January 15. A wind chime across the street is ringing in the howling wind. My window panes are rain-splotched. It’s still dark out at six in the morning. West, a massive line of red fills the weather map. Storms are on the way. With each gust, they push closer, bringing a cold front.
Yesterday, I took the patio furniture—wicker sofa and chairs—into the garage for shelter through the worst of winter. With them went bold red and yellow cushions with designs of a hummingbird, a parrot, a pineapple. They need protection from rain, snow, ice, and green moss that will set in on them, too, just like on the yard stones and wood of the deck.
When light comes and I walk and observe, the back yard sits in confusion. In what used to be a thick Kentucky fescue, every kind and sort of weed is coming up. Weeds I have never seen before; weeds I cannot identify. Used to be that with winter, the weeds died.
Used to be that when Christmas came, the weather turned cold. January came with jackets and caps and gloves. February, still consistently cold. The green blades of daffodils didn’t break ground on New Year’s Day. But now, the clump of daffodils set out against the Rose of Sharon is four inches high. Daffodils are heralds of spring. But spring is two months away; warm is three months away. Yet it is now.
Dad’s garlic is a foot high. Come spring, Dad will be gone fourteen years. When he was living and loving his garden in Mississippi, I dug up some of his garlic plants and brought them to Tennessee to plant at the Wimbledon house. When it was time for me to move, I dug them up and brought them to the Wade House. They’ve been pulled in so many directions, here and there and up and down, they’re as lost as last year’s Easter egg.
The hydrangea bush does it right. Big showy lime-white blooms have dried to brown crisps. Some get clipped by the wind, fling themselves to the ground, and roll through the yard like tumbleweeds. The entire bush goes to brown, bare, and into self. But you can bet your bottom dollar that, come spring, it will shoot up in all its showy beauty and bigness and stand up before the world and shout, “I am me, and I am here,” and will grow the biggest flowers you’ve ever seen.
Winter is a time of introspection, when all of life falls back to earth—goes into self to think, assess, conserve strength, and prepare. Even me.
It’s quiet out. Nothing’s quieter than a low, gray sky, or a soft, cold rain, or maybe a falling snow. The trees are silent, empty, exposing every noded twig, every twist of a limb, every turn of a branch. Growth is taking place deep down, in the quiet.
In winter, the day’s light is not long with us. I must use the time I have, look deep within, and trust that a good work is taking place beyond my perception. My power begins in the quiet.
In the quiet, with growth pushing up from the deep, which way will my branch turn? Who am I? Am I being true to the stature of my former self? To my creator? In the words I say? In the life I live?
Or will I succumb to winter’s heavy winds? Will I follow that cold, dark creek as it rolls over itself, over the rocks, lost in the empty canopy of scrub trees, turning its back to the source and moving toward sundown. Because it’s easier to follow the path downward, to go with the flow, to stay quiet. To let my light stay lost in winter’s short days.
I am in the cold, dead season building up, preparing for my future. For when spring comes. For when it’s time to move out of the quiet, stand up, be bold, and show truly who I am and who I belong to.
2019 came in quietly and stayed that way all year. It seems I didn’t do much the last twelve months. I guess the biggest thing that happened was that I took a few months to work on my own project instead of everyone else’s. And I took the time to do some little things I never did before, like visiting a salt room with friends, sending out Christmas cards, putting up three Christmas trees.
Here are a few fun and memorable things:
Led a session at a women’s retreat on blooming after loss in Columbus, Mississippi, with a few other A Second Blooming authors. Some of the ladies shown here playing drums.
Edited some good fiction and nonfiction books.
Served on a panel at the first-ever Franklin Book Festival.
Joined a new writers group: Harpeth River Writers.
Participated with the Authors Circle at Main Street Festival and Pumpkinfest.
Participated in a Salon Reading with two other local authors – first time I ever did that!
Enjoyed baking with lavender. Made cupcakes for my granddaughter’s birthday.
Had my own big birthday with everybody in the family in attendance! That never happens. Shown here, all the women of the family, one facing the wrong way.
Watched the grandson play basketball. (He won the Super Bowl in football, but I missed that game.)
Went shopping with the granddaughter. (Oh mercy me!)
