Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What is Poplar Hill?

Writing a query letter to an agent is harder than writing the book it represents. There is so much advise on the internet and from readers that my head is spinning. What is obvious is that all the versions of my query letter to date have completely failed. In retrospect I think I was trying to force a round story into a square query. (Note: I try not to torture my metaphors but I couldn't pass this one up)

I have since learned that everyone expects a "historical novel" to have a rather conventional plot that hinges around some decision or action of the protagonist: Life is good, a decision is made (the hinge), life gets very, very bad, the protagonist has an epiphany and life is good (or maybe not). That isn't the plot of Poplar Hill but that is what I kept trying to make my query into. Since I couldn't force a conventional plot line the only agent that read the MS declined it citing exactly the issue I just described - no "hinge." She expected a conventional plot and didn't get one.

This brings up a number of issues: perhaps I've written a real dog or perhaps I'm missing the correct genre. I haven't used the right buzz words to describe the piece. If it's not a historical novel then what is it? It is a fictional biography of Kitty Stevenson of Poplar Hill, Nova Scotia, Canada. After a lot of research I discovered that the proper fictional biography sub-genre for Poplar Hill is a bildungsroman or more correctly a sub-sub-genre, an entwicklungsroman. I know, I never heard of these either but then I don't have an MFA. (Do they really teach this stuff in an MFA program? Who makes up these words?)

Wikipedia describes it thus: 

A Bildungsroman tells about the growing up or coming of age of a sensitive person who is looking for answers and experience. The genre evolved from folklore tales of a dunce or youngest son going out in the world to seek his fortune. Usually in the beginning of the story there is an emotional loss which makes the protagonist leave on his journey. In a Bildungsroman, the goal is maturity, and the protagonist achieves it gradually and with difficulty. The genre often features a main conflict between the main character and society. Typically, the values of society are gradually accepted by the protagonist and he is ultimately accepted into society – the protagonist's mistakes and disappointments are over. In some works, the protagonist is able to reach out and help others after having achieved maturity.

There are many variations and subgenres of Bildungsroman that focus on the growth of an individual. An Entwicklungsroman ("development novel") is a story of general growth rather than self-cultivation. An Erziehungsroman ("education novel") focuses on training and formal schooling,while a Künstlerroman ("artist novel") is about the development of an artist and shows a growth of the self.
 Well that changes everything. It doesn't mean I haven't written a dog but it does mean that the way I described the story in my query was at odds with what I actually wrote in the novel. No wonder the agent who read the MS didn't like it and no wonder my friends keep telling me that the query is un-inspirational and no wonder over 100 agents have rejected it, the query that is.

If you've ever wondered if anyone has actually written a bildungsroman, Wikipedia lists the following novels:

  • The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, by Henry Fielding (1749)
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne (1759)
  • Candide, by Voltaire (1759)
  • What Maisie Knew, by Henry James (1897)
  • Martin Eden, by Jack London (1909)
  • Sons and Lovers, by D. H. Lawrence (1913)
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce (1916)
  • This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)
  • Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth (1959)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965)
  • The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd (2002)
  • The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
and, of course, David Coperfield by Charles Dickens. So I'm in good company. If you read my last post you can compare it to this new version of a query letter.

Poplar Hill is a fictional biography, a bildungsroman or entwicklungsroman, of the life of Kitty Stevenson of Poplar Hill, Nova Scotia, Canada. Kitty learns that she will not recover from the heart attack she has suffered and must confront her imminent death. She reflects on her life. Born into a wealthy and prominent New York family she was put in an austere French convent school where she learned to be tough and self reliant. When the family loses almost everything in the Depression she is expelled from the convent and must find her own way back to America where she discovers her family struggling to survive. She gets a financial reprieve when she goes to Nazi Germany at age 18 in 1937 to spend a small family fortune that Hitler has embargoed only to discover the horrors of the holocaust. She risks everything to help a Jewish family escape, becomes a spy, is expelled from Germany by insulting Hermann Göring to his face, escapes on a Jewish refugee boat and barely makes it back to New York just days before the war starts. In the end she realizes that there is nothing she can do to evade death so she refuses all medical attention, confronts her l’appel du vide*, and dies peacefully. Comic relief is provided by a troupe of Pentecostal preachers who show up at the most inopportune times bent on converting the cynical and agnostic Kitty.
The major plot mirrors Paul Harding's "Tinkers" where the protagonist reflects on his life before dying. The setting is in a rural Nova Scotia full of the same characters found in Annie Piroulx's "Shipping News." Most of the novel is dialog between Kitty and her neighbor Barb, who has her own, rather parochial, view of the world. There are several Nazi subplots that could come from any one of a dozen late Pre-War novels (like those of Jenna Blum, Ursula Hegi, Philip Kerr, Kathryn Lasky, and Erik Larson).
* There exists a psychological phenomenon in which perfectly sane people, with no desire to die, find themselves faced with a steep cliff and experience a strong desire to leap. To jump from their safe vantage point into the unknown. This phenomenon is so common in fact, that the French have a term for it: L’appel du Vide – Call of the Void.

