Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Small World Dept.

When a relative in Kansas City called to tell me of a new book he was reading about life in Northeast Kansas, I was thrilled. That was the part of the country where I was born and spent most of my early years..  I didn’t become an Okie until the ripe old age of 15, the time previous, as a Jayhawk. The book was titled, It’s Within, and was written by, Elizabeth (Betty) Thieme, telling of her childhood in a small corner of Kansas. I had to have this book. Who doesn’t like to read and reminisce about the good old days when they were young, before iPhones, HDTV, and, as in my case, even before indoor plumbing? My God, I’m old!

At the back of the book was an e-mail address for ordering and I promptly sent in my request. A reply came soon after.

“I remember you,” Betty wrote. “We were in the same grade school in Willis.”

Keep in mind that the population of Willis was probably never more than a hundred in the most prosperous of times (it was 38 in 2010). There was a general store, a post office, a grain elevator, two school houses, and that was about it. You had to make the five mile drive to the big city of Horton (pop. 1776) if you wanted to eat at a restaurant, buy groceries for the week, or go to a movie (Saturday matinee 15 cents).

But the small world department got even smaller. Betty wrote that her husband had once rented a room in Topeka from a woman she remembered as being my aunt Nellie. Not only did I have an aunt Nellie in Topeka at that time, but the husband’s roommate was related to me, a distant cousin.. It didn’t end there.

When I called the K.C. relative to relate this latest coincidence, he said. “I remember a boy named Thieme. We went to high school together in Goff, Kansas.” The 1990 population of Goff is listed at 156 souls. Not exactly a bustling metropolis but Goff did have a bank, a garage, a restaurant, and a car dealership with at least a half a dozen cars on the lot and maybe a tractor or two. My dad worked at the grain elevator there for a while.

Can you imagine the culture shock when I  moved to Tulsa with a high school class that had more people than the entire towns I previously lived in?

Of course Betty and I remembered some of our old classmates, her more than me, and shared a few stories. Both of us, I learned, had placed pennies (when we had them) on the local railroad track and then scrambled to find them after the train mashed them flat.

Humph! And these kids today think that playing games on an X-Box is fun.

Bank at Goff, Kansas

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Think Cool

Back in the day, my old friend and fellow Southwestern Bell employee, Ron Bennett, had a simple solution for staying cool. “Think cool thoughts,” he said. “Seriously. Do it. It’ll help.” Both of us tried our utmost to do just that as we buzzed down yet another hot Oklahoma highway in a gray-green official SWB Chevrolet Suburban with furnace like winds blasting in our faces.

Air-conditioned trucks? Oh no. Not SWB. Not back then. Upper management, you see, felt that it would project the wrong image if the public saw telephone men riding around with their windows up and cool breezes blowing from the vents.

“We’re helping to keep your telephone bill as low as possible by buying trucks without those expensive air conditioners. You’re welcome.”
Ma Bell

The sad truth (or what we always heard) was that it actually cost more to produce a special non air-conditioned model vehicle than a standard one.

But I digress. During this recent run of 100+ degree days, I was reflecting back to Ron’s advice and thinking cool, or trying to. Tough to do when even the cats come to the door with their tongues hanging out. Thinking cold. Thinking winter. Cold winter. But not too cold. Not a freeze your buns off, below zero winter, but a winter with sunshine and light jacket days with shivering, pull up the covers, nights. Something like in south Texas maybe. Yeah, that kind of winter.

I thought back to my days in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Beeville, Texas, at a naval air training facility. My rank was airman second class, the lowest of the low on the base, only one step up from recruit. I seem to remember my first duties were pushing a broom around the hanger deck and swabbing floors in the barracks and bathrooms ( or heads in navy talk). It was because of this lowly status that I was often assigned guard duty, specifically the most hated, the midnight to four tour.

