Kittie Howard

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Inside Myself - A Christmas Memory; Blog on Hiatus until Jan. 5th.

Updates:  My husband and I will leave for New Orleans early Tuesday morning, returning to Virginia in early January. We're driving. I am soooo looking forward to tucking into dat gumbo and slurping dem oysters!  There's no laptop on this trip.  However - surprise! - I'll be tweeting.

See the little Twitter sign in the sidebar?  Yep, that's me, Ms. Gadget, OMG, who woulda thunk it?  Anyway, I'm not saying now but will tweet our stops en route.

Before today's Christmas Memory, I want to thank each of you for being who you are and for enriching my life.  I've learned so much from you and am humbled by your graciousness and sense of humanity.  Yes, there is much that is wrong in the world.  However, when I read your posts, comments, and e-mails - and also when I go t the grocery, the laundry, the post office and other places in my daily world - I am pleasantly reminded that there is much, much more goodness, so many more blessings, in the world.

* * * * *

This is the fifth Christmas Memory, a personal one that touches a time when I learned a forever lesson about what is important in life.  We all need clothing, food and shelter, but when one learns one's life could slip away, it doesn't really matter if the purse on the counter is a Louis Vuitton or a burlap bag, if the house is a mansion or a yurt, if a Morton's steak or brisket fills the dinner plate.

Many of you asked what went through my mind when I saw the refugees from Darfur and the drought in Sudan.  These refugees didn't have a burlap sack, a yurt or brisket.  They had the haunting look of death.  The scene was so enormous, so destitute, so beyond the definition of 'poor', I knew I witnessed a holocaust of human misery and felt a helplessness that lingers.  When George Clooney lobbies for something to be done about Darfur, I get it, I so get it.

I say the helplessness lingers because I've come to believe that no one can go through life without a period when the chips are down.  Cinderella is a fairy tale.

However, for the majority of refugees from Darfur, the chips had not only fallen; they had disappeared.

When there is hope, there is light.  But even in the darkness, light can shine from within.  This light can sustain one through the toughest of times, because what is 'tough' is relative to each of us.

In the fall of 1978, I began to feel as though I was dragging and, hard as I tried, couldn't seem to get my mojo up and running.  I went to the doctor and returned a couple of days later for the results of basic tests.
After being ushered into his office, the doctor motioned for me to sit down.  When the nurse closed the door, he said to me, "Well, if you're going to get it, you've got the best of the lot: Hodgkin's Disease (cancer), two to three years to live."

My white blood cell count was 22,900, a very high and dangerous number.

A second doctor's opinion disputed, but did not negate, the Hodgkin's Disease diagnosis. There was a possibility I had some type of infection from a flea bite.  My condition was to be monitored.

My husband and I had returned from the Middle East, where we had lived a year each in Egypt and Israel.  Apparently there's a desert flea, to which Bedouins are immune, but to which others are susceptible.  I had been in the desert many, many times.

For about a year, I lived in medical limbo.  Each Monday, I'd have blood drawn; each Wednesday I'd return to the doctor's office for the results.  As much as I fought - diet, positive thoughts, and so on - the numbers remained the same, high and dangerous.  Also, I couldn't gain weight but easily lost weight.  I was pencil thin, drawn and tired-looking.  It was a tough, tough time, a time when getting dressed in the morning meant resting to gather strength for the next task, a time when I had to dig really deep within myself to remain focused, that I was going to beat this thing and that wasn't going to happen if I didn't keep at it.

In November, 1979, Bethesda Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, ran every test possible.  Results lifted the curse: No one knew what I had, but I did not have Hodgkin's Disease.

Blood drawn the first week in December showed, for the first time, the white blood cell count had dropped by 200 points, with another drop the next week, and another drop the following week.

I remember sitting in the living room Christmas week and staring at the Christmas tree until the tears and holiday lights blurred into a grateful peace.

My husband and I hadn't been married that long, didn't own much beyond the basics (including a $2.00 garage sale recliner that leaked its innards when opened), but we had each other and our health.  We were rich beyond words.

* * * * *

From our house to yours, the warmest of Holiday Greetings.  May the light within you shine brightly now and throughout the New Year! XOXO Kittie

Monday, November 21, 2011

An African Moment; Taking a Few Days Off

Some years ago, my husband's job took us to Nairobi, Kenya, for three years.

Then, as now, Kenya possess gorgeous scenery, amazing wildlife, and probably some of the politest people in the world.  While walking down one of Nairobi's sleek street's, the slightest bump elicits an immediate poll (sorry).  Relatives and close friends do not enter a home without first asking, "Hodi"?  (May I enter?)

A few years after our return to the States, we lived in Honolulu, Hawaii.  After the Honolulu Marathon, I crossed a patch of Kapiolani Park to get something from the car my husband requested.  He'd completed the Marathon in a pleasing time and, along with other ripped marathoners, rested beneath a nearby tree.

En route, I heard Kiswahili being spoken near a bus.  I'd learned a smattering in Kenya and understood them. I dipped my head so the Kenyans wouldn't think I was eavesdropping. As I did so, another Kenyan rounded the bus and bumped into me.  When he apologized (poll), I automatically said, "Hakuna matata."  (There's no problem.)

Surprised, but delighted, the Kenyans and I talked for about 10 minutes, in Kiswahili and English.  (Most Kenyans speak four languages.)  I then went to the car, and, when I passed the bus, exchanged waves and smiles with the Kenyans, as I walked toward my husband's group.  Jaws littered the ground.  I had been talking with some of the rock stars in the world of marathons.  One marathoner had broken a record that day.

Now, like the U.S. and other countries, Kenya possess social and economic problems.  The story I'm going to share could have taken place anywhere in the world.  But it transpired in Kenya and became a forever memory.

When the time came to pack-out for our return to the United States, I couldn't find a matching green sandal, not an extraordinary event, as a shoe goes missing now and then.  When an African friend saw the lone survivor on a shelf of ad hoc items, she asked, "What are you going to do with this shoe?"

"I don't know."

She removed the shoe from the shelf and held it.  "May I have it?"

"Yes, of course."

She squished her ten toes in her flip flops and said, "I know a mama (woman) with one leg who would be happy with this shoe.  Green is her favorite color."  When my friend's eyes met mine, she said, "There is always one who is worse off."

 * * * * *

This - and every Thanksgiving - I'm grateful for all that I have, from ten toes to ten fingers.  I'd like to whine about some bug going around that knocked me for a loop, but I am grateful it's not worse.  I'd like to whine that my hub returns very late Thanksgiving Day, and not the day before, from a six-week business trip and two long-haul flights, but I'm grateful he will be here.  I'm grateful the Boy Scouts held a food drive to which I was able to contribute (and hear from the Scoutmaster that, unlike last year, an enormous number of people were contributing.)

In my heart of hearts, I'm sad so many will go without this Thanksgiving Day (or any day, for that matter) and wish I had a magic wand for so much.  But, like rock star athletes who weren't too important to talk with a passer-by, I hope and pray those in positions of power everywhere will take the time to talk and to listen to those around them.  I am grateful I live in a world where communication is possible.  I'd like to be grateful communication actually worked.

From our house to yours, Happy Thanksgiving.

