Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Breaking the Enigma Code

Memories are a curious kind of phenomena.

I can’t remember a lot about growing up in our single parent household with just my sister and mother. Not because it was sad or traumatic which it wasn’t. And I don’t think there were any incidents that might have repressed certain memories. Recollections of that period in my life are simply few and far between.

On the other hand, my sister has vivid memories of that period growing up. Sometimes she can recall in great detail little incidents and events that seem totally foreign to meIt’s as if I was never there in the first place.  

The same thing happened with some old college friends that I’d recently gotten reacquainted with. Most of them had vivid memories of events that occurred back in school. Some events I can remember while others seem like an empty dream. Really, was I even there?

Granted that was a very crazy period in my life. I’ve already blogged about that decade in My Lost Years. I’ve tried to document my life in the military, living in Europe, sequestered in the Amazon, traipsing around the country, falling in and out of love and other sordid adventures before they all escape my memory bank. Trying to recall those glimpses into my past often brings up just vapid images and faint recollections. If it wasn’t for old photographs those mental images might be a total blur.

It’s funny how memories of past relationships and/or friendships can sometimes paint rainbow images in your mind. Yet when confronted with reality your memories don’t always match those of the other party. It’s an interesting paradox. What really happened back then and from whose perspective?

And it isn’t just a question of he said…she said.’ In reality, it’s a present day memory-story of what the other party really meant verses what was or wasn’t stated in the first place. Turns out, you just thought you knew what was stated or implied between the lines.
The paradox that’s seldom addressed is what kind of baggage were you both carrying at the time? Have you ever had the experience of thinking you know someone else pretty well and then they turn out to be quite different from many of your expectations? Or reflecting on a past relationship, you could never figure out when the hell it went south and why.

Cretin High School Reunion
 I’ve already waxed philosophically about those folks who have entered my life for brief periods of time and then exited as quietly and subtly as they entered. There has been a plethora of acquaintances from school, the military, past jobs, social organizations, neighbors or other passing friendships. They came and went in a rhythmic pattern but always leaving behind fleeting impressions, temporary feelings and sometimes great memories; real or imagined.

I was at a retirement party recently. These were folks I’ve known (some well, some not so much) for a long time. Most had retired by now while a few were still hanging on. But we were all at that critical juncture in our group lives. Yet most were unaware that what used to be was about to change. Upon her retirement, my wife told our friends that we were ‘moving on.’ Turns out that retirement party was the beginning of the end to the old gang. Some got it. Many others didn’t.

There was once an enigma in one of my past lives. She was a swirling tornado of vivaciousness that swept me off my feet and rendered all logical judgment null and void. It was for me a period of elation and excitement, confusion and disappointment, deep feelings and unmet expectations(at least on my part). Then ultimately that infamous five minute phone call that ended it all. I could never figure out what happened…until now.

My wife would say that it’s a gender thing. She believes that women are much more likely to know and understand what another person is thinking. She claims that most women have an intuitiveness that can detect if another person likes them or not. They can read body language and subtle hints in conversations that paint a pretty clear picture of true intentions and interest.Men aren’t so well equipped. She would be less kind and simply say ‘we’re clueless.’

Upon reflection, I figure most of my fleeting friendships could be explained away simply be-cause of my focus on self, thoughtlessness or just plain immaturity. That would explain high school and a few of the years after that. But after the service it was a little different. Not that I was any more mature. I just think I had a little better handle on other people. The service did that to me. 

The friends I made in the service (if ever so briefly) were an entirely different breed. We were both caught up in a time and place not of our making. We were trying to make the best of that situation. I’d venture to guess that if I met them today we would have absolutely nothing in common other than that fleeting window of shared experiences back then. It would probably be a very quick ‘yeah, remember’ with a smile and then as quickly ‘now you-all have a good life.’

On the other side of that relationship spectrum would be the high school and college friends I’ve become reacquainted with after an absence of many years. Not surprisingly, we usually spend the first twenty minutes doing an edited version of ‘So what have you done for the last fifty years?’ interjected with a few comments from (fill in the place here such as high school or college). Then the real fun begins with a genuine focus on the present and future.

Thankfully, none of these reunions have been a rehash of our ‘Glory Days’ but rather a reconnection of the bonds that brought us together in the first place…a long time ago. I’d like to reconnect with a lot more old friends like that. 

Oh, and that enigma from one of my past lives. She became an East Coast ex-pat. Now after fifty years I think I’ve finally broken that enigma code. That realization (or assumption at this point) brings clarity to our past lives and a better understanding of what really was and wasn’t happening back then. 

That’s OK; it’s all good.

