Love Letter

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“She’s been scribbling away on a sheet of paper she’s been hiding from us for three days now, Doctor, and even after I take the pencil away from her, she finds another somewhere,” Nurse Cindy Nichols said.

Dr. Warren Fulbert tapped away at his tablet, scanning Eloise Silverman’s charts for the recent history of her latest regime of medications, therapies, diet and behavioral analyses and said, “Everything seems the same as it’s been since she was committed before her trial, Cindy, so get her a crayon, five milligrams of Haloperidol IM, and let’s keep a close eye on her so she doesn’t hurt herself or cut up someone else’s…oh, and bring me that drawing or whatever it is.”

“She’s due for group in a few minutes, so we’ll flip the room and get her a new sheet of paper and crayon while she’s down in therapy,” Nurse Nichols said.

After rounds, Dr. Fulbert returned to his office, where he found a gray sheet of paper on his desk with a sticky note from Cindy Nichols.

That’s when Fulbert looked closer at the paper and realized it wasn’t gray, but rather was covered edge to edge in the same sentence, written hundreds and hundreds of times, one atop the other, that said, My darling Peter, why won’t you come?

A mashup five-sentence fiction based on Lillie McFerrin’s prompt word, MARRIAGE. I tossed in a dash of the tale of Héloïse and Abélard and a splash of inspiration from that photo up there of a letter written in 1909 by Emma Hauck to her husband while she was in a psychiatric hospital.

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Verses of Birds, Bevies of Words

Nightfall, Another November

Remember when you’d open
the window to your soul
and toss aside those curtains
you hide behind?
You were searching out
that beat of wings,
those verses of birds,
those bevies of words,
that would glide and perch
on the branches woven
into a nest of stories
that just ended, but
never finished?

Sometimes do you still
sense a rustle, a whistle,
and peek outside,
only to find a handful
of oak feathers imitating
those things you once loved?
It’s autumn now, the leaves
nearly all fallen, the birds
flown to other windows.
Empty winds and
meaningless clatter remain
of the songs that once flew
and sang themselves for you.
They’re only finished, though,
not yet ended.

Albert Ball Flies Home

As I lay my head back in her lap this spring evening, the look on Flora’s face is soft and worried. For whatever reason, it washes warmth over me where before I had been so cold, so shivering cold.

And I wished to tell her everything would be fine. Even in war, everything can be fine. If I didn’t believe this, all would be lost.

“Oh, Bobs,” I say, calling her by the nickname I gave her for her short hair, which scandalized my mother, “I wish you wouldn’t worry so. I have been the luckiest boy ever and I’ll be coming home in just a month or so. General Trenchard told me I could come home when I hit 50.”

Fifty victories, I mean. In May of 1917 the victories are getting more difficult for us boys in the RFC. The Boche Air Corps have new machines that are cutting down my mates like the first grass. But I can’t tell Bobs that.

“Albert, I would worry about you climbing into your aeroplane even here at London Colney,” she says. “But I know you’ll be careful. You were careful when you took me up with you in March and I know you want to come home. This time you want to stay, don’t you?”

She was right; I had to go, but for once, I longed to come home.

Five minutes after I was introduced to Flora I wanted to take her into my world, impress her with the thrill of flying and maybe thrill her with me. I scrounged up a flying kit, helmet and boots, belted her in front of me in the cockpit of the dreadful SE-5 scout I was training other boys to use, and up we went. I would have preferred my little Nieuport Scout, which could flit through the sky like a sparrow. But there was barely enough room for me in its cockpit, let alone the two of us. To tell the truth, I wish I had tried.

When we landed, she was indeed thrilled with the experience. But my delight of being close to her was even greater. She took my breath away. Even now, 20 years old, decorated Captain in the Royal Flying Corps, having flown more dodgy sorties than most other pilots – at least the living ones – I still found myself breathless in her presence.

I am so lucky.

“Bobs,” I say, “I’m more pleased to have met you than anything that’s happened in my life. I’ve waited so long and have had so many disappointments. I hope that this will all be over now and that you will bring me luck on this next run in France.”

My luck thus far had been remarkable, but I hadn’t really appreciated it until I met and fallen in love with my Flora.

I had been like all the other boys when the Germans had run through Belgium and stormed toward Paris in ’14, wishing to sign up and beat the Huns back across the Rhine. I had to wait ten days until I turned 18, and convince Mother, before I could enlist.

From my first days with my hometown unit, the Sherwood Foresters, through my time as a motorcycle messenger, I knew I wanted to fly, even though there were no scout planes when I enlisted—no one knew they’d be needed. The sky pulled me upward as much as the look in Flora’s brown eyes above me.

