A Story

Read Time: 10 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

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My Own Special Touch

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

SHE SQUANDERED HERSELF IN PROTEST and fell to the ground, undone.

“Damn!” Roger set the inner cover, sticky side up, on the grass. He flicked her sting from his wrist with his steel hive tool. You’ve got to scrape them out quick. One time his whole hand had swollen hard and red like a red lobster claw for half a week, from a sting left too long. 

He felt bad for this little darling, who had been squeezed as he laid the cover on the top box, whose alarmed response had spelled her doom. Workers are sacrificial creatures, not built to survive long. Any sting is a suicide mission. 

“Damned bees,” Roger grumbled. “Don’t know why I put up with them.”

Wellthere’s one reason, staring me in the face. Melvina Foster stood by her clothesline, there across the fence, sour as a crabapple. She grimaced as if in pain. A bit of a wasp herself.

He gave back her stare, then turned away sublimely indifferent, picked up the inner cover, and placed it back on hive number six. 

He was dead sure that Melvina had authored the anti-bee ordinance proposed last week in the town council. “Bitter, vindictive old bitch,” he muttered under his breath.

“You! Roger!” An eldritch screech. Did the old bat have super-hearing, too?

He approached the fence with all the swagger he could muster, which he had to admit was considerable. His smooth, untroubled stride pleased him no end. 

She pointed at a lump of wood in his yard. “I see you steer a wide berth around that old stump. I should think you’d have sense enough to remove it.”

“Tain’t a stump, it’s a log. I’ll move it when I’m good and ready. Was there something else you wanted, Miz Foster?” 

She stood sideways, laundry basket under one arm. She shifted to stand a bit taller, winced as she did so. Maybe she was in actual pain.

He pursed his lips. “You all right, Melvina?”

“I was just wondering how many more of those death traps you plan to install.” 

“You mean my apiary?” He scrunched up his face and scratched his chin. “Well, let’s see, I’ve got plenty of fresh cedar boards for new boxes. I do enjoy the woodworking. Keeps me out of mischief all winter, you know? Who knows how many new honey factories I’ll be ready to deploy next spring.”

Her mouth set in a firm line. “You’re baiting me, Roger Fjelstad. I won’t rise to the bait. But consider yourself warned. Some day your bees will attack a small child or somebody with an allergy and put them in the hospital. Or worse.” She clucked with concern for her purely imaginary sting victim. “How will you feel then, Mister Honeycomb?”

“These are the gentlest little Italian honey bees in the world, Ma’am. Don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.”  

“That’s what you always say.”

“Because it’s always true. Listen, Melvina Foster, you’ve got no idea what honeybees are about, how they work, or how to coexist with them. Why don’t you come over some time? I’ll introduce you.”

#

He spotted her as soon as she turned the corner. Since the fence between their backyards had neither gate nor stile, she had to scuttle around the block. Roger couldn’t help but notice she looked more off-kilter than usual.

When she turned up his front walk, he rattled his newspaper. “And how are you today, Melvina?” He leaned back in his wicker chair and looked down his nose at her.

“I’m calling your bluff,” said Melvina Foster. “I’ve come to meet your bees. Bet you thought I wouldn’t.”

He laid down his paper. “Ain’t you scared you’ll get mobbed to death by a swarm of African killer bees?” 

She threw him a spiteful look. “You said yours were from Italy.” 

He sighed and stood. “Benvenuto alla nostra domee-chee-lay.” He spread an arm in welcome.

Limping through the house en route to the backyard, Melvina said, “This looks just like it did when Doris was still with us.” 

Roger stopped and stared at her. “Yeah?”

“I mean, you haven’t changed one thing.”

“Maybe I like the way she had it.”

“Except you’ve let it go to seed.”

 “There, you see? I have changed things. Added my own special touch.” He gave her a grin that he hoped was savage.

#

In the backyard, she wouldn’t go near the hives.

“Come on, what’s to be afraid of?” Roger asked, standing smack dab in the flight path of a hundred foragers. “They’re just bees.”

“I can see them fine from over here.”

He lifted a hive lid, removed the inner cover, pulled a frame partway out.

She raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “Don’t you have one of those veils? Don’t I see you over here sometimes in a regular beekeeper’s outfit?”

“Veils are for sissies.” 

She made a wry face.

He pinched a fat drone between thumb and forefinger. “Yes, I do have protective gear. I admit I’m a sissy sometimes. Mainly when I do something invasive, like collecting honey or giving mite treatments. The girls can get a little tetchy.” He carried the drone over to where Melvina stood.

As he came near, she poised for flight, like a sprinter on the starting blocks.

“Relax, he can’t hurt you. No stinger. This one’s a drone.” He opened his hand to let the bee crawl around on his palm. “Go ahead, you can pet him. See how fuzzy he is?”

Eyes open in wonder, she leaned over his hand, within a foot of the confused drone. 

“You might spare him some sympathy. He’s an orphan.”

Her jaw dropped in disbelief. “An orphan? You’re pulling my leg.”

“I would never pull your leg, Melvina.” Heaven forfend. “All drones are fatherless. They grow from unfertilized eggs.”

“Is that a fact.” 

He flicked his hand and the drone flew off toward the hive.

She looked uncertain. “I guess I could stand closer. If you’re sure I won’t get stung.”

He gave her a frankly evaluative stare. “There are no guarantees in life, Melvina.” He led her back toward the hives. 

Halfway there, she stopped and looked down. “Just a rotten log, didn’t you say?”

She gave it a sharp kick. Dozens of insects flew out from underneath.

“Ow! Help! Oh, help!”

“Run, Melvina!” He sprinted away from her but still felt a couple of nasty stings. “Come on, quick!” 

Waving her hands in panic, she flung herself crabwise into the screened back porch as he held the door open for her. 

Roger slammed the door shut behind her. He swept his hands around her face and shoulders as she swatted at her bare legs. He grabbed a magazine, rolled it up, and chased down a couple of mad aggressors. 

“Sit down,” he said. “How many times you get stung?”

“Hundreds!” She lowered herself onto a battered hassock.

He frowned. “No. Not hundreds. Breathe slowly. Can you do that?” Pink blotches had blossomed in several places on her face and neck. 

He kept an epi-pen in case one of his bees should ever sting someone with a real allergy. He wondered if he should get it now. 

She took a deep breath, in and out. “It hurts, you . . . degenerate!” 

“Nobody said it didn’t. Couple of ’em got me, too—I just run faster than you. Listen, can you breathe okay?”

“Of course I can breathe.” 

“I mean, your airway isn’t closing up, is it?”

She opened her eyes wide. “Airway? Am I in danger?”

“That’s what I’m asking. Do I need to get the epi-pen?”

She concentrated on her breath. “No. I just hurt all over. My heart is fluttering a bit.”

“You maybe took thirty or forty stings. Once they start in on you, all you can do is run. Each one of those little bastards can sting you over and over again.” 

“Well, you and your damned bees owe me a big apology.”

He bridled. “That’s defamation. Wasn’t my bees. Them were yellowjackets that stung you. Not bees. That’s why there’s no stingers to remove from your hide.”

“Yellowjackets?”

“German wasps. Ground dwellers. They’ll attack anything, anywhere, any time. You uncovered their nest. Now you see why I haven’t moved that log.” 

She bolted up from her hassock. “I see that you’re a menace, is what I see! Bees, wasps, whatever, they’re a danger to the neighborhood. We’ll put a stop to it. Good day, Mister Mayhem.” 

She marched out of the house, down the street, around the corner.

#

From his front porch he watched her go. She steamed down the sidewalk straight up-and-down, nothing off-kilter now. Propelled by righteous indignation.

His bees were threatened, through no fault of their own, by a vindictive bill on the council’s agenda for next week. It was sponsored by Matt Grosswisch, one of the five council members. But Matt never had an original thought in his life. Melvina had put him up to it.

