One pleasure of retirement is getting away in midwinter to a warmer scene. For us this is counterbalanced, in a perfectly Emersonian way, by returning home to Madison, Wisconsin, at a moment when the temperature is near zero and a foot of new snow burdens the land.
We experienced both of these contrasting joys recently. Far be it from me, Dear Reader, to assault your sensibilities with arctic narratives à la Jack London. But perhaps you’d like to hear about the sunny Tropics.
We flew to Manaus, a city of more than two million people in Brazil’s northwest. It lies on the Amazon River. When I say “Amazon,” you may see dense jungle dripping with rain, bromeliads perched on every tree and bone-nosed cannibals behind every bush. The truth is less romantic.
To trek the Amazon Rain Forest is one thing; riding the Amazon River is quite another. The two are separated by miles of water.
The Amazon is either the longest or the second-longest river in the world, but it is without doubt the largest. In total volume of water carried down to the sea, no other river on Earth comes close. Thus, the Amazon can be navigated for a thousand miles, all the way to Manaus, by oceanic vessels.
Manaus is Brazil’s seventh largest city. Unlike any other city of its size, Manaus cannot be reached by road. Since air service is both expensive and sparse, most long-distance travel is by boat. People of the region measure inter-city travel in days, not hours. They take small river steamers and sleep in hammocks slung between decks.
Not we. The vessel we boarded for the trip downriver was the Viking Sea, a smallish ocean-going liner carrying nine hundred passengers plus about half that number in crew and staff. We cast off on January 19 and took four days to reach the Atlantic Ocean.
I had imagined a saga like that of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn piercing the jungle on the African Queen. But from Manaus onward, the Amazon averages six miles wide. So it was more like traversing a very long lake. We could see shore on both sides, but that’s about it.
We did glimpse life ashore at various stops along the way. In Manaus we visited the colonial-era town square and also the zoo, where actual denizens of the rainforest are on display.
At the small town of Parintins we were treated to an indoor performance of Boi Bumbá, a folkloric singing and dancing festival much enhanced by complimentary glasses of “a delicious caipirinha cocktail made of cachaça (fermented sugarcane juice), sugar and lime.” I am no judge of such noisy spectacles, but as used to say in the Fifties, it had a beat, and you could dance to it. (You, Fair Reader; not me.)
The highlight of the Amazon voyage was Santarém. We visited a cassava mill, where workers dig up wild-growing manioc or cassava tubers—they look like sweet potatoes—and extract their starch, which is tapioca. The tapioca is a staple of local cooking and also processed for export. The sap of the cassava is boiled until no longer poisonous and used as the base for a pepper-spiced sauce.
Then we went piranha-fishing on Maica Lake. In a small boat we motored up the Rio Tapajós, a tributary of the Amazon. We passed small farmhouses elevated on stilts and a bit of actual Amazon rainforest, the treetops populated by sloths—which are hard to spot, but we did see some. Those passengers intent on angling for the razor-toothed piranha hung out over the gunwales with baited lines and bated breath. Eventually a few of the little devils—the fish, that is—were caught, photographed, and thrown back in to lurk in waiting for the next boatload of turistas.
Calm yourself, Gentle Reader. Your New Favorite Writer escaped with all fingers, toes, and other parts intact.
Another day of cruising the ever-widening Amazon, and we were off for the Caribbean. But that’s another story, to be recounted next week. So stay tuned.
When your debut novel is published, you need to find readers who will buy it, read it, and—if they like it—will recommend it to others.
Selling is not done by some lofty publisher who will buy a frontpage ad in the New York Times for your book. It’s done by you, the author.
Authors tend to be introverted, even reclusive, people. But the moment your book hits the street, you must put on your hip boots, shuffle the introvert card to the back of the deck, and become the world’s best spokeman for the worth of your own writing.
If you, the author, don’t think it’s a great book—why will anybody else think so?
But when you confront Problem One by committing to toot your own horn, then a second consideration presents itself.
There are a million ways to sell books, but they all take time.
You only have so much time, and now that you have one book in print, the clock is ticking. You’ve got to hurry up and write the next book, then hit the query circuit to seek publication for it. The time you can devote to selling the already-published book is severely limited. Among all the selling activities you could do, you’d better choose wisely. Strategically.
What’s a poor, beleaguered debut author to do?
Wouldn’t it be nice if people who sell books for a living—professional booksellers—would sell your book for you? Believe it or not, Dear Reader, this can actually happen. But you must approach the owners and managers of bookstores and let them know your book exists.
Every bookstore is different. They all have their own preferred working methods. You need to approach each store individually—another time-consuming pursuit. And not every bookstore you approach will show an interest in what you’re offering.
So when professional booksellers enlist in your campaign, that’s cause for rejoicing.
So far, I have gotten Price of Passage placed in several bookstores, but two stand out.
At Open House Imports, Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, owner Janice Sievers immediately bought six copies and placed more on order. I asked Janice if there was a way she could highlight the book by special placement so it would not get lost among the many other fine books she sells in her Sandinavian gift shop. She got a gleam in her eye and said, “Let’s have The Troll sell it.” She marched around the end of the counter and placed a copy of my book right at the feet of the imposing troll who greets customers as they walk in the door.
Janice reports she’s already had some sales.
In Watertown, Isabelle and Wesley operate Literatus & Co. It’s a well-stocked bookstore that also sells great coffee and snacks. The place has become a center of community life in Watertown. You might see almost anybody there on a Saturday morning, so when Isabelle offered me the opportunity to personally present Price of Passage to their customers, I jumped at the chance.
They set me up at a small table in the main traffic flow, and Wesley encouraged me to be proactive, approaching customers and engaging them in conversation.
The net result was sixteen books sold in three hours, including two purchased by the store for their stock. In less than a week, Isabelle informed me those two copies had been sold, and she ordered more from my distributor.
Friendly, approachable, and knowledgeable booksellers like Janice, Isabelle, and Wesley are great allies for an author to have.
Support Independent Booksellers
If you, Kind Reader, find yourself in or near Mount Horeb or Watertown, Wisconsin, make it a point to stop at Open House Imports or Literatus & Co. Look around, check the place out, and buy something.
Even if you’re not physically there, you can support them through online purchases, directly at their own websites or through Bookshop.org.
Dear Reader: This is a Friday Reprise of a post that originally appeared April 12, 2019. Enjoy!
Never imagine, Dear Reader, that these treks into our common past are the sloppy rants of a senile mind deranged by worship of the roseate past. I seek a narrative in which the past informs the present and even the future.
Still, nostalgia can’t help creeping in. It’s only natural. That’s what nostalgia does.
Some folks think we are damned lucky to have stumbled into the light of the present from out of the stinking cesspit of the past; others see that same past as a golden age casting its fading twilight beams on the regrettable present. These are, seriously, two competing theories of history. Both are fueled by powerful emotions as much as by objective facts.
Two Views of History
A confused undergraduate at Knox College in the 1960s, I mumbled through a seminar taught by Prof. Douglas Wilson, which compared the writings and worldviews of Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain,” 1835-1910) and Henry Adams (1838-1918). The two men were contemporaries; they lived through pretty much the same history. Yet they brought with them different backgrounds, and they reached different conclusions.
In those days I was not paying much attention to scholarship, but I seem to recall hearing that Clemens, who when young had piloted the era’s most advanced riverboats, undeniably belonged to the forward-looking 19th century. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was written by one who saw antiquity as not merely quaint but benighted and probably dangerous. Even in his literary life he embraced modernity, from the typewriter to the Paige compositor, an early typesetting machine. A modern man.
Henry Adams was the scion of New England’s most distingished family. The great Adamses—Samuel, John and Abigail, and John Quincy (Henry’s grandfather)—were denizens of the recent past, imbibers of the heady wine of revolution and republicanism. But Henry’s own eyes had seen the disastrous Civil War and the rapacious, ugly “Gilded Age” that followed. These alarming developments neither Henry nor his scholar-diplomat father, Charles Francis Adams, could prevent. In later years, Henry adored the High Gothic period—the last time, as he saw it, that mankind was united around high Christian principles. The Gothic arch symbolized, to him, the rapid plunge from an unsustainable zenith. All the glories of the West were doomed to perdition.
In times of stress and disintegration, people yearn for simpler, more graceful and natural times. This came to mind on a recent reading—in some cases, a re-reading—of short stories by Jack Finney (Walter Braden Finney, 1911-1995), collected in a 1986 book called About Time.
Finney, another Knox College alum, was a successful fiction writer from the 1930s through the 1980s. He specialized in evoking the pleasant reverberations of days gone by. Many of his stories featured time travel, in one way or another. Most of them were a little spooky—paranormal, if you will. He is fondly remembered for his novel Time and Again, in which a 1960s ad agency man is selected for a secret government project to travel back in time—back to the New York City of 1911, to be precise. His other major work was The Body Snatchers, which was adapted for film under the title Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It is, as far as I can tell, the locus classicus for the concept of “pod people” intent on replacing Earth’s citizens, one by one, with exact but soulless duplicates. Told through Finney’s trademark regular-guy persona, the prospect is remarkably chilling.
Even in Body Snatchers, Finney displays a concern with the gradual deterioration of a gracious social and physical environment over time; but it’s even more prominent in Time and Again and in his many short stories, such as “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.” On nearly every page we sense, through his fictional characters, the author’s yearning to be back “in the good old days.”
Finney was not the only twentieth-century writer sounding that theme. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling had a streak of it, as shown in “A Stop at Willoughby.” Serling’s own favorite story from the first season of the series, “A Stop at Willoughby” shows a modern New Yorker under pressure at home and at work, who discovers an special stop on his commuter train that leads to an idyllic town of the 1880s, a place where he longs to escape. I won’t spoil the ending, in case you wish to access it here.
Old codgers like me are easily beguiled by the charms of old times. We remember those times, and it is easier to remember the good bits than the other bits. But an honest understanding of history must include the dark spots. There were too many of them, and they contributed too much to our present straits, to think of omitting them.
At the same time, it seems to require the perspective of age to affirm, praise, and if possible rescue essential goods of the past that have been too easily swept aside, left bobbing in the wake of society’s mad rush to perfect the human beast in the present for the sake of a utopian future.
Somewhere in the weighing and balancing of these conflicting claims, some valid, actionable truth of history may reside. I wouldn’t know. I only write the stories.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
Success in any endeavor is defined by the doing. The act of doing. The skill in doing. The manner of doing. The time and place of doing.
Most of all: the dedication and constancy with which the thing is done.
Seven years ago, I set out to become a serious writer.
I had retired once and then retired again. By January 2016, I was free to do what I had always wanted to do: Write.
Hardly knowing what I was about, I had set my course to become a Literary Lion.
(Gentle Reader, you may have heard me sing this song before, but it’s worth a reprise in a different key, if only to get newcomers up to speed.)
How to Build on Small Victories?
In 2016, Fetch! magazine published (and paid for) a whimsical essay I wrote about our old Siberian husky. In the same year, and again in 2017 and 2018, the Saturday Evening Post web-published three of my short stories about Izzy Mahler, a boy growing up in the 1950s. Light reading, yes—but chosen for publication over hundreds of competing submissions.
I began to think of a big historical novel based on my great-great-grandparents who emigrated from Norway in the 1850s. By early 2017 I was ready to start writing chapters.
It takes perseverance to write a novel. How could I sustain my purpose through this lonely quest?
Some writers may thrive as solitary artists, scratching out stories by midnight oil in a Gothic mansion, or under a gray mansard in some bohemian arrondissement of Paris. But I am not one of them. I can’t work in a vacuum. I need the stimulation of other minds and the encouragement of those farther along the path.
The University of Wisconsin Continuing Studies Writing Program, now defunct, was then in fullest flower. I attended its writers’ conferences in 2016, 2018, and 2019. At such events you can learn craft.
You learn about marketing. You befriend others who, whatever their topic or genre, share a great obsession with you. They are writers. You have found your tribe.
I also joined two smaller groups, mutual critique groups. With regular meetings in a more intimate setting, members of such a group read and critique one another’s material. You learn how your work strikes readers. You learn what works and what doesn’t. And again, you form friendships.
To Blog or Not to Blog: That is the Question
In our critique sessions, we sometimes discussed marketing. Most writers love writing—or, at least, feel compelled to write. We tend to approach marketing, however, with loathing and trepidation.
Yet, marketing is unavoidable. You want people to read your work. That means it must find publication. And, once published, it must find its audience.
No fairy godmother—no genie with the gentle smile of Bennett Cerf plus angel wings and a magic wand—is going to swoop down, pluck your manuscript from obscurity, and add it to the Modern Library. You, the writer, having gone to the trouble of filling the pond with water, must also round up the horses, bring them to the pond’s margin, and cause them to drink.
We have little clue how to do this. But the notion that gnaws at our hearts is that social media equals marketing. To a geezer like me, that concept represented a dreadful imposition. Once I set foot on the slippery path of social media, how many hours of writing time would be devoured by constant, compulsive tweets, posts, and links?
Of all web-based avenues, blogging seemed the wisest, if only because it was a longer form. What could I say, worth saying, in 140 characters? Or even 280? It seemed I would need to invest a day or two each week to write a blog post that anybody would want to read.
But how would I come up with topics? And even if I found things to blog about, why do it at all? How would this help me sell my REAL writing—my great American novel?
In our Tuesdays With Story writing group, Jerry Peterson, a great mentor, said something I did not expect. “If you think you’d like to blog, you could give it a try,” he said. “And consider that blog posts are one part of your writing—not just a gimmick to sell your other writing.”
One thing it did immediately was to impose a clarity that had been lacking before.
My friend Dan Blank is an apostle of clarity. He uses a simple exercise with index cards, which he calls “Clarity Cards.” He urges creators to assess their goals and purposes at frequent intervals to gain clarity on their main channels of endeavor. It is, as billed, a clarifying thing to do.
Just to design the front end of a WordPress blog site, I needed to clarify my thoughts about what I am trying to do as a writer. I knew it was all tangled up with the past, since I always want to write historical fiction.
I had a sense that history is not just dead events, inexorably receding on the conveyor belt of time. History, though consigned to the past, also lives in the present. We live in the midst of history. We never get clear of our history.
T.S. Eliot wrote a brilliant definition of what I want to do:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. —from “Little Gidding”
I want to take readers into the past with me so that we may return having learned something that helps us be ourselves in the present.
So I came up with the title “Reflections” for my blog—because it’s a reflective endeavor—and the slug line “seeking fresh meanings in our common past.”
We all have individual histories, but there is also a collective past—a background we all own together. The more fully we know this, the more human we will be.
Dedication and Constancy
Since beginning this blog in 2019, I have published my debut historical novel, Price of Passage. Diane Donovan, senior reviewer for Midwest Book Review, called it “just the ticket for an absorbing tale of evolution and enlightenment.”
I have completed a middle grade historical novel, Izzy Strikes Gold!, and have begun querying agents on its behalf. When I read it aloud recently to the members of my grandson’s fifth-grade class, they were engaged and asked lots of questions.
I am now writing early chapters of a Word War II historical novel (for adults), as yet untitled, about two brothers with an intense rivalry. My writing coach, Christine DeSmet, Distinguished Faculty Associate, UW-Madison Continuing Studies, thinks my plot outline has enough substance to support a good book.
And oh, by the way, I have added 193 posts to the blog, for a total of about 200,000 words. You are reading post number 194. My fear of not having enough material proved groundless. It turns out the more you write, the more you can write.
Laurie Scheer, former director, UW-Madison Writers’ Institute 2010-2021 and co-founder, New Nature Writers, has called it “one of the best writer’s blogs on the planet.” And Christine DeSmet agrees, saying, “Sign up, people! It’s an amazing blog.”
So Jerry Peterson was right. This little endeavor, far from being a sales gimmick, has turned out to be a worthy endeavor of its own. For this reason I have begun to publicize Laurie’s and Christine’s kind comments about this blog. That publicity has gained the blog some readers.
But know, Kind Reader, that you are still among a select few. In a good week, my blog is read by a hundred readers, many of them repeat customers. EVERYBODY ELSE IN THE WORLD does not know what they’re missing.
About the “Reflections” Blog
If you’re new to this blog, you may wish to sample a few previous posts. You can navigate there using the “Search . . .” box at upper right, or via the ARCHIVES, organized by month, farther down the right-hand menu.
When I was a boy, every neighborhood had a mom-and-pop store. It was a grocery store, a newsstand, a cigar store, a non-prescription pharmacy, a yo-yo demonstration headquarters, and (best of all) a penny-candy emporium.
I later learned that in some mom-and-pop stores, Pop also dealt girlie magazines from under the counter and kept an illegal book for bets on the big city horse races. But that’s another story.
Nowadays we go to a nearby warehouse that sells groceries and all things else—Walmart, Costco, or the like. Regular supermarkets like Kroger’s and Hyvee still exist. There are narrowly-focused custom stores, like butcher shops—likely as not, branded “ethical and humane charcuterie.” And there is the ubiquitous convenience store, which also sells everything you can imagine and usually has gas pumps as well.
The convenience stores may be today’s mom-and-pop establishments, with Mom and Pop usually hailing from India, Pakistan, or Korea. New Americans, striving to get ahead, just like previous immigrants.
But the old-style mom-and-pop store is extinct, or nearly so. The key feature was that it was an easy walk from home. You didn’t have to get in the car and drive through two multi-lane interchanges and a series of mystifying roundabouts to get there.
The prime years of my boyhood were lived in Streator, Illinois. We lived in four different houses, in three neighborhoods.
At our first little house, on First Street, where we dwelt in 1951 in the shadow of the Owens-Illinois glass factory, the mom-and-pop store was three blocks away. I don’t remember the name of the store. It was on Wasson Street, on my way home from school.
I was six years old. One day I stopped and gazed through display glass at the heart-warming array of different candies. One in particular caught my eye: A small police-style revolver modeled in black licorice, with handgrips in white licorice.
It was a work of art.
I wanted it. “How much is the little gun ?” I asked.
“That’s a nickel,” said Pop.
“Charge it,” I said.
My parents had bought things here by saying “Charge it,” so I did, too. Pop whatever-his-name-was must have known which set of grown-ups I belonged to, for he gave me the little gun in a white paper bag and added the nickel to our family’s charge account. It’s not every six-year-old who has established credit.
When Mom detected my crime, she blew a gasket. Then she calmed down and explained that “Charge it” was not a magical phrase to render things free. It was just a phrase that meant Mom and Dad would have to pay for the item later. OHHHH.
The whole tawdry affair formed the premise of my 2016 story, “Nickel and Dime,” published online by the Saturday Evening Post and illustrated by a bit of outdated art from that magazine’s inexhaustible archive. Even with the cornball art, you might get a chuckle out of the story.
I happened to be passing near Streator a few years ago. The building on Wasson Street where I charged the candy revolver still stood, though no longer used as a store. It’s a near-derelict old hillside house, shown in this photo. The room below the overhanging eave was the store’s site.
More than seventy years on, the little gun remains vivid in my mind. It was so appealing, simply as a visual matter. I never even liked licorice.
When we moved to Stanton Street a year or two later, the neighborhood store was Marx’s Market, a block west of our house. In another year or two we moved three blocks further west, placing Marx’s store two blocks east of us.
We kids, now a bit older, with nickels and dimes to call our own, stopped at Marx’s after school, mainly to buy Topp’s bubble gum. The gum was a joke—a thin sheet of pink nothingness. But in the same package were baseball cards that showed our favorite players, their batting averages, and important career information like “bats left, throws right.” We had a lot of fun trading off our duplicate cards. This whole rigmarole is a leitmotif in my middle grade manuscript,Izzy Strikes Gold! You’ll love the read, once it’s published.
Marx’s was a distribution point for Duncan Yo-yos. Every spring a Duncan representative brought Mr. Marx a whole new line of bright, fancy-painted, plastic-jewel-encrusted yo-yos.
Word magically permeated our school that the Duncan man would be at Marx’s that very afternoon. Dozens of third- through sixth-grade boys gathered in the scant lot next to the store to watch this exotic pitchman, generally a young Filipino swimming in a sharkskin suit and sporting a mass of slick black hair, as he performed a series of dazzling tricks with the loveliest, most expensive yo-yos in Duncan’s line. After that, we all bought yo-yos. Most of us bought the cheap kind, but nevertheless, we bought.
Even with frequent five-minute periods of arduous practice over the next week or two, I never did become a yo-yo master. I should have bought the professional model, the one the salesman used. But my mom and dad were too cheap, so I missed out on a life of fame and fortune on the professional yo-yo circuit.
When we moved in 1954 to our house on River Avenue, wouldn’t you know it? There was a mom-and-pop store just a block and a half away. I remember only that about it. Trauma has blocked my memory of further details.
Even in those days, we did our main weekly shopping at a larger store—Piggly Wiggly, I guess. But we used the little neighborhood store for small items in the middle of the week. One chilly autumn evening, Mom gave me a quarter and sent me to buy a quart of milk. Riding my Schwinn Wasp cheerily home from the mom-and-pop store, the quart bottle of milk snug in my front carrier basket, I brashly approached the two steps at the end of the sidewalk, which brought pedestrians down to the level of River Avenue. I had just learned to bounce my bike down those steps and was puffed up with pride in the accomplishment.
With the joie de vivre that typified my approach to life at age nine, I jolted the front wheel down the steps. The milk bottle leapt, with what I can only call a perverse will of its own, out of the basket over my front fender and exploded on the pavement. It was a miracle that flying shards of glass did not slash my tires.
