The Wellspring

Public Domain.

I have dragged myself out of bed after midnight on a good sleeping night—one of those rain-blessed nights when you hear the tap and drizzle of the storm just outside the window—because this musing has come to me. 

If I wait till morning, I’ll lose it.

It’s a message for you, Dear Reader, about creativity.

Maybe you have thought you would like to write something. Something true from your life and experience, be it written as fact or fiction. Something you might share with your children, your grandchildren, or the world. 

But you have answered yourself: “No. I’m no writer.” 

Or maybe: “No. I’d start and then not know where to go from there. I’d get writer’s block.” 

But before you give up on the idea, consider my case. I resolved six years ago to start the writing career I had always promised myself. I knew not what I would write, nor how. But there was something inside me that had to come out. Surely if I gave it a whirl, something would turn up.

So I plunged in.

Are you still with me, Gentle Reader? Just plunging in is not unheard-of. People do it. You could plunge in, too—if you so chose.

Early Scores

When I plunged in, I wanted to write about the past—the place where I spend most of my time. But the first thing that came to me—it came in a dream one night—was a brief, whimsical character study of Skeezie, our woebegone old Siberian husky. I sent it to Fetch! magazine—“For dogs and their humans”—and they bought it

What a morale booster! But it was an isolated victory, something of a fluke. I buckled down to my real aim of writing about the past. I wrote short stories about a young boy named Izzy Mahler, growing up in the ’Fifties. I submitted one to The Saturday Evening Post, and they published it in their online edition.

Wow, another fluke. 

Over the next couple of years, the Post bought a couple more Izzy Mahler stories (here and here).

Getting Serious

But I wanted something more.  I hankered to write a novel. My wife, Jo, had unearthed my Norwegian ancestors, and the framework of their lives, as shown by her research, suggested the beginnings of a plot.

Plunging in is fine, Cherished Reader, but I craved a surer sense of what I was about. What kind of Pandora’s box would I open if I embarked on a novel? So I signed up for the University of Wisconsin–Extension’s “Write By The Lake” conference in the summer of 2016. There, the inimitable Laurie Scheer encouraged me to go ahead and write my “immigrant novel.”

So I plunged in. Does this suggest any writing strategy to you, Dear Reader?

I wrote most of the novel on my laptop but part of it in longhand in a notebook I took with me to a church meeting in 2017. I recruited volunteer beta readers to read my work and give feedback.

Sensing I was in over my head, I joined Tuesdays With Story, a writers’ mutual critique group led by Jerry Peterson of Janesville, Wisconsin. Jerry is an author with plenty of publication credits, a master of great stories. When I showed my early chapters to the group, I had to swallow a lot of guff arising from amateurism in my writing. It was galling, Dear Reader—but I could not ignore the truth in the critiques. 

My writing started to get better.

We talked a lot in the group about “writer platforms,” about one’s “social media presence,” about “blogs” and “podcasts.” It seemed you had to do that stuff to be successful. My heart screamed, “No! No! No! Here I am trying to burrow into the past, and you’re trying to shove me into some godforsaken future. I won’t go!”

But at some point in those discussions, Jerry said, “Well, instead of thinking of a blog as something to promote your writing, you might look at a blog as being your writing—at least, part of it. If nothing else, it’s a chance to write something and get it in front of the public, on your own terms.”

To Blog, or Not to Blog: That Is the Question

It was an agonizing decision. For a blog to be worth doing, it ought to be posted regularly, maybe as often as once a week. I would have to spend a lot of my precious time composing and posting blog entries. 

I had heard somebody say, “It’s easy. Just rattle off something and post it. A few minutes a week.” But I could never do that. Why would I put something into the world under my name that was not carefully written? Pondered? Revised? Crafted? To do so would be the opposite of what I was trying to do. If I was going to start a blog, the entries needed to be high in quality.

That meant significant time spent each week, and that would cut into my novel writing time. Besides—where would I come up with all the material needed for a weekly blog post?

I’m hearing an echo now, Kind Reader, as you murmur, “What if I tried to write something? Where would I get the content?”

Well, I’ll tell you what Your New Favorite Writer did.

I plunged in. Here we go again. Do you see a pattern?

Since April 2019, I have posted 164 blog entries. What you are reading now will be Number 165. I have posted almost every week, usually on Tuesday morning. I have written about my grandmother’s postcard collection, the Springfield race riot of 1907, the losses of two of my uncles in World War II, General Grant, the onset of autumn in Wisconsin, the craziness of coping with COVID, how to use a chainsaw, the philosophical reflections of Milo Bung (a direct descendant of Æthelred the Unready and fourth cousin to Slats Grobnik) and more than a hundred other topics. I have even posted a few not-quite-ready-for-prime-time short stories. 

Where did all that content come from? 

All I can say is, there’s always something. I never run dry.

Wellspring of Creativity

That’s my message to you, Fair Reader: There’s always something. When you start to create, you reach down into some magical place, where there’s always more stuff ready to bubble forth. As soon as you take some out and write it down, more wells up to take its place. 

I think of it as a wellspring of creativity. I’ve spoken to other writers, and I’m assured the situation is the same in all other kinds of artistic endeavors: The more you produce, the more there is to draw from.

You can never run out. There’s a wellspring of creativity inside you.

I’m not talking about Creation. That would be presumptuous. In my theology, only God creates. The best we can do is recombine elements of that primordial Creation in new ways. That’s not Creation—but it is creativity. Somehow, when we do this kind of work, we participate in God’s creative work. 

Yes, Distinguished Reader. I’m saying it’s a Divine Calling.

Ignore it at your peril.

Despite the time and effort required for the weekly blog post, I have completed and sold an epic novel, due to be published August 23. I have a middle-grades novel for which I’ll soon be seeking a publisher. And there are other projects in the works, which I’m not ready to talk about yet.

The more you dip out, the more comes in to take its place

You might think about trying it, too, Dear Reader. 

Just plunge in. You have but to stretch forth your hand.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Memorial Day, Observed

When I was a boy we called it Decoration Day. It was the day to decorate the graves of the fallen with flowers. 

It was on held on May 30. They ran a 500-mile auto race the same day at Indianapolis.

Congress decreed the official name was Memorial Day, and that starting in 1971 it would be observed on the last Monday in May. Because people already thought of May 30 as Memorial Day, calendars said “Memorial Day” on May 30 and “Memorial Day (Observed)” on the last Monday of the month.

This year the last Monday happens to be May 30. 

Let me tell you what I observed.

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On May 29, one day before the general Memorial Day, we rededicated our statue of Colonel Hans Christian Heg, the Norwegian American hero who led the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. The larger-than-life statue had been toppled, dismembered, and thrown into a lake by rioters. Now, after two years, it is restored to its pedestal on the east approach to the state capitol.

Colonel Heg and some of his descendants.

Norwegians are happy and relieved. But not just Norwegians. Colonel Heg, who gave his life at Chickamauga, speaks to the aspirations of all nationalities—people who came here and without hesitation sacrificed their lives for their new homeland. Heg symbolizes the price of passage from an old life to a new one.

