Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Copenhagen through my Rearview Tablet


One of the many web sites I visit each morning with my coffee and Ipad is called Cycle Chic. The site originates from Copenhagen and focuses on the city’s rich urban lifestyle and its on-going love affair with the bicycle. The site provides me with a wonderful return to my first home after leaving college.

Another web site is called Monocle. It recently featured a video clip about my fair old habitat being the most livable city in the world. Several more articles on other sites have recognized the enormous strides Copenhagen has taken to make itself more livable and desirable for its inhabitants.

It’s not quite the same place as when I lived there back in the ‘60s. Back then downtown literally closed up at noon on Saturday and morphed into a ghost town until Monday morning. With the exception of Tivoli Garden, there wasn’t much happening in or around the city on the weekends.


 It’s fun to visit those web sites now and see the enormous physical and social changes the city has gone through over the last forty plus years. Yet even back then, despite its sometimes austere Nordic climate, Copenhagen still had a spirit about it and a freedom that appealed to a rambling boy from the Midwest.

I tried to cover some of my experiences living there in one of my first blogs entitled Snow White and the Seven Seekers. Denmark proved to be my first venture outside of the country where I was living on my own and experiencing another way of life. It was eye-opening, exciting, scary and mind-boggling all at the same time. Unfortunately, I did most of it all alone.

 
I found some refuge in the branch library just down the block from my basement apartment. Their English-language section was limited but did provide me nevertheless with a wealth of books and magazines to read and ponder. If it was in English, I read it. Some a couple of times over.






Maria, my pal at the commercial laundry, provided me with Spanish lessons every day and a ‘heads-up’ when our cranky office manager was prowling the floor.


 
My friend from Canada, whose name I have long since forgotten, was my one time traveling companion when we took off for a wild West Berlin weekend and ended up in East Berlin by mistake.





 
Our weekend trip to Germany was supposed to be a simple train ride to the coast, a ferry across the North Sea and our ending up in West Berlin. Somewhere along the tracks, we got sidelined and wound up in East Berlin by mistake. I still have no idea how we ended up in the wrong city.

And we didn’t even know it at first.

The first thing we noticed as we exited the train station was how drab all the buildings looked. Kind of surprising for a city that was supposed to be making great strides in new development after World War Two.




Of course, that didn’t stop me from taking a lot of pictures of the buildings, the people, the wide empty boulevards and even the infamous ‘Berlin Wall.’ Little did I know I was taking them all from the wrong side of the wall.

                                   

It wasn’t until my buddy asked someone about a certain address and showed her our map that she announced quite excitedly “Oust….Oust.”
“So what did she say?” I asked with a shrug of my shoulders.
My friend gave me a look of surprise and fear then answered. “I think we’re in East Berlin.” Ever the world traveler, I responded. “Well, that can’t be, we don’t have stamped passports to be
here.”
And my friend came back quickly, “Right, genius, and you’ve been taking pictures of army vehicles all morning.”

Perhaps out of pity or not wanting to be associated with two dumb Yanks in the wrong country at the wrong time, this wonderful savior in an old faded woolen coat and scarf actually led us to a train station, got us on the right train and then escorted us to the border crossing. She spoke to the border guard who came checking passports and somehow got us through the barbwire without our getting jailed in the process. I will be forever grateful to that woman and her kindness.





The rest of the weekend in West Berlin included visiting Checkpoint Charlie, a few art museums and a lot of bar-hopping. Americans were still hero’s back then because of the Berlin airlift and the liberation of Berlin at the end of the war. Vietnam didn’t carry the stigma there that it did back in the states.

 
I’ve talked about visiting those two Danish girls on the west coast of the country in Snow White and the Seven Seekers. In retrospect I wish we had spent more time there. It was one of the first times I got to interact with young folks my own age from another country. They provided me such a wonderful perspective on life and love and living to the fullest. I expect my love of foreign films comes directly from those encounters in my younger years.

Out of that first experience of living in Europe, the person I miss the most is Tina. The others are mostly a soft blur now. They were simply living their lives and just moving along with the ebb and flow of each day. Tina and I were pushing against the current.

I don’t remember a whole lot about Tina’s background. She originally came from Arizona. She was very concerned about her younger sister who still lived at home with their alcoholic mother. Issues abound in that family. There was no father and very little family support. Dysfunctional would be a kind description of her home life.



I think Tina escaped to Europe to get away from her hopeless mother, the drug scene and to find herself. She was a nanny for some wealthy family and lived in a room on the top floor of their flat. There was no phone in the house. If I wanted to see Tina, I would take the bus to her place in a town several miles away. Then if her bedroom light was on, I would pitch small rocks against her window pane and hope she heard the noise. I could only do that if the parents were gone and the kids were asleep.

