Life

Writing What Hurts – Part the 10th – Great Lakes, IL

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8: Electronics Technician School

One of the things I had wanted when I joined the Navy was to be away from Illinois and its winters. Fate, of course, dropped me into Great Lakes as the snow and ice kicked in.  I had a room in one of the crappy student barracks with a couple of other guys. Before you were allowed into the sacred halls of Electronics Technician class “A” school, you had to complete a self-paced computer-based curriculum they called B E&E (Basic Electricity and Electronics). (Yes, even in the late 1970s there was computer-based training). This (for any younger readers I might attract, was the point where I got the answer to why I had to study things like Trigonometry in high school).

Except, there was a glitch. About a week into the first part of the course, I got sick. Very sick. To be excused from class, you had to walk across the icy, frigid base to the clinic, get a note, carry it to the school, then go back to your barracks. This took, very literally, hours. I started with bronchitis, but, after several days of this long trek to the hospital, class, and my room, it escalated. One day (finally) I did not show up either at the clinic, or at school. They found me and got me to the hospital, fevered with a full-blown case of walking pneumonia. Suffice it to say, my graduation from B E&E was delayed.

While I was in the hospital there was nothing to do – except read. They had piles of old westerns and series books. I read everything they had. I was too sick to talk to anyone, really, but I know I sucked in characters and scenes, details. They weren’t great literature, those books, but they were someone’s work – someone’s creation and life. I connected with them, probably at least in part through the fever and the drugged daze I spent those two weeks drowning in. Influences. They hit you when you don’t expect them, and given that it’s been decades, and I still remember… they linger.

My time in Electronics Technician training was interesting. There were a lot of life events, a lot of things that are probably formative, but it was not a huge time of creativity for me. A few things stand out, and I’ll limit myself to those. Being succinct is not my superpower, but I will try.

I made some of my first lasting friendships in Great Lakes… but, they didn’t last. I wish that I could find Brian Massatt, and Gary Clark.  The former had very cool sort of LARP before LARP existed relationship with his soon to be fiancé Susan. She was his princess… they would go monster hunting, with swords and armor, and I (with my guitar that had a broken (and repaired) neck from the bus trip to Great Lakes, was the bard. I wrote songs.  I wrote some poetry. I wrote no stories, or books, but I lived. I met a girl who was Susan’s best friend named Cheryl, but that never went anywhere, though it DID land me at a very unexpected (and unlikely) concert… Barry Manilow and Lady Flash.

Two formative things did happen during my time at Great Lakes. One was my introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. Long afternoons, weekends, all-nighters, chasing dark lords and evil clerics. We had a good dungeon master, but I can’t remember his name. I remember that Brian played some of the time, but for the most part that period (for me) is mostly faces and memories of portable holes and gelatinous cubes. We did have a girl who played along for a while, and I remember finding it very odd, because she was smart, and attractive, and could have been out doing anything she wanted with whoever she wanted – and chose to fight goblins with geeks.

Later in life, my experiences with that game would land my station wagon in Lake Geneva (shortly after meeting Gary Gygax at the original Dungeon) – and in contracts with White Wolf and their World of Darkness, where I produced a fairly long string of novels that I am still proud of.  I’m not always proud of what I’ve written in the past – though I usually am right up until, for some reason, I go back and read it. Writing is an endeavor where the words (from a writer) “You Can’t Go Home Again,” are very true. (Thank you Thomas Wolfe).  I recommend, if you want to continue to be productive and creative, that you concentrate on what you are doing, and not too much on what you’ve done, aside from marketing it.  Too many authors from my own generation, and those before, have simply stopped writing and are seemingly confused why they can’t continue to make lots of money selling things they wrote years ago… with nothing new to offer.  Sort of self-explanatory, unless your fandom is in the millions, and movies are being made from your old books.

But I digress. Random memories from that time in Great Lakes include an instructor staring at the wall, where he’d hung a poster that said: “The only Stupid Question is the One Not Asked,” for a very long time. Gary Clark (who I still have to explain) was from Beaufort, Texas.  He had just asked this instructor, during our module on transmitters, if turning the radio on its side would cause the electrons to flow down to the side, instead of taking their normal path. It was impossible to tell from his ridiculous grin if he was serious.

Clark is responsible for my liking beer.  When I was young, and I covered my step-father much earlier in this book, I was given beer. It was a “hee hee” moment for Bob… my brother Bill gulped it down and loved it, but I hated it. It’s possible I hated it because, not only was I a child trying beer, but it was godawful beer. Probably Goebel’s or Ballantine.  The taste was so bad to me that, for over a decade I could not even think about it.  I did not have the same trouble with wine, or whiskey sours, but those are different stories.

Clark decided one day that I was going to learn to drink beer. He took me to the club on base, and sat me down by the pool tables. We were both good at pool, and played regularly. I had brought my own pool stick in the black case – a sad, young sailor attempt at being cool that many have emulated over the years.  Clark said, “I’m going to get us some beers.”

When he came back, he had two pitchers.  No glasses. He gave me the same grin he’d given the instructor when he asked his question (by definition not a stupid question once asked). It was Shlitz. At first I hated it… but it was cold, and we were playing pool.

I do not remember much about that night. I remember the next morning, though. I had only a mild hangover, but I did not have any idea how I’d gotten into my barracks room.  There were two more pool cue cases leaned against the wall next to mine. I had very little time to put it all away, shower, brush the hellish taste (and likely breath) from my teeth, and get to class.

Clark was there, grinning.  It seems we’d both won pool cues off of unsuspecting sailors. There was more than the initial two pitchers, at least one more shared… there were stories that were in all likelihood made up on the spot, but that I could not deny or prove to be false. I wondered if the neurons in my brain had flowed down toward my face when I hit the pillow, and I glanced at the poster on the wall.

I graduated near the top of my class in ET “A” school.  It was time to move on to something new… real computers, satellite navigation, and San Diego California (again).

Writing What Hurts – Part the 9th – Submarine School

7.

Immediately after completing my boot camp experience in the California sunshine, I was sent off to Groton, Connecticut- about as different a place as one could imagine from the likes of San Diego – and of course, since I went to San Diego in the hottest part of the summer, they sent me to Connecticut as fall started…I would say ‘story of my life,’ but that would be redundant, yes?

In Groton I was on my own again.  I had my seabag full of cool new uniform items, my blue-jackets manual, my guitar, and not much else.  I was assigned to the Polaris Electronics Program – meaning I would have been an electronics technician working on missiles.  I was still a bit irritated that I’d been given this particular school, instead of just being an Electronics Tech (ET) like I had originally asked, but remember, I had that by-the-skin-of-the-teeth nuclear power-worthy score on my ASVAB test going in, so they put me where it earned them the most points at the recruiting station.  Submarines.  Movie Stars…

One of the first things you usually do when you start the curriculum at Submarine School is report to the “pressure chamber” where they ascertain that you can withstand a certain amount of pressure on your ears.  If you fail this, you are dropped from the submarine program.  That is why they put this test up front, before you discover how badly you would like to be dropped from that program.  Turns out, though, that on my designated day, the chamber was broken, so they sent us on our way to class and we started learning to drive submarine simulators, tell a potable water pipe from a saltwater pipe, and the history of the submarine service.  Yay.

At this point, I was still telling people I was a writer, and writing nothing.  I was also still going to church every Sunday morning (and in the evenings on Wednesday) and meeting new people.  One thing church is good for – if you are a young man – is meeting young women.  You can also do this at clubs, and bars, but the problems associated with alcohol and life decisions are myriad.  As it turns out, I did meet someone at the church in Groton, and that is probably why I made it through that school (as far as I went, anyway) without parting ways with organized religion.  I was not about to let flagging faith separate me fromm a particular young lady, and despite the very strict boundaries set, she managed to keep me mostly distracted from other things (and other people) while I was there.

Not that there was not fun.  There was.  We saw Star Wars – the first one – in the theater together for the first time.  We survived an accidental 360 in a car, ending in a slide right up to the side of a gas-pump, where our driver managed not to panic, but instead leaned out, winked at the attendant (they still had them then) and asked him to “Fill ‘er up” as if nothing had happened.

In those days, the drinking age was 19 in Connecticut, and as it turns out, I turned 19 that fall.  While I mostly kept myself to the straight and narrow, I was not immune to the call of the wild, as understood by young, naïve sailors.  I spent my share of nights slipping out with the “boys” – mostly starting around the time that they finally fixed that pressure chamber.

When I had finished school I was transferred to my first boat… a very old boat called The USS Skate.  I was not on there a week before I was hauled out of line at quarters and sent off to the pressure chamber (then operational at last.  They figured it was a formality at that point).  I had other ideas. I am tall – 6′ 3″ in stocking feet, and not particularly graceful.  I had dings all over my forehead and that was only in a few days.  Also, I’d begun hearing stories about Nuclear Power school, how most people dropped out, how it drove people insane, and how I did not want to go there.  I agreed.

When we went into that chamber, and they turned it on, I waited only a couple of seconds before I started fiddling with my ears.  Then I raised my hand, my face contorted in (mostly) faked pain.  They took me out.  They gave me Sudafed and had me wait.  They tried again.  Again, before long, my hand was in the air.  I did feel some pressure, but I probably could have toughed it out.  I just couldn’t see being locked in a submarine, an ocean on top of my head.  I was immediately transferred back to the school and into “holding” company for re-assignment.

I could spend a good bit of time describing that time (again, I was not writing, but I was soaking up life).  I played briefly in a country band we named “Lemon Zeringue and Pie (I was Pie)” with a guy from Louisiana who played and sang very, very well.  He’d had some problems with alcohol, and so had opted for the military rather than going on the road as a musician.  He’d actually been on tour with Kenny Rogers (a much bigger deal back then than it is now, of course).  I remember a Disco called “The Dial Tone,” and a rock club named “The Bach Door” – neither of which, I suspect, exists any longer.  Both were in New London, the “big city” near Groton.  I still attended church, but found another large chunk knocked out of my belief when I learned that one of the elders of the church was also a DJ part time at “The Dial Tone,” where I found him sipping “Zombies” and hanging out with the very sort of women we were warned about each Sunday.  Life is full of accidental lessons.

Anyway, to make what could have been a very long story more succinct… I was taken to an office and asked to fill in some forms.  I was asked what I would like to do in the Navy, now that Polaris Electronics was denied me.  I told them, again, that I’d like to be an ET, thinking that they’d say (as they had before) that it was full.  To my surprise, they smiled brightly and told me they needed a lot of people in that rate.  I stared at the guy who told me this, started to say something, and then just let it drop.  I no longer felt the slightest guilt over the questionable result of my pressure chamber visit.

