“F” Is for Franklin

His name was Franklin. Most folks around the small town of Knoxville, Illinois, called him Frankie. 

Frankie on the gridiron

He was the youngest of five children. At Knoxville High School he played football and basketball and ran track—as had his brothers Lloyd, Stanley, and Edward before him. He was a regular kid, good-looking, with a winning smile.

He graduated from high school in May 1941. Seven months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States went to war against the Axis Powers. Frankie enlisted as an Army Aviation Cadet on 3 April 1942. 

Aviation Cadet Frankie

In December, while he was in his year-long pilot’s training, his brother Stanley was killed flying a B-17 in the Southwest Pacfic. Frankie graduated from Advanced Flying School and was commissioned a second lieutenant 12 April 1943. After a week-long home furlough and a brief training assignment in Florida, he left for England. 

They sent him to RAF Chipping Ongar, near London, home of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 559th Bomber Squadron, 387th Bomber Group, Medium. On 1 August, 1943, after 68.6 hours of training flights in the squadron’s twin-engined B-26 Marauders, he flew his first actual bombing mission. Through the end of August, he flew five training missions and five more combat missions, totaling 20.5 hours. 

His seventh combat mission was on 2 September 1943. By this time he was the regular co-pilot on Aircraft 41-31629, Janet’s Dream, captained by First Lieutenant William F. Vosburgh. 

Janet’s Dream and her crew, Frankie second from left

Over Bergues, France, Janet’s Dream took flak—anti-aircraft artillery fire—in her right engine, and Frankie’s war ended. The Marauder broke up and crashed, killing Frankie, Vosburgh, and two others. Two back-end crewmen bailed out and became prisoners of war.

Hap Arnold’s letter

Frankie’s eldest brother Edward, a pilot for Pan American Airways, paid a visit to Frankie’s unit in England. He collected Frankie’s things, talked with his commander and fellow fliers. Frankie had been well-liked, a “regular guy” and was the “banker” of the outfit—always had a few bucks he could lend to a fellow aviator in need.

“Hap” Arnold, Commanding General, Army Air Forces, sent my grandparents a letter that read almost as if he knew young Franklin William Sommers personally. 

“It has come to my attention that Lieutenant Sommers, a highly regarded graduate of the Advanced Flying School at La Junta, Colorado, was a brave and conscientious officer. He attained success in his effort to perform his duties in a superior manner and his commanding officers were pleased with his accomplishment of difficult tasks which they entrusted to him. Amiable and dependable, he made friends easily, and he is keenly missed in the activities of his group.”

Though doubtless they knew it was War Deparment boilerplate, this stately prose must have given them some comfort.

Frankie was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. His remains were buried in Plot A, Row 14, Grave 32 at the Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

Frankie was 20 when he died, unmarried and childless. 

I was born almost two years later, never having known my Uncle Franklin—who now lives on only in my middle name, and in a few yellowing letters and photos. 

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All of that was three-quarters of a century ago. What has it to do with today?

Through life my friends have generally known me as Larry Sommers; but when I launched my writing career at age 70, I did so as Larry F. Sommers. I thought it had implications for author branding. “Larry Sommers” was plain vanilla; but “Larry F. Sommers” was premium vanilla. 

Besides that trivial consideration, I’m starting to understand that my name is more authentic with the “F” included. Authenticity can’t be manufactured; it can’t be designed, can’t be faked. Authenticity is that ineffable quality of actually being who you really are.

Second Lieutenant Franklin W. Sommers

My middle name, Franklin, claims the patrimony of my uncle’s remembrance. It is not something to be shucked off lightly. This man I never met gave his life for me before I was even conceived. He gave his life for all of us—one of many who did so in a dark chapter of the world’s story. 

Unlike those many others, Frankie, and his older brother Stanley, were mine. I am bound to them by two bloods— the blood of kinship and the blood of sacrifice.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Our being is entangled in those we remember and perpetuate—ancestors, forerunners, pioneers of our civilization. 

Whatever authenticity we may possess is a mix of individual traits with old associations. We are the sum of our present selves, our past, our family’s past, and our people’s past. 

I never knew Uncle Stanley or Uncle Franklin. There is no need or mandate for me to carry their  baggage, the burden of young lives so casually cast on history’s ash heap. Yet, wearing their mantle on my shoulders makes me more the person I am, not less. 

You can be an atom, bouncing along in a hostile universe; or, with God’s grace and your own awareness, you can purposely pitch your tent along the route of the grand parade. You can be one with your uncles, with your aunts, with Mister Lincoln, with Frederick Douglass, with the signers of the Magna Carta, with Leif Erikson and with Homer, who sang the tales of Odysseus the adventurer. 

You can be part of all the glory of the human condition, but then you must be part of the pain also.

That, Gentle Reader, is what I mean by “seeking fresh meanings in our common past.” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Life or Death

We are a death-denying society.

We think, “Death is bad, life is good.” 

Moses gets the word from Yahweh. Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) fresco, Sistine Chapel. Public Domain.

Even God says: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). 

The Lord of Hosts tells us to choose life over death; who are we to argue?

So we try to live, as high on the hog as we can, and we do everything possible to avoid death. Even some impossible things, to avoid death, we attempt. We try to shut death out of our houses, out of our schools, out of our clinics, out of our hospitals, out of our emergency rooms. We try to shut death out of our mortuaries and cemeteries, preferring a quick cremation, followed by a “memorial” service that focuses on reliving our happy memories of the—uh, that is, you know, dear old Uncle Jack, bless his soul.

The Grim Reaper waits. Image by doom156, licensed under  CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Most effectively, we shut death out of our consciousness. The Grim Reaper is barred from the threshold of our thoughts. We live in uneasy assurance that there is no such thing as death. Death is taboo.

