Letters from Al, 1966-67 ~ February 22, 2017

Dear Alsie,

The box of your letters home from ‘Nam sits on the closet floor between storage boxes of yarn on the right and oil painting materials on the left. Remember your tackle box, the mustard gold one with double stacked trays where you kept fishing lures, worm threaders, nail clippers — the essentials of casting and catching? That box holds tubes of oil paint, has done for these 28 years (29 in November) since that damned blood clot dropped you.

I kept that box of letters at the foot of the bed for several months after I stopped writing to you, telling myself I would continue, I would complete the project I’d set for myself, I would answer them all — from the now — from these decades of what was once our future. On some level, I wanted to prove you wrong. I wanted to show you I could go the distance, not leave a work short of what it could be. You were, to my way of thinking, absolutely on the money 90% of the time. And I appreciated your honesty. (So easy to write — but did I?) (Being the ghost that you are, you’ve probably noted the long pause before the words began spilling again.)

Here’s the thing: This letter is not in response to one of yours. This letter is to share the news with you that one of my efforts has been published. This letter is to let you know that a publisher believed I had gone the distance, not left the work short.

I’m full of misgivings. Can’t stop wondering what you would think, what you would say. I did so love your straightforward, pragmatic, left brain way of looking at things — so opposite from me. I miss you, you lovely, lovely man.

Ok. So after another longish pause and getting my eyes dry and refocusing, what do I hear? I hear you doing your Donald Duck impression, spraying my misgivings with saliva, making me smile.


p.s. The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights is the name of the book, published by Waterstreet Press. I add this just in case the afterlife has a library.


750words March 20, 2015 ~ Words and Heroines

It’s been a good month for words and falling in love with the people they build—again. I forget how charming and willful, stubborn and ugly they sometimes tend to be, then they come knocking, rising up from the page one by one, dusting the dirt from their knees, and I think, Hey! I know you. You’re the gal I gave the same hairstyle as my friend Sooz.

I’m talking about Irene’s crew of family and friends. Irene is the title character of a first novel (by me) due out in July 2015. Irene’s grand-niece is the one I gave the hairstyle of my dear friend, Sooz; her nephew (Buddy) is the one I gave characteristics of another friend’s cousin; the elderly detective who failed, in 1930, to solve the mystery of Irene’s early demise owns all the curmudgeonly charm of my favorite uncle. This month I found them again, these characters wrought from the real world I occupy into the fictional story-scape of vaudeville, circus, farm and city. Like best buddies from grade school or cousins from out of state, folks I haven’t seen or talked to in years, possibly decades, they warm this old heart when I hear their voice on the line.

A laugh escapes across the miles of telephone line and, just like that, their face is before me, a smile remembered, a cheesecake shared on a bench under a tree outside Riverside’s Mission Inn, a hike from the end of the road to the river bottom and, crossing the Santa Ana, the abandoned Power House on the river’s far side, flats of cardboard used as sleds to slide the steep and long-dry concrete slipway, wild rides perched in the back of a rusting blue pick-up truck through corn fields … oh, and all the crawdads caught in the irrigation canals running the perimeter of pastures and alfalfa fields … It’s like that, this reconnect to ginger-haired Irene who bruised and healed and bruised again, yet stood her ground with undaunted willfulness.

Words built my Irene, gave her freckles and a family which, for the most part, didn’t know how to handle the girl, much less the woman. Words constructed her worlds. From the Williamsport, Pennsylvania farm and the platform she dove from to slice into Loyalsock Creek as a girl to the Poseidon Park, Coney Island stage where she climbed into a cannon to be shot over the heads of paying spectators below—words gave these venues walls and windows, fields, ponds, farm houses and brownstones, kitchens, wall-papered bedrooms, railroad tracks and circus trains.

Reading and revising The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights for (what promises to be) the final draft, I came to the end and found myself already missing these fictional folks I’d brought into the world the way I miss my children and grandchildren when they visit—here for five days or a week—and gone, as if they’d only just arrived and their stay was too short. As if there were more conversations to explore, more Valentines to build with white glue, paper and glitter, more places to investigate, secrets to share, friends to introduce them to and shells to collect from the ocean’s shore.

So it is with Irene and her crew. They’ve been such a long time coming, growing into their environment … give me a sec while I figure out how to explain changes that have occurred, characters gone missing, scenes/settings which, at one time, filled pages …

You know how it is when you live in a neighborhood and gradually make the acquaintance of those who live around you, perhaps sharing cuttings and starts from your garden or recipes or cocktails at the 4 o’clock hour or coffee in the morning? Maybe you get to know more than you want (or need) to know about the nephew of this neighbor or the ex-husband/wife of that one, or the comings and goings of the mailman or too much about the personal life of the pastor at your local church or the manager of the Little League team your son or granddaughter or whoever plays on.

It’s like that—Irene introduced me to too many neighboring characters. I couldn’t leave them alone.

Regardless of how far afield they might lead me or how little they had to offer “Irene”—I wanted more and more of their personal stories. I let the novel’s neighborhood chatter take over, left Irene in a wobbly lawn chair on the periphery of the patio! (For those of you who find it difficult to follow my writing style, the gist of this is: I had to shush! the crowd. When this didn’t work, I had to ask some to leave.)