I had Dad use his political friends to help me transfer to the RFC. Actually, I had even used some money Dad had sent me from Nottingham to pay for my own flying lessons from civilian instructors, just so I would be the most ready when the call came.

It didn’t take too long. Getting to fly in combat took longer. But the excitement of taking an aeroplane over the lines for the first time was like nothing I had previously experienced. Getting shot at by Boche machines beat that by a mile, though.

“Albert, do you ever worry about what might happen to you? I mean as much as I worry?” Flora says.

“Oh no, Bobs,” I say, “Not as much as you do.”

That was true, but lately, even as hard as I had fought to get back to France to be with my mates, to do my job, it felt different. I wasn’t afraid of dying, just not being able to see Bobs’ beautiful face again. Look at her, like a child, leaning over me, touching my cheek, her hand so warm. I could just close my eyes and sleep here, I feel so safe.

The chilling memories of my days in the air come back to me all the time now. Mostly they come at night. But I have these visions sometimes even in daytime, like I’m living them again. Alone, as I prefer to fly. I’ve even taken to my own tent away from the new pilots. Being alone there out near the landing ground with these thoughts is better for than to show the lads some sign of my feelings.

Right now, I can feel as well as see the time last summer when I flew 15 miles over the front and loitered above that Boche aerodrome. Bobs would think this frightening. Mother would be appalled. I wrote to Dad: “I’m really having too much fun for a boy my age. I was met by 14 Huns. My windscreen was hit in four places, mirror broken, spar of the left wing broken. Also, the engine ran out of petrol.”

How I managed to get back to my aerodrome and pancake my Nieuport in the middle of the old pasture criss-crossed with the ruts of aeroplane tyres and tailskids I can’t quite remember right now. I remember the other pilots running out to see if I still was alive. They looked like ghosts under all the oil and smoke on their faces. My crew—fitter, mechanic, armorer, they take care of me and my machines so well—were glad to see me walk away but knew I’d want this aeroplane ready to go back up as soon as they could put it back together again.

“Sorry, Willy,” I said to my rigger, the chap who cares for everything about the aeroplane but the engine and guns, “but there were so many Huns up there today.”

“Don’t worry, Mister Ball,” he replied with a crestfallen look, “I’m sure we’ll get ‘er up again.”

They couldn’t.

Putting things back together again has always been an issue for me. I was an engineering student and I don’t wish to break things anymore.

“Won’t it be nice when all this beastly killing is over and we can enjoy ourselves and not hurt anyone,” I ask Flora.

“Of course, Albert, I pray for that every day, right after I pray for you.”
I only half-listen to her. That is a bit of a habit now because I get so deep into these thoughts and dreams.

“I know, I feel I’m really looked after by God, but I do get tired of living always to kill. I really am beginning to feel like a murderer up there. I feel sorry for the chaps I’ve killed. Just imagine, Bobs, what their poor people must feel like. I must have sent at least fifty or sixty men to their death, something I try to keep from you. But it must be done or they would kill me and then I can’t come home to you.”

“My God, Albert,” Flora said and touched my face.

I dare not tell her of my most recent dream, where I brought my kite back to the aerodrome so shot up, all the controls shot away, that I had to land by manually adjusting the trim wheel and near-stalling the engine. Just about eight feet above the ground, in that last glide before she pranged in, I crawled over the back of the fuselage and jumped to safety. But it wasn’t a dream and I’ve been a bit wobbly since then.

I see myself sitting on a crate by the flight line the other day, thinking about these things, drawing in the dirt with a length of flying wire, when Duncan Grinnell-Milne walked by.

“Albert, my boy,” he roared, “won’t be long now. Just six more victories and you’ll be headed to Nottingham for good.”

Absent-mindedly I stirred the dust and said, ‘No Duncan, I don’t know if any of us are going home, not like it was, not like we were.”

I didn’t see him leave. Instead, I saw the time that German scout I’d damaged turned and tried to ram me. The pilot’s face was so close to me he looked like a specter of some kind sent to take me with him. Maybe he was.
I shiver again.

“Flora, I wish we could be together always,” I say, feeling colder yet.

“Albert, we will, when you come back to me. After all, we have an accommodation now, don’t we? I don’t reckon anyone can call it an engagement. You never asked me to marry you, just pronounced we would be married, you cheeky boy. You never gave me a ring, but I treasure your identity badge as I would any bit of jewelry.”

She held the round badge in front of me, shiny brass, like the setting sun. It stung my eyes for a second and I blinked as another dream crossed my mind.