The ceremony was long—elaborate and drawn out to fit the mood of the occasion. The colonel was well and truly rededicated.

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On Monday, May 30, hundreds of people gathered at Union Rest, the cemetery-within-a-cemetery where 240 Union soldiers from the Civil War lie buried. A band played a number of selections, mostly military marches, with éclat. Speeches were made, salutes were rendered. The mood was solemn but not oppressive. Sunshine filtered through giant oaks, and a nice breeze riffled through the grounds.

The people present, many of us old but some young, did not seem to be there to celebrate the unofficial start of summer, or to take advantage of a Memorial Day blowout sale. No, we seemed to be there to pay our respects to those who died for us. 

A female veteran played Taps on a period bugle, with a nice tone and elegiac phrasing.

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After the ceremony, my wife and I were among those who hiked a hundred yards or so to view the graves at Confederate Rest, the other soldiers’ cemetery enclosed within Forest Hill. Low stones there mark the graves of 140 Confederate soldiers, most of them members of the 1st Alabama regiment who died in Union custody as prisoners at, or en route to, confinement here at Camp Randall. 

Along with the 140 dead soldiers is buried Alice Waterman. She was a Southern woman who, having relocated to Madison, took it upon herself to spruce up the gravesites during a period of official neglect in the late nineteenth century. 

Great controversy arose recently over these graves. In January 2019, a stone cenotaph etched with their names was removed from the cemetery by the Madison Parks Department and transferred to storage at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

Yesterday, no echo of that strife sounded, nor did a single eyelash bat at the Stars and Bars flag posted at the entrance to the graves, where a young woman in period dress chatted with visitors. 

This is the northernmost Confederate graveyard in the nation.

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Memorial Day is not all about the Civil War, however. My friend Brian lost his son, a cavalry scout, to an improvised explosive device in Tikrit, Iraq, in 2006.

Brian has never gotten over it. Every Memorial Day is a fresh source of pain. Brian lives with it, but not quietly. Every year he explains patiently for those who may have forgotten, or who never knew: Memorial Day is not a happy day; nor is it a recognition for living veterans—we have our own day in November; nor yet a recognition for currently serving members of the military—they have their own day, too. 

Memorial Day is for remembering the fallen. Like Ryan.

Or like my two uncles, Stanley and Franklin. They died before I was born, one in the cockpit of a B-17 in the Southwest Pacific, the other in a B-26 over France.

Do I miss Stanley and Franklin? How could I miss them? I never even met them.

Yes, I miss them. Of course I miss them. The world misses them. 

And millions of others. 

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It’s good we have one day each year when we are brought back in touch with these facts, forced to think about our losses.

However, nobody’s really forcing us, Dear Reader. 

This is the Land of the Free. It’s up to you.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

My Father

Lloyd Everett Sommers.

Born 26 April 1922 in Metamora, Illinois.

Died 20 December 2011 in Middleton, Wisconsin.

Requiescat in pace.

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Last Tuesday would have been your hundredth birthday, Dad, though you did not live to see it. 

You were the fourth of five children. There was Edward first, then Mabel, then Stanley, you, and Franklin. When you were ten, your family moved to Knoxville, Illinois. With two thousand people, Knoxville was a metropolis. Dahinda, where you formerly lived, was just a bend in the road, a place where you and your brothers ran wild in the woods.

By the time you graduated from Knoxville High School in 1940, you had acquired a sweetheart, Barbara Bantz LaFollette, a classmate. 

But Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo had other plans for you.

The Lowering Front

Though America’s policies were isolationist, everybody knew war was coming. In September 1940 Congress passed the first-ever peacetime draft. Top generals wrestled with the mere logistics of swiftly building a large Army. National Guard units would play a key role.

In April 1941, you enlisted in the 33rd Division, Illinois National Guard—a unit that had already been called into federal service. You took part in a huge war game called the Louisiana Maneuvers, the Army’s way of testing and validating its rapidly growing force. 

On 7 December, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

War

Your regiment, the 132nd Infantry, was rushed to the East Coast, assigned to guard bridges and power plants against possible attack by saboteurs. Being at war with Japan meant the U.S. was also at war with Germany and Italy, who were thought to have sleeper agents in America.

Things were being done in a crashing hurry, thrown together on the fly. In mid-January 1942, you got new orders. The 132nd Infantry Regiment was removed from the 33rd Division and shipped to New York as a free-standing regiment. At the Brooklyn Army Terminal you boarded USS John Ericsson, a troopship. In pre-dawn darkness on 23 January, you and 17,000 new friends slipped out of the harbor on Ericsson and seven other ships.

The eight-ship flotilla was designated Task Force 6814. Its vessels hosted a collection of miscellaneous units, including the 132nd. It was imperative to get under way quickly. 

The Kungsholm

Your ship, the John Ericsson, had been the Swedish American Line’s flagship, MS Kungsholm, until 12 December. As she sailed out of New York harbor, shipfitters and carpenters were busy tearing out the Kungsholm’s luxury accommodations for 1428 passengers, replacing them with plywood bulkheads and tiers of pipe bunks to accommodate five thousand troops. 

Entrance to the Kungsholm’s luxury dining room–before the Army makeover.

Once under way—expecting to cross the Atlantic, your duffels stuffed with heavy coats and winter gear—the task force turned right and sailed southward instead. You steamed through the Panama Canal and took a zigzag course, to confuse the enemy, across the Pacific. Resources on board were strained. The water ration was reduced to one canteen a day. 

Task Force 6814 arrived in Melbourne on 26 February 1942. Disembarking the crowded, stinking ship, you encountered Aussie troops in turned-up hats, wheeling a squadron of horse-drawn buckboards into place to receive you and take you to your temporary camp. 

After a week of Australian hospitality you got back on the boat and sailed to New Caledonia, arriving at Noumea 12 March. The 250-mile long, cigar-shaped island, 800 miles east of Australia, was a French possession. Its loyalty was an open question: Would New Caledonia be governed by the Nazi puppets of Vichy, France, or by General DeGaulle’s government-in-exile operating from London? 

An Allied force on the island could decide the issue. Hence the rush to throw Task Force 6814 across the Pacific. It was hoped New Caledonia and nearby islands would prove a stumbling block to the Japanese march across the Southwest Pacific.

Once landed at Noumea, the units of Task Force 6814 were eformed into a division, called Americal (AMERIcans in New CALedonia), commanded by Major General Alexander M. Patch. After several months spent securing and defending the French island, the Americal was relieved by other units and started reorganizing itself to prepare for combat in the forward area.

Into the Fight

In October through December, the Americal landed on the contested island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons. Its mission was to reinforce the Marine units which had invaded the island back in August. The 132nd was the last of three Americal infantry regiments to arrive on the island. It was  given the task of capturing Mount Austen, also known as Hill 27, a high point of land from which the Japanese could see and shell the U.S. landing strip at Henderson Field. 

This moment, in December 1942, may have been your greatest exposure to combat. We’ll never know, because you didn’t talk about it, except in very general terms. I know that you were a Signal Corps sergeant, part of regimental headquarters, and thus spent a lot of your time repairing and operating radios at headquarters. You admitted, however, having gone on some combat patrols, lugging a heavy backpack-mounted radio set. 

