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Letter to Dad – 2021

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Dear Dad,

Well, it’s another Father’s Day, or as you fondly liked to refer to it, Sunday. When we were kids, we always appreciated how much you gushed over the homemade cards, or came as close to gushing as you were capable of doing. I never got the impression that being a great father was something you were born to do, but you sure did try hard and we appreciated it.

It wasn’t until we were adults that you let drop that Father’s Day wasn’t that big a deal to you. Another day to get people to buy cards I think is how you described it. We always suspected that you weren’t being quite honest about that, that you would have been hurt if we’d forgotten. I guess I still lean toward that opinion, but it’s possible that you were being straight with us. Father’s Day always came in June, so you were done with school until August and that gave you plenty of time to putter around in the garden. If the weather allowed you to do that on Father’s Day, then I suspect you could have been happy and complete just doing that. Your desires in life always seemed pretty simple.

Anyway, I caught myself telling another “Dad” story at work this week. I do that a lot and I’m pretty sure I’ve repeated a few of them often enough that some of my audience would like to yell, “Will you stop already?” This one revolved around the math textbooks. I’ve always thought it must have been difficult raising a son that was so totally unlike you. Later, I got to experience that for myself and I gotta tell ya, it’s pretty darn scary, or at least it was for me. I always felt like I lacked the perspective to make the right choice, to do the right thing. Perhaps it wasn’t scary for you, as I’m far more prone to overthink things than you were.

But those textbooks, well, that was classic fatherhood at work there. You should probably get at least a paragraph or two in the Fatherhood Encyclopedia just for that. Bringing home a college algebra textbook and leaving lying around in the living room for me to find when I was in the sixth grade is some master psych warfare going on. Then following it up by telling me you thought I might be interested in the book, but that it might be too advanced for me, well, maybe you knew me better than I gave you credit for. Then you did the same thing again a few years later with a calculus textbook.

So I salute you sir and I am not the least bit ashamed to tell that story too many times to my coworkers. They’ll just have to get used to it.

In other news, Ian and Deborah are still hangin’ out in Auburn. We’ll see what the next year holds for them, but I’m very proud of both of them and I’m sure you would be, too.

We miss you. Well, I do, anyway. It’s always hard to tell what my sisters are thinking.

Just kidding. They miss you, too

Dave

Honestly?

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Many years ago, I was visiting friends of mine who were missionaries in Nepal. This was my first and, to date, only international trip (unless you consider trips to Tijuana or Vancouver to be international) and my friends felt compelled to give me advise about what to expect from this very different culture in which I was now immersed. One of the things they told me was that Americans and Nepalis value honesty very differently. Americans value it very highly, or at least we like to say we do, and for the typical Nepali, that value is much more complicated and situational. Particularly if the truth was going to hurt, it was quite likely that the Nepali would lie to your face rather than give it to you straight. They might do this for several reasons. Perhaps they like you and don’t want to hurt your feelings or perhaps they don’t like you and feel like you don’t deserve the truth or perhaps they just don’t care one way or the other about you and would rather just avoid a confrontation. For instance, if the person selling tickets for the bus from Pokhara to Kathmandu tells you the bus is “running ten minutes late,” he could mean that the bus is “running an hour late” or “three hours late” or even “the bus isn’t coming at all today but my shift is over in five minutes, so I won’t be here to have to deal with the fallout when you find out the truth.” As you might have guessed, that actually happened to me, although I was lucky. The truth was that the bus was only an hour late, although we got to Kathmandu about four hours late on another bus I wasn’t even supposed to be on because a huge rock fell on the only road to Kathmandu and… Sorry, that’s a story for another time.

Anyway, my friends were right to warn me because it was an adjustment. I’d LIKE to say it was a big adjustment, but let’s be honest. When it comes to honesty, we aren’t as truthful as we like to believe we are. Or at least I’m not. If I’m sitting at my desk tomorrow and you stop by to ask me if I’ve completed reviewing the project report on bat populations in the immediate vicinity, a project that you’ve poured your heart and soul into writing, I’ll probably tell you that I’ll complete it by a week from Friday, when the truth is I’ve got fifteen items on my list of projects and the bat report is currently ranked at number twelve and of the eleven projects ahead of it, six of them are projects that my boss thinks are far more important than your bat report. What I really mean when I tell you a week from Friday is that maybe things will break right and I will get to it in the next two weeks or maybe my boss will tell me to rerank my fifteen items and it will move higher, but mostly I’m hoping that by Friday next, the bat report will be forgotten or I’ll be to a point where I can give you a more accurate date. Because, the truth is that if I tell you the truth, you might just punch me in the face. And the REAL truth is, I’d probably still be better off just telling you the truth and taking my beating, because ultimately the lies do catch up.