Went to the mountains. Had Thanksgiving with Son 2 in Asheville, went to the National Gingerbread House Competition, and journeyed up a mountain to a Christmas tree farm, where I found fodder for a story. Shown here, Grove Park Inn (my favorite place).
Went to the beach. Spent Christmas with Son 1 in Pass Christian, Mississippi, and his family. Had Christmas Eve brunch at Brennan’s in New Orleans and went to see Little Women on Christmas Day. Shown below, Bananas Foster at Brennan’s.
AND THE BIG THING: Wrote a novel and finished first revisions.
Thank you 2019 for being soft to me.
All the digging, installing, the hard work of stone gathering and stacking, the view of mirrored water full of lilies and hyacinths, the sound of a waterfall, and visits of birds, even a blue heron once, ended abruptly one summer afternoon. I was sitting by the pond in a wooden Adirondack chair reading a book when it happened.
I heard the shifting clunks, the scrapes of rocks sliding against each other, the grinding collapse of the stone sides. Chipmunks had tunneled and hollowed out solid ground beneath the rocks around the pond, and the rocks, unbalanced, fell. I watched as loose dirt dug up by those little creatures sifted into the pond water, turning it to a silty, cloudy brown that would challenge the pump and cause it to fail.
It was a helpless feeling, this loss of the pond. This pond I dreamed about from the moment we moved into the house. I was consumed with the idea; I had to have a pond. Charlie groused about it at work, even named the new office computer server DAMN POND. He didn’t want to fool with it. Said it would be a lot of work to maintain. But he went along. We collected stones at the new development on Carothers south of Cool Springs Boulevard, then he engineered their placement around the black rigid pond form in the ground. He set up the pump, installed piping, and created a waterfall. Every spring, he helped scrub out the algae and scoop out the plant rot; he knew how to reverse the pump and drain the pond. We named the eleven fish and talked about them like they were children.
Then he died.
I was alone with my pond.
When it came time for cleaning, I emptied the water bucket by bucket by bucket. I sat in the dregs and scrubbed and cried, overcome with grief. I had scum all over me. The pump failed. I replaced it somehow. It failed again, and the summer sun grew algae so thick it took over the pond. Winter came and ice formed over the water. When spring rolled around, I cleaned it again and installed a new pump.
Now this. Chipmunks. An outside attack. A mess. I was tired, worn down, defeated. The walls of my life had already crumbled and fallen. Now, the walls of the pond. You can’t expect to build something or have something or fix something and have it remain in its healthy state. Things break. Things die. Things end.
Meanwhile, above the pond, the flowering abelia stood undisturbed beside the dirty water, bees visiting its blooms, getting their fill in a higher level of life, unaware of the fail.
The pond died that day. A little of me died, too.
The next day I removed all the stones from the pond’s perimeter and slung them out in the middle of the yard. I was angry. I didn’t like ends. Or change.
I ripped out the plastic pond liner and dragged it to the curb for the garbage man to pick up. Then I filled in the vast hole with dirt, twigs, and pinecones and put down a layer of flat stones on the surface. I stacked the rocks in a wide circle, repurposing the pond into a firepit.
I transitioned from water to fire. Two of the earth’s elements. Water is symbolic of death, as well as rebirth. Fire enables life. It symbolizes strength, courage, energy, power.
All good things end; the ends can be transformed into new beginnings, which may never be as good, but will be.
Neil O. Jones wrote about war, sometimes spot on, sometimes indirectly, but always with an effective punch. Neil died one year ago today. What better way to remember him than to share a story he wrote maybe twelve years ago. This one has a favorite saying of his: “champion of the world.” I do miss his voice, this dialect, this storytelling mind.
One thing about Neil: he never drank. Maybe a sip of wine or a beer now and then, but never much, because of his alcoholic father.
Of all Neil’s boyhood lifetime friends from the Oak Cliff section of South Dallas, T-Bone is still with us. Ronny died as a young man in an auto accident. Jimmy died a few months before Neil did. And any little boy named Victory Over Japan deserves his own story.
By Neil O. Jones
If there was ever an individual’s name to represent his baby boomer generation, it was my friend Victory over Japan, called V.J. for short. He was born the same day as the event—August 14, 1945. Though he was not in the neighborhood long, he made two memories that are so sharp, they will always be with me.