Tina would let me in and we’d sit in her room for hours. We’d drink wine or beer or both and talk about what we were going to do with the rest of our lives. She was as lonesome and confused as I was. We were two lost souls searching for answers but only coming up with more questions …that couldn’t be answered. Yet even back then we both found great comfort in finding another like-minded person to talk to.



After the first snow fall, I headed for the south of France and Tina left for Istanbul. She and her girlfriend eventually got there after hitch-hiking most of the way. Then things got a little more complicated for her. They spent a month on the roof of the Gulhome Hotel, sleeping in a tent with other world travelers and staying stoned most of the time. It was the height of the drug and hashish scene there.

From there they traveled to Turkey, avoided several groups of white slavers and met up with an Englishman who was preparing to bring a kilo of heroin back to England. They spent a month in some guys home but he fell in love with Tina’s girlfriend and made life difficult for the both of them. After a month of amorous moves on his part, they split in the middle of the night and began hitch-hiking toward Syria. They hooked up with a German guy and two Swiss kids in a VW bus. The group ended up heading toward Pakistan. Then Tina’s girlfriend got pregnant and Tina ended up in Israel with the two Swiss boys. She fell in love with a Jewish boy there, lived with him for the winter and then reluctantly returned to Arizona the next spring.

We exchanged several letters after Tina moved back home. Her mother had become even more abusive and Tina had her committed several times. She tried to steer her younger sister out of the drug scene. She got a good paying job as a topless waitress while still going to school. Her last letter was hopeful. Tina had a year to go until she graduated. She was staying clean. After graduation, she wanted to go to New York and attend film school.

After that last letter, Tina disappeared from my radar screen. By then, I was in a different world
from those late night rendezvous in her room. I was going in one direction, she in another. I’ve often wondered what ever happened to Tina. Hopefully things worked out for the best. Tina deserved a break out of life.
Its funny how much things can change physically but not in one’s mind. Now safely ensconced in Apple Valley or Palm Springs, I get to go back home each morning if only for a few minutes and revisit that city by the sea and my memories there. I get to recall the faces and smiles and fear and excitement I felt wandering those streets and wondering how my life was going to turn out.

Now I know.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Chemistry Course called Love



 I have a friend who has written a book entitled “I’m in Love. Am I Crazy?”

The short answer to that question is yes, you are crazy-of sorts. Your mind, if not spinning out of control, is at the very least in another state of consciousness. Love is a subject that has been talked about, analyzed, reduced to statistics and become fodder for a billion songs and movies and plays and books. It’s the fuel that keeps civilization happily buzzing along century after century. It’s a universal phenomenon that continues to afflict people around the planet on a daily basis.

A quick Google search reveals a plethora of information on the chemical warfare that goes on inside your head when you ‘fall in love.’ Most of us know that estrogen and testosterone can be the fuel that ignites our sex drive. What I didn’t know, but apparently the scientists did, is that there are other chemicals that play a crucial role in our reaction to someone else we find attractive. 

A chemical called Dopamine is thought to be the ‘pleasure chemical.’ So when you’re giddy or goofy about someone new in your life and your heart is racing and your palms are sweaty, you’ve just had an infusion of Dopamine. Another chemical called Norepinephrine backs up Dopamine with a feeling similar to that of an adrenaline rush. Phenyl ethylamine is a third chemical that backs up the other two to produce this cocktail of love.

This might explain how an argument between loved ones can not only raise tempers but also churn up stomach acid, weak knees, headaches and confusion.  What is it about love that can cause such a strong physical reaction between two people who fundamentally still like one another? 

On another level, what is it about love that can cause someone to make what seems like very irrational choices? Then taken to the extreme, how can someone give up family or career or life just for the love of another person?

Those are pretty powerful signs of the enormity of that strange and mysterious affliction called love.
  


 
I love my grandchildren differently than I do my own wife and kids. Yet it is still a powerful emotion wrought with highs and lows, good times and frustrating times and everything in between. It’s a bond with five little people who are just starting out and may need a little assistance along the way. It’s an opportunity to share with them the wisdom I’ve gleamed, taken, borrowed and mimicked throughout my own life. Seventy years on this planet has given me some insight into how things work around here.

What I now find fascinating are those silly pop songs of the 50s that used to put me into such a wonderful trance with their rhythmic melodies and catchy lyrics. Those songs, if listened to carefully, actually had some poignant things to say about love. Of course, back then I was caught up in the mood and simply thought it was a great song because it had such an emotional impact on my na├»ve confused mind. I heard the lyrics back then but didn’t truly understand what they were saying – not really. 

It turns out those tunesmiths in the Brill Building down in Tin Pan Alley knew what they were talking about. Remember some of those titles: Love Potion # 9, Devil or Angel, Love is Strange, Two Faces Have I, It’s in his Kiss, Tossin and Turning, Tragedy, Going out of my Head, Don’t be Cruel, Book of Love, Tears on my Pillow, I Wonder Why and so many more.

