the Obama administration is just going through the minimum motions required for a favorable photo op.

Although Obama has made a superficial good showing with military-oriented events, they seem to be scheduled less and less often. I suppose it is a bit of a thrill for the junior troops come through a base and have a meet’n’greet with them. As indifferent as I was to Jimmy Carter way back then, I would have appreciated a visit from the commander in chief – I might even have been rather thrilled to do an interview for FEN, if it had been allowed. More telling, I think is the reception that Obama got, at a speech last month before attendees at the American Legion convention. That was an audience of veterans of all vintages – and the largest portion of them all but sat on their hands and listened with stone-faced courtesy. One might almost feel sorry for a speaker whose presentation meets with such a cold reception, but … well, his is the administration whose Department of Homeland Security head had to walk back from a report which painted disgruntled veterans as likely recruits for terrorist organizations, and was reported to have briefly considered John Kerry, of Winter Soldier anti-Vietnam war protest fame as Secretary of Defense. That such a nomination was even considered sufficiently enough to make it into the Washington paper of record should be proof enough of the veiled contempt in which this commander in chief holds for the larger part of those citizen-defenders who make up the US military.

So – coming up on another one of those Very Significant Anniversaries, I see – being reminded by the perfect flood of stories reflecting back on Jack and Jackie and that fateful swing through Texas in 1963. My – fifty years, a whole half-century … yes, it’s time again to go back to those heartbreaking days of yesteryear and recall the blighted promise, the towering intellectual and romantic splendor of the Kennedy White House, the space race to the moon, Jackie’s unerring sense of style and taste … also little things like Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, eyeball to eyeball with the Soviets, immanent thermonuclear war, speedball injections from Dr. Feelgood, and the Kennedy men porking anything female who was unwary enough to stand still for a moment. Why, yes – I was never really a Kennedy fan, per se. Nor were my family, since Mom and Dad were your basic steady Eisenhower Republicans, and maintained a faint and Puritan distrust of anything smacking of glamor, or media-generated BS. Which they were correct in, as it eventually emerged in small discrete dribbles and decades later, that practically everything about the Kennedys was fake, except for Jackie’s taste in fashion and interior decoration.

I didn’t know anything about all that – at the time. I had just started at a new school since Mom and Dad had just moved during the summer from the White Cottage to Redwood House; Miss Gibson’s class, at Sunland Elementary School – a slightly larger school than Vinedale Elementary, about half a mile up La Tuna Canyon Road from the White Cottage. There were some friends which I missed seeing every day, but I was settling in OK. We were all looking forward to Thanksgiving, and the leaves on the big old sycamore trees around the pink classroom bungalows were shedding their leaves. I liked Miss Gibson – she had hit on the notion of reading aloud to us for about half an hour after lunchtime, every afternoon; there had been a long book about the life and adventures of an otter, an Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery which had us enthralled for weeks; and if memory serves, even a few stories from The Illustrated Man. One of the other treats for her class was a radio series of dramatized biographies; about half an hour long, I think, and broadcast in late morning, after recess. That program was supposed to be broadcast, that November day; Miss Gibson dismissed us all to recess, and went to turn on the radio and turn it to the correct station in advance. Another girl and I stayed behind; some question that we had to ask of her, as she fiddled with the radio. But the first thing that we heard was a news bulletin; the President had been shot, was dead. I think the announcer repeated the announcement at least once, but we didn’t need any more confirmation, because Miss Gibson began crying. This was huge news, of course; the only other presidents being assassinated that we knew of, had all been a long time ago. We ran to tell our classmates; I suppose there would have been some official announcement later, but I can’t recall it. Certainly by the time we were dismissed at the end of the day, everyone knew. This was long before Mom and Dad had a television, but there was non-stop coverage on the radio. I rather think we listened to as much of the funeral as we could bear; my friends who did have TV said there was nothing on but coverage of it all. For a long while, we had a copy of that Life Magazine issue with all the classic pictures; arriving at Love Field, the Connellys and the Kennedys smiling from the open limo, of Oswald grimacing in pain as Jack Ruby shot him, Jackie in her blood-stained suit standing as LBJ was sworn in on board AF-1 on the way back to Washington, veiled in black with the two children in pale blue coats on either side … I might still have that issue, somewhere in a box in the garage.

They’re just about all gone now – the Kennedys. Robert was assassinated five years later, and the rest of them fell away, one by one. Only Caroline survives, and the luster of Camelot has pretty well faded. Glamor always does – in the archaic sense of something wrought by magic and illusion to disguise something otherwise rather tawdry. But while that glamor worked, they looked good, the whole clan of them; handsome, fashionable, intelligent and able – the good PR on them was impeccable. They had the best press that money could buy; just as the Obamas would be treated like precious pearls, lightly buffed with a soft lint-free cloth and displayed on a velvet backdrop, so were the Kennedys.

And just as with the Obamas in 2008 and 2009, I would swear that the mainstream media and the intellectual establishment then were just as deeply in love. How heartbroken they were over the assassination, the loss of their precious, their Golden One. Really, I believe that at least some of the resulting vicious treatment of LBJ throughout the rest of the 1960s must have stemmed from a feeling of pique – that that ill-spoken, uncouth Texas pol would dare follow in the footsteps of their idol. To be fair, LBJ richly deserved much critical comment which came his way, especially when it came to foreign policy.

What I Got at the PTA Book Sale

When the house that my parents had built for their retirement retreat burned in a catastrophic brushfire in 2003, they had only about half-an-hour warning, and so there were a good many things they simply did not have time to pack into the car, or even to remember certain items that would have been easy enough – if they had thought of them in that half-hour. One of those items was my mothers’ nearly-complete collection of the run of American Heritage Magazine. She had all but the first two or three years of issue, back when the enterprise was under the supervision of Civil War historian Bruce Catton – Mom had a complete collection of his books, also – as well as the full run of their companion publication, Horizon. I grew up reading American Heritage – of course, I delved into them as soon as I could read, and possibly even before then, as the articles within were all beautifully illustration with contemporary paintings, portrait photographs, lithographs and modern photographs of the relevant relics. Even if I couldn’t grasp the meaning of the bigger words, much less pronounce any of them, I was still intrigued.

Until the late 1970s, the regular issues all had a uniform look; a pale ivory-white cover, matte finish, with an illustration on the front cover to do with the main article and a smaller one, sometimes as a kind of humorous coda on the back cover. The ivory-white yellowed over time, and given heavy reading, the spine usually began to peel away from the rest. In the late 1970s, they flirted with dropping the standard ivory-white cover – now the cover picture spread beyond the formerly conscribed margins and wrapped around the spine. That lasted a year or so, and then it was an edge-to-edge illustration with a black, or sometimes a dark brown spine – the last gasp before it went to paperback, accepted advertising, and looked like just about everything else on the newsstand. The big articles of note seemed to concentrate on the 20th century, which became rather tiresome for Mom, and she had dropped the subscription entirely around the time the house burned, with all the back issues.

But I have begun to reconstruct Mom’s collection, especially my favorites – the issues from the late 1950s, up to when they abandoned the ivory-white covers and went to worshipping strange designer gods. Once a year, my daughter and I head for the massive PTA book sale which is held in a regional school sports and recreational facility; the entire floor of the basketball arena is covered with tables piled with donated books. I head for the Texiana, mostly – and then to the general history; most shoppers head for the novels, kid’s books and YA, so I usually don’t have to get there early and elbow my way to the good stuff. Last year I found about a dozen issues of the old American Heritage, and snapped them up – the wonderful thing about the sale is that the PTA prices to sell; a flat $1 for a hardbound book (even lavish coffee-table books) and 50¢ for a paperback. This year, I found another twenty-five or so, and it’s a darned good thing that I added three shelves to the wall next to my desk; for the printer, and the paper supplies – and now one of them filled with American Heritages. Next year, I’ll have to make up a list of the issues that I have, so as to avoid duplication. But every issue is an old friend; and many of the articles are as sublime as when I first read them.