“I saw dead bodies,” you told me. “Some of them were guys I had known.” 

Bettys

The danger that seems to have stuck in your mind was when a Japanese “Betty” bomber, performing one of those solitary overflights collectively referred to as “Washing Machine Charlie” raids, buzzed your tent area near Henderson field and loosed a stick of bombs. 

He must have been flying low. “The nose gunner was so close I could have reached out and shaken his hand,” you said. You were all tangled up in sleeping bag and mosquito netting, trying to find your helmet. One of the bombs landed quite near, but it burrowed underground before detonating, so the explosive force was dissipated.

Further Operations

Mortar crew of 132nd Infantry on Bougainville.

After Guadalcanal was secured in late winter, the Americal was withdrawn and sent to Fiji for rest and refitting, arriving there in March 1943. You remembered Fiji as a wonderful place, full of great, friendly people. Possibly because they were not shooting at you. 

The division went back into action December 1943 at Bougainville, an island in the Northern Solomons. The Americal spent most of 1944 pushing back stubborn Japanese defenders on this large island. In September 1944, however, your time was up. You rotated back to the States. 

During your two and a half years in the Southwest Pacific, you had learned of the deaths of two brothers: Stanley, flying a B-17 in the Pacific, and Franklin, in a B-26 over France. “Other guys lost family members, too,” you said. “There was nobody to talk to about it. You just had to suck it up and keep going.”

Dad and Mom in January 1942

The first thing you did on returning home was marry your high school sweetheart, Barb LaFollette. Then you went off for about nine months in military hospitals getting fixed up. You were below 140 pounds on a five-foot-ten frame and had numerous health problems. 

We have all seen war movies with strong, hardy soldiers played by strapping, handsome actors. In truth, our forces in the islands of the Southwest Pacific were at the very end of a long, overtaxed supply chain. “The only thing we had plenty of was mutton,” you said. “The Aussies shipped us all we could eat. I will never eat mutton again in my life.” And you never did.

Life After War

Somewhat aimless before the war, you had acquired some sense of purpose. Upon discharge from the military hospitals, you enrolled in Knox College on the GI Bill. I was born in June 1945 and spent my first four years on campus. 

You graduated with a degree in chemistry. You became a high school chemistry teacher. A couple of years later, disillusioned with teaching, you got a job in industry, working as an analytical chemist for decent money. You and Mom had another child, my sister Cynda. 

We all participated fully in the roaring postwar economy. I remember the 1950s and early 1960s as an idyllic time. We had everything we needed, because you were providing it. 

I was especially blessed to be a Boy Scout. The camping, hiking, merit badges, and the companionship of other boys like myself added a lot of interest, meaning, and sweetness to my life. I became a Scout largely because you invested yourself in the movement. You were an adult Scout leader for probably twenty years or more, staying with it even after I was off to college and the U.S. Air Force. It met some need in your soul. You could become emotional talking about the influence of Scouting on your life when you were a boy in Dahinda and Knoxville. 

As I grew and became a smartass teenager, and then an independent young man with my own agendas, you and I sparred and sometimes wound up at loggerheads. But our relationship mellowed as we both got older. 

Like others in my generation, I was blessed to live in a family headed by a man who did his duty in a long and terrible war and then came home, turned on a dime, and adapted to decades of sober-sided family life in order to make a stable home for our generation. 

I’m not sure how you did this, but I will always be grateful. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.

A Meditation

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash.

Sunday, August 22

Our church, like a lot of churches, has shrunk. So we sold our big meetinghouse and started holding services in a rented storefront. Our worship is now simpler, more informal. 

Our music director plays an electronic piano, not a multi-manual pipe organ. Today’s prelude was Fond D’Orgue by Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, 1632-1714. It must have been composed for organ, but now it was played on a single keyboard, boiled down to a simple melody.

As usual, my mind was on other things—mainly the progress of my historical novel, which I am now revising. I was thinking about changes I would make in Chapter 22, when Nivers’s tune broke through.

The simple fall of pure tones stopped me cold. In a startling moment, the tune became an attribute of the Divine.

It is more my style to cast God as a supporting player—essential, yet secondary—in my own grand maneuvers. 

What is God for, if not to support me?

Along came Nivers’s tune, a pure thing, existing in its own plane, its link to a long-dead Frenchman moot. 

My work—no matter how worthy, no matter how inspired—is a hardscrabble of striving and becoming, a smudged object of trade. 

But a tune, a color, a shape, a tree, a stream—is all being. Is God manifested.

God dwells at the heart of things, always in flux yet never changing. The facets of God’s transformation flash like signboards on country stations at night as we go barreling through on the fast express with rarely a glimmer of recognition. 

But the God of tunes and colors and leaves and fishes is always accessible. Is present to us in that sabbath state when we hear music and forget our customary concerns.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Salmonic Versus

Our trip has put me in mind of salmon. 

We did not travel to Alaska for the salmon, exactly. But once there, you cannot avoid salmon. They’re everywhere. 

Coho salmon. Bureau of Land Management photo. Public Domain.

Happy Salmon?

My Norwegian kin, I am told, have an expression: “A happy salmon.” En glad laks, in Norsk. It’s a label for someone cheerful by nature, a happy-go-lucky person. No worries, no cares. Smiling all the time.  

But, Kind Reader, consider the salmon. I mean the real salmon.

Salmon alevin with egg yolks. OpenCage photo, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Spawned in springtime, in the shallows of a cold mountain stream, it (he or she, take your pick) hatches from a round pink egg into an alevin—a tiny swimming fish with the yolk sac still attached to its belly. Consuming its yolk over the course of a few months, it becomes a small fish or fry. Only then does it emerge from the gravelly shallows into the main part of its natal stream. 

Depending on its species—chinook (king), coho (silver), chum, sockeye, or pink—the salmon fry either heads seaward immediately or hangs out in a freshwater lake for a year or more. In either case, it then develops into a smolt—a small, silvery fish with scales—and drifts downstream to an estuary, the tidal mouth of a river.

Salmon smolts. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo. Public Domain.

Hanging out in the estuary for a time, the smolt gains weight and—crucially—changes its metabolism, adjusting to life as a salt-water fish. When ready, the salmon moves into the ocean, where it will spend—again, depending on species—from eighteen months to eight years.

Life at Sea

Once a salmon becomes a denizen of the salt sea, how does it spend this time? It swims around, eats, and grows larger. It may swim more than two thousand miles, gobbling plankton, insects, small crustaceans, and fish, and gaining body length and weight. Unless, of course, it is eaten first.

Salmon in the ocean may be prey to seals, sharks or other large fish, orca whales, or the all-purpose predator, humans. 

Purse seiner off the coast of Kodiak Island. Photo by Wikimedia Commons User:NancyHeise. Public Domain.

Ocean salmon may be taken on hook-and-line by commercial trollers, in larger quantities in gill nets, or in even larger purse seines—depending on the species targeted and the size of the boat and its equipment. They end up as high-quality salmon steaks or filets, brined gravlax or smoked lox, ground salmon in a can, even salmon-based pet foods. 