She had not always been this way. Roger remembered when Melvina had been a vivacious, even daring, young woman. Sociable, too. It was her husband, Jack, who had been the town’s chief pain-in-the-ass in those days. Self-important, officious,  hidebound, and narrow-minded—he had it all. 

When Jack died of a heart attack at age 50, Melvina seemed to have been passed the torch of self-righteousness. She lost her amiable qualities, traded them in for the responsibility of making others’ lives miserable at every turn.

He sighed and went inside. 

As he stood in the center of the living room, looking all about him, he had to admit that Melvina was right. He had let it become shabby. It would not have gone downhill like this when Doris was here. She, and she alone, had made this a home to live in. 

Oh, God, how he missed her.

Well, at least he had his little Italian darlings. Until next week.

#

Roger stood on Melvina’s front stoop. He rang the bell. Having heard no sound of a chime inside the house—and his hearing was extraordinarily good for a man his age—he banged on the screen door. He knocked again, scuffing his knuckles in the attempt. He began to fear that she had come home, gone inside, suffered a delayed allergic reaction, and died. Maybe I should have brought the epi-pen.

The door swung open. There stood Melvina. Frowning, as best she could with her nose and lips distorted and swollen. 

He presented a pink bottle with a flourish and burst into song: “You’re gonna need an ocean . . . dum, da-dum, da-dum . . . of calamine lotion—”

“Have you gone crazy?” She bunched up a fist and shook it in his face, but he did not flinch.

“Take it, Melvina. Right now it only hurts, but in a day or two those stings’ll itch like crazy. You’ll need this. Plus all the Benadryl you can tolerate.”

She uncurled her fist and took the bottle. 

With his other hand, Roger presented his second gift—a heavy jar of golden liquid. “Here. This comes from the bees. They want you to know there are no hard feelings.” 

She snorted. “That’s big of them. Seems to me I’m the one who should harbor a grudge.” 

“God dammit, woman! Are you going to go around that way all your life?”

Her mouth fell. “All what way?” 

“Chip on your shoulder.” He stood, holding the jar of honey, in what amounted to a posture of pure supplication.

She let out a sigh. “Well. To tell you the truth. It seems I may owe your bees a little gratitude after all.”

He resisted the urge to ask.

She looked almost shy, like a school girl. “Ever since, I would swear, almost since the moment of the attack, my knees have been free of pain. First time in years. I’m at a loss to understand it.”

“Funny you should say that, Melvina. Exact same thing happened to my knees when those yellowjackets stung me last month. Instant pain relief. And long-lasting.”

She smiled, nodded. “That’s good to know.”

“It’s such a benefit,” Roger said, “I’m ashamed to admit it was those damned yellowjackets done it, not my bees.”

“Whatever,” she said. Her hand closed over his offering of honey.

Bradbury’s Challenge

Read Time: Intro 2 minutes. Story 14 minutes.

Ray Bradbury in 1975.
Photo by Alan Light,
licensed under CC BY 2.0.

“The best hygiene for beginning writers or intermediate writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories. If you can write one short story a week—it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done. At the end of 30 weeks or 40 weeks or at the end of the year, all of a sudden a story will come that’s just wonderful.” 

—Ray Bradbury, from “Telling the Truth,” the keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea, sponsored by Point Loma Nazarene University, 2001

What a challenge! Your New Favorite Writer is champing, as they say, at the bit. For the next year, I shall endeavor to write one new story each week. Why? Consult George Mallory (R.I.P.) on the joys of mountaineering.

Here’s how you can help this project: The stories I will post here are first drafts. As Bradbury implies, they may not all be perfect. The one quality they will all share is that they have been written down. 

So please read them, and let me know what you think. Praise them, pan them, suggest alternative plots or endings, criticize the style. This is a learning exercise for me, Dear Reader—and I hope for you as well. To help you with time management, I have begun posting read times at the head of each blog post. If you don’t have time now, come back for it later when you do have time.

Engage me in dialog by posting a comment below, by posting a comment on my Facebook page, or by emailing me: larryfsommers@gmail.com.

Today’s story starts right below my picture. Happy reading!

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Bike Time

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

“Hey! Watch it!” I yelled.

The bozo who had knocked me sideways was halfway down the grassy embankment, galloping through the Tuesday night crowd at the Washington Park Velodrome. 

Right behind him ran my 20-year-old granddaughter. Her face as she zipped by said she was up to her neck in trouble. 

Trouble? I knew that girl. Naught but mortal danger would fling her pell-mell across people’s blankets, right through picnics and cuddle sessions, and across the floodlit track, heedless of bike racers sprinting at sixty miles per hour. 

My granddaughter? Impossible. At age twenty myself in July 1964, I did sports for KENO-FM, always after the human angle, anything beyond times and speeds. Too busy for girlfriends, not to mention marriage. 

How could I have a granddaughter my own age?

No time to think. She chased that nasty-looking leather-clad thug. My inner grandpa could not help it: I plummeted down the bank after them, disrupting carefree cycling fans for the third time in ten seconds.

“SPECTATORS OFF THE TRACK!” bellowed the P.A. announcer as I crossed the banked oval in the paths of two Schwinn Paramounts, which swerved perilously to miss me. On the green infield, a cop gave chase. I jinked to the right behind the red Kenosha Scouts Rescue Squad truck, where my granddaughter had gone, right behind the hoodlum, just seconds before. 

Plunged into the truck’s half-shadow, I stopped cold. Where had they gone? 

Pinpoint sparkles, shimmering in mid-air, formed a bead curtain of the beatnik variety. I dove through it.

Crowd noise vanished. Dusk became night—not gradually, as is customary, but all at once. I lay on damp grass, knees and hips aching. Had I hurt myself? 

The joints screeched as I pushed off the grass to stand up. My hands looked funny, too, even in the dark. The floodlights atop their tall poles had gone out. No crowd sat on the embankment. The Boy Scout rescue truck, all the cyclists, bikes, and spare wheels, all the coaches and helpers were gone from the infield, too. 

Tuesday night had vanished.

I stood dizzy and gasping. What’s wrong with me? I felt the urge to punch something. I clenched my fists but stopped when my stiff knuckles complained. Just then a bright beam struck my eyes.

 “Gramps!” I’d know that sweet voice anywhere. “Is that you? What are you doing here?”

I splayed my hands in front of my face. In stark silhoutte, the fingers looked bumpy and twisted. 

The dazzling light went away. I squinted towards the vector of her voice. 

She called, “It’s me, Gramps. Kaitlyn. I’m over here.” 

Kaitlyn? What kind of name was that? 

I spotted her near the picnic shelter, fifty feet away. She waved her light above her head. I staggered towatds her. Why can’t I walk right?

“What are you doing here?” I asked. “You’re not supposed to be, that is . . . .” What do you say to someone who can’t exist, yet whom you love like life itself? Yet even her name eludes you? Mister Hot-shot Radio Guy was fresh out of glib.

She took my hand. Her other hand touched my shoulder. “Are you all right, old-timer?” 

“Old-timer? Who, me? Well . . . I don’t know.” 

“Oh!” she cried, pure concern on her winsome face. “How can I help?”

“Look. I need answers. Like, what happened to that hood you chased? If you ask me, he’s not your type.” 

“You’re confused. He wasn’t wearing a hoodie.”

Hoodie? “Not wearing a hood!” I snapped. “He is a hood. Come on, don’t play dumb. Let me in on the gag.”

“There’s no gag, Gramps. Did you see where he went?”

I sighed. “No.” 

“And why are you here all by yourself on a Monday night?”

“Monday? It’s Tuesday.” I saw she didn’t believe me. “At least, it started out Tuesday.” She looked askance. “And why did you chase that hooligan?”

“Hooligan?”

“Hood, slimeball, thug—” 

“Just protecting and serving, Gramps.”

The murk in my mind turned muddy. “What are you talking about, girl?”