As a writer and one always hungry to better understand the human condition I can mine this new discovery to better explain the behavior of one of my characters in Debris. It would seem to be a plausible explanation for this character’s confusing behavior toward the one she supposedly cares about.

Great character drama even if it’s fiction. 

Unlike in real life.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Last Chance Gasp

It was my olive drab trilogy.

Three Army bases that formed the nucleus of my two years of military service. In those three strikingly different environments, were three motley collections of soldiers who each came with their own unique storyline and take on life. They were either fellow draftees, R.A.s (Regular Army) or lifers who walked the walk and talked the talk. Among them all were the irascible characters whose actions and backgrounds are the stuff of legion and became fodder for a writer’s imagination.           

Presidio of San Francisco

Fort Polk, Louisiana

Fort Lee, Virginia

The Army bases came in three distinct flavors. First, the Presidio of San Francisco was the high point of my career there. Then Fort Polk, Louisiana during the summer of ‘65 became the lowest point. Sandwiched between that summer in hell and an early discharge came Fort Lee, Virginia.

Fort Lee provided the least memorable of my military experiences and yet in retrospect still garnered some poignant memories as well as some sad ones too. It was the last six months of my military life so it didn’t really matter where they sent me. Anyplace was better than months of ninety degree weather with matching humidity. Besides, autumn in Virginia can be pretty nice.

Fort Lee represented the last phase of my military existence.  It was all coming to an end and somehow I understood there was no going back to what used to be. My outlook on life had changed along with a renewed focus on education, travel and personal growth. Those changes were permanent.

By that point in my brief military career, the marching and inspections and KP were pretty much over. We couldn’t march outside because it was wintertime. There were few inspections and I was a sergeant by then so KP was a thing of the past.

My Army buddies and the assorted souls that inhabited that time period could fill the scrapbook of any aspiring writer. They were real and alive and as crazy as any comic book character. Some of them tortured souls and others just putting in their time. Each came with their own unique story to tell.

After I jumped the rabbit fence and made my way north, I heard from several other friends who had also escaped Fort Hell.

Max Camarillo (Mad Max) got out early to go back to school. He was one unique operator who truly knew how to game the system. He was Trapper John from ‘Mash’ and John Belushi’s (Bluto) from ‘Animal House’ wrapped up in one colorful character.’ In the Nam, he would have been a ‘dog robber’ providing much needed goods from unnamed sources. If you wanted it Max could probably get it…for a price. There were no moral scruples here. It was strictly business for Max.

Not surprisingly, there were no fare-well parties or blow-outs for Max. I’m told he simply was there one day and gone the next. No surprise. Nothing vanishes faster than a man who’s done his time in the Army.

There were several others that left around the same time. With them there was usually a brief flurry of activity, a few over-the-shoulder goodbyes and then silence as more empty bunks filled the barracks. There is no place more somber and solemn than a barracks room empty of old friends.

Another friend, mad-man Cornelius got an occupational discharge. Corny left even faster than Max. He didn’t even bother to get all the necessary discharge forms signed. He just signed them himself and left his bunk untouched. Minutes after his departure, it was stripped clean. His blankets, sheets and pillow became barter material for the newest resident ‘dog robber.’

45 Days to go before discharge from the Army
Like a lot of other servicemen, I’d promised myself I wasn’t going back home while I was on leave. The pain of having to leave home again wasn’t worth the few weeks spent there.

Staying true to that promise, I opted to spend the Christmas holidays with a friend in Pittsburg. Perhaps not the smartest decision I made since there was someone back home at the time. But I was young and dumb and pretty thoughtless when it came to relationships.

And like my weekend sojourns to Beaumont, Texas when I was in the southland I spent many a weekend in D.C. mingling with the masses and pretending to be a civilian. That was when you could traverse the mall at night or journey into the darker parts of town in search of a cold beer and not worry about getting mugged. The art galleries and Smithsonian and bookstores all provided a welcome relief from a year and a half of khaki blandness.

There was one Grey Line tour of New York thrown in but that only proved to me that the Big Apple was too big a bite for a Midwestern neophyte like me.

Every base has its own select group of entrepreneurs. Ours was no different. There was one lifer whose family lived in D.C. Every Friday night he would park in front of the mess hall and wait for eager recruits clutching their weekend pass. The cost was $25.00 bucks for a round trip passage to downtown D.C. Then a pickup nearby on Sunday afternoon.

The van driver was making a fortune each weekend just by driving home to see his own family and girlfriend. At $25.00 a head, five bodies each weekend, four weekends a month, he was clearing $500.00 a month and no taxes. And that was in 1966.

You could always tell when someone reenlisted. There was usually a new car, often a Chevy super sport or similar muscle car, prominently parked in the enlisted men’s lot. What most of those poor saps didn’t know was that their next assignment was usually Vietnam or Korea where their new cars would never follow.

Two friends stick out in my mind while I was at Fort Lee. Both were deep in their own inner turmoil brought on by reckless decisions and deep regrets afterwards.


The first was my friend Jerry or Gerard as he was known in his native Ireland. He had been in the U.S. Army for several years in Germany then left when his enlistment was over. His dream was to be a full-time playwright and novelist. But he said there were more playwrights in his native Dublin than regular people so he wanted to give New York a try.

He did so for a while and then decided he wanted to visit Vietnam as a reporter. So naturally, he enlisted again in the Army at age thirty. I could never wrap my understanding around why he re-upped. He was a brilliant guy, very quiet and probably gay which would have put him on unsteady ground in the 60s…in the military. Why he didn’t travel to Vietnam on his own, I’ll never know.

Nevertheless we had wonderful conversations at night, sitting around the office or sharing a coffee at the post restaurant. When I first meet him he was bidding his time at Fort Lee before his new papers came through and he was off to Southeast Asia. The times we shared talking theater and writing and story-telling still linger with me to this day.

While writing this blog I looked him up on Google. I came across a number of dispatches and newspaper articles Jerry wrote for Stars and Stripes from 1966 through 1967. I have no idea if he was transferred back stateside after that, got killed over there or just disappeared into that vast caldron called past friends and acquaintances. He was one of a kind. I treasure the few pictures I have of us together.

Another friend’s story whose ending remains a mystery to this day had to do with one hasty decision and six years of regret.

One of the first guys I met in my office was the staff photographer. We both shared a love of the Beatles, rock and roll music, travel and pretty girls. The Beatles we could listen to each night. Rock and roll followed us on his transitory radio. Travel for me were exaggerated tales of that city by the bay and my summer in hell. He hadn’t done much traveling at all.

The pretty girls were a figment of our lusty imaginations. At least for me it was. With exception of the girl back home, the imagination had to suffice where real wasn’t around.  His was a much sadder story.

Upon their graduation from high school, his girlfriend had traveled to Florida for summer work before college began. He stayed home and dreamt about their time on campus in the fall. When she returned she was two months pregnant from a foolish encounter on the beach with a hand-some lifeguard. My friend was devastated. His entire world had just blown up in his face.

Without talking to anyone, my friend marched down to the nearest recruiting office and joined the Army for a six year enlistment. Less than a month later, his girlfriend was back in his life begging for his forgiveness and understanding. She was willing to give up the baby if that’s what he wanted.

But it was too little too late at that point. By then my friend was in his first week of basic training and ready to kill himself.

Fortunately he survived that drama in his life and by the time we met he had resigned himself to five and a half years left in the service and the girlfriend back home who had betrayed him. We’d stay up late at night talking smack and expressing fond hopes for the future. I was always careful not to mention his remaining time in the service or that girl back home.

I never did find out if he got together with his old girlfriend again…or if he found someone else to fill that void…o somehow found peace with his five and a half years left in the service. I hope something worked out for him. He was a great guy; one of the nicest I’d met during that period in my life.

Several weeks before my discharge, the captain called me into his office. With patriotism and confidence written all over his face, he reminded me that I had volunteered for duty in Vietnam back in 1964. Smiling broadly, the captain assured me…no, he guaranteed me…that with my reenlistment I would be on my way to Vietnam within the month. He quickly pointed out that as a newly ordained sergeant this was my last great chance to continue a stellar career in ‘this man’s army.’

 I politely declined his most generous offer.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Weak Women and Inquiring Minds

Why is it that when women could be so strong they’re sometimes so weak? The same could be said about men but I’m not as interested in that gender as I am in the stronger sex.

Generally speaking, it’s the strong, smart, independent types that populate my novels and screenplays since they are of primary interest to me. I’ve always been attracted to that kind of woman starting way back in high school.

These are women who aren’t afraid to speak their mind. They scare the heck out of some men but that is hardly of concern to them. They’re focused, determined and seem to know exactly what they want out of life. While not all of them were affected by the enormous societal and sexual shifts that affected women in the sixties, a lot of them were the product of those seismic changes.

I’ll probably keep writing about those types of women because they’ve infiltrated my imagination. But if I intend to keep a balance in my writing and reflect the real world then I’ve also got to include another other type of woman.

These are the quiet ones who struggle with their place in a male-dominated world and who unfortunately still cling to the ancient notions of a woman’s place in our society. As a writer and student of such things esoteric, my inquiring mind wants to explore that aspect of the human psychological geography.

It’s that other type of woman who garners a greater part of my curiosity. Not because I find them attractive. It’s more a case of pity than analytical examination. If I do include a dutiful wife as one of my characters, it won’t be a flattering portrait. It’s the kind of woman Don Draper would want to date.

Unfortunately, many of these women haven’t yet realized that the modern world has evolved and changed and their role as ‘the little woman’ shouldn’t exist anymore.  I’m talking about those dutiful wives whose lives seem to evolve around their husband’s daily activities and existence. At social gatherings or in the company of other men, they simply become wallpaper. They’re an accessory or a detachable add-on. Their absence isn’t noticed and their presence is taken for granted by their spouse and others in the room. Their deference to their husband’s wishes is almost palatable.

Yet it doesn’t seem to be that way because they’ve got a real catch on their hands. But rather because their husband/partners own shadow seem to block out any light reflecting back on them. And they’re either OK with that or can’t or won’t do anything about it. Perhaps they once had something in that relationship but not anymore. Now it’s more a fear of the unknown and never asking themselves if there isn’t something better out there.

Some past generations have told women that once they made their bed, they had to sleep in it. Perhaps it’s Catholic guilt, (pick your own religion here, if you want), fear of the unknown, complacency or not believing there could be something better out there for them. If they do try to be assertive, they’re often called feisty or fierce or worse yet, bossy.

I’m certainly not advocating they leave or divorce their spouse because times have changed and so has their relationship with the old man. Instead, I’m pondering if there isn’t something else in their lives that could take the place of the duties they feel encumbered upon to perform as the dutiful one.

Life is too fleeting for these women to short-change themselves because of some antiquated notion that their man is entitled to be waited upon. That’s about as meaningless as dumb blond jokes and man caves. No woman should be ‘grateful’ to have a man in her life.

So while I’m stuck with my infatuation with strong women, I’ll continue to examine the drab life of the dutiful significant other. Perhaps with some quick key strokes and my imagination running rampant, I’ll invite more of them into my fictional worlds and see if I can’t make it better for them.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

California State of Mind

Perhaps it started in the mid-50’s when well-to-do families started to fly off to Hawaii for vacation. Or in the mid-sixties when the Beach Boys and their surfing music introduced us mid-westerners to the California beach scene. By the time ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’ came along, we had all been inundated with beach party / surfing movies starring Annette Funichello and Frankie Avalon. Most of my friends and I totally bought into that fantasy image of California: hook, line and sinker. We were hooked. We’d bought their line and it was a stinker not to be there ourselves. California has been doing that to out-of-staters for years.

The migration to California has been going on since the great depression and continues to this day. For the snowbirds it’s like watching the seasonal migration of the wildebeest in a Disney nature film; clean, sanitized and kid-friendly. Despite its roller-coaster economics and left-leaning politics, California continues to attract old and young alike.

For some reason the state seems to hold fast to its long-held moniker that ‘whatever happens first on the coast will eventually move to the Midwest and then the other coast.’ Whether it is massive housing developments, movie magic, new computer technologies, solar initiatives, fashion trends or otherwise innovative, invasive or surprising new trends in all sectors of our lives, many of them seem to happen first there. Perhaps that’s why I like the place so much. As much as I like the Midwest, California speaks to me in a voice that is fresh, exciting and at times provocative.

It’s the perfect climate for someone who is trying to uncomplicate the lives of so many people around him. Upon my return, I’ll have a lot of catching up to do with my cast of characters from ‘Debris.’  Brett still can’t be trusted out of Payton’s sight and its ruining their relationship. Juliet is conflicted after her tete-a-tete with Natalie and her bosses’ true motives. Of course, Natalie’s EU isn’t helping matters at all. The on-again off-again relationship between Robert and Miranda is only getting more complicated.

By the end of book two, some of the folks will be leaving the scene but new ones are already waiting in the wings ready to take their own prominent place in this continuing drama. These new characters will be a challenge to understand and follow as they wind their way through an increasingly complicated storyline. And it’ll be my job to make sense of it all both for myself and eventually my readers.

California is a natural setting for such antics. Its manicured golf courses and clear blue skies belie an undercurrent of mystery and intrigue and confusing lives. And I get to swim right up the middle of it.

To prepare for my return to the land of milk and honey I’ll indoctrinate myself with song.
‘California Sun’ is a silly little surfing song that somehow seems encapsulate the aura that California still has over me. Sun, sand and surf. Only now I need extra sun-screen. The sand gets between my toes when I walk the beach. And now the surf is for looking not challenging.

And as for all those California girls; let’s just say…I can still look, can’t I? Oh, and be happy my granddaughters aren’t out there dressed like that.

Take a listen and try NOT tapping your toes when you do.