(When I realized this bug wouldn't let me get around to visit you, I decided I needed to turn off the computer and rest up a few days.  Hope you are well. See ya next week! XOXO Kittie)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Getting Back into Gear - A Brighter Tomorrow

Life was a bit hectic for awhile.  (Courtesy of Photobucket)

But now that Remy Broussard's left home. . .  (Photo source unknown.)

No more of this stuff  - fav is Whopper, no mayo, no catsup, no cheese . . . as for fries, let's not go there *sighs* but back to the healthy stuff - most of the tine . . . (Photo courtesy of Photobucket)

And a bit of relaxation . . .  (if you want to think that's me, I don't mind) and getting organized for the holidays.  I'm always on the go and have a high metabolism, a good thing  or I'd look like . . . 

the Thanksgiving turkey . . . (Wikipedia)

After our national day of grace, hub and I are kicking into Christmas gear - going to New Orleans December 21st  ... (Montage courtesy of Wikipedia)

Friends are taking us to K-Paul's restaurant.   In 1979, Chef Paul Prudhomme, left, and his wife,  K, opened a small restaurant in New Orleans that rocked the culinary world.  (Executive Chef Miller is to the right.)  I'm soooo looking forward to this night.  Food is a major Big Deal in New Orleans.  Chefs are like rock stars.  Restaurants are rated by beans.  K-Paul's has so many beans, you could serve red beans and rice, a South Louisiana staple.  Yum!

We have tickets for Pat O'Brien's New Year's Eve party in the old Jackson Brewery - went last year, loved it!  After the ticket gets you inside (overlooking the Mississippi River), food islands await - I never made it past the gumbo - loooove that Creole goodie - and a waitperson brings your choice(s) of beverage - and the dancing goes on and on - a Louisiana party rocks like you wouldn't believe!  

And this is a dress-up party with lots of slinky dresses and bling and men in tuxedos.  Bet you're thinking 'old?'  HA! The average age is maybe 30. Age doesn't matter at a Louisiana party! Laissez les bons temps rouler!  (Let the good times roll!)

Now, see that cool looking drink above?  That's a Hurricane, a nice blend of sweet and thirst-quencher - a Hurricane can go down real easy - and explode in your head! (As I learned midway thru my second one during college days.)  So, I'll take a pass and take the souvenir glass home for a friend whose son is in college.  College kids collect the distinct Pat O'Brien's glass, a New Orleans trophy.

But - WHOA! Time out! - back to kicking into holiday gear!  Saturday, November 26th, is  Small Business Day throughout the United States.  October's statistics said the economy is turning around in many areas. Let's get out there and give our Mom and Pop stores a push. (Or order from an online Mom and Pop.  They need love, too!)  

Stay away from that (Boo! Hiss!) Made in China crap and buy some home-grown tomatoes. I'm going to a shop in my village that has the most gorgeous candles - made right up the road, in Maryland.  

If you've got the cash for a burger and fries, drop the calories and drop by a Mom and Pop instead.  American jobs depend upon Americans buying Made in the USA products.  Every candle purchased helps light the way toward a brighter tomorrow.

Friday, November 11, 2011

More Sharecropper Photos - Remy's a Story about Real Lives

(For those of you who have visited before, I thank you! If you're in a hurry, please scroll down to the added info above the new photos.  Er, en route, you'll see Rachel's blog highlighted.  She's the artistic genius who designed Remy's cover.  If you have a sec, please stop by and say Hi before moving on.  Thanks!)

When a classmate physically and mentally bullies Remy, the third-grader withdraws from friends and family and imagines the worst about his parents.  Starring at the Christmas tree is the classroom enables the sharecropper's son to escape his poverty-stricken life and dream about opening a present on Christmas morning and having turkey for Christmas dinner, neither of which has ever occurred.

Friends blame the changes in Remy's behavior on Leonard's bullying and encourage Remy to talk to his parents, his teacher or his priest.  Remy refuses, often with open hostility.  As Christmas Day approaches, Remy's struggle to understand why he has so little and others have so much deepens.  He concludes that Jesus is punishing him for hating Leonard and his bullying.

A bayou-laced, South Louisiana comes together in 1952 to stop Leonard's bullying in a compassionate manner and open Remy's heart to the meaning of Christmas through love and forgiveness.

Remy Broussard's Christmas is available on Kindle.  The cover design is by Rachel Morgan.   Thank you, Rachel for Remy's gorgeous cover.  The candle is Rachel's.  She focused to highlight and photographed the candle on her table in South Africa. Rachel blogs at Rachel Morgan Writes.  Please stop by and say Hi.  If you're not a follower, tsk! tsk!

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Through December 25, 2011, 10% of sales will be donated to the United States Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Foundation.  No tax deduction will be claimed for the donation.  Thank you for your support!  Sales are steady, and I'm greatly encouraged.  Out of 750,000 books on Kindle, Remy has broken through the 21,000 position.  It would be beyond a dream come true if Remy broke through the 1,000 position!

* * * * *

I've been digging into the Memorial Room's archives at the U.S. Library of Congress and have included more photos.  These will be at the top of the previous photos.  I want to write a story that involves Remy with the kids of American-American sharecroppers.  Black and white sharecroppers lived in segregated housing in the Old South.  Their living conditions were usually far worse than those of white sharecroppers.  Jim Crow laws prevented blacks from voting.  In many instances, the inability to own land prevented whites from voting.

Sharecroppers occupied the bottom rung of the ladder and were usually ostracized, as if they didn't exist. In a way they didn't - since landowners didn't pay into the Social Security System and since sharecroppers lacked the means to do so and since most didn't vote and since health care or benefits didn't exist, thousands of people lived apart from mainstream society, like ghosts who lived and worked and died.

Conflicts between the races occurred.  The KKK (KuKluxKlan) easily preyed on black sharecroppers.  And, yes, some white sharecroppers belonged to the KKK.  As I mention in a caption below, the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act dismantled the sharecropper system.  However, the KKK remained active for some years afterward.

* * * * *

Remy's story will reflect much of what you see in the photos.  However, the story does have a happy ending I think will warm your heart.  Amid the heartache, some goodness did exist. The new photographs:

Sharecropper children in Plaquemine Parish, Louisiana.  Photo courtesy of Ben Shahn.                                              

The son of a sharecropper hooks up for field work.  Although most landowners owned tractors and many kids did drive tractors, kids learned young how to work a horse- or mule-pulled plough.  Landowners could - and often did - loan out sharecroppers to other landowners, especially when hay was baled or the crops came in.  Landowners worked together to maximize weather conditions.  It was not uncommon to see sharecroppers walking down a road to get to another landowner's property.  Or a landowner provided a horse- or mule-pulled wagon to transport field hands.  Photo courtesy of Russel Lee.                                                       

Daughter of tenant farmer in kitchen. Note the skirt's split seam.  Many churches had a donation box for used clothing.  Some landowner families provided used clothing.  Without the financial access to toilet/hygiene products, sanitation was a problem.  It wasn't unusual for infants to die shortly after birth, for mothers to die in childbirth.  Toothaches claimed lives. Since sharecropper shacks (so called then by all) lacked in-door plumbing, out-houses existed, sometimes close to the shack.  During the winter, especially, each shack usually had what was called 'a slop bucket' for human waste during the night, emptied into the out-house in the morning.  Little or no maintenance of these out-houses existed.  They were nasty, smelly places, constantly buzzing with flies.  Photo courtesy of Russel Lee.
Same daughter.  Photo courtesy of Russel Lee.
Sharecropper clothes drying on the ground.  Containers like you see above were often used to wash clothes, often without detergent. Human dignity prevailed as much as possible. Photo courtesy of Russel Lee.

