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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Old Fashioned Fourth

The Fourth of July!
The very words conjure up rockets blazing across a black sky; fiery explosions lighting the night; and racketing firecrackers shattering the air.
To a youngster up in the Texas Panhandle, the Fourth was second only to Christmas.
Independence Day!
The one day for which we’d hoard our pennies for strings of Black Cat firecrackers, rockets, Roman candles, torpedoes, cherry bombs, baby giants, and sparklers.
I’ve always figured myself lucky to have both a town parent and a country parent.
Let me explain.
Dad grew up in town. Although there were only around 800 folks who lived there, their way of life was different than Mom’s, who lived on a farm ten or twelve miles out of town with her folks and seven siblings.
One of the older sisters, Elva, had earned a beautician’s license, married, and lived in town with her carpenter husband, Jake Green, whose folks owned one of the town’s two hardware stores.
On some holidays, the Fourth included, Mom’s family gathered at Elva’s for the two or three days of family reunion.
Back then, most families were never too far apart that they couldn’t spend four or five hours getting to a central spot.
And always, the women would sit in the house and bring each other up to date on family and neighbors, and the men would squat in the shade of the old oak out back, sipping beer or whatever other beverage was handy.
Out-of-town families came early, and usually there were so many that mattresses were spread on the floors and even in the yard to accommodate sleepers.
That was something I noticed early on. Town families seldom spread pallets or mattresses; country families spread them everywhere. If you had to pay the bathroom a visit at night, you had to clamber over half-a-dozen snoozing folks.
The Fourth was the one day the adults just about ignored us youngsters, knowing as long as they could hear firecrackers popping and kids screaming in glee, no one had drowned in the creek or had been run over by a passing car.
Those holidays in the years right after the war were the ones I remember most vividly for all the men had fought overseas. Some had been wounded, but they all returned.
Now, me and my cousins were typical boys, full of vim and vigor with a heaping tablespoon of mischievousness tossed in for good measure. We were boisterous, loud, prying, and daring. Nothing could hurt us. Of that we were certain. I admit, we could get carried away at times, but instead of Ritalin, our folks used a much more effective medicine. And you didn’t need a prescription for it although it was mighty good for what ailed us. It was called, Leather Belt. Believe me, it cured whatever was bothering us at the time.
Too bad parents today have forgotten it.
Even before sun up, we cousins were all out popping firecrackers. One of our favorite contests was to see how high we could blow a can into the air.
Now, this is was way back before lighter punks, so our older cousin stole a pack of Camel cigarettes from his old man. We lit up. Usually one Camel would take us through a whole string of Black Cats if we popped them one at a time.
There isn’t a boy alive who, given firecrackers and a can, soon doesn’t grow tired of sending the can flying. He looks for further adventure, and one of my cousins found it with rocks stuffed down a pipe.
We huddled around him out between the garage and my uncle’s glassed-in chicken brooder(with a lot of glass) so we’d be out of sight for the grownups. My cousin dropped a handful of rocks in a two-inch pipe about a foot long and stuck a firecracker at the other end. When he lit it, he jammed the firecracker end against the garage wall. Well, in that position, the only way the pipe could point was at the brooder.
I’ll say this. The experiment worked beautifully. Of course, it shattered the brooder. His dad gave him a blistering dose of Leather Belt, made him sit with the men for a few minutes, then turned him loose again. Retribution back then was quick and painful.
We coveted baby giants and cherry bombs. Their fuses were coated with something so they would burn underwater.
We’d tie a baby giant to a rock and toss them in the water. When the firecracker exploded, it was like one of the depth charges you saw at the picture show. Once, Jerry came up with several boxes of Rit Dye. Those were neat, for we’d sink a box with a cherry bomb and when we blew it up, the stain would float to the surface just like in the movies.
More than once, Roman candle fights would erupt with our chasing each other around the yard, ignoring the men cussing us when random balls fell into their midst, sending them scrambling.
At night we set off the rockets, mesmerized by their graceful flaming arcs into a black sky filled with glittering diamonds. In the back of every one of our hooligan heads as we watched the rocket was the wonder of what travel through space was like.
And that night, even before our heads hit the pillow on our pallet, we were asleep. Half-a-dozen, grimy, sweaty little cousins who had put in one busy day.
Yep, all was right with the world.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Orphaned at Seventy-Six