And if you are thinking that you’re more honest than that, I’d probably believe you for the most part, but there would a little niggling thought in the back of my brain that if your wife came to you and did a quick pirouette in front of you and then asked if these jeans made her look fat, you’d at least prevaricate in a way that would be the same thing as a lie.

These are all little things, “white lies” we like to call them, but for more than a year now, the lying has been writ large. We’ve been lied to over and over again about really big stuff, like whether we should be wearing masks and whether we were funding gain of function research in China and whether the virus could have escaped from a lab. I’m sure if you asked the persons who told the lies why they did it, if they were honest with you (which is doubtful given the circumstances), they would tell you that the lie served a purpose, a greater good. And maybe they’d be right, that the lie prevented a more immediate problem or a more deadly problem. But the cost of that lie is that there is no reason to believe you the next time you tell us something. White lies or big lies – there’s always a cost.

“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked that when he had his little chat with Jesus just before he had him executed. There’s been a lot of bickering and arguing among theologians about what Pilate was really getting at here, with some believing that he was being sarcastic or engaging in some sort of bad joke. My very non-theological theory is that he genuinely wanted to get Jesus to explain it. Pilate was a career bureaucrat surrounded by career bureaucrats who had lied, cheated, and sometimes even murdered to get to the top. I think he just didn’t know what the truth was any more even when he heard it. Even when it was staring at him in the face. That’s another cost of lying. When you are surrounded by it, you have a tendency to lose touch with reality.

Taking this back to the micro, back to the level of a modern mid-level career bureaucrat with enough time on his hands to write a weekly blog post (that would be me, if you were wondering), I’m going to do better and if it occasionally means getting punched in the face, well, that’s the price you have to pay sometimes. Sometimes reality hurt.

And in case you were wondering (although I’m sure you were not), my wife looks great in those jeans.

26

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Yesterday was our 26th anniversary. We filled it with all kinds of romantic stuff, like mowing the lawn and doing laundry. That’s not terribly romantic nor terribly memorable and I take most of the blame for that, although there are limitations that I’d rather not get into that prevent us from doing something truly remarkable for the anniversary. It’s okay. We still had fun. The evening meal was home cooked and pleasant, then we watched another episode in a New Zealand murder mystery series called Brokenwood. Brokenwood is one of those acquired tastes that I doubt most people would find all that interesting, but we really enjoy it.

Anniversaries are usually a time of reminiscence, but this one for some reason has me looking forward. We got married a little later in life, so every year seems a little more precious, every coming year seems a little less certain. If the insurance actuarial tables are to be believed (and who among us hasn’t snuck off to the computer in the middle of the night while our spouse is sleeping to get a cheap thrill by checking out actuarial tables), it is a little on the unlikely side that both of us will make it another 26 years. That’s quite a sobering thought. Often, the best way to appreciate what you have is to recognize its impermanence. I confess I don’t always cherish our marriage like I should, but at least I’ve got a credible goal for the coming year.

Which brings me to the advice column portion of this missive. If you are so inclined and if the opportunity presents itself, I would highly recommend getting married sooner rather than later. When you find the right person, there’s nothing quite like being able to share the joys, responsibilities, and challenges of life with someone you love and trust. I’m not sure if that type of sharing is easier if you’re younger, but at least you’ve got more years to do it and there’s something to be said for facing life together when you’ve both got a little more youthful energy.

Now, I’m not saying to rush into a marriage Leeroy Jenkins style, lest you suffer the same fate as Leeroy Jenkins (being mercilessly slaughtered evil dragon creatures is no way to start a life together). Nor should you marry someone if that person has doubts. Nor should you marry if you have doubts. But if you want to get married and you’ve been involved with another person for multiple years, it’s probably time to fish or cut bait.