When I told Mom what had happened, she gave me a dirty look, a new quarter, and a broom and dustpan for the broken glass.
After writing the historical novel which became Price of Passage and was published in August by DX Varos Publishing, my next project was a tale of life in the Fabulous Fifties. This is a subject I happen to know something about.
But all I really know about life in the Fifties is from the viewpoint of a child—which I was at the time. So the protagonist of my Fifties novel is a twelve-year-old boy, Izzy Mahler. The story is told exclusively in Izzy’s voice. It is a coming-of-age story or—as we literati say in order to mystify everybody else—a bildungsroman.
In this kind of story, a young central character goes through trials that may leave him or her somewhat disillusioned, perhaps a bit sad or even embittered, but better prepared for adult life. The hero emerges with a more realistic idea of the world and his or her place in it. Robert McGee, in his excellent book Story, calls this kind of thing, in movie terms, an “education plot.” It usually has an “up” ending: No matter what has gone before, the hero is now in a position to meet the future with hope and enhanced confidence.
Because my character, Izzy, is so young, the book inevitably will be sold as a book for children even younger. It is a middle grades book, and it has that kind of title: Izzy Strikes Gold! This doesn’t mean adults would not enjoy it. Adults my age will love it, because it reprises their own childhood. But as a middle grades book, it matters what young people think of it.
I was delighted when Matt Fielder, my grandson’s fifth grade teacher at Winnequah Middle School, gave me an opportunity to read the book—all 41,000 words, in installments—to his class. That gives me more than twenty well-qualified beta readers.
It’s been a lovely experience so far. The kids are attentive and ask perceptive questions. Soon, as the book winds to its conclusion, we’ll discuss themes. Mr. Fiedler has been teaching the kids about themes in stories.
Now, here’s the thing: Some writers quite deliberately embed certain themes in their stories. I do not. I find it hard enough just to work out a story that moves along, keeps people interested, and comes to a satisfactory conclusion. I can’t be bothered with deeper meanings. But amazingly, once I have written a story, themes are there. They have snuck in by magic.
We write from some place deep within ourselves. The things that matter in life have a way of showing up on the page, even when the author is solely focused on devising plot twists and employing the language in a way that makes things clear rather than confusing. Themes do emerge anyhow.
I have a few thoughts about prominent themes in Izzy Strikes Out! But the writer only contributes half of the book. The reader, or the hearer, brings the other half, the reception of the story. So I’ll be interested to hear what themes my twenty beta readers talk about.
It could be that they take out of the book many things I never dreamed I was putting into it.
After almost two glorious months of living in Knoxville, with Dad coming to visit us on the weekends, we moved back to Streator. Our new house was at 601 West Stanton, just three blocks west of where we had been living. I still attended Grant School, but now I had to walk farther.
The house was smaller, only one story, and I had to share a bedroom with Cynda.
The Korean War had ended in July. The new Russian leader Malenkov said that the Russians now had the Hydrogen Bomb.
We were supposed to be terrified. People on the radio said we were in the Atomic Age and the world might blow up at any time. In Streator we were at least sixty miles from any target the Russians would deem worth an H-bomb. We yawned and went about living our lives.
Much more explosive to me was an event that happened in October. I was in third grade, under the eye of a kindly old teacher named Mrs. Winders. One sunny Friday afternoon, she took me aside after class was dismissed.
“Larry,” she said, “when you come to school on Monday, report to the fourth grade.”
Time stood still for a while.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said at last.
On the way home, my brain boiled furiously. I tried to work it all out. What could this mean? Why would I go to fourth grade? I was in third grade. It made no sense.
“Oh, well, that,” Mom said when I came home and announced the mysterious news. She looked away. “Sit down, and let’s talk.”
“Why do I have to go to fourth grade?”
“Do you remember taking something called an I.Q. test?”
“Well, you did. And you scored very high.”
I stared at her blankly.
“And because you scored high, you get to go to fourth grade now.”
“You knew about this?”
Mom leaned back in her chair and lit a cigarette. “When Daddy and I went to the parent-teacher conference, they told us about it. You know Rue Rhymers?”
“Miss Rhymers? She comes and sits in the back of our class sometimes.” A nice lady with glasses, who dressed in a tan suit.
“Yes. And do you know why she comes to observe your class?”
I shook my head.
