Jamaica Dreams.
Part Three: Escape from Paradise ©2015

The way it was… remembrances by L. E. Taylor

SLEEP CAME ON THE HEELS of exhaustion well into the third night of our Jamaican idyll. I was up and alert at sunrise, however, with one purpose: To commandeer use of the hotel telephone. Big Mamoo Hairtoes saw smouldering resolve in my demeanor and vacated the stool at her Lilliputian desk without comment. I grabbed a paper napkin and wiped off the receiver. The stool would require a bigger towel; I opted to stand.

The impossible task of securing two same-day reservations on three different airlines, plus one taxi from Negril to Kingston airport played out in a blur, and with surprising success. The cabbie arrived on time, and loaded our luggage into a regular Ford. He was congenial and spoke with an Indo-British lilt. What time was our departure, please, he asked. Three-twenty. Oh, plenty of time, sir, he sang.

The cab was remarkably clean. By U.S. standards, it was immaculate. Delores wore a summery pink flowered dress and carried a sun hat. I was in khaki slacks and a white polo shirt; I removed my navy blazer, folded it neatly, and placed it on the rattan covered seat. The cabbie wore a billed yellow cap with open wickerwork all round the crown; it sported a white badge on the side, bearing his ID number.

Reenacting our cannabis-perfumed jungle trek of only three days ago, we were glum. Without saying so aloud, we were relieved to be out alive, but disappointed. The day was sunny and mild, as we’d expected for February. In a flash, I got an idea, and spoke to the driver.

“We’ve got a couple of hours before the flight. Can you recommend a nice seafood restaurant? Away from the airport and tourists, though. I want to have a conch salad and a drink.”

“Oh, yes, sir. Know just the place,” he yodeled. “On the bay.”

We left the paved road presently, and in low-gear climbed a narrow trail cut into the tropical forest. We emerged atop at an ocean overlook. Our man steered us into a circular drive shaded by a canopy of palm leaves, and stopped at a great weathered oak door held up on iron hinges and embraced by two flickering lanterns.

“Tell them ‘Michael the Cabbie’ told you. They treat you very-good.”

“Will you come back for us in time for the plane?”

“I wait right here.”

“You will?”

He nodded and grinned. “You go on.”

“I’ll pay for your time,” I said.

“You go on, sir,” he waved.

The place was dark in contrast with the bright Caribbean afternoon. A couple of people sat at the bar. I began to mention ‘Michael,’ but before I could finish, the maître de’ was leading us through a room of empty white clad tables. Ours awaited us, as though by divine whimsy, at a broad clear window overlooking the aquamarine bay.

The captain drew out milady’s chair, she sat, and he snapped open a napkin and handed it to her. I thanked him, snapped my own blazer lapels, and allowed him to present my chair. We ordered a couple of rum tonics and the fresh seafood salads du jour.

We peered agog at the sea. We looked at each other. “What the…,”we began simultaneously. We laughed, not bothering with the last word of the shared remark. Our drinks appeared.

Tension melted away and we began our first conversation in a very long time. Below, on the clear water not a hundred yards distant, a yacht was anchored – a yawl, two-masted, spar-varnished over a natural wood finish, sails furled tight in blue sleeves. The mainmast flew a West German tri-colour. Two figures aboard. Both appeared trim and athletic, both blond and tanned. The woman in a yellow bikini, lolled on the foredeck; the man in cut-off faded dungarees fussed in the stern with rope lines and mystery-junk. My imagination took over. Had they sailed all the way from Hamburg with stops in Spain and the Canaries? Might they be wealthy Eurotrash, hopscotching from the Med through Gibraltar and Westward-Ho to the southern climes for drugs and debauchery? Or did they just fly down from Cleveland to rent a boat and had packed a flag in their luggage for a joke?

It’s been thirty years since that sliver of mindless pleasure, enjoying a conch salad and a rare moment of amusement with a sassy blond nurse from my hometown. But I still wonder sometimes about the couple on that yawl; who they were, where they came from; how they travelled. And whatever happened to them?

The lunch was delicious and the glasses drained. Dolly read my mind: “Do you think Michael is still out front with our luggage?”

I replied, “Of course he is. He’s our angel. That’s his job.”

Our Angel Michael tossed aside his crossword puzzle and rushed around to hold the door for us. We made our flight, but takeoff was late so arrival in MIA placed me near my Delta gate to Dallas with just a half hour to spare. But Delores exited into the terminal a long sprint from her American flight to Detroit – due to depart in ten minutes. She hiked her bulging carry-on over one shoulder, clopped the straw sombrero over unruly blond wisps, accepted a hug from me, and disappeared into the milling crowd.

I was awash in regrets, sad to see her go without my help and protection, and stood there with a lump in my throat. ‘I’ll make it up to you, girl,’ I thought. ‘Someday. I hope.’

Onward.

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Jamaica Dreams.
Part Two: Fight or Flight ©2015

The way it was… remembrances by L. E. Taylor

THE DINNER OF NIGHT TWO at our no-name Caribbean hideaway outside Negril was identical to the night before. The menu items were different but the over-spiced mystery food (chicken I think, maybe driftwood) tasted exactly the same as last night’s prawns. And the wine, again, was at room temperature. If you were dining in a sauna.