I’m flying on the Huns’ side of the lines and it’s in the evening, the time some of their observation machines make their last runs and head for home. I’m up with ten lads in my new squadron, Number 56, in these dud SE-5 machines. The SE-5s are still so new that barely any of us know what they can do. For that matter I’m not certain what these new boys can do, which is why General Trenchard assigned me here.

I’m hoping that the machine gun on the deck in front of me doesn’t jam again. Can’t tell Flora this.

The skies are building spiral cloud mountains, towering to 20,000 feet, I’d guess. Below, is the town of Douai, where we know the Bloody Richtofen’s Jasta 11 keeps its aerodrome this month. The German boys don’t wish to fight single combat or in pairs anymore. Now they fight in packs like wolves.

The sun is setting and the Albatroses are rising to meet us. This is going to be a ripping scrap, I can tell. And then we are in a whirlwind of brown machines and red machines, red-white-blue cockades and black Iron Crosses all flashing by so fast that sometimes you can hardly keep your bearings. Like so many of these recent fights, everyone gets scattered across the sky. But I can’t look out for everyone when I have to do my other job, kill Germans and come home to Flora.

And then that red aeroplane with a yellow nose and tail whips past Cecil Lewis and I take chase. I will get to 50. I will get to 50. I must get to 50. He twists and dives and heads into the clouds and I know he can’t shake me. My attention is solely on his tail. I recognize the flash of the setting sun on his goggles as he glances fearfully over his shoulder at me, as I’ve seen that look hundreds of times before. I know it as sure as I know the booming of my own heartbeat in times like this. I fire burst after burst into him, a drum of bullets from the Lewis on the top wing and 60 or 70 rounds from the Vickers gun in front of me.

I see him drop below me and I know he’s done. I see it all so plainly. The craziness and blood lust that overtakes me at such times ebbs away. And I think of my Flora again.

Then I break through the clouds, seeing from my altimeter that we’ve dove to only 200 feet. But the clouds are in the wrong place.

“Flora, why are the clouds below me and the church steeple above me?”
“Rest, Albert, lie back and rest.”

I fight the urge to rest, I have to get back to the squadron, get back to England get back to Bobbsy. The disk in front of me fades away. It’s not the disk of the sun, or my identity badge, it’s my spinning propeller. It stops spinning and then I only see its top, vertical like that stalactite church steeple in front of me.

And then that great noise.

“What’s going on, Bobs? Can I come home to you now? General Trenchard promised me I could come home now.”

“Yes, Albert, you can come home. You don’t have to hurry, though. We’re waiting.”

And I see her face above me again, so beautiful, so young. Even now when I see her I can barely catch my breath. Yet her eyes are so very sad as I lay my head back in her lap. I feel raindrops on my face.
“Don’t cry Bobs,” I say.

****

Fifteen year old Cecille Deloffre had lived amid the sounds of war for a quarter of her life. She’d learned to sleep to the thunder of the big guns as if they were a summer rainstorm. She had become inured to the buzzing drone of the aeroplanes as they flew west-to-east and east-to-west each day, often punctuating their passage with the staccato drumbeat of their machine guns.

Cecille had seen some of these machines fall from the sky, glowing and tumbling like a cigarette tossed by one of those German soldiers hidden in the steeple of the nearby church in the village of Annoeulin.

This evening during dinner she had heard the fight above her home, sounding so much like someone had struck a hornet nest and the swarms spreading across the sky.

Then Cecille heard the sound of what could have been two aeroplanes directly above. Her mother crossed herself and tried dragging Cecille from the table to the root cellar beneath the kitchen floor.

She broke from her mother’s grasp and ran into the small fenced yard in front of their farmhouse just as one machine spit a tongue of fire back from its yellow shark-like nose, engine sputtering, gliding to a crash landing on the other side of the village.

She heard another aeroplane’s engine sputter and stop, just as it whooshed, upside-down, from the low storm clouds not 300 metres up the road. She could see its pilot wore no helmet and she could see his eyes but not his face in the growing dark.

Then the aeroplane just fell, like a book knocked off a table.

Shocked, Cecille stood frozen for a second to see if this machine would catch fire. But it only lay crushed on its side like a coffee-colored bird knocked from the sky by a kestrel. She saw the pilot’s head move and she ran toward the aeroplane, unsure why, with her mother screaming behind her.

She came up to the crash site just as the young man within the broken machine released his buckle and fell from the cockpit with a thud, a moan, and a faint rasping wheeze.

Cecille reached for the boy and pulled him a few metres away from his machine. She rested his head in her lap and he slowly opened his eyes, looking up at her with such longing that she couldn’t keep from crying.