Tenant farmer wife slices hard tack, basically fat with a sliver of meat.  Tenant farmers saved fat from cooking or purchased lard in the landowner's store for lard sandwiches, a common staple.  Photo courtesy of Russel Lee.

Two tenant farmers. Note the boarded window.  Winters were cold.  Photo courtesy of Dorothea Lang.                                                                                                                                     

A sharecropper's wife.  Photo courtesy of Arthur Rothstein.

A sharecropper's child suffering from rickets and malnutrition.  Photo courtesy of Arthur Rothstein.

Evicted sharecroppers.  They received a small salary for work in the fields six days a week, but most landowners charged exorbitant  rents and inflated prices for subsistence goods in the farm's store.  This was a sharecropper's greatest fear and fueled the system.  There was no place to go.  Many huddled near roads until police made them move.  Photo courtesy of John Vachon.

Patched window on sharecropper's house.    Few landowners made repairs.  Shacks (as they were called) lacked in-door plumbing; most didn't have electricity.  Sharecropper families tended to be large.  Shacks usually had one or two rooms and a kitchen, often a galley kitchen.  Kids slept on discarded mattress on the floor, as many as possible to a mattress.  Each field hand received a small salary, so the drop-out rate from school was alarming.  Illiteracy and poverty prevailed.  The Federal government made numerous attempts to dismantle the system, but nothing cracked the unified Old South until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Photo courtesy of Arthur Rothstein.
Interior of sharecropper shack.  Photo courtesy of Ben Shahn.
Sharecroppers weighing cotton.  Photo courtesy of Ben Shaln.  Post's header courtesy of Carl Mydens.  All photos are in a collection of donated photos in the Memory Room in the United States Library of Congress.  Go here if you wish to see more.  Type "tenant farmer" in the search box, at the top right.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Remy Broussard's Classroom

My Christmas story, "Remy Broussard's Christmas," now available on Kindle, evolved from my formative years on my grandparents' farm in South Louisiana in the 1950s.  Last year, I blogged about how my grandfather left to work on the Panama Canal the day after his marriage to my grandmother.  For a year, he lived in a primitive barrack, somehow avoided malaria, ate the slop the company served for food, saved every penny earned, and returned to Louisiana to pay cash for a farm that prospered.

My younger sister and I lived with our parents for awhile, in campus housing (Quonset huts) for married students (demolished years ago) while my father attended Louisiana State University's School of Law in Baton Rouge.  About a year prior to graduation, my mother, sister, and I moved to my grandparents' farm, into a lovely new house across the pasture from my grandparents' Big House.  (In the South, the owners of the land, with family for neighbors, lived in the Big House, so-called, regardless of how big or small.)

The Louisiana stories I've blogged are from this period, when I ran barefoot, as free as the wind that tousled my hair and as happy as the sun that tickled my freckles.  "Remy Broussard's Christmas" fast-forwards, to a three-room schoolhouse, with two elementary grades in each room.  I attended this schoolhouse.  Each year, when schools re-open though out the country, my eyes tear up.  I can see myself standing in the first-grade line.  What makes the tears fall is that I see Daddy, when I take a last look backwards, as the line begins to move inside, and he's waving a little wave.  Tears are streaming down his face.  (I'm tearing up now, writing the memory.  Will take a little break.)

After a friend read a draft of "Remy Broussard's Christmas," he said he loved the story but suggested I exaggerated the Spartan classroom.  He paled when I said I sat in Remy's chair in that classroom.

The positioning of blackboards, doors, windows, and workstations are accurate, as are George Washington's portrait-like image and clock above the blackboard at the front of the room.  There is no positioning of maps or educational toys because they weren't there to position.  However, in order to move my fictitious characters, I did shorten class rows, removing two students from each row.

In my story, the classroom is a combined third- and fourth-grade classroom.  Remy is in the third-grade and sits next to the row that begins the fourth-grade.

Because my parents and grandparents had spent time with me, when I entered first-grade, I could read, knew my numbers, and then, as now, possessed an inquisitive mind.  When I completed first-grade assignments, I'd listen to what the teacher taught the second-grade.  I knew not to raise my hand during second-grade lessons (as that was forbidden in the combined classrooms), but the teacher began putting their worksheets on my desk.

At the end of the school year, I passed a special test with flying colors and skipped the second year of formal education.  This enabled me to enter university at the age of 16.

But, whoa!  I had family who spent time with me.  I had food.  I lived in a lovely home.  This home had electricity, running water, and in-door plumbing.  This home had heat in winter and fans in summer.  I didn't pick cotton or milk cows or help bale hay or chop wood for a wood-burning stove.  I had chores, of course, but a kid's chores.  I had to keep my room neat (and keep a neat house to this day), help set the dinner table, and contribute what a kid could to the family unit. I had a doll (Betsy) I loved, the extent of my toys.  I didn't think to ask for toys, didn't dream about toys, didn't know a toy shop existed in Baton Rouge.  

Many of my classmates, however, didn't live a kid's life.  It wasn't unusual for a third-grade boy to drive a tractor or handle a mule-pulled wagon.  Many of my classmates wore their parents' clothes to school.  When the school day ended, they stopped being kids and entered an adult's world.  Their parents were sharecroppers.

In my next post, I'll write about the sharecropper system, the world that imprisoned Remy.

Since my grandparents and parents didn't approve of the sharecropper system, sharecroppers didn't live on the farm.  When my grandfather needed help, he paid a fair wage for honest work.  Unlike many other landowners, my grandparents and parents allowed me to visit sharecropper kids who were friends from school (and vice versa) when time opened up.  Decent, hard-working people shouldn't live like what I saw.  And therein lies my passion:  Their lives can't be forgotten.

Nor can the lives of decent, hard-working African-American sharecroppers be forgotten.  In the segregated Old South, they lived apart from white sharecroppers.  The KKK (Ku Klux Klan) knew where they lived.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Birth Announcement

On Friday, November 5, 2011, at 11:32 PM, Eastern Standard Time (U.S.), Remy Broussard entered the world!  A few hours ago, Remy left Kindle's nursery (draft) and is walking and talking on his own and is available for purchase on Kindle.

Click HERE and you'll meet Remy.

OMG, I'm published.  Wheeeeee!

Rachel Morgan designed the outfit (cover)  Remy would wear as he couldn't walk around in his birthday suit. She also prepared the delivery room (format) with such meticulous care and dedication my little push at the end was easy.

Rachel blogged about formatting elements a bit earlier.  Please drop by (click link above) for e-pub details that could help you. Rachel's very kind and generous and only said she 'helped a friend'!  I'm here to shout it from the roof tops that without Rachel's extraordinary talents, Remy would still be in the womb.  From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Rachel!

At about 14,000 words, Remy's short.

"Remy Broussard's Christmas" will be $3.99. (I hear you gasp!)

Although I've been under a rock (at the computer non-stop) for a few weeks, I'm fully aware of discussions in Blogville about how much an e-pub should cost.  I didn't weigh in because I had to give the matter some thought, not only because I knew Remy was in the chute, but because I'm new at this and lacked a point of reference. (Hope this makes sense.)

Well, a quick break for a hamburger did the trick.  (Didn't have time to cook, so slipped into fast foods.  I'm pretty much a health nut, but something had to give so time could open up.)