The incessant racket of reggae well down the beach lent perspective to an otherwise dull night in the tropics. Delores and I had retired to our doorless suite of one room, plus half-bath and half-closet. The ceiling fan thum-thrummed, stirring heavy air, still redolent of angry curry vapors. (We were over the kitchen.) She clicked on the light bulb and flipped open a magazine.

Urgent footfalls on the outdoor stairway startled us. “Douse the light,” I said. We heard a hard padding commotion just outside on our deck; panicky huffing and wheezing, then a pounding on the louvered screen door. Adrenaline spiked my instincts. Hushed, excited mumbling of two people, now. I pulled back the curtain. In the darkness I recognized the plump white faces of the young couple form the room next door.

“We were on the beach,” he said, “walking back from the party and a guy came up and grabbed her. We got away and he ran after us. Please let us in.”

“Was he armed?” I asked.

“A knife, I think.”

“Get in here,” I said. I searched around for a weapon, a club. Nothing. I spoke to the women: “You two get back there in the dark and be quiet.” I ushered them to an alcove next to the no-shower bathroom. I rummaged around and came up with a wire coat hanger.

“You,” I said to the fat kid, “What’s your name?”

“Gil.”

“How big is this guy?”

“About your size.”

Good. I stared at the floor. “Okay… Gil,” I said, “The most important thing we have to do is keep that sonofabitch out of here.” I was uncurling the coat hanger and wrapping it around one hand. “When he comes through that door, I’ll be behind him, over there.” I wrapped the loose end of the wire hanger around my other hand. “He’ll come in and he’ll see you. I’ll grab him around the neck with this and run him out the door and over the side.” Gil stared at me in the deep-shadowed room. “Uh, Gil…? You. Stand. Right. There. Got it? Gil.?

“Yeah. Okay.”

Footfalls thundered up from the outdoor stairway and urgent mumbling. More than one guy. Damn. “Let’s go, Gil,” I said and plunged through the beaded doorway.

No one. But lots of noise down below. I looked over the rail. A white clad black man in a baseball cap looked up and shouted to me, “This way. Come down, mon. It’s safe! Come down!”

The four of us rushed onto the deck and down the rude wooden stairs. The guy in the baseball cap hustled us across a dimly lit yard and we climbed into a pre-war caramel-coloured Hillman-Minx, maybe an Austen. The engine was running. The driver, another black man, said nothing. We exited the grounds and the comical clown car raced through an inky night. In a few minutes we arrived at a lighted village square, actually a circle with a fountain in the center. We slowed to a crawl. Windows down for air, we passed a throng of loitering sullen Africans. Their eyes burned hostile and red in the half light of the village center.

The police station was nothing more than a mobile home on legs, like a contractor’s hut. In the darkness, we climbed three or four steps, pulled open the steel door and entered a grim sanctuary lit green by overhead fluorescent tubes.

The narrow room was barren except for two items: an antique oaken standup desk with a massive domes-day book splayed open upon it, and a gleaming ebony giant of a man resplendent in a crisp, British colonial constable’s uniform. Indifferent to us, he stood at his post, carefully writing entries on the mouldy pages of the old log-book.

The starched white jacket sported gold buttons up the front to a closed high collar. The Sam Brown belt that crossed the man’s impressive chest was of black leather and its holster housed an oversized .45 mm automatic. His black Bermuda-length shorts had a broad red stripe on each side, and just below the knees, white stockings traveled down to a pair of thick-soled patent leather size-twenty brogans. The shiny black bill of an officer’s scarlet cap shaded this imposing creature’s eyes. He stood intent upon his task. I wondered how far back into the mists of history the book’s entries went… Blackbeard? Fourteen-ninety-two?

The man was apparently the entire Police Department of Negril, Jamaica. Okay by me. They could do worse.

The cola-nut cop spoke not a word, but continued his report or whatever he was inscribing. Abruptly, he whispered to the driver who had whisked us away from our paradise. I took the driver to be some sort of auxiliary security bloke.

Finally, the policeman’s attention turned to his American guests. We were addressed individually for our names, please, and asked to recount our description of the incident. The place was an oven. The ebony Mounty seemed cool, impervious to the heat. The rest of us glistened a sickly green in the factory light.

It all took about twenty minutes, give or take five hours, then we shuffled out.

Back at the oasis, we were met at the car by a second white-shirted black rent-a-cop. He spoke in whispers to our driver. I asked, “Did they catch the guy?” The second security guy melted into the night.

“He’s no problem anymore,” replied the driver.

“Did they arrest him?”

“No problem anymore.” He turned and walked to the dwarf car. As he got in, I noticed a pistol grip protruding from his back waistband. Delores and I glanced at each other. The fellow pulled the car door closed. He started the engine, backed a few feet toward us and stopped. His elbow rested on the open window and he flashed us a quick look. “No problem anymore.”
Onward.

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[To be continued...]

Next, Part Two: Fight or Flight.

Jamaica Dreams.
Part One: Culture Shock ©2015

The way it was… remembrances by L. E. Taylor

WHEN I FLY, I GIVE MYSELF over to the existential envelope of the moment. Four hours across the continent to SFO or LAX – it’s all of a piece to me for the duration of a flight. The whole episode is an extended nano-fragment, like a dream, improbable, unnatural.

Illogically, I’m hurtling in near silence through the sky in a silver tube. So I take a hike to Planet Larry.