“Don’t cry Bobs, Bobs, Bosshh…” she heard him barely whisper. Then stillness.
From behind them came the sound of the jackbooted German soldiers from the steeple pounding up to the scene. They jabbered with delight, so sure they shot down a British flyer. But they hadn’t. Cecille noticed the boy had no wounds on his body.

Her eyes red with tears, Cecille looked down at the boy again and saw but a small bruise beneath his eye where his goggles had been. In her lap, the face of 20 year-old Capt. Albert Ball, MC, DSO, VC lay in silent repose. The sooty stain on it was variegated in white by the tracks of tears, like the half-smiling black marble bust of a saint. They were his tears and that of a beautiful young girl he briefly saw and was sure was the one he loved.

Cecille looked up at the surrounding soldiers and spit, “Boche, il est mort. C’est fini.”

But Albert couldn’t hear her. For all intent and purpose he had gotten his 50th and he was flying home.

Finding Our Way Out

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I wonder, do I do this for myself,
the guy who will wear a pair of pants
until frayed and holey, rather than
spend on himself? Should I care
if someone sees my rags, these
corduroy ramblings of a guy
with heart shredded and soul worn through?
Such falling red-leaf questions
come more and more in my autumn days,
hiding my path, while the daylight
of life grows shorter,and there’s
more darknessyet to record
than ink in my well.

I remember I’ve been here before,
tired, discouraged, the Panther panting
down my neck. That’s when I made tracks,
just like these, putting distance
between thorn-torn obsession and
naked oblivion, breaking a trail
no one else could see and even I
didn’t know was there.
I do this because if I don’t
no one else will, always staying
just east of sunset so I can map
the way to the next bend out of
our trackless wilderness.

Free Kindle Version of Penumbra available Oct. 25-26

Saturday & Sunday, October 25-26, you can download the ‪‎Kindle‬ version of my ‪debut poetry‬ collection, Penumbra: The Space Between, free from Amazon.com

Why don’t you grab a copy and give it a look over the weekend. If you’re moved by what you read, I’d appreciate it if you can leave a review or rating on its Amazon page.

Playing with Their Eyes Closed

Theirs was band made of
a slide guitar and a violin,
a duo whose members each played
with one ear tuned inwardly,
the other absently to their partner.
They’d jam beneath the broadleaf oak,
whose canopy protected them
from the cold and cleansing rain
that often followed them there.

Their compositions were made
of dreamy minor chords,
swooping sad harmonies,
the call and response of
each one’s own weepy blues and
dissonant solos in F and B.
Such duos never last, though.

Once each their storms stopped,
its rainstill fell from the ancient leaves,
echoes no one wished to hear.
Strings drenched in the shadowy
drops of Me never sing so well
as under the sunny skies of Us.
Didn’t matter to them. They always
played with their eyes closed

Rainy day need-to-write desperation washed this weird allegory out of me today.

Breaking Into the Papers

The_New_York_Times_newsroom_1942

A newspaperman, that’s what I almost always wanted to be.

But the closest I got to that dream as a 10-year-old was writing stories for my own little family newspaper, using one of those old twist-the-dial-to-the-correct-letter-and-push 1960s toy typewriters.

Precocious little devil that I was, I also wrote stories for my grammar school newspaper, but the nuns’ semi-sincere, though remarkably soft-handed, pats on the head wore thin pretty quickly. Stories about field trips and altar boy assignments weren’t interesting enough for me, even when I applied my own slant to them. Righteous religious redaction always put its raven-stockinged (so hot!), high-topped, black-shod foot down. The United States Constitution and Bill of Rights did not exist in St. Patrick’s School.

When my Scout Troop visited the local newspaper building and all the other kids were gassed about getting the cool hats that the printers folded from newsprint, I was more interested in what most of the other kids thought was the boring part of the tour – the city room.

The other kids oohed over the rumble and whirr as rolls of clean off-white paper entered the big presses at one end and came out covered in strips of gray and pictures and ads for milk and Nash Ramblers at the other end. Upstairs, I aahed at the opera of telephones, typewriters and the cursing men, who glowed like angels under the harsh fluorescent lights in dingy white shirts and narrow dark ties.

Besides the sights and sounds, I was intoxicated by the smell of the city room. Half gin mill, half opium den, the reporters and editors huddled in or scurrying to or from their places beneath a yellow-gray cloud of cigarette and cigar smoke that horizontally bisected the high-ceilinged room at about the seven-foot mark. I remember smelling Old Spice-tinged sweat and corned beef on rye with mustard and … what was that? … oh, and rubber cement.

