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When the Stars Reach Back

     Do you remember the first time a book really got to you? The most memorable ones crawl inside your head and your heart and will never leave you. Once opened and read they cannot be closed again.
     I was reminded of this reader/author alchemy after replying to a quiz on Facebook.
     The quiz was directed at writers. The gist of it was to name 15 authors who have influenced you and that will always stick with you. There was no requirement to list them in order.
     I wrote:

---Walt Whitman
---Bram Stoker
---Arthur C. Clarke
---Stephen King
---Anne Rice
---Ray Bradbury
---James M. Cain
---Thomas Harris
---Willa Cather
---William Styron
---John Steinbeck
---Mark Helprin
---Flannery O'Connor
---Roger Zelazny
---E. L. Doctorow

     Once I'd given my answers there were more names that surfaced from the depths of memory. One name in particular nagged at me, its importance so strong I felt compelled to add it to the list. It was a 16th selection.
     I wrote:

     Thomas Tryon should be added to this list.

     If I'd made my list according to who was the most influential for me he would've been listed first.
     You see, Thomas Tryon inspired me to become a writer.

     I've been interested in writing since around the age of ten. As I read more books and stories the torrent of words absorbed into my mind and I began to discover the wondrous variety of storytelling employed by authors. There appeared to be no limits to the kinds of stories one could write (or read). My favorite books explore the regions of the human heart. These were the kinds of stories I wanted to write.
     It was all because of Lady.

     After years as a successful actor Thomas Tryon caught the writing bug and began a second career as a best selling author of popular fiction. By the time he wrote and published his third novel I was well-acquainted with his fine storytelling skills. I had already eagerly devoured The Other and Harvest Home, his pair of now classic and milestone horror novels of spooky New England towns and their troubled inhabitants. There weren't many novels of popular horror in the early 1970's in those pre-Stephen King days. Of the quartet of biggest selling horror titles Tryon had written two of them. He was the man. (The titles were Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin, The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, and Tryons' The Other, and Harvest Home)

     I instantly fell in love with the cover art, beautiful in its simplicity and muted colors. I was surprised to discover that Lady wasn't another horror tale like his first two novels. Horror or not, I felt certain I would enjoy reading it. Tryon was a good writer and I trusted him to deliver a worthy tale. The coming of age story about a boy growing up in New England during the 1930's spoke to me like no other had before.
     Lady remains one of my favorite books. Ever.
     By the time I arrived at its poignant conclusion I'd experienced a full range of emotions. I wept for the beauty of it, mourning characters who'd been lost, for innocence lost as the main character realizes those he trusted and loved may not be so trustworthy or lovable as he first believed. I wept because it was over and I had no more story to read and I missed being a part of their lives. I felt unable to form words or think of anything else, to articulate what I'd just experienced.
     I shared my joy with others, encouraging friends to read it.
     But I wanted more. I wanted to tell the author how much the book meant to me, how deeply moved I was by his words.
     We are encouraged to reach for the stars.
     I wrote him a letter.
     I have no recollection of what I wrote, I only recall the intent was to let him know how much I loved reading his work, how special I felt Lady was, and that I wanted to be a writer too.
     I'd never been shy about making contact with people of interest.
     I found out that sometimes the stars reach back.

     He wrote me a reply.
     The note was dated February 7, 1977
     On fine, embossed stationary he typed:

Dear Mr. Jarrell:

Thank you for your kind words. It is always nice to feel appreciated. I am glad to learn you sold your first poem. The only advice I can give you is, if you really want to write, to write. Many people think it's easy. Let me tell you it is not. Like any profession, it takes years of apprenticeship before one is ready and able to make one's way in the professional world. But if you feel you have a vision you want to convey then keep working at it. Keep in practice and the day will come.

I worked for two years on The Other. I ran out of money and had to borrow from friends, but I believed I could do it, I had been writing short stories for myself for many years.

Good luck in your endeavors.

Thomas Tryon

     His personal note of encouragement was a wonderful gift for a young man with aspirations to be a man of letters, unsure of his talent or his chances. His kindness is something I'll never forget.

     Many years later I got to meet him.
     I traveled west to Las Vegas in June 1990 for the annual American Booksellers Association convention (now called Book Expo America). Publishers spotlight their biggest and best summer and fall titles. Author appearances are a major attraction.
     There was a long line to meet Mr. Tryon and score a copy of his newest novel. He was still a handsome man, tall and well-groomed.
     He gave me a firm handshake.
     "Hello. My name is Curt Jarrell. It's nice to meet you. You wrote one of my favorite books. Lady. I even wrote you a letter to tell you about it."
     "Did I write you back?"
     "Yes, you did."
     "Would you like your book inscribed any special way?"
     "Just 'To Curt' would be great."
     He signed and we shook hands again.
     "Thank you."
     I'm sure I was glowing.
     Thomas Tryon. Cool!

     Thomas Tryon passed away in September of the following year at the age of 65.

     2014 is the 40th anniversary of the publication of Lady. All of Tryon's most popular books are available as e-books. Only his debut novel The Other is currently in print as a paperback. As influential as his work was I'm surprised and saddened more people don't read his books today. He helped pave the way for the explosion in popularity of horror fiction and the famous names everyone knows today. (King, Straub, Rice, McCammon)
     A few years ago I bought a hardcover copy of Lady for my collection.
     I'm so lucky to have discovered the work of Thomas Tryon.
     As a reader I am thankful to have the books he wrote to experience again and again. As a writer I am happy to have the letter of encouragement he sent to the young writer I was. Meeting him and thanking him in person remains a warm memory to this day.

...(I)t's good when one feels the affections of the past. They are among the lasting things-----they will never leave us.
     And as Lady had told me, never is a long, long time.

Thanks for the memories, Mr. Tryon.

Rise Up and Follow by Curt Jarrell

    Liz and Regina arrived shortly after dark at the makeshift shelter on Bon Air Street, just around the corner from the church.The rain had been so heavy for the past several hours they were forced to hopscotch the numerous puddles pooled upon the walkways. They wore modest, conservative clothes suitable for ladies of a certain age. It would not be proper to offer solace and appear provocative at the same time.
     Kenny made his way toward them, the remnants of a marshmallow donut decorating his lips. Concern clung to his weathered face like a spider hunkered down in a crevice awaiting it's next meal.
     "Thank God, you're here. Literally I mean, this time."
     He laughed in a way Liz thought he seemed to be trying to conceal some unpleasant truth. He didn't bring it off. Something was bothering Kenny.
     "We came as soon as Brother Hawthorne gave his permission. I hope that donut was a good one. It sure left it's mark on you. Oh, Kenny there are so many needs, so many needy souls in our midst every day. Why must things like this happen to bring them to the attention of everyone? Normally, only a few can seem to see the needs and sufferings of others at all." Liz said, still eyeing him for clues to his upsetting look. Maybe it was just the strain of trying to care for so many all at once. The Rec-Center could only hold about forty or so comfortably at one time. There were now nearly double the number being housed here.
     They had come from far away at the state's prompting, a friendly gesture to other citizens in need of basic creature comforts. The main room and side offices overflowed with the burden of tired bodies and aching souls.
     To her surprise, Regina noted how quiet they all were, as if the tribulations they had suffered made them more meek and accepting of where they had ended up.
     Kenny wiped the offending marshmallow off his lips on the sleeve of his t-shirt.
     Regina stepped forward, clutching Kenny's hand tightly in hers.
     "Brother Hawthorne said you had a man here needing some special help, Kenny?"
     His face seemed to freeze and pale simultaneously, sending a vague dread into the space between them.
     "I don't know how else to describe it, but I got a guy over there in the corner near the back who really needs to talk about what happened to him. It's not that I'm not empathetic. I'm just real busy coordinating food and water deliveries. And I've never used up so much toilet paper so fast ever."
     Liz and Regina exchanged a glance. The Lord would want his children's bottoms clean after all.
     "Ladies, I'd be grateful if you'd just talk to him for a bit."
     "Where's his home Kenny?" Liz asked.
     Kenny swallowed, running his left hand down over his mouth before answering.
     "That's just it. He doesn't seem to want to talk about it. Almost like he's in shock. I can't get much specific information out of him. And I got to warn you, he smells a little funny."
     "What's his name?" Regina wanted to know. She always felt it was important to be as personal as possible when ministering to the needy and the heartbroken.
     Kenny glanced up at them and said, "Follow me, ladies."
     Abruptly he turned toward the back of the hall, dimly lit with a mixture of steady and flickering florescent tubes challenged by the deepening gloom and the layer of dust coating their surfaces. Others nearby gave little notice to Kenny and the women as they moved past the huddled masses.
     He sat alone on a low canvas cot with a wood frame. His back was against the wall, an ugly grren color paint that punished the eye and reminded anyone who saw it they were not in a real home. This was a shelter, nothing more. If one wanted warmth and ambience, well the Sheraton was all filled. His back rested tentatively, as though he were afraid he might disappear into the disagreeable surroundings if he huddled too close to them.
     Regina spoke first. "We're from the church around the corner. We've come to encourage and help you and the others here if we can."
     The man was not tall. His skin had a slight olive cast to it, a coloring making it impossible to determine his racial background. It hinted he spent some time in the sun.. His face was small and smooth, but he did not appear to be young. He regarded them with little interest.
     Liz looked at Regina and shook her head slightly. Why were God's lost children so unfriendly?
     There was a smell. Both of them detected it. Liz also noted the sharp-looking nails that begged to be trimmed back.
     Regina began again. "Where are you from?"
     The man gazed at her quizzically, his eyes a dark and penetrating brown. He tilted his head from side to side slowly like a dog would when trying to understand the commands of his master.
     "A long way from here." he answered suddenly in a small, faraway voice.
     The sound chilled both women. Such suffering the redeemer meted out to the lost souls of this world.
     Liz spoke up. "Have you been here at the shelter long?"
     He seemed annoyed by the question. "The wave came. She sent the wave. I had to leave. My home is gone. My home is all gone."
     Regina clutched at her heart. Such sadness to witness a soul with such a huge loss. She did not want to appear overly emotional in front of him.
     "Liz, I've got to go to the ladies room for a moment. Please keep talking to our friend."
     Regina headed to the rest room in the rear of the building. Liz felt the man's eyes on her face immediately, as soon as they were alone.
     "I need to find my people again," he said, his mouth displaying an array of small, sharp-pointed teeth.
     Liz had to stifle a gasp. His family. Of course a man like him would have a family. And they were missing. How awful!
     "Do you know if they made it to another shelter someplace else? Are they alright?"
     He looked at her again as though he did not know what she was saying.
     "There is no place. Only here now. If I find out they are here maybe we make a nest again."
     The hair on Liz's neck prickled and rose. 'Nest' was a strange term to use when describing your home, wherever you called home.
     It was then she first noticed a kind of twitching at the man's back. He wore a standard issue gray colored sweatshirt over a pair of ill-fitting, faded blue jeans. His feet were small, residing within a pair of beat up looking hi-tops. Though he spoke little, there was some sort of movement beneath his shirt when he formed his words.
     Liz felt a sheen of sweat blossom on her forehead and neck. She wished Regina would come back. God only knew what was happening here. She did not want to find out alone.
     Just then a sound from outside made itself heard at the back of the center. A commotion, a sound of surprise and an exclamation was heard.
     The man on the cot perked up immediately.
     "Mine are come."
     Liz took a step back involuntarily. She was having trouble coping with her rising fear. She noticed the man's shirt becoming more active with the movement of God only knew what.
     "What did you say," her voice betraying her fear now. Only the presence of others in the building and her Christian desire to care for the needy and downtrodden of this world kept her from screaming with terror.
     "I must go. Mine are come here. Mine are here. Mine are here!"
     Some of the refugees began focusing their attention on the man they had ignored. He was making  a lot of noise and they did not appreciate his newfound enthusiasm.
     He sprang off the cot, full of new energy. He did not look back and did not slow down.
     "Wait. What's happening? Where's he going?" Kenny shouted at them. Liz' sense of duty overcame her dread as she raced behind the fleeing man.
     She burst out the doorway of the Rec-Center seconds after the man arrived on the sidewalk. He glanced up into the cloudy, rainy night with the cluster of gawkers who stood pointing upward.
     Liz saw them too.
     But not lights of this world. They were bright, intense with color. Some were blue, some yellow, some green. They stayed near the bottoms of the clouds as they drifted and swayed, perhaps buffeted by the winds at those altitudes.
     A shriek escaped a woman's lips nearby and as Liz looked just above her head she saw what had terrified the woman. A winged creature, or more exactly a man with wings swooped low over the pavement.
     "Mine! Mine are come for me!" The man from the shelter shouted to all who would listen.
     A few of the witnesses took several steps backward, newly wary of the stranger among them, wondering at his connection to the airborne visitor.
     A kind of scream rent the air, an alien noise no one had ever heard before.
     Liz saw the man pull up his sweatshirt and fling it to the wet pavement, screaming again. A pair of brown-feathered wings lifted themselves up from the small of his back, expanding as they unfurled to the astonishment of the witnesses. With one last horrible shriek he raced a few steps and sprang up, flapping his wings as he swooped upward toward the lights gliding just below the cloudbank.
     When Kenny and Regina burst out onto the sidewalk they found Liz sprawled on the wet pavement, shaking with fear, her face covered with flowing tears.
     "What the hell's going on!" Kenny demanded.
     "Regina he wasn't one of us! He wasn't!"
     Regina looked down at her friend with piety etched upon her matronly features.
     "Of course he wasn't dear. Of course he wasn't"

                                                                                                               THE END


    While reading more from SALINGER I drifted off for a bit. During my brief slumber (or not) I had the sensation of being embraced by two arms, as though someone sitting beside me gave me a hug, enfolding my neck and shoulders. This startled me and I awoke to hear the sound of the chime clock sounding the midnight hour. As I opened my eyes I wondered if this could have been a greeting from Jonathan.


     Death Perception is the first novel I've read by Lee Allen Howard. It won't be the last.
     I was first exposed to his sharp writing and clever plotting skills with his short story "Poor Old Soul," which was published in the 2012 dark fantasy collection Mirages:Tales from Authors of the Macabre edited by Trent Zelazny.
     Howard explores the hard luck, small town world of nineteen year-old Kennet Singleton (his offbeat name is explained in the novel). His reality includes a highly dysfunctional family, a 'blessing' from a Pentecostal minister, and a part-time job at a local funeral home and crematorium.

Death Perception

     The novel is thick with subplots, all of them intersecting with Kennet's story. Almost every character has something shady going on. This keeps the action moving as the reader enjoys a front row seat at a show which includes seduction, blackmail, embezzlement, substance abuse, domestic violence, drug trafficking, adultery and murder.
     The landscape of his hometown of McKeesport, PA isn't all bleak and dangerous. Kennet makes friends along the way which will, in time, open doors to his future.
     Howard deftly steers his narrative through the twisty plot as the mysteries deepen, danger mounts, and the tension becomes almost unbearable. There's also a touch of the otherworldly running through the story. The element meshes well with the rest of the novel. Writing this smooth is a sure sign of a gifted storyteller. Lee Allen Howard is a highly skilled and gifted writer. He writes like a pro.
     Catch a rising suspense star. Read Death Perception. The novel and the author are both winners.
     You'll feel like one too when you turn the final page.
     Trent Zelazny is the acclaimed author of numerous short stories and the longer noir fictions Fractal Despondency, The Butterfly Potion, Too Late To Call Texas and others. He is also the author of the story collection The Day the Leash Gave Way. In 2012 Trent edited the dark fantasy collection Mirages: Tales from Authors of the Macabre.
     Earlier this year he assembled and published a collection of classic noir tales, Dames, Booze, Guns & Gumshoes


     I had the opportunity to ask him about the new book, noir fiction in general, and his own future plans. Here's what he shared.

1- When did you first become acquainted with noir fiction? Was it love at first sight or did it grow on you?

I had little interest in crime/noir for a long time, with the exception of a couple of guys, like Donald Westlake aka Richard Stark, and Lawrence Block. I worked at a video store for ages and one perk was we got free rentals. I saw The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and said to myself, “I can’t believe I’ve never seen this.” So I took it home. That was when it really started. Suddenly I needed to see everything with Bogart, Cagney, Robinson, and the more and more I got taken by the film genre, being a writer, I started quickly jotting down, if it was based on a book, what the book was called (if different) and who the author was.  Dark Passage with Bogart and Bacall grabbed me so hard I had to find the book it was based on.

It was based on a novel by a guy named David Goodis. I immediately went to the library but the only book they had by him was one called Shoot the Piano Player and I thought, “Huh, I know that movie, too.” So I checked it out. I remember I was meeting a friend at his house but he wasn’t home yet when I arrived, and I finished the book in the car. I was stunned and beyond moved. If you know about me and my writing at all, you know that I most often site David Goodis as my favorite writer. This of course led to other greats, W.R. Burnett, Horace McCoy, Day Keene, Cornell Woolrich. Ahh… I was there.

2- What prompted you to explore 'the dawn of crime' in your anthology? The majority of these authors are new to me. Were you familiar with all of these stories before assembling them or did you discover some of them as you researched the field?

Most of them I knew, from this old anthology or an old magazine or people posting some of the classics online. I couldn’t get enough. I actually read so many crime short stories and novels at one point that they all became one giant black and white blur. To be honest, I honestly can’t always say whether or not I’ve read this or that until I hear more about the characters or the story line. All the titles—great titles—kind of blended together.

3- Did many of these authors go on to write longer works (novels, novellas, screenplays) or did they confine their output to the short form stories?

I’ve mentioned Goodis already, who did both novels and screenplays as well. Now here is where that blurring comes in a bit. I’m a fan, not an aficionado. Joe Archibald had a kind of kooky tongue-in-cheek short story series about a character named Willie Klump. I could be wrong, but I think it was Archibald’s Klump series that really inspired Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder series. I mean, even John Dortmunder’s middle name is Archibald. But honestly, to my knowledge, no, or they are extremely obscure. You can stumble upon novelettes by some of them, but to my knowledge, at this point in time (and please tell me if there is something you know that I don’t, folks), not many of the others in this collection really had the kind of career Goodis had.

4- Do you think these stories differ in any substantial way from the works of the better known noir practitioners like Chandler, Hammett and Cain, aside from each writer's specific prose style?

Chandler, Hammett and Cain are considered the “Literary” of crime fiction. The masses accept them as master wordsmiths, whereas a lot of the authors in this anthology would never receive that type of respect (except for maybe Goodis; he’s come a long way in recent years). While I love all three authors you mentioned, the only one I personally hold in high regard is James Cain, but I think that’s more a matter of personal taste than anything else. But give me “To Hell With Death” by Cyril Plunkett, the closer of the anthology, any day over Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. I know, here is where I’m to be booed and have vegetables and such thrown at me. But it’s true, or at least at this point in my life it is. Our life, our tastes, all of it is subject to change.

5- Are there themes present in these stories that speak to readers today?

I think so. Things are often cyclical. A lot of the original crime stuff was born out of the depression and/or World War II. Well, we’ve been in a depression for some time now. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that crime fiction, both classic and from new authors, is, for want of a better way to put it, en vogue at the moment. I think fiction, or certain types of fiction, speak on a sort of collective level, sometimes for years, sometimes only for a few days. But like so many of the characters from these old stories, today we have a high unemployment rate, more and more people struggle just to try and make ends meet. A lot of people do commit crimes as a means for survival, while many like to escape into a world where they can be the criminal, whether the end result is good or bad.

6- Where do you think noir fiction is heading? Are you thinking about publishing any anthologies of new noir stories?

If someone asked me to, and I had the time, I would definitely do it. I’m honestly not sure where the genre is heading—I’m more just thankful that it’s still around, because while I write in a few genres, the crime/noir area is my favorite to write in, even though, say, Butterfly Potion, is both considered crime/noir and also has been simply called existentialism. I love existentialism but find the word and a lot of people associated with it pretentious. I would rather people call it crime or noir. While I’m not leading some crazy literary crusade (though I’ll be pretentious for a second and say I think I sometimes get overlooked), there is great stuff coming out these days. Megan Abbott immediately comes to mind. So does Daniel Woodrell, Bill Crider, Tom Piccirilli, Joe Lansdale and Ed Gorman. Thinking on those authors right there, I’d say it’s still strong, still original, and has some fantastic people guiding it.

7- What about Trent Zelazny? Do you have any forthcoming projects you'd like to mention to prospective readers?

Currently working on two novels simultaneously, as well as trying to get caught up on some short stories I agreed to do. I’ll be at Readercon this year in July, which will be my first convention appearance in a long time. Looking forward to that. Otherwise, just trucking along, I guess.

Thanks so much for your time, Trent.

To learn more about Trent you can follow him on Facebook and Twitter. To purchase his new collection click on the link above.

Happy Reading!

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill---His Breakout Is Here.

     Joe Hill has been building a solid presence in popular fiction and comics for awhile now. From his story collection 20th Century Ghosts, his comics series Locke & Key, and his two previous best-selling novels, Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, readers have come to expect good storytelling and memorable characters.

     With his third novel NOS4A2, Joe Hill hits one out of the park.
     The story follows the lives of two creatives who are able to manipulate reality for their own ends. One will help others and one will use his skill for his own selfish, harmful ends.
     Vic has the gift of locating lost things, sometimes including people. Her gift is a device by which she tries to make her unhappy parents less irritated with one another. But the magic doesn't work on all problems. Charlie Manx uses the promise of Christmas forever to lure the unsuspecting, the wonderstruck, and the naive to Christmasland, a vampiric hell he has constructed to draw the life out of his 'guests.' Their gifts clash when Vic narrowly escapes imprisonment or death at the hands of Manx. It's personal from then on and as years pass Vic's family will be brought into the crosshairs of a ruthless, not-entirely human adversary. He won't stop until she is destroyed and Vic will do everything she can to protect those she loves.
     The novel is effortlessly entertaining, an instant classic which will delight readers for years to come. I wholeheartedly recommend it for all fans of modern fantasy literature.

     Readers look for it whenever they open a book. It's more than a new story. They want something special. They're looking for what I call 'Goldilocks moments.' It's the reading experience that goes beyond the okay or the adequate and becomes just right.
     Christopher Barzak writes fiction that's filled with Goldilocks moments.

     After publishing two well-received novels (One for Sorrow, The Love We Share Without Knowing) readers may now explore some of his shorter works just published in the new story collection Before And Afterlives.

     Reading these tales is akin to consuming a literary banquet. You will be rewarded with the rich blend of fine, often lyrical writing, touches of the otherworldly (i.e. ghosts, mermaids, etc.), subtle plotting and characters you'll identify with, people who will touch your heart.

Highlights include:"The Drowned Mermaid"  A woman tries to nurse an injured mermaid back to health while struggling with the absence of her missing daughter.

"What We Know About the Lost Families of ---- House"  A house where residents may enter, but have trouble leaving.

"Plenty"  A kind, elderly woman helps provide for the needs of others in her community without visible means of support.

"The Ghost Hunter's Beautiful Daughter"  A father exploits the talents of his daughter for personal gain, talents that attract the attention of the undead.

"The Language of Moths"  A scientist drags his reluctant family into a stay in the woods, searching for an elusive species of moth he once glimpsed long ago, marking a journey of discovery for his two children as well.

     The collection also contains a story I consider a masterpiece.Each detail, every word and description build images and emotions that linger in the mind and heart long after reading.

"The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire" is a beautiful and terrible tale of a child born with a unique affliction. Easily the most lyrical of the collection, the story overflows with joy and sorrow, blood and laughter, love and loss. It is thought provoking and emotional. It reminded me of a story Flannery O'Connor might have written. I was dazzled, moved by it's beauty and brought to tears at it's conclusion. Wow!

Here's a taste: "...it would be lying to say he did not long for a friend. For someone to at least confide in. Day after day he sat on the teeter-totter during recess, waiting for someone to climb onto the side opposite, someone whose weight would lift him high into the air."

Come on and get your own Goldilocks moments courtesy of Christopher Barzak. Available now.

In the Land of Grief

     My specialist sent me to a local blood lab for testing to aid him in my diagnosis. The suite of offices is located on the sixth floor of Crain Towers, it's space largely occupied by medical professionals and related services.

     You can see for miles from this vantage point. This area isn't far from the water as Baltimore and many adjacent communities hug the western shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Bridges dot the horizon looking north from the building's location.
     I was amazed at the distances viewable from the windows there. I could even see the bridges that lead into Dundalk.
     In the land of grief a bridge may lead one's mind to memories of joy and loss, beyond painful.
     Dundalk is where my late son, Jonathan used to live.
     I know he is no longer there. These are but earthly landmarks by which I steer my thoughts of him. It doesn't even have to be an earthly place. I stare at the night sky bejewelled by billions of stars, a radiant moon bright as God's spotlight beaming upon my upturned, searching face. I survey the blue skies and flocks of clouds as they drift upon unseen winds far above where my feet reside.

     But I do not see him. I am grateful for the reminders. What I'm learning is to embrace the memories but not dwell on them. The pain grips me when I linger too long with the memories of people I love who have passed on.
     I can't stop myself from viewing the bridge to Dundalk from a distance any more than I can halt my breathing and suffer no ill effects. I'm learning to look and then turn away, back to the present.
     The bridge will be there for a long time. I hope to one day see it as a bridge that leads somewhere else, to something new. Something more than healing.

     On the cusp of a wonderful thing?


The Sweetest Song

     Today is my late father's 80th birthday. Many warm memories of his life still echo within me and around me. I've mentioned before how Dad was part of our American history during his days at Westinghouse. He was part of a team of workers who assembled the cameras used during the Apollo lunar landing missions. Those first images beamed back to Earth from the surface of our nearest celestial neighbor were brought to you by Dad (among others).

     I want to share a different kind of story about Dad today. It's a story that illuminates his human side, the best of himself, a caring, giving heart he shared freely with others he met along the way.

     When I was about five years old Dad, Mom and I moved into a suburban house on a dead end road not far from what was then named Friendship Airport. It was quiet, a wooded area away from the bustle of the city (Baltimore) which pleased my dad's country boy soul. He'd spent the first several years of his life in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, moving to the city at age ten after losing his mother.
     In those friendlier days we got to know our neighbors. We lived close enough, by suburban standards, to walk to the elementary school half a mile away, every school day.
     Our neighbors at the end of the road included my first grade teacher, Mrs. Johnson, her ailing husband and his sister. Mrs. Johnson was entering her last year of teaching before putting away her chalk and erasers for good. The summer before my school year commenced Mr. Johnson died of a heart attack. It was sometime after this event that I saw Caroline for the first time.
     Caroline Johnson was an old woman who was 'feeble-minded,' a description during that time for someone with limitations in her thinking and reasoning abilities. Sometimes what she said and did were nonsensical. As many times as I told her my name she could never remember to call me Curtis. She would refer to me as Kelly. She enjoyed seeing the children playing, riding their bikes, bouncing balls, skateboarding etc.
     Beyond where the Johnson property ended there were woods and railroad tracks. Along the fence surrounding the power station for the electric rails there grew blackberries. My dad loved them and when they were in season he would carry a bucket or two and go pick the little fruit which Mom would later back into pies. I never liked the berries or the thorns which ripped at my flesh as we harvested them, but I was glad to spend time with Dad on his days off from work.
     While returning from one berry picking excursion Caroline came to the end of her driveway and began talking to us. It was never long before she was called back to the house for fear of her wandering away or annoying someone. I didn't mind her at all. Kids like adults who pay attention to them. I was anxious to get back home and so Dad sent me home with the buckets of blackberries as he stayed with Caroline for several more minutes.
     A week or two later Dad set off with a small brown bag from the five and dime store in his hand.
     "Where you going, Dad?"
     "I'm going to give this to someone."
     "What is it?"

     As Dad told me later, Caroline burst into tears when she saw his gift for her. She'd told him how much she wanted a harmonica just like when she was a girl growing up in North Carolina so many years before. She put the instrument to her wrinkled mouth and began playing an old tune, closing her eyes, savoring the sound of sweet old music from long ago.
     Dad's greatest gift to Caroline that day wasn't the harmonica, it was understanding and respect, an acknowledgement of her value as a person regardless of her station in life. Friends may come from unlikely places, uncommon places, but kindness, compassion and acceptance are powerful tools that can lift the human spirit far above the moon and stars.

     I am thankful for the example my father set for me when he extended his hand to a stranger, making a friend and making a difference when he had nothing to gain from it. I honor his memory today with this anecdote.
   Thanks for everything, Dad. I love you!


Today I Am 3 Years Old

     What could trigger childhood memories, bidding them to return to me during my days of advanced age and graying hair?

     Dump trucks. A whole, modern fleet of dirt-hauling dump trucks.
     There is construction going on behind the building where my Barnes & Noble store is located near Baltimore. The old parking lots where employees were assigned parking passes are now being dug up and getting hauled away to make room for (yes, really) a parking garage and a movie theater complex.
     What does this have to do with my childhood centuries ago? Well...

     When I was about 3 years old my parents and I lived in what may have been referred to as Army Surplus Housing or something like that. (I was 3 and I don't remember for sure what they were called) During the final months we lived there the old buildings behind the houses were being demolished. I remember seeing dump trucks hauling away earth and debris on a regular basis. It was fascinating to my young self, so much so that when our family stopped at a five and dime store to buy some things I noticed  a display of metal toy trucks and asked Dad to buy me one. Give a kid of the Fifties a metal toy truck and some dirt to play in and you've got one happy child.
     Those were days of pajamas, Romper Room, chocolate milk and teddy bears. I remember watching for the milkman's Cloverland truck to stop in front of our house to deliver the bottles of fresh milk several times a week. I remember looking at my Little Golden Books, one about Bambi, one was a story about a kitten that climbed a wall, and one was a story of Sleeping Beauty (Disney version). I was fascinated with the friends of Sleeping Beauty who could fly and do magic. For some reason no toy in my toybox would hoist ME aloft. It was frustrating and disappointing.
     Imagination took wing much more easily in those days. A child does not give himself permission to dream, to fly, to believe the impossible. He sees joy and light everywhere he looks and he is happy.
     The dump trucks brought back 3 year old Curt today. I want to dream, to fly, to hope, to laugh like he did. Like I did.
     I want to play in the dirt again. It's gonna be great!