The flight from Miami to Jamaica one day, however, was more like the puddle-jump from Detroit to Chicago – barely worth the angst. A bus ride. Yet there was something niggling at me. All in my mind, of course. The sky was clear, the sea below a sensual aquamarine, like the Mediterranean, the Adriatic…our own Great Lakes.

This trip was supposed to be an exotic escape. Delores and I had been together now for a couple of years, each of us dealing with the distracting residue of earlier lives. This would be a departure into a bubble.

As soon as we were airborne, I was restive. Was it guilt for leaving my responsibilities en route to a self-indulgent retreat? Doubt about this unsettled relationship? Annoyance at the brainless rowdiness among our fellow passengers? What?

The customs bureaucracy in Jamaica provided no comfort. We were herded into an open processing pen. Hot and humid, noisy and crude, the dump seemed a cliché for third-world-banana-republic-spy flicks. All I needed was a rumpled linen suit and a crushed Panama hat.

They took our passports, stamped them and kept them.

We made our way through the wilting Caribbean heat to a “taxi” stand. Our destination was the far end of the island, a village called Negril. My Michigan travel agent, a liberal who mistook me for a vagabond writer-artist type, had selected this off-grid venue to suit what she assumed to be my bohemian tastes.

The beat-up old VW van was crammed with twenty-something guys and one girl, in addition to Delores and me. We wound our way up the narrow road to a lookout over the bay. Pretty. But I’ve seen bays and water before. We stopped. Outside the vehicle, the driver had a few private words with the college bums, and we continued on our way. Almost immediately, we were in a jungle. A few minutes on the road, and unaccountably, the driver brought us to a stop at a roadside dive. Most of the riders got out and went inside.

Hot breezes blew, birds cawed. Delores looked sideways at me. I was staring straight ahead. I only know this because she told me later.

The temperature was ninety-plus, the humidity about the same. Bugs buzzed. Our jitney-mates were having a Red Stripe in the jungle. I was having an out-of-body experience. My heartrate was down to about 58.

The rest of that drive was like my cross-continent flights. Dreamlike. I remember shacks and naked Negroes with babies, and an interminable ordeal of winding one-lane auto-pathways carved into a drab rainforest.

Then we were… there.

The grim little clearing on the sea may have had a name; if so, it has long since been expunged from my psyche. Santo Anus would be apt.

Our “suite,” actually one room on the second floor of a paint-peeling clapboard house accessed by way of stairs up its sides to an outdoor deck, was almost as nice as the British prisoners’ quarters in Bridge on the River Kwai. But with worse management.

The mountainous woman (I think) who ran the joint was straight out of central casting – mumu-clad, with a silky black moustache, and barefoot with coarse wires sprouting from both big toes.

Delores and I climbed the outdoor stairs to our nest. There was no key because there was no door. Only a louvered screen and within, a curtain of beads to keep out the scorpions and mosquitoes. (And snakes?) The view of the emerald waters was lovely.

I yanked on my Speedo, and we went to the beach. I dove in, swam around, and was unceremoniously stung by a jellyfish.

Madame Hairtoes said, no big deal; Here. Take this shot of rum and rub it in. See you at dinner. Seven o’clock.

I drank the rum, washed off the ocean salt at the property’s only working shower (beachside), and Delores and I went up to our cell to dress for dinner.

Dinner was in an outdoor lanai. A tropical rain came straight down. Delores was in a colorful sundress, blond hair nicely up; I wore a blazer and a silk tie. Everyone else wore the same filthy togs they’d arrived in from the airport. Humidity soaked into our clothing. The fare was prawns, rice, a green vegetable (seaweed, I think), and lukewarm white wine. Everything tasted exactly the same – peppery-hot and vaguely curry-ish.

The morning brought fried plantains, thick french toast, and harsh black coffee. Delores settled down on the beach with a book while I took off on a run through the soft tepid surf. Immediately, a native girl accosted me. “You want aloe massage?” she smiled. I demurred. “What is-a-you wife-name?” she pressed. Stupidly, I replied, “Dolly. Wh.. ?) She was gone before I could think, and I continued along the shoreline. I came to a village, probably Negril, and a sort of market on the beach.

Tie-dye tee shirts, Red Stripe beer, tourist junk. One puzzlement: I had no idea why they would be selling mushrooms on a beach.

When I got back to Delores, she said these dread-locked girls kept coming by. ‘Hello, Do-ley,’ they would say. ‘You want aloe massage?’ She said, “How did they know my name?” I told her. I asked, what did you say? Delores replied, “I told them no and to get the hell off our beach.”

Glistening with Coppertone and sweat, we reclined on beach towels and squinted at a blue-green sea under a cloudless sky. “Beautiful,” I said.

Delores glanced at me. “Almost as nice as…”

“Yep,” I mumbled, “… a day on Lake Michigan.” We watched the ragged parade of natives crisscross between us and the ocean-sea. “But more crowded.”

Still, the tropical paradise wasn’t through with us.
Onward.

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[To be continued...]

Next, Part Two: Fight or Flight.

The Liberator ©2015

History in my backyard, remembered by L.E. Taylor

BACK IN MY EARLY YEARS as a freelance advertising artist, I became acquainted with a motley assortment of lads who’d been, as the saying went, “overseas” during The War. One of those fellows was a Brit by the name of David Lawrence. “Dy-vid” I called him, after the way he himself pronounced his own given name. Somehow, in 1962, “Dive” had found himself adrift in the Detroit advertising mix.