So, leaving my girl (hard) and Groton Submarine Base (easy) behind, I again mounted the proverbial “Big ol’ jet airliner” and headed for Great Lakes Illinois for Electronics Technician  class “A” school, bringing me full circle back to Illinois, and, of course, with autumn looming, and the very Midwestern winter I’d left behind looming.  Yay.  The good news?  Though it was mostly poetry and song lyrics, at least during this period, I did some writing.  There will also be tales of Dungeons and Dragons, a form of “excommunication,” and more.

Writing What Hurts – Part the 8th

6.

 

So there I was.  I graduated high school with good grades.  I could have gone to any number of colleges as part of the ROTC program, but was told by my recruiter (I’d already signed up as an enlisted man) that I couldn’t go because I’d agreed to their Advanced Electronics plan, and Nuclear Power program.  It was, of course, not true.  I was part of a quota they had to reach, and had I opted out for the life of an officer, I would have left them with a hole to fill. A particularly hard hole, actually, since I qualified so high on the exams, and made it (by the skin of my teeth) into the Nuclear Power program.  They got extra points for that.  The joke was on them, in the end, as I found a way out of that particular program, but that’s far in the future.

I could have gone to school in Charleston, Illinois.  My mom ran one of the big food services on campus at Eastern Illinois University.  I could have gotten into classes for free, or close to it.  To do that, though, I would have had to live with those I hated.  Many of the kids at the high school would just become young adults with the same attitude they’d always had.  My step-father would have been ever-present, and I couldn’t stomach the idea of living even another day under the same roof with him.  The only thing remotely good for me at the time was that I’d been attending The Church of Christ, and I’d met a lot of very cool college students.  I knew, however, that they would graduate, and leave.  I thought, at the time, that I might go into the ministry myself, but not there – not in that town, or that place.

The Navy offered me a good way out.  There are many ways to describe the military, but for me it was escape.  They paid me.  They trained me.  They gave me a place to sleep, and had enough discipline in place to keep me from making any truly stupid moves too early in life.  I honestly believe that a few years in the military is a good idea for the majority of kids.  It gives you some time after school to align your priorities, save for school, learn about the world beyond your parent’s home and control, and figure yourself out.

I left home without so much as a glance over my shoulder. I was just ready to be gone.  They flew me to Chicago, where I was processed in – an experience that included meeting a young black man named… David Wilson.  Born exactly the same day that I was born.  We had a lot of fun telling everyone we were twins, and explaining how it was possible.  He is now my long-lost twin, as I never saw him again.

Transience is a constant in the military.  You have to work hard if you want to forge friendships that last because every two to four years, you move, and those around you are also in constant flux.  You have to build those relationships in that short time period, or lose them as you split up and move on.  I have always been a person who either developed very strong friendships or none at all.  I’m odd, always have been, and though I try never to allow it to show on the surface, I’m pretty full of myself.  I think most people are.  You could put the t-shirt my wife loves – it says “C.S.I. – Can’t stand idiots” – in a room full of 20 random people and all of them would chuckle, glance around at some of the others, and think that the shirt was meant for them to wear, but never that it might be directed their way.  It’s the way humans work.  We all live in tiny, separate worlds where we rule.  Those worlds blend, and interact, but really – it’s never quite the same in any moment for you as it is for someone else.  It goes back to those influences.  All of us have had different influences, all of us believe and know and think at least a little bit differently.

Transience is a familiar sensation to a seasoned writer, as well.  You meet your characters for a short period of time.  You interact with them, live and love with them, and if you do them justice – come to care about them.  You shift into their world, and then, when the story has been told, you move on and leave them behind, hopefully with enough mojo that they can pass on the experience to your readers.

The military swallowed me up in Chicago and spit me toward San Diego, where I went to boot camp.  I went in the summer.  A very dry, hot summer.  I ended up dumped into Company 927.  We were commanded by an ex-Seal who was about to retire.  He had a good attitude, but he was tough.  They chose a guy named Fort to be our RCPO (Recruit Chief Petty Officer) and another guy I only remember as Catfish as the ARCPO (Assistant).  Catfish spent all of his time with his mouth wide open, and he sort of worked it – like a fish trying to gulp air out of water.

A more diverse group would have been very difficult to find.  One big scary guy who ended up getting dropped for being too crazy to serve, a tiny little guy named Blankenship we called the Admiral who talked too much, an older guy named Buckholtz who was overweight, and constantly confused, a pair of Mormons, myself (wanting in equal parts to be a minister and a writer) and a ton of others.

My experience there was different than most.  We were a “drill” company, meaning that our members served in the Drill Team, with the rifles, the Flag team, and in the Bluejackets Choir (where I ended up).  We had it a bit easier than most of the companies, and every Sunday we got to go and perform during church services.  It was there that I became more aware of the workings of other faiths than my own (at the time) fundamental Christian views.

Currently, I believe in science, and the wonder of the real world that surrounds us.  I think something big and powerful created everything, but can’t imagine it had a thing to do with ancient mythology, Hebrew or otherwise, and am happy to believe that being the best person I can be for no other reason than that I know it’s right is the way to go.  I have come to detest most of the organized religions of the world for their narrow-minded attitudes, and the fact that the majority of the wars in history can be tracked back to them.  Again – I digress. Believe me, though, I will return to this.

The most important thing I learned in boot camp was how to re-imagine myself.  I had been a particular person in high school, but the minute I left home, and all the people I knew, I had a choice.  I could be whoever I could pull off.  Sure, I ended up with people who liked me, respected me, laughed at me, etc… but it was all new, and all different, and that was an experience the Navy gave me again, and again.

This is where the boot camp experience begins to relate directly to writing.  First, I met a lot of diverse characters.  I am a born mimic, and I spent a lot of time figuring out their accents, and listening to their stories.  At the same time, I learned – as noted – to make myself over into something new.  Living as different versions of myself allowed me to experience the world through slightly different perspectives.  For a writer, this is the kind of insight that can make the difference between real and plastic.  Even in genre fiction, fantasy, science fiction, or horror, the thing that makes all of the unbelievable elements work is the core reality you create to surround those unbelievable elements. The reactions of your characters, and the world you surround them with, need to seem believable to the reader in the context of your plot, or you will lose them very early on.  Give them someone, and something, to relate to.

In boot camp, I played the young kid from southern Illinois who could run, and write, prayed every night, and argued with the Mormons.  I was there for my friends, smart enough to keep my head down and my mind mostly focused on doing what would get me through with the least trouble.  I sang on Sunday, shined my shoes, and worked very hard at creating a suit of armor around myself to hide what was already some fairly serious doubt in my chosen life of faith.  I didn’t write – not then.  I told everyone I was a writer.  I believed I was going to be a writer.  How in the world I missed that first, fundamental truth – that a writer writes – is still beyond me.

What I didn’t realize then, but understood later, was that a writer is always working.  Sure, once you get going, it’s important to write all the time, but if you plan on having anything relevant or important to say, you first have to live, experience, and grow.  For me, boot camp was a period of serious growth – one that I have good and bad memories of, and that has found its way into more than one story, character, and plot.

I’m not going to dwell on that time.  There are periods of my naval career that deserve serious consideration, and I’ll get to them in due course.  The important take-away is the ability to redesign your thought processes into those of a different person, and the idea that every moment of your life is a learning experience directly applicable to writing.  If you are reading this, and you are young –just beginning life and work – this is vital.  Pay attention.  Keep your mind open.  Even if you can’t share the beliefs or ideas of others, try to understand why they believe them, and how those beliefs define their world.  If you can’t think like a particular character, you can’t write them believably.

Next stop?  US Naval Submarine School, Groton Connecticut, where, again, I did not write…

 

Writing What Hurts – Part the 7th (I think)

5.

 

A lot of people join the military.  There are myriad reasons for this – adventure, to see the world, to take some time and figure out whether you want college, and what you want from it.  All of those are good, valid reasons.  None of them were mine.  I spent most of my life in a small town, not fitting in all that well at school and trying to find ways to deal with the abusive, alcoholic step-father life dealt me.

No, he never beat me.  He did launch me off the ground with a broom once, but I thoroughly deserved that.  My brother and I had been considering getting into an old oil barrel and rolling down a steep hill toward the lake below…  Bob – never dad – was a big man.  He had his own issues – raised in the depression on or near an Amish farm.  Grew up to serve as a police officer and (I believe) a pilot for a while in a non-wartime military.  When I met him, he was a barber.

I have never understood the relationship he and my mother shared.  She seemed to spend most of her life in trying not to make him angry, while sneaking behind his back to see that my brother and I had some kind of life of our own beyond him.  Bob’s idea of how our days should be spent was in going to school – only because we had to – coming home – and working.  He was always working on something, a glass of Seagram’s 7 and 7-Up in one hand and a cheap, stinking cigar in the other.  We were expected to be part of it.  He could build things.  He could fix cars.  He could fly a plane, and even taught my mom to do it.  What he could not do was – in any way at all – relate to people other than his few old friends, and though he seemed to get along well with his own son, he was pathetically inept at dealing with me, or my brother.

After very, very long hours of thought, my brother and I have come to the conclusion he was possibly gay, and just never had the courage to come out of the closet.  He and my mom slept in different rooms.  He insulated his with cork and air-conditioned it to near freezing.  Most of the jokes he made were off-color and inappropriate.  He was prejudiced to a fault, and when the family (on the rare occasions we were allowed out of our bedroom) watched Archie Bunker, Bob laughed with Archie while the rest of us laughed at them both.  Bob was Archie Bunker and proud of it.  He had more ethnic slurs memorized than I do 70s and 80s pop songs, and that is one of my super powers.

I remember one winter how he sent us out to shovel snow off the driveway.  Not a bad thing, in and of itself, though we were not very old or large or strong.  Here’s the thing, though.  It was still snowing.  By the time we hit the end of the drive (which was long) it was covered again.  Southern Illinois in winter is VERY cold.  Our toes were near frostbite.  We did this for HOURS and he would not let us stop, or come in.  On top of it all – he owned a 12 hp tractor with a snow plow, and when we were finished…then he went out and plowed it after the snow stopped.  This is the type of thing that happened any time he was given control of the situation, so – for our own survival – we found ways to avoid as much contact with him as humanly possible.

I remember one day, out in the sun, not allowed to get a drink, trying to hold sheets of particle board siding against the wall without letting them move as he stood back and cocked his head, drank his beer, or whiskey, and took his sweet time deciding to nail it into place.  We were so tired – so hot.  At some point, I had a spade in my hand.  I don’t remember what job required that, but there it was.  In those few short moments, I remember considering slamming it into the back of his head repeatedly, and taking my chances – as a juvenile – in the system. I truly, truly hated him.  I was told I would get over that when I grew up.  I never did, though I came to sort of pity him and the anger drained away.