Brenda and I have talked about it before and we’re both convinced that if we’d met ten years earlier, we’d likely have never married each other. We both had a lot of maturing to do. I’m glad it worked out the way it did.

Still, in quieter moments it’s hard not to be a little wistful about what might have been. Probably better that I never truly know.

UFOs? Really?

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In times of moral and economic crisis, when life is uncertain and cheap, when the days seem fraught with peril at every turn (let’s see, have I left out any dystopian cliches?), our despairing nation once again turns its weary eyes toward, um, UFO sitings?

Actually, that’s not surprising or even unusual. I’ve lived a statistically significant amount of human history (0.2% or thereabouts) and I’ve seen several of these spikes in interest. This one is a little unique in that it wasn’t sparked by citizen sightings or even movies or television shows. These reports seem to have been initiated by the U.S. military. The Pentagon is going to release something called the “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force Report” next month and it’s rumored to contain some juicy stuff. Adding to the interest is recently released video showing, well, something. These are Navy videos from jets associated with a couple of American aircraft carriers. Like most UFO videos the quality isn’t great, but it’s clear that what they show isn’t easily explainable.

Even Barack Obama chimed in on CBS’s Late, Late Show. One of President Obama’s most useful political skills is his capacity to drop hints without actually saying anything. He’s the best at it of any president in my lifetime and I don’t mean this as a criticism. It is a genuinely valuable skill. Anyway, Obama made it sound like he was convinced that these UFOs are extraterrestrial without actually saying he believed they were extraterrestrial. Doing it this way gives him some degree of plausible deniability if the sightings turn out to be ducks or Donald Trumps ego or some other elevated object.

Well, everybody’s got an opinion I suppose and mine is probably a lot more educated than most because I’ve read a ton of Science Fiction and I’d hate to think I’ve wasted that part of my life. So let me take a moment or twenty here to tell you how it really is.

1. The current sightings probably aren’t space aliens. There are a lot of explanations for what the Navy videos show that have nothing to do with little green men, or grays, or ALF, or whatever this thing is. Most of those explanations are mundane and many of them are much more likely than space aliens.

Let’s look at it this way. Let’s say that you are Mork from Ork and you’ve just used your amazing telescope or whatever you’d use for seeing something millions of light years away and discovered the planet Earth and also discovered it actually has sentient life forms. Does it really make sense that you’d use the resources required to go for a visit? And if you did come all this way to make contact, would you buzz a few aircraft carriers just to make sure you get spotted and then leave? Really??? Okay, I’m sure a few of you are thinking that the Orkans would have to be so advanced that we couldn’t possibly understand their motives and I suppose you could be right, but I think it’s more likely that they would be motivated by the same stuff that motivates us, namely survival and reproduction. I hate to say it, but I just don’t think we’d be worth the effort.

2. That’s not to say that there aren’t life forms out there. Based on what we currently know, spontaneous creation of life is REALLY hard. Like one in ten to the factor of fifty pages of zeros hard. However, there are a LOT of planets out there and there are a LOT of galaxies that likely contain even more planets out there. Maybe even ten to the factor of a hundred pages of zeros number of planets. And I’d also like to point out that this is all based on what we currently know. Maybe tomorrow we discover that spontaneous creation of life isn’t nearly as hard as we thought.

My personal opinion is that I think that we aren’t alone, but we don’t have the capacity to track them down nor would they have the willingness to track us down.

3. The God factor. Here’s a quick caveat. I can only speak on this topic as a practicing Christian and I have no idea how Islam or Buddhism or any other world religion handles this topic. But I’ve been surrounded my whole life by people with a Biblical view that insist that we are it, that there is no life anywhere else. And I don’t get it. I’ve read through the Bible a few times now and there is nowhere in there that mentions this topic. In fact, I’d say that nowhere in the world 2000 years ago would they have had the capacity to understand the possibility of life outside the solar system, since they didn’t really understand that there was anything at all outside the solar system.

In fact, I have a somewhat different view. If we do find life elsewhere, might that be taken as proof that God does exist? I mean, if spontaneous creation of life is, in fact, really hard, doesn’t the existence of life on other planets prove that there is an intelligence putting a thumb on the scale? And would that be all that difficult to believe? Christian theology states that God is love. If God is a loving God, wouldn’t he wish to propagate and share that love wherever He could?

