Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Christmas and Brine

Hello Reader,
Got stinging second person?

One of my joys in life is writing on Free Fall Fridays. Thanks to the miracle of finding writing societies on the web, last Friday we were joined by a visiting writer from Alaska. With the snow still “four feet high” (I.3 meters) in her back yard, I had to be honest and tell her, “This is only our second day above freezing since January. (While still below freezing in the mornings, of course) So that’s why everyone’s so happy today!” 

You may wonder: What does an Alaskan, (retired, kids grown) living off the grid, hours from town, do during her one week vacation in Calgary? Culture. Stock up on culture: museums, stage plays and her hotel restaurant—never motel-suite cooking!—to name only three. I told her I too relish hotels as part of any road trip, partly because I have no TV. (Except for DVDs)

Here are three pieces my peers liked from a Friday close to Christmas. 
(In Free Fall, as invented by W.O. Mitchel, we get a prompt then fall as fast as we can—no editing, no regrets) 
Too close. It would not have been right for me to immediately post these bitter stories, not near Christmas, so I held them back for 2019.

Dad served overseas during the war. He survived. When a boy I knew was killed in action in Afghanistan Dad blamed old men, just as he must have done in his youth. He was born in 1919.

 next time chew

The number was 25. The place was South Korea, before being unified with North Korea, which idea was receding into the distance behind falling sleet. It was December, and of course the South Koreans—might as well get used to adding the geographical adjective—knew what that meant: They had lots of missionaries, after all, and lots of home grown preachers, too. But not too many young beauties wanted to be nuns, thank goodness.

What, you don’t think I should be thinking of beauties amongst this stupid falling snow, hundreds of miles from the territory of Hawaii, 
with the winds, 
under the influence of the spinning earth, 
coming not from the moderating sea but from the vast inland cold continent? 
Cold, yes, but Christ wouldn’t mind if I warmed myself up thinking of beauty. Let me tell you, everybody had a pin up girl under the lid of their footlocker. Mine was a blond, but good thing I’m not prejudiced—few blonds for a hundred miles.

I was in a stupid foxhole, sometimes a blessed foxhole, trying to see with the damn wind in my eyes coming from the enemy fields, when I felt movement from behind me. I felt safe, trusted my buddies to keep the line intact, but still… I turned, and I guess you know who would be out in this weather: Not a chummy adult, but some crazy children. 

I had nothing in the way of America’s contribution to Asian relationships: no candy. I did have a few ration cans: four to be exact, for four children. I was warm enough, actually, I didn’t need the extra food to drum up calories and besides: Man does not live by bread alone. Amongst their rags I could tell there was two girls and two boys. We exchanged a few smiles, and a few words. And best of all: “Christian.” “Me too,” I said, “Christ is number 1.” There wasn’t much to say, so I kept an eye on the sleet to the front, and I sang Holy night. And they joined in.

you stand there braced

So there you are, on a chilly autumn afternoon as a hidden sun is descending behind the clouds. The cliff on which you stand is barren of foliage, barren of lichen, overlooking a briny barren sea. Land or sea? Stand or fall? To be existing, or not to be existing? A cold gull cries uncaring off to the left, in an aimless un-beautiful flight. 

The twilight hours, and the twilight seasons, are the worst. Now it is both, and she’s not here. Nor is your best friend, Butch. For Butch fell afoul of a speeding car, and her—you just don’t know, do you? Still? You could try to escape into anger at her, but you are just too honest, and just too depleted of spirit.

You stand there, braced against the offshore gusts. The brine is in your eyes, in the air, in your very heart. There is no answer, except the postulate, the theorem, that we all have to go on living.

The annual war began around the Christmas table. I know, that’s a stupid phrase, right?
Stupid civilians misuse the term war. You know what war is? It’s when the people get involved. Anything you call a police action, anything you leave to the civil servants and armed forces, is not a war.

Why do civilians say “war” and then turn their backs saying, “Let George do it.” I don’t know. 

Apathy means ‘without spirit.’ If you don’t have spirit then in the name of heaven, don’t send our boys into harms way. A stupid ‘police action’ is beneath you. And don’t think the boys don’t know whether you care or not.

George made it home, made his bundle, and made it back to Korea. He told me, “If you could see those Korean kids with nice playgrounds, nice schools, and running water, you would not wonder whether it was worth it or not. But,” he said, “I still despise—” I  knew who he meant. Some things the statute of limitations does not forgive.

If you have something to say at the gathering, then say it the day before, or the day after. If you can’t be bothered to take an extra day, then I can’t be bothered to hear you. In fact, you have 364 other days to say your piece. So do so.

But not on the day when I sang Holy Night while you were under a roof listening to Amos and Andy on the radio, on a stuffed chair, next to a stuffed full table. Show a little perspective, for heaven’s sake.

God bless America.