Yet, AS IF BY SOME MIRACLE, people keep dying. 

A Gentleman in a Dustcoat Trying

They die a few at a time, here or there. They die of heart ailments and strokes; they die of cancer; they die of accidents; they die of murder; they die of suicide. Sometimes they die unaccountably: I once read about a man who jumped off a four-foot-high platform at a county fair, and at the time his feet hit the ground he was dead. The coroner could only scratch his head. 

Whatever the cause, by age 120 or so, we achieve one hundred percent mortality.

COVID-19. Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins, Center for Disease Control. Public Domain.

Once in a long while there comes a great epidemic, or a pandemic. You might say the very definition of such an event is that it taxes our resources as a whole society, not just as an individual or a family or a town. 

Now we have COVID-19. We have mobilized against this pandemic at a scale, in a timeframe, and in specific ways by which no disease in human history has been resisted. 

In America—I can’t speak for other societies, but yes, in America—we have mobilized chiefly, it seems, to deny death its victims. 

Through a panoply of means, some new and some time-tested, we fight this dread disease. The dread thing about this disease is its death toll.

 You don’t hear people saying, “I sure hope I don’t catch the COVID, it’s a pretty rough thing to go through.” 

Those who recover occupy none of our attention, regardless how harrowing their escape. All the emphasis is on preventing death. 

If it were just one among the crowd of viruses that constantly assail us, claiming a few lives here and there, nobody would make a big deal about it. But COVID-19, because of its novelty (as in “novel coronavirus”), is statistically forecast to sweep through the world, taking millions of lives from populations that start with zero immunity to it. 

At this writing it has claimed about 42,000 Americans, but who knows what the coming months may bring?

According to our trusted experts—and I do trust their expertise—our most effective weapon against the onslaught has been “social distancing.” We seem to have dramatically reduced the death toll by staying away from one another—a method that has dealt a dire blow to our national economy. But that method has worked. 

All our physical distancing and other measures have slowed the progress of the disease, not stopped it. We have deflected the incidence of death from COVID-19; we have not banished death altogether. Remember the early days, when our experts first recommended these measures. The slogan was, “Flatten the curve.” There was no thought of eliminating the disease altogether.

The point of all our efforts was simply to reduce the caseload to what our hospitals and medical professionals could handle.

It has always been in the cards that a lot of people were going to die from this disease. 

So What?

There is a reason, Dear Reader, that I belabor this obvious point. 

Now that we have blunted the coronavirus attack, our leaders work on means to bring back the economy. This is no trivial concern. It will take a complex strategy, with a well-calibrated balance between, on the one hand, fostering more freedom of movement for productive endeavors; and, on the other, protecting the most vulnerable from exposure to a highly contagious disease organism.

It is not just the president who wants to get the economy working again. Responsible politicians of both parties and executives of businesses large and small share this urgency. They bear a heavy responsibility to restore the systems and mechanisms that provide us all with food, clothing, shelter, transportation, entertainment, education, health care, social satisfaction, and all the other things we require—including paychecks—before additional damage is added to what those systems have already sustained. 

DeForest Kelley. Public Domain.

It would be foolhardy simply to drop all the new practices we have adopted and go on a binge of “pre-pandemic normalcy.” If anyone seriously proposes this, they ought to think more thoroughly.

And if anyone seriously thinks that loosening any of the present restrictions is irresponsible, they also ought to think more thoroughly. 

How often have we heard it said that no cost is too great to save a single human life?  Quite often, to my recollection. Remember, in our society, death is taboo. Consider the refrain oft-voiced by the late actor DeForest Kelley, playing Doctor McCoy on the original Star Trek series: 

“Dammit, Jim, there are lives at stake!”

Yes, Bones, there are. 

There are always lives at stake. No matter what we do, or what we don’t do, lives are at stake. People will live this way, or that way; people will die this way, or that way.

Seldom are we given a simple choice between life and death. Commonly, we make hundreds of microchoices—to walk or drive, to eat a fish or a steak, to floss or not to floss, to wash our hands or leave them unwashed—each decision tending either to promote life or to hasten death, yet no single decision dispositive. 

Right now, a particular subset of microchoices is forced on us by the disease— commended to us as mandatory or at least highly beneficial. In weeks to come, those choices, one by one, will become antiquated and irrelevant. 

Life will go on. In the midst of it, people will go on dying.

Not you, any time soon, Dear Reader, I pray.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Terror at 20,000 Words

OUTLINERS figure out what the story is, then write it. 

PANTSERS are writers who “fly by the seat of their pants” and get surprised by their stories. 

Which one are you? Or, which would you be, if you were a writer?

I have always been an Outliner. Now, however, I’m changing my tune, and it scares me to death.

The Haven of Preparedness

Outlining may be considered a premeditated act. An Outliner commits Fiction in the First Degree.

Dentistry in my day. Public Domain.

This approach has a lot to recommend it. Once you have the whole plot engineered in outline form, you know where you are going. All that remains is to render it in prose. 

But the way I personally think of it is: I must do the hard part first, the part I don’t like one bit, the part that intimidates me, which is making up the story

Inventing plot twists, character actions, and dramatic events is like having all my teeth drilled and filled, one by one, and then extracted, without benefit of Novocain. That’s why I prefer to take refuge in historical novels. The main events have already happened and are known. All I need to invent is a few details. Even that seemingly small effort can leave me wounded and edentulous. 

Writing prose, on the other hand—with its delicious prospect of future revision, and further revision; polishing, and then polishing the polishing—is a pleasant gambol in Elysian fields. Given any encouragement at all, I could spend the rest of my life merrily revising a single chapter.

Elysian Fields by Carlos Scwabe, 1903. Public Domain.

Fabulous

The problem is, people want a story. People consume stories wholesale. People hunger for story. And The Magic of Story is the reason I got into this game in the first place.