One song that does a great job of summing up the ethos of teenage love is “Young Love” by Sonny James. The beauty of those songs is that they were able to capture the innocence of that era before sex and drugs and rock & roll painted a much different portrait of the times. Now as a struggling wordsmith, I can really appreciate the strength of those lyrics and the truth behind the words and the mental images they painted through those picture-songs.

 

Fortunately, I’ve been able to infuse my own kids with a love of the poetry of Bob Dylan, the lyricism of the Beatles and the energy of Led Zeppelin. Each artist/s approached the subject of love from a dozen different perspectives yet each one is as powerful as the next.

With the advent of my new career as a writer, I’ve been exploring my past to glean a more mature perspective into material I might use for future stories. It’s been an interesting journey back in time replete with fresh insight into past actions, loves, mistakes and ‘what if’s.’

After reflecting on my own upbringing, I can now understand my confusion at those feelings first experienced in high school then on to college and finally that wondrous expanse of time and place euphemistically called ‘growing up.’


It was surreal to experience the thrill, angst and pain of a college romance again in “Love in the A Shau.” It was an opportunity to be able to say things through my protagonist Daniel that I wasn’t mature enough or wise enough to say back then to my girlfriend. 

As it turns out, all of my novels have two story lines. The first is the main story line that encompasses the heart of the novel. The second line is a love story between the two main characters. In the case of “Debris” it is multifunctional and multifaceted, each covering a number of interrelated relationships.


Creating two story lines wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, at least not a first. I just started writing the story as I saw it unfolding in my head. But as I set up the scenes and wrote the dialogue between characters, feelings started to grow between my hero and heroine. It wasn’t foreshadowed nor even expected. They started to talk, I wrote down what they said and their relationship started to grow.


After it happened in my third novel, I finally recognized a familiar pattern and accepted the fact that I find this intrinsic, vapid, mysterious thing called love a key ingredient in my stories. It was simply too powerful to ignore and too much fun to end halfway through the novel. The love element added flavor, depth, confusion and a million possibilities of where my characters might go next. It added layers of emotions to the story that was really fun to explore. It’s love on many levels and between different genders.

What has fascinated me from the very beginning is the different kind of love and affection and attraction that my characters have for one another. More often than not, they determine where to take their feelings and where to take their relationships. I just write down what they say and do.

The relationship between Daniel and Colleen (Love in the A Shau) is very different from that of Brian and Katherine (Follow the Cobbler). Robert and Miranda are yet at a different place (Debris) than Jeb and Charlotte (Apache Death Wind). Ree and Clare (Apache Blue Eyes) have the most subtle of attractions but I think my readers will still feel it as I did when I wrote their story.

                                           Click here to visit MelodyFleming.com

My friend claims that love is a chemical imbalance that renders most rational folks incapable of any rational decisions. While I don’t quite feel that as my characters begin their dance of attention as part of their mating ritual, I can still vicariously feel those first pangs of confusion and excitement as my fictional characters circle one another and I, as an interested third party, get to experience the same chill and sweat that goes with falling for someone else…all over again.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hell came in Khaki and Sweat







Back in my day, there was a saying among the enlisted ranks. The Presidio of San Francisco was the country club of the Army and Fort Polk, Louisiana, was its orifice.

I experienced both of them. San Francisco during the summer and winter of 1964-65. Then Fort Polk during the summer of 1965. If there is a God, he was absence that summer or had a weird sense of humor.

Back then, the concept of air conditioning for army facilities was sketchy at best. The officer’s barracks and their dining quarters were air-conditioned. Some of the general offices were air-conditioned. But for the most part, any structure I lived in, worked in, drank in or studied in was window-ventilated and little else.

None of the barracks were air-conditioned. Bugs occupied the latrine at night, partying and carrying-on until they zapped themselves on the bare light bulbs. Heat enveloped the second floor during the day making it almost impossible to stay up there at night. Our barracks were surrounded on all four sides by Southern Pine forests and shifting sands. We called it hell on God’s green earth…and we meant it. It was an environment that nurtured and encouraged self-bravado. There were a lot of very lonesome guys on that base coping the best they could.

I took three showers a day and that wasn’t nearly enough. There were no stalls in the latrine so modesty went out the window. Everyone became very nonchalant about tending to their own personal needs.



There was only one town outside of the base but it was crawling with hungry horny recruits who were attending AIT (advanced infantry training). Almost all of them were destined for duty in Vietnam. We avoided them and the town like the plague. The locals hated us and we hated them. One glance at a local girl would bring her redneck boyfriend flying out of his pickup truck with clenched fists. The town was like a bus depot of lost souls. None of us spent any time there.