“Didn’t Mom tell you about my new job?” She held up a slim rectangle of metal and glass. Tiny colored lights glowed on its face. She tapped it with her finger, and a shiny gold shield appeared on a field of white. “Kaitlyn Caruso,” she announced, “Special Agent, Temporal Fugitive Warrants Division.”

That dumbfounded me.

She tried to ease my befuddlement. “Think of me as a time ranger. A skip tracer on the Space-Time Continuum. My job is to nab felons who abscond from the twenty-first century.” 

Twenty-first, did she say?  “But, what happened to—”

“Guys like Jared Quickshift, for example. That creep you saw me pursuing. I had just collared him in 1964, but he slipped away and jumped back to now. He should be around here somewhere.” She swiveled her head, on the alert.

“This Jason—”

“Jared, Gramps. Although come to think of it, Jason applies. He’s on a quest for the Golden Fleece.”

“I knew it. What’s his game?”

“The warrant says intellectual property theft.” 

I waggled my brow. “Isn’t that like trademark infringement? He looked like a more violent type.” 

“He’s dangerous all right. That’s why I go armed.” She pointed to a holster on her hip.

“Oh, my.” 

She winked. “He can’t have gotten far, though. Stand back.”

Two doors stood side-by-side in the pavilion’s back wall. She stationed herself smack dab between them, about ten feet off, and drew her weapon. “Police, Jared! We know you’re in there. Come out with your hands up, or we’re coming in.” She leveled her weapon.

What did she mean, “we”? I hoped she would not tap me as a reinforcement. I felt weak and vulnerable.

After a tense silence, the door marked WOMEN banged open. The creep in the leather jacket burst out. He sprang sideways. 

Kaitlyn twisted, her weapon on the criminal. “Halt!” 

He didn’t halt.

A Pop!, like champagne being uncorked. Jason Nogoodnik sprawled on the concrete floor of the pavilion. He howled and wiggled in uncoordinated spasms. 

Kaitlyn leapt on him, handcuffed him, looked up at me, and smiled. 

I approached with caution. “Is he dead?”

She laughed. “Naw, he just wishes he were. Look here.” She whipped out her steel-and-glass rectangle and tapped one of the lighted squares. A bright beam leapt out from the tip of the thing. She aimed it at the crook’s head.

“Pretty good shot,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I had to find an unprotected area.” She pulled two small darts from the back of his neck. “These might have just bounced off his leather jacket.” 

“What kind of a gun is that?”

“Called a taser. Less-than-lethal takedown option.” 

The man lolled helpless on the floor of the park shelter. I guess it took him down, all right.

Kaitlyn delved in his leathery pocket and drew out a black metal tube half a foot long, with a bulge at one end. “Here’s what it’s all about, Gramps.” She twisted the thing and light sprang forth. A further twist focused the beam to a spot on Jared’s face. “It’s a Mini-Maglite. He hoped to smuggle this into 1964, for reverse engineering by pirates. He stood to make a bundle.”

“I’ve never seen a flashlight like that.”

“No? They’ve been around since 1984. Mom always says you’re not very observant.”

“1984? How can that be?”

“I don’t know, Gramps. Look, here’s the point. What if this creep had pre-introduced this invention twenty years before its time? Think how that could twist up Space-Time. It’s lucky I managed to chase him back to now.” 

I shook my head to try to clear the cobwebs. “I don’t understand.”

“Suppose some ’sixties car mechanic makes a quick repair out on I-94 on a snowy night because he’s got a flashlight small enough to hold in his mouth while he tapes two wires together. Otherwise he would have had to tow it in, the customer might have been late for his sales call the next morning, and—” 

“It might have changed the course of events.”

“Bingo.” She nodded emphatically. “But we’ve got Jared and the Maglite, right back here in 2021, where they belong. So, no harm done.” 

Suddenly, it all came clear to me. 

Well, no. It was half clear to me. 

I held up my hands in a gesture of supplication. “Let me just get one thing straight. You followed this bozo from 2021 to 1964 to apprehend him?”

“That’s right.” 

“And now you’ve brought him back to 2021.” 

She nodded. “So?”

“So, how do you do that?”

“Do what, Gramps?”

“Travel from one time to another.”

She snorted and jerked her head towards her prisoner, who now sat upright. “Guys like him figured it out before we did. The crooks are always a step ahead of the law, you know.” 

“It was ever thus. But do go on.” 

“Who knows how much damage they did to the future—that is, the present—before we caught on? We’ll never have any idea. However, we now know there are special places where time-holes open up for brief periods. You can just step through from one time to another.” 

“Special places?”

“Velodromes, to be precise.”

“Bike tracks. Like Washington Bowl.” 

She smiled as she hoisted the now-docile Jared to his feet. “But only on Tuesday nights in the summer.”

“Because?”

“Something about a certain mass of chromium-molybdenum alloy—such as custom racing bike frames—orbiting a given spot at high speed. Sorry, I’m no scientist.”

“Ahh.” Neither was I a scientist, yet who can resist chromium-molybdenum alloys?

“So I left 2021 six days ago—last Tuesday night. I tracked Jared down right away, got the drop on him, and stashed him in a safe house off Sheridan Road until Tuesday night. As we crossed Washington Road on our way to the velodrome, he got away from me in the crowd, ran across the track, and jumped back into 2021. With me right on his tail, naturally.”

“Sounds suspenseful.”

“All in a day’s work. What knocked me sideways was finding you here in the middle of the chase. You still haven’t told me what brought you here on this particular night.”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“If you don’t want to say, that’s all right. But my prowl car’s just over on Eighteenth Avenue, where I left it six days ago. Let me drive you home so you can get some rest.”

“Nothing doing, you young whippersnapper.”

“Gramps, what’s the matter with you?”

“I’m fifty-seven years too old, that’s what!”

She made a face as if I spoke gibberish.

“Listen,” I explained. “I started this night on Tuesday, July 21, 1964, but somehow ended up here, in the Buck Rogers era. It’s aged me some.” I held up gnarled, shaky hands.

“Who’s Buck Rogers?”

“Look him up in your Funk and Wagnall’s. The point is, to get home I’ve got to go through that curtain thingy backwards.” 

Jason the Hoodlum spoke up. “He’s right, Madame Copper. You gotta send him back to the Sixties. Me too.” He gave a massive heave, to wrest himself out of her grip. She was too strong, too fast, too smart. Put him in a painful hold and knelt him back on the ground again. That’s my girl.

“Shut up, you.” She turned to me. “Gramps, what you say is impossible. No one can go forward in time, to the future. It doesn’t work that way.”

“How can you say that? You and Jason just did it.”

“No, we didn’t. We used something called Nerdleman’s Law to go from the present to the past. Then we used Axenberg’s Corollary to Nerdleman’s Law to return to our original time frame, that’s all.”

“Yes, and I came along, right behind you.”

She looked exasperated. “If you had, that would shatter our whole model of Space-Time. You’d be a resident of 1964 going into the future. That’s impossible, just as it would be impossible for Jared and me to step into, let’s say, the twenty-fifth centiury.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s our future, just as—if you were a 1964 person—now would be your future, a place you can’t get to except by the normal passage of time. Don’t you see?” 

I filled my gaze with her gorgeous, red-headed earnestness. “Like all children, you’re cute as a button when you know you’re right despite the fact you’re wrong.” She glared at me. “I tell you, I dove—dived—dove right through that shimmering curtain of light behind the Scouts’ rescue truck.”

For the first time, her face showed doubt. She frowned at Jason, still on his knees, in her grip. He made a “How would I know?” shrug.

A brilliant thought came to me. “Listen, Catherine—”

“Kaitlyn.”

“Ah—Kaitlyn—yes. Now, listen. If I’m right, your grandpa will be found alive and well here in 2021 Kenosha—but not in the form of me standing here in Washington Park.” 

“You’re saying you’re a duplicate?”

I huffed in annoyance. “I’m saying, I’m twenty years old and I belong in 1964.”

