Memorial Day has come a lot closer to me this year. I will shed some tears on Monday, a day we remember and honor those who died in service to our country. But what about those who die later as a result of their service? Like Neil.
I helped Neil get his book Brothers, All put together and published. He was writing individual essays about his service in Vietnam—the funny things, the foolery of young boys, the hard stuff, the loss, and the fighting. Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer. We didn’t know how much time we had.
This was a big deal for me. My dad was a WWII veteran, and so was my mother, but over the last fifteen years, getting to know Neil, who volunteered early in the Vietnam War and observing his patriotism with no regrets and a conviction that he would do it all again, changed me. At the time he served, I was going to senior prom and being elected class favorite and going to senior parties with my friends and boyfriend and starting college—innocent, immature, and safe. He and other boys like him were off on the other side of the world, instantly becoming men with that first indoctrination to war.
I can’t explain the feeling I had when I read Neil’s chapter about Agent Orange, a powerful chemical defoliant used by the US military to clear the jungles and expose the enemy. Neil didn’t mention the chemical’s name in the text, but I knew, and I also knew that he consumed the chemical in every way that one can receive a substance into the body—through the skin, the mouth (drinking), the eyes (open under water), and the lungs by inhaling. Agent Orange is known to cause lung cancer.
“The next morning we had our orders to push on twenty clicks to the east, where Intelligence said there was likely VC troop movement. I started out as point and noticed after a ways, the going was somewhat easier. The jungle was as dense as ever, but some of the leaves were lying in the dirt, the rest bent and drooping, like a slow motion death bow before us as we passed. I still slashed at it with my machete and crawled on top of the withered greens.
I didn’t pay that much attention to it until Preacher, behind me, said he saw it, too. “Even in the dry season, I’ve never seen the jungle fold up and quit, and it kind of looks that way, doesn’t it?”
Preacher was on point and passed the word back that there was a small creek ahead that would be good for canteen filling and baths. We secured the area and in turn went to the water four at a time. I was in the first group. We gathered all the canteens. None had names on them, but it didn’t matter. Drinking after each other was not a worry, considering the other things we endured. I put the wire screen in the mouth of the first canteen to keep out the big stuff. Then I held it under, sideways, with half the opening above the water and watched it suck in its fill. I capped the canteen and tossed it in the full pile.
After the last canteen was filled, I stripped and sat down in the knee-deep creek, careful to be within a few feet of my rifle on the bank. With a cupped hand, I scooped the water and sloshed it on my face several times, then lay back and put my head under. I opened my eyes and looked up at the sunlight that danced silver lines on the water. Quiet, it was totally quiet. Nice to have quiet. Then I splashed up, and the first thing I saw was the contrast of the orange Dial soap I held in my hand against the green growth that surrounded me. I rubbed the Dial on my body, as foamy as I could, then I washed hard all over.”
Thus was Neil’s exposure to the chemical that would take him down fifty years later. The enemy planted itself, lurked, and waited, then ambushed, was surgically removed and chemically attacked and burned, only to return again and again and again, on a mission and determined to win.
“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from. I figure this hole will be my grave.”
And it was.
Neil died January 31, 2017. That last day I sat with him and counted time between his breaths: One Mississippi Two Mississippi Three Mississippi Four Mississippi, as the morphine drip silently flowed and his beloveds and his writers group sat in wait. The experience of being immersed in the stories of this book and with this man who ultimately sacrificed all because of service to his country has taught me what it’s like to be a “brother” and what this special day means.
It’s not a holiday to start summer. It’s a day to remember those who don’t take breaths anymore because they did once, and once they carried a gun and crawled through jungles or across beaches and were fired upon, sometimes by a visible, sometimes not visible, enemy.
This year, remember a veteran. If you don’t have one to remember, think of Neil. His book lives on to help veterans; all proceeds go to veterans in Maury County, Tennessee.
I’m writing this post because this message hit home yesterday. An editor can usually tell within the first page or two if a manuscript is good or acceptable. A novel’s first pages encapsulate much of the story and establish character, setting (time and place), voice, pace, and even audience.
I started my novel a while back and wrote it piece by piece–a piece here, a piece there, knowing the pieces would need to be shuffled around and reworked. I started in a mysterious tone. I really liked it. But, alas, it didn’t work.
Actually, I broke all the rules. So I spent yesterday killing words.
There were words and paragraphs and chapters that I loved. The wording was precise and exact and descriptive and I thought, um, beautiful. But I killed them. I can easily kill the words of other people when I edit, but it was really hard to kill my own. I’ve done this before to my own work, but never, ever this much.