Time passes. The boy was Corporal Nathan Hornburg. The boy’s mother is passed on, the father died last year on the Camino pilgrim trail, the dear family dog is gone too. Only the girl, now married, is left. I don’t think I would know her on the sidewalk today.

Sidebar On Education:
Dear reader, do you “get” US citizens? I ask because this week I might have hurt the feelings of an Illinois professor on his blog.

I don’t know. As our Company commander warned us before we left to go train at a U.S. base: “Don’t think that just because you watch the same television, you understand them.”

A professor blogged about the scandal of rich celebrities getting their kids into university under false pretences, such as fake sports for scholarships. 
I opined that this was from “too much vanity.” After all, if a rich kid is born with only a normal I.Q. then she could always go to Brandeis University, the one where they dis-invited Aayan Hirsi Ali from speaking during the war on terror. (As noted in my “25-posts milestone” essay Acid Blog, Stupid Yankee University archived May 2014)

Also I reasoned how, unlike in Canada, 
(and unlike in Europe, judging by the essays of Paul Graham) 
the fact that Americans put the adjective “good” in front of a university, implies there must be lots of not-good ones, and these ones a not-vain kid could access to “punch her ticket” and do partying.

For my part, for that professor, I regard Americans as not worrying about “saving face” as much as other nationalities do, and as being downright proud of “being honest” in contrast to, say, Asians. Well. Did I hurt feelings? I ask because my comment was never posted; meanwhile comments of other folks on that post, comments that I thought were harmless enough to totally forget them, were taken down.

If “I done wrong,” then you may say so.

Sean Crawford


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Fear in Fiction, with Martians

“I think when H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds, he knew his Pompeii.”
Sean Crawford

“Roaring and flashing hellish light, the volcano poured forth a weird cloud whose top spread out and out. Birds dropped dead from the sky….

Thousands fled at once. They were wise to flee—and the wisest kept on travelling all that afternoon and night. Nothing else could have put them outside the circle of death that Vesuvius was drawing round itself.”
Donald and Louise Peattie, Reader’s Digest Junior Omnibus, page 66.

Hello Reader,
Got fear?

As a writer, as happens to all artists if they progress, I have reached the point where I don’t learn much from the “how to write” books of other writers. Now I am into uncharted “on my own” waters. For example, I was delighted to grasp something from Robert Heinlein’s young adult novel Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. It was published when a popular cowboy hat and pistol set included business cards showing a chessboard knight that read, “Have gun, will travel.” (I can still sing the theme song for that show about the cowboy Paladin, as the boys sing in the movie Stand By Me

The teen hero is abducted into a flying saucer by a scary alien from outer space. Then what? During his first night of imprisonment he has a terrible nightmare. Why? Because things are relative. Because relative to the nightmare, he (and the reader) is calmer, better able to focus on the need to escape… Of course that was the only nightmare he had. I’m so pleased I figured that out on my own.

It’s like when I was an abused child escaping into fairy tales with scary witches. The stories made real life easier, somehow. Perhaps our present day black-and-white comic books about The Walking Dead serve the same purpose, in this fearsome and complex society. A little fear is good for us.

It logically follows: If I were to do a collection of poems about The War of the Worlds in Britain, then maybe my first few poems should be relatively more scary than the rest; Or at least involve fleeing; Maybe I could do a prologue from over in western Canada. 

When the Martians Stir, Don’t Stop Moving 

I am a scared rabbit.
Wheels roll fast,
my car is hurtling straight down the mountain highway.
The narrow valley has a river, a railway, and mountains rising sheer.

I know how rabbits are caught.
They are channeled into narrow trails.
They put their little heads right through thin wire snares.
I speed as fast as I can.

Behind me the Martians of nightmares are stirring.
Before me, past Hell’s Gate, past Hope,
the valley opens broad and green with room to hide.
Behind me will soon be the blasted wrecks of cars too slow.

The mountains channel the highway as I race for my life.
Thin Martian rays will stab through cars,
asphalt bubbling and sagging.
No breath to scream, no rabbit death-cry.

I drive into the darkening night.
I do nothing but drive.

On a Black Winding Graveyard

Between steep mountains
on the transCanada highway,
the gun emplacements are shockingly bare.
Concrete spools are stripped of their iron mounts,
nothing left to receive 106 mm recoilless rocket guns.
I speed along, I grit my teeth.

I imagine the freckled soldier boys on their final day.
“Check back-blast area!”
“Back-blast area checked.” 
Then the warm slap on the shoulder.

Soldiers don’t waste words swearing, not during their tight gun drills.
If they see giant Martian machines striding up the road,
Will they swear, helplessly, as the Martians burn them from the world?

I drive past gun emplacements, grimly.
Past another,
and another,
concrete headstones 
on a long black winding graveyard.

Sean Crawford

Footnote: The guns had been used to trigger avalanches.