“Because of you.” Mom exhaled a stream of smoke and tapped the ash off her cigarette into the ashtray on the end table. “She comes to watch you, to see how you do in class, how you answer questions, things like that.”
“No, Mom, not just me. She comes to watch us all, to see the whole class.”
“Mm-hmm. Anyway, your scores are in the genius category, so they have to move you up a grade.”
The room tilted. “I don’t want to go to fourth grade.”
She looked at me.
“Mom, all my friends are in third grade. And Missus Winders is nice.” I did not mention that Mrs. Winders sometimes let me do other things, like write stories, when the rest of the class was still working on a classroom task I had finished. As far as I knew, that was our secret, between me and my teacher.
“But pretty soon, you will get bored with third-grade work because it’s too easy for you. And then you’ll stop paying attention, and you won’t do your school work, and you won’t fulfill your potential.”
“Potential?” Mom rolled her eyes back in her head, leaned forward, and stubbed out her cigarette in the ash tray. “It means, if you can do a certain level of work, like a high level, you should do that. If you’re only doing low-level work, you’re not living up to your potential.”
“This . . . potential. It’s something I have?”
She nodded emphatically. “You have it.”
“So it’s mine. So I can do what I want with it, right?”
“Right. You can do great things.”
“Or I can leave it sitting on a shelf, like a toy I don’t want to play with.”
Mom frowned. “No.” She lit a new cigarette, shook the flame off the match, and dropped it in the tray. “It would be a sin to waste your potential. You’re such a smart boy, you can do anything you set your mind to.”
I went to my room and lay down on my bed, hugging my teddy bear and chewing my lip.
It’s July and hot, even at night. Cynda and I have gone to bed in the large room we share with Mom and Dad, just off the kitchen in my old second-grade teacher’s house.
Cynda is already asleep, her little three-year-old snores drowned out by the adult voices coming from the kitchen.
“I know this comes as a BOMBSHELL to all of us,” my baggy old teacher says in her loud, foghorn voice. I don’t hear anything after “bombshell.” What? A bombshell? For all of us? Is a bombshell a kind of bomb? Or is it like a bomb? Do bombs have shells?
The door opens. Light floods the room for a second as Mom bursts in and slams the door behind her. She flings herself on the big bed she shares with Dad and lies there, sobbing.
This is some kind of disaster.
Cynda sleeps through it.
I have to do something. I climb out of my bed, go to Mom, and hug her. “Don’t cry, Mommy.”
She rolls over and gathers me in her arms. “Oh, Honey, don’t worry. I’ll be all right. It’s just . . . we’ve been turned out.”
“We have to leave.”
Dad comes in and stands mumbling.
Mom gets up. “Come on, Lloyd.”
We pack all our things there in the dark bedroom. Five minutes later, we’re out the back door, standing in the alley with suitcases. We get into our 1939 Chevrolet and scram out of town, headed for Knoxville, where we know we’ll be good enough.
As my second-grade year at Grant School ended, we faced a dilemma. We were moving out of our nice house at 303 West Stanton June 30 and moving to another place farther west, but the house would not be available until September 1.
The large-framed, loud-voiced woman who had been my second-grade teacher offered to take us in for three months when we would otherwise be homeless. It was a good solution. The teacher’s two children—Freddy and his little sister, whose name now escapes me—were our frequent playmates. The family lived just a block away, on Grant Street. Mom and Dad put our furniture in storage, and we moved in with the teacher’s family.
Things started out amiably, but the arrangement went sour after only a week or so. Maybe we were just too many people to live together in a small house; maybe it was something else. But our invitation to stay the summer was suddenly revoked one night, with the result that we crept out of Streator in the dark of night and fled to our ancestral home of Knoxville.
I never knew why we were set to flight in such a dramatic way—the code was never revealed to me. I figured out later that when my old teacher said it was “a bombshell to all of us,” she didn’t mean it was a bombshell to her—just to us. It seemed we were not worthy to live with my baggy old teacher’s family.
Somehow, for reasons I did not know, we were not good enough.
Our exodus to Knoxville took place on a weekend. Monday morning, Dad was back at work in Streator. He stayed in a rented flat all week, then drove to Knoxville to spend the weekend with us. This became the pattern for the whole summer.
Sixty-five years ago today, the Russians fired Sputnik into the October sky.
Of all people to kick off the Space Age—the Russians!
“Humiliation” does not capture the angst of a twelve-year-old American boy, which is what I was at the time.