Period log and stone farmhouse at Becker Vinyards

Period log and stone farmhouse at Becker Vinyards

Old Officer Quarters - Ft. Martin Scott

Now and again, I dream of what I would like for my very own bespoke retirement property … only that it wouldn’t be retirement, actually; I’ll be working until the day that the medical examiner’s van carts me away. Being retired just means that you do the work you want to do, not the work you have to do … but I would like to have a place done up to my own specifications. To start with – the land itself; an acre would do, maybe an acre and a half. I’d like a slightly rolling property, oriented towards the west to catch the sunset.. I’d like the land to be scattered with a few oak trees – craggy, with gnarled branches, but I’m not particular about what kind. Just oaks; post oaks, live oaks, red oaks, all for the shade, and to hang a wooden swing from a thick branch that parallels the ground. I don’t need a spectacular view, but I would like it to be mostly of countryside: perhaps a glimpse of a distant creek or river.

Victorian Greenhouse
I’d want a good-sized vegetable and herb garden; expanded from what I have now. Raised beds would be ideal; filled with good soil and the proper nutrients. A good-sized kitchen garden would have to be surrounded with a stout wire fence. It is exasperating to have a good crop of tomatoes or squash coming in, only to discover that hungry rodents and deer – those enormous rats with hooves and antlers – have helped themselves. I’d have a good variety of kitchen herbs hanging from baskets. Herbs seem to do incredibly well in coconut-fiber lined baskets; this year I have one with a thyme plant spilling over the side and hanging halfway to the ground. Perhaps my garden and dream-house plan would include an arbor of unpeeled cedar poles, from which to hang the baskets of herbs. I’d have to have a place to shelter tender plants during those cold winter snaps when it gets down to or below freezing. Plants that scrape through a cold snap in San Antonio would not do as well during the winter in the Hills … so I likely I would need a permanent small greenhouse.View - Rooster Springs

In addition to the existing trees, I would also plant more; at least a couple of almond verbenas, which start as shrubs and with any encouragement at all turn into medium-sized ornamentals. They aren’t much to look at, but the clusters of tiny flowers have the most amazing sweet almond smell. I’d also have some redbud trees for the look, and a couple of bearing fruit trees. My choice would fall on peaches, plums, and a good pecan tree. The trees would bridge the gap between the practical vegetable garden, and my dream ornamental garden; heavily tilted towards native and native-adapted plants which look after themselves. There would be roses, though – the hardy varieties which would be picked out more for their scent than their appearance. There would also be shrubs to attract birds, butterflies and bees, and a tangle of jasmine somewhere, which would bring their scent in through the windows on those spring days before the summer heat sets in.

And that leads to the house; and that is where I go off, into the the non-standard. I wouldn’t want a single big house, but an eccentric collection of cottages, set in the landscape described. I would like a little house for myself, and two or three others, one for my daughter, and another one or two which would serve as guest quarters when I had company, just enough set apart that we all would have privacy. I’d love to have a well, with one of those old windmill pumps, to bring the water to an above-ground concrete or wooden cistern on legs … just as I have seen on some old properties around the Hill Country.
As for the little houses on the property … I would prefer Craftsman-style bungalows or small Texas farmhouses, maybe even a one or two of them might be repurposed log cabins. The cabins would be the kind with a main room and a loft bedroom over, a kitchen lean-to on the back and a deep porch across the front. One or two of those would suit just fine, but even just a couple of those kit houses from Home Depot would work well, assuming that I could adorn them with vintage architectural surplus.

The final element would be a separate entertainment kitchen – just one large room set up to do brewing and cheese-making, an industrial-sized stove and a deep sink, and outside of it, another deep porch with a barbeque grill and enough space to throw a good party. I’d have an area nearby this all paved in brick or stone; and where the main garden ornament would be. That would be a fountain; a good-sized tall stone one, rather like the ones that adorn the private courtyards in the old houses I used to see in Spain, with a wide enough ledge to sit on surrounding the lower pool. And when I had a party, the guests could enjoy the sound of trickling water, the scent of almond verbena, and look at the late afternoon sun setting in the distance. I love what I have seen in the Sisterdale area; the hills, the creeks, the view to the west, with rolling hills. Ah – I might dream. It is my profession, of sorts; that dreaming thing.

(Crossposted at my book blog)

Oddly enough – guns were not a terribly real presence in the household – or even the neighborhood where I grew up. Dad, and our near friends and neighbors didn’t hunt, and as near as I can recall, none of them were obsessed collectors. I never even saw a firearm, in use on on display – save in the holsters of law enforcement personnel – all the time that I was growing up. The use of firearms of any sort was an issue so far off the table that it wasn’t even in the same room. Oh, my brother JP had cap pistols, and Dad did possess two sidearms – a pistol, which may have been a Luger, and with which he nailed a particularly annoying gopher one evening with a clean shot through the nasty little buggers’ head – and a Navy Colt (actual model unspecified), which was rather more of a relic than a useful firearm. I saw it once and once only.

Dad kept those firearms in some secure place in the house; I do not know where, never wondered and none of us children were never motivated enough to search for them. We just were not that curious about guns, even though the Colt had a story behind it. Mom and Dad had found it secreted away between some rocks on the beach, in a battered old-fashioned leather holster, I think about the time that they were living in Laguna Beach when Dad had just gotten back from a tour of Army service in Korea – or possibly this happened when we were all living in GI-Bill student housing in Santa Barbara. From what Mom had said, some six or eight months before they found it, there had been a robbery of a local gun collector. They didn’t hear about the robbery for months or possibly years afterwards – so, they kept it. I don’t imagine Dad ever attempted to fire it, although being a tidy and logical person, he might have cleaned it up before putting it away.

Being a west-coast suburban sort of person, and since Dad and none of his friends were hunters – guns just were not a presence in real life, save in holsters on the hips of law enforcement personnel. As strange as it may sound to a European, or to someone from an American inner-city sink, it is entirely possible to live for decades without ever seeing anyone but a law enforcement officer carry a weapon, or witness an act of gun violence or the aftermath thereof. Just chalk that up to being a middle-class person with absolutely no inclination to walk on the wild side … of anything. It is possible that any number of my friends and neighbors at the time, or since then, had a side-arm or long gun which they kept quietly in a closet, or in the glove box of their car. Taking it out and waving it about was just not the done thing.

In point of fact – I never even handled a weapon personally until well into my military service; first an M-16, which I had to qualify on sometime in the early 1980s, and then again with a Beretta pistol in the early 1990s, upon being suddenly faced with a TDY to Saudi Arabia, better known as the Magic Kingdom. American military personnel with orders there had to be qualified to handle that sidearm. Fortunately, the orders fell through once the powers who issued them realized that I was not the flight-qualified documentary photog they were looking for.

And then I finished up settling in Texas, and turning to writing historical fiction, in which guns of various sorts do play a part. Again, although Texas is supposed to be the wild, wild, gun-loving west, personal weapons generally they aren’t any more visible here then they were back when I was a kid … although I do believe more of my friends and acquaintances here do have them – mostly as collectors and historical enthusiasts. Again, usually only the law enforcement officers carry openly … unless it is a historical reenactment event, and then it’s katy-bar-the-door. Through the offices of another blogger, I did manage to get a brief course in the use and maintenance of an early Colt revolver, and through the good offices of another friend, we enjoyed an afternoon of black-power shooting on a ranch near Beeville. But all of that – and a bit of ghost-writing about early revolvers is about all that I have ever had to do with guns. I should hate to think that I might need more than this – because it will truly mean that my world has changed, and not for the better.

(Crossposted at my book blog)

Blondie and I hit Sam’s club this afternoon for some holiday oddities and endities, and as we were heading out to the parking lot, Blondie remarked that everyone seemed rather … subdued. I couldn’t really see that the other customers were any more depressed than usual, wheeling around great trollies piled full of case-lots and mass quantities than any other Sunday, as I am still trying to throw the Cold From Hell – now in it’s third week of making me sound as if I am about to hack up half a lung. But that is just me – good thing I work at home, the commute is a short stagger to my desk, where I do the absolute minimum necessary for the current project, and another stagger back to to bed, take some Tylenol, suck on a cough drop and go back to sleep for several hours. The cats like this program, by the way – a warm human to curl up close to, on these faintly chill December days.