That about sums up my opinion on the subject, but let me just add that I’m hoping just a little bit I’m wrong about extraterrestrial life. If there are aliens out there, I suspect that there is at least a 50-50 shot that they will see us as a threat, squash us like a bug, and steal all of our resources. I’d rather not have to say I told you so.

A Cautionary Tale

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This story comes with a warning label. It’s pretty dark. It’s “pretty dark” like Babe Ruth was “pretty good” at baseball or Jeff Bezos is “pretty rich.” I rarely go this dark, so I thought you had the right to know upfront. This whole incident came back to me a few nights ago while I was watching television and I decided to put it down on paper, or more accurately, reconfigure a bunch of electrons to tell the story.

You’ve been warned.

I knew “John” from Thursday night Dungeons and Dragons. About a half dozen of us from our office at work would get together on Thursday nights to pretend to be elves and dwarves and spend the evening killing orcs and demons. In an earlier time, the stereotype for male bonding was Wednesday night poker, but by the 80s, we were more sophisticated or more nerdy or maybe we just didn’t have enough money to throw away at poker. Anyway, John was the only one in the group that didn’t work in that office and he also didn’t fit into the mid to early twenties age group that the rest of us existed. John was eighteen. I’m not sure how he ended up in our group as he was there before I joined. He was good friends with “Greg,” our dungeon master, so maybe he had a connection through martial arts, one of our DM’s many hobbies.

John had a lot going for him. He had the rugged good looks it took to be a leading-man movie star. He was also whip smart. He was the only one of the bunch that didn’t have a college education, but it didn’t seem to matter. He more than held his own in the decision-making situations in the game and we never had to worry about him pulling a Leeroy Jenkins. He was also fully capable in the political and social discussions that occurred in the interludes when we weren’t playing. The guy was just immensely likeable.

After a couple of years, John found himself a steady girlfriend. “Mara” wasn’t exactly the most attractive lady I’d ever met, but she wasn’t terrible and, like John, she was also a lot smarter than her education would suggest. For a while, we let her break into the boys club and play with us. She was pretty good and was just a generally fun person to have around. Some of the guys didn’t think much of her, but I just chalked that up to the sort of casual sexism that happens when any group of men is hanging out without female supervision.

Eventually, John and Mara got married. It was something of a shotgun wedding, as Mia was quite pregnant when she walked down the aisle, but they did genuinely seem to love each other. They had a daughter a few months later. Young love, a young daughter, you’d have had to have been a true cynic or really perceptive to notice that Mara didn’t seem to be handling parenthood or marriage very well. She started going out at night with friends… a lot. John kept coming on Thursday nights, but he almost always brought “Susie” along with him because Mara was getting drinks with her buddies. Eventually, John wasn’t coming as much and then he just stopped. Too busy.

The next we heard of John was that his health had taken a turn for the worse. It was diabetes. I’m not a doctor and I really don’t know anything about diabetes, but I’ve known quite a few diabetics in my life and it seems like the outcome is ultimately decided by the answers to two questions. First, how severe is the diabetes and second how willing is the sufferer to make the sacrifices required to keep it under control. For John, the answer to the first question was “really severe” and the answer to the second question was “not very.” John’s life deteriorated. He lost weight and muscle mass and was no longer the guy that would have made a credible GQ model. John handled this change in circumstances by self-medicating with booze. Most of us in the D&D group lost touch with him and didn’t know how much he was struggling.

Somewhere in there, Mara started having an affair. I’m not sure whether it was before or after John’s health problems began manifesting themselves, but a really good guess would be that it was before. If Mara was ill-suited to marriage and parenthood, then she was thoroughly incapable of handling John’s new problems and she decided to move on. She kicked John out of the house and the new boyfriend moved in. She also forbade John from seeing Susie. What John really needed at this point was a good lawyer. That was Greg’s advice to him. Instead, he decided that more alcohol was the solution. At one point there was a drunken confrontation between John and Mara and the new boyfriend outside the house. Punches were thrown. The police were called. You get the idea.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when the “accident” happened. He hit the tree at a high rate of speed. There were no skid marks. Of course, it was a horrible surprise. The location was almost right along my way home from work. It only required a detour of about a half a mile. I made that detour every evening for a week and continued going past there off and on for a few weeks after that. I guess I was searching for answers, looking for something that would explain the unfairness of it all.