Yesterday, reaching the end of Irene’s rewrites, I wondered, “Where’s Ricky? What happened to Ricky Towne?” I found him today—day-dreaming about the bicycle shop he’d have if the world would just give him an effin’ break. A character of pimply-faced wonder, Ricky Towne was found in an early chapter on a file buried within a flashdrive at the back of a seldom used desk drawer. What a mouth that young man had, “F” words all over the place, and a bad attitude for a chair pusher on Atlantic City’s boardwalk. No surprise Ricky never earned much by way of tips on the boardwalk, or found his way into The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights final draft.

[He may, however, find his way into a short story. I do hate to think Ricky’s dream of a bicycle shop ended on my account … but—he’ll have to clean up his language before he finds space on my page.]

Watermark from Past Rain

When the 20th of July 2013 arrives, four years will have elapsed since my last blog posting for this WIP (Work In Progress) Irene in White Tights category. Four years—Whoa!  

            I could feel remorse.  A sprinkling of guilt.  Yet—paused as I am, eyes searching the white ceiling overhead for some shadow of such feelings tilted in that direction—I find none.  Not a smidge.  I do find a watermark stain where rain from the past crept under the asphalt and tar roofing to sign in with a drip-drip-drip, rains from long before I put down a deposit and took up residence here. The leak must’ve been fixed as the stain is located over my bed and, despite seasons of rain here on the Baja California coast, my bed’s remained dry.

I have white paint.  I have a gallon of Kilz to wipe-out the stain’s pattern before applying the white paint.  I can borrow a ladder.  I have excellent neighbors with ladders and cocktails every evening at sunset, croissants and coffee for mid-morning chats, company for walks through the fields and on the tumbled rock playa below.  I have the music of those rocks as they tumble, conducted by the symphony of ocean’s tides, the froth of bougainvillea in need of pruning, the play of hummingbirds in need of my watchful eyes to witness their being, their busy presence in this wondrous world.

I lower my gaze from the watermarked ceiling to the window, the tall stand of yellow and white wildflowers blooming in the distance, the swagger of palm fronds between here and there.  Remorse, about my negligence of Irene? Not a whiff. Yet Irene, that love of a girl, her ginger-freckled face and wide smile is very much present.  I smile at the wild yellow and white beyond my window, shake my head in quiet awe (partial disbelief?) over the renewed interest in Irene’s brief life—the fictional life I have written as well as the inspirational Irene who graced this earth so briefly—and wonder if she may, in fact, find a stage for her story to be acted out word by word.

The ceiling watermark is shaped like a mouth.  The mouth neither smiles nor frowns.  It is full-lipped, as was Irene’s.  It is patient, resolute, fixed.  I will delay repainting, keep the stain there, overhead—a sign, as if from a very old friend—to greet me each day, a reminder I mustn’t forget.

Female “Firsts” in Flight : Aviation and Cannons

Beryl Markham was the first female commercial pilot in Kenya, but who was the first female commercial pilot in the U.S.?  Who moved beyond whatever barriers may have been there for them, social and/or legal, who  bypassed restrictions to live on their own terms?

Before I come upon a U.S. female “first commercial pilot,” I run into one ‘Baroness’ Raymonde de Laroche (a.k.a. Elise Deroche/de Laroche, Baroness/Madam de Laroche/de la Roche) who, in 1909, while dining with Charles Voisin, is offered a chance to learn to fly.  Born in 1886, she would’ve been 23 at the time.  What a thrill, what an offer, such a chance.  And what a figure she must have been to warrant such an invitation!

But it is the year, 1909, that draws me into Elise’s world.  My dare-devil character, Irene Parilee Johns, is a ten year old girl that same year and, with her mother leading the flight from home, borne from her Pennsylvania childhood into a world of flux and change in New York’s Brooklyn. By the time Irene settles into her brownstone on St. Terence Street, the ‘Baroness’ will have received the first pilot’s license ever awarded to a woman.

“Firsts” are key, I believe, in the lives of dare devils (or women who dare). Within ten years, the Baroness Raymonde de Laroche will attempt to become the first female test pilot. She had, already in 1919, set a women’s altitude record of 15, 700 feet. But her copiloting of a new aircraft failed when the plane went into a dive during the landing approach.  Both pilots died. Elise was only 33 — ah, but what a life.

The inspriation for Irene Parilee Johns, the lead character in my novel in progress The True Life Adventures of Irene In White Tights, is Irene Lowe, the “first” woman, or so I’ve been told, to be shot out of a cannon in the United States.  A British woman has the honor, or so I’ve been told, of being the first female human cannonball in the world.  I don’t know that Londoner’s fate, but I do know that Irene Lowe, when she died,  did not die in the process of setting new records or astounding audiences with daring-do. Her fate was not the result, at least not directly, of the court mandate regarding contractual obligations made to perform – regardless of imminent peril. But she, like the Baroness Raymonde de Laroche, was young, at least by today’s standards, too young at barely 36 to be found dead on the floor in a Hell’s Kitchen walk-up.  Cause of death, asphyxiation, but still an open case — never decided as accidental, suicidal, or cold-blooded homicide.  

Both women, the ‘Baroness’ and ‘Madame’ Irene, surely, at least I feel certain, died of their choices: one walked into a test plane, the other into a cannon. The difference, at least one difference, may be in what “other choices” there were to be had by either of them at the time. Personality-wise, they were extraordinary women, alike in their willingness to step out and over the line.