I am sick, and we are coming up on the second anniversary of Dad dying … the day after Christmas itself, if his last and terrifyingly sudden illness wasn’t enough to blight the season for a good few years to come. The murder in our neighborhood a couple of weeks ago, the massacre of school-children in Connecticut on Friday … although we didn’t personally know anyone involved or affected at first hand, those events still cast their own blight. The results of the November election also cast a very long shadow. We – those libertarians and fiscal conservatives – know that there is a financial cliff coming, and no means left now to avoid running over it. Even the most cheerful among the libertarian/conservative bloggers are saying essentially, ‘let it burn.’ Let it all happen and be done with, and when it is over, then we can begin the long chore of rebuilding. No, the mood of holiday good cheer is very hard to maintain, amidst all of these personal and national disasters. Among the few happy shreds that I can take away from these last few weeks of 2012 is that at least this year I can afford to buy presents for my nearest and dearest, which wasn’t always the case in recent years.

But I know what Blondie means about people lacking enthusiasm for Christmas. It seems as if we are all just going through the motions this year – a demonstration of reassurance to children that everything is absolutely OK, and this will be the most perfect Christmas evah! Never mind the New Year, hanging like a dark cloud and rendering the standard expressed wishes for a happy one fairly hollow. The New Year will not be happy; of that we can be certain. It actually rather reminds me of the last Christmas that we spent in Spain – 1990. This was during the run-up to the First Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein was given a deadline of January 15th, 1991 by the UN to vacate Kuwait … or else. And all that winter, we watched American forces pass through Zaragoza, heading ‘down-range’ to Saudi Arabia. We watched the base being surrounded by high-banked rolls of concertina wire, and new security measures put into place, as the minutes and hours and days ticked by. That was the year that I put off buying a Christmas tree until the very last minute and had to settle for a two-foot tall plastic one. I do not recall what I bought for Blondie as a Christmas present; very likely a Lego assortment of some kind. And our Christmas that year was celebrated under much the same kind of cloud … because there was a holiday, and children who expected presents and jollity and the decorated tree and all, and parents obliged because of course that was what was expected and who knew what would be happening by the next Christmas … but every one of us did so knowing of the deadline, and knowing what would happen when the deadline passed.

With this current situation, there is no set and specific deadline to dread – only the certainty that no good will happen once it is passed.
Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.

My family was, for various reasons, devoted to the first Upstairs, Downstairs series, back in the day. Mom loved the whole dichotomy of the ‘family’ upstairs, and the servants, working away behind the scenes and below stairs – very likely because her father, my Grandpa Jim was engaged in practically life-long service to a wealthy family living in a magnificent mansion. Dad had a mild guy-crush on Rachael Gurney, who played Lady Marjory Bellamy – she was what Dad apparently considered the perfect upper-class Englishwoman. And I loved it all because it was … England, that very place that three of our four grandparents had come from, and during the two decades that were pictured in the show. The outer world of Upstairs Downstairs was what they would have remembered; the music, the manners, the fashions, habits and social customs, the scandals and events.

So we followed it devotedly, even as we admitted to each other that it was really a high-toned soap opera in period costume. I think primarily the reason that it succeeded on those terms was that it was entirely character-driven. That is, the characters drove the plots, and they were pretty consistent over the arc of the show; there was a womanizing rake – actually two of them, one upstairs and one down – the imperious lady and her devoted sour-tempered maid, the upright lord of the house, several charming ingénues – and their affairs of state and otherwise, personal crises large and small, courtship, marriages, birth, death … the whole enchilada, as it were. And always in the background there was history going on, but it usually took a back seat to personal lives and concerns. Which is how it is for most of us; what we do, the decisions that we take are driven by our characters and our needs. So, dialed up for dramatic purposes, the Bellamy saga managed a high degree of consistency that way.

And now we come to the new Upstairs, Downstairs iteration … and a couple of episodes into the second season, it is not going well, character and plot-wise. It was a good idea, to update Eaton Place to the 1930s, and bring in a whole new upstairs and downstairs family, with the character of Rose Buck to tie them together, but it’s already gone south, between season one and two … which we have easily deduced from the rushed manner in which the transition between the two was made. You mean – now they have two children? And the mother-in-law died? (And they killed the monkey… not a good start, FYI, and it matters little that it was a well-meant accident.) And Sir Hallam will be boinking his sister-in-law, who doubles as a Nazi spy? Hooo-kay, then. There could have been a whole season of character-developing high-toned soap opera worked in, between the end of one and the start of the second, but apparently everyone wanted to rush on to the drama of historical events. Pity, that – what they finished up with was plot-driven characters; where the needs of plot drove the characters to do things that radically changed what they had first appeared to be ... which is very likely why one of the key originators of the original and the follow-on series departed at speed, while the other had serious health problems.

No, it’s not a bad thing do do plot-driven characters, especially in the confines of a historical narrative, but abruptly contradicting the established character, and rushing over certain developments? Sigh. I guess we’ll just have to wait for the next season of Downton Abbey. At least, they are not doing things in a mad rush ... although they did rather hurry through WWI, and muddled the sequence of the end of the war and the great influenza epidemic.

(Cross-posted at my book-blog website)

I did a tour in Korea in 1993-94, which hardly makes me an expert on the place, seeing that I have that in common with a fair number of Army and Air Force personnel over the past half-century plus. Reading about the expected fallout from the change of régime-boss north of the DMZ I think of that tour now as something along the lines of being put into place rather like an instant-read thermometer: there for a year in Seoul, at the Yongsan Army Infantry garrison, where I worked at AFKN-HQ – and at a number of outside jobs for which a pleasant speaking voice and fluency in English was a requirement. One of those regular jobs was as an English-language editor at Korea Broadcasting; the national broadcasting entity did an English simulcast of the first fifteen minutes of the 9 PM evening newscast. I shared this duty with two other AFKN staffers in rotation: every third evening, around 6PM, I went out the #1 gate and caught a local bus, and rode across town to the Yoido; a huge rectangular plaza where the KBS building was located, just around the corner from other terribly important buildings – like the ROK capitol building. Once there, I’d go up to the newsroom – which was a huge place, filled with rows of desks and computers, go to the English-language section, and wait for any of the three or four Korean-to-English translators to finish translating the main news stories for the evening broadcast, correct their story for punctuation and readability, stick around to watch them do the simulcast at 9 PM, critique their delivery.

These various activities put me out and about in Seoul, and made me Korean friends and working acquaintances that had nothing to do with the military, especially at the KBS job. I got to know the translators fairly well. They were all native Koreans, whose education or life experiences had led to them being a fairly cosmopolitan bunch and fluent in English – translators, particularly Miss Min, since we would catch the same bus after work, heading back to the neighborhood of Yongsan, and the old elevated traffic roundabout. I think now, that was one of those times that I liked best – the bus ride; seeing the lights of the city reflected a thousand times in the dark-serpentine shape of the Han River as the bus went over one of the many bridges, back towards the Christmas-tree-topper shaped tower that crowned the Namsan Hill. There would be the scent of vanilla cake baking, when the bus passed by a certain place where there was a commercial bakery; even with the bus windows closed against the winter cold – and Seoul was bitter cold in winter, with a wind that came straight off Siberia – we could still smell vanilla cake.

I liked Seoul very much, at those particular moments, as much as I liked the Koreans that I worked with, and encountered on the subway or riding the bus: tough, jolly, out-going and hard-working people, possibly the most snappy dressers on the face of the earth outside of the Italians, but intensely patriotic. Someone once described them as the Irish of Asia, and that struck me as a fair parallel.
But all the time I was in Korea – being at an Army base – we couldn’t help being aware of the situation; that the DMZ was just a short distance away, that Seoul itself was in range of heavy artillery fire from the north, and that as regular as clockwork, the NorKs would indulge in a bit of sabre-rattling; Another internet commenter called this the “Korean Motherland Unity Game of Repeated Chicken” – every six months to two years there would be a bit of public theater intended to remind everyone that the North Korean establishment was there, bellicose, somewhat relevant – and that there was some kind of concession to be extracted from the outside world. The old-time Korea hands that I knew and my Korean friends were relatively blasé about it all. Perhaps the Norks could level Seoul, if they wanted to – but Miss Min and the other interpreters doubted very much that any but the most well-disciplined and elite Nork troops could make it past the first well-equipped grocery store south of the DMZ, let alone Electronics Row … and the Nork military anyway hasn’t fought an all-out war for real since 1953. But figuring out what is going on inside North Korea anyway was a bit like looking at a sparse scattering of accounts from inside, and consulting a Magic-8-Ball. Riddle wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in an enigma doesn’t even begin to come close. Will the Norks go out with a bang, or whimper? What does the Magic 8-Ball say?