The funeral was heartbreaking, of course. Mara, the new boyfriend, and Susie were all there. Susie was under two so she just played with her toys at the front of the chapel. Once, she asked where Daddy was. I wanted to crawl under a rock when that happened.

Or maybe use the rock to whack Mara over the head. For a long time afterward, I blamed her for what happened, which I suppose was a lot easier than blaming myself for losing track of John. None of my thoughts toward her were very Christian-like, but I think they were very human. One of the downsides of being a Christian is that the Holy Spirit forces you confront your own culpability when you want to blame others. But one upside is that it gives you a way through the darkness, a way to let go. And letting go always leads to insight. Mara acted horribly, but ultimately John was responsible for his own poor decisions.

A tragedy isn’t worth much if it doesn’t teach us something. If we don’t learn the cost of blind ambition from “Macbeth” or the pain of forbidden love from “Romeo and Juliet,” then they really weren’t worth reading. I would imagine that we each would pull a different lesson from this tragedy, but for me it’s try not to lose track of friends, even if they aren’t very close friends. Maybe you’ll be the difference in avoiding an unhappy ending. Or maybe not, but at least you’ll have a chance, however small, of steering the bus back on course.

Having said that, I confess that I’ve lost track of almost everyone involved in this story, although I know where a couple of the old D&D crew are living. I’m living 1500 miles away from where all of this took place, so maybe being able to say this now is without risk, but I’d love to run into Susie sometime. She’d be in her thirties by now and I’m sure she has her own life, but I think she has a right to know that her dad was a really good man.

Mother’s Day in a Pandemic

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I spent some time with Mom today. We talked for about an hour and a half. Mom is getting quite along in years, but really hasn’t lost any of her mental sharpness or curiosity about the world. She is still as fun and engaging a person to talk to as she was when she was half her age. Physically, well, she doesn’t get around quite as well as she used to, although I suspect she is in the upper fiftieth percentile for her age group. I think we will have her around for many more years and this pleases me, although I am reminded of the sportscaster who would describe the injury status of a baseball player as “day to day” and then add, “But then again, aren’t we all?”

Before I took my leave, I hugged her and then I hugged her again before I got in the car. It’s been a long time since I could do that. Stupid COVID! I’m sure this isn’t true for all mothers and there are some pretty terrible moms out there, but the current pandemic must be uniquely taxing for most older mothers. Contact with children and grandchildren had to be curtailed to an occasional phone call, text message, or Zoom meeting. Contact with friends likewise had to be cut back. The older you get, the more important those contacts become and physical contact (hugs, for example) is an essential part of that. Of course, there is the added vexation of having friends contract COVID. A good friend of hers recently contracted COVID in an assisted living facility. He died in January.

So my prayer is that we get through this mess soon so that all of those mothers who have missed so much in the past year finally get a chance to catch up on all they have missed. It’s been a miserable experience for all of us and generally speaking mothers deserve so much more than they’ve gotten. Keep your spirits up! I think we’re almost there.

And for my own mother, who informed me a while back that, to my horror, she actually reads my blog, happy Mother’s Day. As mothers go, I got far better than I deserved and I’m grateful. And don’t take anything I’ve written here too seriously. Please!

May Day!

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Well, it’s the day after May Day and I’m still struggling with my annual May Day hangover and… Okay, there’s no May Day hangover, and there’s no memories of fireworks and no wrapping paper strewn about the floor. The May Day feast was vegetable pancakes topped with chunks of beef. They were an experiment by my wife and the experiment turned out pretty good, although my wife said later that she thought they needed more salt. I don’t think the pancakes will turn into a May Day holiday tradition.

A friend of mine posted an article on Facebook on the history of May Day yesterday and I learned a lot. Since the date on the calendar is in the early days of spring, which brings with it warmer weather and new growth, it’s been celebrated in various forms in many cultures throughout the northern hemisphere. I guess the celebration could get a little, um, rowdy, depending on the culture and, like a lot of holidays with pre-Christian (read pagan) roots, celebrations frequently ran afoul of the early church. May Day has something of a checkered past, partly because of those run-ins, partly because we largely outgrew fertility cults, and partly because of the political connotations with the holiday.

