Memoir

Chapter reveal: Unexpected Prisoner, by Robert Wideman

coverTitle: UNEXPECTED PRISONER: Memoir of a Vietnam Prisoner of War

Genre: Memoir

Author: Robert Wideman

Website: www.robertwideman.com

Publisher: Graham Publishing Group

Find on Amazon

About the Book:

When Unexpected Prisoner opens, it’s May 6, 1967 and 23-year-old Lieutenant Robert Wideman is flying a Navy A-4 Skyhawk over Vietnam.  At 23, Wideman had already served three and a half years in the Navy—and was only 27 combat days away from heading home to America. But on that cloudless day in May, on a routine bombing run, Wideman’s plane crashed and he fell into enemy hands. Captured and held for six years as a Prisoner of War in Vietnam, Wideman endured the kind of pain that makes people question humanity.  Physical torture, however, was not the biggest challenge he was forced to withstand.  In his candid memoir, Unexpected Prisoner, Wideman details the raw, unvarnished tale of how he came to understand the truth behind Jean-Paul Sartre’s words: “Hell is other people.”

A gripping, first-person account that chronicles the six-year period Wideman spent in captivity as a POW, Unexpected Prisoner plunges readers deep into the heart of one of the most protracted, deadliest conflicts in American history:  the Vietnam War. Wideman, along with acclaimed memoirist Cara Lopez Lee, has crafted a story that is exquisitely engaging, richly detailed, and wholly captivating. Unexpectedly candid and vibrantly vivid, this moving memoir chronicles a POW’s struggle with enemies and comrades, Vietnamese interrogators and American commanders, lost dreams, and ultimately, himself.

With its eye-opening look at a soldier’s life before, during and after captivity, Unexpected Prisoner presents a uniquely human perspective on war and on conflicts both external and internal. An exceptional story exceptionally well-told, Unexpected Prisoner is a powerful, poignant, often provocative tale about struggle, survival, hope, and redemption.

EXCERPT:

The POWs who landed in Hanoi’s prison camps can thank God

their treatment was as good as it was. I know some never saw it

that way. Only seven prisoners died in Hanoi: two stopped eating;

one died from a combination of ejection wounds, exposure,

and the Vietnamese rope treatment; one died during an escape

attempt; and one succumbed to typhoid. I’m not sure what happened

to the other two.

In America’s Civil War, thirteen thousand Union prisoners died

at the Confederacy’s infamous Camp Sumter near Andersonville,

Georgia. In World War Two, the Japanese chopped off two

American heads for every mile of the sixty-five-mile Bataan Death

March. Of the more than twenty-seven thousand American POWs

in Japan, between 27 and 40 percent died in captivity. In that

same war, Germany admitted that three million Russians died in

German prison camps. In turn, the Russians captured ninety-five

thousand Germans at Stalingrad and only four thousand returned

home.

With the exception of some of America’s prisoners in World

War Two, it may be that never in the history of warfare have POWs

been treated so well as we were in North Vietnam. Prisoners held

by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam were another story; I won’t

speak to that because I wasn’t there.

Although I suffered painful physical punishment, which some

call torture, I’ve always had a hard time calling what the North

Vietnamese did to me torture. It was a bad experience, but it could

have been much worse.

Although we successfully established communication at each

prison camp, it was not perfect or consistent. Many POWs later

talked about how we were always able to communicate despite the

North Vietnamese Army’s efforts to stop us, presumably because

of the “great leadership” we had. On the contrary. The NVA leadership

proved they could shut down our communications whenever

they wanted, which they did after the escape attempt. Some

key personnel did not communicate for two months.

It was clear to me that many Naval Academy graduates and

senior officers did whatever it took to please their bosses. Such

sycophants taught me one of the most important lessons I learned

from my Vietnam experience: there will always be people who

pursue power by ingratiating themselves to those in power without

pausing to assess the goals of those leaders. I came to understand

this as a POW, but I have witnessed it in all institutions

since: corporations, bureaucracies, schools, churches, you name it.

My sense is that most pilots had huge egos—me included—

which probably drove us to become fighter pilots in the first place.

The most hardline of the POWs had the most problems in prison.

The North Vietnamese forced them to make the most confessions

and visit the most delegations to feed the Vietnamese propaganda

machine.

It’s well documented that many American political and military

leaders knew we were fighting an unwinnable war but said nothing

because they feared jeopardizing their careers. Those same

leaders demeaned and discredited the courageous Americans

who publicly opposed the Vietnam War, especially big names like

Jane Fonda. When Fonda came to visit us in 1972, we were being

treated well, just like she said we were. We went outside several

hours a day, ate three meals a day, and received regular letters and

packages from home. The barrage of war protests put pressure on

the government to end the war. But for them, we would still be

over there.

When we came home, POWs who supported the war were encouraged

to speak out while those who did not were not encouraged

to speak out. That policy continues today, and is one reason

we have an inflated view of the importance of funding America’s

military might. We primarily receive the viewpoint of those invested

in maintaining power.

After the war, I talked to an Army colonel in Tampa, Florida

who helped plan the Son Tay Raid. He told me that the American

military knew the camp was empty thirty days before the raid, but

our leadership weighed the costs and benefits of going through

with it anyway, and the benefits won. They knew they would recover

no prisoners. Such was the American need to keep its own

propaganda machine running.

A Wartime Nation

Our armed services have not won a conflict since World War

Two, yet we keep waging war as if it were the national pastime.

One reason this happens is because so many of our military leaders

want to perpetuate their power.

Little has changed in the military since we lost in Vietnam.

We continue to pursue costly wars that yield questionable results.

The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, like Vietnam, were monumental

blunders motivated by American hubris. Once again, we

have preyed on countries that we view as weaker than ours and

have tried to impose our will on them, only to discover that the

will of other cultures to chart their own course is stronger than

we anticipated.

 

In Vietnam, we supported a Catholic puppet regime even

though 95 percent of the Vietnamese population was Buddhist.

What made us think they would welcome us as liberators? Once

again, we have installed puppet regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan,

only to see fringe groups like ISIS take advantage of the power

flux to inflame those disenfranchised by our interference. The

local populations of those countries now hate us just as the

Vietnamese did.

When I first returned from Vietnam, plenty in the military

refused to let go of the belief we had won, despite the facts.

They said things like: We stopped them…Our bombing campaign

brought them to the table…It was a victory for America. Many bureaucrats

and politicians do the same today, ignoring facts so they

can cling to claims of success in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What’s more, all of these wars have contributed to national

inflation and debt, as well as international economic instability.

President Johnson tried to initiate The Great Society and fight

the Vietnam War at the same time. He had enough money to

pursue one agenda, not both. President Nixon once admitted that

one reason the Vietnam conflict dragged on was because he didn’t

want to be the first American president to lose a war. The reason

we got out of that war wasn’t because the U.S. was ready to admit

defeat but because we couldn’t afford it anymore.

President Carter inherited the inflation caused by Vietnam.

Every economic crisis since has been aftermath. President Reagan

said he would increase employment and kill inflation, even though

economists said we couldn’t have it both ways. A lot of people

were impressed because he did it. How? He put everything on a

credit card. That’s when our debt started to skyrocket.

President Clinton made a dent in that debt, but President

George W. Bush went to war and ran it back up again, from five

trillion to ten trillion. Like the leaders who ignored the facts on

 

Vietnam, Bush ignored the facts on Iraq. Iraq did not perpetrate

the 9/11 attacks. There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq until after Bush

invaded. There was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction

in Iraq. Bush had an agenda to take on Saddam Hussein, so he

did, despite the facts.

Why would any thinking president take us into Afghanistan?

The British went there and got their butts kicked. The Russians

went there and got their butts kicked. Why did Bush ignore history?

Someone once said, “Afghanistan is a place where great powers

go to get humiliated.”

Some generals warned Bush he couldn’t win in Iraq with his

limited troops, so Bush sought other generals who toed the party

line and put them in charge. How else could General Casey have

become a four-star general with no combat experience?

Meanwhile, the housing bubble burst in 2008 and our debt

went up again. Today it has surpassed eighteen trillion dollars.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to this debt.

The United States spends more on military defense than the

top seven to nine nations combined, depending on which source

you consider. The problem is not Persian warships in Chesapeake

Bay. The problem is American warships in the Persian Gulf. We

just keep sticking our nose into other people’s business.

I’ve learned that almost every modern war is about lining pockets.

I’m all for capitalism, but I know who stands to benefit if we

convert the world to capitalism: big business. We had to kill the

commies because they were going to interfere with America making

money. Now we kill Muslims for the same reason. Nobody

talks about it because it’s not politically correct to ask people to

die for money. Instead, leaders put a spiritual spin on it and make

it a righteous cause.