His family lived one street over from me there in south Dallas, on Shellhorse Road, about halfway down, on the left, of the deadend road. Two other buddies, the brothers Jimmy and Ronny, as well as their mom and dad—Papa Earl—lived at the end of Shellhorse. Actually V.J.’s mom met my mother before he and I met. They often rode the same bus home from their jobs and they talked and got to know each other on their walk home from the bus stop. They both worked selling to the public, my mother at a clothing store and V.J.’s mom as a waitress at the downtown Dallas Woolworth’s lunch counter. The women learned they had boys near in age, and as they got to know each other better, they learned they had another like concern—alcoholic husbands.
I first met V.J. in the summer of my tenth year. Jimmy, Ronny, T-Bone, and I were taking turns rolling down the steep gravel hill on Shellhorse Road in the brothers’ Radio Flyer wagon. We were seeing who could roll the farthest with just the driver pushing himself off the hill. T-Bone was the leader so far, as he had marked his spot with the marking rock. He was a good six feet ahead of Ronny, who was about three feet ahead of his brother, Jimmy. It was my turn. I gave myself a good push-off, and I had a clean mount. I was able to miss the slowing big rocks and deep gravel. As I made my way down and saw I had a chance for a win, I heard an encouraging voice.
“Lay flat and scoot it when you slow down,” V.J. said from his seat on his porch.
As I approached the marking rock, at first I didn’t think I was going to get there. Then I thought I might just tie T-Bone. My front wheel was finishing its last revolution when I heard, “Now. Scoot it.” And I gave it one good scoot, enough to claim the long distance neighborhood championship of the world—by a half a wheel length.
“Neat,” V.J. said. “You did it.”
The rest of the guys came down to verify the mark. They were all talking about the run when I noticed my new coach-cheerleader friend still sitting on his porch. I told him, loud enough so the others could hear, “We’re going to do some suicide dives. You wanna come?”
He was up before I finished the question. We all gave our names as we walked back up the hill. “I’m V.J.,” he started out. “My whole first name is Victory over Japan ‘cause I was born the day the Japs give up. I go by V.J. And my daddy was in the Army somewhere in the Pacific, my mom told me. And I was born that day and my mom said she knew my dad would be coming home and she was so happy about me being born and victory day and him coming home and she figured it was a sign or something so she named me Victory over Japan, but like I said, you guys can call me V.J. Ever’body does.” I got the feeling he had told that story a few times.
There was an odd silence. Just saying you were maybe named after an uncle or grandfather, didn’t seem like much. Finally I could think of nothing but the obvious. “I’m Neil. These two are Jimmy there, and Ronny. They’re brothers. The cotton top there is Gerald, but we call him T-Bone ‘cause he’s skinny. You can just call him T-Bone. Ever’body does.”
At the top of the hill we looked back at the run. Shellhorse Road, from our angle, began on the high end at Jimmy’s and Ronny’s yard, and butted into busy Lancaster Road on the lower end. The flat part between the brothers’ yard and the hill was our starting point. One kid would drive the wagon while another pushed him across the flat part of the road, past Mrs. Cullum’s house and under her big pecan tree until the steep downhill part was reached. The suspension-less wagon bounced on the little rocks and slid a little on and over the bigger ones. In season, we cracked a mess of pecans in our path. At the plummet point, the runner gave one last shove of the wagon just as the driver reached the steep drop in the road. The worst or best wreck I ever saw, depending on your perspective, happened the day V.J. joined the troupe.
It must have been V.J.’s fifth or sixth run as driver and he had made it all the way down without wrecking and he was feeling a little cocky, I guess. T-Bone and I were getting ready to be the pushers when V.J. said, “Can’t y’all push any faster? You push like a couple of girls.” T-Bone and I looked at each other. Without saying anything, sometimes we could communicate pretty well.
T-Bone pulled the wagon back into Jimmy’s and Ronny’s yard so we could have more of a running start. We both kicked out holes as starting blocks to get a good jump start. We each took a back corner and rocked the wagon back and forth.
“On three,” I said. “One . . . two . . . three!” And we were off. I timed “three” in rhythm with the forward rocking of the wagon.