No, I’m not referring to the trauma of losing family. I can think of nothing as frightening, as distressing, as tragic as children being left without loving parents.
The orphaning of which I speak is part of the sometimes confusing lexicon employed by the writing community, whether fiction or non-fiction. Everyday I learn words I never knew existed. Dystopian! You ever hear of it? A dystopia is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian.
Break the word into syllables, and you can see how the meaning evolved.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about literary orphaning.
Basically, what it means is that the editor with whom a writer has been working and selling has moved on either to another imprint or employment, leaving the author high and dry. The unfortunate writer must start all over in meeting the perceptions of the new editor.
Well maybe not all over. The author is known within the house, so any new editor will pick up from his and her coworkers various details about each particular author.
After fifteen years with Avalon Books, I broke into the western paperback with Leisure Books, an imprint of Dorchester. I felt okay. I had two publishers. Life was good.
At Leisure, I was the new kid on the block, I managed one book a year with them, but after a few years, I started working on two novels a year.
And then it happened. Leisure cut staff including several editors, mine among them. Overnight, I was all alone. I sat like a dummy staring at two completed westerns and a third within three weeks of completion.
Some of the better known writers were able to jump to other houses, but many of us were left searching for an editor in another house who would read our manuscripts. Unlike romantic westerns, historical western fiction is hard to sell for the demand for that genre has declined precipitously in the last few decades. The houses shy away from unknowns, content for the most part to stay with the well known, Zane Grey, Max Brand, and others as such who have fans who come back and back and back.
I hadn’t been in traditional westerns long enough to garner such a following.
Now, there are other westerns in demand, the adult western, for example, which is a racy story set in the west. Unlike traditional westerns where just about the only kiss our hero gets is from his horse, the adult western is more erotic within the storyline. (and when I say more, I mean more)
Erotic romance is a sizzling seller. Of course, romance itself is a great seller. The magnificent ladies in my Avalon group can testify to that.
Leisure going under was shock enough, but then just recently we learned that Avalon Books had been sold to Amazon, all of us, who probably number in the hundreds, are working to make the transition.
Avalon has been a fine publisher. I’ve been with them twenty-one years. They offered my kind of family type hardbacks, and their primary customers were libraries, some 3,500 around the country I’ve been told.
I don’t know any details, but I guess they got caught up in the change sweeping through publishing today. I’d been with them since 1991.
From what we Avalon authors have heard, we can submit new manuscripts to Amazon. It might work out; it might not. My colleagues of romance have a much better shot than my traditional westerns or cozy mysteries, the two types of novels I’ve published.
So here I am, having been published for the last twenty-one years, and now I find myself standing on a precipice. Do I step off or grow wings and fly?
I’m growing wings. I’m not ready to quit. I’ve submitted a horror to one of my ex-editors who had moved to another house. I did the same with a western to another ex-editor, and a cozy mystery to an ex-editor who is now an agent.
It’s like starting over except now I have an idea how to play the game. And with the explosion of ebooks, there seems to be a new game in town.
Besides most of my writer colleagues write because they can’t ‘not write’. I’m the same. There comes a satisfaction in finding the right word, forming the exact expression, describing the perfect picture. Real writers understand what I’m saying.
That little piece of philosophy having been said, the pay sure helps too.
The only way you discover what lies beyond the hill is keep walking. One of my goals in life is to reach a 100. That gives me 24 years to get back into the game.
Wish me luck.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dogs and Fleas