That being said, some of traditions of May Day survived into my childhood. We did Maypole dances in school until at least the second grade. Another tradition, although not as widely celebrated, involved flowers. The idea (at least according to my Mother) was to leave a bouquet of flowers on someone’s door step, knock on the door or ring the door bell, and then run away. I think the idea was to avoid being caught by the homeowner, although my sister and I would usually just run to the nearest corner of the house so we could peak around and see the reaction.

And then all of that stopped. I don’t know when dancing around the Maypole stopped happening in schools, but they don’t do it anymore, or at least not in any schools around here. The bouquet thing was pretty innocent in 1965, but nowadays it would probably earn a call to the cops. Somewhere around the mid-70’s I think, Cinco de Mayo became a much bigger deal than May Day. I’m not entirely sure “May the Fourth” holidays aren’t a bigger deal that May Day, thanks to George Lucas.

Part of that may be because of politics. In the late 1800s, the labor movement sort of absconded the holiday for its own purposes. Then, in 1917 the Russian Revolution started on May Day and May Day celebrations remained a big deal in the Soviet Union until the Soviet Union no longer existed. Nothing like having your holiday associated with a murderous dictatorship that killed tens of millions of people to ruin your holiday buzz.

I hope it makes a comeback. We could use more holidays that children can enjoy. I’m not optimistic, but stranger things have happened.

In the meantime, chalk up May Day as another one of those things that Communism ruined for everyone.

Life on the Mountaintop

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A long time ago, I was having a discussion with a friend about mountaintops. Not like Everest or Denali. This was more in line with spiritual or emotional highs. In Christian circles, these highs are referred to as “mountaintop experiences.” They. Feel. Great! They feel like you’re flying, like the boundaries are all gone, like you’re awash in a sea of endorphins. I’ve never done drugs, but I imagine that some drug highs feel like that.

Those kind of highs don’t happen very often. In my experience, you can go years or even decades between mountaintops. I had one last Sunday, Easter Sunday. Actually, I had one for much of that week. The rush started Tuesday. We got some medical news about a couple of friends that were undergoing medical procedures one day and 1500 miles apart. The news was (mostly) good in each instance. We had a great Maundy Thursday service and a great Easter service and then I spent the afternoon with some of my relatives and the evening in a video call with my son and daughter-in-law. I felt loved and indestructible and totally at peace. That’s life on the mountaintop.

The problem with mountaintop experiences is they are always followed by “the crash.” Our pituitary glands are incapable of tossing out endorphins all day every day and eventually the struggles of life come knocking. Of course, the struggles of life are always knocking, but there’s something about getting bumped off the mountaintop that makes those struggles particularly vexing. This past week wasn’t a bad week. It just wasn’t on the mountaintop, so it felt like it was at the bottom of a cliff.

Which brings us back to that discussion I had some forty years ago. My friend shared a story that she said was a C.S. Lewis creation about mountaintops. She’s probably right about the C.S. Lewis part, although I couldn’t tell you which book it’s in. Anyway, a man is standing on a mountaintop adoring the beautiful vista all around him. Off in the distance is a beautiful city and the man’s eyes are transfixed on it. It’s glory is mesmerizing and for a while he just looks at it in awe. Eventually, the man has to make a decision. He can stay on the mountaintop and just look at the city in all it’s glory. Or he can go there, but the journey requires going through a deep valley, which he knows can be dangerous and he also knows that once he’s in the valley he won’t be able to see the city anymore. That means no more joy at the glorious vision, no more awe, no more peaceful warmth generated by knowing the city is there. Just the knowledge that if he gets there (or maybe when he gets there), it’s going to absolutely be worth the trip.

How does the story end? Well, the story is our story, so we get to write the ending. Personally, I’ve started the long trip through the valley. I’ve been there before, so I know how this works. The valley is long and the city is a memory now. Maybe there will be another mountain and another experience. Maybe not.

The mountaintop was a lot of fun and I miss it something awful. What’s up ahead will be better.