The rear of the wagon scooted a little to the side and for a moment tried to catch up with the front. With both his fists together on the wagon tongue handle, V.J. turned the front wheels and adjusted nicely. The wagon straightened just in time before coming to the wallered-out tire ruts on the edge of the brothers’ yard. It was a washed out spot on one side that everybody slowed down for as they drove in. V.J. either could not control the wagon or he aimed for the hole as he hit it square. The front wheels dipped, followed by the drop of the back wheels and the wagon was airborne briefly, slamming down with T-Bone and I still hanging on and pushing as fast as our little legs would carry us. Once on the level part of Shellhorse, we got good grip with our Keds and the speed increased to the point of reaching maximum velocity just as we got to the edge of the hill. Our timing was good because we both gave our parting super shove in sync and with such force that we both stumbled and fell as we launched our bodies horizontal in the act.
V.J screamed. He began to lose control immediately. Bouncing a little sideways, he over-corrected and was headed for the ditch. I looked up from my position on the ground to take in the visual that happened in the next few seconds that I, or T-Bone I suspect, will never forget.
V.J. tried to bring the wagon back into control but there was no way. His right side wheels slipped in the ditch and I heard him scream again just before he slammed into the end of Mr. Woodruff’s culvert hard enough to bust out a piece of concrete. The collision put a big dent in the front of the wagon and the wagon tongue/steering wheel bent funny after it nearly impaled and then flipped V.J. And he took another pretty good lick as he flew out, skidded a ways on his hands and head and wound up rolling to a stop in the middle of old lady Johnson’s petunia patch. One of his shoes flew a good ten feet farther.
Old widow Johnson had to have been in her eighties then but people who had known her for years claimed she was as spry and mean an old hen as she ever was. She didn’t put up with foolishness from anybody, especially neighborhood toeheads who had no respect for her flower garden. She came near swallowing her dip as she arose from her rocker on her front porch.
“Well I’ll swanee,” she hollered. “You kids ain’t got a lick of sense in the bunch of you! Get out of my flowers, boy!” and she fairly jumped off her porch and was whacking him with her walking stick as she continued yelling at him. “I didn’t sweat and (whack!) dig to plant ‘em (whack!) just to have you (whack!) waller all over ‘em!”
Mrs. Johnson’s piercing voice cut through the neighborhood, and one at a time heads looked out of windows and some folk came out front to see what the ruckus was all about. V.J., poor V.J., must have landed harder on his bean than we thought because he was hobbling away fast, but the wrong way. I hollered at him and he sort of got his senses back, luckily before he walked into the zooming traffic of Lancaster Road. He did a hobble step pivot on a stiff leg and was headed right. He was sniffling and his head was bleeding, as was his hand he was holding against his chest, but all-in-all he was limping along at a pretty good clip, bumping up and down with each step and favoring his right side. On his shoeless left foot a dirty white sock was pulled off the ankle and bent under his foot and dragging.
T-Bone got the wagon, and I threw in the broken off front wheel, and he pulled it up the hill. Jimmy stuck the piece of concrete back, as if Mrs. Johnson would keep her mouth shut to Mr. Woodruff about it. Ronny went into Mrs. Johnson’s yard to get V.J.’s shoe so he caught a double barrel shot of her wrath at close range, but he was quick and did stay out of stick-swinging reach. Jimmy was running ahead with his arms held out like a receiver and Ronny saw he was open so he let the shoe fly in a wobbly spiral. Jimmy caught it in stride and passed us all and was the first one back to Mrs. Cullum’s pecan tree. The rest of us joined him, with V.J., the wounded one, hobbling in stiff legged and last. He looked plumb pulverized and pitiful, but as he caught up with us he started to laugh between the sniffles. The rest of us joined in. We would face the consequences later when we had to. For the moment we were on top of that hill and we laughed till we hurt and we were alive and loving it. V.J. made his bones that day.
My other strong memory of V.J. also involves him getting the worst of it, this time from his dad. There were a few times I was in V.J.’s house when his old man was there. He was always drinking Kentucky Times whiskey and every time I saw him, he was already there, drunk as a souse. I knew the speech, and the bloodshot eyes, and the smell all too well from my own dad, and I didn’t like to be around it at home or anywhere else. We usually played outside. The neighborhood kids didn’t play much at V.J.’s house or at my house for the same drunken reasons. I’m sure I was at his house more than the other kids because I understood his situation, like he understood mine.