When I was one of those know-it-all teenagers, my Dad constantly reminded me to pick my friends carefully. “You sleep with dogs, you get fleas,” he always told me. In other words, you’re known and influenced by the crowd with which you run.
I was fourteen. We’d lived in Fort Worth for two years, and I was fast becoming a city boy, leaving behind the backward ways of the little hick town up in the Texas Panhandle. I was worldly. I knew it all. And my old man was dumb as a stick.
In Wheeler, there were only ten or twelve boys in each grade, so naturally, that was the pool from which we garnered our pals and buddies. Everyone in town knew everyone, and if we decided to pull some stunt, Dad or one of my relatives knew about it before we even finished.
Not so in the big city. It was sprawling, filled with people, and offered blessed anonymity. Back then, ducktail haircuts, low hanging Levis, and wingtip shoes with taps on the heels were the colors.
Dad would have killed me if he’d seen me like that so I always waited until he caught the bus to work, then quickly combed in my ducktails, yanked down my jeans, and polished my taps.
It was a big thing back then swaggering the sidewalks of downtown Fort Worth, acting tough and drawing stares.
Close to the end of school, I learned exactly what Dad meant. The principal called me to the office. Several windows had been broken throughout the school the night before, and the suspects were ducktailers.
Now, I was a typical boy, mischievous, but I was too scared of my dumb-as-a-stick father to tear up anything.
Naturally, the principal did not believe me until he contacted Dad who informed him I was in bed at ten and never left the house. When questioned as to how Dad could be so certain, he responded “Kent knows I would break his neck if he sneaked out of the house.”
The principal apologized to me, then added with a gesture to my hair. “That hairdo is what the gangs wear. Maybe you should think about it.”
On the way back to class, I hastily combed out my ducktail, and that afternoon, got a hair cut.
We’re all like that. Even our president.
You know, as much as I disagree with him, I can’t help feeling sorry for the guy. He’s so far in over his head, he doesn’t know which way to turn. After his inauguration, he made hundreds of appointments, surrounding himself with his people. I understand that.
He has several advisors. I have no idea how many, but from the innumerable faux pas and gaffes, counting the cabinet and his personal staff, he must be getting ideas from all sides.
His problem is he can’t winnow through their suggestions ore recommendation for their true value. In a way, it isn’t his fault for he jumped into a job he can’t handle.
It’s kinda like an old boy charming a foreman into a job, and when the foreman tells him to grab a hammer, the old boy responds ‘what’s a hammer?’
All you have to do is look around at the tangled shreds of poor judgment.
Who doesn’t remember his ‘the private sector is doing fine,’ remark. When you-know-what hit the fan, he crawfished. It is absolutely not doing fine, he proclaimed a couple days later.
Why was he so far off base?
His advisors, and the fact he’s really wandering around out there in Lala Land.
The only way he could have gotten that little gem of BS is from his top advisor, David Axelrod, who clamed the private sector was doing better than the public sector in spending.
You bet. Private business is doing better than government entities?
Axelrod needs to do his homework for according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, states spending from their general funds climbed in 2011 by 14% over 2008, yet Axelrod says just the opposite.
It’s the blind leading the blind up there, and we’re being carried along with them against our will.
Dana Milbank gave a microcosm of Obama’s years in office from incidents of just the last few weeks.
Job growth stalled, 69,000; sane fiscal thinking ruled in Wisconsin; the attorney general is facing Congressional contempt charges; Commerce Secretary Bryson faces felony hit and run charges; war talks surface with Pakistan; Bill Clinton contradicts Obama; Romney raises more money; both parties complain about  the ‘cascade’ of national security leaks from Obama’s administration; and, says Milbank with tongue firmly in cheek, ‘he claims the private sector is doing fine.’
Don’t forget the U.S. attempt to plant viruses in the computers at the nuclear facilities in Iran or the ‘fast and furious’ gun-running project that resulted in the death of U.S. agents.
If Dad were alive, he’d simply nod and say ‘Mister Obama surrounded himself with the wrong people. Academic ignoramuses who teach because they can’t do! What other results can you expect? Remember what I told you, Kent. Sleep with dogs and you get fleas.”
I haven’t worn ducktails for over sixty-two years, and I still wonder how Dad got so smart.

Monday, June 4, 2012

D-Day in a Small Texas Town

D-Day in a Small Town

I’ve always been a chump for memories of my childhood up in the Texas Panhandle. Probably just like many of you have of your own youth.

We didn’t have much, but then neither did anyone else except for a few business owners and big ranchers. None of us were really poor. We always had our three meals a day, occasional movies (we called them picture shows—and even today, that euphemism still slips out)

A few days back, I ran across a column I had written a few years back regarding D-Day in an effort to capture a small country town’s reaction to such a momentous event in history.

I thought my readers might enjoy it once again.

June 6, 1944 was the first Tuesday after school was turned out for the summer in Wheeler, Texas. It meant nothing to any of us. We had never heard the term ‘D-Day.’

You see, D-Day was just a common name routinely given to the date of every planned offensive during World War II. It was coined in World War I before the massive U.S. attack at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in France. And so naturally, it was applied to the Invasion of Normandy as it was all major offensives.

As I mentioned, we kids in that little Texas town far up in the Panhandle knew nothing of D-Day. For us, it was summer, free, joyous summer. As every summer, the first couple weeks, we’d ride our bikes along the hard-packed roads, through the forest the community called a park, jump the creek, rumble over ancient, wood-plank bridges, and lie in the shade after dinner (our noon meal) staring at the fluffy clouds drifting by in the sky as blue as robin’s egg. If you used your imagination, you could spot every animal on Noah’s ark plus a bunch that had missed it.

After all these years, my memory’s sort of shaky, but it was either Tuesday or Wednesday of that week that to my chagrin, I learned had had to chop cotton instead of a carefree ride around town on my trusty New Departure bicycle.

Dad was overseas, and Mom had planted five acres of corn that she planned on us selling in nearby Pampa and Shamrock to earn some extra money.

So I wasn’t in a good mood, and I probably chopped more cornstalks than I did weeds until she caught me.

The third time she yelled at me, she started looking around for something to switch my legs.

To my relief, Papa Conwell drove up about then. My brother, Sammy, was just a toddler, so Mom picked him up and we hurried to the end of the row to see what Papa wanted. I was hoping he wanted to take me out to his lake, but that wasn’t why he was there.

Wartime in a small town back then was much different than it would be today. Everyone was caught up in it. Radios were always turned to the news. Of course most of the news was weeks old, but for the last month or so, rumors had been thick and heavy that something big was going to happen. All the grown-ups speculated as to what might take place.

From the old boys down at the pool hall to the local preachers, everyone thought he knew what the Allied Forces had up their sleeve. Now, let me point out here that there was never any doubt in anyone’s mind that America would win the war. No matter how long it took, we would prevail. I can’t help wondering what some of those old-timers back then would think of us today.

Anyway, back to my story.

When we reached Papa’s car, he didn’t even say ‘hi’. All he said was ‘We invaded Normandy.”

The only word I understood in his statement was we. I wasn’t really sure what ‘invaded’ meant, and I certainly had no idea what a ‘Normandy’ was.

Mom was excited, and a bit frightened.

For the next few days, our little town didn’t come to a standstill, but it came as close as it could and still keep functioning. Crops had to be looked after, animals tended, mail delivered, and such. Everything else was just about shut down. Folks were glued to the radio while others frequented the newspaper office where breaking news was posted on the front window.

Over the next few days, we learned more. There was happiness and joy in our little town, and unfortunately as the news came in, it also brought some grief.

The Invasion of Normandy was epic, a savage battle that lasted for eleven months until May 1945 when Germany capitulated.

And then we turned the Lions of War loose on Japan.

Within a few months, it was over.

Back in the Panhandle, the nearest train station was in Shamrock, sixteen miles to the south of us. I’ll never forget that day we drove over and waited on the platform for Dad to step off the train.

The Greatest Generation had brought peace back to America and pulled a common name, D-Day, from obscurity and held it up for the world to forever recognize.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Part II: A Cruise to Remember

We pulled out of Galveston on our maiden cruise at 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday. The liner, Carnival Triumph, a venue we were later to discover was akin to a small city, one neighborhood stacked on another twelve stories high.

That first day out, Gayle and I were like the proverbial mice in a maze. The only problem was, we had no scent of cheese to follow, only our instinct, and when we passed the same spot three times in thirty minutes, we realized even our instincts were numbed by such a vastly different environment.
Let me insert the observation here that everyone we encountered was very friendly. Why wouldn’t they be?

We were all lost or turned around, searching for a destination that invariably would turn out to be at the other end of the ship.

On our third effort to get somewhere we hadn’t been, we ended up at the entrance to Club Monaco, Glory be! Finally we found something familiar. We could relax. In fact, we relaxed there until midnight before venturing into twelve decks of hostile territory once again to seek out our stateroom.

Eventually we found it despite getting turned around three times and passing the Vienna Café twice.

The second day, things started to look up. We found our breakfast dining room on the first try.
Later that morning, we learned the Ninth Deck was the Lido Deck. Lido is Italian for beach, a logical expression for according to my count, it housed four swimming pools, about five or six food areas, three bars, a hundred-yard twistee water-slide that only covered around a hundred linear feet, and seating for about five hundred people. The other twenty-five hundred passengers were elsewhere on the mammoth cruiser attending an eclectic assortment of activities including a dignified hairy chest contest, which I would have won except at my age, my chest has sunk too low.

Since we were in a sight-seeing mode, we made our way to the Tenth Deck where the elevators stopped.
The remaining two decks were accessed by stairs of which I’d had my fill the day before when we were stumbling around like lost sheep. My left knee is slightly arthritic, but from the previous day’s climbing, it had swollen somewhat

The top deck held a kids’ playground, a basketball court, a mini-golf course, a jogging track, all of which were surrounded with chaise lounges for sunning. I have no idea how anyone managed any kind of game up there for the wind was ferocious.

And yes, there were actually people exercising. Can you believe that? All that money for a five-day cruise, and all they want to do is exercise? I don’t know, maybe my priorities are out of whack. I didn’t spend any money for the cruise, and I still wasn’t about to waste it jogging. If they wanted to jog, they could job to the Club Monaco.

But, looking out over the sea, I couldn’t help thinking of Coleridge’s words from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.”

Now, there wasn’t really much to see up there except a heap of sea, but never having been out like that, we were both struck by the beauty of the blue water. I’ve seen clear water at the Florida beaches, but I had never personally seen water so blue as that surrounding us. “Almost black,” my physician commented during my last visit. And he was right, a deep blue-black.

And the foamy white wake trailing out behind us provided a sharp contrast with the deep colors.

The next morning, we docked at Cozumel, upon first glance a sleepy little village, but once you entered town, the one-time sleepy folks morphed into persistent pursuers of your money, and I mean persistent.
Our first introduction to their enduring determination to separate us from as much of our funds as possible came before we even reached shore.

You see, the concrete pier extended west of the island about three hundred yards, then cut northwest for another three or four hundred. This last dogleg is where we tied up, and hiked to shore.

Connecting the pier to the shore was a hundred yard long Customs Building packed with alcohol, perfume, jewelry, clothing, and at least a hundred hawking salespeople. Our own personal gauntlet, every last one of us had to pass through it.

Anyway, we made town, which was three steps beyond the Customs Building. We shopped; we took pictures; we oohed and ahhed at white garbed guitarists who serenaded us; we laughed at the lady who deftly twisted balloons into hats and animals; and – well you get the idea.

And then the rain fell, and fell, and fell.

Our last resort was refuge in Fat Tuesday’s, a thatched roof harbor from the weather. Now, observing that ages-old caution in Mexico, ‘don’t drink the water,’ we were forced to resort to Bud Light beer. It was unfortunate that our favorite beverage, coffee, was made out of water. And although we spotted a dozen corked water jugs in racks behind the bar, we opted to take no chances on the source of that water. Just be on the safe side, you know.

So there we were, eight hundred miles from home, sitting in a thatched-roof beer joint with three sides open, some rain spray gusting in; forced to guzzle Bud Light to quench our thirst; and unable to continue shopping to spend money.

I tell you folks. Life doesn’t get much better than that.

The weather lasted a couple hours. I felt sorta, kinda sorry for those who’d spent a chunk of change for a six-hour tour of Mayan ruins. One of the explorers was a new friend who insisted they made the best of the trek that was partially rained out by huddling under the flimsy top of a golf cart and fortifying themselves with the old standby, Bud Light.

By four-thirty, everyone had poured themselves back on board and we eased away from the pier, heading home.

The next day and half was much like the first. Relax, enjoy uninterrupted time with each other, meet new folks, discover a new dead end.

Looking back, some of my major concerns were without merit. Case in point. I couldn’t figure how they would unload—whoops, I mean, ‘disembark’ three thousand people without mass confusion.

They managed. As long as you followed their system, things moved quickly. Their methods worked so well, we walked down the gangway twenty minutes ahead of schedule. And thank the good Lord we got our passports, you know the ones I fussed over last week about the expense.

Those with only birth certificates and driver’s license were in one line, passports in another. We zipped through customs, grabbed a shuttle, hopped in the car, and waved at some new friends still in the big line as we swept past the pier.

Would we go again? Yeah. Now that we know the ropes.

And as long as the cruise line had an ample supply of Bud Light.