Salmon Patties, Anyone?

When I was a boy (more than sixty-five years ago), Mom often served us patties of ground salmon, fried in her cast-iron skillet. They were cheap and nutritious, and I grew to despise them. Greasy and gamey-tasting. Not for me, thanks.

Salmon patty sandwich, photo by jeffreyw. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Since then, I have grown fond of lox with bagels and cream cheese, and I also like a nicely-done salmon filet. Context is everything.

But I digress. Back to the sea:

Those salmon who slip through the nets of man and beast eventually gravitate to the coast and, by a divinely-ordained process no scientist has fully explained, make their way back up the very stream then came out of and swim right up to the very shallows where they were born. 

Born to Spawn

Brown bear dines on salmon at Katmai National Park, Brooks Falls, Alaska. Photo by Brian W. Schaller, licensed under Free Art License.

Naturally, they must evade human predation. The rivers and creeks are full of anglers, fishing for recreation or to feed their families. Also, in parts of Alaska and Canada, the streams hold cunningly designed Native American salmon wheels, which skim off a regular portion of the fish swimming upstream to spawn. 

In this upstream, fresh-water journey is concentrated the whole point and purpose of their lives: Spawning. The procreation of their species. It is the Olympics they have trained for all their lives in creek, lake, river, and sea. And the competition is fierce. The journey is fraught with peril.

Besides humans, those streams are full of bears—brown and black. You’ve seen them on the wild Alaska shows, gleefully scooping salmon out of churning rapids and devouring them on the spot. Eagles and ospreys also take salmon, lifting them whole out of rivers, lakes, and ocean.

If the salmon successfully evade all predators, they still must swim miles upstream to find their spawning beds. This usually means braving powerful rapids and fish ladders. 

A Salmonic Odyssey

In Ketchikan, our dauntless daughter, Katie, led us through a steady downpour on a journey tracking the salmon upstream. We followed Ketchikan Creek from the trendy shops that sit on pilings over its lower end up to the Creek Street footbridge. Under the bridge, salmon leap up into the rushing falls under the bridge. Their leaps are strenuous, athletic, and mostly doomed to failure. The fish falls short and is swept back downstream, only to try again. They spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to pass these falls, and many never make it. 

To help them, people have built a fish ladder as an alternate route over the falls. The ladder, like the falls, is steeply inclined and filled with water rushing rapidly downstream. But little walls, baffles I guess you’d call them, line the sides of the metal chute, giving fish a chance to work their way up from one resting point to the next. Even so, it’s almost as great a challenge as the falls themselves. 

Those salmon who cross the falls, whether by means of the salmon ladder or by simply leaping up the falls, enter a quiet stretch of the creek, which winds for several hundred yards and flows through Ketchikan’s City Park. In that stretch of water, the creek is very shallow, with a gravelly bed. This is the spawning-ground.

Prurient Interest

The dark shapes at center are salmon spawning. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

Standing in our waterproof ponchos under a soaking rain, we watched as female salmon—whose backs and dorsal fins protruded a bit from the water—wiggled their tails to scoop shallow depressions in the streambed. These depressions are called redds. There the females would release their clutches of round, pink eggs, while their male paramours released milt (fish semen) over them. After more wiggling to cover the fertilized eggs with fresh gravel, the female would move upstream to repeat the process. 

Scattered salmon roe in Ketchikan Creek. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

We could not see every aspect of this process, viewing it side-on under a stippling rain, but we saw the wiggles. Often we saw the back of what must have been a rampant male surging downstream—whether to frighten off rival males, or out of sheer exuberance of the rut, I could not say. 

But it was impressive, especially in that it was performed by the rare survivors of such a harrowing lifelong journey.

Ecce Salmo, piscis invictus!

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

North to Alaska

“Mormor, Bapa! Come on, there’s a lot of cool stuff at the top of the hill.”

Tristan, age nine, leaps and bounces in the trampoline-like mat of vegetation.

“You run back up there and learn all about it,” I say. “Mormor”—his grandmother—“and I will stay and rest a bit in the tundra.” 

“Okay, Bapa—if you’re sure.” And he leaps back up the hill.

Me enjoying comfy tundra. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

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Alaska has a way of wearing a man down. 

The first time we visited, in 2010, at age 65, there was enough bounce in my bones and enough tingle in my tendons to hike with a group up the mountain that overlooks the Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau. We scrambled over exposed roots, clambered through corridors of rain-slicked rocks. It was a tiring, yet exhilarating, trek.

This trip, at age 76, Your New Favorite Writer—still an enthusiast—strategically avails himself of frequent rest opportunities. 

Elsie, Katie, and Tristan at top of impossibly high tundra hill, enjoying Sidney’s lecture. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

Our time on the tundra in the middle of Denali National Park is precious. The softness, the springiness, the sink-in-ability of that blanket of tangled vegetation covering the deep permafrost challenges the hiker to walk without falling down and taxes one’s pulmonary system—especially going uphill. 

On the other hand, should you happen to fall down, you couldn’t pick a better place to do it. You almost can’t get hurt falling into the soft tundra. 

It’s an even better place to sit and rest, watching the mountains and listening to the enthusiasm of younger hikers as Sidney, our mountain guide—the young lady who carries the bear spray—points out wild blueberries and other flora just up the hill, telling which ones humans can eat, which ones the bears like, and so forth.

It’s a fine, warm day. Denali, the mountain, was out a few minutes ago and we got to see its peak before it was re-cloaked by its very own weather system. 

Denali seen behind Wonder Lake. Denali National Park and Preserve photo by Albert Herring. Public Domain.

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We have come here because we like Alaska; but even more, we want share it with our daughter, Katie, and our grandchildren, Elsie and Tristan. This resembles nothing they have experienced and nothing else they will ever experience—possibly not even in long future lives. 

Panning for gold. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

For a time, we have lured them from their telephone screens into the powerful beauty of the real world.

Later today we will pan for gold in Moose Creek. Lucky Tristan will find a flake in his pan and have it laminated on a piece of black paper. A speck of gold to carry with him forever after. Or until he loses it, which is likely. But the important thing is, he will find it in his pan and will always remember that. 

Elsie, age twelve, will find one too but lose it on the way to have it laminated. That will be all right, though, because she will find prizes of her own in the wilderness, including sightings of bears and moose and the chance to befriend a young adventurer, Rhys, traveling with his own family.

Katie and Mormor will not try panning for gold. They will opt for a horticulture hike instead, another rewarding adventure.

Old Bapa—Your New Favorite Writer—will stand in the creek swishing gravel around his pan, to no avail . . . but will bring home gold anyway.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

What About the Pilgrims?

“The Pilgrims? It’s not November—why are we talking about Pilgrims?” 

For one thing, maybe in midsummer we can step back and be a bit—dare I whisper the word?—dispassionate.

Passion rules the day. On every hand, our passions are egged on. “Engage your passion” is almost as frequent a bit of advice as “Follow your dreams.”

Noah Webster pre-1843. By James Herring. Public Domain. 

But has anybody bothered to check what that really means? Perhaps you will indulge me: 

passion . . . n. [[OFr < LL(Ec) passio, a suffering, esp. that of Christ (<L passus, pp. of pati, to endure < IE base *p­­ē-, to harm >  Gr pēma, destruction, L paene, scarcely): transl. of Gr pathos: see pathos]]  1a) [Archaic] suffering or agony, as of a martyr b) [Now Rare] an account of this  [P-a) the sufferings of Jesus, beginning with his agony in the Garden of Gethsmane and continuing to his death on the Cross b) any of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ Passion and of accompanying events c) an artistic work, as an oratorio or a play, based on these narratives  3 a) any one of the emotions, as hate, grief, love, fear, joy, etc. b) [pl.] all such emotions collectively  4 extreme, compelling emotion; intense emotional drive or excitement; specif., a) great anger; rage; fury b) enthusiasm or fondness [passion for music] c) strong love or affection d) sexual drive or desire; lust  5 the object of any strong desire or fondness  6 [Obs.] the condition of being acted upon, esp. by outside influences—Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

Webster goes on to comment that “passion usually implies a strong emotion that has an overpowering or compelling effect [his passions overcame his reason] [.]” 

Ignoring all the brackets, parentheses, italics, boldface, numbers, letters, and abbreviations that clutter the lexicography, we can discern that passion comprises suffering, endurance, harm, destruction, pathos, agony, martyrdom, and extremes of compelling or overpowering emotion—to include love, affection, and lust but, more commonly, hate, fear, grief, anger, rage, and fury.

Passion. Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash.

As a novelist and screenwriter, I applaud these outrageous eruptions of emotion. They  make drama.

But in my role as a human being trying to cope with the world, I must take a rather different tack. I believe that reason and objectivity—things that do not easily coexist with passion—are the best survival tools handed down from the philosophers of old.

They allow us to see our world more nearly as it is—less tinted by our fears, resentments, and extravagant dreams.

#

“Okay, My New Favorite Writer, but what about the Pilgrims? You were going to say something about Pilgrims.” 

We’ll get to that, Gentle Reader. Don’t give up on me yet.

First, another mild digression.

As a young man, I studied a bit of the History of Science under Prof. David Lindberg at the University of Wisconsin­–Madison. Lindberg’s introductory lecture in the course covered what he called ancestor worship. 

Ancestor worship, in the good professor’s view, was the study of history on the basis that people of old times were either clear-sighted heroes (if we can make out that they pioneered the values we espouse today) or blind and bigoted blackguards (if they violated our current norms). 

This ancestor worship—really more an attitude than a program—leads to outlandish propositions that we often accept without rigorous examination. For instance:

Martin Luther (1483–1546). By Lucas Cranach the Elder. Public Domain.
  • Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in order to champion Freedom, Progress, and Democracy.
  • Christopher Columbus ravaged the American hemisphere and commited genocide because he was a vicious white supremacist.
  • All those who lived before the Renaissance—or the Enlightenment, if you will, or the Summer of Love—were untutored savages who lived lives void of intelligent vision.

Many other, similarly fatuous, statements could be made. What they all have in common is a fatal simplicity.

Real life, Dear Reader, is not all that straightforward.

Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century German mathematician, started from the assumption that the planets moved in circular orbits which could be neatly inscribed in a nesting series of perfect Euclidean solids, and ended up proving the planets move in elliptical orbits that could not possibly answer to such imaginary constraints. Furthermore, despite his massive intelligence, it seems he saw no contradication between his two irreconcilable theories. He saw the former as being proved, not disproved, by the latter. Huh? 

Actuality just wants to escape any convenient mental box we try to cram it into.

Portrait of a man, said to be Christopher Columbus, by Sebastiano del Piombo. Public Domain.
  • Luther lived in a time when Progress was not a recognized value. Democracy was unthinkable, except as a curious aberration of the Athenians in remote antiquity. And if Luther valued Freedom, it would have been the freedom of the believer to realize salvation in Christ. His whole concern was that the institutional Church was stifling the ordinary person’s hope of receiving the Grace which the Scriptures revealed. If Luther was a hero, he was a hero of Faith, not of Modernity.
  • Columbus seems to have been actuated by the hope of Glory, Fame, and Wealth on Earth—and, perhaps, Eternal Life in Heaven. That he pursued these goals by enslaving the inhabitants of Hispaniola shows that he did not value their lives as much as white European lives; not that he held a Hitler-style ideology of race. He trampled on the Arawaks just as any supreme egotist tramples anyone in his path. It was made easy by the fact that they could not post eloquent written protests in Spanish or Latin. His genocide was casual, not programmatic。
  • And as for the belief that those who lived in days of yore were simply not bright enough to understand the world’s complexities as we do—Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Augustine of Hippo would like to have a word with you.

The real history of the world is not a relentless March of Progress nor a sinister Parade of Criminality, but an ongoing Stumble of Perplexity.

#

“But what about the Pilgims? Are we there yet?”

Here are the bare facts, as widely acknowledged:

A group of Puritan Separatists—people who wanted to leave the state-mandated Church of England—fled to Holland after persecution by British monarchs. A few years later, disillusioned with life among the Dutch, they sailed for America. They arrived off Cape Cod in December 1620. Half of them died of disease and hunger during the first winter. Friendly Indians named Squanto and Samoset introduced themselves the following spring and taught our Separatist Pilgrims how to grow corn. In the autumn of 1621, Pilgrims and Indians gathered for a harvest feast that we now call the First Thanksgiving. 

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850-1936). Public Domain.

Because the Pilgrims’ Plymouth Colony, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony established by other Puritans ten years later, became materially successful over the ensuing decades, they came to be celebrated by their 19th-century descendants as precursors of all that was good in American life. They were seen as model saints, who were sometimes victimized by their Native American neighbors but had never done anything to provoke such treatment. They were energetic and intelligent colonists, whose prosperity owed all to hard work and intelligence. Indeed, in the Mayflower Compact they had drawn up the very blueprint of American Freedom, Constitutionalism, and Democracy.

Does anything about this seem familiar to you? That’s right—Ancestor Worship! 

Because the view of the Pilgrims developed by 19th-century Congregationalists was slanted, 20th-century historians began to debunk many parts of it, in the interest of correcting the record. The 1960s and 70s also saw the rise of a corps of self-consciously subjective historians motivated by Marxist ideology. Their view was that there is no such thing as objective historiography; that history is always a political act. To them, the Massachusetts Pilgrims’ and Puritans’ checkered relationship with the Native Americans of the region was an opportunity to denounce capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.

Besides this, Native Americans in the second half of the 20th century gained ground in their quest to be heard. And the Wampanoags, today’s descendants of the Patuxets and other early Massachusetts tribes, had some long-neglected bones to pick.

Thus, although the 19th century’s triumphalist view of the Pilgrims held sway well into the 1950s—when Your New Favorite Writer and many other old people were school children—the “oppressor Pilgrims” narrative, fed by leftist historians and supported by well-documented assertions of the Wampanoag people, has gained ground since the 1960s.

There are still plenty of pro-Pilgrim apologists out there. But they must increasingly feel like yesterday’s children, shouting down a dry rain barrel.

#

In the interest of sanity, not to mention conciliation in a divisive era, let me point out a few truths that are sometimes overlooked.

1. Before the arrival of white Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries, North America was never what we would consider densely populated. Nobody knows how many Native Americans there were in pre-Columbian days, but recent estimates range from eight million to 112 million for the entire Western Hemisphere. The North American part of that would be less. If we average the two figures and assign half of the result to North America, we get 30 million. While this is a much larger population of American Indians than existed subsequently—after the effects of virgin-soil epidemics, outright wars, and a long period of genocidal practices—North America would still have seemed sparsely populated to Europeans of that era.

2. The incursions of Spanish colonists in the West and Southwest, and Englishmen on the East Coast, started a catastrophic decline in the fortunes and the populations of Native American tribes. Of this there can be no doubt. As the Pilgrims constituted an early successful experiment in colonization, they were part of the problem, from the Native American point of view.

3. The frequent forays of English fishermen, explorers, and adventurers into North America in the arly 1600s caused one or more serious virgin soil epidemics in New England. Such epidemics happen when a group of people bring new disease organisms into a population not previously exposed to them. Since no resistance has been previously acquired, the disease spreads swiftly, with extreme virulence. One such epidemic depopulated the Massachusetts shoreline just before the Pilgrims arrived. Finding evidence of a recently vanished native civilization, the religious Pilgrims saw in that circumstance the special providence of God—the Hand of the Almighty had cleared a place for them to live. 

4. In the first weeks of their sojourn on the new shore, the Pilgrims uncovered a bushel of corn left by the former inhabitants as grave goods. They understood something of the spititual significance of this corn to the people who had left it there. But those people were nowhere to be seen, and the Pilgrims were in danger of starving. They took the corn and resolved to make restitution if they ever got the chance—a pledge they made good on, by the way.

#

Rodney King, April 2012. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Now it is 2021. We live thirty years after Rodney King famously asked, “Can we all get along?” We seem to be having some trouble doing so.

If we are to make progress towards getting along, we must start by acknowledging the scope and pain of the real losses suffered by those cast aside in America’s rush to power and wealth. Where feasible, we should try to make amends.

To shed light on the past may help us do better in the future. But ferreting out the sins of our ancestors to use as cudgels against one another in the present is worse than useless. 

Our common history is no less complicated for its being troubled, and the search for Good Guys and Bad Guys is more futile the farther we are removed from the facts.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Memorial Day

Memorial Day. Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash.

I went to the afternoon Memorial Day observance at the Madison Veterans Memorial Park. It’s a nice space, overlooking meadows and woodlands. There is a cluster of flags at the center, and a space covered by an iron structure which could house a roof or at least a large tarpaulin.

The ceremony was conducted by a local VFW post. It was dignified and well executed. Besides the participants, about fifty people were in attendance.

Why do we do this? Why do we take time out of a glorious weekend, the start of summer, to remember our dead?

Could that be it? Could it be that simple? Remembering the dead?

We live our lives in a country, in a society, that is radically free. But free does not mean free of charge. In every generation, some people pay the price. They lay down their lives, sometimes in excruciatingly difficult ways, for the freedom we enjoy. 

It seems fitting, at least for a few minutes one day a year, to remember them. 

If we do not do this, how can we be worthy of this gift they have given us? 

That’s all.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Snow Angel

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 11 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?

§

STARBRIGHT, AGE SEVEN, LAY FACE UP IN NEW SNOW. She waved her arms and legs with all her might. After six sweeps, she sprang to her feet and leapt clear to the sidewalk.

Snow Angel. Unknown author. Public Domain.

She turned to look. It was a perfect angel, though small because she couldn’t make it any bigger. Even so, it filled the square of terrace between sidewalk and fireplug in front of the four-story building where she lived. 

She prayed it would be enough.

She went in and, holding her red rubber boots in her hands, ran up the stairs. Thirteen steps each flight, for a total of fifty-two, like the suits in her deck of worn cards. 

“Hi,” said Uncle Dave as she entered. “I saw you down there. What did you make?” 

She stood over the rubber mat. “An angel. Do you like it?”

Uncle Dave brushed snow off her coat with his fingertips. “I do.” 

“How come you’re here? Where’s Wanda?” 

“She went across town to be with her family. So I’m filling in.” He went to the window and peered down. “Of course. That’s an angel all right. Look here what I made.” He pointed to a scraggly green tree.

“Only God can make a tree.” She enjoyed pointing out Uncle Dave’s errors. 

“But I made it stand up in the corner. And I’m going to make it pretty with balls and lights and tinsel. You can help.”

Uncle Dave’s coat was draped on the end of the sofa. Shirtsleeves rolled up, tie loosened, he lowered a string of lights over the scrawny tree. Starbright grabbed a fistful of tinsel and reared back to throw it.

“No, wait. Ornaments first.”

“Oh.” She giggled. “I forgot. Uncle Dave, I did something bad to Mommy.”

He paused and looked at her. “Yes?”

“I called her a mean old lady.”

“Not nice.”

“I want to tell her I’m sorry, but I’m not. It’s true, and people should say true things.”

Uncle Dave squinted. “Uh huh. Why is she so mean?”

“That’s what I’d like to know!”

“But why do you think she’s mean?”

“She won’t take me to see Grandma and Grandpa for Christmas.”

Uncle Dave draped the lights with care. “We’ll have a jim dandy Christmas here. I’ll come over, and you and your mommy and I can open presents and sing songs and—”

“We never see Grandma and Grandpa!” 

“Now you can start hanging ornaments. I know your mom would feel better if you apologized to her first thing tomorrow.”

“But what I said was true, and true things should be said.”

Uncle Dave mmphed. When the tinsel was hung, he warmed a pizza he had brought with him. They played war and slapjack with Starbright’s dog-eared cards until late. 

“Oops! Look at that, it’s past nine. Time for you to go to bed.” 

They hung her stocking on the coat tree by the front door, because there was no chimney. Uncle Dave said that in multiple-unit apartments Santa Claus used the front door like anybody would. She believed Uncle Dave because he knew all about apartments. 

#

Dave sat in the arm-chair, the one with the displaced spring in the seat cushion, lost in thought. 

After a while he got up, opened Starbright’s door a crack, and listened. Satisfied with the sound of her rhythmic breathing, he got a small tumbler of ice cubes from the tiny kitchen and poured in a shot of Laphroaig from the slim silver flask in his inner coat pocket. It was his one indulgence, although he could easily have afforded others. 

He held the bitter Scotch whiskey in his mouth, savoring the taste of smoldering peat and creosote. Life was like that. Some of the vilest things could turn out to be all right.

What did the Old Man have against Candy, when all was said and done? Dave had gotten to know her better since Willard’s passing, and she was all right. She was doing her best. What more could Dad and Mom demand? 

#

Starbright stood in a field of snow. Clean, white snow that sparkled like diamonds. Not a house or building or car or fireplug in sight. There were only trees, evergreens half-buried in hills of snow.

She had grown incredibly tall. She seemed as tall as the distant trees. 

Then she saw Santa coming across the fields toward her. He was walking, taking big steps in his black boots. She wondered where his sleigh was, and his reindeer, and his pack.

When Santa got closer, she saw that it was not Santa, but a woman, or maybe a man, in a long, flowing robe. He, or she, had a very peaceful look on his, or her face, and said, “Fear not.”

Starbright looked up to see the figure, who was much taller than she, even though a moment ago she had been as tall as the trees. She suddenly knew it was an angel, because she saw the wings on its back, six of them, fanning the air just the way she had fanned the snow in front of the building with her arms.

“When you wake, you must go and ask your mother’s forgiveness.” 

“But what I said was true!”

“The lips of the wise do not tell everything they know to be true.”

“Oh.” Starbright had never thought of that.

The angel nodded. 

“But,” Starbright said, “when will I ever see Grandma and Grandpa?”

“You are not meant to know by what means your needs shall be provided.” 

Starbright stared up at the angel. She could not fathom what the angel had just said, but it was too late to ask, for the angel was gone.

#

Candy rose early so she could shower, dress, and run a brush through her hair before Starbright woke. Dave would arrive early, and Candy did not want to be caught in night dress. It meant she didn’t get much sleep after coming home from Tiny’s, where she waitressed until bar time. But what else was new? 

Starbright, pajama-clad, toddled in. “Oh, Mommy, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”

Candy stared at her surprising daughter. “You’re forgiven, you know that. What am I forgiving you for?”

“Oh . . . you know.” 

Before Candy could reply, there was a knock at the door. Good heavens, Dave was here already. 

“Come in,” Candy said. “Welcome, and Merry Christmas.”

Dave carried an armful of packages, which he tumbled down onto the sofa. 

Candy took his overcoat. “I haven’t started cooking yet. Sit down and relax. I’ll rustle up a big breakfast, and we can open presents after that.”

Starbright looked disappointed at the order of things, but she might as well start learning about delayed gratification.

“Here. This might help.” Dave dived into a sack on the sofa and pulled out a tray of store-bought cookies. He held them out to Candy as she returned from hanging his coat.

“Cookies? Thanks, but how’s that breakfast? Both of you just cool your jets, and we’ll get around to treats after—”

Another knock sounded at the door. 

Dave looked at Candy. “Are you expecting someone else?”

She shook her head, and with an expressive shrug went to the door and opened it.

Her father-in-law, Thomas Campion, the Thomas Campion of Campion Realty, stood there, his height and breadth filling the doorframe, a sour look on his face. “Well, Candace? Can we come in?”His wife, Marge, in fur, stood behind him. She elbowed him aside and shoved her way in. “What he means, my dear, is Merry Christmas. It’s so delightful to see you again.” She smiled a thousand watts, including about forty watts of real warmth. She shoved a stuffed bear out ahead of her and wiggled it at Starbright. “Here you are, Bright! Santy left him at our house for you. His name is Geoffrey.”

, thank you!” Starbright stepped forward grinning and hugged the bear, nearly her own size. “I just knew you’d come.” 

Candy’s gaze shifted from Starbright’s radiance to Tom’s discomfort and Marge’s tension. “Yes. Do come in. Sit down.”

Dave swept his packages off the sofa. “Right here, Dad. Get comfortable.” He held out the tray Candy had just ridiculed. “Want a cookie?” 

The old man reached forward, inspected the assorted cookies peevishly, finally pinched a ginger snap between thumb and forefinger. “Thank you.”

Marge held her arms out to Candy and folded her in a clumsy embrace. 

“Candy was just about to make breakfast,” Dave said. Then, to Candy, “Weren’t you?”

They all stared at her.

“Yes, indeed.” She had bought enough ham and eggs for three. “Pancakes. How many can you eat?” 

Tom, holding a half-eaten cookie, looked up from the couch. “You needn’t cook for us, Candace. I mean, it’s a nice thing—”

“What the old fool means is, how can we impose on you, considering . . . .” 

“Considering both of you cut me and Starbright out of your lives when Bill died?”

At the word “died,” Marge winced.

“I know what’s wrong with me, but she’s your only granddaughter.” Candy found she was breathing heavily.

Starbright caught her by the sleeve and pulled her down. She cupped her hands around Candy’s ear and whispered. It sounded like, “Wise mouths don’t blab everything, even if it is true.”

Candy smiled. “Pardon my manners. Of course you’re welcome here. Tell Dave how many cakes you can eat and I’ll get cooking. Starbright, go to your room and get dressed.”

#

Starbright made a detour to look out the window. Four stories below, the snow in the little square lay undisturbed. 

A presence loomed above her head. Uncle Dave.

“No angel,” she whispered. “What happened to it?”

Uncle Dave craned his neck so his face was up against the glass and looked down. “Mmph,” he said.

#

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Christmas Traditions by Smith & Wesson

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 13 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?

§

MAMA KEPT THE GUN MY FATHER USED TO END HIS LIFE, which is how it came to be in the pocket of my ratty overcoat twenty years later as I stalked down St. Paul Avenue with murder in my heart.

It was a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber Police Special, a six-shot revolver made of blued steel. It took years for Mama to part with the simplest of Dad’s personal effects—clothes, underwear, socks, watch, cufflinks. She never did get rid of the gun. 

She kept it hidden in a box on her closet shelf, above the limp, dispirited dresses. At age twelve, I snooped all over the house. I fancied I knew all Mama’s secrets. Often when she was still at work, I climbed up on a chair, lifted down the Thom McCann shoe box, removed its lid, and stared at the blue revolver. It had its special place, like a treasured heirloom, kept safe to be handed down to the next generation. Sometimes I played with the bullets in the little box beside the gun. I always put things back before Mama got home. 

Lucille, my older sister, had left to make her own way in the world. She had put all the distance she could between herself and us. I can’t say I blame her. 

All that was long behind me on this cold Christmas Eve. I was now the star of my own drama. 

“I’m leaving,” Angie had announced in the small kitchen of our crappy little upstairs flat. 

“Where you going?” I asked in all innocence. “We need milk or something? I can go.”

“No. I mean I’m leaving you, Eddie. For good.” 

“What! Leaving me?” Then, a moment later, “Who is it?”

She picked up her tiny overnight case from under the kitchen table. “None of your business. But if you must know, it’s Sal.” I had not even noticed the overnight case.

“Sal the saloonkeeper? You’re dumping me for him? What’s he got over me?” I grew hot under the collar, shouted right in her face.

She stood there, bold as brass. Then her eyes softened. “I’m carrying Sal’s child.”

At that I exploded. 

I’m not sure what all I said. I am sure I did not lay a hand on her. 

But she laid me out with words, just as surely as David slew Goliath with a stone.

“A woman wants children, Eddie. I got tired of waiting. Sal gave me what I wanted. You wouldn’t, or couldn’t.” 

She walked out with that tiny case, leaving me alone with Bathsheba, the snappy little Pomeranian bitch I had given her last Christmas. I never wanted a dog. But better a dog than a little hotheaded boy.

I yelled down the hall. “What about the mutt? Don’t you want her?” 

The empty hallway bounced my voice back at me. 

The nerve. The sheer, unmitigated gall. She can’t treat me that way.

I pounded my fists on the wall until the little red fur-ball started yapping. I walked circles on the floor. Then I remembered. 

I went to the bedroom, pulled out my bottom drawer, and lifted out the gun, which had become mine when Mom died. Funny thing, I never could bring myself to get rid of it either.

Those bullets were still in the little box. I loaded the gun, jammed it in the pocket of my overcoat, and went out. 

Angie had left me for Salvatore Balistreri, the tavern-keeper. Now I was gunning for him. Somehow I always knew it would come to this. Dad was a hothead and I was a hothead. Like father, like son. 

My mind was clear as I sloshed through the snow to Sal’s place. It had calmed me some to slide the bullets, one by one, into the chambers of the rotating cylinder. I only loaded five, because I’d heard it’s bad luck to carry a gun with a live round under the hammer.

We lived in a run-down section of Milwaukee known as the Third Ward, an old Italian neighborhood. Now, in 1976, they were building highways through it. One of the last holdouts against progress was Balistreri’s bar. 

I couldn’t help notice the tavern seemed festive. Evergreen boughs draped its lighted front. The door had a fresh coat of red paint. You could call it fire engine red or church door red. Same difference. 

I pushed in through wall-to-wall celebrants, who all had the advantage of me by several drinks. The swirl of tobacco smoke and alcohol fumes was baptized by the smell of garlic as Sal’s sister Loretta danced by with a tray of hot pizza. Merry-makers toasted a small Christmas tree that sat on one end of the bar, hung with lights, tinsel, and small pictures of Italian saints. 

All this warmth around me, but I was an icicle.

Angie, on a stool at the bar, turned her face away when she saw me. Never mind that. 

I rounded the end of the bar to confront Sal. “Who the hell you think you are, loverboy? Who are you, Casanova?” 

I went to grab his collar. He fended me off. He was half a head taller than me, maybe a couple years older. His dark face turned darker, as if he knew to be ashamed of himself. 

He softly placed a white towel on the little shelf behind the bar. “Let’s have this talk outside.” 

He led the way out through the back door, into the alley behind the bar. 

I jumped him. “You’ve been screwing my wife!” 

He threw me back off and held up his hands. “Look at yourself, Eddie. No wonder she don’t want you.”

“Yeah?”

He glowered. “What kind of man is it, won’t give a girl a little bambino?”

My hand dug for the gun. My finger found the trigger guard.

“Angie don’t wanna see you any more. Neither do I. Beat it.” He turned and walked back into the bar as I pulled the gun out of my pocket. 

I raised it to fire just as the door closed.

Standing there, a bewildered baboon, I couldn’t believe it. I had come on purpose to kill him and frittered it away in talk. 

What if I went back in right now and shot him dead behind the bar, right in front of Angie? 

But I should go in the front way, like a man. I ran down the alley, turned the corner, and walked half a block to St. Paul.

I slogged down the street, went on past the front door of Balistreri’s, and found myself on the southbound ramp of the new Hoan Bridge. The city fathers wouldn’t connect the freeway that led to it, so people called it the Bridge to Nowhere. How fitting.

There I was, trudging up the long slope of the bridge, a pedestrian in the middle of an interstate highway with no cars on it. I saw a yellow flicker far away—maybe a hobo camp on the south shore under the south end of the bridge.

It was a long walk, like a mile, to the top of the bridge. But having started, I kept on to the highest point, dead over the Milwaukee River where it entered Lake Michigan. 

I looked down at the black water, a hundred and twenty feet below me. If the fall didn’t kill me, I’d perish soon after in the frigid water. The river would push me out into the lake and I’d never be found.

I felt the weight of the gun in my pocket. A surer way. Quicker. Less terrifying.

“Say, buddy, I hate to bother you . . . .” 

“Huh?” I turned away from the rail. A man stood there. 

A hairy old face, a Packers stocking cap, a bundle of heavy layers. The top layer was fur, like an old-time raccoon coat. “I wouldn’t bother you. It’s just, the pup ain’t et in a coupla days.” A ragged white snout poked out the top of his coat. A dog, some kind of terrier, with a big black nose and dark, hungry eyes.

“You carry it in your coat?” 

“He can run and jump all right, but it’s mighty cold tonight.”

How had I missed this bum’s approach? The moonlight showed his tracks in the snow, coming up from the south end of the bridge.

“You walked all this way to ask for a handout?”

“If you could just spare a coupla bucks, we could have us a meal.” 

The dog made no comment, just stared at me. 

I gave the old tramp all the cash in my wallet. “Here, you might as well have it.” 

His face lit up. “Thank you kindly.” He tucked the bills inside his coat. “God bless you, sir.” He turned and hiked back the way he had come, stepping in his own footprints.

I pulled out the gun. Now was the time. 

The bullets were old, from Dad’s era. I wondered if they would still shoot. Perhaps I should fire a test round.

I had never fired a handgun, so I held it in both hands, afraid of the kick. I aimed down at the river, squeezed the trigger. BAM!

Yes, the bullets were good. And no, the kick wasn’t too bad. 

I looked around, wondered if the gunshot would bring the old panhandler back. But he was gone, footprints and all. Already back at his campfire?

Imagine a guy like that owning a dog. At least the mutt would get a bite to eat, if the old guy could find a store open around here this time of night. I thought of Bathsheba, back at the apartment. I imagined her doggy impatience and felt a twinge of guilt.

Maybe that first shot was a fluke, the one good bullet in the box. I squeezed off another shot into the river. BAM! That settled that. 

Three rounds left. I only needed one of them to work.

Bathsheba could fend for herself. Maybe somebody would find her.

Here I was, the hothead son of a hothead father. In my hand is the gun he used on himself. I have it because my mother saved it for me. A family tradition.

A proper end to a crappy life. I couldn’t even make my marriage last. My wife dumped me because I couldn’t face the thought of another kid like me. Then that Dago bartender moved in on her, so she used him to get what she wanted.

What a sap I am, to kill myself for Sal Balistreri

I pointed the gun at the river. BAM! Take that, Sal. BAM! There’s one for you, Angie. 

I heard a whimper. Nobody closer to me than a mile.

There had been no sound, but it had sounded like Bathsheba. 

If I had been Dad, I would have plugged big Sal back at the bar, and then plugged Angie for good measure, and then shot myself on the spot. 

But I’m not Dad. 

Bathsheba whines to be fed, to be taken outside. Nasty little bitch, none of this is her fault.

BAM!

I fired the last shot into the river. 

I squeezed the trigger once more, to be sure. Click. 

The shakes came over me. I opened my hand, let the gun go. It fell one hundred and twenty feet into the dark water. The night was so still I could hear the splash.

I turned and stomped back in my own footprints, headed for home. Warm little Bathsheba needed me.

Photo by Biswarup Ganguly, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

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