V.J.’s daddy did mostly labor jobs on construction sites when he could get the work. He also did odd cleanup jobs in the neighborhood. Everybody knew to talk to his wife the night before if there was a job because she would keep him sober that morning to go to work. And he worked fine as long as he was sober. The family owned no car so he either rode the bus to construction jobs or got a coworker to pick him up. He never worked regular.
In a way I hated that old man, and in another way I felt sorry for him and in still another way, I admired him. I hated him I think because, like my dad, when he got drunk he was mean as a stepped-on water moccasin, and he took out his anger on those close to him. I felt sorry for him because he had the saddest face on a man I have ever seen. His mouth was downturned on the ends like an Emmet Kelly clown face, but there was nothing made up about it. His eyes were blank, distant and empty when he was drunk and quiet. When he was drunk, loud, and mean, his eyes were cutting and vicious looking, like Death’s head as I imagined. V.J. had told us about his dad’s experience in the Phillipines, as he had heard it from one of his dad’s Eighth Army buddies who had visited once. One time I saw the father’s scar V.J. had told me about. It was an indentation on his left side that stuck in about a half inch and wrapped halfway around his side below his ribs. V.J. told me it was where a Japanese soldier’s bayonet had pierced him and then ripped out his side as V.J.’s dad wrestled it away and then killed the soldier by pounding his head to mush with the rifle butt. He was not a man to be trifled with, and I was one of the few people who knew that.
Late that fall, T-Bone, V.J. and I were rolling down Shellhorse again. The brothers’ wagon had since been wrecked too often and the axles were bent, so their mom turned it into a planter she kept under their front room window. Not to be sidelined for long, the three of us came up with a makeshift hill racer. It was just an oblong wooden crate we had attached with casters we had found in T-Bone’s garage. Although we did the best we could, the vehicle looked kind of funny because there were two sizes of wheels. We tried it both ways and learned it rolled better with the small wheels in the back, making it less likely to flip forward. We couldn’t guide the thing; we just sort of aimed it before we shoved off the hill. There was just enough room for two to ride. The small wheels dragged on some of the bigger rocks, preventing us from getting up much speed. We did ride on the opposite side of the road from Mrs. Johnson’s, per V.J.’s request. Once I was pushing the two of them and at the last second pushed the back end a little sideways so it would head for the old lady’s yard, but my scheme didn’t work. T-Bone and V.J. both stirred up a dust cloud as they bailed out into the gravel before they would risk the wrath of Mrs. Johnson again.
V.J. and I took our turn as pilot and co-pilot. T-Bone had just given us a good send-off. I was in the back and couldn’t see much. V.J. was waving and shouting, “Hey, Daddy, watch us. Here we come.” I looked around V.J. as we bounced down the hill and saw that his dad had just turned up Shellhorse and was walking toward their house with a sack of groceries. He waved back. We came to a stop about twenty feet from him.
“You boys be careful with that thing, you hear?” he said as he approached us.
“Yessir,” V.J. said. “Look at our two-man racecar. We made it ourselves.”
V.J. and I got out so he could get a good look. He tilted it on its side and said, “Oh yeah. She’s a good ‘un, all right. No brakes and no steering wheel, but you got you a nice rope handle to pull it up the hill with.” He laughed a little. “Yeah. She’s a dandy. You boys just be careful, and you best not let your Mama see you.”
Most of the two hours of daylight left we spent riding that hill, until V.J. found a horned toad that caught our interest. In turn we petted it and studied it and V.J poked a little finger in its mouth just to show us its pink insides. We all liked horned toads but V.J. especially loved to mess with them. T-Bone caught a grasshopper and tried to feed it to the horned toad but I guess it was not in the mood for eating with three giants around it pulling its legs and rubbing its underbelly and poking at its thorny head.
When we heard his parents going at it, V.J. kneeled down and put the horned toad back in the grass. “You go on little guy. I’ll play with you again some day.” V.J. stood and said to us, “I gotta go. He’s drunk by now and something set him off and he may be getting rough.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why go now? Do what I do and wait till it blows over and he goes to sleep and things quiet down.”