She frowned. Jason, restive in her firm grasp, looked up at me in wonder.

“Here’s how you can prove it. Let’s lock Jason here in your squad car nice and snug. Then let’s go find a phone booth. Call your grandpa. If he answers, I promise it’s not me playing Señor Wences.” I dug in my pocket with shaky, withered hands. “A 1964 dime still work in a 2021 phone booth?”

She gave me a strange look, then sighed. “Okay, you win.”

She shoved Jason all the way to the ground and stood on his neck. Then she whipped out her strange little rectangle, touched a bright patch, then another one. She held the gizmo up to her ear. A sound like a telephone’s buzz was followed by a tinny little voice. 

“Gramps?” Her and her eyes went wide. “Where are you?”

Silly question. He answered his phone. He must be at home.

After another string of tinny voice gibberish came out of the thing, Kaitlyn said, “I see. Okay, just checking. Sorry I disturbed you. Don’t lose too much.” She touched the rectangle again and the sound went dead.

I gloated. “See? You found him at home.”

“No. He was at a friend’s house, where he plays poker.”

A poker-playing friend? It had to be. “Lumpy Bernacchi? He still alive?”

Her jaw dropped. She nodded warily.

“See? That proves I’m him. He’s just not me. Not yet, anyhow. I belong back in the Sizzling Sixties.” I turned to go back the way I had come.

“Where you going, Gramps?” 

“Back to the time curtain.” 

“You won’t find it. It’s Monday night. No bikes.”

I looked back toward the track. Of course. She was right. I scanned the dark, silent velodrome. No spinning molybdenum in sight.

#

Kaitlyn pledged me to secrecy, so I can’t tell you the details. She found a place where I could stay, in reasonable comfort, in complete isolation from all the denizens of 2021—including my old friend Lumpy and my own adult daughter, whom I’ve never seen—for six days, until the next Tuesday night bike races. Then she spirited me over to the infield on a special police pass. 

Now, I’m back in my own timestream. 

When I first came back, I spent a long while confused. But now that I’ve had almost a year to mull it over, my dilemma has resolved itself.

I’m now convinced Axenberg and Nerdleman got it right. Known facts to the contrary notwithstanding, I could not have paid a visit to the year 2021. My real presence in 2021 would extinguish whatever future I have here in 1965. The only way I can possibly get to the twenty-first century is the old-fashioned way: Clean living and good luck. 

My granddaughter’s phone call to my septuagenarian self cuts no ice. I won’t believe I live in 2021 until I actually do. Anyway, how could they have phones like that?

Right now I’m going to listen to the radio broadcast of the Liston-Clay rematch from Lewiston, Maine. I’ll have to break it off to go to the Tuesday night bike races, unless the fight goes short. Who knows? Maybe this time Sonny will flatten him in five.

Cassius Clay, later known as
Muhammad Ali. Public Domain.

The Man in the Tweed Cap

When we first visited London, many years ago, we went to see the Queen’s Life Guards at the Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall. The changing of the guard was scheduled for 11:00 a.m. A crowd was already there when we arrived at the enclosure where the ceremony was to take place. 

Two or three London bobbies herded onlookers into a space at the end of the courtyard, behind a pavement stripe. We scored a place near the front, where we could see and hear everything.

Tweed flat cap. Photographed by Heron, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

There were a few other Yanks, but most of the audience was British. It’s easy to tell who is a tourist, and thus equally evident who is not. 

One of the locals, a dumpy man in a tweed cap and horn-rimmed glasses, recommended himself to my attention, because he had become the focus of the bobby’s attention.

The copper, a lank young man, stared at the chap in the tweed cap. “Got to push it, now, don’t we, luv?” 

The man stared back, mute.

“You’re over the line. Move it.” The officer fingered his baton.

The man jiggled one notch backward. 

The bobby stepped forward and stood in the man’s face. He slitted his ice-blue eyes and dimmed his voice to a purr. “Now, that won’t cut it, ducky. You’re courting a summons.” He cast his eyes downward, toward the man’s feet.

I craned my neck to see down. Mister Tweedcap’s shoes cut semi-ovals out of the pavement line, extending half an inch over.

“Come on.” 

The man jigged backwards again, crowding a woman who stood without interval behind him. His shoe-tips now just touched the line. 

The bobby gave him one more cold look, then turned away to walk down the front of the crowd. He stopped after a few steps and looked back. 

The man in the tweed cap stood like the Rock of Gibraltar. Silent as ever.

Satisfied the man’s feet had not moved, the bobby turned away again to troop the crowd.

The new guards, red and blue by regiment, cantered in on proud black steeds. After a bit of clip-clop and folderol, the old guards—every bit as flashy—departed. 

Meanwhile, the bobby had returned to our sector. 

The crowd knew the moment the rite was over. They lapsed into a slouch that was palpable. 

Mister Tweedcap stepped over the line and lit a cigarette. 

The bobby flashed a grimace of a smile. “See you tomorrow, Mick. Same time, same station.”

“Righto, Kenny,” said the man, exhaling a puff of smoke. “Give my best to the missus.”

The copper nodded and moved off to protect some other part of the kingdom.

English Liberties

Had I been ordered by a cop to move back I would have said “Yes, sir” and removed myself to well behind the line, slacker that I am.

Our British cousin stood on his rights as an Englishman. He thereby reinforced a centuries-old framework of “English liberties”—the same liberties that would have given him, in a rural setting, the right to use long-established footpaths through farmers’ fields.

His grudging deference to the civil authorities, his insistence on toeing right up to the line, must not be sneezed at. English history is soaked in the blood, not to mention the tortured entrails and piked heads, of those who challenged authority. An Englishmen needs to know just how far he can go. The fellow in the tweed cap embodies the “village-Hampden who, with dauntless breast, / The little tyrant of his fields withstood.” 

Government

The strong have always ruled the weak. 

At some time past, this hegemony gained the name of “government,” which derives ultimately from a Greek term that means to steer a ship. The idea of government was that ordinary folks needed to have their ship steered by experts, otherwise known as “the rightful authorities,” those in a position to exercise power.

The concept of “government,” with its accompanying whiff of political legitimacy, gave any tyrant the full justification for his particular tyranny.

Government employed a system of laws, at least since the time of Hammurabi, which applied to those governed but not, usually, to those who did the governing. 

That is still largely the case. Some governments feign the hypothesis that laws apply equally to ruler and ruled. But the principle is carried into practice only when convenient.

Gradually, over millennia, societies have enshrined in tradition many customs that limit, in a practical way, the power of the ruler, of the ruler’s extended family, and of that corps of cronies and straphangers who constitute the ruling class. 

Today we benefit from protective customs codified in Jewish, Greek, and Roman law; from feudal practices which arose in Europe during the days of the Holy Roman Empire; from the legal heritage of Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and post-Norman rule of Great Britain; and from American practices that began in colonial times and gave birth to Constitutional safeguards of our common rights. 

All these things form a web of customs, understandings, and institutions which guard our liberty.

Tyranny

But in the human soul there is a craving for primacy. 

In every village board, every bowling league, and every garden club across the land lurks a self-appointed leader who would become Caligula or Saddam Hussein without giving it a second thought—were not he or she restrained by the many strands in our ancient web of governing traditions.

Democracy, freedom, and equality are not the natural condition of society. Dictatorship is no temporary aberration; it is the rule, absent that multifarious system of closely tended liberties on which we depend just as does our cousin in the tweed cap. Despotism exercised by the most cunning, brutal, and lucky is the default order of things. We should thank God for the long, painfully developed, chain of specific practices and understandings which hold would-be tyrants at bay.

Fairness, justice, and decency are merely warm, fuzzy concepts that hold no sway. Without the common residues of parliamentary procedure, contract law, and long-established precendent—all of them dreary and tedious things, to say the least—we would be at the mercy of mere thugs.

