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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

July 2016

Semper Fi


























Sgt. Jack M. Kerner
1917--2001

In memory of my brother who died on this date, July 39, fifteen years ago. At the outbreak of World War II, he tried to enlist in the Canadian Air Force, but he washed out of pilot training when he failed his flight physical. Determined to get into the fight, he joined the United States Marine Corps the day after Pearl Harbor and spend the rest of the war in the South Pacific, including the battles of Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal. He later fought in the Korean War and served as a forward observer at the hydrogen bomb tests at Eniwetok.

After he retired from military service in 1962 he tried his hand at teaching high school woodworking classes and a landscape gardening business. He suffered lifelong disabilities, both physical and psychological, from his wartime experiences, but he was a survivor, living to be eight-four.

The Mileposts and Bookworms of Summer

I haven't posted much here lately because I've been slogging away, trying to finish my current work-in-progress. There comes a point in every book, I think, where you can't really stop. You have to keep writing to get to the end because it is now in sight.  So here I've been, in air-conditioning, thank goodness, pounding the keys, and enjoying a perfectly legitimate excuse for not going out into the WTF heat.

My only breaks have been to wage another battle with a great big green worm who is determined to eat the last vestiges of my only tomato plant, just as it was showing signs of recovery and survival. I keep reminding myself that he's going to spin himself into a large cocoon one of these days and then emerge as a beautiful creature to brighten my world. Sometimes, though, the temptation to smash him into green slime is almost overwhelming.

To compensate, I've been trying to come up with an apt simile--the caterpillar and the book draft that is done--but by no means done. Both have had a tendency to consume enormous amounts. The caterpillar eats its weight in leaves and the book demands never-ending research from the leaves of several books.  I've had to stop writing to go in search of all sorts of odd facts--the symptoms of diphtheria, consumption, and pandemic influenza; the inner workings of torpedos and model-T Fords; the nature of trench warfare; the exact terms of Prohibition; the causes of  runs on banks, the nature of earthquakes. You name it; and I'll have looked it up somewhere.

Soon the caterpillar is going to spin his strange-looking gray shell and hang himself from a stick. The book is settling into a period of enforced inactivity.  It demands that I compile all of its 46 individual files into one unified manuscript. Then I will need to put it aside and step away, letting the story settle into itself before I start the long editing process. Does the worm/book analogy hold? Well, at this stage, the book looks to me like a giant hair ball on a stick--all sorts of threads that I'm not sure are wrapped up correctly. So may they rest for a while--the cocoon and the literary hairball--and leave me free to live my life again.

But of course, the real mystery will be what emerges from that cocoon and that hairball. I know little or nothing about caterpillars, and perhaps even less about the nature of books. Will the result be the beautiful stained-glass monarch butterfly and a story that will immediately draw attention to itself? Will the caterpillar turn into the hugely elegant pale green luna moth and the book into an esoteric book that many praise and few actually read. Or will we end up with one of those dusty brown months destined to beat itself to death against a light bulb and a book that disappears into the vast underbelly of  Amazon algorithms, never to be heard from again?

 

Have a Happy St. Swithun's Day

Today—July 15—is St. Swithin’s Day. Why is that important? because it allows you to get a weather forecast for the rest of the summer. Here’s the traditional rhyme:

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mare

For the historically-minded, St. Swithun was an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester who lived in the ninth century. His tenure as bishop ran from 853 to approximately 862. This statue of him used to decorate the west portal of Winchester Cathedral. Today, if you want to see it, you can visit him in the crypt.


For the superstitious, I must warn you that his weather-predicting ability has been rated considerable below that of Puxatawney Phil. You must admit that the probability of England’s weather being consistently wet or dry for forty days in a row is highly unlikely. On the other hand, the prediction often works for our southern states. Today, for example, the weather forecasters here are predicting bright sunshine and clear skies with intermittent thunderstorms. I’m assuming that if we get both, a prediction that the mix will continue for the next 40 days does not seem unreasonable. I’d bet on it. Thanks, Swithun, old chap.

When All Else Fails, Try Behaving Like an Animal

We tell a lot of jokes about cat pictures on Facebook. You’ve heard them.

Q: What’s the greatest technological invention in your lifetime? 
A: This small gadget that lets me watch cat videos, make phone calls to my cat sitter while I’m away, and take pictures of my cat.

Dog people aren’t blameless, either. I recently attended a small writer’s conference, where I visited with a few acquaintances, met some interesting new folks, and greeted Rosie and Luke as if we were old friends. Yep. They are both lap dogs who go everywhere with their owners. 