“No,” V.J. said. “I can’t,” and T-Bone and I watched as he opened his screen door and entered just as there was a loud crash of something breaking inside.
T-Bone and I started back to our homes on Arden Road, but we took our time. The yelling lowered to just the man talking loud, but we could still hear everything being said. Then the fight picked up again. This time it sounded like something heavy was slammed against the wall and it seemed the whole house shook. Then we heard V.J.’s voice, “Don’t, Daddy, don’t. Leave her alone!”
The man yelled, “Why you little . . .” and then there was a cracking sound, and the sound of jostling and things being turned over and the mother’s voice begging the man to stop, “Before you kill him.”
The mother pushed the screen door open with one hand and was pulling her son out of the house with the other. The drunken man came through the door a second later and threw a couch pillow at them, but missed. “Go ahead and go and sleep outside for all I care. Just get the hell out!”
We came up to them and the mother seemed glad to see someone. “Neil, is your mother home? Do you think we could come over? My boy here is gonna need some tending to.”
I told her yes and we all went to my house where we got in the light and my mother did what she could for the two of them. V.J. was the worse off. He had a black eye and his nose was bleeding and looked kind of bent. There were scratches around one of his wrists, but what amazed me was the mark I saw next. As I stood behind him, I saw something through his thin tee shirt that was dark and big. I pointed it out to my mother. She had him raise his shirt to reveal the second visual image of V.J. I’ll never lose. It was the perfect outline of a red handprint. Later it became a bruise-blackened handprint.
V.J.’s mom kept saying she was sorry for putting her problems on us and my mother told her it was no bother. She told my mother that her husband was not usually that way, but he was not feeling well lately and that made him mean. Mother nodded and said, “Yes honey, I know.” They stayed about an hour. I walked back with them and watched as the mother picked up her couch pillow in the yard and they entered the dark, quiet house.
A month later on a Saturday morning early, I ran to V.J.’s house because I had caught a fat horned toad and I wanted to show him. On his front porch I saw through the front window the house was empty. There was a hand-drawn “For Rent” sign attached to the screen door with bobby pins.
As I sat there on his steps, I felt the movement of the horned toad in my shirt pocket. I pulled it out and poked my little finger in its mouth to see its pink insides. Then I put my little thorny-head buddy between my feet and watched as it hesitated in its sudden freedom.
“Go on little guy,” I said. “Lay flat and scoot. I’ll play with you again some time.” I poked it a little and it ran into the high grass.
On my way home, I moved slower. I wondered what happened to V.J. and his family. I think about it still, now and then. The mother probably stayed with her husband; she had few choices. V.J. stayed around at least another five or six years, for his mother’s sake, if not for his own protection. He would have gotten as big as the father and maybe held his own in future go-rounds. The father, I suspect, continued to see an eyeless, misshapen Japanese face every time he drew back for another swing at his Victory over Japan. He is likely dead by now. My guess is V.J. and his mother are glad he is finally able to rest.
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!
I haven’t heard much about new year’s resolutions this year. I haven’t made any. Has anyone? I think I’m still reeling from 2016. But hey, here we are, and life goes forward spinning round and round as the world turns. Perhaps, I should just think about what I want to accomplish in 2017 in terms of goals.
Goal. A desired result or possible outcome that one envisions, plans, and commits to achieve.
At the top of my list should be to bring kindness to my world. Not only to bring it, but to look for it in others.
I feel a need for my own sanity to avoid toxic people who continue the trend of 2016 to spread political untruths, to engage in name-calling, to manipulate others into seeing things their way. I’m a writer. I will continue to write and read and explore for understanding. That is how growth comes. Growth comes from way down deep, from thinking, from questioning, from soul searching, from seeing things the way that only I do. I’m a writer. I see differently. I don’t bury my head in the sand and ignore. I work it out. I write to know.
Some other things I would like to achieve:
- Finish the novel I’ve had in the back of my mind for maybe 15 years. I’ve made three attempts to start it. I remember sitting in downtown Nashville at a restaurant around the new millennium and talking to Charlie about it. Maybe I let all the steam out. Write a chapter a week.
- Write an essay every month. The new month starts today. I should get busy.
- Plant garden foods I will eat. Take time to work in the gardens and flower beds. Tame my yard. Maintain it better.