Whenever a nicely uniformed and duly constituted authority requires us to stand in a box, we—at the very least—ought to jam our caps down over our brows and bump our toes right up to the line.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Help Wanted

CEO—TOP TIER, GREAT BENEFITS

Pacesetting nation-state seeks Chief Executive Officer to guide it through the next four years.

Employer is on geostrategic Short List—you would definitely recognize its name. This global power has gone through turbulence in recent years and looks to recapture a previous golden era, the cause and timing of which is disputed by major parties, but everybody agrees it was pre-COVID. Unification of diverse perspectives is a much-lauded priority.

Applicant must meet all wishes of all residents of this multifarious democratic republic, everywhere, all the time. Deep skillset in partisan politics is considered essential. The successful applicant will show no mercy to the opposition, despite significant downside risk of premature termination. Core competencies include appropriate distribution of credit (Ours) and blame (Theirs).

Required duties also, from time to time, include leadership of the Free World. 

No applicant will be considered for this position who cannot show strong evidence of personal instability, preferably to the point of derangement.

Although cash salary is inconsequential, non-monetary benefits include a nice house, convenient transport options, multiple opportunities for family enrichment, and a testimonial library located near applicant’s chosen retirement venue.

Apply by Tuesday, November 3, to the United States of America, ATTN: The Electorate.

#

THIS IS DEFINITELY THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION EVER HELD!!!! 

You know—the election to determine whether our nation’s immediate future will be an Elysian idyll of prosperity, fairness, and brotherhood; or whether the bad guys will win and plunge the whole cosmos into an irrecoverable tailspin of poverty and totalitarian despair.

So we are told. 

Do you believe that? 

Do you believe those who disagree with you are evildoers, not to be trusted with the reins of government for a four-year period? And, so Bondvillainously effective that they will achieve their terrifying aims with one-hundred-percent efficiency once sworn into office?

Really? You really believe that? 

If so, you might want to get out a bit and meet a few folks you don’t already know.

So many friends and neighbors have already sunk so deep in dystopian devotion to their wing—be it left or right—that riots and mayhem are expected to break forth, no matter who wins the election.

You and I, Kind Reader, need not compound this insanity. 

We are permitted to take a deep breath. 

Let us think, speak, and act like adult American citizens.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

October

Sunday, October 25—Here in Madison, we are seeing our first snow shower of the season.

It won’t stick.

A white film may coat the ground like manna tomorrow morning, but it will be gone in 24 hours—melted like manna by the sun, or else sublimated in the gray air of autumn. 

Brown leaves have descended from our maple and our neighbor’s walnuts, and small yellow ones from our black locust. Yet plenty of other leaves cling green on trees and bushes. Soon enough, they too shall be crispéd and sere, as Poe would prefer.

How can such frail fingers pluck so loud on the strings of my reverie? Launching this blog, I pledged to resist the charms of mere nostalgia. But October brings a flood of recall, in which I am swept up all too willingly. 

Rather than fight it, Dear Reader, I will share a bit with you.

McCutcheon of the Trib

Every October of my youth—indeed every fall from 1912 through 1992—the Chicago Tribune showcased “Injun Summer,” a cartoon drawing, with folksy narrative, by editorial artist John T. McCutcheon. Its two panels showed a boy and his grandfather watching a field of conical corn shocks transform into a tepee village, with smoke-shaped Indians doing a dance in the wispy gloaming. 

The old man, in his homey way, explains to the lad that the “sperrits” of “Injuns” now extinct return each year, moved by the autumn haze to haunt their former campgrounds. News readers, even in the darkest parts of the twentieth century, knew that Native Americans were not extinct, but despite that fact, “Injun Summer” became a hallowed tradition over a term of eighty years. 

For one thing, it was assumed by white Americans that the traditional Indian way of life was a thing of the past; that those Indians still alive had better act like typical Americans or be swept aside by history. For another, most Midwesterners—the Trib’s main audience—had such warm memories of autumn days that we were suckers for the romantic image of long-dead Indian ghosts dancing in the smoky haze of burning leaves.

Burning Leaves

I doubt it happens now in very many places—what with the Clean Air Act and all—but in days of yore we would rake dry leaves from our yards into the street and simply set a match to the piles. On a nice October day, whole neighborhoods would come out to chat amid the smoke. Kids ran to and fro, playing tag among the leafy pyres, as grown-ups with metal-tined rakes kept the conflagration confined. 

Folks in our neighborhood brought out foil-wrapped potatoes and baked them in the leaves.

We could do these things, Fair Reader, because there were half as many of us then as there are now. Such frolics would be ill-advised in the brave new world of now.

Autumn Edibles

Besides our annual festival of burning leaves, we went nutting. We competed with the squirrels. Dad drove us to a place he knew of in the country, where stood an acre or two of shagbark hickories in a park-like setting. We scooped nuts off the ground and tossed them into gunny sacks.

I was not partial to hickory nuts, or any other kind; but Mom, in particular, liked all varieties of nuts. Commonly, we and others left a bowl of unshelled nuts on a coffee table, an end table, or a bookcase-top—with nutcrackers and nutpicks handy to aid in their consumption.

A ballet nutcracker. Photo by Chris Briggs on Unsplash.

Just so you younger folks will know: Nutcrackers did not dress up in uniforms like palace guards. No; they were simple, functional devices in zinc-plated steel, similar to pliers. They were meant for cracking nuts, not for dancing ballets.

Besides nuts, we ate a lot of fresh apples in the fall and drank quite a bit of cider, which we got from your proverbial roadside stands. Often a glass jug of cider, and perhaps a pumpkin and some gourds, would come home as the byproduct of a simple drive in the country. 

In those days, we drove in the country a lot. Just for fun. 

A real nutcracker. Photo by 
Dirk Vorderstraße, licensed
under CC BY 2.0.

With gas at thirty cents a gallon, the Sunday drive was cheap entertainment. It was especially popular in the fall, when the colors were great. Most country roads were two-lane, with top speeds around 50 miles per hour. When you saw a roadside stand with cider and pumpkins, there was a fair chance you could pull off and stop before you had zoomed past it.

Today the country stands are bigger operations, destinations in themselves, at odd ends of county trunk roads. If somebody were to set up a small stand beside the main highway, it would be hard for drivers tunnel-visioning along at 75 mph to fight their way across three or four lanes of traffic and sample the wares.

Halloween

We celebrated Halloween as children do today, by dressing up in costumes and going down the street to extort candy from the neighbors. Today, small children go under parental escort. Only teenagers go on their own, and then always in groups. You never know who might be lurking. 

In our childhood, parents did not go along. Only kids went, usually in fair-sized groups. There might be children as old as twelve or as young as four in a group. A child too young for attachment to such a group was not yet old enough for trick-or-treating. And groups of kids straggling about the neighborhood on Halloween night were ostensibly safe. After all, what could happen?

Besides trick-or-treating, Halloween parties were sometimes arranged at schools, churches, or private homes. As best I can recall, what one did at such a party was bobbing for apples. If you’ve never bobbed for apples, Gentle Reader, then you have missed the fun of sticking your face in a tub of cold water, rooting about aimlessly for an eternity of minutes, likely damaging one or more of your possibly still-emerging teeth, and being laughed at because you were unable to sequester a single globéd fruit.

Thanksgiving

Less than a month after Halloween comes Thanksgiving. Our modern American holiday is a mashup of traditional harvest festivals such as the one held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621 and a national need, felt strongly during the Civil War, to thank God for his blessings. When the Pilgrims held their feast with Massasoit and his braves in 1621, it was just a party to celebrate the fruits of the harvest. Had they considered it a time of special thanksgiving, they would have fasted and prayed for three days instead. Our Reformed forebears were gravely attentive to the task of thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving at Plymouth, oil on canvas by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1925, National Museum of Women in the Arts. Public Domain.

We modern Americans say “Thank You” best by eating vast quantities of food and falling asleep. When I was young, a new fillip had just been added to that program: You ate, settled down in the living room, and took your nap in front of a televised football game. 