What is pretty certain to me at this point – and I’m not nor ever have been any kind of intelligence wonk – is that North Korea likely can’t last very much longer. The dynasty of Kims and their allies are like an extended crime family, sitting at the apex of a structure that looks more and more like a country-sized labor and concentration camp. The place is stripped bare – even the mountainsides are stripped of trees for firewood. When it comes to food, North Korea isn’t even able to economically support itself, having nothing left to trade to the outside world, save possibly nuclear arms. How long have regular famines been going on? Twenty years or so – long enough to physically stunt the growth of ordinary North Koreans, as is evident when they defect to the South. Possibly even China is tired of the antics of their psychotic little pet, after having enabled them for fifty-plus years.

So, whither North Korea? Damned if I know – but I guess that it will probably not last much longer. My Magic 8-Ball guess is that it will implode, without much warning at all, in the manner of Ceausescu’s Romania; just poof-like that. How the ordinary people of North Korea will cope with such a suddenly revised world is anyone’s guess. I don’t think they have been kept quite so hermetically sealed away that it will take a good few decades to readjust and catch up. They are, after all, the same basic physical and cultural stock as the South Koreans – who have come an amazingly long way since my father was stationed there, at the very end of the Korean War. Your thoughts?
(Earlier post here on this subject: http://www.ncobrief.com/index.php/archives/korea-meditation-revisited/
Also – Crossposted at Chicagoboyz.net)

This year, my mother has decided to break the family custom for Christmas and send an actual, delivered by UPS present, in a large carton which arrived on the doorstep Friday morning. We don’t know quite why she decided to do this, since the usual present for the last decade or two has been a check discretely tucked into a Christmas card. Maybe it’s because it will be the first Christmas without Dad. Possibly Dad was the one who thought just a plain unadorned check in a Christmas or birthday card was the most welcomed gift by adult children, and didn’t want to futz about with shopping or mail order catalogues – anyway, Mom sent is an awesomely lavish gift basket from this place, La Tienda – the foods of Spain, and we went through the basket and the catalogue enclosed with happy squeals of recognition. We came home from Spain twenty years ago, October – after living in the city of Zaragoza, while I was assigned to the European Broadcasting Service detachment at the air base there. Which wasn’t an American air base, as we reminded people with tactful delicacy; it was a Spanish air base, and we merely rented a small, pitiful portion of it, a few discreet brick buildings and a scattering of ancient Quonset huts, going about our simple and purely transparent business, humbly supporting those various American and European fighter squadrons coming down from the clouds and fog of Northern Europe and practicing their gunnery skills at a local military range set up just to accommodate that kind of trade. Really, there was no earthly reason for anyone to hassle us … not like it had been in Greece. Still, we religiously abstained from wearing uniforms off-base. The local terrorists were mostly interested in blowing up the Guadia Civil; which I thought regretfully was hard luck for the Guads, but made things easier than they had been for American military stationed in Greece… More »

(A repost from the archives, for today)
It is a sad distinction, to be the first in three generations to visit France while on active duty in the service of your country, and to be the first to actually live to tell the tale of it. For many Europeans, and subjects of the British Empire— especially those of a certain age, it is not at all uncommon to have lost a father or an uncle in World War Two, and a grandfather or great-uncle in World War One. It’s a rarer thing to have happened to an American family, perhaps one whose immigration between the old country and the new allowed for inadvertent participation, or a family who routinely choose the military as a career, generation after generation. Ours is but lately and only in a small way one of the latter, being instead brought in for a couple of years by a taste for adventure or a wartime draft.

When JP and Pippy and I were growing up, the memory of Mom’s brother, Jimmy-Junior was still a presence. His picture was in Granny Jessie’s living room, and he was frequently spoken of by Mom, and Granny Jessie, and sometimes by those neighbors and congregants at Trinity Church who remembered him best. JP, who had the same first name, was most particularly supposed to be like him. He was a presence, but a fairly benign one, brushed with the highlights of adventure and loss, buried far away in St. Avold, in France, after his B-17 fell out of the skies in 1943.

Our Great-Uncle Will, the other wartime loss in the family was hardly ever mentioned. We were only vaguely aware that Grandpa Al and Great-Aunt Nan had even had an older half-brother – a half-sister, too, if it came to that. Great-Grandpa George had been a widower with children when he married Grandpa Al and Great-Aunt Nan’s mother. The older sister had gone off as a governess around the last of the century before, and everyone else had emigrated to Canada or America. I think it rather careless of us to have misplaced a great-aunt, not when all the other elders managed to keep very good track of each other across two continents and three countries, and have no idea of where the governess eventually gravitated to, or if she ever married.
“She went to Switzerland, I think,” Said Great Aunt Nan. “But Will— he loved Mother very much. He jumped off the troop train when it passed near Reading, and went AWOL to came home and see us again, when the Princess Pats came over from Canada.” She sighed, reminiscently. We were all of us in the Plymouth, heading up to Camarillo for dinner with Grandpa Al and Granny Dodie — for some reason; we had Great-Aunt Nan in the back seat with us. I am not, at this date, very certain about when this conversation would have taken place, only that we were in the car — Mom and Dad in front, Nan and I in the back seat, with Pippy between us, and JP in the very back of the station wagon. Perhaps I held Sander on my lap, or more likely between Nan and I, with Pippy in the way-back with JP. Outside the car windows on either side of the highway, the rounded California hills swept past, upholstered with dry yellow grass crisped by the summer heat, and dotted here and there with dark green live oaks. I can’t remember what had been said, or what had brought Great Aunt Nan to suddenly begin talking, about her half-brother who had vanished in the mud of no-man’s land a half century before, only that we all listened, enthralled — even Dad as he drove.

“He fairly picked Mother up,” Nan said, fondly, “She was so tiny, and he was tall and strong. He had been out in Alberta, working as a lumberjack on the Peace River in the Mackenzie District.” She recited the names as if she were repeating something she had learned by heart a long time ago. “When the war began, he and one of his friends built a raft, and floated hundreds of miles down the river, to enlist.”
(William Hayden, enlisted on October 13, 1914 in the town of Port Arthur. His age was listed as 22, complexion fair with brown hair and brown eyes— which must have come from his birth mother, as Al and Nan had blue eyes and light hair. He was 6′, in excellent health and his profession listed as laborer, but his signatures on the enlistment document were in excellent penmanship)
“He didn’t get into so very much trouble, when he walked into camp the next day,” said Nan, “Mother and I were so glad to see him – he walked into the house, just like that. And he wrote, he always wrote, once the Princess Pats went to France and were in the line. He picked flowers in the no-mans’-land between the trenches, and pressed them into his letters to send to us.”
(There is only one family picture of William, old-fashioned formal studio portrait of him and Nan; he sits stiffly in a straight ornate chair, holding his uniform cover in his lap, a big young man in a military tunic with a high collar, while a 12 or 13year old Nan in a white dress leans against the arm of the chair. She has a heart-shaped face with delicate bones; William’s features are heavy, with a prominent jaw— he does not look terribly intelligent, and there isn’t any family resemblance to Nan, or any of the rest of us.)

“His Captain came to see us, after he was killed,” said Nan, “Will was a Corporal, by that time – poor man, he was the only one of their officers to survive, and he had but one arm and one eye. He thought the world of Will. He told us that one night, Will took five men, and went out into no-mans’-land to cut wire and eavesdrop on the German trenches, but the Germans put down a barrage into the sector where they were supposed to have gone, and they just never came back. Nothing was ever found.”
(No, of course— nothing would have ever been found, not a scrap of the men, or any of their gear, not in the shell-churned hell between the trenches on the Somme in July of 1916. And the loss of Great-Uncle William and his handful of men were a small footnote after the horrendous losses on the first day of July. In a single day, the British forces sustained 19,000 killed, 2,000 missing, 50,000 wounded. Wrote the poet Wilfred Owen

“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,–
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells”)

And that war continued for another two years, all but decimating a generation of British, French, German and Russian males. Such violence was inflicted on the land that live munitions are still being found, 80 years later, and bodies of the missing, as well. The nations who participated most in the war sustained a such a near-mortal blow, suffered such trauma that the Armistice in 1918 only succeeded in putting a lid on the ensuing national resentments for another twenty years. But everyone was glad of it, on the day when the guns finally fell silent, on 11:00 o’clock of a morning, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

“Amazing,” Mom remarked later, “I wonder what brought that on— she talked more about him in ten minutes than I had ever heard in 20 years.”
I went back a few years ago, looking for Uncle Jimmy’s combat crew, and found them, too, but even then it was too late to look for anyone who had served with Great-Uncle Will – although, any time after 1916 may have been too late. But there is an archive, with his service records in it, and I may send away for them, to replace what little we had before the fire. But they will only confirm what we found out, when Great-Aunt Nan told us all about the brother she loved.