- Live with less. Get of rid of old things I don’t need. Pack things to save in bins and label.
- Go to a movie once a month.
- Spend time with Puppy Heidi on Franklin trails.
- Reach out and make a friend in the neighborhood.
- Go to the beach—with or without the new little camper I want.
- Blog more. Ten years ago when I started blogging, I committed to two or three times a week. When Charlie died, that went out the door. I had to go to work full time and support myself. Maybe now, two or three blogs a month. At least.
- Rethink social media. Remember why I got on Facebook ten years ago. Get back to that. I didn’t want any old friends or family. Just the writing community. Facebook for marketing and keeping up with other writers and new books and writing support. I need to tighten my boundaries. Say what I want to say and leave the room.
Okay, that’ll do it. I’m in. Foot down. New year. Go!
I’ve been thinking about it and thinking about it, and I’m getting more serious about it. Should I? Could I?
If I’m going to, now’s the time. What would it be like to hook up my own little ultra light white and blue camper and take off for the coast? Park it right on the beach. Listen to the waves all night. Just sit there and be lulled by the waters, watching the waves come in one after the other. Just me and the dog. Getting in tune. Peace. Quiet. Nothing but the sound of waves crashing in and the softness of puppy breath.
I’m thinking I would love to go to the mountains, but I’ve done that…without a trailer. I’ve driven up a high, steep mountain, 5 mph, scared, trailing behind me a mile-long string of cars. If I can’t do it without a trailer, maybe I shouldn’t with one. Or maybe a small mountain.
I love the idea of always having a roof over my head and taking my “roof” with me. Of packing the basic necessities, and a laptop, of course. Writing on the road…
I’ve upped this dream to the top of my mind. Yes. It’s a dream. And dreams can be made to come true.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the last breath out after the gathering of family to eat and share and affirm, and then two days of saying good-bye, left-overs, and a houseful of desserts that can’t be denied. The next breath in will be in preparation for Christmas—putting up the tree, shopping, wrapping, baking (again!), and making more plans. So as I rested on Sunday morning, I mixed it all up—undid the usual, did the unusual.
I got my first cup of coffee and sat in the living room. I turned on the TV for the local news about thick fog covering up downtown Nashville, a house fire off Briley Parkway, and a wreck with multiple fatalities on I-24. I never turn on the television in the morning. Can’t stand the noise.
I did some quiet planning for the next scene in my novel . . . Chapter 9 about Betsy’s Trunk, and I must admit that this was much fun.
I cooked breakfast, and we ate together, the dog and I. We had eggs, left-over Sister Schubert’s rolls, and “cookie-later.” Cookie-later, said as one word in a high-pitched voice, has a story behind it. Recently, when the pup was in Canine Good Citizen class, we learned the week before the final test that no treats are allowed when commands are completed during the exam. Dogs work for treats, and the better the treat, the harder the dog works. So I had to do something creative. The week before the test, I bought and cooked bacon and taught her that bacon is “cookie-later” and during practice, after she completed a command successfully, I’d say “cookie-later.” Afterwards, I’d give her tiny pieces of bacon. For the test, I rubbed a little bacon on my fingers and after she completed each of the ten steps of the exam, I told her “cookie-later.” She worked like a dog for it.
I pulled out the crock pot and dropped in all the freshly washed produce not used over Thanksgiving. Soup sounds good for the week: green beans, kale, carrots, onion, celery, leek, and tomatoes, along with some brown rice and already baked chicken breast.
I put all the silver away in its chest. It’s only used once, maybe twice a year. Before Thanksgiving dinner, our new bride put the Wallace sterling forks, knives, and spoons at each place setting. With her recent “I do,” the silver became hers. It was given to my son more than thirty years ago by a woman in our church who had no children to pass it on to.
I folded the clean napkins, kitchen towels, and potholders and put them away. The guest towels and sheets are drying now. The china and wine glasses have been returned to their places.
Lastly, I’ll store the two pumpkin decorations: the fragmented glass pumpkin and the block of cedar carved into a pumpkin with a chainsaw. I love that pumpkin, mainly because of the unique color of its stem, light creamy green.
I can’t begin to think of Christmas yet. But the next breath in will come soon, and I will gear up.