 

In the military, the desire for money translates into the desire

for power. That thirst trickles down through the ranks. I saw this

firsthand in the POW camps.

It’s popular to talk about these wars as fights for freedom or

democracy, or as battles against political tyranny or religious fanaticism.

It really isn’t about religion or democracy. It’s about rich

versus poor. Of course, if we’re talking about the soldiers on the

front line, then it’s simply poor versus poor. Those are the people

fighting each other.

For Vietnam, we had a draft, but if a draftee’s family had money

he could get around that. We tried to stop that problem with

the volunteer army. But who volunteers? The poor, who have few

opportunities besides what the military promises. Different path,

same result. The poor are the people we fight, and the poor are

the people who fight for us.

Torture, American Style

We’re all aware of the Bush administration’s approval of the

CIA torturing suspected terrorists at black sites around the globe.

According to the Associated Press, the Congressional Record,

Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. military’s investigative documents,

as of 2006, at least 108 POWs from our wars with Iraq

and Afghanistan died in American custody. At least thirty-four

of those deaths were either suspected or confirmed homicides.

That’s more than four times the number of the American POWs

who died in Hanoi.

Bush’s attorneys lined up experts who said that the CIA’s “enhanced

interrogation techniques” were not torture. Those techniques

continued under President Barrack Obama. In 2015, the

Senate Intelligence Committee commissioned a report on the

CIA’s interrogations and concluded that much of what had been

approved does indeed constitute torture.

 

Here are just a few instances of torture that the report identified:

One prisoner froze to death after being left to sleep without

pants on a cold concrete floor. Another was forced to stand in a

“stress position” on broken bones. Others were placed in isolation

or were sleep-deprived until they suffered symptoms of psychosis

such as hallucinations, paranoia, and self-mutilation. Some prisoners

were forced to go through rectal hydration or rectal feeding,

in which water or food was forced into the anus, which can leave

the kind of damage associated with sexual assault. And of course,

we’ve all heard the debates over waterboarding.

I agree with Senator John McCain’s assessment of the report

on two counts: 1) those techniques are torture, and 2) those techniques

do not work. I have a problem with our country torturing

war prisoners, both because it is morally wrong and because it

creates more enemies for America. We call what our enemies do

to their prisoners torture while asserting that we’re a kind, just

people who don’t do that sort of thing. I find it offensive that

some POWs have supported the torture of prisoners in the Iraq

and Afghanistan Wars after whining about their own treatment

by the North Vietnamese.

In any case, there’s no need to go so far. The Vietnamese got all

the information they needed by bringing people to a certain point

of pain and holding them there. Beyond that point, people will

say or do anything. That’s when information becomes unreliable.

Our country has inflicted prisoners with torments well beyond

anything I suffered in Vietnam.

In my opinion, the people who order the sort of torture described

in that Senate Intelligence Committee report are war

criminals, Bush and Obama among them. I consider the subordinates

who carried out those orders guilty too. I believe we must

each take responsibility for the morality of our actions. We need

to try all of them for war crimes.

 

Divorce Epidemic

Not two years after the North Vietnam POWs returned, the divorce

rate among our ranks soared to 85 percent. This high number

was likely a result, at least in part, of post-traumatic stress and

the long separation of husbands and wives.

Pat was 19 and I was 22 when we married. We were just too

young. A few weeks after I returned home and we took our vows

again, we visited another couple. The wife pulled me aside to say,

“Don’t be so critical of Pat.” She was right. I was very impatient

with my wife.

Excessive arguing is a classic symptom of Post-Traumatic

Stress Disorder, which I didn’t know much about at the time, but

which soon became a household word surrounding the subject of

Vietnam War veterans. Pat and I argued so much that our seventy-

pound Doberman Pinscher hid behind the sofa. More importantly,

we had two sons: Eric, born in 1974, and Derek, born in

  1. What did those arguments do to the minds of a two-year-old

and a four-year-old?

In 1976, we left our home in the beachside town of Monterey,

California for Meridian, Mississippi, where I became a Navy

comptroller. The arguments escalated. Neither Pat nor I wanted

to hurt our boys. We soon separated, and in January of 1978 we

divorced.

On My Knees

From long before Vietnam until long after, I didn’t believe in

God. I considered God an imaginary crutch for people too weak to

handle their problems. I realize now that toughing out imprisonment

without any spiritual support inflated my ego.

After I separated from my wife, I knew I needed to talk to

somebody. I thought I had two choices: a minister or a shrink. I

remembered that Thomas Eagleton underwent psychiatric treatment

before he ran for Vice President as McGovern’s running

mate in 1972. The media got wind of that and crucified him as if it

meant he were crazy. That stigma convinced me to avoid psychiatrists

and psychologists. I didn’t want any chance of this difficult

period coming back to bite me. I talked to the base chaplain.

I told the chaplain that I had long ago given up on the idea of

God. He recommended I try a few different Protestant churches

and advised me to read The Gospel of John, a gentle introduction to

the Lord after being away from Him for some twenty years.

I read John, but he made no sense to me, not then. On the advice

of a friend, I added the writings of Carlos Castaneda to my

reading list. Castaneda made me aware of how much the ego is

in charge of our lives, via the constant refrain: “I want.” I not only

studied the Bible, but also read about Buddhism, Judaism, and

philosophy. I saw that everything came down to ego. I noticed

the word “I” rarely appeared in the Jewish teachings of the Pirkei

Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, one of the texts in the compilation

of rabbinical wisdom called the Mishnah. This brought to my attention

that the Jewish people I knew did not use the word “I”

very much. I sought to reduce the use of the word “I,” and found

that my boss and others listened. It was a transformation.

I ultimately landed in a Southern Baptist Church. I knew I

could never toe the entire party line of any organization, but the

Southern Baptists and I were on the same page about focusing

less on “self” and more on “we”—on community.

One day in 1991, I had an epiphany about The Gospel of John: I

could forgive other people’s sins but I did not have the power to

forgive my own. I realized only Jesus Christ had that power. The

day I understood that, I dropped to my knees and forgave everyone

I could think of who I felt had ever wronged me. That had a

huge impact on me.

Among the people I had the biggest beef with were a few of my

fellow prisoners from Vietnam, particularly our leadership. In my

prayers, I forgave all of them, even the ones who wrongly accused

me or humiliated me. Forgiving the North Vietnamese was never

an issue because I always thought they could have treated us so

much worse.

My trials as a POW did not bring me to God. Getting divorced

did. It surprises some people when I tell them getting divorced

was more stressful for me than being a POW.

A Bad Reputation

I first attempted to write a book about my war experience in

the mid-1970s, but I fictionalized it as a novel. I sent a manuscript

to the Naval Investigative Service, because the Navy required me

to get their approval. It turned out that the mere act of seeking

approval was enough to get me in trouble.

Several months later, the Naval Investigative Service sent the

book back, not to me but to the superintendent at the Naval

Postgraduate School. The cover letter called my book inaccurate,

immature, and demeaning to fellow POWs who deserved to be

lifted up. I had done nothing worse than paint all of us POWs as

people instead of saints. What upset me more was that my pages

came back in complete disarray. I had accorded the Navy the respect

of requesting approval, and in return I had received a slap

in the face.

I called the Naval Investigative Service to ask what the letter

meant. The person I spoke to informed me that if I published the

manuscript it would only serve to publicly discredit me.

“According to whom?” I asked.

He said, “We didn’t know what to do with your manuscript, so

we sent it to your roommates and to Stockdale.”

“You did what?!” I had sent my manuscript to the Navy in confidence,

and someone had published it to other people without

my consent.

A few years later, I was passed over for promotion to commander.

When I inquired to learn why, my detailer in Washington

said, “You need to call Stockdale. He told the board you had a bad

reputation.” Stockdale was the head of the promotion board.

“A bad reputation for what?” I asked.

He said Stockdale gave no specifics. I was stunned at the abuse

of power this implied: that the board listened to him despite not

having evidence against me. This was all the more suspicious because

shortly after I had returned from Vietnam, Stockdale had

submitted a fitness report in which he recommended me for promotion.

His change of heart came after I submitted my manuscript

to the Navy.

Years later, in 1996, I called Stockdale and asked if there was

something I should know. He told me that the promotion board

was just a “paper push” and that he said nothing detrimental

about me. He claimed he had never seen my manuscript.

Stockdale and other POWs wrote books about their prison experiences,

but their books painted the military in a more glowing

light. The Navy never sent their manuscripts to me for my

response even though someone sent my manuscript to Stockdale

and my roommates for their comments and approval. The double

standards of my POW days continued.