Though I knew I would never smoke, and I hated wearing my green little clip-on St. Patrick’s uniform tie, and I really hated it when I heard my old man use the cuss words these journalists spewed with what seemed like every other exhalation, I knew that somehow, some way, my future had to be part of what I saw that day.

The local papers were not going to hire 11-year-old cub reporters whose clip file contained stories about nine-year-old cross-dressers, uh, superhero trainees, and that Dennis had scored the 9 o’clock Mass again, which included free donuts, hot cocoa and a too-long-held hand on the knee from Father X in the rectory.

Nevertheless, I wanted to stay close to the newspaper business while I prepared myself for the city room. So, I took a job delivering the afternoon Knickerbocker News. And it was quite a job.

I’ve told many of you about my days dodging robbers and cursing the cops who drove the lovely ladies in the yellow house with the red door from my delivery route and inquisitive libido. By the time I got to high school, I was writing funny bits and essays in class, some that got into the hands of the black-robed enforcers who, instead of going all Francis of Assisi with their cinctures on their own backs, decided to vent their sexual frustration on the author.

My Freshman English teacher directed me to the office of The Blue Banner, our high school newspaper. I became a sort of writer/editor-at-large by the time I was a senior. Sister Mary Carmel threw me out of class twice for bringing “banned” books into her realm – Phillip Roth and Hemingway.

Oh well, on to College. I hit Brockport State like a multi-megaton testosterone bomb. Yep, by the time my westward-rolling wheels passed Sacandaga Lake, which I considered International Waters, I was no longer under the scrutiny of the publishers of the Hesch Family Times. First choice: Phys Ed /English teacher or Journalist?

Once again, I set my course for the newsroom, though I took a circuitous route there through bars, bedrooms, athletic fields, locker rooms, hashish flops, Canadian Border Patrol and Mounted Police holding cells, and a couple of visits to the hospital (once because an article I wrote pissed off the entire Brockport Rugby Club, the tools!).

Both the college and I felt I would be better served – or perhaps not served so much – if I were to take my business elsewhere until I grew up a little. So, home I went. Two years of community college later, I climbed over the Adirondacks and landed in scenic but chilly Plattsburgh, New York, where there are but two seasons, winter and the Fourth of July. Nevertheless, I began writing again, with an eye on some sort of newspaper career.

My Expository Writing professor got me an interview with the man who ran the college News Bureau and I got a job writing news releases for Plattsburgh State. It was supposed to be a work-study job, but they had no more money. Hell, I just wanted to write news and develop my chops. I learned a lot in that office, like the basics of news story structure and what editors were looking for. Like not ending your sentences with prepositions.

Upon graduation, I pelted the Albany news market with résumés and clips of my releases from when they ran in the Plattsburgh newspaper. I dropped the same stuff off at the Plattsburgh paper, too. In August, I got a call from Al Gillon, the managing editor of the Plattsburgh Press-Republican. He had received my materials and wondered if I would be interested in coming up to interview for an open reporter’s position. Let’s see, sell Casio calculators and typewriters for the rest of my miserable life, or attempt to kick-start this demented dream into a small but solid reality.

I drove to Plattsburgh the following week, sporting my au courant polyester sport coat and breastplate-wide tie. Even though I sat in my chair like a six-footer — my butt was so tight, I gained two and a half inches — I felt like that Cub Scout in the Albany newsroom from ten years earlier. I interviewed with Mr. Gillon, the editor and city editor, as well as the publisher.

I think I passed their test when they asked me if I was into “advocacy journalism.” With my track record of being shallower – as Grandpa used to say – “than piss in a platter,” I could barely advocate for myself, let alone some grand ideal or organization. The newspaper’s hierarchy wanted their reporters to be less than vanilla. They wanted boiled potato. Inwardly, I resolved to bring my own salt and pepper.

A week later, I belonged to the P-R. I found an apartment in one day, motored back to Albany, threw my stuff in the Pontiac, said goodbye to my Mom, Dad and the sibs and I was OFF!

Two weeks of writing obits, tomorrow’s weather, editing news releases for P-R style and almost getting killed at a construction site accident they had no one else available to cover, I was handed my first paycheck. I ripped open the envelope and looked down at the check. I didn’t even notice that it said $225 for two weeks of work. I saw only two things: The newspaper’s name at the top, The Press-Republican, and the name of the payee, Joseph A. Hesch. You know, the newspaperman.

My poet friend Mary asked the folks at dVerse to write a poem about the news. I didn’t think I could participate, so I didn’t write one. But then American journalism giant Ben Bradlee died yesterday, and memories of my birth in the news business came rushing back to me. This is a long-winded (and obviously unedited) story about this short reporter’s breaking in the papers.