Ollie Matson, 1959,
when he played for the Rams.
Public Domain.

I remember watching, with Dad and Grandpa and various uncles, as Ollie Matson of the Chicago Cardinals made an amazing touchdown run that none of us could actually see, on account of snow. Not meteorological snow at Soldier Field, but electronic snow on the television screen. And a vertical roll so persistent that Uncle Richard stood behind the set tweaking the vertical hold knob throughout the game. They don’t make TVs like that anymore.

(Upon checking the Internet, I find that the Chicago Cardinals did not play a Thanksgiving Day game with Ollie Matson in the lineup in any year of my childhood; so I must be remembering a non-Thanksgiving Day game. But you get the idea.)

Winter Wonderland

Woollybear caterpillar.
Photo by Micha L. Rieser,
used by blanket permission.

We have arrived back at the subject of snow. Soon all this fall frivolity will be done, and we’ll be clamped in the grim vise of winter. It’s hard to wax nostalgic when you’re up to your schnozzola in peaceful, downy-white, hexacrystalline flakes. They’re so tiny—how could they possibly amount to anything?

My friends among the woollybear caterpillars inform me, and my own 75 years of finely-honed instincts confirm, that this will be a humdinger of a winter. It will both hum and ding.

Button up your overcoat.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

A Dire Flirtation

Dear Reader: Last week, Your New Favorite Writer had a close encounter with Fame and Fortune.

Don’t worry, I escaped.

Here’s how it happened.

Novel Quest

In 2016, I began to write a book, a fictional saga of Norwegian immigrants farming the Illinois prairie just before, and during, the Civil War. Two years later—after I had written “The End” at the bottom; had sought and received input from a squad of beta readers; had revised and polished my way through innumerable drafts—I titled it Freedom’s Purchase and set out to get it published.

If writing a novel is hard, it’s harder yet to get it published by a traditional contract. By that I mean an agreement where the publisher pays the author, not vice-versa.

You need a literary agent to sell your manuscript to one of the “Big Five” or their many subsidiary imprints. These publishers seldom, if ever, consider a manuscript from an unrepresented writer.

Yet it’s very difficult to get an agent. There are thousands of literary agents, but there are millions of new writers. 

Independent Publishers

After querying dozens of agents, a process in which I am still engaged, I chose to focus more attention on independent publishers. These are the smaller presses—often regional or specialized—that are neither the Big Five nor their wholly-owned offshoots. 

Most independent publishers will accept a query directly from a writer without an agent. Though smaller than the Big Five, they are perfectly fine, capable publishing businesses that print and sell thousands of books every year. In aggregate, millions of books.

Lots of books. Photo by Hans-Jürgen Weinhardt on Unsplash.

If such a publisher could be found, one astute enough to recognize the quality of Freedom’s Purchase, it might be exactly the right match.

A Full Manuscript Request

In querying a publisher, one must follow that publisher’s submission guidelines precisely. They will want some combination of (1) a brief query letter, (2) a one-page plot synopsis, (3) an author biography, and (4) a small sample of the actual text, usually the first chapter or two.

Every author hopes that a publisher will respond by asking to read the whole book. A full manuscript request means your book is under serious consideration. They would not waste time reading it unless something about your initial submission hinted at a successful collaboration. Right?

Last April, I received this email from a small publishing house in the Mid-South:

Your query for Freedom’s Purchase interests us, and we would like to see more. Please send the full manuscript as a Word document, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

Music to my ears! 

I sent the full manuscript and settled down to wait for “as soon as possible” to arrive.

The Long Wait

Patient waiting is not all that easy. But as faithful readers know, I’ve got a blog to post every week. And I keep busy writing my second novel. Not to mention living the mandatory life of a Literary Lion

A literary lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

So I found ways to pass the time. Nevertheless, my patience had gone threadbare by the time I received this message in early July:

Freedom’s Purchase showcases an interesting plot along with a realistic presentation of life in America during the 1800s. The characters are intriguing and readers can become invested in them. There are several weaknesses, some of which render the novel unpublishable.

“Unpublishable.” Oh, no! 

However, at the top they had said:

Thank you for sending Freedom’s Purchase for consideration. We would like to see it again after the suggestions below have been addressed.

To sum up: My novel was unpublishable, but they’d like to see it again. 

I took this as a strong buying signal. However, “the suggestions below” were terse and incoherent to the point of being bizarre. 

“They’re toying with me,” I thought. So I wrote back, asking ever so tactfully for clearer instructions.

Editorial Notes

Two weeks later, the publisher sent clarifying comments. Even these were terse and slightly mystifying. But they were just specific enough that I could infer some clues on how to proceed.

After a week of marathon revising, I sent the new, improved manuscript on July 22. I included a cover email cataloging the changes, just to make sure they noticed.

The Long Wait, Part II

My re-submission must have gone to the back of the queue again. 

I wrote more blog posts, added chapters to my new novel, and did all the standard Literary Lion activities—such as chewing my fingernails down to the quick.

Two weeks in, I asked how the review of my new manuscript was coming.  

The original reader is still reviewing the updated manuscript. We will get back to you as soon as possible.

Okay. Sit down and shut up, Larry.

Six more weeks passed.

The Contract Offer

On September 23, the publisher sent this:

We would be happy to extend the offer to publish . . . . If you wish to move forward please send the contract back with everything filled in except the signatures. We will send the document for signatures via DocuSign. When sending the file back to us it must be all pages in one file (no individual pages) and can be scanned or emailed or it can be faxed to (XXX) XXX-XXXX. We look forward to your reply.

Oh the joy in my heart, Gracious Reader, at the words, “We would be happy to extend the offer to publish.” On that basis alone, my wife and I went out for a nice celebratory feast.

Now that the publisher had taken five months considering my manuscript, they seemed ready and eager for me to send back the signed contract right away. 

I wrote back very cordially, reserving a few days to consider the six or seven pages of single-spaced boilerplate they had sent for my signature. 

The Fine Print

Aside from the perishing hope of a lieutenant colonel to don the silver eagles of a “full bird” before retirement, there may be no desperation more desperate than that of an unpublished author to become a published author. It is fully abject. 

One would do almost anything to be published. Therefore, caution is advised. 

Authors’ Guild logo

What one really needs is the advice of a literary attorney, but their services are expensive. However, the Authors’ Guild gives its members a free contract review by experienced literary lawyers. One of the perks of membership. Immediately I joined the Authors’ Guild and sent in the proposed contract for review.

On the second business day, I got a detailed reply, covering each section of the contract, singling out many paragraphs and sentences for particular attention. 

The contract on offer was substandard in many ways. But I felt if the publisher would give way on a few essential points, I could live with the rest. Especially if they seemed to be okay people to work with. 

I compiled a list of questions about the contract, and a separate list of questions about the publisher’s business practices. I then proposed a Zoom call to explore all these questions. The publisher asked me to send the questions so they could prepare their response. I did so.

About a week later, the publisher replied, in writing. The terse remarks I now recognized as characteristic. But they were more than brief; they were dismissive. The message was: We want your book. Shut up and be happy.

Declination

It is hard to turn down any offer to publish your first book. But I’m glad I did so. 

The last laugh is mine, because this publisher helped me improve my book. The process also helped me polish my query letter, synopsis, and biography. The product I am selling just got better, and some other publisher will make a better offer. 

It’s a big world. I’ll find the right publisher for Freedom’s Purchase if I just keep at it.

My apologies, Dear Reader, for making you wait longer to read Freedom’s Purchase, but I promise you—when published, it will have been worth the wait.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Not My Type

Christine DeSmet, guest blogging recently at the Blackbird Writers’ website, raised the topic of typing.

Not keyboarding. Typing.

Touch Typing

Way back in the twentieth century, every high school taught “touch typing,” with  students achieving speeds of sixty words or more per minute, error-free, on manual typewriters. Nearly all typing students were young women, because typing was a secretarial skill. 