About three or four years ago, when I was in Pensacola, Florida,

I told the head of the Robert E. Mitchell Center for Prisoner of

War Studies, “I got passed over for commander because Stockdale

told the board I had a bad reputation.”

He looked me in the eye and said, “I can promise you, you don’t

have a bad reputation among the five or six hundred prisoners

from North Vietnam.”

Years later, I talked to a doctor from the Mitchell Center who

was a friend of Stockdale’s and who made it clear he truly liked

the man, and he told me, “Stockdale would do something like

that.” To this day, many senior leaders are big on protecting their

turf and their reputations and not averse to tearing other people’s

reputations apart to achieve that.

When I talked to the base chaplain about my divorce, we also

talked about the war, and he called me a conscientious objector. I

had never thought of myself that way, but he had a point: I didn’t

believe in the war anymore. I had heard our leaders distort facts to

make themselves look good. I never publicly protested—it was too

late for that—but I got demerits for not agreeing that we achieved

“a fabulous victory against communism.”

In the end, Stockdale’s pursuit of power took him all the way

to vice admiral. Meanwhile, he claimed I had a bad reputation. All

he had to do was say the words, and because he was one of the

highest-ranking officers in the military, people on the promotion

board believed him.

A Changed American Dream

The Navy sent me to the Naval Postgraduate School to get an

undergraduate degree in International Relations. After that, my

superiors urged me to get back in a cockpit, saying that was the

route to make command. The military had not been my dream, so

I pursued a master’s degree in finance. With that, the Navy wanted

to send me to Washington as an auditor. I didn’t want that.

Instead, I went to the Naval Air Station in Meridian, Mississippi

to become a comptroller for seven years.

I retired from the U.S. Navy in 1983 and went to Florida to

work as a stockbroker. I never got over the feeling that prison had

cost me years of time and opportunity, so I went on to earn a law

degree at the University of Florida. I became a prosecutor in 1991,

and a few years later went into private practice. However, the sedentary

nature of that career sent my blood pressure up. Then, in

1996, the Navy made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: I moved back

to Mississippi to become a flight simulator instructor. Flying for

 the Navy had landed me in prison and stolen years of my life, but

training other pilots turned out to be one of the best jobs I ever

had. I worked as an instructor until I retired in 2012. I was 68.

Perhaps one attraction of training pilots was that I never completely

got over my frustration at not becoming an airline pilot,

the dream I had held onto during my six years as a prisoner of

war. Being rejected by Eastern Airlines was more devastating than

anything the North Vietnamese could have done to me.

The Test of a Man

When I consider how capable we all are of perverting the truth,

and when I remind myself that I was a voluntary participant in the

Vietnam debacle, I can only ask: what does it take to be a man?

I submit that a real man is not a sycophant, but is someone who

pursues the truth in service to his values. It’s easy to support the

status quo when self-interest is at stake. It takes character to stand

up for the truth when it’s not in your self-interest—such as opposing

war in the face of threats to destroy your reputation.

It also takes character to apologize when we’re wrong, which is

something the U.S. has yet to do for Vietnam. We invaded their

country and killed more than two million Vietnamese because a

majority of them did not want us to tell them what kind of government

to support.

Best I can figure, humans point their fingers at others when

they need a scapegoat. Usually they point at someone with less

power because that’s easiest, to draw attention away from their

own shortcomings. Once the finger pointing starts, honesty is the

first casualty. When honesty goes, everything goes. To me, this

was not only the dynamic between the leadership and the subordinates

among the POWs, but also the dynamic between the U.S.

and Vietnam. We saw them as less powerful, so we thought they

were an easy target. We were wrong.

 

Despite the pitfalls of ego I saw many military leaders display

in Vietnam, I find it important to remember the exceptions, men

who provided a standard for honest reflection on right and wrong

action, and who were not afraid to engage in criticism—of authority

or of themselves—when honesty called for it. I have tried

to introduce some of those men to you in these pages. Perhaps

some in our POW leadership felt justified in attacking men who

believed in following conscience first and orders second, but what

really made such men targets was that they had no rank and no

power and seemed easy to suppress.

Studying the teachings of Jesus has taught me the importance

of placing truth above pride. Wars go on, but I have found peace

in this: “Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love

your neighbor as yourself.” This has been and continues to be

my journey, and it is one reason I’ve chosen to share with you

the sometimes-painful story of my experience as a prisoner in

Vietnam. I hope my story helps open your heart to the challenge

of getting to know yourself, your fellow humans, and the people

who share your world.

Soldiering On

I still think about war and imprisonment, their causes and consequences.

It’s part of being an informed person, and my experiences

have helped to make me an informed person. But my life

has also been filled with blessings: two children, six grandchildren,

true friends, education and the opportunity to pass it on,

fruitful labors, the freedom and means to travel, good health, and

a relationship with the Lord.

Sometimes it’s painful to remember my six years of lost freedom,

being isolated from loved ones while at the same time discovering

the truth behind Jean Paul Sartre’s words: “Hell is other

people.” Most of the time, those memories remind me to be grateful

for my life now.

 

Categories: Memoir, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: ‘I Should Have Stayed in Morocco’ by Stephen Caputi

Morocco_medTitle: I Should Have Stayed in Morocco

Genre: Memoir

Author: Stephen Caputi

Website: http://www.stevecaputi.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Read the First Chapter

Purchase from Amazon / OmniLit

About the Book: 

Stephen Caputi’s memoir, I Should Have Stayed in Morocco, is not just another forensic account of billionaire Ponzi-schemer Scott Rothstein’s life. Caputi opens his heart and soul as he takes the reader on a journey through two decades rife with personal experiences, misadventures and wild escapades with Rothstein, climaxing with their now-infamous ramble in Casablanca. It’s a frighteningly true story of how friendship and loyalty was dedicatedly served to a master-manipulator, just to be rewarded with deceitful betrayal and a prison sentence.

PROLOGUE 

Amtrak Station, Deerfield Beach, FL

February 5, 2012 – Super Bowl Sunday        

“You fucking idiot, you should have stayed in Morocco,” I muttered under my breath to nobody in particular as I collapsed my forehead onto the headrest of the empty seat in front of me. I’d boarded the train at 7:04 a.m. yet still had my foot wedged intentionally in front of the door-closing mechanism to prevent the door from shutting—a feeble attempt to prolong an already excruciating goodbye scene. It had turned into a real-life enactment of one of my all-time favorite movie scenes from Casablanca. Only it was playing in reverse.

It was me, the nightclub owner who was departing on a train, not Ingrid Bergman boarding a plane. It was my girl Elizabeth who was being left behind, not Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick. She was crumpled up on a wooden bench just outside the train door, shedding the tears that can only be caused by the separation or death of a loved one. A distinct, sickening anguish shared by both of us.

It was like being conscious during a nightmare, only in this case the nightmare was real. Watching it unfold as if it were on the big screen added a surreal element to what was already a disjointed, fragmented scene, like a living 3D Picasso. My actions felt animated and somehow rehearsed, but the pain was real. I withdrew my foot and watched her from the window. The reflection staring back at me in the dual-paned glass presented another distorted Picasso-like image. The final minutes on that platform dragged on in slow motion, yet my heart was racing. A lifelong movie aficionado, I could only hang my head in recognition of the ironic, film-noir quality that my departure—and my life—had taken.

The horn sounded and the train began its slow roll, creeping up the track. The last thing I recognized before my eyes glazed over completely was a blurry wave and a futile kiss goodbye blown in my direction. I was going directly to jail, without passing GO or collecting $200. As a matter of fact, my entire net worth couldn’t even equal that figure. The $173 in my wallet and the shirt on my back were the only things I had left.

To make matters worse, I had manifested a blinding headache from fighting back the tears, resisting the urge to break down. I’d promised myself beforehand that I would stay strong and not crack. I was en route to FSC (Federal Satellite Camp) in Jesup, Georgia, a federal prison camp where I would self-surrender. After not working for three years, courtesy of the U.S. Marshals, my resources had dwindled, forcing me to sell my beautiful home in Forest Lake Estates to pay my huge legal fees. It had been my dream to gift my daughter the house where she’d been happily raised during her childhood. I was crushed. My destruction was now complete.