Guard duty. Let’s think about that for a minute. Firstly, the only way on the base was through a sentry post manned 24 hours a day by MP’s with weapons. Second, the entire compound was ringed with fences and barbed wire, the perimeter lit up like the Texas State Prison. Guard what? From whom? This was peace time. There was no al-Qaida, no Hezbollah, no Mexican drug wars. The whole idea seemed rather pointless to me as I crawled out of my nice warm bunk, donned my heavy pea coat, stocking cap, gloves, two pair of socks, and reported to the Duty Officer. The temperature was in the low thirties, not sled dog weather by any means.  Beeville saw about three, maybe four, snowflakes a year. It was the wind, that steady north wind with nothing to block it but a barbed-wire fence, that chilled you to the bone.

The second class Petty Officer sat with his feet on the desk, a steaming cup of coffee in hand, and reading some kind of magazine. He barely glanced up as he ticked my name off a list as having shown up on time.
My watch tour was not in some toasty building somewhere, no, my place was on the flight line, out there with the aircraft on the freezing tarmac without so much as a tree to stand behind to block that awful wind. The guy I was to relieve saw me coming, jogged past me, and mumbled what sounded like, “You poor bastard,” and kept on moving.

I started my walk, the entire length of a line of planes, I’m guessing about a hundred yards or so, back and forth, back and forth. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! With the wind at my back, it was barely tolerable, but going into it, well, we sailors had some language to describe that sensation but I will not repeat it here. Let’s just say it was colorful and had to do with monkeys.

Two hours down, two to go. Back and forth. My nose is running. My eyes are tearing. I can no longer feel my fingers. My ears have dropped from my head long ago and are laying somewhere along the perimeter like two blackened hunks of discarded meat.

That’s when I got this most wonderful idea! I had begun spending more and more time involved with flight operations, training to be a plane captain, noting how things were done. I watched as the pilots dropped the steps from the fighters, climbed up, and flipped a lever that actuated some compressed air to open the canopy. Can’t you just see the little light bulb over my head? If I could get in one of those airplanes, I’d be out of the wind, relatively cozy, and most importantly, able to see the entire watch area just in case any saboteurs came along, or more likely the Duty Officer, coming out to check on me.

It went off without a hitch. The canopy hissed, slid back, and I climbed in, just like a pilot. I found another lever that said canopy on it and slid it forward. Another blast of air and all was well. Ah, no more north wind and I had an excellent view of all the airplanes. This was not dereliction of duty you understand. I did not go to sleep and remained alert for the next couple of hours. America was quite safe. I want to be clear about that.

About ten minutes before my watch was over, I once again congratulated myself on my ingenious plan and hit the lever to open the canopy. Nothing happened. No blast of air, no hiss, not even a whisper. The tank was empty and the air lines drained. Uh oh.

I was trapped like a rat. Can you say court martial? Can you spell B-R-I-G? I could already hear the rattle of chains and shackles. Desperate, I wedged my fingers in a slight opening and pushed. To my great relief, the canopy moved. I hopped out, manually slid it shut, and made my way back to the duty office, whistling in the dark.

Remember, think cool.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Life and Death of a Novel

Our previous home in Tulsa had an underground tornado shelter in the back yard. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it went unnoticed and unused, but when the sirens for severe weather sounded, we suddenly became the most popular people on the block. I never actually measured the dimensions, but I’d guess the floor plan at around eight by 12 feet, roomy by most standards, but on especially scary nights when the TV had edge to edge angry red blotches, it was wall to wall people down there.

The door of the shelter lay flush to the ground. It was quite heavy, made of steel, and nearly impossible to swing open if not for the coil spring assist. On more than one occasion when I had gone down there to check for water seepage or replace a light bulb, a rather frightening thought would flicker across my imagination. If someone were to slam that door shut, stick a bolt though the hasp, and walk away, the shelter that was built to save lives would become my tomb. I would die there in the damp and dark. That cheery little thought would eventually become the premise for a novel, one that I called Fraidy Hole.

It would be my second novel. The first, No Refuge, about a wildlife photographer that happens to witness and document a murder by a hired killer, was fun but also a major struggle. The plot for that one slipped, fell, got lost, and wandered aimlessly for over a year before I finally finished it.  Never again says I. But that idea about the cellar hung around, nagging at me, growing in my head like a tumor and well, before I knew it…I was back at the computer.