The closest semblance of civilization was either Lake Charles, Louisiana or Beaumont, Texas.
I spent many a weekend camping out in some hotel room in Beaumont just for the air-conditioning and television all afternoon and all night. I would wander the car lots just to stare at and fantasize about the car I was going to buy after the service. Bar-hopping wasn’t advised with my short cropped hair. Even in cowboy Texas, the locals weren’t too crazy about the military during the Vietnam era.

But like all my other bivouacs during those two years in the service, there were always colorful characters to either bright up and dampen my days.

The first lieutenant who was in charge of our Communications Office was a poodle officer. He was constantly playing politics so he could game the military system to his advantage. The dork had graduated from VMI but really didn’t want to be in the military in the first place. Fortunately he was newly married and spent as little time on base as his wife would allow. We kept hoping they would ship his sorry ass to Vietnam but it never happened. After his enlistment was up, he probably became a banker or a southern politician.

For a brief, painful period we had to endure the haughty attitude of some blue-blood from upstate New York. Apparently his parents weren’t able to keep him out of the military so he went into the Army reserves under the false assumption that he wouldn’t have to spend any time with the likes of us after basic training. He was only on base for a couple of months but his demeaning attitude toward blacks, the poor and under-educated (meaning anyone with less than an Ivy League education) made him a target for several clandestine operations against his bunk, desk and mini-MG. He didn’t really care. He hired low-life’s to do his KP and get his car repaired. Fortunately he was gone before fragging or any other radical action became part of our lexicon.


There was this portly office manager who was overly friendly to all the new recruits in the office. My gaydar wasn’t tuned in back in those days but I still managed to avoid any compromising situations around him. He once invited me to his place for the weekend but fortunately I naively declined.

I used to admire, from a distance, this black guy who used his color to get himself ahead with the black sergeants. He was always working on one scheme or another. It usually involved money or women; two prized commodities on or nearby the base.  I'm guessing he became a used car salesman after the service or something akin to that. But I’m sure he was successful at whatever he tried.

At the other end of the spectrum was a young sergeant who was hardcore RA (regular army – a lifer). He had a great career all mapped out ahead of him. He was a natural for the military. He had a wonderful rapport with his platoon and got along well with all the officers.

We knew he had met this divorcee with two kids. She worked at a bar off base and he was spending a lot of time there and at her trailer. We warned him to be careful but he just laughed at our concerns. Then one weekend, he went AWOL to spend the weekend with her. They threw his ass in the brig for a month and busted him down to private. He still had four years left on his enlistment. I couldn’t get over what he had sacrificed for that divorcee who was probably humping some new guy while he was still serving his time. Strange things happen to good people in the Army.

I had two main ways to spend my weekends at Fort Polk. I would either hop a Trailways bus to Beaumont, Texas (see above) or camp out in the Captain’s office with my good buddy from Vietnam.

My buddy (whose name I have long since forgotten) was recovering from shrapnel wounds he received in Vietnam. He had just a little time left before his discharge. And after facing death in Vietnam, he didn’t much give a rat’s derriere about taking chances in the military. We were both determined to make every moment count while we were stuck in the devil’s playground. Unlike a lot of our bunk mates, he also wanted to go back to college after the service. I don’t know whose idea it was at the beginning but we both agreed we had found a splendid way to spend those sultry weekends in Louisiana.

 Our routine went like this.

After Saturday lunch, we’d head off to the commissary to buy several six-packs of beer and snacks and perhaps something of a little more substantial nature. Then we would head back to the office.

Now the only room in our office building that was air-conditioned was the Captain’s office. If we closed the door to his office and turned the AC on low, anyone entering the front lobby would never know we were hiding back there. Since the Captains office was in back of the building, anyone walking or driving by would never know there were two inebriated celebrating GIs inside.

We would pile up the cushions off his sofa on the floor and somehow managed to waste the entire afternoon, evening and part of the next day by watching television, reading or just talking smack and filling the room with our dreams of going home and seeing our girlfriends. We were just a couple of randy soldiers full of wild dreams and impure thoughts.


I have no idea why two knuckleheads like ourselves were so brazen and foolish. But it seemed like a fun thing to do at the time. We never got caught and I expect the Captain was never the wiser. Fortunately I was transferred before our scatter-brains thought up any other ingenious pranks to pull. My friend went home to who-knows-where and I headed up to Fort Lee, Virginia. And nothing vanishes faster than a man who has done his time at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Reflecting back on that time in my life, it’s funny how such adverse, unpleasant, sad, depressing and uncomfortable situations can bring back such silly and yet fond memories. It was just a couple of footsteps and a blink away in my life but I’ll always remember those weekends in sultry Beaumont and the coolness of the Captain’s office.

Strange as it may seem, isn’t that what memories are made of.