“I… I should have stayed… should have stayed… in Morocco,” I whispered again in staccato, my voice fading as I began to choke on my own words. Not long ago I’d been lounging in a suite at the Golf Palace in Marrakesh, staring at $16 million in cash and over $4 million worth of designer watches sitting on the floor at my feet. When I left Morocco, my bank account at the Banco Popular held a cool one million U.S. dollars. But no… I had to do the right thing… my father’s mantra ringing in my ears… and at least try to help recover the money stolen by my crooked partner, Scott Rothstein. People had been hurt, and I had been used and manipulated like a puppet in one of his colossal schemes. I was disgusted with myself. How could I have let that happen?

At the beginning of the government’s inquisition, I was optimistic that they would uncover the truth; I had never stolen anything from anyone, EVER, and this incident was no exception. I planned and expected to be grilled by men of intelligence that cared about the truth, men who would understand that I’d been duped. I’d been tricked by a master manipulator, fooled into believing him the same way everyone else did — including high-ranking people in government: 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain, Senator Arlen Specter, Governor Charlie Crist, Sheriff Nick Navarro, and even one of the most seasoned, intelligent and calculated businessmen on Earth: The Don.

They trusted him, as I had. Most of the “big shots” that Rothstein associated with took money from him in some way, shape or form… but I didn’t. Why was I held to a higher standard? I considered myself to be nothing more than an inadvertent participant. Little did I know that my lack of “knowledge and intent” to commit a crime was not a relevant defense. Only law enforcement was allowed the luxury of having the defense of non-intention when it came to committing a crime. The powerbrokers in their ivory towers protected their backsides when they changed the laws to facilitate more, quicker and easier convictions. In my case, the prosecutors’ hands were tied by laws that precluded them from applying more than a cursory dose of discretion, intelligence and common sense. I knew they were just doing their jobs within the framework they’d been given, feeding a steady stream of bodies into the insatiable Perpetual Prisoner Money Machine. They were blindly carrying out the orders of the taskmasters, the sociopathic Suits on Top (“SOTs”), regardless of the inhumanity of it. Wasn’t that what I did with Rothstein — follow his orders? The scary truth was that they had the power to punish me even more than they did. They could have destroyed me completely, but to their credit, they chose not to. Thank God! But in the moment, it provided no solace. The system was a beast.

This robotic process seemed to be no more than an unfortunate series of consequences resulting in the conscienceless destruction of people and families… by the millions. In practice, bona fide justice had been diminished, now relegated to being a random, inadvertent and often incidental byproduct of a perverse and calculated criminal justice system. Enforcement of written law had somehow become more important than the concept of law, and the concept of “equal application of justice” had been downgraded to a buzzword. I didn’t have $300 million dollars to stroke a check to the Feds to get them off my back like others did. In other words, I was totally fucked.

In retrospect, I was incredibly stupid for having given the remotest consideration to the possibility that the government would care even one iota about anything other than my conviction. That’s what I should have been convicted of, being naïve enough to think that doing the right thing would save me. Dumb-ass! I deserved a 60-month sentence just for that alone. By the end of eighteen-months of legal “processing,” my frustration level had crescendoed to an all-time high—with myself, the system, and of course my ex-partner Rothstein.

         Regardless, the unthinkable had just happened; my last day had finally arrived. Every day for the past two years I’d wake up thanking God for giving me one more day of freedom. Now it was over.

My nightmare had inauspiciously begun on Halloween night a little over two years ago in 2009, when Liz and I boarded the Air Marac flight to North Africa. I became numb just thinking about that day. My ears started ringing… tinnitus on steroids. My mind began to race, flitting from one thought to another every few seconds. My heart palpitating, I wondered if I was about to have a heart attack. The coffee had turned to acid in my empty stomach and I needed to throw up.

         I SHOULD HAVE STAYED IN MOROCCO.

* * *

Two hours down the tracks I began to calm down. The train was approaching Orlando, which conjured up images of countless road trips that flickered like a slideshow in my mind’s eye. Vivid recollections of dozens of softball tournaments, celebrations and award ceremonies, deep laughter that turned to tears, cheap motel rooms and lumpy beds. I envisioned a virtual collage of theme park adventures flashing before me. Sounds of children screaming on the thunderous rides, and the smell of cotton candy that had to be eaten quickly before it melted in the torrid, sopping central Florida heat. Every one of them a memorable clip in a long-running highlight film of experiences with the crown jewel of my life, my little girl Lucy.

For a few fleeting moments I was freed from my ragged emotional body, floating with her through Disney’s magical It’s a Small World Fantasyland boat ride. It was the ultimate kids’ dream to see in real life what had previously only been imagined; to see the animated munchkins, toy soldiers drumming, talking lollipops and flowers, singing puppets and other characters come to life. She looked up at me in what may have been the first wave of realization of her young life and blurted, “Daddy, it’s my birfday and we’re at Disney World! Thank you, thank you, Daddy!”

She’d gazed up at me with her big, brown, loving eyes, a look that could only come from a three-year-old who adored her father, hugging me tight before beaming herself back into that Small World. Life had awarded me with a perfect moment. For fifteen seconds, everything had synchronized into a pure consciousness of love, appreciation and contentment shared between two connected souls. It was as close to perfection in this world as I’d ever felt, before or after, and I lived it again as if it had happened just earlier that morning.

As my reverie melded itself into the background of ambient train noises, I was pulled back into the real world. My solar plexus reflexively tightened as I unwillingly began to re-live the gut-wrenching departure scene that I suffered just a few hours ago. Wasn’t once enough?

It was no wonder that countless men had been driven to madness over the ages. History taught us that every man, no matter how stalwart, had his own personal breaking point. I didn’t want to think about it but couldn’t stop replaying the morning’s episode. As my old buddy Murph used to say, it was all over me like an eighty-pound fire ant. A scant few minutes ago I had been relishing moments from the highlight reel of my life, but I had become queasy again. Was there some kind of cosmic law governing the balance of energy that required a corresponding moment of negativity to countersink every moment of elation?

The pendulum was swinging heavily in the wrong direction. I wasn’t cut out for this; this was not my life, it couldn’t be! I’d been so happy for so long. Happiness was my natural condition, the default. How could that all be over for me now? What a wretched state; how could anything get any worse?

Oddly enough, a little voice inside my head whispered right back. “That’s what you think!” What I’d said to myself was the cosmic equivalent of sticking one’s tongue out at Satan himself, hissing, “I dare you!” Although I had no idea what powers governed forces like this, I did know that they were for real. Words do have power when they’re linked to emotions, and I proved it the hard way. A lesson learned: never tempt fate.

* * *

Self-pity is an exasperating, exhausting activity. My mind was shot after a few hours of thrashing myself, second-guessing every choice I’d ever made—especially the ones that created the conditions that lead to my current predicament. The incalculable complexity of the intricacies and dynamics at play combined with my legal woes and huge personal issues, such as losing my home and going broke, were throwing me into another mind-spin; more self-recrimination, guilt, trauma and pain.

I hated being miserable—more than most people. I forced myself to draw the line right then and there, and to stop thinking, at least for the time being. I collected myself, giving myself assurance that I was indeed okay for that exact moment. I’d have to forget the past and the future and force myself to stay in the moment. I understood the concept, but convincing myself of it was another story.

Focus. I was taking a nice ride through rural Florida and everything was fine. I was safe, warm and comfortable. I forced myself to relax and appreciate my immediate conditions. Nothing else was relevant. Perhaps things would stabilize for me now that I’d already sunk to the bottom of life’s apple barrel. I was just convicted of a white-collar felony, not as scathing as a convicted drug dealer or child molester. But, yes they were felons, too! Once inside we were all the same.

Perhaps I could actually survive this experience and someday emerge to join the normal rank and file of the community. Reality clawed back; it was too soon to begin plotting my comeback. I hadn’t even arrived in prison yet. I silently mouthed my favorite all-time managerial quote: “One disaster at a time.”

The soothing smell of comfort food wafted down from the dining car, so I jumped out of my seat and headed for the bar. I figured I could use a couple of Grey Goose Bloody Mary’s right about then. Ordinarily, setting the Goose loose this early in the day would have been unthinkable. As a businessman I needed to be lucid during the day, but under the present circumstances, it would be forgivable… and just might help right the ship. At least for now.

One of my three lifelong college buddies from Cornell University would be picking me up at the train station in Jesup in seven hours. He insisted on treating me to one last supper before depositing me at Hell’s doorstep. Certainly he wouldn’t judge me for drinking all day, especially since he would have polished off at least a twelve-pack on his way from Atlanta. He was from an athletic fraternity whose primary focus was drinking and I belonged to a drinking fraternity whose primary focus was athletics. The perfect match both on the field and off.