The second one will be easier. That’s what I kept hearing and they were right. Unlike the early attempt with no clear idea where the story was headed, who the characters would be, or how it would end, Fraidy Hole, the outline anyway, was planned from start to finish. Except for the ending. That little twist popped up one night about 2 a.m. when the tired old brain knew that the plot needed something, some kind of surprise, something to make people say, “I didn’t see that coming.”

I enjoy writing, but It’s doesn’t come easy for me. I made C’s in English for Pete’s sake. Grammar and punctuation were invented by the Devil as far as I’m concerned, but alas, the book police have this strange obsession that both should be correct and in proper form. It takes a lot of the fun out of it.

Fraidy Hole begins with a young high school girl, living in the panhandle of Oklahoma, who opens her eyes in a storm cellar exactly like the one in my previous backyard. It’s night, absolute darkness, and she has no idea where she is. She only knows that she’s hurt, there’s something moving down there, and she’s about one minute away from going insane with fear.

Eighteen months later, the story ends. That’s real time, not fiction time. The make-believe story lasted for only a few days, but it was that many months before I finally typed The End. In between was a rough draft, research, write, rewrite, edit (with the help of a wonderfully competent and patient lady named Jane) , more edit, more rewrite, and then, final edit.

Now what? Like anyone that has ever written a novel, I’m thinking in terms of a wildly popular best seller, New York Times review, book signing parties, promotional travel, and dare we think it, a movie? The sad truth is, that’s not likely, not likely at all. Thousands and thousands of novels are cranked out every year; some very bad, some mediocre, and some extremely well written that go…nowhere. My first clue as to the competition came when I hit the upload button to an online e-book distributor called Smash Words. The popup told me I was 87th in the queue. What? There are 87 people ahead of me trying to upload their novels? Uh oh.

Luckily, the publishing trend seems to be shifting from paperback and hardcover to e-books. This was good news to me as my chances of being accepted by such giants as Random House were slim to none and Slim left town. It looked like Amazon and Kindle books were my best bet. I do the upload, everything formatted to their specs, assign a quite reasonable price of $2.99 for a download, sit back, and wait for the money to start rolling in. Oh yes, I did some self promotion. I put a link on all my outgoing e-mail. I put another link on my photo web site. I shamelessly begged everyone I knew on Facebook to spread the word. I even finagled a writer’s website called Studio 30, to put the cover on their home page and when they featured me as Member of the Week, I was sure the sales of Fraidy Hole would go through the roof. Didn’t happen.

The hard, sad facts were that the majority of sales could be traced to friends and relatives (thank you BTW). Why? Because like most readers, myself included, hesitate to spend time and money for a book authored by an unknown writer. This is where the Kindle reviews come in. A few dozen five star reader reviews give the book a far greater chance of selling than one with two or three written by friends and family of the writer: that would be me.

The minds at Amazon obviously foresaw this situation, discouraged new writers unable to get off the ground, and provided an outlet. That was to give the book away. No royalties, no income of any kind, nada. The upside, if you can call it that, was that your fresh new novel could now be downloaded by people without a monetary investment. If they read the first couple chapters and decide it’s trash, no big deal, delete it and forget it.

And so it came to pass that Fraidy Hole had reached a point with zero sales for two depressingly long months. It was time for a desperate move and I did it, clicked on the Kindle free option. Twenty-four hours later, 960 cheapskates had download my sweat and tears novel. It would be a little like an artist that worked a year and a half on an oil painting and then said here take it, it’s yours, and it’s free

At the end of the five day free period, 1997 e-book readers had jumped on the train to find out what happened to that poor girl locked in the cellar. All that ended last Friday. Here I sit on Sunday, staring at the reports. Three new sales (yes!) but not one new review, not even a bad one. There will be no book signings, no promo travel, no poster-sized cover of Fraidy Hole in the front window of Barnes & Noble, and the movie just faded to black.

I do believe the wide world of readers have sent me a message. “You should stick to photography my boy and leave the writing to people that got better than C’s in English class.”

Oh well, there’s always the blog.

Update: A brand new review has been added. This one by a complete stranger. Only four stars, but I thought it fair.

Update to the Update: Another review! This one is a gem. Fraidy Hole might not be dead after all.