Book Report – Last of the Breed

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I don’t know if it is still the custom of public schools these days, but back when I was in school we occasionally had to do this thing called a “book report.” Of course it was a lot harder back then, what with the Gutenburg printing press being only a few years old and books mostly belonging only to the church and a few universities. I had to sneak into a monastery and… well that’s probably a story for another time. Anyway, over the years a few books have stuck to my memory in a little more velcro-like fashion and, during a period when I can’t think of anything else to write (like today), this seems like a good fallback position. My one concern is that I really hated writing book reports and I’m not sure how I’m going to feel about it now. We’ll have to see how this one goes.

Back in late 70’s and through the 80’s, I became a huge Louis L’Amour fan and I have his entire collection residing on my basement bookshelves, although it’s probably been a year or two since I’ve cracked one open. L’Amour wrote 89 novels, most of which were in the western genre, although late in his career, he experimented with other genres, including science fiction (the attempt at science fiction, Haunted Mesa, was really bad). Published in 1987, Last of the Breed was one of those experiments, although it defies easy categorization. Tom Clancy had just hit it big with The Hunt for Red October and I suspect L’Amour thought that he could ride that wave of Cold War political thriller to some big-time book sales. The book has some elements of a political thriller, but it includes elements of westerns and also adventure novels. Last of the Breed is shorter than Clancy’s novel and, frankly, is a much easier read.

Unlike a typical political thriller and much more like a typical western, the plot is very simple. Set during the late Cold War, the Soviets devise a plot, masterminded by a Colonel Zamatev, to kidnap key Western scientists and military people and use their knowledge to compromise western interests. One of those they kidnap is an Air Force pilot named Joe Makatozi, or Joe Mack for short. Mack is a former outstanding college athlete who uses his decathlon skills to promptly escape his captors. Realizing that the Soviets will expect him to go west and try to get to Europe, Mack decides to travel east through Siberia, much like his Native American ancestors did thousands of years earlier. What follows is a series of escapes and occasional guerrilla style attacks, as Mack works his way eastward over a period of a couple of years. L’Amour wasn’t the greatest writer in the world, but he was good at creating larger than life characters non-stop action and Last of the Breed creates both of these. It really was L’Amour’s pinnacle of achievement.

Unlike most of L’Amour’s novels, the ending is somewhat open to interpretation. Mack has made it to the Bering Strait and killed and scalped the Yakut tracker the Soviets have hired to find him. Mack sends the scalp to Zamatev and tells him that he will only take two scalps in his life and this is the first. The ending leaves you wondering if Mack really will make the trip across the Bering Strait or continue his private war against Zamatev and the Soviets.

About a year after Last of the Breed was published, I attended a lecture given by L’Amour. During Q&A, someone asked him if there would be a sequel. L’Amour smiled a little and acted like the he hadn’t given it much thought. Then he started describing a plot for a sequel, something he’d clearly thought about a whole bunch. The Soviets are about to start intense arms negotiations with the U.S. and Zamatev, having managed to salvage his career, is a part of the negotiating team. The American team walks into the hall and Zamatev is suddenly chilled to the bone to see Joe Mack on the American team. Mack never looks at Zamatev, but occasionally he smiles as if fondly remembering something and slowly pushes his fingers through his hair.

So there was going to be a sequel and there was also going to be a movie made of The Last of the Breed, or at least that was the rumor. Then L’Amour died a few months after the lecture. And then the Cold War ended. No sequel, no movie. Supposedly, there were a lot of notes and L’Amour’s son was supposed to be working on fleshing out a sequel, but it never happened.

I’m sure the sequel idea is dead, but it’s been 30 years since the novel was written and 35 years from the time period it was set. I think it’s time to resurrect the idea of a movie. It would make an excellent period piece, perhaps capture some of the Cold War tension of the time.

It probably won’t happen, but hoping’s free.

Irish Up!

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There is something about St. Patrick’s Day that stirs the genealogical interest unlike any other holiday. On St. Patrick’s Day, a friend of mine posted a blurb on Facebook discussing his ancestry and then a few others chimed in on their backgrounds and then a lot of people jumped into the discussion. Of course, I had to put in my meager contribution.