I felt extremely fortunate to have a few real friends left in this world. I’d pretty much been abandoned by everyone I’d ever known as soon as I lost the ability to do something for them. I was suddenly persona non grata after I lost my business and my status as a nightclub owner. As soon as I was considered to be “in trouble with the law,” my phone went dark—right when I needed support the most. On the bright side, at least I could tell who my friends were. My mind went temporarily blank as I threw back the first vodka.

I wondered what Elizabeth was doing and allowed my thoughts to revisit our last moments together once again… in more detail and even more emotion than before. Then twin daggers seared through my temples as my thoughts turned to my Lucy. Goddamn it!

Categories: Memoir | Tags: | 1 Comment

“Without a Net: a True Tale of Prison, Penthouses, and Playmates,’ by Barry Hornig and Michael Claibourne

Without a Net Cover Small (2)Title: Without a Net: a True Tale of Prison, Penthouses, and Playmates

Author: Barry Hornig & Michael Claibourne

Publisher: Koehler Books

Genre: Memoir

Find out more on Amazon

About the Book

Starving and certain that I would die in my dingy jail cell in Spain, I made a deal with God. I fell to my knees, promising to give up all drugs and criminal activities. I prayed out loud, witnessed only by the urine-soaked walls and huge rats that shared my cage. My desperation was raw and naked. I thought about the Countess. I thought about my parents at home on Long Island. But mostly I thought about myself. “Save me, God, and I will live virtuously and honor my family.” I was released early and found myself back home, penniless and living in my parents’ basement. God had kept his promise. I soon broke mine… Without a Net is an autobiographical road trip through a volatile period of American history. Barry Hornig was a seeker and an explorer. His adventures were splendid and sordid, and the sort of stuff that would teach anyone a lesson. This is the story of how he learned his lessons the hard way.

Prologue

I should have known what my life was going to be like from early on because I loved the Cyclone on Coney Island. Even as a kindergartener, I would drag my grandma and grandpa and anybody else I could hustle or trick into going with me (they wouldn’t let little kids on alone), and I would always put them in the rear car, the most dangerous one. My grandparents hated it. But I would make them go on every ride. They were Eastern European and very kind, so they put up with it.

This was advertised as the scariest ride in the world, but I was fearless. I loved it when it was completely dark, and you’d clatter up the track to the top of a hill, and on a clear night you could see the New York City skyline and the lights of the Rockaways. I couldn’t get enough of it, while I fortified myself with hot dogs, French fries, and Cokes from the original Nathan’s.

After the ride I wandered off to the carnie booths and watched all the bearded men, tattooed ladies, and double-headed people. I couldn’t know at the time what a foreshadowing that was of the freak show that would become my life.

I was banned from supermarkets at the age of four. I liked to pull everything down from the racks and scream. My family lived in my grandma’s house in Brooklyn. There was a wonderful girl who would walk me in my stroller up and down in front of the house. And the other day, when I saw on TV that she had died, I felt very sad. Her name was Suzanne Pleshette. She lived next door, and she was my baby sitter. We moved to Long Beach, on Long Island, in the path of huge storms. I remember my first hurricane and how the house shook. And riding my bike through the streets where the ocean met the bay. There were whitecaps in the streets. My dad, who I called Willy, would take me out on a rowboat in Reynolds Channel to fish for flounder and fluke. We ate delicious tuna-fish and salami sandwiches while we fished, but I didn’t know, until years later, that he couldn’t swim. How brave, and how reckless. A rickety little boat, a big guy with his son, one wrong move and over the boat goes. He was quite a guy, with his Errol Flynn moustache. I remember going down to the recreation center and watching him and my uncle hit a hard, black handball with gloves. I tried it, and I cried because it hurt my hand. Every Saturday and Sunday mornings we would go to the beach at eight and stay until dark. My father taught me how to surf-cast and dig for crabs, clams, and starfish. My mother and my aunt would show up by lunchtime with sandwiches and cold watermelon, and my friends and I would swim, fish, and make drippy sand castles. One afternoon, I went on a walkabout and got lost. In those days, the lifeguards would put a lost child up on a wooden platform and blow the whistle, so their parents would come and claim them. But I had wandered too far off, and they couldn’t hear the whistle. I spent an enjoyable afternoon with the lifeguards, but later in the day, my parents found me. They were very unhappy, and I got my first spanking. My grade school was right around the corner from our new house. The first afternoon I went, I got into a scuffle with somebody and wound up facing the blackboard on a stool with a pointed hat on my head. I remember my first fight clearly. One of the toughest kids in school was Johnny, who was a little bigger than everybody else, mean, and pushed everybody around. He grabbed me one day and told me he needed money to buy egg creams at the corner store and started to go through my pockets. I don’t think I was more than seven or eight, but I stepped back and hit him as hard as I could in the stomach. To my delight, he went down like a sack of rocks. Right to the ground, and he started crying. I found my new power, and a new way to negotiate.

I had trouble in my early schooling; I am dyslexic, and it was difficult for me to concentrate, so I was a C student. A coach helped me study phonetics because all the words looked backwards. I had still have a lot of trouble reading out loud, so, as a kid, I avoided it. I can comprehend language very well when reading to myself.

Although I’ve never been tested, I think I’m probably bipolar as well. My ups and downs have always been intense, and when I got manic, I was out on the street.

Since the bay and the ocean were only separated by six blocks, we spent most of our time on the water. There were fishing piers, and my friends had small boats, so we went boating up and down the channels after school. In the summer, we had the ocean and the Boardwalk. I kept out of trouble, even though I was in rumbles and gang fights as I got older, because I was a promising athlete in constant training. I lifted weights and didn’t smoke or drink. I had coaches to motivate me from elementary school on—and I was disciplined.

I had my heroes. I watched some of the star athletes in sporting events when I was younger, and it made a great impression on me. I wanted to be the Indian who became an Olympian in the Burt Lancaster movie, Jim Thorpe—All-American. I used that film as my blueprint and decided I would never get in trouble as I was determined to become a fearless athlete with lightning reflexes. I had no qualms about flying through the air or hurting someone in sports. In fact, I wanted to inflict pain; that was my job—to stop them.

I never realized just how fast I was until they timed me, and I noticed that nobody could beat me. Some of the other kids hated that I was as fast as they all were. I raced with Bobby Frankel on a bet, and won—and he was the fastest boy in Far Rockaway High School and also a Hall of Fame horse trainer. I shot baskets with my friend, Larry Brown. It got to where they wouldn’t let Larry shoot anymore at carnivals because he won all the teddy bears. Larry became a pro basketball star, and a Hall of Fame coach.

When I went into the city with my buddy, Steady Eddie, we saw street jesters, poets, drifters, and grifters on 42nd Street where we went to the movies—porn movies they didn’t show in Long Beach. By the time I was ready to go to college, I was street-smart. I was tall and athletic; people said I was good looking. I always worked so I could help my parents, and I knew everyone on the corner. I was able to inflict pain and run so fast that nobody could catch me. I thought I was special, and I knew I could take care of myself.

That didn’t prove to be enough for the depths of distress and heights of optimism which would test my ability to survive. Many of my adventures in Without a Net fill me with shame. My path is full of missteps, awful choices, uncanny luck, and wild expectations.

In my story, you might glimpse the surprising and strange choices you might have made, had you lived a life like mine.

Chapter 1: The Red-Eyed Rat 

We had really pulled a burglary, a jewel heist to fund a scheme to purchase drugs. Where did we get the guts to do it? And was it guts or bravado? And, did we really expect to get away with it?

So, here I was. Football star, athlete, Mr. Popular, and a jailbird. A disgrace, a drug dealer, a thief, a convicted felon in a foreign country. What would my family say? And my dear Grandma—how could I ever look her in the eyes again?

I was riding shotgun with Weenie, disembarking from the ferry in Algeciras, when the policeman went through the rental car and discovered the hundred kilos of hashish in our duffel bags. Everybody came around and congratulated him like he’d won the lottery, cheering him like a soccer hero.

They handcuffed me and my friend, Weenie, drove us to a prison that must have been hundreds of years old, and threw us roughly into a filthy cell. The windows were approximately ten feet up, and the light stayed on high up in the cell. It could have been there during the Inquisition. But now, Francisco Franco’s men were the inquisitors. “Remember the Phalange!”

They let us have our sunglasses, our jeans, our sandals. They took all identification, of course, but not our dinero, or our belts. They didn’t care if we hung ourselves. I sat with my back against the cell with my other cellmate; the shock made it impossible to speak.

Three days went by, with gruel, beans, and rice, wriggling with little living things: “Papillon sauce.” I wasn’t hungry enough, even on the third day, to try to eat it. They brought us a razor and told us to shave. I didn’t really know what was happening. But I thought of burning stakes, Joan of Arc, the Inquisition, or a firing squad. We shaved with cold water and no soap, and since the blades had probably been used thirty times, we just got a little of the stubble off. My hair was already full of lice.