Women’s typing class, National Youth Administration, Illinois 1937. Public Domain.

The crewcut lads who hung around the malt shop after school, you see, would become executives and have secretaries to do their typing; the girls would be those secretaries.

Yes, Dear Reader, of course we understand that not all boys became executives. But those who did not would become farmers or mechanics or shopkeepers and would have no need for typing. Only large businesses and government departments could possibly need their writing to look like printing. Ordinary folks could, and mostly did, get by with cursive scrawls in pen or pencil, as long as the numerals were legible.

Today, all children, male and female, learn “keyboard skills” at a young age. The process by which they learn these skills is a mystery, but it seems to involve thumbs and cell phones.

Manual Typewriters

When I was growing up—and even when Christine DeSmet, who is much younger, was growing up—there was no word-processing. There was no spell-check.

Nothing was virtual. Everything was real. Every tap on a key was answered by the whack of a steel typebar planting its face in an inked ribbon to strike a letter onto the paper beyond. 

If you made a typographic error you had to manually remove it from the paper by one of three or four clever methods—none of them quite satisfactory. Important documents had to be perfect ab initio: one errant keystroke and you started over from the top.

The mere act of typing strengthened your fingers, because you needed to hit the keys with strong and uniform force. 

As a young man, I did not take a touch typing course in high school. Fortunately for me, my mother taught me the rudiments on our old Underwood machine. Thus I gained skill enough to type term papers in college, where, by the early 1960s, typed papers had become the required standard. 

Military Typing

Later, the United States Air Force improved me. I was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, to learn Mandarin Chinese; then on to San Angelo, Texas, to learn radio eavesdropping techniques. The Air Force gave me a class to bring my typing speed from about 20 WPM up to 35. This standard achieved, they sent me out into the world of international espionage. 

Chinese MiG-17 fighter. Photo by Rob Schleiffert, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0.

From a windowless compound surrounded by tea fields on a Taiwan mountaintop, we listened in on Chinese Air Force pilots and controllers across the straits. We made sketchy intercept notes in real time but went back later, listened to our tapes, and transcribed all that traffic in verbatim English translations, banging away on manual typewriters. The clunky old Royal of those days, purchased in thousands by Uncle Sam, was a nearly indestructible machine. I ought to know; I tried hard.

The transcripts we made of Chinese military air traffic ultimately went into a huge, room-occupying computer at the National Security Agency in Maryland. How they got there I never learned. But at some point, they must have been manually re-keyed for electronic entry into the Big Daddy Computer. 

Therefore, our typing did not have to be perfect. If you made a mistake, you just struck over it. As long as the person typing the traffic into the computer could make out what you had meant to type, it was good enough.

I still type about 35 words per minute. I still make lots of mistakes, but on a modern laptop it’s not that big a deal. Corrections are easy. 

Kids today have no idea.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Faster Than a Lobster Quadrille

The young man peered at me over his designer mask. “Do you have a cell phone?”

“No.”

He stared. His brow wrinkled. “Uh . . . wait here.” He ducked back inside. 

There was a sign on the door that warned: 

“NO ENTRY. Call On Cell Phone.

Staff Will Meet You In Parking Lot.”

You’d think they were dealing crystal meth.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Gentle Reader: I do have a cell phone. 

(But I don’t use it. 

Photo by Meghan Schiereck on Unsplash.

(It’s an old clamshell on a $13-a-month plan. It lives in my car, awaiting that moment when I may drive into a snow bank and need help getting out. But who, in the meantime, needs to know of its existence?)

The door opened and the young man re-emerged. “They’ll be with you in a minute.” 

He edged by me and darted down the walk to where a better-trained customer stood, cell phone in hand, hoisting with the other hand a small cage which held a lop-eared rabbit.

Did I feel no guilt, you ask, gumming up the procedures of a nice veterinary clinic?

GUILT? Ha! You may as well ask a wolverine about origami.

Turns out, once they discover one’s masked presence standing at their door—even without a cell phone call—they will eventually bring out the allergy pills one pre-ordered for one’s itchy American Staffordshire terrier mix. 

In the present COVID-19 public health emergency, who could have predicted the emergence of common sense?

#

Milo Bung shook his head when I told him the story. “You go to a lot of trouble to avoid using your cell phone.”

“It’s no trouble at all.”

My old classmate glared like a bright young assistant district attorney cross-examining a defendant. “What have you got against cell phones?” 

“What has a cell phone ever done for me?”

Milo scratched his head. “How would I know?”

“Exactly.”

A new idea lit up his face. “What if you want to take a picture?”

“I would use my Nikon. But I’ve already made enough photographs for one lifetime.”

“Is that a fact,” said Milo. He looked askance. “You’ve given up photography altogether?”

“I remember the best moments of all my vacations. The images stored in my brain are better than mere photos. They have more je ne sais quoi.”

In any case, I thought but did not say, when my brain loses the memories, the pictures won’t help either.

Milo rapped his knuckles on the bar. “You’re a hard case, amigo.”

“Besides,” I astutely pointed out, “I like to deal with people in the flesh.”

“Isn’t that sort of old school?”

“That’s me all over.”

#

I was not always thus. It takes decades of study to become an old crank.

Gradually, if you’re a sentient being, you apprehend that in today’s world, the sense of community that underpins mental health has been eroded. In this desert of commonality and fellow-feeling, any face-to-face, or mask-to-mask, encounter, even with a stranger, can be salutary.

#

Years ago, a fellow yahoo on a Road Scholar trip—a man named Larry, by sheer coincidence—tried to browbeat me into needing a GPS navigating device.

“What!” he exclaimed. “You don’t have a *INSERT BRAND NAME HERE*? How can you not have one? You can get one for under a hundred dollars.” 

“Or I could not get one,” I pointed out, “and keep my hundred dollars.” 

“No, seriously. You can’t afford to be without it.”

“So far, I’m doing fine.”

“But it’s so cheap, you’ve got to have one.”

I could have explained that 99 percent of my trips are to places I know how to get to; that I can, and do, look up the other one percent in advance; and that if, despite that preparation, I should get lost, I can always stop and ask someone. But no logic would have convinced Larry that my lack of a *INSERT BRAND NAME HERE* was okay.

His real problem was that my zoom lens was longer than his. Given that circumstance, his only play was to beat me over the head with his GPS device.

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I am no Luddite, I tell myself, but simply a man who values the personal touch. 

Why should I ring up my own merchandise at Home Depot when a real pro is on duty one lane over? A person who, by the way, would like to keep her job. 

Sure, I could knuckle under to the ruling paradigm, but I would feel like I was abandoning The Little Guy. If I have to stand in line a few extra minutes, so what? Where else do I have to be?

Our pet spa has the same “call up on the cell phone” routine that the vet’s office does. But rather than lose an eighty-dollar grooming job, they’ll eventually notice me and my shaggy spaniel as we wait in the parking lot.

Some inchoate power out there always wants me to do things in a new way. But, Lord help me, I like the old way. 

They want me to vote early this year—either by mailing in my ballot or by handing it to a designated early-ballot collector sitting under a sign in a public park. All well and good.

But, why? 

Is the election going somewhere? Will the polls be closed?

No. 

My plan is to show up, masked, on election day, at the polling place where I am registered, holding my photographic ID in hand. I trust they’ll let me vote—even though they won’t be able to see that my face matches the photo on the ID—and they’ll count my vote. 

So what’s the problem?

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Tout le monde, Dear Reader, is NOT rushing off to some Brave New World so fast an old geezer can’t keep up—impressions to the contrary notwithstanding.

You might mention that to Milo Bung when you see him.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Bird of Passage

Chipmunk with nut. Photo by Gilles Gonthier, licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Once upon a weekend sunny, I was feeling . . . kinda funny . . . 
As I cruised the stories sketched upon my laptop’s memory core.
While I noodled, idly hashing over plots, there came a crashing,
As of someone wildly thrashing—thrashing in my stovepipe’s bore.
“’Tis some chipmunk brash,” I muttered, “thrashing in my stovepipe’s bore—
Only this and nothing more.”