I was seventy years old then. In the five years since, I have learned a lot about writing. Mostly about the technique of writing. About craft. About marketing.

But the most important thing I’ve learned is that a story is more than the words by which it is told. It’s more than the plot turns along the way. A story is the verisimilitude of a live person’s meeting and overcoming—or perhaps succumbing to—challenges that are interesting and exciting. A story is the telling, or the showing, of “life as she is lived.”

To bring a story to life by draping a string of phrases over an outline is a highly artificial skill. Only a few people can do it well, like an actor bringing a character to life on stage by sheer technique. For what I’m trying to write now, that just won’t do.

I must become a method actor. 

A Pantser.

Izzy—or izzn’t he?

A few years ago, I wrote some light-hearted short stories about a 1950s boy named Izzy Mahler. I was thrilled when three of them were e-published by The Saturday Evening Post. (You can read them herehere, and here.)

These Izzy stories replicate my own boyhood. Every detail comes straight from personal experience, with minor re-arrangements to enhance the drama. 

Now, I am starting a book about Izzy Mahler. It’s not a collection of Izzy short stories but a full, front-to-back novel aimed at young people, starring an Izzy slightly older than the one who appears in the Saturday Evening Post stories. 

The story this novel tells will have a bit more substance. I could never write anything really dark; but growing up in the 1950s was not all Leave It to Beaver. Kids had problems to face.

I started by outlining a plot for this book. It took a great deal of mulling over, but ultimately it went well: I emerged with a real spiffy outline. Then I started to write the text, based on my outline. I got seven chapters in before noticing that, although the writing was going very well, the book was going astray. The story was going off the rails by staying true to the outline.

There was no spontaneity to it. No real voyage of discovery for Izzy Mahler. 

I had made a rookie error. I mistook my protagonist for myself. 

If Izzy is merely a smudged copy of me, his saga will be a failure. My actual boyhood served me well enough, but it was not the stuff of stories. Whatever unhappiness I owned, whatever traumas in my upbringing, they cannot be cured by rehashing old grudges or inchoate yearnings on paper. That is not fiction, it is whining.  

Protagonizing

What is needed, if the past is to have meaning for the future, is an imaginative restaging, starring a better and more interesting person than me. That would be Izzy, you see. But this improved Izzy will not take pleasing shape from an outline. Izzy needs to be a true protagonist. He must burst forth from his circumstances and shove the story rudely in its ultimate direction. 

Melancholy protagonist? Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. William Morris Hunt, oil on canvas, circa 1864. Public Domain.

In this account of things, Izzy is someone who flies by the seat of his pants. To capture him alive, I must follow his example.

Someone told me:

“The protagonist must protag.”

Don’t waste your time looking up “protag” in your Funk & Wagnall’s. No such word appears. It’s just a writer’s in-joke, meaning that for a book to enthrall readers, big things must happen; and the central character must be the one who makes them happen.

If I have a main fault as a writer, it’s that my characters are too much like me: Timid, passive, inert. Lord, preserve my little hero Izzy from such a fate. But Izzy will only seize his destiny if I grasp the nettle and make him strong where I am weak.

That is why Pantsers are always saying things like, “I thought it was a story about lust and betrayal, but then my hero took it in a whole different direction.” 

The plunge. . . . Photo by Clarke’s County, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

All I can do is put Izzy on paper and confront him with challenges that he must address. Just fly by the seat of my pants, and hope the story will be worth reading.

But right now, in the moment of doing, it feels like I’m riding the world’s tallest roller-coaster. My carriage, on the top level, has just tilted sharply downward and started its plunge. 

Pray for me.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

How American of Us

All the kids in my neighborhood were vaccinated, and we would gladly show the little round scar in our upper arms to prove it.

Inoculation to ward off smallpox had been practiced for more than two hundred years. That is what “vaccination” meant in the 1950s. 

Today, “vaccination” means many things. It means different things to different people. Not everybody likes it. But at this moment in our history, we mainly think of vaccination as a tool we wish we had against COVID-19. It is not in our toolkit yet and won’t be for quite a while. We tap our feet impatiently. What are we supposed to do in the meantime?

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Odd and unexpected are the prophets who may speak to us in these confused days.

Benedict Arnold. Copy of engraving by H. B. Hall after John Trumbull. Public Domain.

Benedict Arnold is known primarily as a traitor. A bold, charismatic leader of troops in our war for Independence, Arnold changed sides and became a secret agent for the British. He worked to give them the American fortifications at West Point, New York. 

His treason was found out, and he fled for his life. On October 7, 1780, a few days after he reached safety behind British lines, Arnold published an open letter defending his actions, titled “Address to the American People.” In that egocentric display of self-justification, the erratic Benedict Arnold—half a century before Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous visit and commentary—penned the definitive remark about Americans:

“The private judgment of any individual citizen of this country is . . . free from all conventional restraints.”

It was a true saying then, and it remains true 240 years later. Combined with the Puritan imprint on our public outlook and the indelible marks of our frontier experience, it explains a lot about our uniqueness as a people.

By “all conventional restraints,” I suppose Arnold meant the class-conscious pecking order of European society, as well as the customary appeals of king and country and the divine imperatives of Church potentates. 

To Americans all such guiding principles are merely advisory, both then and now. Each person must choose his or her own way. We are a nation of rugged individuals, most of all deep in our heads and hearts. We know we are right; if not for others, at least for ourselves and our families. We are self-willed, to a nearly anarchic extreme. 

Here, even the Magisterium of The Law “derive[s] its just powers from the consent of the governed” and, in practice, perches perilously on a wobbly base of voluntary compliance. “The private judgment of any individual citizen . . . is . . . free from all conventional restraints.”