They marched us out single-file, handcuffed from the rear, to an ornate courtroom, where three plump men in their fifties sat, wearing dirty black robes. They assigned a public defender to help us, who spoke broken English, making it difficult to follow the proceedings. They started reading a criminal charges document to us. It sounded like the Declaration of Death. This went on for an unbearably long time.

They asked Weenie and me to explain what had happened. Of course we had a pre-arranged story ready, just in case. But when it was my turn, the words came out of my mouth, but I’m not sure what I said. My voice cracked, and tears welled up in my eyes. I tried to regain my composure.

Would they believe us? They had to. We were Americans on a holiday in Spain. We wouldn’t rob each other. It had to be the gypsies. When they couldn’t solve a crime, it was always the gypsies.

The three judges talked back and forth. The police officer got up on the stand. He seemed to have a new uniform and a shiny new watch, and the spectators cheered him, of course. There seemed to be a few more witnesses, but I had no idea what was going on. They told us to stand, and the middle one banged the gavel. “Convicto!” There was a pause, and then the translator spoke. “You will serve six years and a day as a guest of General Franco in his hotel.” That was the dream from which I couldn’t awaken.

When you have a nightmare, you wake up, and everything is okay. But when you have that nightmare, and you try to wake up and you are awake, that’s the end.

It seemed delusional, and it came so fast that it was almost as if I had dreamt it. I felt that it wasn’t me there—it was somebody else, and I was looking down on the whole situation in disbelief. Like words in the pages of White-Jacket, about the voyages that transformed Melville from a boy into a man. But my own transformation would be a long time coming.

Weenie and I went back to our cells and started a hunger strike and an all-around commotion. It didn’t work. A guard in a green jumpsuit came with a billyclub, started banging the front of our cell, cursing at us, and decided that we needed to be separated.

Four or five days later, it was time for showers. I was getting ripe. I was lead into the shower room with other sordid prisoners—Arabs, Basques, Spaniards. I was the only American. The shower was ice-cold, the towel more like a handkerchief, and the soap stank.

One large Moroccan guy was watching me very carefully. I pretended I didn’t see him. He was obviously aroused, his member swollen. I was sitting on a stool drying myself when he made an aggressive move towards me. I don’t know what happened, but the stool hit the middle of his head, and it split open. There was screaming, there was blood, there were whistles, and we were brought back to solitary. I could tell by the looks of the other inmates that I’d made my point. I had established our alpha position, and I wasn’t about to be pursued or intimidated by the “pack.”

I was so angry at them and at myself, I felt like smashing him again. I looked around for the next customer. There’s always a next customer—when you’re looking.

I had a piece of wood with a smelly mattress on it—if you can call it that, a quarter-inch thick, half a pillow, a tin dish for food, and a hole for a toilet.

Unfortunately, I had roommates, the four-footed variety. Weenie and I had been separated. But Rudy, the red-eyed rat, and his friends found me. It was war. And I only had my thongs. At first, they were standoffish. Circling, making noises in the middle of the night, bothering my sleep. Then Rudy started making aggressive moves for my toes. He was good-sized—like a cat. Ugly yellow teeth, red eyes, mange. If I had had some bread or something else, any morsel I could spare, I would have fed him and tried to win him over, but I didn’t have that luxury. The other problem was the mosquitoes, the relentless mosquitoes biting me non-stop, as my blanket was too small to wrap myself in.

And if that weren’t enough, the food—I can’t even speak of the food—if you could call it that. And I knew it was only the beginning.

I sat there in the darkness, asking, “What did I do to deserve this?” I knew I couldn’t last six years. Impossible. I figured I’d go mad within a year.

With our money, which they hadn’t taken, much to our surprise, we were able to buy Carnation milk, cigarettes, delicious Hershey bars, and Valencia oranges.

Things got better, but I kept hearing fireworks, or shots in the street, and a lot of screaming and noise late at night from another part of the prison.

One day, after a couple of weeks, they brought in other inmates who looked like they’d been beaten and kicked. It appeared they needed solitary more than we did, so they put us back in our original cell.

We were able to get writing paper and envelopes and started our campaign to free ourselves. We wrote to everybody we could think of to spring us. We were charged an exorbitant fee for stamps, and, years later, I learned that the letters were never mailed because no one received them.

The only things we had to read were several pamphlets from Tim Leary’s lectures and a stained National Geographic that I was learning to read upside-down, so it seemed different.

Lighting a cigarette. Waiting for more rats, and the mosquitoes. I ended up soaking cigarettes in water, dipping rags in the liquefied tobacco and wiping it all over myself—my neck, my face, and all my other exposed parts—and the nicotine would stop the mosquitoes from biting. It gave me something to do, a little project every evening. I was looking at nothing, and nothing to do, for six years.

                              ****

As I lay in my cell, cold and hungry, I recalled a sunny afternoon in Long Beach in 1956, when I was working in a Safeway supermarket with my old friend, Mark Newman. We were fifteen, and we were putting food on the shelves to make “hot dog money” in the summer. I think we came up short. We ate more than we shelved. Another friend came into the Safeway market, and told me that somebody from a lower grade had called a girl I liked a “whore” and a “rag.” I sent word back that this was not acceptable, and I might have to crush his face if I saw him. The reply came: Meet on the beach at sunset at the end of the Boardwalk with my gang, and they would bring their gang. I talked this over with Newman and we decided to put small kitchen knives in our socks. I had read too many Harold Robbins books.

I was evaluating the situation. The kid I was supposed to meet was a grade under me, but he was six-four, two hundred pounds. . Elvis haircut, engineer boots, menacing arms from weightlifting. I myself was six feet, one hundred forty-five. We walked down to the beach, and before we were supposed to have the fight, we were surrounded by our gangs. Mike Kosella, one of the guys from the luncheonette at the Franklin Hotel, who later went over a cliff in a motorcycle and burned in the air at age twenty-two, was with me. They showed up with ten assorted hoods. I didn’t like my prospects. We decided to arm wrestle first, which was ridiculous, since his arm was twice the size of mine. But since I had been in football training that summer, he could not move my arm from its position. We pulled and tugged for fifteen minutes. Nothing happened. This was a sort of 1950’s warfare.

We backed off. He took his black jacket off, combed his hair like Elvis, smirked, and put a cigarette in his mouth. We all turned to go to the beach. Big mistake on his part. Don’t ever turn your back in combat. We walked onto the beach. I was wearing khakis, a T-shirt, and sneakers. We got about twenty feet into the beach when Mike Kosella handed me a “jaw teaser,” which is a piece of lead pipe wrapped with adhesive. It felt very comfortable in my hands. I knew if I hit him hard enough he would go down. The red mask came on me, my “ultimate rage”—the blood pulsed through my head, and I was on him, a panther on an ox. He gave up; I used a wrestling hold called the “Princeton,” where I was able to put both my hands behind his hands when he reached up to grab my head, and he couldn’t move. I don’t know if I hit him five or ten times, but the top of his head started to get mushy. He lay motionless for a time, and then he started to move again. We ran.

The next day the rumors were flying around town. Evidently he went to the emergency room and got quite a few stitches.

My mother was very good to me, very supportive, and played the he-can-do-no-wrong card with the police, keeping me out of trouble. “He’s just young and learning …” The cops didn’t really believe it, but, alright, so he busted the guy’s head open; they didn’t care. My brother was proud of me, even though the guy I smashed was the toughest guy in my brother’s class.

The most famous beach club was El Patio, which the movie The Flamingo Kid was based on. The movie was about us. The good-looking card-playing guy who beat the old man was Harvey Sheldon, a.k.a. Rodney Sheldon. The parking lot attendant in the movie was Jimmy Pullis, who later owned the club “Tracks” in New York City, the hangout for rock ‘n’ roll musicians. These beach clubs provided great jobs for young guys. I worked at El Patio for three summers during high school. We were cabana boys. “Cabana boy, get me ice water.” “Cabana boy, I need a club sandwich and a strudel.” “Hurry, cabana boy.” The tips were good, and their daughters were available.

The clubs brought in name entertainment on the weekends from Tito Puente to Bobby Darin. El Patio hosted the great garmentos. They lived in huge houses on the swamplands, had spoiled daughters with gold chains, huge bar mitzvahs, long cigars, and polished nails from 1407 Broadway. There were pick-up bars, like Lou’s, and Furies, near the railroad tracks in Cedarhurst. That’s where all the rich Jews were. I wished I was there again, right now.