Later in life, to show he never changed, I visited home with my first wife.  At this point, Bob and my mom slept in different halves of a duplex (reinforcing the separate room thing to a ridiculous degree).  We were in mom’s half, on a fold-out couch in her family room.  Before we woke, he came in, and sat in a chair.  Then he grinned and started talking, and very clearly thought if he waited long enough, we’d both get out from under the covers without dressing and prance around for his entertainment.  I had to get up and tell him to get out so she could dress.  The creep factor was huge. During that trip he also had a near psychotic break because, having hated anything but whole milk all of my life, I had the temerity to buy some and put it in the refrigerator. It might have been the depression years talking, but he was absolutely insanely angry about what he considered a ridiculous waste of money when Skim and 2% were cheaper. Funny the cost of whiskey never came up.

Anyway… why do I mention all of this?  Not really for therapeutic purposes, but just to show another aspect of how your life can inform your creative process.  All of the things that I blame on that man, and the life I lived before I left for the US Navy, are a part of what I’ve written, what I will write in the future, the decisions I make as a man, husband, father.  Writing is like life, when it’s done right, and the things that ache – the things that hurt – the things that drive you near the edge of madness – those are the things that give your words power – side by side with the wonder you find in the world, the love and relationships and success you encounter along the way.  These are the influences that insure you have something to say – and if you don’t – why are you writing?

You will find part of my life in those days in the childhood of Brandt, the protagonist of my fairly popular novel Deep Blue. Writing that was therapeutic.

You thought I was going to talk about boot camp, and I am.  I first escaped home by spending a lot of time in a church.  I walked in that world for a time, and when I left home, I was still mired firmly in that dream.  As I said a few pages back – in 1997 I left for the United States Navy – EVERYTHING changed.

 

Great Gifts for the Holiday? American Pies – HC or TPB – An Excerpt!

pieguycoverwebsiteI wrote a book a couple of years back titled American Pies – Baking With Dave the Pie Guy… it’s got a bunch of pie recipes, all tried, photographed, and described in detail – and a bit more… it all started with the question of whether or not you could make a pie from persimmons, something I loved as a child, and discovered because of my grandfather.  The answer is yes… here’s the Fresh Persimmon Pie recipe from my book… which you should buy people for Christmas… just saying. Here’s the Amazon Link:

AMERICAN PIES: Baking with Dave the Pie Guy

Chapter Three

Fresh Persimmon Pie

You may have guessed by now that this is not just a book of pie recipes.  There are stories behind each of the choices I made for my ‘baker’s dozen’.  (The final pie was the American Pie – we’ll get to that, but you saw it on the cover of the book).  As is the case so often in my life, my past met up with my present one night, and I started remembering, and thinking.

I grew up in southern Illinois.  My grandparents lived in a very small town that had already started to die out by the time I first visited.  The highway moved to the side and bypassed them.  They had lived there for a very long time, having built several homes, and even a log cabin.  My Aunt Lucile (We called her Aunt ‘Toole’ – though I don’t really know why) lived in the house next door, which my grandfather also built.

I spent a lot of time in Flora – that was the town.  Some of the strongest memories and impressions of my life date back to those few small streets, the park outside of town, Johnsonville Lake where my grandpa took us fishing, and the railroad tracks we walked up and down that led out of town.

In those days, there were still a lot of trains.  Sometimes you had to hurry to get off the tracks and out of the way as hundreds of cars rushed past, looking tall as large buildings and making so much noise conversation was impossible.  In later years, my brother and I explored those tracks on our own, but when I was younger I went there with my grandfather, Merle Cornelius Smith, who I remember as the finest man I ever met – and who I wish I’d been older while knowing so I could have heard, and understood, his stories.  I’ve heard a lot of them second hand, and I’ve got pictures, records and the memories my mom has shared.  I just wish I’d been a little more aware of just how amazing his life had been, so I could have soaked more in while I had time to spend.

He took my brother and I back along those railroad tracks because there were nut trees in small groves that he knew where to find – and in one small hollow down off the track, there were persimmon trees.  My grandfather introduced me to a lot of things in life.  He taught me to fish, to tie my own flies, to wrap a fishing rod and build it from scratch, and he taught me about a lot of food that I likely would not have known, or enjoyed.

He showed me how to make dandelion greens into something very much like spinach.  He introduced me to fresh, home-made canned yogurt, gardening, raising earthworms, polishing stones and making jewelry.  Out along the railroad tracks, he introduced me to persimmons.

They were different back then than what you’ll find in the grocery store these days.  They were sort of like a game – you could win a treat, but you couldn’t win if you didn’t play.  About a third of all the persimmons we picked left a bitter aftertaste…finding them just ripe enough was an art form and a shaky one at best.  Still, when they were good, they were among the best flavors in the world, and I never forgot them.

One day we were in our local grocery, here in North Carolina, and there, in a carton, were persimmons.  I got excited.  I probably babbled about them.  I know everyone reached the smile and nod point with me pretty quickly but it didn’t matter.  They were there, and I bought some.  As I ate them, day after day, I waited for that bad one – that bitter taste that had plagued the persimmon bliss of my youth.  It never came.  They were sweet, soft, and consistently good.  Finally, I looked them up on the Internet.

As mankind has done so many times in the past, someone got tired of the ‘problem’ of bitter persimmons.  They not only engineered new ones that were almost never bitter (I did find one bitter one late one night and almost laughed until I cried trying to explain why a bad taste in my mouth brought a good memory).  They also managed to create persimmons without seeds.  I learned, as I read, that they are also called Sharon fruit, named for the Sharon Plain in Israel, where some of the finest of this particular fruit has been grown.  It does look a bit like a star inside when sliced (as you’ll see in the pictures).  They are orange-yellow to dark orange in color and very sweet.

Anyway, after eating these newly rediscovered treats for a couple of weeks, I was sitting in bed thinking (almost always a mistake).  What came to mind was …why have I never seen a persimmon pie?  This led to the question of whether you could make a persimmon pie, and the inevitable Internet journey that led to the answer.

Of course you can.  You can make a pie out of almost anything.  I found several recipes for fresh persimmon pie, and I copied a bunch of them.  Then I did what I usually do.  I poked them, prodded them, talked about them, and generally procrastinated without doing anything.  I, of course, did not regularly bake pies.  I’ve probably baked a couple earlier in my life, but it was so far back I don’t remember.  The question changed from ‘can you make a persimmon pie?’ to ‘Can I make a persimmon pie.”

As it turns out, again, the answer was – of course I can.  Pie is like anything else … you can psyche yourself out and make it into some weird voodoo that only chefs, bakers, and grandmas can pull off with any skill, but the truth is; if you pay attention, take your time, and prepare properly, you can bake a pie.  It’s not rocket science (though I have it on good authority that rocket scientists like pie.).

So…Persimmon Pie.

persimmon

Once I got over the hurdle of deciding to actually bake the pie, things shifted into a higher gear.  I was all business.  I had my recipe.  I was sure we had everything we needed in the kitchen, I mean, it’s full of baking stuff.  I checked my list, and found that we did, indeed, have most of the ingredients for this particular pie right in our pantry.  Of course, I had to buy persimmons.

The recipe calls for 2 ½ cups of fresh persimmons.  Stumbling block number one.  How many persimmons, exactly, in a cup?  And also – looking at the recipe, I realized I had a bigger problem.  You see, there was a picture of the pie they envisioned.  It was flat across the top, maybe even a little sunken.  It looked a lot like the pies in the supermarket, and that was not what I wanted to bake.

I pulled out the biggest measuring cup we have – it’s an Anchor Hocking Fire-King piece we bought at an auction when we spent our nights buying and selling antiques and collectibles on eBay.  Another lifetime, it seems, after all this time.  Anyway, the top line on the measuring scale said that it held four cups.  It didn’t seem like much to me, and even with that measurement to sort of eyeball, it quickly became obvious that, depending on how they were sliced, the number of persimmons it would take to fill that cup was going to vary wildly.  I bought a whole bag of them.  I err on the side of too much fruit every time, and if there are leftover persimmons, believe me, you won’t be sorry when you taste one.

I gathered the ingredients, but not efficiently.  My method was to put each of the things that I had to have in a different container (why? I have no idea) so I dirtied quite a few cups and bowls in the process.  The recipe called for:

2 ½ Cups of ripe persimmons. (We used 5-6 cups in the end)

1/3 of a Cup of granulated sugar.

1/3 Cup firmly packed brown sugar.

2 ½ Tablespoons of quick cooking tapioca…

What?  Here we break down again.  Cooking tapioca?  I’ve had tapioca pudding often enough.  What was it doing in a pie, though?  I had to stop – mid-pie – and go back to the Internet.  I also had to figure out why, exactly, I’d missed this during my quick inventory.  I mean, the pie was half made, and I was missing something – maybe something important.

Here is one of the lessons I learned about pies.  Fruit is juicy.  (wow, what a revelation).  If you just bake it in a pie, it bubbles out over the edges.  It won’t hold together when you slice it.  It’s more like soup, in fact, than it is like filling.  Cooking tapioca is something bakers use to thicken the filling.  Thankfully for my first pie, it’s not the only thing that will do the job.  The more commonly used ingredient is cornstarch, and according to the cooking experts I found online, you could use about the same amount of cornstarch as you would tapioca and it would work just fine.  That’s what I did.  As luck would have it, we had cornstarch in abundance.  This thickening process is one of the tricky things to learn, and may not work for you perfectly until you experiment with it.  The recipes I found varied wildly on the amount necessary for several of the pies we made.  Our results varied just as wildly, and while we didn’t come out with any bad pies, some were runnier than I’d have liked.  This is where grandmothers have the upper hand with their pinch of this and handful of that.  They just knew…and the reason they knew was they’d done it and done it and done it again.

1 Teaspoon ground cinnamon.

1/2 Teaspoon of grated orange peel.

1/2 Teaspoon of grated lemon peel.

Again…time for another break.  Various recipes call for grated orange and lemon peels, or “zested” peels.  What they don’t tell you is how in the world you’re supposed to get said grated peel, or why it’s there.   I can’t tell you that I know why it’s there – other than flavor – but I can tell you how to get it.

First, wash the lemon, or the orange.  You’d think that goes without saying, but I mention it because it’s something I think about.  I once wrote a story that was published in an anthology about Holidays.  My story?  “For These Things I am Truly Thankful.”  In that story, the protagonist becomes obsessed with the history of things.  The water in his sink, coming through pipes that ran beneath the ground, had been put together by plumbers with God knows what on their hands, had picked up silt and other things from the processing plant, the people there – etc.

I want to point out that the orange and / or lemon in question came from a grocery store, where it was groped by consumers, placed by a stock person, possibly coughed and sneezed on.  Before that they were in a box, shipped from another country, and suffered all of those same things – along with bug spray and BUGS (which is why they spray).  So…since you are using the outside of the fruit, wash it thoroughly.