We see this truth enacted in our present crisis. Compare the responses of other nations: 

  • The Chinese government, once it grasped the severity of the virus problem, sent in goon squads to round up the sufferers, burned the evidence, and put out some fake numbers to reassure the world.
  • The Swedes seem to be opting for a slow-rolling herd inoculation through gradual exposure of their citizens. This may possibly work in Sweden, where the surge of the virus will be dampened by the Swedes’ national impulse to work together as if they were, indeed, a herd.

Swedish-style cooperativeness is unthinkable here in the United States. Violators of even reasonable regulations would be legion, the loci of their intransigence unpredictable. Any forced imposition of rigid controls would backfire; people would rebel. Even the enforcers would rebel.

So the suggestion that we follow the Swedish model, though doubtless well-intentioned, is naïve and absurd. Americans, in general, won’t act like Swedes—even though some of them, like my wife, are Swedes. The results of relying on Swedish-style social cohesion from Americans would be disastrous in the short term.

But those who call for a unified national crackdown do not grasp the dimensions of the problem. The president, with all his minions, cannot command all Americans to do anything, any more than King Canute could turn back the tide. 

King Canute rebukes his courtiers as the tide rolls in, unblocked. Illustration by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville. Public Domain.

The governors have a slightly better chance of applying that nuanced mix of persuasion and compulsion that will work in their respective states. Even they will probably mis-calculate some of their edicts. What federal authorities can offer is material support to the states and the broad popular influence of national experts who speak with credibility.

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Does all this add up to an imperfect response? Maybe so. 

Are other countries doing better? Who can say?

Will people die because our government has no magic wands to wave? Could be.

It is what it is. We are who we are, exercising our private judgments free of all conventional restraints. 

Let us seek to be wise, prudent, and kind in that exercise.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

To Fathom, or Not to Fathom?

4 April 2020, Day 25 of the Global Pandemic (According to WHO—or is it WHOM?):

My bandanna slips, baring my nostrils to the world. 

The knot behind my head is too loose; but it feels indecent, somehow, to untie and re-tie in public. So I shove the cloth up over my nose, clamp it there under my bifocals, snag a cart, and head into Hyvee. 

Say there, Pardners, hands in the air! And give us all your yeast and toilet paper. (And lupines, don’t forget lupines.)

Just a quick in-and-out, to pick up a few essentials. I push the cart into the liquor department, heading for the red wines. OOPS! Blue arrows have been taped on the floor, making each aisle a one-way street. Of course. This is so shoppers won’t accidentally come within six feet of each other. 

In nautical terms, they want us to be unfathomable.

A very sensible precaution, in my view. I push my cart down the wrong aisle, all the way  to the back of the store, then swing around an end-cap, and voilà! Red wine. 

Is it the same instinct that impels so many fellow citizens to stock up on toilet paper, which has reduced us to drinking cheap wine? I  pick up a couple of ten-dollar red blends for those special, romantic dinners (take-out beef bourguignon in a plastic tray, with baguette, from La Brioche) and a gallon jug of burgundy for all other occasions. With bottles rattling in my cart, I follow the blue arrows up the aisle to exit the liquor department. OOOPS! A man stands there, buying beer at the liquor department register. He must not need any dry groceries. 

No Fathoming Allowed

A big, round sticker on the floor says, “MAINTAIN 6-FT DISTANCE.” There is not room to go around the man, whose large purchase may take some time to ring up. I reverse course, go the wrong way down the red wine aisle, wrap two aisles over to the next outbound lane, and then full steam ahead. 

But, soft! What light down yonder brandy aisle breaks? It is a twenty-something woman, idling, eenymeenying between Korbel and Christian Brothers. Will it be this one, or that? She picks up a bottle, shifts her weight from one hip to the other, puts it back. Maybe . . . another brand entirely?

Back down the aisle the wrong way again, two more aisles over, and I gallop out of the liquor department to freedom. It’s a good thing liquor stores in this state have plenty of aisles.

I head for the main part of the supermarket. OOOOPS! My bandanna slips down again. Why is this so tough? If a moron like Liberty Valance could do this, certainly I can get the hang of it. I shove the gaudy rag back over my nose and clamp it even firmer with my glasses. For good measure, I twist the knot in back once and tuck it under itself. That’ll do it, I’m almost sure.

Now for the groceries. This store has a complex floor layout; even with its extravagant overhead signs, I often struggle to find what I am seeking. Today, that struggle is squared, or maybe cubed, by the blue arrows on the floor. Two or three times I find myself going the wrong way. It’s hard to remember not to just turn up, or down, the aisle where you suspect your item may have been hidden.

The Precious Fathom

I console myself by noting that half of the many shoppers seem to be entirely unaware of the blue arrows. Or maybe they just don’t care. Half of the shoppers, like me, conscientiously struggle to maintain that precious fathom of clearance. 

When you are in an aisle, you don’t want to take much time picking out your item. Other people are piling up behind you. Nobody wants to be responsible for squeezing past someone else and maybe exhaling at point-blank range. So you move fast, to prevent pile-ups.

I loop back around and skim the bakery needs aisle again, looking for yeast. It seems there is none to be had. Yeast is one of those things, like toilet paper, that new-minted survivalists feel compelled to hoard. 

OOOOOPS! My face covering slips again. Even the dim-witted Billy the Kid passed Bandanna 101 in Outlaw School. Why can’t I make it work? Quite a few people wear a scarf, handkerchief, or bandanna over nose and mouth. None of their face coverings fall down. What’s the matter with me? 

A few people wear manufactured-looking masks. They’d better not be hogging those special N-95s that all the medical people need. Are these people too good to wrap a sock or muffler around their head, like the rest of us? 

Quite a few people still wear no face covering at all. Just a day or two ago, that was me; but now I’m hip. Not that my bandanna will protect me from the virus; it’s meant to keep me from giving other people the virus. Not that I have the virus. How could I? I hardly go anywhere. But the good doctors on TV are now saying we should wear them. I’m not really infectious, but one should set a good example for others.

Grocery Workers: Essential, Fathomless

It may be casually noted that no store employees wear face coverings of any kind. Also, they frequently violate the Six-Foot Rule. That’s because they’re trying, desperately, to get the shelves stocked. A valiant young man arrives with a whole cartload of eggs to put in the case just as I take the last dozen. He’s doing his best, but he has lost sight of Social Distancing. Well, of course, these folks are official store employees. So I guess that’s all right, then.

Okay, no yeast. No Fudgsicles either, but as I recall, Hyvee always had a hard time keeping those in stock, even back in Pre-Pandemic Days. I’ve got most of the other stuff, including a 31.5-pound bag of Purina for Lacey and Midnight. 

At this juncture I feel compelled to note, just for the record, Dear Reader, that if one really strictly followed the blue arrows on the floor, one would be forever enmeshed in a sort of medieval labyrinth—stuck forever, like Charlie on the MTA—with no way to traverse to the cash registers. 

Taking my heart in my hands, I jump the queue—or, at least, violate the blue arrows—skirting around the whole produce section, steering a wide berth from any other shoppers, and streaking into the clearly-marked lateral blue-arrow lane near the check-out aisles. 

Here, there is more surrealism at which to marvel. A sign says: “DO NOT PUT YOUR ITEMS ON THE CONVEYOR. WE SANITIZE BETWEEN CUSTOMERS.” Sure enough, after the preceding customer clears the lane at least two fathoms ahead of me, the young man at the register runs the conveyor clear around twice, swabbing it down with something he squirts out of a spray bottle. At last it is deemed sanitary enough, and he says, “Go ahead.” 

Nothing to Sneeze At

I plunk my items down on the conveyor, leaving my huge bag of dog food in the cart. The young man tries to scan the dog food with his hand-held scanner as usual, but OOOOOOPS! He can’t cantilever it out over the conveyor far enough. Its cord is hung up with a bunch of other cords. That’s because the bracket that holds the hand scanner is cramped by the newly-installed plexiglass shield that is meant to protect me and the checker-outer— from each other, presumably.

Oh, what a relief! I may now sneeze to my heart’s content. There’s a sheet of plexiglass to protect the essential grocery worker. I have half a mind to give it a good blast—but, alas! no sneeze in me yearns to break forth. Better luck next time.

Forty-five minutes after stopping for a quick in-and-out, I trundle my cart out of the store and OOOOOOOPS! my bandanna slips again. But no matter, I’m in the open air. 

Where are Jesse and Frank James, when a guy needs a lesson in kerchief-tying?

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Something tells me we’re not in Kansas anymore. We’re not even in Wisconsin anymore.

Be of good cheer, Dear Reader. Even this cannot last forever.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

A Pair of Good Books

It’s a good season for robust and interesting writing. I have two book recommendations, one fiction and one nonfiction.

The Coming of Cactus Jim

Kansas sheriff James Early makes his debut in Early’s Fall, by Jerry Peterson. Known to his friends as “Cactus”—and I guess I’ll have to read another book or two to find out what that’s about—Early is a cowboy sort of guy, equally at home riding the range on horseback or in a sheriff’s department jeep. 

The book, set in the 1940s, opens with a bold-as-brass daylight bank robbery in a sleepy little town. Early and his deputy scour the countryside in a high-speed, all-terrain chase, to no avail. Before they can catch the taunting, whimsical bank robber, they get distracted by a grisly murder.

Jerry Peterson

As Early methodically investigates likely suspects in the murder, he stops a passenger train, interrogates an Israeli secret agent, and is forced to balance his professional duties with care for his pregnant wife’s mental aberrations. Everything unravels inexorably to an exciting and moving finish.

Peterson, a seasoned author with fourteen books to his credit, knows how to keep a story moving at a compelling pace. His diction is strong and his images stirring. You won’t lightly put down Early’s Fall.

Combustible Wisdom

Norwegian journalist and author Lars Mytting has three critically acclaimed novels to his credit. But the book that made him a household name in the Nordic world is the nonfiction classic Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.

Mytting’s book comes along at just the right time to make me a better-informed woodsman. Some of his practical advice—about axes, chainsaws, and such—tallies with my own observations over the year. Some, however, has given me a new understanding of the best ways to process timber for burning in my fireplace or my cozy little woodstove.

I had long assumed—I don’t know why, wishful thinking perhaps—that if logs sit in the open air for up to a year before being split, they will be better seasoned and thus will split better, or at least easier. Wrong, says Mytting. Log should be split just after the timber is felled. Not only does the wood split easiest when it is fresh; the splitting itself is essential to the proper seasoning of the wood. To dry quickly and fully, the inner wood must be exposed. A log that sits, fully wrapped in bark, for any length of time will start to decompose from the inside out. Even a little bit of this internal rot eliminates hot gases needed for efficient burning and guarantees that the log will never fully dry.

Lars Mytting

So from now on, I’ll split all my wood as soon as I get it.

For me, that was the great lesson from this informative book; for you, something else might be. Writing with fluid and engaging clarity, Mytting delves into all aspects of the Scandinavian firewood experience, as witness his chapter heads: “The Cold,” “The Forest,” “The Tools,” “The Chopping Block,” “The Woodpile,” “The Seasoning,” “The Stove,” and “The Fire.” Each subject, by turn, is thoughtfully and fully explained. The whole book is well-illustrated with photos of lovely and creative woodpiles.

If you burn any wood at home, this book is sure to tell you things you’ll wish you had known before.  

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Two books, Early’s Fall and Norwegian Wood. Great books for the he-men, and the she-women, among you. Go now and read.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Making Firewood

Hardships bring us back to the essentials.