Do you know how it feels to kill words? (Maybe, just maybe, you should.)
After killing words, I like the new chapter. I think I’ve created a platform, a story opening, that I can jump into the depths from and swim across the pages.
So if you are wondering about your own manuscript, I can not only help you kill words and get the opening right, but now I can really and truly sympathize and empathize! We’ll cry together, hug, and then be happy! Check these things in your own novel opening that you may need to address:
- Do you open in scene? Some manuscripts open with interior thoughts of the characters or with description of the place. Ask yourself: is anything happening?
- Do you give too little information? Some manuscripts attempt to create a sense of mystery, but in doing so, don’t give the reader enough information. Some manuscripts don’t make clear what is happening or the importance of what is happening. Ask yourself: do you make clear where the characters are and what is going on?
- Do you give too much information? Some manuscripts start with pages of backstory or description or flashbacks. As an editor, I’ve killed five to fifteen opening pages of different manuscripts. (It’s easy when it’s not my own!) A reader only needs enough information to understand the scene in progress.
Good and successful manuscripts are well-balanced with action, motivation, a little description, and some thought. They begin with a main character in a scene with an immediate goal to achieve. They pull the reader in to turn the page and see what happens next.
TurnStyle helps with the editing of full manuscripts, but also with first chapters. Let us know if you need to make sure you are on good footing in your opening!
Irises have rich historical meanings, and when given as gifts, they convey deep sentiments: hope, faith, wisdom, and courage. The flower takes its name from the Greek word for “rainbow.” Another Greek word, “eiris,” means “messenger.” The Greek Goddess Iris acted as the link between heaven and earth. She delivered messages for the gods and from the Underworld and traveled along rainbows as she moved between heaven and earth. Purple irises were planted over the graves of women to summon the Goddess to escort the dead on their journey upward into the afterlife.
I like to think this is symbolic and that the flower also inspires us with courage to rise up and reach out above our darkest times into growth and newness of life.
The purple iris also denotes royalty. During the Middle Ages, the purple iris was linked to the French monarchy, and the Fleur-de-lis design, inspired by the flower, eventually became the recognized national symbol of France.
The iris is also the state flower of Tennessee.
I have iris rhizomes from friends in Tennessee, from my grandmother’s farm in Mississippi, from William Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, (white cemetery iris) in Oxford, Mississippi. I dug up some irises from my old house in Fieldstone Farms and brought them to this new house on the hill. They fill in my landscape with their showy spikes and their flowing, silky, spring colors. I am surrounded by hope and faith. By wisdom. And courage.
The iris provides the perfect cover image for Editor Susan Cushman’s anthology, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. My essay, “Pushing Up the Sun,” is included in this new book, released in March 2017. The flower is soft, delicate, in a silky, flowing design—feminine. But you better believe she is hardy, and no matter what she faces, whether being pounded by snow, rain, or hail, being slept upon by rabbits or stepped on by children or mowed down by a careless landscaper, she comes back. And she comes back bigger and stronger. Every year, those spikes strengthen and rise up and reach high, producing wrapped blooms that grow tall and open into flowers, repeating in second bloomings, and more.
What a perfect gift of hope and faith and wisdom and courage for Mother’s Day! And a book signing for this anthology will be held at Barnes and Noble Cool Springs in Brentwood, Tennessee, the day before. May 13, 1:00. I welcome you to come! Susan Cushman, editor, will be there. River Jordan, local author and contributor, will join us.
And a big shout out to Barnes and Noble — the best book store a local author could hope for!
I hiked two miles yesterday on the freshly mulched trails of a Class II Natural Area, saw native wildflowers in white, pink, and purple, saw birds, frogs, turtles lined up on logs in the lake, snakes swimming, and chipmunks jumping around. The color green across the forest floor was new, fresh, and yellowy. The pitch of bird sounds was high and expectant. It is newly spring, when cycles begin again. Life comes around every year.
The last short segment of the hike was on an old road, closed to driving and crumbling at the edges into the lake. The center line spoke to me, and I snapped a picture.
Old road surface, rough, hard, harsh, cracked, hidden under thick trees, away from sun and light, always dark there, always, no light gets through, not ever. Yellow line at the center of the path to follow home. Straight, unlike life. And jagged, winding cracks have opened up all down the line splitting the yellow paint, itself marred and chipped away. Life finds a way up through the openings in the gray. Tender new green, fragile, flowering, pink, finds a place in the hard, cold road. Keeps doing it every year, coming back, coming back, coming back. Even blooming.
Why? What is the purpose? I wonder when it will tire of this.
I picked out my armageddon hiding place early on. I was a girl of twelve.