Like the vast majority of Americans, I am full-blooded mongrel and proud of it. On my father’s side, the ancestry leans toward French Huguenot. I imagine that it was a disappointing surprise for Dad to find out while fighting in France in World War II that he really couldn’t stand the French. He had no idea they were so bloody arrogant. As nearly as I can tell, my paternal lineage contains no Irish or almost no Irish.

But on my mother’s side, therein lies a tale. Let me introduce you to Eveline Melissa Regan Weddle, Weddle being her married name. She was my great-great grandmother.

I’m not sure how long that portion of the Regans had been in America or whether Evie and the rest of her kin were second or third generation Americans. Somehow they found themselves in Western Missouri near Rich Hill, which is about 80 miles south of Kansas City. Many of them worked in the coal mines near there and Rich Hill is where the family stories from that era are set. One interesting curiosity about this branch of the Regans is that they seemed to be mostly Protestant, which I would guess means that they immigrated here from Northern Ireland. Evie had a sister, Margaret Regan, known as Maggie, who preached at tent revivals throughout the area. That was unusual for a woman, but it would appear that the Regan sisters were ill-suited to being told what they couldn’t do.

Evie was a bit of a walking Irish stereotype. She was stubborn and feisty and fearless. There are stories about Evie and I’m sure if I polled the family, there would be a lot more than the two that I know. The first involved a family gathering that she decided she was going to attend come heck or high water. In fact, there was a lot of high water, what with the rain still pouring and the river that separated her from her destination out of its bank. She forded the river riding a horse and found a change of clothes once she got there.

But it’s the other story I know that I’ve always found fascinating, so I’m going to tell it to you and then I’m going to ask you to hold on because there’s going to be a “rest of the story.” One evening, Evie was babysitting her grandson Guy, the child who would eventually become my grandfather. There is some doubt about Guy’s age in this story, but he was certainly old enough to remember what happened because he’s the one who passed it down. The best guess is that he was about ten. While they were in the house, they heard a noise in the barn. This can be a frightening situation for a child and a small, older woman in an isolated part of western Missouri. If there was trouble waiting in the barn, help was not on the way.

Evie looked at Guy and said something along the lines of, “Guy, I don’t know what’s out there, but we need to go find out.” She grabbed the shotgun and headed toward the barn with a frightened Guy hanging close behind her. And that’s where the story ends. I wish I knew what they found in the barn, but in Granddad’s telling that was secondary to the fact that his grandmother was fearless. Whatever it was, it wasn’t important to the point he was making.

And now we come to the “rest of the story” moment, a nuance to the story that I only recently found out myself. I just finished reading a book called The Man from the Train by Bill James. If James is right, and he provides a lot of evidence to support his claim, there was a serial killer on the loose in that part of the country at about that time. This dude was riding the trains to small towns, finding isolated homes on the outskirts of those towns, and murdering everyone in the house with the blunt side of an axe. There were dozens of instances where this occurred across the country and the murder scenes in each instance were all eerily similar. If true, the murderer might be the most successful serial killer of all time, with over a hundred victims to his credit. Between 1910 and 1912, he hit two homes within 100 miles of where my grandfather lived and six homes within 200 miles of where he lived. In those six homes, he killed 25 people.

His typical pattern was to hide in the barn, wait for the family to go to sleep, and then break into the house at midnight.

Now am I saying that Great-great grandmother Evie confronted and chased off a serial killer in the barn? Of course not. But did she know that could be the case?

By 1912, newspapers in the area began to put two and two together. They didn’t quite come up with four, but they were coming up with something not far off from four. The newspaper in Paola, Kansas, one of the locations struck by the killer, reported, “The similarity in the crimes gives rise to the question, were they all done by the same party?” Other local newspapers and even the Associated Press speculated on the same idea. In a region of the country where storytelling was the primary source of entertainment, that kind of tale would spread like wildfire through the entire region. It’s not a certainty that Evie knew about the murders, but I think she probably knew. It’s also likely that the family would have moved heaven and earth to keep the youngsters like Guy from knowing.

Suddenly, Evie’s late-night assault on the barn looks almost epically heroic. She wasn’t going to wait in the house for fate to happen.

So, to answer the question many of us get asked on St. Patrick’s day, I am 1/16 Irish, which is hardly something to be proud of. All I did was be born. But I am very proud to be a descendant of Eveline Melissa Regan Weddle. May her memory never die!

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