                                 ****

The battle with the rats continued. Underneath my bed I found a few old logs and pieces of wood and waited for the right opportunity to kill Mr. Red-Eyes, pretending I was asleep. The first few times I missed—he was too fast. Finally, I was able to get a rebound shot and cracked him on the nose, and he disappeared, never to be seen again. And the friends he left behind were a piece of cake—they were easy to scare. So all I had to do was deal with the mosquitoes, and, since it was getting colder, they were disappearing. Perhaps, now, I could regain what little sanity I had left.

They started to let us go out into the exercise yard, and I met Felipe. He had been there for ten years. They’d caught him with explosives trying to blow up a police station. One of his hands was blown off, and he had a stump. His English was quite good, and he told me that his family had owned a restaurant in the North of Spain, the Basque area, and after the war they took his dad away, his mother, all his property, and all their animals. He would be getting out in a year.

The next day, after another evening with Mr. Red-Eyes, it rained terribly—and it rained and it rained and the water came into the cell. It was starting to get dark. I lit another lousy Spanish cigarette, closed my eyes, and thought of college. My memories were my only door to sanity.

                               ****

 I was a freshman at Boston University in 1958. My parents let me off at Miles Standish Hall, where my suite was up on the sixth floor. I had a horrible bed with hanging springs, a lumpy mattress, and I kept complaining to the dorm monitor, day after day, the first week, until I could take it no longer.

The red mask came down on me, my eyes pounding, and I don’t know what happened, but the entire box-spring, bed, and mattress went out the window into the courtyard, and I was immediately put on probation. I didn’t care; I snuck out the following night. I met a family friend who was at another college, and we drove down Commonwealth Avenue to a mixer at one of the women’s colleges. His convertible had New York plates. We were driving along, minding our own business, when we got cut off by two huge gorillas with a Boston College sticker on their car. They screamed curses, something like, “Jew pussy, go to the ovens!” or “Death to you all!” and I answered, “Come on back, and we’ll see who’s the pussies!”

They stopped their car, they got out, and they got out, and they got out. They were big—they must have been the two starting tackles on the B.C. football team. The red mask came on me again; I charged one of them, and my “new friend” ran off screaming, “Don’t hurt me! I just had new braces put in!” This happened right in front of the school mixer. Everyone came pouring down from the stairs. I just made it under the car to protect myself, hiding, because they were kicking me and trying to turn the car over. A guy I knew, who later became a good friend, a frat brother from Long Island, the size of one of the football players, took them on. Fortunately, for me, he had been a high school champion heavyweight wrestler. In later years, he leapt out of a thirty-five story office building in Manhattan and killed himself—he was bipolar. He threw one of the gorillas over one of the garbage cans. It appears he had a red mask, too, because he ripped off their antenna and proceeded to slash the guy who was left. Then he pulled me out from under the car and helped me to the school infirmary. I needed some iodine and bandages. I looked like I’d made and lost a bad decision. The word went around campus quickly, as these things do. The next day everyone wanted me to pledge their fraternity. I was the Jewish hero.

After the incident, one of the fraternity brothers named Sandy Gallen patted me on the back and said, “Way to go!” I remembered his name years later when I heard he’d become Dolly Parton’s partner and Michael Jackson’s rep.

After college, I lived at 1012 Lexington Avenue, between 72nd and 73rd on Lexington. I had a one-bedroom apartment for forty-nine dollars a month, a third floor walk-up with French windows. I had a mattress on the floor, some built-in shelves, a bathroom with a bamboo curtain door, a hot plate, and a refrigerator.

                              ****

I could tell through the windows in my prison cell that the sun was out. It must have been a beautiful day. And tt must have been Sunday, because I heard singing from the church across from the prison. I broke my last cigarette in half and searched for more memories to keep my spirits up.

I thought about another sunny afternoon, when I was in Long Beach on one of the canals. I was only fifteen. In front of my girlfriend’s house was a fifteen-foot boat with an outboard motor. I was with Mark Newman and Joey Burrel, a swimming champ from one of the tough high schools in New York whom I’d also had a fight with. It was warm, and we wanted to go fishing and swimming. We got into the boat, which was not ours. Joey, being a pro at stealing cars, got the engine started. We both jumped in and went down the canals out to Reynolds Channel. We were having a good old time, just going around. We knew where everybody would be later in the afternoon—the tennis courts. As the then-popular disc-jockey “Murray the Kay” would say on his “swinging soirée,” it was where we would go with our dates to watch the “submarine races.”

As I mentioned, Joey Burrel was a world-class swimmer, and I was pretty good, too. Newman, who came originally from the Bronx, told us he wasn’t much of a water man. We started to show off. Everybody was cheering from the shore; they knew who we were. We were doing figure eights, going backwards and forward in circles. We were having a terrific afternoon together, until … We noticed from going around in all these erratic directions that the back of the boat was filling, and filling quickly. What do you do? Man overboard! Joey went in like a fish, and I was next. It was approximately a half mile to shore, maybe less. No big deal, we were on our way to shore anyway. Newman went down with the ship. He had on big heavy dungarees. Joey was on shore first, already smoking a cigarette. I was coming up second. Of course the boat was sinking, and Newman was struggling out there. His head was underwater. Joey was taking bets, with cigarettes, as to whether Newman would make it.

He came up, he went down, he came up, he went down. Finally, he was able to get up out of the gunk and clumsily started for shore. We had to jump in and swim back out to help him. He was panting and flopping like a wet flounder.

Two days later, my parents woke me at three in the afternoon. There were two detectives who wanted to know what I knew about the boat. They took me down to the police station, put the hot light on, and started questioning me. I didn’t crack under the pressure. I never gave up Joey, who was on probation. Newman they already knew about.

So much for my summer of loafing. They told me that I had to pay the man back for his boat, so I got a job sanding cabinets for the entire summer. Everything I made had to be paid back to the boat’s owners. Newman had to do the same.

My reminiscing ended when a blood-curdling scream came out of one of the cells. I stuffed rags in my ears. It was a death cry—one of many.

                                  ****

Three months into my incarceration, my teeth were bleeding from the diet, and my clothes were all starting to fall apart. I sat down, and was very quiet.

I concentrated, and said very softly, “If I can get out of here, I will change.”

I was not religious. I’d been bar-mitzvahed, but after that, or even before, I hadn’t given much thought to any God or divine being helping me, but at this point I had nowhere else to go. I decided to try to make a deal. I gave God my word that I would change if I could get out of there, that I would help other people. That I would try to live a moral vision of some kind.

It was getting dark.

I said, “Please get me out of here. I can’t take it. Please!”

In the depths of my despair, a powerful fantasy took shape. I imagined a sort of prison Olympics, and I got the guards to go along. It was easy because they would give us extra time to do things if we’d stay out there and be productive—by cleaning up and working on the grounds. So by building the high jump and broad jump pads, I was also able to clean up the grounds. Then I got wood from the woodshop and we made hurdles. And I got them to provide lime so we could make lines on the track, and I set up coaching classes to teach them what I knew. The prison was divided into three parts, and word got out about what we were doing in our part. And others volunteered to do it as well. The guards got involved. Watching us all train made their jobs easier. Most of the inmates were uncoordinated, and many were inept. But they tried; they were good sports. I gave them encouragement and set up competitions—the fifty-yard dash, the high jump—everybody got involved.

One afternoon, there was a commotion, and we discovered that the supervisor of prisons for the southern district of Spain had come by and watched what we were doing. They called me in the office the next day and told me it would be okay to have the games in two weeks, on a Sunday, so the guards could bring their families and have wine and cheese. And then they asked if some of the guards could participate in some events. Why not? It was turning into a carnival, like a baby Olympics!

On the day of the jailhouse Olympics, the stands were packed and there were bands playing loud music, and people were taking pictures. I was planning to pole-vault my way to freedom, but I couldn’t isolate myself to take a run at the wall. It was impossible. Everybody was watching me. I got down on my knees, asking, “What am I going to do”?

The next morning, I had a very high fever and diarrhea. I suppose the dream was part of the delirium of being sick.

Suddenly, the main guard banged on my cell, shook the doors and screamed, “¡Andale!”

They chained me and handcuffed me, and put a manacle around my waist and legs, and marched me into the warden’s office. They had a conversation, but all I got out of it was, “…mucho urgente… no más… malo… americanos…” No good. I didn’t know what was going on.

I did not have control over my bowels, and they wouldn’t let me go to the baño. Instead, they took me to another room, where I saw my suitcase and Weenie’s. I had money stashed in my suitcase, and an extra set of keys for the Peugeot that was who knows where. I was sure I was hallucinating as they told me to strip, threw me a towel, and led me into the showers and told me to clean myself up.