And the steely, harsh, resounding echoes of the stovepipe’s pounding
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before; 
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some chipmunk brash that’s greeting from inside my stovepipe’s bore—
some brash chipmunk with his greeting from within my stovepipe core;—
This it is and nothing more.”
Poe. Public Domain.

Unlike Edgar Allan Poe, Gentle Reader, I cannot keep this up indefinitely. 

The part about fantastic terrors is true, though. 

Sunny Studio

The space where I hatch my writerly triumphs is not heated by the furnace that serves the rest of the house. So in this otherwise pleasant room, we have a woodstove instead. Its black chimney rises four feet, turns horizontal to shoot through the outer wall, and zooms skyward again, rising another ten feet outdoors to disperse the smoke above the roof.

Our sunroom

A frantic scrabble sounded forth from the two-foot horizontal run just inside the wall. 

Something alive was inside the stovepipe and, from the sound of things, wanted out. 

The stove and its pipe were cold, but I had plans to lay a fire there soon. That might smoke the occupant out—or else, gruesomely, cook it.

How had something gotten in there? Not through the stove: The firebox door was closed and in any case, we don’t have wildlife wandering through the sunroom. The outdoor chimney has a cap on top that ought to keep things out. It had failed in its duty.

William Bendix as Riley on the radio. Public Domain.

I wanted this new tenant evicted. But how to dismantle a stovepipe, I do not begin to know; much less how to put it back together afterwards. I would need to call for professional assistance, at about eighty dollars an hour. As the late Chester A. Riley would have said, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”

I sat and pondered. 

There came a great whump!, and from the edges of the loose-fitting firebox door rose a cloud of gray ash.

Time to relapse into verse. I’m sorry, Dear Reader, I can’t help myself.

Down the chimney a sparrow had come with a bound.
He was dressed all in feathers, from beak down to toes,
And stood amid soot which on all sides arose.
He spoke not a word but made straight for the light
With a flap and a flutter as he took his flight.

Fancy that—not a chipmunk at all.

 Small Bird

An English sparrow, or house sparrow. Male, to judge by his black bib. 

House sparrow. Photo by Lip Kee Yap, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

One of the commonest, almost the least of birds. The kind that, in olden days, you could buy two for a farthing at the temple in Jerusalem.

He stood on a bed of fly ash and blinked as the light struck him when I opened the cast-iron door. Then he flew up and bounced off the ceiling.

He bolted for daylight and bounced off a window. He tried again and bounced off another window. His little brain clearly was be-twittered.

His prison door, opened.

I went out through the wide-open door, hoping to set a good example. I came in and did it twice more, to make sure he got the idea. Then I stayed out, went around the corner, and looked in the end window from outside.

Left to his own devices, the winged warrior hopped across the tile floor, closing the distance to the open door, hop by hop, until he stood on its threshold. He hopped out, cautiously, to the low deck outside. 

One more hop, testing the alfresco, and off he flew. None the worse for wear, I hope.

Just another day in the life of a literary lion.

The Preachy Part

Close encounters with God’s wild creatures always leave Your New Favorite Writer a bit breathless. I’m glad the little guy slipped his predicament with all feathers accounted for. 

But on a deeper level, I stand in awe of the Creative Power that fashioned both a geezer like me and a striving sparrow, and put us together in one space for a few moments’ mutual instruction in the sketchy parameters of life.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Grunting and Groaning

Dick the Bruiser. Public Domain.

In the 1950s we watched professional wrestlers of the day: Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Dick the Bruiser, and the unprecedented Gorgeous George. 

These TV wrestling matches were not sporting events; they were melodamas. Beefcakes with crafted personas played hero or heavy for the crowd. No villainy was too base, no gallantry too phony to be aped in the ring—or even outside the ring. 

Nothing about this spectacle was authentic or uplifting. Absolutely nothing. And we, the people, ate it up.

Which reminds me: The Presidential Debates are coming our way. 

Kennedy-Nixon debate, 1960. Public Domain.

The first Presidential Debates ever, between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, took place in 1960. Both men played serious adults seeking to guide our nation’s future. Since then, many such debates have been held, the seriousness and adulthood slipping a notch or two downward every four years.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Modern presidential debates were probably inspired by the seven three-hour, open-air arguments held between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, candidates for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1858. 

The stakes could not have been greater. Slavery’s hour of reckoning was at hand. The nation paid close attention as the Railsplitter and the Little Giant spoke forth two divergent views on the great question of the day. 

No moderators fed questions to the candidates. There were no assigned topics, no short answers. Everybody knew what the topic was.

Each man spoke at length, without interruptions by the other. One candidate would speak for an hour. Then his opponent spoke for an hour and a half, after which the opening speaker got half an hour in rebuttal.

Lincoln and Douglas spoke for up to ninety minutes at a stretch, made themselves heard without amplification by vast crowds of farmers and townsmen. They spoke without notes or prompters, analyzed the issues in detail, used good grammar, and unleashed rhetoric that sometimes rose to the sublime. 

Commemorative postage stamp of Lincoln-Douglas debates. Public Domain.

Those who heard their speeches or read verbatim transcripts in their newspapers could know Lincoln’s and Douglas’s views and know exactly on what points they differed.

Here are two brief samples from their fifth debate, in Galesburg.

Stephen A. Douglas. Mathew Brady photograph. Public Domain.

DOUGLAS: I say to you, frankly, that in my opinion, this Government was made by our fathers on the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and was intended to be administered by white men in all time to come. But while I hold that under our Constitution and political system the negro is not a citizen, cannot be a citizen, and ought not to be a citizen, it does not follow by any means that he should be a slave. On the contrary . . . [h]umanity requires, and Christianity commands, that you shall extend to every inferior being, and every dependent being, all the privileges, immunities and advantages which can be granted to them consistent with the safety of society. If you ask me the nature and extent of these privileges, I answer that that is a question which the people of each State must decide for themselves. 

Abraham Lincoln, 1858. Ambrotype by Abraham Byers. Public Domain.

LINCOLN: Every thing that emanates from [Judge Douglas] or his coadjutors in their course of policy, carefully excludes the thought that there is any thing wrong in slavery. . . If you will take the Judge’s speeches, and select the short and pointed sentences expressed by him—as his declaration that he “don’t care whether slavery is voted up or down”—you will see at once that this is perfectly logical, if you do not admit that slavery is wrong. . . . Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the Constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.

These are small fragments of much longer speeches made on this occasion. I quote them only to show the candidates engaged in making complex arguments, drawing lawyerly distinctions with as much precision and power as possible. They supposed their hearers, no matter what their level of education, could follow their arguments.

What if I challenged you, Dear Reader, to read any one of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in its entirety? (Go ahead. It’s easy to Google them up. I’ll wait.) 

I predict you will find, as I do, that reading these speeches and comprehending them is a heavy intellectual workout. 

In so many ways, both physical and mental, we are not up to our ancestors.

Bull Elks

Leaving aside any elegance of expression, consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates for gravity alone. 

By comparison, one may confidently predict that Trump and Biden will appear as bull elks in rut, pawing the earth, shaking their antlers, banging heads with great thuds. 

The political world has no incentive to include rational content in these debates, because when the spectacle is over we will all go and vote as we had planned to vote all along.

Neither high rhetoric nor weighty arguments can sway us. Tribe is all that matters. We lay our bets on the fighter who punches the chords of our ancient tribal harmonies.

If we had a shred of honesty, we would admit this fact and stop fussing about debates.

Perhaps, instead, we could spend some of our energy tracing the sources of our tribalism, seeking to learn what unwholesomeness it is within ourselves that nurses our blithe, reflexive hatred of The Other Tribe. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer