Category Archives: My Thoughts

World War 1, Flanders Fields, and Second Chance

While I’m working on the new books, I’m going to be discussing the ones that have already been released, since often the questions I get from the books clubs and fans are about what is already out there.

The Noah Chance series consists of two books at this point, with a third in the pre-planning stages now. These books are about a remarkable young man with Downs Syndrome who, in Second Chance, has just graduated High School.

As many of you know I actually started writing No’ Chance, the first book in the series, back in the mid to late 90s. I’d write a paragraph here and a paragraph there, mostly when I was on the road trying to establish myself as a trial lawyer. Then, on an absolutely beautiful late summer day, I was waiting on the members of a jury we’d picked to arrive at the courthouse so we could start a trial and the judge called the lawyers back into her office and waved at her television and we saw the world changing before our eyes and suddenly many things that had seemed scary were not quite so scary anymore as we watched the World Trade Center buildings fall to the ground over the next while.

Trial lawyers spent the next couple of years trying to figure out how the events of that day and what followed would affect the viewpoints of the jurors and I found my time for writing was even more limited.

By the time I was ready to release No’ Chance, I was already well into writing Second Chance, and it seemed we had been at war with someone, somewhere, forever. I had always been fascinated by the stories told to me by veterans of WW II but when I started reading about WW I I realized that war had probably been as horrible as any before or after and yet you didn’t hear much about it.

I said all that to say this, a part of that war made it into Second Chance, a book set in the beautiful locale of Galveston Island, Texas, a place I knew well since I had visited there every weekend for many of the summers of my early life and as far removed from the WW I torn landscape of Flanders as it was possible to be.

The Noah Chance series are each standalone novels, but I strongly suggest you read them in order. Just as I was growing as a writer, so the characters grew as people and sometimes a few lines of a letter home or, in this case, a poem from a young doctor who had been at Flanders after the battle, did a lot to depict the horror of war.

I’m closing out this post, as I periodically do, with a YouTube video. This one is The Bloody Fields of Flanders, played on bagpipes. While some say that bagpipes sounds to them like a bag of cats being strangled, many of us feel a stirring in our soul when the keening starts, showing that while out family may be generations from the green hills of Scotland, the blood still runs true.

History, Anne Frank, and The Syrian Refugees – America is Better Than This (or Should Be)

Sometimes, as a writer, I do feel obligated to speak up on certain points. I generally keep politics out of my writing discussions because my readers (and friends) vary across the political spectrum, and I have other places I can voice my views. However, the Syrian refugee issue is different since it involves so many aspects I write about, including the failure to understand other cultures which was the basis of my book, The Bottle Tree, and, of course, the protagonist of the Noah Chance series is a young man with Down’s Syndrome. 

When I first heard all of the right wing Governors stating they would refuse to allow refugees in their state, my first thought was “More grandstanding because that’s unconstitutional”.

However, that happens so much I didn’t dwell on it long.

My next thought was “Has everyone forgotten their history?”

Although I don’t usually reference Wikipedia for my writing, I have done so in this piece since the information is verified based on other sources and Wikipedia is a quick, see of yourself, location to see the information on this topic.

In 1939, the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner (made famous by the book and movie Voyage of the Damned), left Germany with a cargo of 937 refugees seeking asylum from the Nazis. When they arrived in Cuba, their destination, they were refused entry.

The Captain then took his ship to Florida, where the U.S. Government denied entry and the U.S. Coast Guard (although they deny it) allegedly fired shots to turn the vessel away from where the Captain had considered running it aground and gaining access for the passengers that way. If you look through the newspapers, editorial, and Letters to the Editor pages of the newspapers it is easy to determine the refugees were refused for two reasons which were behind the laws at that time. First, the U.S. was still trying to appease Hitler to an extent and wanted to avoid being drawn into the war. Second, many people expressed hysterical fear that some of the refugees may have been spies sent here to commit espionage (essentially, the 1939 equivalent to the 2015 fear of Muslim Terrorists).

The ship then headed back to Europe. 

The United Kingdom agreed to take 288 of the passengers (31.76 percent), who disembarked and traveled to the UK via other steamers. After much negotiation by Schröder, the remaining 619 passengers were allowed to disembark at Antwerp; 224 were accepted by France (24.70 percent), 214 by Belgium (23.59 percent), and 181 by the Netherlands (19.96 percent). Without any passengers, the ship returned to Hamburg. The following year, after the Nazi German invasions of Belgium and France in May 1940, all the Jews in those countries were at renewed risk, including the recent refugees.

While the eventual fate of all of the passengers is not known, and the numbers have changed over the years, researchers from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have now stated:

“Of the 620 St. Louis passengers who returned to continental Europe, we determined that eighty-seven were able to emigrate before Germany invaded western Europe on May 10, 1940. Two hundred fifty-four passengers in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands after that date died during the Holocaust. Most of these people were murdered in the killing centers of Auschwitz and Sobibór; the rest died in internment camps, in hiding or attempting to evade the Nazis. Three hundred sixty-five of the 620 passengers who returned to continental Europe survived the war.”

The Captain of the St. Louis, Captain Gustav Schröder, was an extremely honorable man and was awarded the Order of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany after the war and in 1993, Schröder was posthumously named as one of the Righteous among the Nations at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel. His actions in trying to find places to accept those he felt a responsibility for should be looked at as an example by the “leaders”, both real and wanna be, in our country who never learned or want to ignore the history lesson.

In addition to the above situation, I also thought I remembered a tragic, yet interesting fact, I was able to verify through a number of sources but I’ll use a link to Snopes.com . Even those people who were unfamiliar with the St. Louis story would likely know the story of the young Jewish Girl, Anne Frank, since many of us had The Diary of Anne Frank as required reading in school.

What most don’t know is that in 2007, researchers discovered old files in a New Jersey warehouse which revealed Otto Frank, Anne’s father, had tried for many months to obtain visas for he and his family to come to the United States as refugees from the Nazis. 

An April 2015 article titled “Op-Ed: Getting Anne Frank All Wrong” published in Arutz Sheva addressed the plight of Anne Frank and other Jewish refugee children who perished:

Otto Frank, Anne’s father, dutifully filled out the small mountain of required application forms and obtained supporting affidavits from the family’s relatives in Massachusetts.

But that was not enough for those who zealously guarded America’s gates against refugees. In fact, in 1941, the Roosevelt administration even added a new restriction: no refugee with close relatives in Europe could come to the U.S., on the grounds that the Nazis might hold their relatives hostage in order to force the refugee to undertake espionage for Hitler.

Once again, fear of a remote possibility cost people their lives. 

Those who oppose allowing the refugees in without solid reasons to back up the stance should join with others who feel the same way (Democrats or Republicans), invest in a cutting torch and visit Liberty Island, taking the time to remove the words from the plaque at the Statue of Liberty, since apparently it no longer applies:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

There’s already precedent in American history for denying entrance, but it was wrong then just as it is wrong now and the result will be the same.

Big Thanks to the Folks at Kisatchie National Forest and the US Forest Service

Kisatchie National Forest-2As anyone who reads my books, my website, or knows me personally, my family has been "inextricably intertwined" (a legal term that applies in other situations) with Natchitoches Parish and the Kisatchie National Forest area in Louisiana since settlers began appearing in the area. I kicked around an idea for a book for years before choosing to set The Bottle Tree in a turpentine camp that actually existed in Kisatchie in the early 1900s.

Every time I visit Natchitoches I can feel the woods/forest calling and I love hitting the back trails and roads in there, walking occasionally and riding the rest, and visiting place I've been going to since I was old enough to walk for a while and then be carried by my grandfather or uncle the rest of the way.

On my last visit, my Uncle Mike and I were driving the back roads and a turkey suddenly darted out of the woods and then slowed to amble across the dirt road in front of us. He stopped the car and I shot a short video of the hen while waiting for others to appear since she acted like she might have been a part of a larger flock following her. We didn't see any more but did get to watch her for several minutes (video coming soon!).

I had heard the wild turkeys were making a comeback in the forest and then I spoke to my uncle again last week and he said he had seen a Bobwhite Quail not far from there just a few days before. I remember when I was a kid, many, many years ago, and we'd go out there with a relative of ours, Bud Gandy, who loved quail hunting and he'd always find plenty. It wasn't unusual for us to bust a covey during our walks through the woods (and when you're always expecting rattlesnakes, a covey of quail busting out from under your feet is a truly exhilarating experience) but over the years the Bobwhite and the turkeys had virtually disappeared. 

During one of our exploring trips last year we'd walked up on a section of the forest where there were a number of pine trees with large white painted sections on them, metal strips nailed around the tree (to prevent climbing animals) and holes drilled a ways up the tree with sap running down. Not far from those we found what we originally thought might have been a small trap on the ground with fencing running in four directions leading into it. We thought it might have been a quail trap so someone could take a count of the numbers.

What we found out was that the trap was actually one designed not for quail but for "America's Rarest Snake", Louisiana's Pine Snake, a number of which were released back into its natural range there in Kisatchie by the Forest Service (for more info on this see this article).

Red-cockaded Woodpecker NCM11002

The holes in the trees were part of an effort to improve habitat for the Red Cockaded Woodpeckers in the area (see article here). Interestingly, the Red Cockaded Woodpecker has significantly less red on their head than the other species in the area but to anyone who sees one flying, they still fly in the distinctive up and down woodpecker flight motion.

Those are just a few of the huge number of animals the good folks at the forest service are doing such a great job of protecting.

As I stop by various lookout points and springs, many of which most people don't know anything about, I was struck by the fact that I could have been standing on an area that my grandfather worked on when he was living at the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp located near where the Kisatchie visitor's center is now located since many of the roads, trails, and other feature were created by those men trying to work their way out of the Great Depression.

I'll be back in Natchitoches for the NSU Folklife Festival on July 17-18 (if you're in the area stop by the festival and say hello), but I suspect that I'll either get there a day early or stay a day or two afterwards to hit the woods again. I'm a lot older, a lot fatter, my back hurts, and my knees ache from all the motorcycle wrecks I had back in my youth (many of them in Kisatchie) but I always feel a little better no matter how tired I am, how out of shape, or how hot it gets when I get back to my roots.

I want to thank the US Forest Service and particularly those people who work out in the Kisatchie National Forest area for what they are doing there. I know that when I have grand-children I'll be able to take them to the same trails, eat huckleberries off of the same huckleberry bushes, and fish in the same fishing holes as my family has been doing for two hundred or more years. The turkeys I see, the Bobwhite Quail I hear whistling, and the rattlesnakes I watch out for, will likely be the descendants of the same ones that roamed the woods and my ancestors saw. 

Without people choosing to be the stewards for the rest of us, working hard, not making enough money, but caring about the area and the environment all of those things might not be here now or might not be here in the future.

Thanks.

Heritage and Facts – This Will FORCE Me to Re-evaluate

The kick in the teeth came today while I was looking over the internet and all of the discussion regarding the church shooting in Charleston, SC, and, by the way, the number of idiots posting on the internet about this is astounding.

As you know, a little while back I wrote a piece on my journey of self discovery as it regards family history, slavery, and civil rights.

I knew that several of my ancestors had fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War and I was proud of the fact, just as I'm proud of the ones who fought in all the other wars and the ones who didn't serve in the military at all. 

When you are judging what your ancestors did, to a certain extent you have to judge it in the climate and the circumstances of that time. It doesn't necessarily excuse "bad" behavior, but it may make their actions less reprehensible or make it more understandable that they did such things than the same actions (or omissions) would today.

I had always assumed that my ancestors fought on the side of the Confederacy because they lived in the South, they viewed the attitudes and actions of the North as offensive, and because, at one point, their homeland was "invaded" (for more information on that topic see the Red River Campaign of 1864).

The oral family history indicated we'd always been "dirt poor farmers" (my words) and I'd looked at census records when I started doing genealogical research (I am an absolute novice at this) and had never seen any indication that the farmers had slaves at all, just a bunch of children which I'm quite sure had been put to work in the fields at as early an age as possible.

However, I wondered if I had the whole story and so, on a whim, I decided to dig a little deeper and do some research on how to find out if someone owned slaves right before the Civil War. What I discovered was unsettling in a number of ways.

In 1860, the US census was a little different than some of the others, which listed slaves on the same pages as the other members of the household. This particular year, the slaves were listed on a separate document called a "slave schedule" which lists the slave owners by name and then the slaves they owned by gender and age.

I'm researching the maternal side of my family at this moment and so I chose one ancestor that I knew who was alive in 1860, had been in the Civil War (he died of Typhus or Typhoid in 1862), and who owned land. I looked up his name on the slave schedule.

In 1860 he owned two slaves, one 16 year old male and one 14 year old female.

Admittedly, I was a little shaken. I chose to look up another ancestor, one who isn't listed in the official records as having served in the war.

In 1860 he owned one slave, a 14 year old male.

I stopped my research at that point. I'll go back to it later, because ignoring history doesn't change it or make it go away.

To those claiming the right to fly the Confederate flag is a matter of heritage and that it wasn't about slavery, it may be time for you to go back and do a little digging in your family tree. I thought my ancestors were fighting for an "ideal" and now I have to acknowledge that at least a portion of those principles were that they wanted to own another human, in the limited research essentially three kids, to make it easier on themselves. Not something I particularly want to celebrate.

What's particularly troubling to me about this isn't that I was operating under erroneous facts, that happens to everyone occasionally, it's not really that my ancestors owned slaves because while that was wrong, there is really nothing I can do about that. What is really troubling is that there is a good chance that I may know the descendants of these slaves quite well.

This all plays into the real characters that influenced my first published book, The Bottle Tree, and I must say it has really, really had a deep and, I suspect, a lasting effect on me.

More on that at another time, when I've had the chance to reflect and consider.

Funny How Your Philosophy of Life Changes (and Some Music Videos)

So much of my high school life seems to bring back memories of music. Like I mentioned in an earlier post (also with a music video) the song Brandy by Looking Glass always brings back memories of summer and the vision of a deep tan, the smell of coconut oil and a strawberry scented shampoo one young lady used that was kind enough to let me snuggle up against her and sniff her hair (and we'll stop that thread right there).

I remember Neil Young and Crazy Horse released the album Live Rust and one of the songs, Hey Hey, My My, got a lot of airplay. I loved the one line from it, "It's better to burn out, than it is to rust" and for a long time that seemed to be my philosophy of life, despite at least one person telling me that as far as a credo went, they didn't think much of it (and if you're reading this you know who you are).

As an older man now, and one who has a great deal of rust developing from the early years, I find that my philosophy has changed quite a bit.

I bought a Warren Zevon MP3 album (Life'll Kill You) not too long ago, one I had when I was a long time ago, and was amazed to find a song on it that I didn't remember and that seemed more fitting now that the rust has set in. It brings to mind not so much a rebellious young life but rather one that has resulted in a lot of experiences and wrecks (in a lot of ways) and facing getting old and things not working the same as they used to. I'm putting the YouTube video below but it is NSFW as far as sound so if you're listening to it around a bunch of prudes, turn it down or slip in the earbuds.

 

My New Love – Hot Buttered Rum!

I really don't drink a lot but when I find something new and different I really enjoy it.

A couple of weeks ago I was watching the movie Northwest Passage with Spencer Tracy and, even though I've seen it a number of time, I finally realized that the drink he mixed up in the tavern was a Hot Buttered Rum. I've never had one and so decided to try it.

Essentially, the recipe is:

2 oz dark rum – I use Myers and it's okay to err on the side of more rum

1 pat of butter

1 tablespoon of brown sugar (I used dark)

1 tablespoon of regular sugar

1 teaspoon of apple pie spice or pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon (whichever you prefer)

Hot water (to taste)

Basically you put all of the ingredients except the water into a mug and stir them up then add hot water to the desired level

That's it!

It is warming, comforting and tastes incredible, perfect for this time of the year. And this is coming from someone who thinks cocktail means you add a few drops of water to the Scotch, a couple of ice cubes to Bourbon, or an olive in the Martini!

If you try it, let me know what you think.