Bereft of people to see and places to be, I turn to the dwindling wood-pile in the rack along my garage wall. 

A couple of years ago our friend Kevin rebuilt our old miscellaneous junk depot, making it into a newly inviting sunroom. It’s an awkwardly long space with a lot of windows but no connection to the furnace that warms the rest of our house. So Kevin installed a cast-iron woodstove at the far end of the room.

The author at work by his woodstove. Lacey the spaniel as Sancho Panza.

That woodstove has become a great blessing to Your New Favorite Writer. It means I can write in the calm of our sunroom in warm weather, in the cooler times of spring and fall, and even in the deepest part of winter.

But the cost is: Procuring enough firewood and splitting the logs to stack for drying and burning.

Into the Trees

Old-timers say firewood warms you twice: First when you cut it, haul it, and stack it; and second when you burn it.

I like to get logs for free, rather than pay money. From time to time, someone in the neighborhood has a tree felled; usually this work is done by hired arborists. If the homeowner does not want the wood, the wood cutters must haul the logs to a dump for disposal—an added expense I can lighten for them by taking some logs off their hands. It never hurts to ask.

After hauling a few heavy, 4- to 6-foot logs home in the back of my SUV, I need to cut them to fireplace lengths. I use a small, seven-pound Stihl chainsaw with a 14-inch bar. Small beats large where chainsaws are concerned. Schlepping a 23-pound, 20-inch murder machine around a tangled logjam will knock the stuffing out of you in half an hour. Very few men or women who are not woodsmen by trade can put a large chainsaw to good use. And fatigue will make the urban lumberjack a danger to self and others.

The essential tool.

The timber is sawn, ideally, into 16-inch segments; then the real fun begins. Logs need to be split (1) so they’ll dry more efficiently, for the bark holds moisture in; (2) so they’ll fit conveniently in the stove; (3) so they’ll burn more readily as flames lap at their exposed innards; and (4) so Your New Favorite Writer may enjoy the satisfaction of cleaving a pillar of wood with the bite of a sharp axe.

Verse in the Vernal Heat

Robert Frost in 1941. Fred Palumbo photo. Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Public Domain.

Robert Frost waxes lyrical over chopping in his poem “Two Tramps in Mud-time”—

Good blocks of beech it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good
That day, giving a loose to my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

Scavenging for wood seldom brings me “good blocks of beech” that fall “splinterless as a cloven rock.” Quite often I’m using, by turns, my axe, a heavy splitting maul, or even wedges and a sledgehammer to demolish a twisty, knotted specimen of brutish maple or fruitwood with desperately cross-tangled fibers. It’s frustrating to try to smash such a godforsaken glob of sylvan perversity to flinders.

Larry the logger levitates lumber. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

But, ah! when I do score a nice chunk of straight-grained hardwood—such a joy to plummet the steel down upon it and pick up the halves on either side, to set the halves again on the chopping block and knock them into clean, glistening quarters. If you have ever done this kind of elemental work, then you know the peace it bestows.

Splitting wood adds rest and harmony to the soul.

Some of my neighbors use hydraulic splitters that can shiver a timber to its component parts in seconds. I have no quarrel with this efficient practice. I just like my way better.

Pride of Axemanship

Frost mentions a pair of bystanders who watched him at his beech-splitting chore: 

Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax,
They had no way of knowing a fool.

So there’s that, too. Pride, you see, rears its ugly head. I am proud of the little wood lore I have gained over my 75 years on God’s green earth, starting as a Boy Scout and continuing to the present day. Whatever small skill of axemanship I possess has been earned through uncounted hours of practice on “the unimportant wood.”

Let us say, rather: The importance of wood may be more in its first warming than in the second.

A beautiful Danish woodpile. Photo by BKP, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Owing to my amateur status as an axeman, and also to the amateur status of some of the trees I scrounge, my woodpile is far from a thing of beauty. Unlike those geometric wonders of forest engineering you see gracing the pages of coffee table books, my woodrack has all sorts of bent and twisted knots and gnarls, wood of all descriptions protruding rudely to snag the sweater of a careless passer-by. It’s almost disgraceful.

But here’s the thing, Gentle Reader: I intend to burn up all the evidence.

The motley wood in my garage.

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The menace of this season’s global pandemic, with its mandated idleness, has simply led back to roots, and branches, that are dear to me for their own sake. 

Here’s hoping you likewise may find blessed paths to pursue as we patiently await good tidings from our common future.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Pandemic Politics

“Pandemic” was an adjective before it was a noun.

It means, “prevalent over a whole area, country, etc.; universal, general . . . .” It is usually applied to disease, thus giving rise to its use as a noun, “a pandemic,” meaning, “a disease which is pandemic.” But it could really be used for almost anything that is widely distributed over the world. 

Politics is pandemic. As was oft remarked of Chickenman, “It’s everywhere! It’s everywhere!” 

No, Fair Reader, you can’t escape it; for, as Aristotle observed, “Man is a political animal.”

In the midst of our current angst over COVID-19, President Trump has been accused of downplaying the threat. Trump’s opponents have been accused of weaponizing the fear of a dread disease. Players on both sides of the line of scrimmage are ripping up the Astroturf, wailing, “Unfair! They are politicizing a national disaster!” 

So, what else is new? 

If you read this blog regularly—a Recommended Best Practice—you may wonder, “Whence comes this commentary on current events? Is not this blog supposed to be about ‘seeking fresh meanings in our common past’?”

Okay, Dear Reader. You asked for it:

It Was Ever Thus

Politicians have made political hay out of all things sacred since the moment after time started. Many earnest combatants believe that everything is political; that exploiting all events to advance one’s political agenda is the purest form of service. (“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”—Rahm Emanuel, 2008.)