He was a competent freelance copywriter assigned to the company I worked for in-house, and we hit it off. Probably because we were both outsiders and (I dare say), maybe a bit brighter than most of our peers.

After a few collaborations, I learned that Dave Lawrence was ten years older than I, and more tested. In fact, a lot more-so: When I was in high school, for example, Dave had been a young pilot flying supplies to starving civilians in the Berlin Airlift over the Russian post-war blockade. Day and night, non-stop, for nearly a year, volunteer Allied airmen flew all manner of heavy aircraft into and out-of the beleaguered city.

Dave told me he was merely a flight sergeant then, and not a “lef-tenant.” He’d had only a few hours of flight training in the Royal Air Force before his first combat mission. Of course, the war was over in 1945, but the Cold War was hot on its heels. These were perilous times for all of us. Before long, the Korean War would gobble up thousands more young Americans, and I was draft-deferred, learning to march and field strip an M-1 in an ROTC unit of a small Midwest college.

By the end of The War, however, Dave was flying big, lumbering Lancaster bombers in the RAF. When the Berlin crisis came in 1948, he found himself in the cockpit of another cumbersome truck, a USAF B-24 Liberator, a fearsome product of American inventiveness, born in the prairie just west of my hometown in Michigan.

The B-24 was more than a big airplane, it was an airship. Dave told me the Liberator was a barely aerodynamic brute that required athletic strength to wrestle it about the skies. He was not boasting – he was complaining. Dave’s terse cockney opinion bore modest witness to the valor of airmen, American and British, who went aloft in the face of ferocious enemies.

This episode was brought to mind recently when I received an old publicity film issued by the Ford Motor Company for World War II theater viewing. I recalled those wartime days when the nation’s first no-stoplight “freeway” was carved through the center of Old Detroit, and extended westward for another thirty miles to the magnificent war plant at Willow Run.

This single Michigan facility enclosed 3.5 million square feet, and the production line was over a mile long. But those are just specs. For a more revealing snapshot of mid-century history as it roared over our Heartland, click here:

http://www.youtube.com/embed/iKlt6rNciTo?rel=0

The Willow Run plant and air field are still visible from the former freeway, now Inter State Highway 94, Detroit to Chicago. And back.

Aircraft still dot the skies over farm land and neighborhoods in a steady monotony of takeoffs and landings. In the shimmering heat of August, in white blizzards blowing horizontal out of steel skies, men and women in the thousands still team up to work overlapping day-night shifts. After all, there’s a war to be won.

It’s all still there. But only in boyhood memories.
Onward.

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G.W. and Me ©2014

Anachronistic reflections, in the still of the night by L.E.Taylor

Insomnia has many authors, but mine is often exacerbated by the very remedy I turn to. Lying inert with no inclination to drift off like a normal bloke, I turn for my soporific to reading. Something dry and arcane should work, like history or philosophy; or lyrical and soothing, as poetry.

A week ago, I retrieved from a shelf of fat tomes a wee little chapbook that I thought would do the trick: Rules of Civility and Behaviour in Company and Conversation. It’s a mere essay based upon a 16th century code of conduct which itself had been revised by an Englishman from an earlier screed by a French monk. Oddly, my version was written by a fifteen year old American rock star named George Washington. But, far from tumbling myself into slumber-land, that night began for me a three-night adventure back to colonial America and the earliest days of our Republic.

I’ll spare you excerpts, fascinating and comically anachronistic though they may be – simply trust that I was not lulled to sleep by these one-hundred-ten ground rules. In fact, I was shaken awake to the reality of how our society has coarsened. True, these “rules” were naïve and unattainable even in the 18th century. But today, they are more than just utopian, they are positively Martian!

Here’s the rub. In the course of every day, you and I participate in a cultural swinishness that has virtually degenerated from rudeness to sloth, to indiscriminate contempt and serial disrespect, downward to rank alienation, and now to bloody riots in the streets.

We? you ask. Yes, we. We not only observe the spectacle, we are enablers. Insidiously, we have become infected by anarchy and find ourselves daily involved in behavior undreamed-of by our morally motivated forebears. When we merely curse the barbarians, but do not take defiant action, by arms or by pen, nor in argument with fools, we join impotently in the death-dance of our civilization.

When mute tolerance of the liar and the thug becomes passive avoidance, it is naught but cowardice. (I seem to have lapsed to my inner-eighteenth century man. Egad!) To let hostile, ungodly toxins flow un-confronted in the schools, in the home, in the church, and in the streets only adds to the chaos. Jeer if you will… this demands soul-searching.

Those three nights of vicarious adventure referred to above were not spent only with Washington’s Rules of Civility. As I contrasted the gentle character of The Greatest American with squalid 21st century norms I was prompted to grab once more my well-worn copy of British historian Paul Johnson’s biography, George Washington – The Founding Father.

Dedicated to his American granddaughter, Johnson’s brilliant essay is only 123 pages long. Each time I read it, my conviction is buttressed, that our first president is our finest model of not only leadership, but also of manhood.

G.W. was educated at home in the rudiments of both classical thought and practical living. He attended no college and read no literature published after his young boyhood. But his was a pure soul of powerful scope. Like all genius, his raw talents were nothing less than bottled up energy, in this case, moral. His natural gifts, advanced largely by his own efforts, were mental, spiritual, practical, and physical.