Friday, December 07, 2012

the agented author

Writing a novel isn't easy. It takes a lot of work then it takes a lot more to make it perfect. When it's done you want to celebrate and send it off to that big black hole called the publisher where they  magically transform your manuscript into an object of veneration (a book and/or a movie) that will entertain and enlighten people for generations to come. Unfortunately the gatekeeper, that intermediary called an agent, interrupts this natural flow between the author and his(her) adoring public by insisting on passing judgement not on the work itself but on a small summation of that work called a query.

If you think writing a novel is hard, believe me, writing the query letter is much harder. The first iteration of my query letter was sent to 10 agents. I was rejected by 6 and I never heard from the rest. The second iteration, blessed by (actually mostly written by) a literary icon was sent to 135 agents via surface mail with a SASE. At the moment I've heard back from approximately 50 agents, 45 no's, 4 "we'd like to see more" and one agent who has the whole manuscript. It's been a while so I sent out a third iteration to 50 different agents via email and got rejected from 22 almost immediately. One agent rejected me in under a minute. I guess you have to learn to read very quickly in the agent business.

One of my 500 best friends on Facebook (most of whom I've never met), an author with a stellar reputation, said my last query could be summarized as "Forest Gump meets Adolf Hitler." Obviously that isn't what I wanted my query to say so I've rewritten it yet again and this time I ask everyone for their opinion. Here is the latest iteration of my query letter:
I am writing to ask you to consider my novel, Poplar Hill.

A small valise hidden under a bed is the key to a past she's only hinted at. The book follows the life of the wealthy eccentric and very private Kitty Stevenson, a New York Socialite transplanted to rural Poplar Hill, Nova Scotia. After a massive heart attack she is told that she may only have months to live. As she confronts her imminent death she fights off a parade of Pentecostal preachers bent on converting her and resolves to settle her estate while she still can. She enrolls her neighbor, Barb, in helping her while she waits for a bed in a nursing home.  She asks Barb to fetch a small valise hidden in her room. Barbs eyes widen when she finds that it contains a Nazi flag, hundreds of German postcards, a Star of David armband, a "Jews Forbidden" poster and a photograph of Adolph Hitler autographed by Hitler and Joseph Goebels.

Prompted by items in the valise Kitty has decided that as long as she has a story to tell she won't die. Her story takes her from a pre-Depression era French Convent School in Grenoble through  pre-war Munich.  She meets Hitler, shakes Neville Chamberlain's hand and escapes Germany, just-in-time, on a boat carrying Jewish refugees to Palestine just days after Kristallnacht.  She fights the Nazi's, photographs a concentration camp, is declared persona non grata by the Nazis and helps a family of Jewish refugees escape the Holocaust. She's on the last German registered ship headed to New York Before Hitler invades Poland. Hitler orders the ship back to Germany. When the doctors tell her there is no more they can do for her she refuses all medical treatment. Will the Pentecostal preachers hovering over her convert her or will she die apostate? Will she get home from Germany or die before her story ends?

The book is historical fiction. The novel explores an era of continued universal fascination: The Depression, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Readers have said that Poplar Hill could speak to the audience of Jenna Blum, Ursula Hegi, Philip Kerr, Kathryn Lasky, Erik Larson and Annie Proulx.

The work has been professionally edited, is approximately 98,000 words and is ready for publication. There is a sequel tentatively titled "The Social Register."

S.R. Glines has spent most of his career as a journalist with a reputation as an edgy technical writer.  For five years he authored a monthly technical advice column titled Panic in Altos World Magazine.  The column was written in the voice of a fictionalized, over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived, computer engineer working for the mob. He also wrote a column titled Famous Last Words for Unix Review about products that never quite materialized or never lived up to their promise.  He is the author or co-author of  five "trade textbooks," a travelogue about teaching in Fiji and a flash fiction chapbook.  For the past seven years he has been the editor/publisher of Wilderness House Literary Review.

Let me know what you think? (Specially if you're an agent)

Monday, October 08, 2012

Light Piercing Water (Guest Boy)

Light Piercing Water (Guest Boy)
by Djelloul Marbrook
Mira Publishing House
ISBN 978-1-908509-06-2

review by Steve Glines

There is always something fun about a book written in English by an author whose native language is not English. Non-native speakers are often very inventive with our language, using interesting metaphors where we might use a cliché. There are other times when the reader skids to a halt with the need to decipher a sentence or paragraph that contains English words embedded in an alien grammar. Fortunately this does not happen very often in this first of a trilogy that vaguely mirrors The Odyssey or so the author promises.

The hero of this thin volume is Bo Cavalieri, a seaman, former U.S. Navy frogman and an artist extraordinaire. Bo, which stands for boson, is half Arab and half German with an Italian step father. OK so we know he's conflicted right there. The book opens with a small convoluted plot that leads to a young Arab boys suicide. Bo takes it upon himself to deliver the remains to the boys home town in Algeria. The task being done Bo signs up with a tramp steamer that's been outfitted by a rich British eccentric (aren't they all) and his mistress to do underwater archaeology.

For the middle two quarters of the book Bo and his British companions wander the coasts of North Africa, Greece, the Red Sea and somehow end up in Oman. Bo meets the Sultan of Oman who likes Bo and calls him Sinbad. A few pages later they discover an important ship wreck. A few pages after that Bo quits for almost no reason and becomes captain of a small Omani ship bound for the African coast. On the return trip Bo discovers that they are carrying slaves. He kills the owner, renames the ship and divides the spoils between the rest of the crew after dropping his female slaves off on a random beach somewhere.

Bo joins up with another tramp steamer headed to England. While this steamer is laid up for repairs he goes to Scotland to visit his fathers former girlfriend. Bo thinks she might be his real mother because his real mother is such a witch (See I told you he was conflicted). She isn't but he (and we) learn all about how Bo came to be and why he is such a good artist: his mother was a good artist. We learn his father was killed in a jealous rage but it's immaterial to the story. After having a one night stand with his fathers ex-girlfriend, Bo is back aboard ship and ends up in New York City where we learn he owns an apartment. The apartment had been rented out to some drug dealers so Bo throws them out and proceeds to get completely drunk, destructively drunk. His free time is spent telling us about his childhood and how he loves to swim the East River. It's after one of these swims that Bo is attacked by a bout of amnesia and ends up in Belleview psychiatric hospital.

That's it. There are two more volumes in this trilogy so it's safe to say that Bo remembers who he is unless the rest is all retrospective but we are given no hint, no foreshadowing of what will happen to him. We have only the publishers promise that the trilogy echoes The Odyssey. A good read, for an immortal.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Letter to a devout Republican

When we lived in Belmont my kids went trick-or-treating on Halloween and knocked on Romney's door.  He handed out toothbrushes. The man is clueless. If he didn't want to play he should have turned out his lights. He is also responsible for ramming the Mormon temple down the throat of the town. He is despised in Belmont, a mostly Republican town.

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. He didn’t just mean that they have more money. What he meant, at least in part, was that many of the very rich expect a level of deference that the rest of us never experience and are deeply distressed when they don’t get the special treatment they consider their birthright. "They think, deep down, that they are better than we are.”

Romney is not the creator of jobs he claims. Take Staples, for example, When Staples started they were a warehouse store, cheap and with every conceivable stationary item.  They paid well and trained their staff well ... and they lost money. That is until they put all the mom and pop stationary stores out of business. Then they stopped being the warehouse store they started out to be (they reduced their SKU's from over 100,000 items to under 10,000 ) and stopped most of their employee training and began paying McDonald's wages. If, for example, go into a staples today and ask for log-linear chart paper and you'll only get a dumb stare. Look in the catalog and you won't find it there either.  Some economists have estimated that Staples alone is responsible for the net loss of over 20,000 median income jobs. Romney did a splendid job of feathering his own nest at the expense of others. That is, of course, his right and one could say his duty to his stockholders as a businessman (he was the sole stockholder at Bain) but that is not the job of a president.