I paid $5.99 for a Whopper, fries, and a drink.  The burger line at a nearby food court was long.  I could have gone to the much, much line for a huge slice of pizza for less than $2.00 and free water, but, no, I waited because I wanted a Whopper.

Okay, I enjoyed the burger, am blessed with good cholesterol numbers (and rarely eat burgers, actually) and left the food court quite happy.

On the way home, I got to thinking, hmmm, why should fast food cost more than an e-pub that required a zillion HOURS to write???  Something's not right here, I thought.

I knew, from a link Rachel had sent, that pricing at $2.99 pushed the envelope.  So, hmmm, a decision loomed:  Did I want to push the envelope or open the envelope?

Me being me, I decided to open the envelope and priced Remy at $3.99.  I fully realize this affects number sales but am willing to take the hit to touch a larger issue.  I think indie books are priced waaaaaay too low but think pricing should be fair.  As far as I'm concerned, people who can afford to purchase fast food can afford to purchase an e-pub.

Kindle allows sharing for 14 days, i.e,  a reader who purchases Remy can share with countless friends during that period.  That's a pretty good deal.  Imagine sharing a burger with friends for 14 days!

More about the lessons Remy taught me another day.  Right now, I've got household stuff to do *groans* and Remy's dad will call soon. *smiles at the thought*  Dad's in the Middle East on a business trip, not anywhere near harm's way, and is popping buttons on his shirt he's so proud.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Making Progress; A Little Girl Loves Tuna Fish

Thank you, thank you for your patience!  Nature's damage has been repaired.  Summer and fall/winter clothes have been switched.  What a relief it is to have a sense of order.  I'm a Cancerian and have to have home and hearth in sync, not every mag or tea cup, but enough so I can focus on other matters.

Like "Remy Broussard's Christmas," my Christmas story I want to upload to Amazon soon.  (Any suggestions as to when would be the best time?  I have had visions of Remy buried beneath an avalanche of holiday stories.  Poor kid.  He's only eight-years-old.)

I think it worked out for the best that my net book died while we were on holiday.  Not reading Remy for some weeks opened my eyes.  Yep, there were mistakes I wouldn't have known how to correct if it weren't for all the fab blogs I've read.  Thank you to all who were so honest and up-front about what could go wrong and how to correct it.  This is not to say I've spotted every angle begging for help (Ha!)  The story is my first time out of the block.  Six weeks from now, I'll probably read what I wrote and die a thousand deaths!

But that's a minor emotion compared to how I felt earlier this morning, a routine morning where garbage/recyclables are picked up.  I'd put the bags out last night.  This morning I decided to add a couple of Diet Pepsi cans to the recycle bag.

Looking like one does in the morning, I opened the front door, stepped outside, and froze.

A little girl, about eight years old, with long brown hair, neatly brushed back from her face, rummaged through the bags.

She was careful not to dirty her dark blue smock (with coordinated turtleneck beneath) or scuff her lace-up shoes with white, folded socks at the ankles.

My mind raced - what to do?  Should I offer her a peach and a banana?  Should I call the county?  A child going through rubbish, no no.

In the split second when I had to make a decision, her mother appeared, walking around the corner on the left.  As her mother approached, the child looked up.  She had eyes as blue as a spring sky.

"Can I help you?" I asked the mother.  She was neatly dressed and groomed.

"We are looking for coupons," she replied.

"I love tuna fish," the daughter added.

My face fell.  "I'm sorry there aren't any coupons.  I clip and pass on to a neighbor what I don't use."

"Maybe next time," the mother said, waving as she walked away, daughter in tow.

"Wait," I called.  "I have tuna fish in the pantry."

"Maybe next time," the mother said.  "I'm sure we'll find some coupons."

Monday, August 29, 2011

"Goodnight, Irene" - A Louisiana Memory

My heart goes out to all those in Irene's path.  It's difficult to look at the news.  So many lives lost.  So much devastation.  My hub's from New Hampshire...we were in Vermont not long ago - drove up through central New York - Irene's path rips at our hearts.  When the tears dry, we're just going to have to take a collective breath and re-build.  Queen Elizabeth II said it best (when Princess Diana died, I believe), "Stay calm and carry on."  Back when I was in my twenties, I learned that lesson the hard way.  But, once learned, the road opened.  Today's quickly jotted down Louisiana Memory . . . .

* * * * *


I sat sideways on the porch's top step and hugged my knees.  Mama wiped her brow with the back of her hand and settled into the rocking chair near the ivy-filled planter.  She tossed her blond curls and made a face at the pasture in front of her.

I didn't have to follow her eyes to know the grass had blurred into a white haze beneath the hot Louisiana sun or that the road in front of the farm reached long and empty, with neither car nor mule wagon to break the monotony.  Nothing moved, a sound of nothing I liked because I'd been born into it.  Not Mama.  On days like today, when steaming hot quiet would stretch into sultry dark quiet, Mama fussed about leaving New Orleans for 'this,' what she called my grandparents' farm in South Central Louisiana. 
"Oh, to hear a streetcar's rumble," Mama moaned as she balanced a magazine clipping of a shirtwaist dress, the latest 1952 fashion, on top of the ivy.  And, then, after a long sigh, "We live in the middle of nowhere."

I did what I always did when adults made statements that made no sense:  I froze into a cross between a freckle-faced, five-year-old kid and a bug-eyed frog, mouth agape in either species. Sarah, two years younger, shattered the stillness by slamming the screen door and screaming Ma was coming.  "Great," Mama groaned as her mother-in-law, the inhabitant of The Big House across the left pasture (because she and Pa owned the farm), the queen of gossip along the bayou (according to Daddy), and decider of all issues, big and small (according to Mama), approached our porch from a path that ran alongside our house (a bit sneaky, even I had to admit).

But, the sin warranted immediate forgiveness:  My grandmother, a petite stick of Creole dynamite, carried a plate of cookies covered with waxed paper.  Sarah and I erupted into giggles and raced to Ma's side.  By the time Mama made lemonade, Pa returned from checking cows in the back pasture and joined us.  Minutes later, Daddy turned into the farm's entrance.  On weekends he returned home from Louisiana State University's School of Law in Baton Rouge.
As the cookies disappeared and conversation mellowed, late afternoon turned into evening shade. Sarah and I played on the steps with our dolls. Mama and Daddy sat on the swing, opposite Ma and Pa in the rocking chairs.  As he sometimes did, Daddy stretched his long legs, clasped his hands behind his head and hummed a song during a break in the conversation.  I couldn't see, but knew his blue eyes twinkled, just like Mama's did whenever Daddy came home.

Tonight, though, he stood as he hummed and tugged Mama to her feet.  She laughed as he pulled her closer, then, hands and arms positioned outward, he swirled her around the porch as he sang,"Goodnight, Irene; I'll see you in my dreams . . . . "  They looked like Clark Gable and Ginger Rogers.  My mouth fell open.

Years later, on the day their divorce became final, I thought friends had exaggerated how disastrous a divorce could be.  After all, they were still my parents.  Life went on.  It took time for the enormity of what had happened to sink in, for me to repair my soul.

Yes, goodnight, Irene.  You won't be forgotten, but we will move on.

Friday, August 26, 2011

German Fairy Tales and Great Expectations

Updates:  Thank you, thank you for your get-well wishes!  They greatly helped.  After a challenging week (we had a bit of damage - not structural - from the earthquake), yesterday was the first day I felt like my ole self and jumped into the day - to prepare for the hurricane that's barreling up the East Coast.  Please, please, if you're in the zone, take Irene seriously!!  This Louisiana gal doesn't trust hurricanes.  Those things are trouble!

Anyway, the prelude to a question that bothers me: some years ago I decided what knowledge I possessed of the German language required an infusion and registered for an intermediate course at Georgetown University.  The course description, which I carefully read, built upon my level one abilities.  Pleased, even excited, I traipsed to the bookstore, only to learn the instructor would provide the book in the classroom for students to purchase.

Two weeks later, German fairy tales and quaint words focused my life. 

Instead of much-needed conversational scenerios, I struggled with headless horsemen and forest witches.  With my head bombarded by verbs I'd probably never use at the Haufbrau Haus, I thought to drop the course.  This urge to take flight disappeared, however, when reality dawned:  People died in some of these fairy tales.  I wanted to know how this could be.  Unhappy endings didn't occur in Cinderella's world!

Over cups of coffee, I asked a German friend visiting the States, "How can you have fairy tales without a happy ending?"

"Because life is life," she replied and went on to say, basically, that if one always expected a happy ending, this expectation magnified the impact of even the slightest bump on the road of life.

By the end of my German course, I felt a sense of academic accomplishment:  I'd survived rather nicely. In the personal sense, I had a stronger grip on my mother's favorite saying:  "Life isn't a fairy tale."  A U-turn back to basics kept my hands on the wheel whenever life's road got bumpy. 

Now, I mention this today because, during the past six months, I've noticed more and more crisply written book reviews in various newspapers conclude with, "The ending wasn't what I expected."  

True, a book review reflects what the reviewer thinks. Some reviewers live in the first person.  That's okay; the ground rules are laid out.  It's when a crisp, third person review concludes with tacked-on personal sentiment that I wonder what's going on.  Even if the reviewer says the unexpected ending 'worked,' a tiny cloud hangs over the entire book.  In a tight market, this cloud can turn into the kiss of death.

So, okay, who's in charge of a novel or story's resolution, the author or a reviewer's great expectations for sugar-coated, fairy tale-like endings?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dikembe Mutombo and "Play Big"

Dikembe Mutombo, the Congolese-American NBA basketball player, caught my attention in a Sports Illustrated summer issue.  The 7'1/" (2.18m) superstar retired in 2009 after earning the Defensive Player of the Year Award four times and with a reputation as one of basketball's greatest shot blockers.  What caught my attention, though, was how he accepted his height and tuned what others thought a liability into an asset.

When Mutombo was a kid - a very tall, very skinny, very poor kid in a dusty African village -some though thought he was a phantom and ran from him.  Instead of bemoaning his fate, Mutombo maintained a forward-thinking attitude and, well, the rest is history that bubbles into a retirement centered on humanitarian works that include building medical facilities in his home country, with his own money and through his foundation.  Dikembe Mutombo has received many awards for his humanitarian work.

To help support his humanitarian projects, Mutombo gives speeches world-wide and sells various basketball-related items, one of which is a T-shirt that says "Play Big."  The logo made me sit up straight - and start thinking!  I don't know about you, but I do know there have been times when I've held back for fear a character's personality would be too bold (or too sensitive).  The fear, of course, corresponds to societal norms of what's expected, norms that are often more perceived than real.  No one wants to be rejected by society or sense disapproval.  No one wants others to run from him/her. The compromise is to play safe - characters don't ever live outside the box, so to speak.

I've had time to think about this because I'm recovering from strep throat, an unwelcome holiday souvenir in the larger sense  - who likes being sick?  Ugh! - but time to think is good. What I've come up with is this:  I sometimes want to stifle my characters to protect myself.  I don't want the reader to think that the character's sensitivity (or boldness or anger or happiness) is my emotion, a release of my character and a path to who I am, for I don't believe any writer can fully distance himself/herself from the written word.

 Just as I decided to face that fearful word change and open up more, my hub handed me the latest issue of Vanity Fair.  On the cover was a quote from Johann von Goethe:  "We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden."

Mutombo and Goethe - they play well together.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Maw Maw's Kitchen (Eileen's Louisiana Story); Going on Holiday

(Updates:  Hubby and I are going on holiday next week for five weeks, returning early August.  After six months of planning, we are very excited that British friends will join us for a week!!

Like last year, I'll have my net book (aka "Jenny") for a few posts. Jenny is downright cranky at times.  I'll keep in touch as best I can.  But, from our house to yours, hub and I wish all of you a glorious summer that's forever in your hearts!

I hope Eileen's Louisiana story today touches your hearts.  As I mentioned in the previous post, Steen's cane syrup in the yellow can triggers a certain nostalgia.  Yes, plastic came along and does what plastic does for products.  It's the 'yellow can,' though, that begs another time.  Eileen has written eloquently - and truthfully - about those days.  She's the little girl in the story.  The photo after the story is of her grandparents' house.

Eileen is a dear and wonderful friend who lives in Ascension Parish, Louisiana.  I'm honored she's sharing her 'yellow can' story and hope you will heart her.

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Maw Maw's Kitchen
Maw Maw's shadow dances across the wall as she goes from room to room lighting oil lamps as dusk turns to dark.  The braid which had been coiled into a tight knot at the nape of her neck now hangs freely like a shining silver rope down her back and falls across her shoulder as she bends to offer a good-night kiss. 

Mosquito netting draped around the antique bed sways gently in the cool winter breeze which whistles through the slightly opened window, and the final licks of flame shrink as the fire calms itself for the night.  Silent prayers of thanks are interrupted by the cadence of croaking frogs, the mournful howl of an unknown animal, and the hushed voices of Maw Maw and Paw Paw as they sit waiting for the embers to fade to ashes.

Sleep comes quickly to the child beneath the stack of handmade quilts who knows she will soon be awakened by the smell of sweet, hickory bacon and the sound of it sizzling in Maw Maw's favorite little black skillet.  Warm bread fresh from the oven will be covered with thick black syrup which pours so very slowly from the bright yellow can, its sweetness tempered by the bitter pureness of milk straight from the cow.  Only later will she realize this was a place and time of simple goodness.

Eileen's photo of Maw Maw's house.  It's so warm and inviting.  So much goodness there!

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Amazing Grace" in Cajun French; Up, Up, and Away (Romantic Friday Writers)

A warm welcome to new followers!  I'm humbled by how my blog has grown.  I never, ever thought this would happen when I first sat at the keyboard.  A new computer later (old Bertha decided to move on), I'm in the same room, my left leg propped on the chair, window open, the fan humming - -  thanks to all of you for sharing this evening with me.  I'm forever grateful for how all of you have enriched my life from Day One.

But, ahem, I can't reach some of you. I really want to get to know you! Please check your avatar to see if your photo links to your blog.  (Or leave a comment; that'll get me back to you.)  For those of you in a rush, the Romantic Friday Writer's entry is after the video clip.)

Eileen, a beautiful, caring friend I'm blessed to have, lives in Gonzales (Ascension Parish), Louisiana. The other day she sent me a YouTube link to "Amazing Grace" in Cajun French. My eyes misted - the singing, the landscape scenes.  In an upcoming post, I hope to share with you Eileen's memory about Steen's cane syrup and her Maw Maw's house.  She won an award for what she wrote.  Her terrific writing tugs at the heart and stirs the child in each of us.

For today's video, a Southwest Louisiana singing group, Les Amies Louisianaises, sings in the background of the YouTube clip, until the final scene.  The literal translation of La Grace du Ciel is "The Grace of Heaven."

Louisiana Belle posted this video Christmas before last.  As when Eileen sent the clip, I watched it several times.  I thought you would enjoy a certain sense of purity the video captures.  (If you get a chance, check out Louisiana Belle.  She takes amazing photos and has an equally beautiful writing voice.)  My thanks to Eileen and Belle for this gorgeous slice of Louisiana HERE!

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And, now for Romantic Friday Writers.

Please note prior to reading today's entry:  Whether wise or not, I've decided to remain within my characters:  Pierre, Yvette, and Windsor. 

Since I can't carry the back story in 400 words, this is a synopsis of previous entries: Pierre dumped Yvette for another gal. Yvette fled to Hawaii to work for her Aunt Claire in a surfing shop. Yvette fell into a party-hardy crowd. Aunt Claire screwed her head on straight. Ginger, the trust-fund gal who mistakenly got Yvette into that crowd, had pangs of guilt and treated her to a weekend at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel - so she could meet Windsor Smith, her uber-rich, gorgeous cousin.  Back in Grand Isle, Louisiana, Pierre worked on a shrimp boat after the gal he left Yvette for dumped him. He thought he'd forgotten about Yvette until something silly stirred his passion.

The theme for for this week's Romantic Friday Writers'  entry is "Up, Up, and Away."

"Up, Up, and Away" (400 words)

The flight attendant stared at Pierre, then at his boarding pass.  "Follow me, sir."  She turned left, toward the jet's business cabin.
"But my ticket says I'm in coach," Pierre protested as he manipulated his carry-on around passengers.

She half-turned.  "Chuck - the guy who owns Chuck's Place on Grand isle - he's my brother-in-law."

"Chuck e-mailed me your photo.  He said you needed quality time with a gal you love in Hawaii."  She held her hand up.  "I'm not interested in the details.  I just told Chuck I'd help."  She escorted Pierre to seat 3A.  "There's no first-class on this flight from New Orleans to Honolulu, only business."  She secured his carry-on in the overhead bin.
Pierre glanced at her name tag.  "Thank you, Monique."  He dipped his chin.  "I - er, I could've stored my bag."  His eyes scanned the cabin.  "Now I know why Chuck insisted I wear a sports jacket.  Guess I was blown away by the upgrade and forgot my manners.  I apologize."
 "No prob - "
"Excuse me," a passenger interrupted as Pierre sat near the window.  "Where's seat 3B?"
Monique gestured into the aisle seat next to Pierre.  "Right here, sir.  May I help you with your carry-on?"

"That's okay.  I can handle it."  Monique nodded to the smartly dressed man with Hollywood good looks and moved to return to her coach cabin. The passenger extended his hand to Pierre as he sat down.  "Windsor.  Windsor Smith."

"Pierre.  Pierre Lafourche.  Nice to meet you."

"Same here."  Windsor reached for a glass of champagne on the flight attendant's tray.  Pierre followed his lead.  Windsor took a sip of his champagne and relaxed into his seat. "I should be on the corporate jet to Venezuela with my father.  We had business in New Orleans.  I don't normally fly commercial.  But - "  He flashed a conspiratorial grin.  "Something's hot in Honolulu."  He paused.  "I'm in international investments.  What about you?"

"Seafood," Pierre answered.  A smile played on his lips.

"My company's in New York City.  We work the anchovy market in Argentina."

"I'm more into shrimp and catfish."
"The catfish that got away?"  Windsor laughed at his joke.

Pierre's black eyes narrowed.  "Maybe."

"Sorry, old boy, didn't mean to pry."  He leaned into Pierre.  "I know how it is.  My father would disown me if he knew I was meeting this Cajun chick in Honolulu."

Pierre gave him a curious look.  "Really?  What's her name?"


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To return to Romantic Friday Writers click here.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Steen's Cane Syrup; Romantic Friday Writers

My entry for Romantic Friday Writers is further down, after this about Louisiana:

With no disrespect to maple syrup (for it is delicious and natural - I love natural,) I  never tasted maple syrup when I was a kid in South Louisiana. We drizzled Steen's Cane Syrup on our pancakes or French toast. Now, I mention this, not because I'm pushing a product - I'm not - but because I'm reading more and more about cane syrup these days, an alternative to the sweet stuff manufacturers dump into some products. Cane syrup is made from sugar cane, a major crop in Louisiana, and is a natural golden sweetness. 

Since I only enjoyed, never made cane syrup, I turned to Wikipedia for this:  Cane syrup is a concentration of cane juice produced through long cooking in open kettles.  It's sweeter than molasses because no refined sugar is removed. 

There was a time when other companies in the U.S. besides Steen's produced cane syrup.  But as the population acquired a taste for artificial sweeteners and refined sugar, company after company disappeared.  Only Steen's remains.  It's been in business since 1910, still in Abbeville, Louisiana, in the heart of Cajun Country.  The picture's a bit fuzzy (as I enlarged the tiny one from Wikipedia.)  Nevermind.  I love that yellow can.  I hope it doesn't disappear.
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Romantic Friday WritersFor those of you who are new (Hi!), I try to participate in Romantic Friday Writers - didn't make it last week; we had a houseful of guests.  Each week, Denise and Francine post the week's theme.  We have to remain within 400 words.  Now, I'm not a romantic writer and make no pretensions as such.  However, I am in love with Louisiana.  These entries have helped me strengthen verbs and so on for my stories.  I am thankful for that improvement!  (The trailer for my first self-pub, "Remy Broussard's Christmas," is at the top of my sidebar.)

Whether wise or not, I'm continuing with a story line.  Since I can't carry the backstory in 400 words, this is a synopsis:  Pierre dumped Yvette for another gal.  Yvette fled to Hawaii to work for her Aunt Claire in a surfing shop.  Yvette fell into a party-hardy crowd.  Aunt Claire screwed her head on straight.  Ginger, the trust-fund gal who mistakenly got Yvette into that crowd, had pangs of guilt and treated her to a weekend at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel - so she could meet Windsor Smith, her uber-rich, gorgeous cousin.  This week's entry centers on Pierre. (400 words)

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Forgotten (Maybe Not)

Pierre swung himself over the shrimp boat's railing and onto the dock.  About twenty-eight years old, he was tall and muscled-lean, with classic French features.  He adjusted his LSU baseball cap and whistled as he walked toward Chuck's Place, the honky-tonk bar on Grand Isle where shrimpers gathered for cold beer and Cajun music.  A warm afternoon breeze off the Gulf of Mexico fluttered his short-sleeve, unbuttoned shirt.  The tail hung loose over faded jeans.

"Hey!  You stepped on a new penny," a man called.  Pierre stopped.  The man, a shrimper with white hair and gnarled hands, wrapped a final loop of rope to tie-up his shrimp boat.  He then straightened, legs parted to balance waves that lapped the boat.  "Better get that penny before we have bad luck.  We don't need another oil slick."  He pointed to a wood-plank behind Pierre.  The copper coin glistened in the sun, an orb of hope beneath a cloudless blue sky.