On my grandpa’s farm, a gully cut thirty or more feet deep into the red earth of family land. A natural spring bubbled out of the ground there and ran through woods with trees thick as hairs on a dog’s back. Plenty of pines, chinquapin, hickory, hackberry, and oaks, all canopied under a sun that never got through, laying down centuries of seasonal leaves and needles to pad the hard clay.
I hiked into the gully via the stream banks, my shoes sinking into the soft wet sands, stepping over wild ferns and other woodsy plants, climbing over fallen tree trunks, watching out for bad snakes. Country noises sounded all around me: bird alerts, the whippoorwill’s forlorn song, a trembling of leaves in a summer breeze, a cow groan in the distant pasture, a low trickling of water. I stuck my fingernails into the red clay canyon sides for support, dug in with my Keds, balanced, climbed over vertical ruts and rocks, and sat on a hard-dirt outjutting of the earthen gully wall in the cool August ground hole and did some pondering.
I knew war would come. I had seen TV repeats of Khrushchev pounding his shoe on a desktop, screaming that Russia would bury America. I feared the H-bomb and waited for it to be dropped on one of our cities. I read Alas, Babylon, when that really happened. I knew we were preparing weaponry for war. I heard sonic booms of new jets as they flew over my backyard.
Sitting deep at the bottom of that gully the summer before seventh grade, I knew war would come. I looked way up at blue skies filtered through the lace of leaves above, pale green, fluttering peacefully. I was hidden here. I felt safe. No one could find me. After Russia dropped the bomb and then sent their armies marching in through Mexico—that’s how I imagined it happening—I could live here without being exposed to the enemy. There was water to drink. There were nuts and greens in the forest. There were fruit trees nearby. I could live.
A lot of years have passed. I still remember that day as if it were yesterday. I still worry about armageddon. I still believe war will come.
I own that gully now.
My friend Neil O. Jones lost his long battle with lung cancer the last day of January 2017. The Roundtable Writers Group, of which he was a member, spoke at his funeral service on his behalf, doing readings by his favorite authors, as well as original works.
I am honored to have written and read a poem with my friend Susie Dunham. I’m sharing it below in honor of Neil, a fine man who had friends all over the country who came to pay respects. He was blessed to have his writer friends, his “brothers” from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, fellow college professors, the Muletown Hog Chapter of motorcycle friends (a 20-bike tribute! Thanks to Jerry Knox who organized this!), Gerald (T-Bone, childhood friend from Dallas), local friends, children, and grandchildren to gather to celebrate his life.
January 31, 2017
We Lost a Friend
Susie Dunham and Kathy Rhodes
We lost a friend today.
We’ve lost other friends and family to cancer,
but we’ve never lived it so close.
Close enough to see week to week
month to month
year to year.
We saw how it took pieces of you.
Teasing and testing you to
fight harder than you did in the
jungles of Vietnam, to
fight harder to stay alive.
Fifty years ago in that January,
your worst battle of that war,
Operation Junction City,
you fought to keep your brothers safe.
Now in this January,
your worst fight of this war,
you battled with bravery and honor
to stay with the people who
will miss you
that the battle is lost.
This ain’t Nam.
From Neil’s book Brothers, All
“It was then I knew,” you said. “Nothing would ever change. I would get out of this life whatever I could and think of Vietnam only when it attacked me [whenever] it … chose. It was the ghosts of my brothers … It was Agent Orange. There was no escape,” you said. “The mark of the Beast would keep coming back.”
“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from,” you said.
“Now there is a new way to fight it—a new drug … approved … twenty days before my cancer in progression receives it.
Another battle ahead.
Five decades of war, college, love, children, grandchildren, work, teaching American literature in college, now this—more war,” you said. “I am trying desperately to save myself from the enemy, firing with every weapon I’ve got. I face the deep, unfathomable abysm.
And so it begins.”
And so it ends.
We lost a friend today.
You fought the war back then,
and now near’ four years of battles,
one after the other:
surgeries, chemo rounds, radiation—
new wonder drug!
you left this world
fifty years after you left that old war.
You got out of life what you could.
“Half scholar, half rube,” you said.
Renaissance man, country boy.
You taught the classes.
You rode the mules.
You rode the scoot.
You told the stories.
You wrote the book.
You fought the battles. You did your part.
It’s that, sometimes, in life, what’s supposed to save you does not.
The beast, it turns on you.
Many battles won, but the war rages on.
Maybe you, first in that new cancer treatment,
can help those who come behind.
For in life, what matters most is doing for others, all brothers, and
You won before you lost.
You won before you lost.