“Disaster” would be closer.
Some adults may have been startled that humans had flung a projectile into space—a basketball-sized object that immediately took up a patrol of the heavens, blinking and beeping its way across the sky once every ninety-six minutes.
No twelve-year-old boy—as I was, at the time—batted an eyelash at the fact of space travel. Robert Heinlein, Lester Del Rey, and other fiction writers had conditioned us to expect it with confidence. But it was to have been done by Americans.
That the Russians launched the satellite was wrong on four counts.
First of all, the Russians were Bad Guys. They were communist dictators. They mocked everything we, the Free World, stood for. They tried to undermine us. They were evil.
Second, everybody knew the Russians could not invent anything. A-bombs and H-bombs, they had acquired by trickery. Spies like the Rosenbergs had given them our secrets. Virtually all goods in Russia—cars, airplanes, telephones—were copies of American models.
Third, since Russia was our enemy in a colossal struggle for world power, having their hardware pass over the United States sixteen times a day raised the specter of a surprise attack from outer space—maybe in the near future. This was a big-time worry for Pentagon planners.
My Own Nemesis
The fourth consideration was peculiar to me. Sputnik arrived on a day that was already my downfall. We were moving from Streator, Illinois (population 17,500), to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Kenosha was a much larger city: It was industrial, foreign, and most of all, it was not Streator, where I had oodles of friends.
I was hardly in a mood to understand the great advantages of my father’s upward job change.
On Saturday morning, October 5, the one appliance that had not been packed in the moving van was a small table radio. Mom was about to unplug it to put in the car with the other odds and ends when the CBS Radio News announced the launching of Sputnik. They even played a recording of the new satellite’s strange, plaintive beep.
That beep signaled that not only had my parents betrayed me by uprooting me from my accustomed home, but the treacherous Russians were piling on. The failure of America’s Vanguard rocket a few months later only added to the misery.
Now that it’s sixty-five years past, I’ve learned to be philosophical about it. I even have some good memories of Kenosha. But the emotions of a star-struck young lad still resonate after all those years.
I hope all your orbits, Gentle Reader, will be happy ones.
I started to climb a mountain, but I did not know how high it was.
I wrote a story when I was in third grade. I’ve always been good at words, at ease with grammar, fascinated by the process of converting thoughts into sentences.
When young I thought it would be swell to be a writer. I made a few attempts at writing novels and short stories, but do you know what?
It was too hard. I moved on to something else.
Besides, there was life to be lived. There was a war. There was college. There was marriage. There was a child. There were dogs—an endless parade of dogs, down to the present day.
At length, I ran out of excuses.
I began to look again at writing a novel. I’m a talented writer. How hard could it be?
At first it was great fun, tramping steadily uphill, writing page after page, chapter after chapter.
Then, it was challenging—revising, rewriting, and refining those early drafts.
I finished the book and rejoiced. That hadn’t been so hard after all. The mountain was only a hill.
But I wanted it published. I wanted a traditional, royalty-paying publication contract from a traditional, royalty-paying publisher. How hard could it be?
I sent it to agents. I sent it to independent publishers.
No agents responded. One independent publisher offered a contract; but it was a poor contract, and the publisher’s emails put me off. I turned it down.
Two more publishers agreed to read my full manuscript. Both of them sent back polite rejections, each with two or three sentences of what was wrong with the book. Triangulating their comments, I achieved a sudden, shattering insight.
My book was not good enough.
The mountain was higher than I thought.
I could see a way the book might be improved to meet the objections of the two publishers who had given me comments. But it would require another year or more of work, because the story had to be completely rewritten, turned inside out, major sections added and formerly important material subtracted.
I was not sure I could do it. An angel (Christine DeSmet) whispered in my ear, “Yes, you can.”
A year later, Dan Willis of DX Varos Publishing bought a vastly improved book.
Finally, it was good enough.
The mountain had been higher than I thought.
Why do I tell you this?
Because I learned a lesson, and it is one you might take to heart, whatever personal challenge it is that you are facing.
The work needs to be really good. You must reach down deep inside yourself and use all your resources. The mountain you must climb is higher, and more difficult, than you could have imagined when you started out.
But the thrill of achievement when you reach the summit is worth every bit of effort and courage that it took.
Immediately, you are given another mountain to climb: A mountain of publicity and recognition. A mountain of public indifference that must be overcome.
If the first mountain was worth the climb, so the second mountain will be also.