"Thanks, Bertrand.  We had a good catch this morning.  Don't want to mess things up."  Pierre turned and reached for the penny.  "Who knows," he laughed.  "If I find enough of these babies, I'll be able to buy my own boat."

"Be careful what you wish for.  I barely made payroll last month."  Bertrand shook his head and disappeared into the boat's cabin.

Pierre shrugged a carefree nonchalance and flipped the coin high.  He missed the catch.  The penny landed on the dock and rolled toward a crevice.  He rushed to grab the coin.  "Damn," he muttered as it fell into the water.

"Why the long face?" Chuck asked, after he popped Pierre's usual, a long-necked beer.

"Oh, nothing important."  Pierre downed a long swig of the beer.  "I dropped a new penny I found into the water.  Hope that sucker didn't take my good luck with it."  He finished the beer.  "How about another?  It's hotter than hell outside."

Chuck placed the second beer in front of Pierre.  "Weren't you with some gal at Mardi Gras who talked about saving pennies for a wedding?"

Pierre froze.  The color drained from his face.  "Yvette," he muttered. "I thought I'd forgotten about her."  He drained the beer and picked at the label with his finger nail.  "Where did you go, Yvette?" he asked himself. He laced his hands around the bottle.  "Why did you return?"

Chuck placed another beer on the counter.  "This one's on me."

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(To return to the fest, click here)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tuskegee Airmen and Louisiana Memories; Fictional Characters

A big Thank You to Alex J. Cavanaugh for hosting the "It's All Fun & Games Blog Fest."  We bloggers know how to have a good time!

And a big Welcome to my new Followers - It's nice to meet you! *waves*  (Would Cheryl and Arcadia 1997 please drop me a comment; I can't link to you. *sighs*)

A PBS television program about the Tuskegee Airmen and numerous descriptions of fictional book characters who have 'nothing' prompted this post.  Specifically, I'd like to take a look at this 'nothing' so many write about, ie, in the physical possession sense.  It's all relative, of course.  And therein lies the fault line.  How does an author describe a character so the reader can relate?

First, to the Tuskegee Airmen - Two years ago, my husband and I had the honor and privilege to sit with several of the Tuskegee Airmen at a function held in Washington, D.C.  These distinguished African-Americans helped crack the racial ceiling on March 19, 1941 with the formation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron (47 officers and 429 enlisted men.)  At that time, widespread opinion in the United States was skeptical that blacks could fight as good as whites in World War II.  However, the Tuskegee Airmen earned combat ribbon after combat ribbon and proved everyone wrong.

At war's end (1939-1945), combat forces returned home to a hero's welcome.

Not so fast.

In February 1946, African-American veteran Issac Woodard was attacked and blinded by policemen in Aiken, Georgia. (The Harry Truman Library)  In July 1946, two African-American veterans and their wives were executed (60 bullets) by a white mob in Georgia.  (Harry Truman Library)

Amid significant controversy, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948 that desegregated all units within the United States military.  Accustomed to following orders, the military desegregated and is today, by all accounts, an integrated military that marches as one.

Some of the Tuskegee Airmen remained in the military after World War II.  Those who returned to the  South returned to 'separate but equal' facilities (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896 Supreme Court decision) that enabled segregation. 

The sharecropper system also divided along racial lines.  This economic system, whereby field hands worked off exorbitant rents for houses occupied, divided black and white sharecroppers:  White sharecroppers usually lived in the more front-facing shacks; black sharecroppers usually lived in shacks positioned further back on a farm.

These two groups of very poor people, the poorest rung on the economic ladder, interacted during working hours, usually because a white sharecropper supervised a black sharecropper.

The U.S. Census couldn't accurately record how many sharecroppers existed.  Dirt paths or wagon-rutted farm roads usually led to these tucked away shacks.  For both races, babies were born and babies died, often buried on the farm, without record.  As were the sick and the infirm.  Few sharecroppers paid state or federal taxes.  Pay taxes on what?  So, scant records there.

Many sharecroppers - and especially black sharecroppers - lived in shacks without electricity.  Or running water.  Roofs leaked.  Windows had patched cardboard to block the cold.  Sharecroppers could grow their own food - this sounds rather quaint, almost self-sufficient romantic - but sharecroppers didn't have the run of the farm for personal gardens.  Shacks usually had hardened 'yards' where scrawny chickens pecked.  Chicken eggs provided year-round food, unlike green beans.  So kids played where the chickens crapped.

People died.  Lots of people died young.  No medical insurance.  No dental insurance (it was common for people to die from dental infections.)  No Medicare.  No Medicaid.  Social Security existed - but back to those missing records.  Lots of sharecroppers - especially black sharecroppers - simply didn't exist.  So, no Social Security checks.

For many white sharecroppers, though, the KuKluxKlan provided a measure of superiority.  Ever heard of those dudes in white sheets and pointy hats?  The KKK rode against my grandfather once - tried to intimidate him into selling off some land at a cheap price. (He didn't!)  It wasn't until I was a grown woman that my father told me who had been active in the KKK in our area:  The fathers of lots of kids I went to school with, that's who.  You see, the yellow school bus picked up all white kids and delivered them to a segregated school.  Black students got to school (if a schoolhouse existed) as best they could.  Black and white sharecropper kids dropped out of school at alarming rates.

The sharecropper system needed the students who dropped out of school.  They fed the system with a stream of muscled labor.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 destroyed the sharecropper system.  A Federal law mandated that if a sharecropper occupied housing not maintained for a significant period of time, that plot of land belonged to the sharecropper.  Practically overnight, farmers had shacks torn down.

So, back to a WIP character (a work in progress character) having 'nothing' -  this is all relative.  I don't think a struggling college student who works two jobs and carries a student loan has 'nothing' - to me, the character maximizes opportunity for a broader future.  I know a 64 year-old man and his wife who lived in million-dollar waterfront property.  He earned enormous income.  But, by his own admission, he cut one deal too many and lost it all to bankruptcy. 

They now live off of Social Security in a small, rented apartment.  Does he have 'nothing?'  Not if he has a roof over his head, food, and some income, the physical basics.  But he struggles.  There's a difference.  'Nothing' is a basic bottom line, not to be confused with what one wants.

One of the Tuskegee Airmen at my table in that posh hotel said, "It's not easy to survive nothing."

                                                        Tuskegee Airman (Wikipedia)

Restored P-51 Mustang associated with the Tuskegee Airmen (Wikipedia)  Note the red tail...the Airmen painted tails red so Allied forces wouldn't mistake them for the enemy.  This wasn't racially motivated, but a preventive combat measure.  However, the Airmen proudly refer to themselves today as the "Red Tails" and often wear signature red jackets (which they wore the evening I met some of them.)

Support training squadron airplanes, with the Tuskegee Airmen's Red Tail, at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, honor the Tuskegee Airmen today. (Wikipedia)  You can visit the Airmen's Web site here.


Monday, April 4, 2011

Welcome to Okinawa; Blogfest

Welcome to Okinawa is a story about a long-ago day.  Before we get on that airplane (or after our journey), please take a sec to visit Tami Marie at The Things We Find Inside.  It's her birthday!  She's celebrating with a birthday bash to remember - and lots of giveaways and a blogfest!  Tami Marie's from Trinidad and has a business there.  She's a self-described "80's baby, a lover of animals and nature...and a lover of life."  We met through some photos she'd taken of a harbor in Trinidad.  She's got an awesome number of followers, but finds time to make each of us feel special.  I like that.  And think you will, too.

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This post is dedicated to my husband, a recipient of the Silver Star medal, and to all those who serve and have served.  Semper Fi! 

Welcome to Okinawa

Days come; days go. Days roll into life. Days shrink the calendar into a vacation.  Days challenge with the unexpected.  Days end with dreams come true.  Days roll emotion and tragedy and beauty together.  Every now and then there is a day when time pauses and one wonders Why? How? If? and thinks Yes; No; Maybe; I don't know; I understand; I don't understand - before the next day dawns.  Here was such a day: 

After graduation from Louisiana State University and a couple of years teaching experience, I decided the time had come to test my wings. I accepted a teaching position with the United States Department of Defense to teach on one of our military bases.  My assignment:  Okinawa (then a U.S. territory but long-since reverted to Japan.)

Family members shook their heads. The Vietnam War raged.  How could I live on a faraway island, a staging area for the Vietnam War, when life was so good here, in New Orleans?  They meant, of course, convenient access to family, that the bird would fly the nest and live - around the corner?  A puddle hop wasn't my idea of soaring.

I bought two red American Tourister suitcases, sewed appropriate dresses, skirts, and casual wear (for most everybody sewed in 1968), and flew from New Orleans to San Francisco. 

With red suitcases in hand (for wheeled luggage hadn't been invented), I traversed to the international terminal, presented my government orders to the clerk at the the old Northweat Orient Airlines counter, and checked in for the flight to Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa. 

It was a chartered flight, a jumbo jet filled with soldiers, sailors, marines, and civilian government employees like myself.  I wore a simple sleeveless dress with a simple jacket.  Over 95% of the other passengers wore military service uniforms.  I was off to see the world.  They were off to war.  Big difference!

Prior to leaving New Orleans, no one had briefed me on what to expect, except for a two-page letter from the U.S. Government.  The first page provided Okinawa's geographic location:  An island about 464 square miles (1,201 sq. km) approximately 400 miles south of Japan that was the largest island in the Ryukyuan chain.  The second page listed suggested clothing to bring, most of which I sewed.  The mink coat the letter recommended, well, forget that!

The first leg of the flight, to Honolulu, Hawaii, was quiet with the (then) expected meals and movie.  When the plane left Honolulu for the next leg, to Wake Island (a U.S. territory), many in uniform became nostalgic.  We were officially outside the borders of the United States.  I can only imagine their thoughts. Surely it had to be difficult for the news about Vietnam war casualities was never good.

When we landed on Wake Island, we made a mad dash to the terminal for our last taste of fresh (not reconstituted) milk, disguised as ice cream.  Like others, I ordered three vanilla scoops.  And, like the other passengers, I stopped midway back to the plane.  The landing strip on Wake Island didn't leave room for error.  The plane's nose wasn't that far from very blue water.

The flight from Wake Island to Okinawa turned into a long haul.  Some slept.  Most didn't.  Conversation that had been sparse since the journey began disappeared.  A certain nervousness had permeated the aircraft.  I say 'certain' because I have never since felt such tight vibes.  I have also never since flown into a staging area for a war.

The plane landed at Kadena Air Force Base at about 3:00 a.m.  Very tired, we straggled off the plane.  Among the uniformed personnel, a slight streak of gallows humor prevailed as we walked from the tarmac to the terminal.  If I had been inside a movie, I suppose the director would have inserted raw expletatives.  That seems to be the way these days with books as well.  But, no, the profanity many have come to rely upon in 2011 wasn't said in the wee hours of that August morning in 1968.  And, counter image, everyone was unfailingly polite.

I sometimes think back to that walk, from airplane to terminal.  Most of the uniformed personnel would remain on Okinawa for scant days, then face their fate in Vietnam.  Yet, politeness prevailed.  When I crossed toward Safeway's entrance last week, the nicely dressed young teens ahead of me couldn't drop  expletives fast enough. I couldn't help but wonder how they'd handle the rest of their lives.

Anyway, inside Kadena's large waiting area, soldiers, sailors (medics), and marines waited.  Lots of them.  Enough to fill the jumbo jet we'd come in on.  They began boarding before I exited that section of the terminal - on their way to Vietnam.  Laughter filled their steps.  The fear that laced the laughter made my blood run cold.  Statistics said some would return to the United States in a flag-draped coffin. 

Outside the brightly lit terminal, organized chaos reigned.  Military buses dropped off troops for the next flight to Vietnam or picked up troops from my flight.  The few civilians either left with waiting colleagues or, like me, got into the taxi line.  I didn't know what to expect so made sure I stood far back enough in the line to learn the procedure:  Produce my government orders and state the destination.  For me, it was Naha, Okinawa's capital, and an army base near the city. 

My taxi driver didn't speak English.  He opened the door for me, put my two red suitcases in the trunk, and off we went for the 30-mile drive.  It was about 4:00 in the morning now.  I'd like to say I was nervous, but, no, such a different world opened up before me, my heart raced with anticipation.  On one side of Highway 1, moonlight danced on the bluest water.  On the other side, small shops with Japanese signs advertised their wares.  Since Louisiana is water-logged, I concentrated more on the shops, some with lanterns, many with banners, all with windows filled with bolts of cloth and kimonos or lacquer bowls or children's toys or shoji screens or volumnes of books or - oh! - one slice of Okinawan life after another.

From my family's tearful farewell at the airport in New Orleans to this taxi ride, I'd lived in my head, speaking only when a specific situation called for specific English.  Early on, I realized this trip wasn't a gab-fest with idle chit-chats to pass the time.  Commercial passengers to San Francisco wanted to be left alone with their thoughts.  Military passengers to Okinawa needed to be left alone with their thoughts.

My taxi driver showed identification that permitted entry to the army base at Naha. Security had my name on a list and which building I'd live in. The driver passed rows of army barracks, rounded a downhill curve, and entered a housing area with hundreds of flat-roofed, square, cement buildings, Bachelor Officers' Quarters, with four people to a building.  (I would make life-long friendships with the two female teachers who came later.  One visited this past weekend.  Glorious!)

The taxi driver carried the two red suitcases to an unoccupied, unlocked building.  I paid the man, an elderly gentleman with a weathered face, and thanked him with words from my phrase book:  Dome arigato.

He replied, "Welcome to Okinawa, sensei."  He bowed very low.  I bowed as best I could.  He bowed again and returned to his taxi.

I entered the BOQ and switched on the lights.  I saw basic furniture in the central living room, a kitchen with a frig and a stove, four bedrooms (two on either side), and a full bath on each side.  No sheets or blankets.  No kitchen utensils.  I didn't care.  I kicked off my shoes, flopped on a lumpy mattress, and fell asleep in a nano second.  

I awoke around noon to the drone of planes landing and taking off on the nearby military airstrip.  It was a bright, sunshiny day.  I wondered how the troops boarding that flight for Vietnam had managed. 

For two years I saw a lot, traveled a lot, learned a lot, and wondered a lot.  I will share this: what people at home think is happening over there isn't always true; the truth is there for people to read, but it's more convenient to think.

Welcome to Okinawa.

Traditional Okinawan house (Photos courtesy of Wikipedia)

One of the many fabulous Okinawan beaches.

There are many caves from filtered rainwater as the island is mostly coral.

Okinawan farmland; present day