Those who seek to serve society must understand the political context in which they operate. Military leaders, in particular, often feel that war should be exempt from politics. But they would be extremely foolish to suppose that it actually is.

General Promotions

Elihu B. Washburne U.S. Congressman, Secretary of State, Minister to France. Mathew Brady-Levi Corbin Handy photo. Public Domain.

During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant showed a canny cognizance of the political winds which blew all around him. In that conflict, almost every general, North or South, was appointed and advanced politically. Even Grant, who demonstrated the highest ability, would never have received the opportunity to demonstrate that ability without the sponsorship of his local Congressman, Rep. Elihu Washburne. The Congressman put Grant in for a brigadier general’s star, immediately began thumping for his promotion to major general, and in every possible way championed Grant’s career.

In 1863, Grant was tasked with taking the city of Vicksburg, which President Abraham Lincoln saw as “the golden key” to unlock the Confederacy. Take Vicksburg from the rebels, and you re-open the Mississippi River to Union navigation. At the same time, you dreadfully complicate Confederate efforts to get men and materiel from the Trans-Mississippi West (Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas). Vicksburg in Union hands would be the beginning of the end of the rebellion.

Major General U.S. Grant. Public Domain.

Trouble was, Grant’s first try—aided by loyal subordinates Sherman and Macpherson and the ambitiously disloyal McClernand—had come to naught, for reasons beyond Grant’s control. “The strategical way according to the rule,” Grant wrote in his memoirs, “would have been to go back to Memphis; establish that as a base of supplies; fortify it so that the storehouses could be held by a small garrison, and move from there along the line of the railroad, repairing as we advanced, to the Yallabusha, or to Jackson, Mississippi.” 

However, “At this time the North had become very much discouraged. . . . It was my judgment at the time that to make a backward movement as long as that from Vicksburg to Memphis, would be interpreted, by many of those yet full of hope for the preservation of the Union, as a defeat, and that the draft would be resisted, desertions ensue, and the power to capture and punish deserters lost. There was nothing left to be done but to go forward to a decisive victory.

What Grant delicately omitted was that political powers in Washington wanted Grant removed and replaced with McClernand—an officer who, despite his loyalty to the Union, was unfit for high command. So long as Grant was actively campaigning against Vicksburg, it was not too hard for Lincoln to resist these demands for his scalp. But any movement that appeared to be a retreat—back to Memphis, for example—would  most likely seal his fate. I am not the first to suggest that if Grant had done anything other than what he did—go forward through the Mississippi lowlands with no established supply line, feeding his army off the land—he would have lost his job. So that’s exactly what he did.

Grant could not afford to ignore politics.

In the end, he found a way to win without losing his job.

So What?

How does this history apply to the present day? Simply in this: Those who wish to serve the country need to be entirely apolitical; but they cannot afford to ignore the politics of the situation.

There are a lot of players, political and otherwise. One is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, an interesting figure. He is on the opposite political team from the president—but neither of them can afford to make trouble with the other in facing the coronavirus challenge, both for political reasons, and for the sake of people’s health.

Cuomo, like any experienced governor, knows quite a bit about handling emergencies. I saw him on TV the other day, revealing one of the key things about emergencies—a lesson I learned years ago as a worker in Wisconsin’s state emergency operations. There are two things, Cuomo said—I’m loosely paraphrasing—two things: One is the objective state of things: the resources, the damage, the things that need to be repaired; or in the case of a pandemic disease, the infection rates, testing kits, all that operational stuff. The other thing is the public perception of the situation. The latter is what drives rumors, panics, compliance with relief plans or the lack of compliance, etc. Often, Cuomo said, that second factor, the public perception, gets to be a greater problem than the disaster scenario itself. 

Cuomo is dead accurate on that. (Your New Favorite Writer’s note to self: Write a blog post sometime about the 1996 Weyauwega, Wisconsin, train derailment.)

The only thing leaders can do about the second factor, the public perception, is to provide a steady flow of factual information from official sources. Credibility is key. People know when they’re being lied to, and it’s the kiss of death in handling an emergency.

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. NIAID photo, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Enter Dr. Anthony Fauci, and his sidekicks Dr. Deborah Brix, Admiral Brett Giroir, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams. These people are the key medical players on the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. They are physicians with impeccable credentials and experienced public health leaders. Their usefulness on the task force is based on their ability to help move key decisions. But just as important is the straightness of their dialog with the American public as principal briefers of this ongoing emergency. 

What makes them useful is that they never say anything that is not factual. Their credibility is gilt-edged. It is a remarkable feat, day in and day out, to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, from the epicenter of a hurricane of fear, anxiety, and political games. 

As Executive Branch employees, they work under the authority of President Donald J. Trump—a gargantuan figure and one who speaks in momentarily expedient approximations. Fauci ranks as a genius, saying what is true and correcting what is false, while affirming truths uttered by the president and never crossing swords with him over statements that may be less reliable. 

Without being himself a politician, Anthony Fauci knows how to survive in a tough political environment, giving good service and straight advice with an easy grace. 

He reminds me of Ulysses S. Grant, who made virtues of necessities and got the military job done without having to bother Abe Lincoln overmuch with messy details.

Funny how often parts of the present resemble parts of the past.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Wuhan that Aprille . . .

We’ll be having an unusual spring.

When vast public ills descend on us, usually we can pinpoint the moment, or the day, when they became manifest.

In the case of sudden events—the eruption of Vesuvius, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, etc.—the time of their occurrence, even to the second, is obvious to all.

John Martin’s 1821 painting Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Public Domain.