Romney is not your friend. Romney's stated policies would eliminate as much of the safety net. He would reduce or eliminate Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, unemployment, etc., as well as remove regulation from the financial industry and industry in general like ending the EPA, etc., while furthering the benefits to the very rich. American incomes have (adjusted for inflation) largely remained flat for almost 30 years (thanks to policies begun by Richard Nixon) while American productivity has more than doubled. Where has that added wealth gone? It has gone to the top 1% who have increased their income by 400% over that same 30 years.  The taxes on the top 1% are the lowest they have been in 85 years yet Romney wants to eliminate the capital gains tax and the corporate income tax.

Romney is not your friend. When he was Governor his stated reason for "Romneycare" was to save the state money. He has no interest in you or me. He just didn't want the state to pay for people going to the emergency rooms when they had nowhere else to go so he mandated that everyone had to buy insurance or pay a fine. What a nice Republican. He's against "Obamacare" simply because he thinks it will get him votes, no other reason. He is a man without convictions, without a moral center despite (or because of?) his Mormonism.

I can honestly say that I'd enjoy sitting down with any of the Bushes for a chat (or a beer), as well as Ronald Reagan and perhaps even Richard Nixon in his later years but I get the feeling that any "conversation" with Romney would quickly sink into a lecture about how father knows best. He is clueless both about policy (he doesn't have any except whatever he or his minions think will get votes) and the plight of the common man. His presidency would be one of the greatest disaster to befall the United States. I can easily imagine the United States devolving into a third world nation where the rich live in their isolated enclaves and the rest of us live in unsanitary slums. This is not the America I want to see, not the America my forefathers fought for, not the America my forefathers pledged their lives , their fortunes and their sacred honor for.

Our friend said:
I guess we should agree to disagree. You see we believe Obama is the absolute worst thing that can and did happen to our country, our laws, our prestige in the world, and another 4 years would finish us off. It is a case of voting for the one that will follow, not undermine our laws, start to bring back at least a modicum of trust in our government, and stop playing with the numbers - and that means jobs and finances! So to us, it is a case of choosing who will do the least damage and who do we trust. And since we have absolutely NO trust in Obama...

Why? The rest of the world has a greater respect for the US now than at any time in the past quarter century. Obama has attempted time and time again to enact laws that would encourage employment only to be blocked by a Republican congress. The Republican Congress has voted 33 times to rescind "Obama/Romneycare" but won't allow the "Jobs bill" to even come to the floor. This is a bill that was originally filed by Republicans back when Bush was president and had bi-partisan support. Now the Republicans engage in what I consider a treasonable game of destroying the economy so that Obama and the Democrats looks bad. Here is a litany of other complaints:

Obama said he would close Guantanamo Bay and try all the inmates in American courts. The Republican congress passed (over Obama's objection) a law forbidding the Guantanamo POW's from American soil. Apparently American laws are valid all over the world but the protections of the American Constitution are not.

The TARP program (which was administered by Elizabeth Warren) was a Republican program designed to bail out the banking system. Most economists agree that it wasn't big enough to bring us out of this recession. Since it wasn't big enough to really work and  the Republican congress won't enact another one, they, the Republicans, have the temerity to blame Obama for the economy when it is they who have opposed every measure that might help for purely political reasons. Again I personally consider that to be treason.

The Republicans say that Obama has spent us into oblivion. No, George Bush and Ronald Reagan got us here. When Ronald Reagan came to office the national debt was $2 trillion, total. At the end of George Bush I, the national debt was $6 trillion. Under Bill Clinton the national debt (remember Newt Gingich's closing of the government) actually went down and would have been paid off in 10 years. George Bush II started 2 wars that went unfunded AND reduced taxes so that by the end of his term the US was $12 trillion in debt and he left us with a tax system that Congress refuses to amend that will soon have us over $20 trillion in debt. This is a crisis purely of Republican making.

The Republicans say that under Obama government spending has risen dramatically. If you take out, unemployment, social security and the rise in Medicaid and Medicare (due to people becoming more and more impoverished) then the Federal Government has actually shrunk. Just wait until the Republican mandated reductions in the federal budget go into effect. You think we have a financial disaster now, just wait until all government agencies from the Military to the State department have to reduce their budgets by 10-20%. That means that companies like Boeing, Ratheon, United Technologies, and General Dynamics will suddenly have to fend for themselves and compete in the real world. They can't so sell your stock now while you can.

Unless the Republican Congress backs down this will be a disaster of unprecedented proportions. I won't argue the benefits of getting rid of the Military/Industrial complex (coined by Ike) but I've read that about 20 million people one way or another are dependent on Federal spending. Cut the Federal budget by 10-20% and you loose 200,000 soldiers, 1/2 the Marines. The Navy drops to 6 battle groups from 12 leaving less than a 100 ship Navy (about the size of Frances). That means that instead of the 3 aircraft carriers in the Middle East that we have at all times right now we'd be hard pressed to keep even one. War with Iran, forgetaboutit. Check the Chinese in Asia? No. Keep North Korea isolated? Yeah right. What do you think will happen to American prestige around the world if we don't have the military or financial muscle to stand up to even someone like Iran? What would Japan or the Philippines do if they didn't feel the backing of the US? What would Israel do if they didn't think we had their back?

The mandated reductions also mean that to keep the military staffed even at that reduced level there will be no more big ticket items. no new ships, aircraft, tanks, missiles or satellites.  We are apparently down to one working weather satellite over the US with no new ones on order. When that goes you can forget about watching the weather on the evening news. But that's OK because one of the agencies slated to be reduced to impotence is NOAA - those great folks that warn of nasty things like hurricanes and tornado's. What does Romney want to do, outsource it of course. Perhaps we can buy or rent satellites from China and meteorological services from India. We would have to pay for it by subscription instead of getting it free. For all we know Romney may have a financial interest in such things. We'll never know unless he releases more of his tax returns. What is he hiding?

The bottom line is that we are dependent on the Federal government for many things from Interstate Roads to meat inspection. So far there are no viable alternatives proposed by the Republicans for our health care crisis, the crisis in education or the looming crisis in our national debt. We all want and assume the services provided will always be there but we (I mean our elected representatives) are unwilling to pay for them. The 2 wars have cost almost $10 trillion. We have no choice but to raise taxes to pay for them and the very rich can pay more than their fare share. After all they are the very ones that have benefited the most from the Federal governments largess.

Monday, May 28, 2012

War Story: How did you get your second Silver Star?

Over the years I have collected war stories from vets ranging from WWI through the Afghan War. This story was based on an interview done nearly 40 years ago and purely from memory.  I have embellished it enough to call it fiction but I did see the medal. It's just that even with two six packs of beer I didn't hear the whole story. This is for all vets everywhere.

 So how did you get your second Silver Star?

In Vietnam there were Hueys, you know helicopters, everywhere and I think they were shot down as fast as they could bring them in country. Anyway, I was on my second combat mobile team assignment. That is we were going to be dropped some place in the jungle and we had to create an instant airfield.  Hey, I was, technically, just an air traffic controller but somebody had to bring the choppers in, and get them out again, when there was any kind of assault. We had to get there first.

Sometimes they'd drop a 20,000 lb shock bomb in the middle of the jungle, then a couple of bulldozers, then us and we'd have to build the airfield. The funny thing is this: If you drop a bomb that big everyone for 50 miles around knows you're there and since we were, technically, non-combatants we always took a lot of shit from the VC. Of course the cool thing was that as an ATC I could call some real heavy shit down on anyone that gave us trouble. You know, like a squadron of F-4 Phantoms loaded with 500 lb bombs or napalm. Do you know you can smell the difference between burning jungle and a couple of hundred burning but dead Vietnamese.

Anyway I got sidetracked, no one told us that the LZ, that's the landing zone, was already hot and the last Combat Mobile Team had already been shot down and killed. No, no one told us that. So when we came in below about 500 feet I began to hear that "pitit" sound of AK-47 rounds going right through the fuselage of the Huey. Hell, a pea-shooter could put a hole in a Huey and a bb gun could bring it down. We all wore flack jackets and I always brought an extra to sit on. I don't know why more people didn't but then most of my guys on this mission were brand new in-country and didn't know any better. I should have told them.

I think the flight crew had been hit because when we were still about 100 feet in the air the Huey  lurched sideways then nose dived in to the ground. We were lucky enough to land, or crash behind a dyke next to a river. Our intended landing zone had been a rice paddy just beyond the dyke. If we'd landed there we would all have been killed by concentrated fire from the wood line. I'd guess there was at least a company of VC there.

Fortunately we were behind the dyke and a good 150 meters away from the bad guys. I could hear hundreds of rounds hit the top of the Huey and hit the earthen dyke with a thud. It kicked up a lot of dust which was good.

The Huey crew was killed outright, The pilot and copilot, rammed into the ground with full weight of the Huey behind them. I didn't even try to get them out. The door gunner had been thrown out and kinda mangled in the blade which pretty much cut him in half. Of the other eight guys, I was the only one that wasn't hurt. My ass was sore from half a dozen rounds that almost penetrated the flack jacket I was sitting on though. The other guys weren't so lucky. Four guys on the inside were already dead or beyond anything I could do for them but the other four guys were pretty badly shot up. Two of them right through the ass and the other two through their legs. Only one of them wasn't completely in shock but none of them could walk so I had to pull them from the chopper one at a time. I put all four of them behind a log that had washed up on the bank so that no one could see them from the other side of the river. I didn't know who was on that side.

By the time I got everyone out that I could the VC started crossing the rice paddy towards us. Apparently they thought we were all dead or so incapacitated enough that we couldn't or wouldn't fight back. I know this because they didn't spread out but rather walked in line, about 30 of them, across the paddy, single file, on the small berm that separated the paddy fields. I grabbed the M-60, machine gun and about 1200 rounds of ammunition and set up shop about ten meters away from the crashed Huey. I set up so that I could command both sides of the berm the VC were walking on. I think they were about fifty meters away when I opened fire. I went through about 600 rounds before I stopped to look. Hell I had to stop before I melted the M-60 barrel. Anyway, there wasn't a single VC standing, sitting or moving.

By the way M-60 ammunition was never in short supply, I had about 6,000 rounds between what the Hewey carried and what my guys carried and there was at least that much or more in the crashed Hewey fifty yards down river from us.

Things were quiet for a while. I tried to use the radio but it was broken, both ours and the one in the Hewey. Shot to pieces. I pulled out a smoke grenade and immediately set off a red one. This was to indicate that there were people alive and that we were under fire. As soon as I set it off we started receiving incoming AK fire again. That's when I realized there was a whole company of VC's, 200 or so people shooting at us. Man that sucked. I ran upriver about 50 meters behind the embankment so that I'd have a better shot at the far edge of the rice paddy and to get away from where they were concentrating their fire.

Just then I noticed about fifteen VC trying to cross the river upstream from me. I got them all, like shooting ducks in an arcade. I put a couple of 40mm grenades in the bushes where the VC had come out. I could see the rest running away and I put a few hundred more M-60 rounds into their tail. They didn't try that again but if they had they could have killed us all from across the river. I don't know why they didn't try again further upriver. I would have.

The VC on the other side of the paddy were making so much noise they didn't see or hear the action going on a hundred meters upstream. I guess after a while they stopped shooting and at some point they must have figured that they got us all again because they started marching across the paddy again but this time very slowly and spread out. It's funny how you can spot an officer almost anywhere. In the case of the VC they were the only ones looking behind them, I guess to make sure there were no slackers.

I took down five officers with a short burst from the M-60. I looked for the NCO's too but they were harder to spot and since the lot of them were still moving towards me I figured I didn't have the luxury of taking them out one at a time so I just opened up for effect. I panned from one side to the other, adjusting my range after every couple of passes. I went through about another 800 rounds when the barrel over heated. It was bright red.

Fortunately the VC decided to abandon the fight and retreat to the jungle when they heard another Huey coming. You can't miss the Whop-whop-whop sound of a Huey approaching. It was the gunship that was supposed to have escorted us in when we landed about an hour earlier but it was late. He circled us then blasted the far side of the rice paddy with everything he had which wasn't much, 14 rockets and a few hundred rounds of .30 cal. Then he turned and headed home.

For the rest of the afternoon we took light fire from the far side of the paddy field. One or two VC would start shooting in our direction. I replaced the barrel on the M-60 but decided to hold back firing that because I wanted to keep that for a real assault if it came and I assumed it would that night if not sooner. Instead I used my M-14 rifle. I always carried an M-14 rifle and 2 empty clips. The M-60 and M-14 used the same .30 cal ammunition as I said there was lots of amo everywhere from crashed Hueys. Also the M-14 was a better rifle than the M-16 for long distance target practice. So I loaded up my M-14 and fired, one round at a time, at the muzzle flashed of the AK-47's.

The cat and mouse game went on all afternoon. At one point two Vietnamese Air Force Skyraiders strafed the woods with their 20 mm guns. After circling for a while they too left. After the Skyraiders hit the VC they pretty much melted back into the jungle and we stopped taking incoming AK rounds. I knew they'd be back that night so I figured I had to get off that beach before they came back.

Down river from us, about five clicks, was a provincial capital but more importantly, about three clicks down river from where we were the river widens and on the far side was a riverene base with a lot of firepower. I don't think those riverine boats could have gotten as far up river as we were because it was pretty shallow and with some rapids. I didn't know if they were even looking for us or even if they knew about our problem but I resolved to drift down river that night and make it to that base or the town below.

I patched up the four guys in my squad that were still alive. I'd stopped the bleeding and gave them all enough morphine so that they thought my idea was going to be fun. One kid even got a case of the giggles. Hueys have this webbing that's used to keep cargo from shifting in flight. I used it to make a sling that would hold my boys to the log that had washed ashore. All they had to do was to keep their heads above water and all of them did. I pushed the log into the water and put what was left of my squad in the sling and pushed off just as the last light of the sun was fading. 

We were only a couple of hundred meters down river when I saw some flairs pop over the beach we had been at, followed by mortar rounds and small arms fire. We just quietly drifted down river and watched the fireworks. It took us about an hour to reach the wide part of the river where it slowed down. I kicked and swam the log across the river for another couple of hours to the far side and was just about to land the log when a riverine craft put a spotlight on us. Man, I nearly shit myself when that light came on but they had been looking for us so they didn't shoot. I learned later that a spotter plane had watched us push off the beach so the Navy was waiting for us.

Those first boys in my first squad got shipped home but I got an even better assignment, I got the airbase at Hue. Anyway about six months later I was lying on my stomach in Tokyo with shrapnel peppering my back when some Brigadier walks in and pins this Silver Star on my bed. Apparently the guy in the Hewey gunship hung around long enough to get me that medal. He happened to be a Major.  Yeah, lucky for me.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Mit Romney - not a favorite son

I lived in Belmont for over 20 years. My kids once knocked on his door on Halloween. He handed out toothbrushes. Needless to say they never went back. The man just doesn't get it. Most old timers in Belmont despise the man who rammed the Mormon temple down the town's throat. The temple, which violated all the town ordinances, dominates Belmont hill. All other churches in town respected the height limits expressed in the town's ordinances but not the Mormons who took their complaint all the way to the US Supreme Court on religious freedom grounds. Apparently if they want to erect a 50 story tower anywhere in your back yard they can do it so long as there is an angel Moroni on the top.

In retaliation the town voted to go wet for first first time in 100 years issuing 8 liquor licenses. They have since issued a dozen more. At the town meeting that considered this there was also the errant suggestion that the area around the Mormon temple also be declared an "adult entertainment district." The town folk were angry but felt that going wet was retaliation enough.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Literary Persona

Irene Koronas, poetry editor for Wilderness House Literary Review, posed the question: what mythology do you create for yourself as a writer? your habits: the way you dress, write, where you take vacations, who you associate with, etc.?

My parents and grandparents had a thing about writers and being a writer. My grandfather wrote several dozen books and my mother was a freelance journalist. I don’t think either was particularly good at it but for me their major impact was their absolute reverence for the profession or avocation of writer. They held the title of author in total awe. As part of our religion of the author my mother dragged me to readings and lectures for years. I met Carl Sandburg, Saul Bello, Robert Frost, and a few other luminaries whose names escape me now. They didn’t mean much to me then. 

On Sunday afternoons, after church, my grandfather would sit us down, my cousins, my brother and I, and read stories and poems before a formal dinner that lasted well past my bed time. He would reverently read Keets, Kipling and e e cummings as if they were the latest books of the bible. The word of God. Alleluia. 


Saturdays were far less formal and not universally observed. In the summer my grandfather would hold court on his expansive porch. There were three or four wicker couches and another four or five chairs scattered casually around three glass top tables. Forty feet of fragrant unkempt roses marked the edge of the overhang. People came and went while my grandfather drank martinis from a cut crystal glass in his overstuffed chair just outside the door to his study. They would congregate in small groups, two or three at a time. The police chief and the head of the union negotiating at one table while the three selectmen played cards with my grandfather at another and the president of the garden club gossiped with my grandmother on the last. Bessie MacDermott, the aging and very scotch ‘member of the household,’ served hors d' oeuvres. 

My mother would prepare for these Saturday gatherings by typing up “talking points” and carefully packaging her creations both literary and culinary before heading over to “the big house.” We lived in the coachman’s cottage at the back of the property. Once town business was over and the local luminaries had left my mother would charge over to my grandfather, sit down and start reading something she had written. He would nod thoughtfully, perhaps make a comment or two before pulling a sheaf of papers from under a table next to his chair and proceed to read his own scribbling. I mostly fell asleep on one of the sofas to the drone of someone’s voice reading a newly minted story or poem. It wasn’t hard to decide that I too wanted to be a writer. 

Later, after my grandparents had died, after my father had died, after the town placed a tax lien on the property and after the water main to our cottage broke we were finally forced to sell and move. I went up to the attic in the big house the day before the estate auctioneer emptied it. There were 23 crates full of books, three feet by three feet by eight feet, my great grandfather’s library, to be sold by the linear foot. I broke into one crate and removed from the top layer, a first edition of Shelly’s collected works signed by Mary Shelly, a first edition of the Lewis and Clark expedition and a few other books. I took all that I could carry on the back of my Yamaha 250 motorcycle as I headed to Cambridge in the fall of 1970. 


I knew I wanted to be a writer when I walked into the Grolier Poetry Book Shop that fall (Gordon Carnie remind me of my grandfather) but I was not a writer. I had not written a single published word. That was, strictly speaking, not true. I had written a story in Junior High School about the formation of social cliques at puberty that won an Honorable Mention in some national writing contest that all 8th graders in my school were forced to enter and it was printed in the Hartford Currant. But just because I could write better than most 7th graders who entered the competition didn’t signify my arrival at the sacred alter as a published writer. I felt humbled walking into the great libraries of Harvard and MIT as well as the Coop and Harvard Book store, I still do. I felt the same way walking into the Grolier. There were live writers there. When Alan Ginsburg walked in I unescorted was dumbstruck, when Robert Creeley, Charles Olsen and others casually wandered in I studied them: how did they become writers, how were they different? 


There were a lot of “writers” hanging around the Grolier in those days. Some went on to actually write things of note but many, if not most, preferred the acclaim accorded a “writer” more than the labor and passion of actually writing. I learned that most of the people who called themselves writers were not. The same was true when, years later, after I had written four or five books and deemed myself ready to be called a journeyman writer, I joined the National Writers Union. We would meet once or twice a month for beer and schmoozing and I was surprised to discover that only three or four members, out of twenty or so who regularly attended, had actually published anything. I became a seasoned professional (in some eyes) overnight. It was embarrassing. 


However in the grand order of things a technical writer (which is what I had become) sat only above advertising copywriters in the world of literary distain. My works were not creative. (Says who?) I quit the union, stopped going to poetry readings and ceased calling myself a “writer” and only fessed up, if pressed, to being an occasional scribbler and poet of no great regard. This change in outward persona did two things for me. I didn’t have to live up to be a “writer”, whatever that meant (and I wasn’t sure) and I stopped trying to write anything of significance. This was quite a relief. It freed me to actually enjoy what I wrote. I wrote a column in a technical journal about an over caffeinated, sleep deprived computer geek who worked for the mob. I wrote a column on local politics, covered school committee and planning board meetings and acquired a taste for Scotch which I drank in copious quantities hours before my deadlines. I had fantasies of becoming a beat journalist. It didn’t pay. Eventually I stopped writing altogether. No one would pay for it and even the freebees were being rejected. For years I was a consumer of literature not a creator


I returned to the world of the scribbler when I first met when I first met Irene Koronas she looked at me and said, “You don’t look like a poet.” And so it goes.