This morning, I was reminded of why this is not all as silly as it sounds. The past week, as you know, has been full of horrific news and much gnashing of teeth over how far our civilization has sunk into violence and hatred. I’ve shared in those feelings. If I let myself, I can literally tremble in fear of what we have become and into what disasters we are headed.  I’ve left my blogs sit idle, not because I had nothing to say but because I could not find adequate words.

Then this morning i opened Facebook and found myself smiling. There was my friend Bill, dangerously ill last week, now napping peacefully with a litter of colorpoint kittens. There was Ginger the Cat, pouncing on JoAnn’s covers to wake her up for breakfast. There was a happy dog prancing beside the gentleman who had just adopted him from a shelter. There was Keyboard the Kitten, balancing on the big cat’s food dish to steal a mouthful of crunchies. There was Watson, a wonderful Leader Dog rolling around in a patch of sun while his blind owner was safely seated beside him.

Best of all, Facebook had sent me two “Memories” of what I was doing one year ago. On this day, there was a raccoon who died in Toronto of undetermined causes. As he lay on the sidewalk all day, waiting for animal control to show up, strangers began leaving the raccoon little items to memorialize him—a flower, a childish hand-drawn sympathy card, even a small burning candle. And people walked respectfully around his body.

In Memphis on the same day, a young monkey escaped from his enclosure at the zoo and led his keepers on a merry chase. There were fears that he would run into traffic, get lost in the old forest that abuts the zoo property, or be washed  away if there was a sudden downpour and flash flood in the drainage ditch where he was thought to be hiding. While he was on the loose, someone opened a Twitter account in his name so we could all follow his exploits. The whole city rejoiced the following day when he was found safe and returned to Primate Canyon. My own comment on Facebook was that I was happy he was safe, but i was going to miss his tweets. The world, I said, needs more plucky little adventurers like him.

No, I’m not naive enough to believe that our problems can be fixed by a kitten or puppy, or even a plucky little monkey. But they can help, by putting a smile on our faces, if only for a moment. By reminding us that animals are colorblind—they know nothing of skin tones, or race, or religious dogma. By reminding us to judge people only by their actions and by their hearts. We would do well to follow their example.

Odd Memory of the Day: Meet Larry the Lizard

Technically Larry the Lizard is a blue-tailed skink. He's actually longer than he looks here. While I haven't caught him and measured him, I'm guessing that nose to tail, he measures a good eight inches long. Larry lives on my front porch and has become the favorite playmate of my youngest cat, Swizzle. She sits at the glass door, watching intently, as he does tricks for her on the porch. I often find him very close to the door, looking back at the little gray cat. I don't usually mind having him around, because in addition to providing feline entertainment, he eats the small bugs that would otherwise be eating my plants.

This morning, however, I was not fond of him.  I went out to pick some basel and noticed what I thought was a scrap of blue plastic newspaper wrapping in one of my planters. But when I reached for it, I discovered it was actually a blue tail (and yes, unlike the picture here, Larry's tail is a very vivid blue.) The close and slightly slimy encounter brought back a vivid memory from my long-forgotten past as a high school teacher.

I was all of 25 years old and was teaching an English class in a school located in the panhandle of Florida.  I was also training a student teacher from the University of Florida, and this was the first day for her to take over the class. I was observing from the back of the room when I "observed" a student pull a small green lizard out of his pocket and start to move his hand stealthily toward the neck of the girl sitting in front of him. Visualizing the chaos about to descend on the room, I moved quickly, without thinking, to his side, snapped my fingers at him and held out my palm.  Caught in the act, he had no choice but to hand me the lizard. I carried it out of the room and out of the building, tossing it away when I reached the lawn.

Only then did I look down and see that the  #$%$  lizard had chewed an L-shaped cut into the fleshly part of my palm at the base of the thumb. I was bleeding rather badly, so I went to the office, hoping to beg a band-aid from the school nurse. One comment led to another, and I was soon surrounded by people who had to hear the whole story. Our biology teacher happened to be in the office, and he added fuel to the fire by saying that our local lizards did not have teeth, so the one than had bitten me must have been a tropical lizard from a pet store. And then he pronounced gravely. "We'd better find it. It could be poisonous." Soon we had a small search party combing the grass where i had released the culprit--but without success. Poor little thing must have run for his life!

Then the biology teacher returned with a new report. He had looked up our local lizards, and had discovered that during mating season, the male lizard grows a horny plate on the roof of his mouth that allows him to bite the neck of his lady lizard. So the new diagnosis was that my bite was probably not poisonous. The lizard was just looking for a mate.  I had to live with that label for the rest of the school year -- "The Teacher Who Was Attacked by a Horny Lizard."