Other disasters roll out more slowly, and the precise moment we later remember is really an instant of realization, a time when the nature and dimensions of the threat suddenly crystallized. Thus it was at the Battle of Shiloh—April 6-7, 1862—when the emergence of forty thousand yipping rebels from the woods near a Tennessee River landing destroyed the wishful Northern hope that the Secession had almost run its course. Likewise, in the spring of 1965, the Students for a Democratic Society’s march on Washington served notice that the Vietnam War would not be, like previous wars, supported by most of the American public. 

The Slow Roll

So it is with the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been raging, in China, since 1 December 2019. On 7 January 2020 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a travel notice for travelers to Wuhan, relating to “the cluster of cases of pneumonia of an unknown etiology.” On 9 January the World Health Organization confirmed the existence of a “novel coronavirus,” and the first death occurred in China.

On 19 January, cases began appearing in areas of China outside Wuhan. 

On 21 January, the United States reported its first laboratory-confirmed case, in the state of Washington. 

Li Wenliang. Fair use.

On 28 January, China’s Supreme People’s Court ruled that whistleblower, Li Wenliang, had not committed the crime of spreading “rumors” when on 30 December 2019 he posted to a WeChat forum for medical school alumni that seven patients under his care appeared to have contracted SARS. In their ruling, the Supreme People’s Court stated, “If society had at the time believed those ‘rumors’. . . perhaps it would’ve meant we could better control the coronavirus today. Rumors end when there is openness.”

On 6 February, Dr. Li died of the coronavirus illness.

By that time, there were thousands of cases in China and many cases in other countries of the world and certain cruise ships at sea or quarantined in ports. 

Since then, we have had daily reports of new illness and deaths in many places around the world, and in the United States. America’s and the world’s financial markets have crashed as airlines, cruise lines, and many other business have seen their customer streams and supply chains badly affected.

Moment of Truth

Yesterday—Wednesday, 11 March 2020—is when this illness became real to most of us: 

Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump. Photo by lakesbutta. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
  • Tom Hanks caught it. And his wife, Rita Wilson. They have been diagnosed in Australia, where they are making a film.
  • The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced that their annual basketball tournament would be played with practically nobody in the stands. (Today, they canceled the event entirely.)
  • The World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic (as if we didn’t know already).
  • Donald J. Trump made a speech from the Oval Office. Whether you liked it or not probably depends on what you think of Trump generally.
  • Norway closed, for crying out loud!

Now that Tom Hanks, our national Everyman, has caught the corona bug, and now that one of our great national festivals, the NCAA Tournament, has been canceled—COVID-19, overnight, has become dire in a way it was not before.

The Upshot

Classes, events, gatherings everywhere are being canceled or rescheduled. My own life has been affected: The University of Wisconsin Writers’ Institute, an event many of us look forward to all year long, is suddenly off the books. We await, with bated breath, the new dates.

It’s most frustrating. But it really is necessary. A full-court press, in the realm of what we now call “social distancing,” is probably the greatest weapon we have to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus. It will save lives—mine for sure, maybe yours, too.

I have no advice for you, Dear Reader, any better than what you can get elsewhere. As Abraham Lincoln said in a much different context, “With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.” 

Please do your best to stay healthy. I need all the devoted readers I can get. 

Blessings and best wishes for a long, long life,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer.

A Pair of Great Historical Novels

One of the pleasures of my trade is reading the historical fiction other people are writing. This week it is my pleasure to give enthusiastic endorsement to a couple of wonderful books by female writers with female protagonists.

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown

Mary Rowlandson is a contented, if repressed, minister’s wife on the Massachusetts frontier in the 1670s. When Indians raid her village in an early phase of King Philip’s War, she and her children are taken captive, with other English colonists, in a harrowing ordeal. Eventually she is released and resumes life as a proper colonial wife.

But her season of captivity has changed her outlook on the world, and she finds that extisence within the normal Puritan channels of the Massachusetts Bay Colony no longer is a comfortable fit for her. 

Amy Belding Brown’s prose is straightforward and workmanlike, rising sometimes into the lyrical, as she tells Mary’s tale. We meet a number of actual historical figures besides Mary herself, including Increase Mather, King Phillip (Metacomet), his sister-in-law the female sachem Weetamoo, missionary to the Indians John Eliot, and James Printer (Wowaus)—one of Eliot’s “Praying Indians” who mastered English, worked in the printing trade, and lived in both worlds.

The external movements of this sweeping novel are all, in the author’s words, “consistent with historical records.” However, the heart of its narrative lies in the inner turmoil of Mary Rowlandson: the easy assumptions she finds shattered, the travail of adjusting her old viewpoints to fit often-unpleasant new realities of her life, and her fearless encounter of love’s contradictory pulls on her heart.

Anyone interested in history, in the mysteries of the human heart, or both, will enjoy this book.

Tinsmith 1865 by Sara Dahmen

In Tinsmith 1865 a young woman, Marie Kotlarczyk, transplanted to the Dakota frontier, must take up and succeed at her family’s trade of tinsmithing, despite being a woman. The voice of Marie, often tormented by the decisions she must make and the feats she must perform, is strong and compelling. Romance is a strong part of this story but it would be wrong to call it a “romance.” It is historical fiction, with emphasis on the real struggles of a community of well-drawn characters in the post-Civil War American West. The book highlights the varying ethnicities present in the fictional Flats Town—especially Marie’s Polish family and friends and several Norwegians who sometimes help and sometimes hinder her quest to be her own woman. I was fascinated by the story’s authentic historical detail and was continually drawn into Marie’s personal struggle. 

The author, Sara Dahmen, says, “Today, I am, as far as I can tell, the only female coppersmith in America who builds copper cookware, re-tins and restores vintage pieces, and custom-designs them.” Besides the practice of smithery and the design and marketing of her own cookware line, Sara is the author of both nonfiction and fiction books, including her Flats Junction Series, of which Tinsmith 1865 is the second installment.

Hope you will enjoy one or both of these outstanding books as much as I did.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer