Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tobin Terry

Reading Cat's Cradle at the End of the World

It was the summer of 2007 and I was working for an auto salvage yard in Akron, OH. My job was to be the first person who took inventory of a wrecked or totaled vehicle as it came in. I was required to get into the vehicle to collect information and certain parts or belongings. From time to time, I'd come across a vehicle soaked in human blood. Each vehicle had a story: A suicide car, a broken baby seat, palm crosses on the mirror, a tooth stuck in the dashboard, bullet holes and brain matter. It was depressing to say the least, an occupational pool-pah, if you will.

When Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle was assigned in one of my summer courses, I took it with me to read on my lunch break. I worked ten and twelve hour shifts practically unsupervised, so when I became so engrossed by the book, I took it with me into the yard. I found a wrecked Oldsmobile eighty-eight, maroon inside and out, with broken windows, cleared a spot in the driver's seat, leaned it back and read the book on company time. The novel's sarcastic tone provided nervous laughter where humor didn't seem to exist. I found myself whispering, "busy, busy, busy" and laughing at tragic car wrecks. No, it's not that I was laughing at them, I was laughing at the horrifying seriousness of them. Cat's Cradle was a lesson that it is okay, sometimes necessary even, to do that.

The reading experience was a spiritual one, and I'll never forget reading it, "lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who."

Monday, December 29, 2008

John Skarl


I spent most of my adolescence pretending that I was someone else. A need to transcend the mundane manifested itself through the years I spent sitting around a table role-playing with character sheets and dice. Sometimes role-playing was war in the back of the allotment. In these fictional landscapes, the possibility of death lurked like a dark bird on a highwire.

Dungeons and Dragons experienced a rebirth during the nineties. It had been admonished as a game that further disconnected people from reality, inspired violent behavior, and in some cases, caused lasting mental harm. All three of these side effects could be true for all I know, though I have firm suspicions they are not. I thank God no one forbid our role-playing. Sometimes I wonder if Dungeons and Dragons could have vented Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s psychotic behavior into a harmless, hot steam. Our misfit group certainly had violent tendencies, and our discussions, had they been broadcasted or written down, could nowadays be considered grounds for expulsion.

We played other war games. I recall the dank dirt, clingy leaves, army surplus flashlight on one hip, canteen on the other. We had plastic guns—in some cases they were metal—they were all fake, but looked dangerously real. If there happened to be any sissy orange plastic, we pried those parts off or spray-painted them black. We humped the entire woods that spanned for five or six miles behind the allotment—these same woods later became the place we learned to drink or smoke—an irreverent place.

In sixth grade, a man came in to speak to us about the Vietnam War. James Crumb was the father of one of the girls in my class. He talked about how he was drafted. He spoke of his dread but also his sense of duty. He told us his weapon was the M-60 machine gun. That was the gun Rambo held with one arm. He had my attention. He gave us real answers to our questions: “Were you scared?” “Often.” “Did you kill anyone?” “Yes.”

He brought a cardboard box full of books telling his experiences in the war. I was a sixth grader with five dollars lunch money. I decided I could afford to go hungry. Those days I remember thumbing through military equipment guides, marveling over the pictures of guns, tanks and missiles in our library. Here was a living, breathing story. Crumb carried an M-60 machine gun, which could fire 160 rounds per minute. He called it the pig because of its weight, and the pig was called on often.

I still have Pigman. Its cover is a map of Vietnam highlighting the areas Crumb fought in or traveled through. I believe the memoir was self-published because the typeset looks like Courier and there are misspellings. None of these things mattered to me. Here was a true account—truth that wasn't filtered through the news or a history book.

At one point, he described diving into a foxhole to avoid mortar fire. Many others had the same idea, and soon he was buried under soldiers seeking refuge. When the shell hit, these bodies saved his life. He described finding a mass of slaughtered Viet Cong that had been exposed to the sun for weeks and he described their efforts to clean up the bodies on the side of a jungle mountain, how their sun-rotten skin stuck to his hands, the ravenblack smoke clouds, the barrel-rolling artillery planes, how, during the tour, his own reflection grew more and more unrecognizable. It was one book I never forgot.

Robert Pope

The Golden Slave

When I was very young I read quite a bit but never really noticed it. I read all kinds of things, including Hardy Boys and a series of blue biographies in early years at school. I read indiscriminately. We had a nice illustrated hard-bound copy of John Steinbeck's The Red Pony at home which I read repeatedly. We also had The Winter of Our Discontent, My Chinese Wife, The Good Earth, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, Mister Roberts, The Human Comedy, and quite a few others I also read because they were available. I remember a book by Jim Kjelgaard called Fire Hunter, published in 1951, which excited me more than most books. I checked it out of my school library. I spent some time wandering through the public library reading science fiction books while sitting in the aisles of the stacks. One of my favorite was Martians, Go Home! by Frederic Brown. I hadn't really entered the world of great literature yet, or even the popular favorites of the day. I just read whatever caught my eye or my imagination.

One day I went into the basement of the house we lived in that year--we moved so many times I only remember it by the boxes still sitting around. Even though I recall this as happening when I turned twelve, I must have been fourteen, because the book came out in 1960. Even though I recall this as happening in the house in Virginia, it must have been Frankfurt, Germany because that's where I lived at the time. I pulled a paperback out of a box, The Golden Slave, and started reading--though it might have been a hardback. I saw the paperback years later, so I might have replaced the hardback with paper--if there was a hardback. Within the first few pages--as I recall--the Romans, I think it was, invaded and a mother dashed her infant's brains out against a rock rather than have him taken into slavery. If I am not mistaken, the golden slave went around the world he knew as the world searching for his wife, from whom he had been separated, and performing feats and tasks for kings who rewarded him, at least once--this sticks in my mind--with the lovely woman for his bed pictured on the cover.

I had never read anything like this, and it changed my notion of what a book could do. My eyes were opened. It was a book by Poul Anderson, and once I had read it the world was not the same. It was better and more awesome than it had been before, and the promise of books had grown in the afternoon it took to read it, sitting alone in our basement, on the wooden steps, among the boxes that had not been unpacked. This, I knew, was my father's book, a book he never would have told me about, and I wondered if this didn't indicate the life he lived as a military officer traveling about the world, sometimes with a family, sometimes not. The world promised more than it had ever promised. Literature opened to me as a world with at least as many dangers as the one in which I lived, and far greater rewards. I went after it more actively after this experience.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Closet


John Skarl teaches at a vocational high school, and I can't think of any better place to be teaching the kind of class on writing fiction that you can read about in his blog (address above). In his blog called The Closet, John has listed and commented on five writers who came to his class and read something they wrote and talked about writing with the students. If writing's not a vocation, John, I don't know what it is. Your students are lucky to have you and this class. Other teachers and schools ought to take notice.
..............................................Flowers for Everyone

About Me

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I write short stories and essays. I have published over seventy stories and essays in magazines, as well as a novel, Jack's Universe, and a collection of stories, Private Acts. I grew up in a military family, so I'm not from anywhere in particular except probably Akron, where I've lived for forty years. Before I came here, I never lived anywhere longer than three years.