If you have a potato peeler or a cheese grater, either of these will work fine – and even if the recipe in hand says “zest” – it’s all the same when it hits the pie.  I happen to have a zester by lucky coincidence.  I bought a fancy vegetable carving kit so I could have the tools to carve Halloween pumpkins, and, as it turns out, one of the things they sent (though I had no idea what it was until Trish told me) was a zester.

3 Tablespoons of lemon juice.

I know, I know.  Get on with it, right?  I promise that I will, but I have to tell you, the lemon juice confused me too.  Now I know it’s important, and if it’s missing from a fruit recipe, I usually add it in for good measure.  Lemon juice is a natural preservative.  I’m sure you’ve bitten into an apple, or left one sliced and laying around longer than you should have.  They get brown very quickly.  The same is true of a number of fruits, and if the first thing you do is to slice your fruit, you chance the quick advance of decay while you are busy mixing and whisking and doing pie-baking things.  You sprinkle the aforementioned lemon juice onto the fruit to keep it fresh – and it works.  I can say that after 13 pies, it worked for me every time.  You also get a slight citrus flavor from it, but not distracting.  You actually – oddly – get more flavor from the zested / grated peels.

2 9″ Pastry pie crusts.

I use the boxed crusts you can find at the supermarket.  I do not use the store brand, or any generic.  If I get permission from the company (still waiting) I’ll let you know the brand name before I’m done, but suffice it to say the mascot giggles a lot.  They are (hands down) the best.  I will eventually branch into making my own crusts, I suppose, but my suspicion is that, though I might make one as good as the ones I use, probably I will not make one that is better.

The last ingredient is butter or margarine.  You’ll see anything from one to three tablespoons in pie recipes, but here’s the deal.  This is a pinch of this and handful of that thing, again.  When all the filling is in the pie, you’ll spot the top of it with small dabs of butter or margarine.  It melts down in and blends with the juice, cornstarch, and filling and it’s important so make sure you remember – right before that second crust goes over the top of the pie (I’ll mention this again when I reach that point, but I want to be sure you don’t forget.  I did – once – and had to peel back the top crust and slide it in.  A delicate job that could have ruined a perfectly good pie.)

Preparation:

Now it’s time to make this pie.  Rinse the persimmons (see my note about washing fruit above).  These have a weird leaf/stem that has to be cut out.  It’s easiest to cut in a circle around it and pop it off the top.  The recipes all called for the persimmons to then be cut into thin slices.  Here is where I’ll make another comment.  We did as they instructed, and the pie was actually very good.  Persimmons, though, unless incredibly ripe, are kind of crunchy.  If you slice the persimmons into, basically, circular slices, you’ll find them a little hard to cut with a fork when eating them, though they look really good in the bowl, and in the pie.  I didn’t mind this – but I love persimmons.  For better results, I think, I’d suggest almost dicing the fruit.  Some recipes call for pulping the persimmons (boiling them to mush) but I don’t like doing this to any fruit – dicing will give you smaller, more manageable chunks.

persimmon2

Once your persimmons are cut, or sliced, and ready –put them in a medium to large sized bowl and sprinkle the lemon juice over them.  Set this aside and find yourself another medium sized bowl.  In this bowl, combine the two types of sugar, tapioca (or cornstarch), cinnamon, orange and lemon peels and stir them thoroughly.  You need to mix up all the powders until you have them spread evenly so you don’t end up with pockets of cornstarch, or sugar on one side, and all the orange peels on the other.  I use either a whisk, or a large spoon for this mixing.  The spoon is good because you can use it to sprinkle the resultant mixture over the fruit.

persimmon3

Now, set aside your second bowl and get your pie plate ready.  I recommend as deep a 9″ pie plate as you can find.  I only use glass or Pyrex plates.  Set the plate on a surface where you have some working room, and then get out your pie crusts.  Unroll the first crust and place it over the top of the pie plate, then carefully press it down into the plate so that it shapes to the glass.  The crust will extend out past the edge of the plate.  At this point, take a knife and cut around the edge of the plate, trimming off the excess crust.

You can do what you want with this excess.  They say it’s bad to eat it raw, though I’ve done that.  The “Pie Bloke” over in the UK tells me it’s because there is raw egg in it.  Trish suggests rolling it into balls, sprinkling it with cinnamon and sugar, and baking it to make pie-crust cookies.  We did that once, and they were okay, but nothing to write home about.  The important thing is that you trim even with the flat top edge of your pie-plate.

When this is done you have a couple of choices.  As you will see in the photos of my own persimmon pie, I chose to mix all of the ingredients in with the persimmons thoroughly, and then place them in the pie.  The other method is layering, sprinkling in some of the ingredients, then layering persimmons on top of that, sprinkling more, etc.  If you choose this latter method, don’t skimp.  You need all the ingredients in the pie if you can manage it.  The key is that the fruit should be coated in the sugar and cornstarch and cinnamon, and that it should filter down and fill the cracks between the fruit.  As the pie bakes, the fruit will sort of melt into the rest of it, and combine.  It’s a beautiful thing.

persimmon4

From here on out, it’s pretty easy.  Don’t forget to dab in the bits of butter or margarine.  Spread them out across the pie filling, but it doesn’t REALLY matter where you put them.  Next you need to take that second pie crust, unroll it, and very carefully place it over the top of the pie.  You have to get it centered so that there is excess sticking out over the edges of the plate.

There are tools for what I’m about to describe.  I don’t own one.  I have an old can opener with the pointed, triangular end on it.  Not much good for cans these days, but you can use it here.  Hold it with the top down.  Press it firmly into the top crust directly above the flat glass edge of the pie plate.  This presses the two crusts together and leaves a cool indentation.  Right beside this, do it again, and continue this carefully all the way around the perimeter of the pie, until you’ve come full circle and the edges of the impressions touch.  The cool technical term for this is crimping  When this is done, once again, trim off all the excess crust and set it aside for whatever you’ve decided to use it for.

At this point, I usually stop and turn on the oven.  It takes a while to preheat.  This also brings me to another wide variance in the recipes of others.  Baking time, and temperature.  This recipe calls for setting the oven at 375° – and I have to say, on this first pie I probably got lucky.  I’m convinced that the perfect baking time on most pies hovers on or around one hour.  The best results I’ve had have involved starting with a really high temperature, and dropping it down after twenty minutes or so…but for this pie, set the oven to 375° and wait for it to preheat.

Next you need to cut vents in your top crust.  This is another thing that you don’t want to forget, because, as I keep saying, step after step, it’s important.  The vents let the pressure and heat from the fruit cooking inside release any built up pressure and gives the filling a place to bubble up and out if it gets too hot.  I cut slits from near the center down in a star pattern.  Some people cut sort of tear-drop shaped slits, and others try to get artistic and cut designs.  The star was quick and easy, and it’s what I went with.  Later in the book I’ll show you what happened when we tried to get more creative.  In the end – I’m going to eat the pie…so I don’t need anything fancy.

persimmon5

At this point I slapped my pie in on the bottom shelf, as the recipe called for, and set my timer for one hour.  It was a mistake, and I’ll explain that in a moment.  While it’s baking you should look in on it now and then.  Make sure the edges get a little brown before you pull it out, and make sure they don’t get too brown.  Again, it’s something you learn to get just right over time.

But let’s get back to that mistake.  Remember I said you had the vents in case the filling needs to bubble up and out?  It does.  It always does, at least a little.  If you put your pie in on the oven rack, that fruit filling is going to sizzle and drip all over the bottom of your oven.  This is not going to make people happy.  It’s hard to get out, it bakes onto the inner surface of the oven like cement, and it’s easily avoidable.  What you need to do is either to put a foil covered cookie or pizza pan underneath your pie pan, or to make something.  That’s what I do, now.  After Trish quit cursing at me, and showed me how, I started using a drip pan created by taking a couple of sheets of tinfoil and folding them.  You fold one in half, just a bit wider than the pie pan.  Then you take the other, fold it over and around the first forming a sort of cross.  Crimp up the edges so that anything trying to run over the edge of your pie – won’t.  Again…this is important.

Now, place your pie into the heated oven, set yourself a timer (I use the one on the microwave above the stove) and sit back to wait out the hour for your finished pie.  When it’s baked, remove it carefully and place it on the stop top to cool.  I think about an hour is perfect for cooling.  Your finished product should look something like this:

persimmon6

If you did it right…shortly after this, it will look more like this:

persimmon7

And there you have it.  I will include the full recipes for each of these pies at the back of the book (minus the commentary).  They will also be available (for those who buy the book) as a printable recipe cards.  These chapters are longer, but I hope not boring – and I know likely to improve your outcome.  Learn from my mistakes…that’s why I’m here.  Now, on to our next adventure, Fresh Pear Pie.

 

The Green House – and a Free Story – and a Memory

greenhouse

This is a photo from June 26, 2016 Beth sent me of the VERY house in the story… the Green House.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  Once, long ago, I was keynote speaker at a writer’s conference in the Lehigh Valley up north.  I didn’t really know what I was going to talk about.  I felt a little overwhelmed, because, at that point in my career, though I’d sold several novels and a handful or two of stories, I wasn’t sure I had the experience to speak on a subject that would prove useful.  Then…I started talking (it’s a recurring theme…). What I talked about was the fact that my ideas don’t just come to me.  Often – I live them.  I told them this story – it didn’t happen exactly as I wrote it, but it was closer than reality should have allowed. The house – the church – the guy who looked like Charles Manson… so much of this I did not make up.  Then I wrote in my buddy Wayne Allen Sallee – who was present that weekend, a weekend where I’d come to author Elizabeth Massie’s house for something we called Pseudocon – a writer’s retreat of sorts – a gathering of friends that I have to this day, though at least one has passed from us.  Many of these people are authors I now publish.  All of them have influenced my life, and my work.  If you go to Waynesboro, VA and turn between the two silos and see a house with a car in the front yard – radio playing – beside an old church.  Think twice before you ask for directions.

You Lookin’ For Herb?

It was getting dark, and the road ahead was fading quickly to shadows.  Dave looked about himself nervously, hoping against hope that he’d see something familiar, something that would let him know he was on the right track.  For about the thousandth time that hour, he cursed himself for forgetting to bring Beth’s phone number.

The Virginia mountains were no place to be lost at that time of night, especially when the only landmarks you could remember that might make everything all right were three giant grain silos off to one side of the road, and you could barely see the side of the road.  It was not starting out to be the best night of his life.

In the seat beside him, Jo was squirming uncomfortably, trying to look unconcerned, but not doing a very good job.  She was taking it like a real trooper.  It was their first time away together, and they hadn’t been dating that long.  His first fear had been that she’d be furious, and that their weekend would be ruined, all by his own ridiculous mistake.

The roads that turned off to either side were all numbered with identical signs.  He knew that the road he needed was eight hundred and something, and since he couldn’t make out a thing along the roadside, he opted for the one that seemed to ring a bell.  813.  It might not be the right one, but it was a place to start.

“I’m sorry about this,” he said, turning to Jo with a lopsided grin.  “I can’t believe her phone is unlisted!”

“It’s okay,” she said, returning the smile, if a bit nervously.  “Is this the road?”

“I’m not sure, but it looks familiar.  If this isn’t it, we’ll come back out here, make our way into town, and I’ll figure something else out.”

She nodded, and he drove on down the dark, deserted road, paying close attention to the many potholes and the steep ditches.  She had offered up her car for the trip, even letting him do the driving, and he had no intention of taking advantage of that trust.

On either side they passed farm houses, some showing lights, others seemingly deserted.  Nowhere was there a sign of life or a familiar landmark, and after a couple of short miles, he had to admit that he was lost.

Just as he’d begun to look for a place to turn around and head back the other way, he spotted one last house on the right side of the road.  There was a car parked in the front yard, its door open and the dome-light on.

“I’m going to pull in and ask whoever that is for directions,” he said with relief.  “It looks like they just got home!”

Jo didn’t say anything, but he noticed that she was gripping the armrest on the door tightly and her lips were compressed in a very, very poor imitation of a smile.  It didn’t help that there was an old abandoned church in the lot across the way from the house.

He stared at it, realizing almost immediately what seemed out of place.  There was a “FOR RENT” sign on the door!  A church for rent, and it came with its own small cemetery out back.  Swell.  How many gods could be in the market?

He pulled into the driveway behind where the other car was still parked, and he turned off the ignition.

“Wait here?” he asked.

Jo didn’t look enthusiastic about being left alone, but it was obvious that she’d rather be near the ignition and the gas pedal than walking into some strange country homestead and chatting up the locals.  That was fine.  Alone, he could hurry it along, find out where that damned road with the three silos was, and they’d be on their way.  Once they’d finally reached Beth’s and gotten settled in, he was certain things would be fine.  At least he hoped they would.

Crossing the unkempt yard quickly, lips twisted in a friendly smile, Dave approached the car.  It was obvious now that, though the door was open, the dome light and stereo on, the occupant of the vehicle had no intention of getting out and going inside.  Judging from the two flat tires on the closest side of the vehicle and the flowers growing up through the fender in front, it was more of a home addition than a vehicle these days.

Just as Dave was beginning to think that maybe Jo was right, maybe they would be better off just finding the place on their own, an arm slipped out from the car’s shadowy interior to dangle loosely over the door, which was slightly ajar, and a face appeared in the window.

If he hadn’t known the man was in prison, and that the idea was ludicrous, he would’ve sworn that the face belonged to Charlie Manson.  Long, greasy hair dangled past thin, emaciated shoulders, and the eyes that stared out from the shadows of that car were feral – like those of a rodent, or some wild predator, gleaming at him through the darkness.

“Yeah?” the man said, and the dry, rasping sound of his voice, followed by a rattling cough, brought things back to reality.  It wasn’t Charlie Manson, that was for sure.

“Excuse me,” Dave began brightly, holding out a hand that the other man ignored pointedly, “but we’re looking for the Lindbergh place – it’s a farm near here.  I think we must have taken a wrong turn off the main road back there.”

He pointed vaguely back the way they’d come, trying without success to remember just which number turnoff they’d actually taken.

“You lookin’ for Herb?” the man asked, his eyes slightly unfocused.  He acted as though he hadn’t heard a word Dave had said, and it was obvious that he was drunk, or stoned, or both.  At least Dave hoped he was.

“No,” he answered slowly.  “I don’t know any Herb – is he a relative of the Lindberghs?”

The man looked at him as if he were crazy.  “Nope, don’t think so.  He’ll be here in a little bit, though, you could wait.”

“But I don’t want to see Herb,” Dave burst out, exasperated.  “I’m just looking for directions to my friend’s farm.”

“I don’t know these parts too well,” the man told him slowly.  “You might go inside and ask – someone ought to be able to help you.”

Dave turned, giving Jo a “what can I do?” kind of shrug, and looked about himself quickly.  He saw the church next door, its graveyard pointed directly at him and the “FOR RENT” sign hanging at an ominous angle on the door.

“Shit,” he said under his breath.  He thanked the man quickly and headed for the front door of the place, hoping against hope that someone with half a brain would be inside, and that they could get out of this madhouse and back on the road quickly.

Just as he reached up to knock on the door, a breath of fetid air washed across his shoulder, and he realized that the man had slipped up behind him.  An odd sound was filling the air – at first he thought it was just his head buzzing with the sudden burst of adrenalin brought on by the man’s sudden appearance – but it was more than that.

A piano.  It was a tinny, off-key rendition of some sort of jazz tune, and it was coming from inside the house.  Without a word, the man reached around him and pushed the door open, letting the music escape into the night.

Dave coughed quickly, backing up as the scent of the inner rooms hit him.  There was a moldy, yellowed sheet hanging from the door frame like a curtain.  The place smelled musky, like a huge litter box, or an abandoned barn that rodents had taken over.

Moving ahead of him, and thankfully pushing the nasty, rotting sheet out of the way, the man preceded him inside.  With a deep breath, which he held as long as possible, Dave followed.  There was a light just to the right – another doorway, similarly curtained to the first.  It was from beyond this that the music was rolling forth, much louder now, still filled with so many discordant notes that he knew the instrument must be horribly out of tune.

Parting the “curtain” of the second room, he stepped inside and stopped cold.  Seated across the room at a run-down, lop-sided old piano, sat what appeared to be a very greasy Little Richard impersonator.  Dreadlocks hung down to shoulder length in back – greased or extremely dirty – and the man’s bony black fingers danced quickly over the chipped ivory of the keyboard.  He swayed from side to side slowly, lost in the music – such as it was.

Then, with a sudden lurch, he stopped playing and spun his head over his left shoulder in a single, fluid motion, catching Dave staring and meeting his gaze flatly.  There was no emotion in those eyes – no life of any sort, for that matter.  No color.  They were white, empty, blind eyes.  Dave shivered involuntarily and glanced away, but when he gathered the courage to turn back, the pianist was gazing at his own fingers again.  Dave couldn’t be certain what he’d seen, but the image of those milky-white orbs strobed in his mind.

“You looking for Herb?” the man asked quickly, not looking back again, or seeming to really care what Dave might be looking for.

Shaking his head, Dave answered.  “No.  I’m up here to visit some friends, the Lindberghs.  They live down one of these roads, eight hundred something.  I think the address is 870-B.”

The man continued to stare at him as if he hadn’t spoken at all.  “You aren’t lookin’ for Herb?”

Holding his anger in check, Dave started to tell him again what he was looking for, but the first man cut in again.

“I know a guy named Wayne Lindbergh.”

“Great!” Dave cut in quickly.  “Where does he live?  Maybe he lives nearby, or he’s related?”

“Lived in Richmond,” the man said flatly.  “Never been around here.”

Now anger was passing off into nervous fear.  This was going from bizarre straight into late-night horror movie reality way too quickly.

“You don’t know where 870-B might be?” he asked, starting to turn for the door.

“This here’s 111,” the man at the piano told him slowly, as if dredging the numbers up from far, far back in the abyss he’d once called a mind.

About 555 short, I’d say, Dave thought.  Aloud, he said, “Well, I guess we’ll just go and see if we can’t find it ourselves, then.  The road has three grain silos off to the side.”  He threw this in as a final hope, but no sparks flew.

“You can try the trailer park,” Manson said, pointing down the road one further than the turn off Dave had already taken.  “Someone there can probably help you.”

“Great,” Dave said, backpedaling quickly and pushing aside the curtain over the door.  It was time to get out of there and hit the road – quick.  Next would come the chainsaws, or the axes.

“You sure you don’t wanna see Herb?” Little Richard asked as he turned away.  “He’ll be comin’ by here later …”

That was it.  Dave turned and lurched toward the front door, pushing the tattered sheet aside and slamming the outer door open with his palm.  Somehow the Charles Manson-looking grease-ball had made his way back to the door at the same time.  He leaned in close as Dave barreled out into the night and said, “We are a commune of musicians.”

Right, Dave thought as he hurried to the driver’s side of the car and slammed the door behind himself.  Little Richard in there plays the piano, and you play the stereo out front, right?

“Did you find out anything?” Jo asked, taking in the expression on his face and the hurried, nervous movements he kept making as he started the car and backed out into the street.

“We aren’t staying for drinks, let’s just leave it at that,” he said, trying for a grin that never quite made it and turning to concentrate on the road ahead.

He drove to the next road, turned down it and headed toward the lights of the trailer park.  Swell.  More of the same, he was sure, but he had nothing else to try.  In the distance he saw two figures walking down the road, both with hair down halfway to their asses.  Shrugging, he pulled to the side of the road and asked about the silos.

“Oh, you mean 870?”  the first of the two boys asked.  They were both dressed normally enough – rock-group t-shirts and jeans, boots and leather belts.  “That’s two roads back, you can’t miss those silos, once you turn off.”

Thanking them, Dave turned around once more and headed back the way he’d come.  He found the Lindbergh farm easily enough, pulled in behind the other cars – everyone else, it seemed, had found the place in the daylight – and he and Jo went inside to join the party.

Everyone that was gathered there was a writer or an artist.  They were the “Guests of Honor” at Out-in-the-BooniesCON, or some-such thing, a local SF gathering that would begin the next day.

After everyone was settled, Dave told the story of their harrowing experience on the next road down, and Beth’s eyes widened in horror.

“You don’t mean the ‘”Green'” house, do you?  God, everyone wonders whether those guys are axe murders, or what.”

“One and the same,” Dave countered.  “Not axe murderers, though, I don’t believe.  They claim to be a commune of musicians.”

Everyone laughed, and after a few more drinks and a few more stories they all turned in for the night, the old house and its eerie inhabitants all but forgotten.

The convention had ended early, and after everyone had gathered back at the farm, Wayne and Mark convinced Dave to go back to the old Green house.

“Let’s go see those guys, man,” Wayne said.  “What’s the harm?  A beat-up piano, a few old sheets – maybe we could take a guitar with us and jam?”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Dave had grinned at him in exasperation.  He was not kidding.  Insane, probably, but not kidding.

So there they were, the three of them, the women having opted for something a bit less adventurous, like horseback riding, walking down the road toward the old house and its neighboring churchyard.  Dave wasn’t sure whether he wanted to go there at all, but he wasn’t going to back down if the other two were going.

They made the expected wisecracks about the “FOR RENT” sign on the church, wondering which ancient god would take the owners up on it.  Mark did a pretty good rendition of the slinking, clubfooted pace of a Romeroesque zombie, pointing at the graveyard and saying, “New God moved in, made us leave, He did.  Said, no Christian God here, no Christian dead here, left us just like that, homeless.”

Dave’s laughter cut off midway through the first chuckle when they rounded the corner.  The car wasn’t there.  The weeds weren’t even pressed down where it might have been there before.  He turned, eyes wide, and just stared at his companions, who were looking back at him like he was the lunatic.

“Maybe it wasn’t this place,” he said dubiously.  He knew that it was.  The angle on the old graveyard was just as it had been the night before.  Moving as if he were in a trance, he made his way to the front door and made as if to knock on it.  There was no need.  The door stood a few inches ajar, hanging from one broken hinge that was half-rusted through.

Inside the sheets hung, just as he’d said, and he brushed his way past them both in a rush, heedless of the many spider’s’ webs and scuttling things that shot out in all directions as he passed.

The piano was gone, too.  There was nothing in the house at all, in fact.  Nothing but the smell, which he remembered only too well, dust, and a family of sparrows that shot out the window in a burst of sound and feathers, nearly stopping his heart.

“Telling the tall tales again, eh?” Mark observed, looking around the place and brushing a cobweb off his arm.  “Commune of musicians?”

Dave staggered to the window, his face ashen, and stared across the lot outside at the church.  Something else was wrong.  The sign – the ludicrous, cockeyed “FOR RENT” sign was gone.

Then he heard it.  It was faint, at first, winding its way through his senses so deceptively that he thought at first he was imagining it.  It was the music, the awful, discordant piano music.  The piano was gone, but the music lived on, it seemed.

“There!” he cried, turning wildly to where his friends were examining some dusty relics in the back corner of the room.  “Do you hear it?”

Not waiting for an answer, he rushed back out into the yard.  The music was louder there, coming from the direction of the old church.  There were lights on, too, he saw, coming from the windows between the cracks of the old boards that held them shut.  He stopped, his eye caught by a small pamphlet lying on the ground at his feet.

Picking it up, he peeled it apart carefully where the morning dew had glued the pages together.

The First Church of Light and Vision, learn the wisdom of the stars.

There was more, but he couldn’t quite make it out.  It said something about the coming of a God, or a savior, or perhaps just a traveling evangelist.  He couldn’t quite make out the name.  It looked like HE..B.  He turned to show his find to Wayne and Mark, but they were nowhere to be seen.  Frowning, he returned to the old house, looking carefully through each room.  Gone

“All right, man,” he said aloud.  “This isn’t funny.”  He figured they were outside, hiding and waiting for him, and he was in no mood to play their game.  “Let’s just get back to the house, okay?”

No answer.  He made his way into the yard again and something drew him toward the church.  Maybe they’d just gone over there to check out the music.  It could be that the graveyard extended to the other side of the church, that there was another house, which would explain the music.  He started forward, watching every shadowy nook where his two friends might be lying in wait, and approached the old church.

As he drew nearer, it became obvious that they had somehow managed to get that piano into the church itself during the night.  The music was coming from inside, and, against his better judgment, he moved to the door at the end of the building.  There were plenty of cracks in the old wood, he could just look inside and see what was going on for himself.

Before he could bend down to have a look, however, the door burst open.  Light flowed out and around him, surrounding him on all sides.  Charles Manson stood framed in the doorway, his greasy hair actually combed back and braided and his arms spread wide.  Where there had been dull, mindless oblivion in his eyes the night before, now they burned with a strange, wild light.

“I knew you would return,” he said, grabbing Dave’s arm and propelling him inside.

Across the room, Little Richard sat with his back to the two of them, dancing his hands over the keys of the ancient piano.  This wasn’t what had captured his eyes, though.  There was an altar at the front of the room, and on it a feast – or what appeared to be a feast – was laid out.  Mark and Wayne stood there at the table, turning to meet his confused gaze with wide, feral grins.  He saw that their eyes were alight with the same odd spark as Manson’s.

Wayne waved to him, and he saw what was in his friends hand.  It was a leg-bone – a human leg bone – and the skin was rotted and flayed from it, black with dirt and maggots.  As he tried to pull back, retching violently, Mark called out to him, slipping back into the odd, Monty-Pythonesque accent from earlier.

“I was wrong, Davey, so wrong.  Herb don’t want the Christian dead to go, we have to get rid of them ourselves!”

As his head hammered to the wild, incomprehensible banging of the piano, Dave heard the doors crash shut behind him.  There was another figure behind the altar, taller, darker, blending into the shadows themselves.  As the light began to course through him, eating its way to his eyes, he felt the first pangs of hunger, and he moved forward, moved to the combined beat of piano and stereo – the car had somehow been parked to the left, behind the pews, and Manson had resumed his seat.

As he reached for a rotting hand, he began to wonder.  He wondered what instrument he would play.

This story and many others are available in my collection: The Call of Distant Shores – many of the stories in that book, including the title story, are born of vivid memories.

Fossils and Geodes… The Wilson Collection

Katie and I have been slowly ammassing quite the little fossil / geode museum.  Thought I’d collect the pictures in one place… her Megadolon tooth is over 5.5″ – huge.  We have a Masotdon tusk and two Auryx horns…a turkey platter sized trilobite, a set of masodon teeth..a mosasaur tooth…lots more.

Running With the Spartans?

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#SPARTAN UP IN 2014

Let me preface this by saying (as I have said before) – I’m a runner.  I intend to lose weight, get myself in good shape, and take care of myself.  I will race, because it’s fun, but I’m not out to push the limits of endurance, or move mountains.  Other people, however, ARE out to do that, and since a buddy of mine, Bob Burnett, is involved in this sort of race, I thought I’d post something about them and fill in those who may have missed the new craze.

Spartan races come in four flavors – Sprint, Super, Beast and Ultra Beast.  All are obstacle-ridden courses, differing in length and difficulty.  They are being held around the world, and people are calling them unforgettable, life-changing experiences.  I bet they are.  Most of the photos I’ve seen of finishers resemble others I’ve seen of soldiers crawling through swamps, or people lost in the desert for days… The thing is, all these people are smiling…

I am not an expert on Spartan racing, but I have a couple of links to share.  Before I do that, I’m going to explain very briefly why I’m posting this, and why I’ll post follow-ups about Bob and his endeavors, along with my own ramblings on the more mundane sport of road running.

I feel good these days.  I’m much healthier, and I know for a fact that my progress has influenced others already.  I sort of formed a team – over at US Road Running – beginning with my daughter Stephanie and my son Zane (hope to slowly expand that).  I’m going to be involved in healthy things.  Endurance races, 5k, Marathons, etc.  It won’t always be me doing them, but I am very supportive of a healthier lifestyle- more exercise, less food, happy people.  I now consider Bob the official Charter Spartan for the “Crossroad Cruisers,” the team name I did not give much thought to, but that actually fits (Synchronicity?) Roads.  Cross-fit.  I have passed a lot of crossroads in the last few months, approaching 500 miles and a bunch of them this year.

Anyway…

Head on over to the SPARTAN RACE HOME PAGE and check out all the pictures, events, sign up for their notices, and – if the Spartan Spirit moves you – choose a race.   If you plan to do that, FOLLOW THIS LINK FOR 15% OFF ANY SPARTAN RACE.  Don’t say I never gave you anything…

 

David

Running With the Butterflies – The Dismal Swamp Stomp

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FinishLine 2014-04-12 17.57.14 2014-04-12 17.56.55

Running With the Butterflies

 

My First Half Marathon – The Dismal Swamp Stomp

Today I ran my first official ½ marathon.  I did better than I expected to, not quite as good as I hoped to.  I saw amazing effort from a wide variety of men, women, and children.  I saw compassion and caring, genuine pleasure in the eyes of strangers as they shared one morning in the spring sunshine.  And I saw butterflies.

I have been running, as many of you reading this know, most of my adult life (starting around age 30) but there have been huge breaks where I quit, got lazy, got fat –and any number of other things I regret.  Last August I found myself at nearly 230 pounds, 54 years old, and pretty much disgusted with the way I looked and felt.

I had just finished reading (thanks to my buddy Roger Knowles) a book called Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall.  This book changed my understanding of some aspects of running that have actually, in turn, changed my life (not just the running part).  For instance, I now wear VivoBarefoot shoes without exception. The key is not that they are this brand, but that they are “minimalist,” or barefoot shoes.  I have had problems with my right foot, hip, and my lower back for years.  Changing to shoes that forced me to learn to walk properly, and to run without slamming my heels into the pavement, has very literally removed all of that pain.

Still, I didn’t start off right away.  Born to Run is about the Tarahumara – a tribe in Mexico who run like scared rabbits up and down mountains and across the desert.  It was an inspiring book, but I don’t intend to train for any fifty mile races in my lifetime.  What I got from the book was the shoes, the technique, and the very interesting concept that Homo sapiens outlasted and outlived Neanderthal for the simple reason that we have an Achilles tendon, and we were born to run long distances.

Since, as you also know, I’m a writer, this got me thinking.  I actually ordered the silly sandals those Mexican runners used.  They didn’t work for me (no big surprise). I also started thinking about running again.  Next I ordered some “minimalist” shoes from New Balance.  They didn’t fit right – too tight – but I kept looking, and I kept thinking.

Someone somewhere suggested I look at Vivobarefoot shoes.  Either that or I just happened to search for barefoot dress shoes and found that, at the time, they were the only ones making any.  I bought a pair of black semi-casual dress shoes.  I started wearing them, and immediately noticed a change for the better.  Still, I had not started running.  Not really.

My life has become a complexly scheduled mess.  I have a career as an IT Manager that I love.  I have a family, and a house.  I have a writing career, and now I have Crossroad Press.  For me, finding time to run has always been part of the issue.  A couple of years ago I clocked a lot of miles by running at lunch and paying for a downtown gym membership so I could use their showers and treadmills.  The cost ended up being too much, and for a while after that, I quit running again.  That was several years back.

To make a long story short, I am back to a schedule I’ve never really loved, but have managed to stick with it.  I get up at 6:30 in the morning, and I run.  I started back up in August, when I bought my first pair of Vivobarefoot Neo Trail Running shoes.  I had a vague plan that I waited a while to tell anyone about.  I wanted to run 100 miles before my 54th birthday.  Considering that when my overweight, 230 pound, bald old body hit the road… I was able to do about 1.5 miles in the morning (maybe 1.62) and make it through a shower and off to work.  I ran on weekends as well, but at first, those 1.62 miles were it.  I got a little faster, and it got easier to finish, but progress was slow going this time around.

Over time, I stretched it out.  On the weekends I managed to bump it first to 2.2 miles, and then a bigger jump to 3.5.  My pace was horrifyingly bad.  Probably in excess of 12:30 miles.  I kept at it, and things improved.  I managed a 4.5 mile and then even a 5 or 6 mile run.  My pace picked up a little.  I hit the 100 miles before my birthday, and I was very proud of it.

Still, the 230 pounds was melting way so slowly that it was barely noticeable, and I started to get discouraged.  That’s when Trish chipped in.  She was also losing weight.  We’d bought a serious treadmill from Nordic Track, and she started walking and reading during the day.  She also changed her diet drastically.  Fiber/protein bars… very little more during the day, and by mutual agreement, we dropped dinner to a reasonably sized portion (not easy).

Along with this, I stopped going to 7-11 for breakfast.  I have oatmeal or a fiber/protein bar for breakfast with a banana.  I’m now down to rice and steamed vegetables at lunch, a pear or other fruit, or an avocado for snacks and a yogurt in case I still get too hungry.  This, along with eating small portions at supper, and running, has dropped me (as of this morning) from 230 to 202 and I’m still dropping.  Most of the sites that claim to know how much a person should weigh from their height, etc. say 195 would be my ideal weight.  We’ll see where it evens out.  I’m not starving myself or doing anything crazy, so I figure when I hit that “just right weight,” I’ll stop losing.

It wasn’t too long after I finished my first 100 miles that the old worry kicked in.  I hate to run in the cold.  I’m also not really fond of treadmills, but more on that later.  I remembered a friend of mine had done the Dismal Swamp Stomp several years ago, and I looked it up.  They were already taking early registration for it, so without giving myself time to think about it, I signed up and paid my money.

I had no idea how to train for a longer race.  I knew that if you were going to run a marathon you needed to go past 17 miles at least once…so I figured there was probably a “wall” for half marathons too. There is.  I found all kinds of useful training programs.

Unfortunately, they were generally 12 week plans, or even shorter.  I was months out.  So I modified them all into my own plan.  I started running longer runs on weekends.  I still only had time (at first) for about two miles in the morning.  On the treadmill, I did 20 minutes.  Soon that bumped to 25 and then up to 30.  I didn’t get any more time, I just got faster.  On the weekends I stretched out to four, and then five miles.

I want to put this in perspective if I can.  When I started, as I mentioned, 1.6 miles was pushing myself.  I had gotten way out of shape, and when I say this changed my life, I’m not kidding.  When I moved up to five miles, that day was one of the hardest running days I can remember.  But I kept at it.  I regularly ran 3.5 to 4 miles at least on weekends, and three of five days in the workweek (sometimes four) I ran 30 minutes on the treadmill.

Then I pushed it out past 6 miles – the first 10k since I’ve started running again. Again, this felt almost impossible at the time, but I pushed past it.  All this time the regular runs in the morning 30 minutes on the treadmill, began climbing in mileage, the pace quickening.

Currently my morning run is a 5k.  If I have to do it on the treadmill it comes in slower, but since I’m in this for endurance and for weight-loss and health, I don’t mind that.  I tended to run faster on the road. I still didn’t know, though, if I was kidding myself about the 13.1 miles.

I mapped out a course that was between 7 and 8 miles, running from Elizabeth City back to home down a windy back road.  Trish drove me out, dropped me off, and I was on my way.  I made it, but there were periods of walking, and I was not fast.  I recorded it, kept running, and looked ahead.

I finally figured it was time to find out if I was in, or out.  I opened the app I use to keep track of my miles and runs, http://www.mapmyrun.com,  and asked it to give me a route that was 12 miles.  It actually gave me several.  I studied them, and picked one that looked like I could finish it, a big loop that led me back home.  I got my belt with the twin water bottles (I know now they are too small).  About 2:00 in the afternoon I headed out.  I had a power bar with me, but I lost that somewhere on the first mile.  When I get to what I’ve learned about equipment, I’ll explain this.  I was not worried.

I should have been.  The thing about maps and country roads… little things like missing street signs don’t show up on them.  They also don’t shop up in your “app”.  First lesson learned on this run was that driving the route first is a good idea (maybe even stashing water along the way).  I ran out, and at about the five mile point, I should have turned.  There was no sign.  I saw the crossroad, and thought about turning, but I didn’t.  I ran on.  Eventually, after having gone more than six miles, I knew I’d made an error.  I knew, however, that I needed to turn right.  Foolishly, instead of backtracking, I turned right.

I will shorten this surreal story into bullet points:

1)   People who live out on farms and in trailers in the country don’t understand running.

2)   Directions given by such people are not reliable.

3)   Dogs, chickens, horses, and wild turkeys are all interested in runners, but no help in finding your way.

4)   When you ask directions, and they ask you where you want to go, and both of the choices are a lot farther from home than you thought you were, it’s not good.

5)   Having a way to track yourself is a good second idea to driving the route ahead of time.

6)   Carrying your phone on a really long solo run is a GOOD IDEA.

By the time I finally got back on the road that I knew led home, I had already run about ten miles.  There were a few patches of walking, but for the most part, I ran.  I kept running.  I ran past 13.1 and finally stopped any pretense of running at 15.1 miles.  Why?  Because my mp3 player battery died and I could not listen to the audiobook any longer.  My Garmin watch showed low battery, and I wanted to save the 15.1 miles before it died and I lost the information.  I was starting to feel light-headed, and only had about half of one of my too-small water bottles left.  I also (as it turned out) had three or four miles to go.

I walked.  I still hadn’t seen anything that I recognized, and I was dizzy-brained enough at that point to think I might even be walking AWAY from home, but I stuck with it.  I ran out of water, and was REALLY dehydrated.  It was getting darker, and it started to get cooler, almost chilly, which cooled the sweat and did not help.  I even started watching the side of the road to see if someone might have tossed a bottle of water that wasn’t empty… I was pretty desperate.

I knew Trish would be looking for me, because I was way past when I should have been home (like an hour).  She was.  As it turned out, she missed the same turn I did, and when she finally got to the road I was walking down, she passed just ahead of me.  I arrived where she turned AFTER she passed.

I turned down old Highway 17 with about a mile and a half from home, literally stumbling.  The final turn runs directly between the volunteer fire department, and the Ruritan Club. At that point, moving forward, I saw a car with lights on across the way, watching.  Thankfully – it was Trish – because I am not 100 percent certain I could have walked that last mile.  I crawled in, and they got me home – we swapped mumbled stories about being lost, but I was probably not very coherent.  I got home, managed (I have no idea how) to guzzle a bunch of water and get in, and out of the shower.  Then I started to shiver like I had a fever.  I curled up in my reclining chair, wrapped a San Diego Chargers throw blanket around me, and chattered myself to sleep.  No idea how long I was out…  When I got up, I ate, had some more to drink, and – basically – still felt okay…but shaky.

It was a close call, and it drove home just how little I actually knew (and likely still know) about distance running.  I didn’t take enough water.  I ran by myself.  I didn’t take anything to eat (or a suitable substitute).  I didn’t take my phone.  I didn’t verify the route.  Bottom line is I’m lucky not to have collapsed alongside the road.  Also, I’m lucky to have Trish, who not only got me home, saved my life and fed me, but has been putting up with the running all along, even when my run on the weekends interferes with other activities.

Despite all of that, the 15 mile run verified that no, I was not crazy and yes, unless something went horribly wrong, I was going the distance.  After that I continued my weekly pace of about 18-20 miles, long runs on the weekend.  I ran the 8 mile track one more time and that went pretty well.

There’s more, though – there is ALWAYS more.  I booked a hotel room in Chesapeake Virginia for the night before the run.  I could have gotten a room at the Hyatt, where the race expo was set up, but I did not.  Instead I chose to “double my HHonors points” and stay at the Hampton Inn, nearby.  (There is nothing bad to say about the Hampton Inn – the room was nice, the beds were comfortable, and the Internet and TV worked – all I needed).   I got the dogs reservations at their kennel (The Barking Lot).  I arranged the time off from work so I could make all my preparations on Friday.

My last purchase, a case of “GU” energy gel, arrived on Thursday, right on schedule.  I had read in the book “Running with the Kenyans,” by Adharanand Finn, that he and his fellow marathoners used the gel packs for a burst of energy, calories, etc.  I didn’t do anything about my low water supply because I knew there would be aid stations.  That turned out to be correct – I did not need much of my own water.

We got the dogs and other pets settled for a night without us, and when Katie got out of school, we picked her up and headed to Virginia.  We had a quick start, and made good time.  It only took me one “turn around navigational thingie,” as the family saying goes, to reach the Hyatt Place, where the race packets were to be picked up.  A very nice man helped me find my registration number and then Katie and I went into the back room to pick up our bags, complete with safety pins and number bibs.  Mine had the Chrono Track chip on a strip on the back.  Katie signed up for the “Cub Run,” a ½ mile run for kids to take place at 11:30, 3 hours and a half after the race started. At that point I hoped I’d be back from my own run in time to watch, or hobble along at her heels.

We both got shirts, too, which was cool.  I saw some t-shirts in that room that I’d like to have – “The Dumbest Idea on my Bucket List,” and “Seems like a lot of Work for a free banana,” and my favorite – “If found beside road, drag over finish line”.  I’ll probably collect some of those shirts in the months to come, but I ignored them at the time.  We still needed to find our room, check in, and meet my son Zane and his buddy Matt for dinner.

This is where it got interesting.  We got to the hotel, and the parking lot was FULL of bikers.  Literally.  “Free Rollers Inc.” were in town for their annual Chesapeake gathering.  I later read on the net that they had a dinner, and a dance to attend.  They arrived just ahead of us, and there were a lot of people in line at the front desk.  There was also a lot of talk about beer runs and Crown Royal, but it was a pretty calm gathering.  I rode with Tiburon MC in Rota, Spain and in Norfolk, Virginia later on, so I was right at home.  Katie, however, had a moment when she tried to use the restroom and found it contained a very large, very naked lady changing clothes who had not bothered to lock the door.

In any case, we got into our room, changed clothes, and hit the road to pick up my youngest son, Zane.  He’d just come back to the area from US Navy “A” school in Great Lakes, and we’d made plans to go to dinner with him, and his friend Matt.  We got Zane, overcame restaurant confusion, and got to The Olive Garden for a carb-up Pasta meal (and salad) for me – and various other Italian delights for everyone else.

The meal was a success, and afterward we handed Zane off to Matt and headed back to our hotel.  It was about then that I started to realize Trish was not feeling well at all.  She was shivering, and pale, and lay down almost immediately.  We watched a little TV, and I checked Facebook, and e-mail, but at that point I was wondering if the run was going to happen.  No way I’d have taken her there and left her two hours in the sun if she was too sick…

We set all the alarms available for 5:30 AM and – thankfully – slept pretty well for a little over six hours.  In the morning I had fresh oatmeal, a banana, and coffee.  We got all our stuff into the car, headed out into a very nice morning – weather perfect – Trish feeling a little better – and headed for the foot of the Dismal Swamp Canal trail – the carved bear – and the culmination of a LOT of miles.

We got there just in time for me to hit the line at the porta-potties.  EVERYONE seemed to be in those lines.  I got to the front after a short conversation with a very nice guy who lived in Hertford, NC who said he was more of a bike rider, but looked like he could crush ½ a marathon.  The door in front of me opened and a very tall, pretty black woman stepped out.  She waved me away with a warning.  No paper.  I waited a little longer – again – disaster averted… As it turns out, she was one of the elite runners.  She came in fifth or sixth, but still in about half the time I did.

After that, there was nothing to do but to load up my hydration / equipment belt.  I took four GU packs, poured “Smart Water” into my two plastic bottles, hooked up my MP3 player, and started to drop out of everything but the moment.  I was listening to “Eat & Run,” by Scott Jurek.  I figured what better way to spend my miles, than with someone who ran hundreds of them at a time.  He has not convinced me to drop meat a hundred percent, but I’m already leaning down the healthy eating trail, and he has some powerful arguments.

They lined us up, made some speeches, talked about the charity and the sponsors… and had us let the hand-crank bike competitors to the front.  There is a story of heroism.  A four year old in one of those bikes finished the 1/2 mile cub run, and most of the other hand-crank athletes finished the 13.1 miles in just a bit over the time it took the elite runners.  That’s a story in itself.  They sent them off ahead of us, and they tried to arrange the runners that followed by pace.  It was still something of a jumble.

I have never run a race of this type, so it was a surprise to me to see the grouped people “pacing” – playing music that kept them at the right speed for 2 hours, 2 hours and fifteen minutes, etc.  The only other time I ran this distance it took me nearly three hours, but I had a personal goal set for the Dismal Swamp Stomp – to try to beat 2:30.  The first part of the race I set myself up for this by making sure I was following the 2 hours and 15 minute pace group.  I can say that for nearly eight miles, I was ahead of that 2:30 group.  Then they caught up with me. I ran ahead again, and they caught up again…but that’s getting ahead of myself (and not of them).

I started off the run at a pace slower than I’m used to.  I don’t know if that was a mistake, or a good idea, and likely won’t know until I’ve run the distance a few more times.  The truth is I could have cleared the first 6.2 miles in under an hour, and if I still held my slower pace after that, would have beaten the 2:30 handily.  Overthinking – under-thinking – and unimportant.  I was happy.  It was a beautiful day.  I was running a few yards from the trees that lined the Intercoastal Waterway, stretching all the way from Virginia down to Florida, and engineered by brilliant men like George Washington.

Along that route, I know, is the point that was the border of Virginia and North Carolina in the late 1800s, and the site of the Lake Drummond Hotel – sometimes called The Halfway House, because it stood half in one state, and half in the other.   My novel, Nevermore, a Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe, was set in that hotel, and in the swamp beyond.

I was chasing ghosts, both real, and those from my own stories.  I found myself catching up to, passing, and then being passed again by the same groups of people.  For the first five or six miles, it was just like any of my regular runs.  I listened to Scott Jurek tell me about his epic 50, 100, and beyond mile runs, heard how turning vegan changed his life, and I ran.  (More recently I’ve listened to another ultra-marathoner talk about eating Hawaiian style pizza while running, so I take it all with a grain of salt.)

Just before I hit the half-way point, I saw my first butterfly.  I happened to glance off to the side of the road, toward the swamp, and there it was.  It was a beautiful Zebra Swallowtail – silver and black–and it was pacing me.  I watched it as closely as I could, not wanting to lose my footing and have to explain that I didn’t finish the ½ marathon because I was watching a butterfly and tripped.  Amazingly, I felt a surge of energy, and at the same time, I felt myself relax.  Some of the strain drained away, and I nearly laughed.  The silly butterfly had centered me in a way that I couldn’t define.  It was almost like a sign, though I’d hate to speculate from whom, or from what.

I kept religiously sucking down the GU gel packs every half hour, as directed on the box and on web-sites I’d checked (I think that’s too many now, but that’s for another day).  I had been chasing the two hour and fifteen minute pacers, but they were out of sight.  The groupings were more spread out on the second half, and though I still passed, and was passed by, some of the same folks, it was like a second, completely different race.

I started hearing that little voice in my head, for one thing.  It’s the one that says – what are you doing?  You can walk – as long as you pass the finish line, what difference does it make?  You don’t even know these people.  I hear that voice (and ignore it) a lot…but it was strong out there.  Fortunately, I had allies.  The butterflies became more frequent after about mile 7 – or maybe I just started noticing them.  Sometimes they flew beside me.  Sometimes they flickered into sight, and back, without spending any time.  By mile ten, though I’d walked a few steps, I knew I was going to finish it.  I sucked down my last GU pack and got to work.  I kept watching for, and smiling at the butterflies.

The last mile, I sped up.  I started picking each person in front of me and working to catch them.  I managed to pass seven people in that last mile, one just before the finish.  As I started that last half mile, the butterfly made a final pass.  This time, it was coming straight at me, slipped by on my right side, and was gone…I never looked back.

I am sure that I’m going to remember that first long race.  I’m also sure it won’t be the last, or the longest.  There is a marathon in my future…something I would have said before, but not really believed.  Every time I run a little farther than I have before, I sort of stand at the end, and wonder how much more I could have done.

From now on, wherever the roads take me, I’ll be watching for the butterflies, and when I see them, I’ll follow.  Who knows where they might lead…

Now… I’m not an expert, but I have some thoughts for people who want to embrace the running kind of crazy.  Take the time to learn to run in some form of minimalist shoes.  It’s not about being barefoot, it’s about running with the right posture, and decent form.  Your feet know how they work better than you do – and better than Nike, too, for that matter.  Trust them.

If you are going more than 5k in distance, take water.  There are dozens of ways to carry it.  You can just carry a bottle of water in your hand.  I have a belt with two pockets for small water bottles, but I’ll be upgrading soon.  That same belt has to be able to hold something to eat, possibly your phone, or your mp3 player…money is a good idea.  You don’t expect something to go wrong, and most of the time you’re fine believing that.  Trust me when I say, though, that when you are staring down three beer-swigging rednecks who wonder if you’re crazy, or making the wrong turn around that cotton field and heading for the next town instead of home, you’ll be glad you were prepared.

Along with the water, take something with calories and protein.  I recommend GU gel packs.  They taste like frosting, and their effect on your body mid-run is almost magical.  There are a lot of other gel packs, and power bars.  The Gel Packs are easy to pack into your pockets or belt.  Don’t leave the wrappers out there – Mother Nature deserves your respect.

Choose goals to work toward to silence the inner voice that says it doesn’t matter anymore.  You ran that ½ marathon, it’s saying to me now.  What else to you need to prove?  Roll over and go back to sleep… (I run at 6:30 in the morning because it’s what I have for time).  I try to run at least a 5k every morning that I run, and I go out at least four, and hopefully five days a week.  If the weather allows it I go at least 6 on the weekend and hopefully will be pushing that up to 10 and 12 this summer…  When I started, a 5k would have put me down in the dirt.  Now, I can run one in the morning, and if someone came by during the day and said let’s go, I’d go and be happy to do it – because I like to run, and because everything has changed.

I used to play an online game named Bejeweled.  When you finished something – met a goal – a deep rumble shook out through the speakers, and a big imposing voice said… “Level Up.”

I leveled up after the Dismal Swamp Stomp.  Now I just have to shoot for that high score.  Thanks to everyone who prepared the race, organized, handed me water and didn’t laugh as I chugged past.  Thanks to those who took time to talk, smile, joke, or encourage.  Thanks to the dogs, and the amazing hand-crank athletes, and those incredible elites leading us all the way…the pacers and the plodders, the racers, and the rest.  Thanks for a wonderful day – and the perfect culmination of an entire winter’s work.

 

-DNW

Thanksgiving Note to All Who Have Supported Crossroad Press

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rockitlaunch

LAUNCHED A COMPANY LIKE A ROCKET…

Several years back i got the crazy idea to start getting my old books and stories digitized, and I started a very long, very involved learning curve that led me through the creation of Macabre Ink, and then the expanded Crossroad Press Digital, and finally – to what we have now – Crossroad Press Publications – print, audio, and eBooks from more than 130 authors.

First and foremost I want to thank David Dodd, who came on board early on and has been a lifesaver to the company.  He is the master of spreadsheets, formatting scanned documents, and keeping me organized through years that have not grown simpler, but crazier – mostly in good ways.  He is also responsible for a HUGE number of book covers, a talent he took up from scratch and has brought to an artform.

Many don’t understand how little of what we make, we keep.  If we invest any money at all up front in a book, it can take hundreds of sales for us to even break even.  Why?  Because we have stood by our guns, and will continue to stand by our guns.  This is an author’s first company, and most of the money goes to them.  This means some books never make us any money, and others make us a lot – we share the risk, and the profit.  We do what we can to promote and build readership, and I can tell you that the number of hours spent doing this is incredible – for myself, Dave Dodd, the love of my life Patricia Lee Macomber who has edited HUNDREDS of books in recent months – Kurt Criscione, Daz Pulsford, Anita Smith and an entire small army of proof readers have helped us present clean products, and as we’ve always said – the beauty of digital is you can fix things.  We have been quick (and will remain quick) when it comes to remedying any mistakes we make or problems found by others.

I could go on and on with the thanks but instead, I’ll just end this with some pretty impressive numbers, and let it go at that:

Here is a short growth curve (rounded slightly in some cases) to show how our company has grown since 2010.

…………………Net Sales…………………………………Royalties to authors
2010………… 3094…………………………………………$4,324.39
2011……….. 27,971……………………………………..$56,268.51
2012……….135,410……………………………………..$88,064.25
2013……….170,523…………………………………….$197,600.00 (so far)

We are looking forward to great things ahead.  We are making inroads in promotion, and have completely redesigned our website, and our presence, breaking into imprints for the various age groups and genres.  You can see the beginnings of this at OUR NEW WEBSITE – once we get all of the author pages populated on all the various imprint sites, it will be much simpler to find our books, and our authors, without digging through more than 700 digital titles at the old online store.  We have also published more than 350 unabridged audiobook titles, and have an impressive number of books available in print.   Right now we are hard at work on the Official Book of the Winter Olympics – 2014 edition – which should be huge for us.

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season, and to all of you  – readers, listeners, authors, copy-editors, partners, and family.  Thank you…  I can honestly say, I never saw this coming.

-David Niall Wilson

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