(added – a link to haunting photographs of WWI battlefields today. Cross-posted at Chicago-Boyz, and at my Celia Hayes Blog.)

Three thousand, six hundred fifty days, more or less,depending on leap years – since the end of the 20th century. Oh, I know, calendar-wise, only a year or two off. But we don’t count strictly by the calendar. Afterwards, we count by events. Myself, I have the feeling that the 19th century didn’t truly end for good and all until 1914. That’s when the 20th century began, in the muddy trenches of WW1. All the previous comfortable understandings and optimistic assumptions of the earlier world were shattered right along with three monarchial dynasties, over the course of four years. When it was over, the world of the time before seemed impossibly far removed, to those who could remember it – a number which, as the decades passed, became steadily fewer, until that world was entirely the stuff of books, paintings and relics, rather than true human recollections. We eventually adjusted and accepted the new reality of things. The old way, and the shattering events in which it passed – became a date on a monument, a paragraph in a history text, a book on the shelf.

Being that humans are mostly optimistic and pretty adaptable, we patched together some new understandings and assumptions, which worked pretty well – or at least we became accustomed to them . . . until the 20th century ended on a glorious autumn morning, ten years ago. One day. And then we had to become accustomed to the new reality. More than three thousand dead, a hole in the New York skyline that will never be filled in again – the ghosts of twin silvery towers showing up in the backgrounds of movies, now and again, drawing your sudden attention with a catch at the heart and memory.

And three thousand-something men and women who went off to work one morning, families who took a vacation, catching an early morning airplane flight, firefighters going on shift, everyone living out those thousands of petty daily routines, most of them probably quite boring. I am certain that practically every one of those who became casualties on that morning – a name and a face on a makeshift poster, a black-framed picture on the mantel or in the obituary pages – were looking forward to the end of the workday, the end of their journey – to coming home for a good dinner, wrapping up that business trip and getting on with that portion of our life that is ours, and belongs to us and our families and loved ones alone.

But they were never allowed that luxury, of having a tonight, a tomorrow. Those lives which they might have had, would have – were brutally wrenched from them, in an organized act of terrorism, wrenched from them in fire and horror and blood, while the rest of us watched or listened – watched in person, on television, or were glued to a radio – ten years ago today.

Ten years. Time enough for children to grow to middle-school age, never remembering that time before, or the loss of a father or mother, who worked in a department in the outer ring of the Pentagon, or in an office on a high floor of the World Trade center. A foreign country to them, is that place, where once you could go into the airport terminal and go all the way to the gate to meet an arriving friend . . . and for travelers not to have to take off their shoes to go through security. Or even have to go through security, come to think on it. A world where one could have no reaction but idle curiosity upon noticing a woman in full black burka, or a nervous-appearing man of Middle-eastern appearance, taking pictures of an otherwise undistinguished bridge or power station. A world where a familiarity with the dictates of the Koran and the Hadith, the maunderings of Sayyid Qutb as regards America and the workings of a desert tribal autocracy are an eccentric interest and hobby – not a professional necessity.

Ten years. The world that was passes from memory, and we have the brutal world of ‘now.’ As an amateur historian, one of my own comforts on this anniversary is that – it was always like this. We will survive, we will live in a world that is made new and eternally renewed by events, events that will eventually fade . . .

But today, we remember.

Past anniversary posts –
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
2007
2008
I didn’t write a specialized post for 2009, and last year I only reposted some music videos.

In late August of 1975 I was 13 just a week away from 14 and a week and a half from high school when music for me suddenly changed drastically.  If you were like me, you fell asleep with a small FM transistor radio under your pillow playing soft enough so Mom and Dad couldn’t hear it.

One of those nights it was so hot that I actually left my bedroom door open so a breeze could run through the apartment.

On that night, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s “Born to Run” came over the radio in it’s entirety.  From Thunder Road to Jungleland.  That big block of wood guitar.  Those keyboards that sounded like they come straight off a midway.  That bass and drum-kit driving, driving into the night, and that saxaphone…that soaring magical flow of brass that rose me above the street right down the gangway between our apartment and the next.

I can’t tell you how many times that saxaphone literally saved my life through the rest of the 70s.  Some of it’s just normal teenage hormonal angsty bullshit, some of it was real insanity that comes from living in as a teen in a major city in the 70s.

Thank you Big Man.  God bless and keep you in his band.

“You’ll simply have to read his books, if you want to understand about Greece,” my next-door neighbor told me, very shortly after my then-three year old daughter and I settled into Kyrie Panayotis’ first floor flat (which is Brit-speak for second-floor apartment) at the corner of Knossou and Delphon streets in the Athens suburb of Ano Glyphada, early in the spring of 1983. Kyrie Panayoti did not speak any English; neither did his wife, or his wife’s sister, Kyria Yiota, who lived upstairs with her husband. The only inhabitants of the three-story apartment house who did were Kyrie Panayoti’s middle-school aged sons, who were learning English at school. And I – dullard that I am with languages aside from my native one – only retained a few scraps of high-school and college German. Given the modern history of Greece, and the long memories of older Greeks, a German vocabulary was neither tactful nor useful.

I can’t recall exactly when we hit the first linguistic snag, but it must have been within days of me moving in, lock, stock, barrel, toddler child and household goods. In mild frustration, Kyrie Panayoti leaned out the kitchen door of his apartment, and shouted in the general direction of the apartment block next door, a distance of about twelve or fifteen feet away.
“Kyria Penny!”
Almost immediately, a woman’s head with an old-fashioned kerchief tied around it, appeared out from one of the first floor (or second floor windows) – and that was my first introduction to Penny. She was English, married to a genial Greek accountant named George. She was slightly older than my own mother, her two sons were teenagers. Penny had been the British equivalent of a State Department employee, and in that capacity she had been assigned to various British consulates in Europe until she came to Athens, met and married George, and settled down into tidy domesticity in the three-floor, three-flat apartment building next to Kyrie Panayoti’s. Penny’s mother-in-law lived on the ground floor, Penny and George lived on the first – or second floor, exactly opposite mine – and George’s widowed brother and his two children lived in the top-floor flat.

I rather think Penny missed speaking English regularly, anyway – and we became excellent friends because of a mutual love of books and mad passion for Greece, ancient and modern. A love for Greece in general, on the part of us English and American eccentrics is one of those inexplicable things – rather like enduring affection for an exasperatingly self-centered boyfriend with one or two bad habits. He’s devastatingly handsome, scenic in all the right ways, erratically but theatrically devoted – but just when you have given up all hope and resolved to cut him off – he does something so heartbreakingly gallant, at something of a cost to him and with no thought of personal gain – that all is . . . well, not forgotten or overlooked (until next time). Anyway, I loved Greece, being a history wonk, and cheerfully overlooked all kinds of disincentives . . . a very real terrorism problem, endemic anti-Americanism, and a certain slap-dash approach to everything from driving habits to telephone company service. No exaggerating there: getting a phone in Greece in those days was . . . interesting, and supposedly took years, well above the time that any Americans serving at Hellenikon AB were prepared to wait. Kyrie Panayoti’s flat and Kyria Yiota’s each had a telephone jack. Mine might have had one also; I never cared enough to look for it. But there was only one telephone between the two families. They passed it between themselves, I guess according to need. Many was the time that I heard someone calling between apartments, and observed the telephone being hoisted or lowered past my kitchen window, in a plastic market bag at the end of a long length of rope.

Among the first books that Penny advised me to read – was Gerald Durrell, who wrote about his childhood in Corfu in the 1930s. He was Lawrence Durrell’s little brother; I rather think that Dad must have been a child like Gerald Durrell; entranced by wild animals of whatever sort, to the mystification of his parents – eventually being a zoologist and all, and giving us all the very best nature-walks ever, as the four of us grew up.

And the second of Penny’s recommended authors – Patrick Leigh-Fermor, especially his books about Greece: Mani and Roumeli, respectively southern Greece and Northern. Penny’s redoubtable mother-in-law was from the Southern Peloponnesus – the Mani. I read them both, traveled down into that part of the country when I could, and read the first of his books – A Time of Gifts – about the journey on foot that he had made at the age of 18; as the title goes, “On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube” in the fateful year of 1933. He took a little more than a year to make that journey, but writing about it took up the rest of his life. I bought a copy of the second installment, Between the Woods and Water as soon as it came out, the year after I had left Greece. At the time of his death earlier this month, the last installment of that journey was unfinished.

Of Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s greatest adventure? He never really wrote about that himself, although in certain circles his exploits as a British SOE agent during Crete in WWII became legend. He another SOE officer, in a daring strike by Leigh-Fermor’s band of Cretan guerillas kidnapped the German officer commanding the whole island, spirited him across the Cretan hills and mountains, and had him evacuated from Crete to North Africa. His co-conspirator, W. Stanley Moss wrote about that in his own book, Ill Met by Moonlight – which was made into a movie, in the days when movie-makers appreciated such real-life exploits. One of the grace notes to this adventure is that Moss and Leigh-Fermor left documents behind; clearly explaining that it was British commandos who had taken the general-commanding, so no point in going all reprisal-ish on the local Cretans.

About thirty years later, a Greek television version of This is Your Life reunited many of those participants. And Patrick Leigh Fermor lived for most of the rest of his life in Greece, regarded with awe and wonder, almost as a local saint.

Grannie Jessie, who had grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania, and imbibed all those do-it-yourself virtues when it came to vegetable gardens, home canning, and making ones’ own clothes, drew the short straw when JP and I were small. Lucky Grannie Jessie got to supervise the dying of the Easter eggs. We would usually be spending part of Easter Week in Pasadena, since Mom would be fitting us all out with new shoes, and the proper accessories: in the early years, Pippy and I would have new hats, wee white gloves, and ornamental ankle socks to wear to Easter services with the new dresses that Mom had sewn herself. JP would have a new suit, a miniature of Dads’, with a smart pint-size fedora.

When Grannie Jessie did the shopping that week, walking around the corner to Don’s Market on Rosemead Boulevard with the wheeled wire basket, she would buy extra eggs— three dozen white eggs—and let us pick from the modest selection of packets of Easter egg dyes. You could buy just the basic packet, just a strip of cellophane sealing in six or seven concentrated little pills of dye, but we always yearned after the fancy boxes with the circular perforations on the back which could be punched out to make a holder for the dyed eggs to sit while the dye dried, which also contained a couple of wire holders, a set of transfers on thin tissue paper, and a plain wax crayon, with which JP and I could demonstrate our artistic prowess. Grannie Jessie always relented, and bought the fancy box of egg dye with the transfers and implements.

On the appointed day, she boiled up all the eggs in her biggest kitchen pot, and brought out an assortment of egg-cups, old teacups, small bowls and measuring cups, and the battered old spoons. The kitchen table was already covered with an oilcloth, but she brought out a couple of Grandpa Jim’s old shirts, and aproned us in them, back to front and rolling up the sleeves. Then she boiled up a kettle of water, while we opened the dye packet, and placed the little colored pill of dye at the bottom of each cup or bowl. Grannie Jessie’s kitchen was never fashionable, in the way of the women’s magazines: functional in the way of a farmhouse kitchen, a gas range with a metal match safe on the doorjamb next to it, and bead-board cabinets with varnish which had gone slightly gummy with age and wear. The sink was enormous, the size of a baby’s bathtub, and the plain vinyl countertops were edged with a band of metal. Her original Kelvinator fridge, with the round metal coils on top was replaced about the time I was born with something slightly more up to date. Her kitchen things were an assortment from the dime store, sturdy but worn — Depression era jelly glasses, tin metal measuring cups given away by the flour mill companies. (Many of them, disposed of at garage sales when she moved into the Gold Star Mother’s home in the mid-1970ies are now the sort of thing I see for sale in the antique malls for quite astounding sums.)

The kitchen table at Grannie Jessie’s was wedged into a narrow ell, against the wall where three windows, their sills a little above the level of the table, overlooked the driveway, the next door neighbors’ back yard, and Mt Wilson in the far distance. In the morning, the sun came into her kitchen through these windows. Grannie Jessie’s chair was wedged into the space between the head of the table and the hutch, where her crossword dictionaries were shelved next to the old-fashioned coffee grinder. Grandpa Jim’s chair was at the foot of the table, an elbow-length from the door to the utility porch, with its concrete sink and the old-fashioned washing machine with the rollers on top to squeeze the water out of the clothes and sheets. The long side of the table, facing the windows, could accommodate two chairs, three at a pinch, and was where JP and I sat for meals, where Mom and Uncle Jimmy had doubtless sat in their turn.

When the kettle boiled, Grannie Jessie brought out the bottle of vinegar and the tin tablespoon measure.
“It sets the dye properly,” she explained. A tablespoon of vinegar in each cup, and a splash of boiling water, and we watched, breathlessly as the dye pill dissolved instantly, transforming the water into opaque, vividly colored liquid. She put on another kettle of water to boil, and brought over the pot of eggs, now cooled to luke-warm, and only a few of them cracked or broken, while the steam and the scent of vinegar rose up around us. (Grandpa Jim would have egg-salad sandwiches for a couple of days.) Carefully, loading each egg into the wire holder, we slid them each— carefully, carefully— into the cups of dye, where they sank to the bottom. If the cup was one of the shallower ones, we would have to turn the egg over and over— otherwise there would be a paler oval on one site of the egg. As we gained in experience and expertise, JP and I experimented with different colors— holding an egg half in the dye of one color, then turning it over in the wire holder, and dying the other half in another. The wax crayon came into play, first resulting in pastel eggs squiggled over with a white pattern, and then JP upped the ante by dying an egg yellow or pink, then patterning it with the crayon, and then putting it into a darker color. He spent twenty minutes one year, cutting finicking tiny squares and triangles of scotch tape, to color an egg in checkers of yellow and maroon.

Even when we had dragged out the process long enough and all the cups of dye had cooled, and only one or two eggs were left, the fun wasn’t entirely over. Grannie let us pour a bit of each dye into the largest cup, and the last egg ceremoniously dipped in the murky mixture— it usually came out a rather subdued greenish or bronze color, contrasting with the pastel blues and pinks and yellows. She cleared away the cups and poured the dye remnants down the sink, but we weren’t done yet. She poured boiling water into a washbasin with a couple of clean white dishtowels in it, and while they cooled, we cut apart the delicate paper transfers— flower and bunny motifs, and crosses and mottoes. Placed bright sides down against the dyed egg, and closely wrapped in a hot towel; the transfer inked itself blurrily onto the eggshell within a few minutes. There were always more transfers than eggs— sometimes we tried two of them to one egg, but there was always the difficulty of getting the transfer to be pressed against the eggshell without wrinkling.

Eventually, that job would be done too, and the finished eggs replaced in the paper cartons they had come from Don’s Market in, and put away in the refrigerator, until Saturday when Mom would drive over in the green Plymouth station wagon, and take us— and the eggs— home. She and Dad would hide them after Easter dinner, for JP and Pippy, and I, and the children of any families who had been our guests, and we would have the fun of finding them, which was somehow never quite as much fun as that of decorating them.

Lately, I have noticed that at Easter-time, the grocery store stocks ready-dyed eggs; what possibly can be the fun of that, I ask you?

I was stationed for four years at Misawa AB, in the very north of Japan, from early 1977 until the very end of 1980. It’s a very rural part of Japan, relatively speaking; very cold in the winter. Misawa was a pretty smallish city, as Japan goes, about seven or eight miles from the coast; the countryside around is as flat as a pancake, and not terribly far above sea-level. There was a nice little mountain range to the north, within a short drive; very scenically wooded. Up to the mountains to see Lake Towada, over the mountains to Mutsu Bay; it was a very pleasant place to spend four years: Misawa’s mission then was as a security service base; a support system for a huge monitoring complex called the Elephant Cage, or just “the Hill.” Which was maybe thirty feet above sea level, which was enough to constitute a considerable height in that part of Japan.

The next big city to the south of Misawa City though – that would be Hachinohe; which was known for a peculiar style of carved and painted wooden horse sculpture. In the late 19th century and into the 20th, Hachinohe was horse-country, and the original Imperial Army establishment at Misawa had been a cavalry post. The next big city to the south after Hachinohe is Sendai – closest to the epicenter of the latest earthquake. It looks from the news headlines that a whole train full of passengers is now missing, from near Sendai. I visited Hachinohe once, maybe Sendai, too. Coming back from leave Stateside, I traveled by train from Tokyo to Misawa, coming home from leave, so I must have passed through there at least once.

There were constant small earthquakes, all during my time there; most usually just a small rattle and shake, rather like being inside a small frame building with a heavy truck rumbling past outside. In fact, sometimes it was hard to tell of it was an earthquake, or a heavy truck, the physical sensation was so similar. If we hadn’t heard a truck, then it was an earthquake. Slightly more emphatic earthquakes shifted furniture, sometimes . . . and at the old AFRTS radio/TV station where I worked, our usual indicator that it was a serious shake would be rolls of teletype paper falling off the shelves of the tall metal bookshelves where they were stored. If the paper rolls began toppling from the shelves, it was time to vacate the building. Which isn’t the recommended practice, generally – but in this particular case, there was an extenuating circumstance. That would be that the base water-tower sat about 100 feet away from the station, a creaky wooden water-tower standing on spindly 90 foot tall wooden supports. If there was ever a shake hard enough to collapse those spindly frame supports, there were good odds that however-many gallons of water in that tower would pour onto a rattle-trap frame building stuffed full of powered-up electronic equipment. So – mad dash by all staff, when stuff started rocking hard enough to fall from shelves.

Being from California, and having been through some small quakes and the big Sylmar shake in 1971 – I could be fairly blasé about the whole Pacific Rim of Fire/seismically active thing. Many of the other members of the unit weren’t – not at first. But with little ones, all the time – they’d get pretty blasé after a couple of months. But every once in a while, there would be much bigger one, which would grab everyone’s attention; once it was a pair of tremors on a Tuesday evening, almost exactly an hour apart; that was a quake which collapsed a department store in Hachinohe, or Sendai. Another time, a girl was briefly trapped in her barracks room, because her dresser slid across and blocked the door. Another shock caught one barracks resident in the middle of a shower; she shot straight out of the bathroom, down the corridor and out of the building, stark naked.

The one thing that struck me about the big quakes was that there really was a noise to them; an absolutely horrific noise. The one thing that I can easily compare it to is to imagine standing on the platform of a railway station, when a long fast train roars straight through the station without stopping. That’s what it sounds like – a long, rumbling and roaring sound; of course, part of this noise is the sound of things falling. In the Sylmar quake, I remember hearing the sounds of the sash-springs in the window-frames rattling like mad. And unlike all those movies of earthquakes – people don’t run and scream much. Most usually, they are getting underneath something, and trying to make themselves small, maybe shouting to someone in the same room or in the same building to do the same – but no running and screaming like a banshee.

This quake off the coast of Japan was several times the magnitude, and the pictures and video emerging are horrific. 8.8 on the Richter scale is something almost impossible to imagine – and to be compounded by tsunamis sweeping in from the sea, and the debris catching on fire – that just adds to the horror.

My father died very suddenly, the day after Christmas, at the age of 80. He was a research biologist, a veteran of the Korean War, and an excellent parent to all four of us; my brothers JP and Sander, and my sister Pip, and a grandfather to all of our children. I first began writing about my family in 2002, when I first began contributing to this blog. Those were the posts that everyone seemed to like the most, and it led to my first book … and which led to other books. In all of this Dad was one of my biggest fans. So – I am going back and re-posting some of the very earliest posts – those which are presently lost in the bowels of the internet.

I’ll be flying out to California on Wednesday afternoon to help Mom and my brothers and sister sort out things, all thanks to Proud Veteran for her gift of Delta miles. My parents didn’t have internet at the house, and I probably won’t have much time … but then again, I might. In any case, I’ll be back for sure around the middle of January.

* * *

When I was about three and a half, and my brother JP a toddler of two, we lived in a house away back in the hills. My parents had a penchant for howling wilderness, and any property at the end of a couple of miles of dirt road was their dream house, never mind that when it was going to rain heavily, they would have to leave the cars by the mailboxes, about a mile and a half away. The house seemed to me to be as large as a cathedral: it was actually a small cottage, as I discovered when we visited years later, and I could see out of windows that had once been far above my head. It had a graveled drive, and sat in a grove of trees, mostly manzanita and eucalyptus. There was a range of pyracantha bushes, with bright orange berries that Mom told us time and time again to NEVER put in our mouths. (JP, obedient and logical stuffed one up his nose, instead.)

Almost immediately upon moving in, my parents made a very unsettling discovery: the hillside was alive with snakes; primarily rattlesnakes of a dismayingly large and aggressive nature… dismaying because they did not stick to their usual habitat of brush and rocks, but sought out the sunny, sheltered flats around the house… where JP and I were likely to be playing. Rattlesnakes and toddlers are incompatible life forms, and no alternatives were viable. We could not be kept in the house all day, and Dad could not kill every snake on the hillside. He made a gallant try, his favorite weapon being a long handled hoe wielded with pinpoint accuracy and considerable force. Scarce a dent was made in the population, and Dad considered a revolutionary solution: knowledge.

JP and I were immediately enrolled in Dad’s seminar on “Snakes, General knowledge pertaining to, with special attention towards the dangerous varieties” and an ancillary course on first aid for snakebites.

He captured king snakes and the other harmless varieties with a snake hook, showed us the holes and shelters they preferred, let us handle them, lectured us on what they liked to eat. We were drilled on identifying them by their colors and markings, the patterns they made in the dust. For a time, there was a picture of me calmly handling a six-foot long specimen, about twice as long as I was tall.
“They eat rats and mice, “Dad lectured, “They are useful, keeping things in balance.”

Then he upped the ante and captured a rattler, keeping it in a large aquarium with a sturdy lid on the top in his study, so we could study it.
“Look at the diamond markings on the back…. Also it has a neck. In this part of the country the dangerous snakes almost always have a pronounced neck…. Listen to the sound it makes. “Dad tapped the side of the aquarium, and the snake coiled into a taut spring, tail rattling madly. “When you hear that sound, you should hold still until you see where it is coming from…. Then back away, slowly. They strike if they are cornered; given a chance they will go away. Be careful about large flat rocks, snakes like to lie out to get themselves warm. And never, ever put your hands or your feet into a place where you can’t see in.”

Grandpa Al and Granny Dodie were visiting, while Dad was keeping the rattlesnake in the den, and from the living room they could hear the sound of it buzzing distantly.
“What on earth is that sound?” Granny Dodie demanded, and Mom quickly replied.
“Cicadas!”

First aid for snakebites was the final segment of the seminar:
“The bite would look like this,” Dad showed us the picture in the First Aid Book, “You would first need to make a tourniquet, and put it on your arm or leg between your heart and the bite.”
How to make a tourniquet from a belt or shoelaces, how to widen the wound and suck out the venom and blood, being careful not to swallow any of it, Dad drilled us and made us practice: it’s outdated practice now, but we were letter perfect. I honestly think if I ever did have to administer snakebite first aid, I would revert automatically to what Dad taught us so carefully.

It turned out that this knowledge was so powerful, we never actually encountered a snake in the wild, except at the end of Dad’s snake hook. And we grew up with no fear of them, whatsoever. In fact, I think the zoo snake house is really neat, and snakes are way cool. It’s spiders that give me the creeps, but that’s another story.

Our family was always rather traditional about the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Since Mom and Dad were both only (or only surviving children) it made deciding whose house to go to for the holidays rather easy: alternating Granny Jessie and Granny Dodie for Thanksgiving, but Christmas . . . invariably everyone came to our house. One of those things which we would do – after opening presents on Christmas morning, and while Mom and Granny Jessie (who usually stayed with us, for Christmas after Grandpa Jim died) got Christmas dinner assembled – was for Dad and all four of us, and the dogs, to go out for a hike in the hills for a couple of hours. Dad, being a research biologist, did terrific nature talks during those hikes, pointing out the various sorts of sage, and the animal tracks and scat to be noticed. I think this tradition was carried on with for a couple of years after I went away to serve in the Air Force, in some fashion. I know that when I did come home for Christmas now and again, to my parent’s retirement house in Valley Center, Blondie and I and my little brother Sander dragged out the nieces and nephews for a hike down through the abandoned orange grove above the Guejito. One year we had the teenage niece of my brother JP’s significant other, who thought that a walk meant a gentle turn around the block . . . not a hard slog down a rutted dirt road, and a clamber up to the top of a knob of stone that stuck out of the hillside. The rock knob offered a wonderful view of the valley below, and the cattle that moved so slowly and were so far away that they looked to be the size of fleas. She was wearing low-heeled pumps – didn’t appreciate the need for something a little sturdier.

Christmas and nature hikes. I didn’t ever think to take a camera along, when I led my niece and nephew into a muddy slough halfway down the hill – which they enjoyed terrifically, of course – although I think Pip was pretty horrified at how much mud they still accumulated on their persons. I did, for some reason, remember to take a camera on one of our hikes with Dad, though. It must have been Christmas of 1974 or 1975 – by Christmas of 1976 I was away in Basic Training, in San Antonio, where I live now. I took that picture at the top of one of the hills in the San Gabriel Mountains – Pip, Sander, Dad and JP, with Toby and Duchess, all sitting or laying down for a rest after a long slog uphill from our house. That’s Tujunga – La Crescenta in the background, with the mountains of the Angeles National Forest on the horizon.

Christmas, nature hikes and Dad . . .

I wasn’t planning to go to California this year – just plain couldn’t afford it again, and when I talked to Mom and Dad about it, two weeks ago Friday, they said – well, never mind, Pip and her husband were going to his family, Sander and his wife and their kids were going to hers . . . and well, don’t feel bad about not coming. They were going to have a nice quiet Christmas by themselves, and Dad had a case of walking pneumonia, which made him feel a bit under the weather.

Except that it didn’t work out that way. Dad suddenly felt worse the next week, was admitted to the hospital on Friday last with a diagnosis of bleeding into the brain, was operated on that night and seemed to be responding well, but there was a setback on Christmas Eve . . . and Mom was chipper and hopeful and altogether reassuring when we talked to her on Christmas Day. So I was reassured, and made plans to come out to California and stay with them for two months, to help when Dad was out of the hospital, and all.

But she and my brothers and sisters were called to the hospital Sunday morning, and Dad died about 1:15 in the afternoon. The last time I talked to him by telephone, I said “Dad, ya sound like shit!” and he said, “Yeah, I feel like shit!” and I told him to take care of himself. I wish I had said I loved him, but I still thought I would have the chance to say it one more time.

In the early 1990s, I did a tour in Korea; a year at Yongsan Garrison, working at HQ-AFKN, barely a stone’s throw from where my father had spent a couple of weeks at Camp Coiner in 1953. Camp Coiner was where new troops were processed for assignments in-country, and it was still a self-contained miniature garrison with a dining hall, movie theater, club, PX and chapel. Processing new arrivals takes only a day or two these days. When I was there, Camp Coiner housed soldiers assigned to Yongsan in a series of Quonset huts that had been covered in such a thick layer of foam insulation that they looked like nothing so much as a row of enormous Twinkies.

Camp Coiner to my father was a bunch of canvas tents in a field of mud, surrounded by deep rings of barbed wire and a deeper ring of hungry refugees, watching them intently. It quite took away one’s appetite, said my father, to have people watching you eat every bite of your C-rations; and it’s not as if C-rations were a gourmet treat to start with. The soldiers were forbidden to give away their food, but my father said a lot of them did anyway, tossing cans stealthily over the wire. Seoul was a wrecked place fifty years ago. While I was there at AKFN that year, I edited an interview which the late Col. David Hackworth had done for AFKN, where he described how he himself had first visited the place, retreating across the only bridge over the Han River. Nothing but rubble, and rats nibbling at corpses in the gutters, the only live people being his squad and the Chinese snipers shooting at them. What Colonel Hackworth and veterans like my father saw in the 1950ies and what they see when they visit Seoul now leaves them rubbing their eyes in astonishment.

I had the incredible good fortune to be put in the way of doing a lot of voice-over narration jobs while I was at Yongsan, as well as a regular part-time job copy-editing the English language simulcast of the regular Korea Broadcasting System evening TV newscast. Most evenings or Saturdays after I finished my day job, I was taking the subway or a bus to a production studio somewhere (a taxi if I was feeling extravagant), and reading an English-language script on practically anything that someone felt would go over really well if they did a version in English.Amonger other things, I did a script about the manufacture of soju (which put me off ever drinking the stuff), an assortment of company puff-pieces, some fiendishly complicated English lesson tapes, a kid’s storybook, unless they have re-done the whole thing since, I am the English-language version of the recorded information for Kimpo Airport. I was a skilled and experienced production technician, working with other skilled audio technicians, away from the post. I developed friendships with the people I worked with in the KBS newsroom, who laughed at me because I had never gone to any of the tourist things in Seoul. I had, I explained, gone close to them, or had seen them from the outside on my way to a job; just like a native does.

Modern Seoul is a sprawling city of high-rise buildings, eight-lane highways, a splendid subway system, a golden glass tower 63 stories tall close by one of the fifteen or twenty bridges spanning the Han, and the Namsan tower glittering like a Christmas tree topper on a green hilly island in the middle of the city. In the evening, coming back from KBS on the bus, I could smell the bakery smell of vanilla cake from a commercial bakery close by. Sometimes at KBS we talked about the North, wondering if the discipline of an invading army of North Koreans would last past the first big grocery store, or electronics shop. When the old Supreme Leader died, I sat in the newsroom and watched half an hour of newscast cobbled out of the same fifteen minutes of stock video of the North, plus new footage of the bereft Northerners mourning ostentatiously. It seemed to me the KBS technicians were horrified and embarrassed by the elaborate demonstration of grief; I and they could only wonder what sort of coercion could force such undignified displays from people.

I liked working in Seoul, I liked what Koreans have built in fifty years, these tough jolly people on the south side of the DMZ. Cosmopolitan and professional, possibly as a nation the sharpest-dressed people on the face of the earth, every salaryman or woman turned out fit to be on the cover of GQ; as different from their cousins and second cousins north of the DMZ and still be on the same planet.

OSer Don Rich poined out in a post yesterday that the North Koreans regularly perform what he called the Korean Motherland Unity Game of Repeated Chicken – every six months to two years, there is some kind of saber-rattling game, a bit of public theater intended to remind everyone that they are there and bellicose. The old-time Korea hands that I knew over there, as well as my Korean friends were relatively blase about it all, for several reasons. One of them was that – well, mostly it was a bit of theater; it would die down in a week or so. Another being that for all the sprockets and medals hung on Nork generals – they really haven’t fought a serious war, balls-to-the-wall-and-all-guns-blazing war since 1953. There’s been a lot of evolution since then. But – lest the South Koreans get too over-confident about calling the North Korean bluff; the city of Seoul is well within range of Nork artillery, and quite a lot of it, too. Which is a very good reason to keep a cool head. And the other great argument for the status quo being maintained – is that if the DMZ magically evaporated and the Koreas were united once again, the South would be carrying the burden of the North … pitiful, starving, traumatised and hermetically isolated for sixty years, a country-sized concentration camp with all the brutality and horror that implies. The North has been in such bad shape for so long that teenage refugees from there are actually physically stunted, in comparison to their Southern cousins. So – while everyone gives lip service to reunification, in actuality, not so much.

But this week the Norks opened fire, shelling civilian areas on Yeonpyeong Island – an action which will be a little harder to brush off on the part of the South, Japan, and the United States. That ratchets up the Korean Motherland Unity Game of Repeated Chicken to a whole new level. So – who acts first? At this point, any guess is as good as any other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a look at this -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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