By nineteen, young George was a master land surveyor of the trans-Appalachian wilderness, and a man with clear understanding of the potential of our continent. At six-feet-two, he was a formidable military leader, commissioned at twenty-two by his governor to confront the French diplomatically in his colony’s western lands. His expedition, punctuated by deadly force of arms, resulted in the retreat of France from the Ohio-Mississippi valley, and the sovereignty of England in what would become the United States.

Everyone knows that George Washington was his generation’s all-purpose paragon. A statesman, a general, a self-effacing patriot, and a spectacularly loving family man to his kin as well as to his soldiers, his countrymen, and even to his inherited slaves.

Harumpf.

I have no recourse, in my own humble circumstance, but to compare what I’ve accomplished, punily, in my biblically granted three-score-and-ten.

Conscience, thy name is George.

As I humbly close my copy of Paul Johnson’s book, I’m reminded of an old joke. A man is reprimanding his son for bad grades and personal sloth. Exasperated, he finally barks, “Do you know what Abraham Lincoln was doing when he was your age?”

The boy replies, deadpan, “No, father, but I know what he was doing when he was your age.”

So, gentle reader, let’s chill out. We can still dream can’t we? It ain’t over yet.

 

Onward.

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References

  1. Johnson, Paul, George Washington – The Founding Father, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2005.
  2. The Mount Vernon ladies Association, Geo. Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation, Mount Vernon, VA, 1989.
  3. Taylor, L.E., Surveyor General, LET’S Blog, 20 February, 2014.

Not My Type

Observation on myths of aging, by L.E. Taylor

JUST OPENED A WEBSITE for a company I might want to do business with. Couldn’t read it without jacking the image up to 175 %. Who designs this stuff?

Young people.

Years ago, at least a couple of decades, I was unsettled by an email from a person I’d known in high school. She was complaining about something or other and used a chilling term of despair, “we seniors”. (Italics for irony, mine.)

My immediate response, exclaimed aloud – “What’s with the ‘we’?”

I sat bolt upright and stared at the mute computer screen. “What’s your hurry?” I barked. This was no quaint denial reflex; I was perplexed. Still am.

Let me put it out there for all to know: L.E. Taylor is exactly as young as he thinks. As he moves. As he feels. As he is perceived.

Way too many among us are ready to find excuses to plead old age and quit. Whatever the irritant, whether an ailment or a grievance, a disappointment or some imagined slight to their feelings or affront to their politics, many people who have much to be thankful for are ready to toss in the cards and mope out of the room. The country is lost! The end is coming; we’re gonna die! (Well, that part is true, it came along with the birth certificate.) Why invest in the worst that might happen? Poppycock.

For nearly two years, I’ve been coaching adult writing workshops in the north Dallas area. The original idea was to help an aging generation with their memoir writing. Before launch, it dawned on me that “memoirs” implies a daunting task, even for me, even back in my forties. So I renamed the program “Family Storytelling.” Soon, the descriptor “Great” was added. And that it is: Great Family Storytelling.

If I do say so.

The target audience, of course, was the more seasoned population of, okay…“seniors.” But the objective is not to propose another docile pastime for fogies; it’s to encourage the mental effort and the practical skills needed to write down one’s personal stories in the clear style they deserve, in ways that are a pleasure to read. And to make it fun.

I quickly learned that the process is also, as I’d hoped, psychologically healing to individuals who have a lot of stories sleeping in their attics.

Trouble is, so many have surrendered to entertainment and ease that they are more focused on petty distractions than they are upon their unique legacies to family and kin.

In session number one, I promised students that I would not dumb-down the drill; as a fellow-member of the 30’s generation, I respect their years, but do not see them as sick or stupid. This, I said, will be taught as a college workshop. Nobody walked out.

Over the months, in nearly fifty sessions now, I’ve seen scores of adult students transform from stuck mode to active as they embraced the challenge. Many have arrived at the workshops already overcommitted with retirement activities and stay-at-home duties. Some were dubious about their capabilities and they said so.

Still, they come to their weekly two-hour workouts, equipped by their assigned reading in the best short literature, and ready to share with peers their own hard-sculpted prose. We read our freshly minted work aloud to generational compatriots, and critique each other’s product.

The result is dynamic, much greater than the sum of its humble parts. I’ve watched these individuals thwart their aging, and, as the wizard Merlin did, begin to… youth-en.

THESE ARE “ADULT” classes (the euphemism for grandma and gramps), but many “juniors” have asked to attend. And why not? Well, for one thing, the rookies would be at a disadvantage: Seniors have more material. But we’re all here to learn from each other, right?

Many of my friends are decades younger than my chronological years. Both males and females, they embrace life in diverse ways. College seniors near graduation, millennial graphic designers and musicians, semi-employed actor-waiters, young fast food managers, talented hair cutters and hardworking landscapers; all ethnicities.

With investment of time and attention, some of these I have grown to care about more than a little.

As I consider one or two of my dearest young pals, I sense an electric connection, invisible and subtle. One fellow is a single father of two young girls. One, a poet and song-smith, is lead musician in a rock band that plays in Deep Ellum. A serene young woman is a navy veteran and mathematician, soon to march out again with a new degree to face an uncaring corporate world. They like me. One calls me “LT.” The poet calls me, “man.” She… doesn’t call me, actually.

I’m reminded of my mom Grace, working at a college town department store; she was embraced by a sisterhood of raucous young women. They fed off her energy, her wisdom, and her irreverent humor. She wasn’t an old bag in denial, she was just herself – still young and looking it. She got as much from them as they from her.

I glance at my e-mails. The type fonts are often too tiny to read. Can it be that there are humans who can read 8 point type? Was there a day that I could? (See Ref. #4).

At the liquor store checkout counter today, I adjust my Walmart reading glasses, sign my receipt and ask the girl, “Okay, let’s see some ID.” Huh? “I don’t believe you’re old enough to sell me wine.” She giggles. I tell her I’m just kidding. She replies that she is going on thirty-one, but she’s fibbing; I can see pimples under her makeup. I lift the paper sack and pause. We peer directly at each other. “Take a guess,” I say.

The counter girl squints, chews a lip, blushes, and ventures, “Fifty.”

“Good guess,” I say. And leave.

Onward.

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References

  1. L.E. Taylor, “The Youthening Mind”; LET’sBlog Archives (March 18, 2014).
  2. Great Family Storytelling; promotional brochure; 2014.
  3. L.E. Taylor, Elgan and Grace – A Twentieth Century Saga; FreesenPress; Victoria B.C., Canada; 2012.
  4. Photo, 1966.

Strong Daughter ©2014

A true tale of revelation, rescue, and literature, by L.E. Taylor

Kay Melanie is a twenty-first century frontier woman. All one hundred-ten pounds of her. She says so.

Alone at the big pasture gate, Kay Melanie has just completed a day of cutting and baling hay on her forty acre homestead. She whips off her battered sombrero, and dries her brow with a faded bandana. An ornery thick mop of strawberry blond hair blows around in the hot East Texas wind as the boss lady calls her lumbering herd of four-legged critters to supper.

In another two hours the final course – home cooked by the boss herself – will be served to fifty-two rescued dogs, each with a new name, in the comfort of their own home on the range.

After that, Kay Melanie will retreat to her personal bunkhouse, kick off her clod-hoppers, and uncork a bottle of Merlot as she tosses together a vegan meal of green things.

Kathy Ferguson is not a native Texan, but as the saying goes, she got here as soon as she could. And an arduous trail it was.

One day about forty years ago, Kathy and her mother drove through a downpour on Packard Road in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The child cried out, “Mommy! Stop!” They’d passed a small dog, struggling at the roadside. It had just been struck by a car. The two ran back up the apron through a swirling spray, wrapped the animal in a beach towel, then hurried to their car and on to a nearby vet. The mutt would survive.

This was not a seminal moment. In fact it was only one in a series of episodes that led young Kay Melanie to her calling: A rescuer of God’s helpless creatures.

It would stand to reason that her eventual course of study might become veterinary medicine. But a diversion struck, as it did so many young women in those years. Anorexia nervosa. She dropped out of college.

Many months later, at sixty-eight pounds, and near death in a major medical center, Kathy opted out of treatment. On that grim February night, as her stunned father waited alone by the elevator, an irate psychiatrist confronted him with a stark prophesy, “Your daughter is going home to die.” He believed her.

But three nights later, in the small hours of the morning, Kay Melanie gets out of bed and feebly makes her way through her mother’s cold, darkened house, and into the kitchen. She places a boney hand on the refrigerator handle and is dazzled by the brilliance as she opens the door. And God whispers: “Choose life.”

Kathy obeys.

She works three part-time jobs, engineers a loan, earns a grant, and enrolls in the Residential College at The University of Michigan. Introspective by nature, now intellectually hungry, her choice of major is not medicine, but… literature. It is a fateful decision of the heart that will make her over-qualified for every job, role, task, business enterprise, partnership, or farm chore she will ever have. Over-qualified and under-paid.

Two years later, Kay Melanie has her degree, her health, her freedom, and a future as bright as that refrigerator light in the small hours of a magical February night. Beautiful and fit and now transplanted in Dallas, Texas, she turns a page.

Soon another page is turned. And, as if by some contrarian Plan, a succession of others. God’s logic is not our logic.

Ten years, and one failed marriage later, Kay Melanie is a capable, dedicated country woman who can fix anything, plant and mow a field, husband and diagnose animals ranging from barn cats to Chihuahuas, from pit bulls to sheepdogs, from cow ponies to longhorns. She can shoot a side arm, a rifle, and a shotgun; but she wouldn’t shoot anything with four legs. So if you have fewer, and trespass, be warned.

In 2012, she was chatting with her father on the phone and the subject of his long suffering literary project came up. He groused that he was at the end of a third draft of his “big book,” but was frustrated finding an editor. Without a pause, she said, “Let me do it!”

He replied, “Well, since the book is about your own ancestors, you might have trouble being objective.”

Kay Melanie said, “I can do it.” And she did. She turned out to be the best editor her scrupulous father could have dreamt of.

He, of course, is the fellow writing what you are reading.

I’ve read about some famous editors, and I know how dicey the interaction can be. But the Boss Lady was considerate, wise, non-invasive, and respectful of the boundaries between author and editor. She also made Elgan and Grace much better than it would have been.

So, what prompted me to share with the world at large this true tale of a Yankee hard scrabble “farm wife”– and why at this moment?

A couple of days ago, I’d found myself home-bound and badly out of commission for weeks with a post-op infection. Fatigue and dizziness dragged on. Mental fog made me feel old, right on the cusp of reclaiming some youthful zip in the excitement of a re-lit lit-life. Averse to forced inactivity, I was frustrated and bored. And depressed.

I rustled through a mess of journal notes and idea files. I organized my sock drawer and folded piles of clean laundry. My gaze fell upon a dusty stack of books on the floor. Tossing aside one after another, I discovered a slim volume bristling with old Post-Its. The remarkable book is Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, by pediatrician and mother of four, Meg Meeker, M.D.

It reminded me of the brave and unusual person you’ve just been reading about. The book had been a gift from Kathy to her Dad. It was time that you knew about her.

If you have children or grandchildren; girls or boys – very young or insufferably into their self-destructive know-it-all teens – get this book and read it. I sat down with it once more, these years later, made notes, added new markers, and found myself blessed. Again.

Onward.

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References

  1. Meeker, Meg M.D., Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters – 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know, Ballantine Books, New York, 2006.
  2. Taylor. L.E., Elgan and Grace – A Twentieth Century Saga, Friesen Press, Vancouver B.C, Canada, 2012.
  3. LET’sBlog, http://blog.letaylortheauthor.com, The Youthening Brain, April 2014 (archives).

RIP Bud, 1925 – 2014 ©2014 L.E. Taylor

Final page of an American history lesson by L.E. Taylor

Bud Masinick passed away in his sleep last week. Bud is the hero of his own tale of Middle-American valor, Bud and Schoolie. There is more to his story.

In 1944, two B-25 bombers were shot down off the coast of Formosa. The USS Ice Fish was sent to hunt for survivors. After twenty-six hours, the submarine surfaced about thirty yards from two life rafts lashed together, six aviators, thirsty and wounded hanging on. A rope was tied to the sub. As the boat’s “diver”, Bud was to swim out, tether the rubber dinghies to the sub, and guide them in as his shipmates pulled. As Bud grabbed the rope and tied it around his waist, the exec said, “Bud, you know, if you get out there and aircraft show up, we’ll have to dive.” Bud said, “Then we better hurry up,” and dove into the drink.

No planes appeared and the fliers were pulled aboard the Ice Fish. Bud reports that one man died of his wounds. Next day, the boat surfaced for a burial service at sea. It was Bud’s first and he took it personally. Hands covering his face, he wept. Bud grabbed his rosary and made his way to his bunk, jumped in, and covered his head. In the morning, he refused to get up. A flier came by to console the 19-year-old. Shipmates urged him to move around, get some chow.

“No. Go away.”

Into Bud’s second day in bed face to the bulkhead, an NCO put a beefy paw on the lad’s shoulder. “Bud, you gotta eat. C’mon. Let’s go.”

“No. Go away. I’m okay.”

The chief returned about twenty minutes later. “Bud. Cookie has made a big bowl of strawberry shortcake.”

The covers flew off, Bud hit the deck, rubbed his face. “Okay. Let’s go.”

One day not long ago, Bud and I sat on a bench beside a lake. Two formerly young men filling in some of the blanks for each other. I learned about the post war years, Bud’s mustering, his cross-country sentimental journey by train with an unexpected stopover in Chicago. The unglamorous life of a D-League farm hand. And finally his return to reality.

Of all the stories he confided, one came sharply to life. In his own words, the best I can remember them:

“I have no regrets about not following a career somewhere in baseball. If I had, I would have spent years in mediocre surroundings making a mediocre living. I wouldn’t have married Barbara, I wouldn’t have four educated and productive sons and daughters. No comparison. No regrets.”

He went on about how much he loved Barbara and how blessed he was.

Barbara is the twin sister of Sandra, the mother of my children – and incidentally the person who called me one day this summer, suggesting that I write a story about Bud Masinick.

So now the last page has been written. Bud has arrived at his final destination. We can’t know how it all works, but in earthly terms, he’s already been reunited with Barbara, his submariner buddies, maybe even Mickey Cochrane, Johnny Mize, Hank Greenberg…

And of course, Schoolboy Rowe.

“Hey Bud! Wanna play some pepper?

“Schoolie! I can’t. Didn’t bring my mitt.”

“Bud, y’all have no i-dear: We have the most wonderful ball gear you ever dreamed of.”

Onward.

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Lou Gehrig Was Right

Reflection on being ‘the luckiest man on earth,’  by L. E. Taylor

Recently, there’s been a lot of publicity on the “ice bucket” craze. It’s a stunt that’s supposed to raise awareness of ALS, the incurable neural disorder that took down the New York Yankee great, Lou Gehrig, in 1941.

The fad has people of all stations in life (most notably celebrities) dump buckets of melted ice (i.e., water) over the heads of themselves and others in the fashion of ebullient football players dousing a coach in the last seconds of a victory.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is a social media phenomenon. It’s supposed to “raise awareness” of ALS just as affixing colored ribbons to one’s bosom is supposed to help cure cancers or show support for minority victims of, uh, everything. The challenge has purportedly raised millions in pledges for ALS research.

One thing is certain. It certainly makes the ribbon-wearers and the well-selfied elites feel good about themselves.

This ALS stunt is the latest symptom of preening exhibitionism, un-dreamed of in 1941. Lou Gehrig had a different take. Standing before a microphone at home plate on July 4th, 1939, he had this to say about his own plight:

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today? Sure, I’m lucky…

Lou acknowledged, by name and role, individuals whose guidance, professionalism and loving-kindness he’d been privileged to know, from baseball men to hard working parents. Then he concluded,

When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed—that’s the finest [gift] I know.

So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

So spoke the self-proclaimed “luckiest man on the face of the earth.” But this essay, written for you, is not about Lou Gehrig, or ALS, or modern narcissism. It’s about gratitude.

You may blow this off as just a sermon. Not so fast, Agnes.

In the small hours today before sunup, I received an unexpected email from an old friend. It carried a link to an “inspiring” video. I’m suspicious of maudlin sentimentality, but I clicked on it. It was a human interest news clip. About a girl abandoned as a baby, now a bright, accomplished young woman. The secrets of the story came, one, two, three. Each provoked in me an audible gasp.

In a few minutes, all the pain of my recent surgery disappeared. My mind sharpened and my post-op depression dissolved. My thoughts drifted to Lou Gehrig standing there seventy-five years ago, humble and grateful in the hopelessness of a death sentence.

I sat in wonder, first at the horror, then at this evidence of human fortitude and the genuine “luck” of our under-appreciated gift from our Creator. It’s just a news show filler. Human interest about a girl.

Uplifting, no tears. Well…

I had to send it to you.

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0ByFUzo9KwryWWkRwUEw4bmZNaVk/edit?pli=1

Once More, With Feeling

Thoughts on the art of reading, by L.E. Taylor ©2014

A reader of these essays, call her Carli, commented to me recently that she found herself uneasy as she read because it seemed she was reading pages of my diary. I take it as a compliment. I often write impulsively and when there’s really a flow, I guess it may drift into imprudence. Usually, this gets fixed in the second filter of editing but if I’m feeling bold I usually opt for letting it be – and just risk the consequences.

This came to mind today as I closed an anthology of short stories and began thinking into what I’d just read.

Over the months since I began mentoring adult students in storytelling workshops, I’ve found myself reading more short fiction by the great writers. Although reading for vicarious escape has been a passion since high school, I’m now reading with an eye to the subtleties, just as I teach my students to read: slowly and with expression. Good writers, classic or contemporary, don’t just bash this stuff out, you know. They worry it into shape… often, syllable by syllable.

A good writer’s words deserve to be savored. And you, as a reader, deserve to get the most from the time you invest reading what they leave for you.

So, a teachable moment just happened an hour ago as I closed that Bantam Classic of 50 Great Short Stories – reissued 2005. The writer in question is the 19th century master, Guy de Maupassant. (Now just sit still and stay with me for a minute; have I ever bored you?) The story is Looking Back. The reader was me. An elderly countess and the old village priest have finished their weekly dinner at the woman’s chateau. Her grandchildren, who live with her, have been trundled off to bed; the two aged companions sit before the glowing hearth, and the old woman brings their quiet conversation around to a question: “And now, M. le Curé, it’s time for you to make your confession to me.”

The story is a mere six pages and took me no time to read. I found its gentleness of voice and sparseness of detail compelling. Its denouement (coming together – look it up!) and conclusion were moving and satisfying. Then I realized I’d done just what I tell my students to avoid: I’d raced through it. Okay, self, I said, now that you know where it’s going, read it again – this time with care; slow down, it’s only a few pages.

Having devoured the story in a gulp, now I was able to linger over the old priest’s monologue which constituted most of the writer’s tale. Only a half-page into re-reading, I discovered a single “throw-away” sentence, almost an incidental author’s mumble that revealed a subtext that I’d missed in my hurry to see where the old man’s soliloquy was going.

It helped me discover in the priest’s “confession” that Maupassant was describing… me.

I went online to research the life of Guy de Maupassant. In no time, I learned that he had put into the words of the ancient curé a clinical description of his own journey. The saintly old fellow was laying bare his life, mind you, as seen from a moment in his eighth decade. But the author had written this story while in his own thirties!

One of the joys of my workshop teaching is the richness of the tales my students set down in writing. Some are painful, some lovely, many are inspirational, others can be very funny. Once in a while, a story of no more than a typewritten page can be all of these and more.

My students are all people with far more pages in their own Books of Life than there are yellowed pages left yet to skim. But for them, happily, there is much left to write – of summer days and winter nights gone by.

Which takes us back to my reader, Carli, who felt queasy reading what she perceived to be my private papers. Well, she was right. I was giving her a peek into what I care about – my values, my passions, and a small, pale sample of my visceral secrets.

Just today, I read an article by Greg Gutfeld who laments the loss of “mystery” in people’s rush to make themselves famous on Facebook, if only by doing a selfie snapshot with their seafood salad. Granted, there may be a hint of narcissism in one’s urge to write. But throughout history, for many seasoned veterans of life’s battle, the impulse has been to carve a message on a tree for anyone who may care enough to read it. In its loftiest presumption, the inscription might represent a sort of legacy. Done well, whatever the intent, the act of writing can enrich both the writer, as words hit the page, and countless unknown readers yet to be born.

So slow down. Read with care and with some feeling for the author’s voice.

As always, good reader, this one’s for you.

 

Onward.

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