I got into my old street clothes, which no longer fit, grabbed my suitcase and Weenie’s, and was escorted out through the giant gates. A beat-up bus pulled up with a group of shackled prisoners—men with head and leg wounds, battered and torn—some Basques who had blown up a bank. Perhaps they needed my hotel room. But what about Weenie?

Much to my surprise, the guards escorted me back to the Peugeot to get my personal things. It was still locked up in its own little custom’s prison with hundreds of other cars. I took out my extra suitcase, a canteen, my walking boots, and some pesetas. I also took the rest of the jewels, gold, and cash I had hidden in the air conditioning system.

Luckily, the guards weren’t watching me. Then I got a cab to take me to the Hotel Christina.

I was free. But not Weenie. By sheer luck they kicked me out to make space for the Basque bombers. But my friend, the guy who came to Europe to help me find the love of my life, sat rotting in this hell hole. I had to get him out—somehow. And then I had to find my girl.

Categories: Memoir | Tags: | Leave a comment

Juggle and Hide, by Sharon van Ivan

Juggle and Hide-BEATitle: Sharon van Ivan

Genre: Memoir

Author: Sharon van Ivan

Website: http://www.cygnetpress.com/juggle-and-hide

Publisher: Cygnet Press

Purchase on Amazon

Juggle and Hide is award-winning writer Sharon van Ivan’s dizzying story of her unconventional, often harrowing, and 
sometimes hilarious life. With a childhood split between time with her alcoholic mother in Akron, Ohio and her gambling dad in Brooklyn, New York, as well as other challenging family members along the way, she was destined to find comfort on the edge and in the company of highly creative and self-destructive individuals.

Hers is a story of getting drunk and getting sober, of triumphs and failures in her work as an actor and screenwriter, and of exhilarating love affairs, including her twenty-year relationship with the renowned artist Charles Pfahl. The book is quirky and compelling, and engaging on many levels. Sharon takes the reader on a roller coaster ride into the depths of personal tragedy with unexpected outcomes.

 

Part I

Chapter 1

Mommy’s Home 

I cannot remember a time when I was not my mother’s keeper.

I stare at the back of my mother’s head. I sit on her bed. I look over her shoulder and see in the three-sided dressing table mirror that her face is slightly puffy from having her teeth pulled earlier in the day… all of them… and insisting the hack dentist fit the dentures over her raw gums.

“Reach in there and get me my lipstick.”

I dig around in her navy blue leather purse, find a shiny black tube and hold it out to her.

“Revlon. Persian Melon.”

When she reaches for it, I see how beautiful her nails are. Also, Persian Melon.

She slathers the orangish-red lipstick on, under and over her swollen lips and then smacks her lips together.

“You are damned lucky. You got your father’s lips. Get me a Kleenex.”

I hand one to her and she gently blots her puckered lips. I continue to gaze at the back of her head while she finishes putting on her going-out-tonight face.

“Get my shoes, and don’t ask which ones.”

A bit of rummaging in her overflowing closet and I find the new navy blue sling-back pumps she bought to match the dress she is wearing tonight.

She slips the shoes on, stands up and looks at herself for a long time in the distorting full-length mirror on the wall next to her closet.

”You’re beautiful, Mommy.”

“I make myself beautiful. See how everything matches: shoes, purse, dress, everything. Blue. Promise me you will never, never buy cheap makeup.”

And without looking at me, she hisses,

“Stop biting your nails or you won’t ever get a husband. Do I have any lipstick on my teeth?”

She bares her new false teeth in sort of a smile.

I shake my head. She looks like a movie star. I wish I had long curly auburn hair and creamy white skin. My hair is straight and dirty blonde like my father’s.

On the way to the front door, she reminds me to not ask her again what time she will come home.

“I lost my keys. You’ll have to let me in.”

Then she is gone.

The sweet smell of Arpege cologne or toilet water or perfume—it annoys her that I never knew which is which— is all that is left of her.

I clean up her getting-ready–to-go-out mess.

Afterward I go to bed fully clothed not knowing whom she might bring home or whether I will even hear her when she bangs on the door. I pray aloud to someone—to anyone—to keep her safe.

At three a.m., I walk the two long blocks to Pete’s.

I stand outside for a few minutes beneath the neon sign flashing “Pete’s View Lunch.” There is no view. There is no window. And I don’t think they serve lunch.

The door is propped open with an old brown wooden chair. Taking a deep breath and walking into the crowded bar, with the sickening smell of stale beer, cigarettes and misplaced rage all around me, I search for Pete.

Pete spots me right away.

Pete has no teeth. Not even one.

“Looking for Mommy?”

I nod.

He winks at me and points with his middle finger toward the back. I want to ask him why he has no index fingers, but my mind is on finding my mother.

I push my way through the drunks to the back of the dark narrow room to the bathroom.

I open the door and there she is lying face down on the filthy floor, near the once white toilet.

She has on one navy-blue shoe, but her purse is gone. I roll her over with some difficulty and see that the Persian Melon is all but gone, too.

I wet my hands in the disgusting sink and splash cold water on her face.

“What the hell are you doing here, you goddamn little spy? Always watching me.”

In an attempt to sit up, she bangs her head on the empty toilet paper holder.

Pete knocks on the door.

“You girls decent?”

He sticks his head in and holds the door open.

“She was in rare form tonight. Caused a real stink with Carney Wells and Crazy Marie.”

“Come on. Mommy, let’s go home.”

“Leave me alone. What are you doing here anyway?”

Then she sees Pete.

“Pete, honey, get me a Seven and Seven.”

Pete looks at me and winks again.

“You’ve had your last drink for tonight. I called you and your kid a cab.”

Pete and I pull, push, and shove her into the yellow City Cab. He gives the driver our address on Jewett Street and a couple of dollars.

“Thank you, Pete.”

He leans into the cab and gives me a sloppy wet kiss.

On the way home, my mother puts her head in my lap and curses me over and over again for ruining her night, her life.

At our place, I ask the driver to please help me get my mother inside. He is a nice guy. He helps me.

Once inside, she wrenches herself away from us and stumbles and lands on the couch.

The cab driver looks at me like I’m a sideshow freak.

“What are you about six years old?”

“Eight.”

I quickly lock the door after he leaves.

Then I hear my baby brother cry out from his crib in my bedroom.

“It’s okay, Bobby. Go to sleep now. Mommy’s home. Mommy’s home.”

 

Categories: Memoir | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Message from a Blue Jay, by Faye Rapoport DesPres

Blue-Jay-Cover-10.2-for-webuseTitle: Message from a Blue Jay

Genre: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir-in-Essays

Author: Faye Rapoport DesPres

Website: http://www.FayeRapoportDesPres.com

Publisher: Buddhapuss Ink LLC

Purchase on Amazon

From an astonishing blue jay to a lone humpback whale, from the back roads of her hometown to the streets of Jerusalem and the Tower of London, debut author Faye Rapoport DesPres examines a modern life marked by a passion for the natural world, unexpected love, and shocking loss, and her search for a place she can finally call home in this beautifully crafted memoir-in-essays.

Three weeks before DesPres’s fortieth birthday, nothing about her life fit the usual mold. She is single, living in a rented house in Boulder, Colorado, fitting dance classes and nature hikes between workdays at a software start-up that soon won’t exist. While contemplating a sky still hazy from summer wildfires, she decides to take stock of her nomadic life and find the real reasons she never “settled down.” The choices she makes from that moment on lead her to retrace her steps-in the States and abroad-as she attempts to understand her life. But instead of going back, she finds herself moving forward to new love, horrible loss, and finally, in a way that she never expected, to a place she can almost call home.
Readers who love the memoirs and personal essays of rising contemporary writers such as Cheryl Strayed, Joy Castro, and Kim Dana Kupperman will appreciate Faye’s observational eye, her passion for the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it, and her search for the surprising truths behind the events of our daily lives.

Chapter One

 

No One Watches the Old Lady Dance

 

The sun warms my legs as they lie on the edge of a white plastic lawn chair. I have always felt critical when I look at my legs, at least since the age of fourteen. They are, after all, too large, too muscular, marked in places with small, white keloid scars. I remind myself that these legs are strong; in a few weeks they will have carried me through forty years. Just this week they hiked to the summit of Mount Sanitas, a quarter mile from the house I rent in Boulder, Colorado. Yet I wrestle with ambivalence about my hips, and soon I look away. My body and me, approaching middle age, not speaking.

A chill in the air forecasts fall. I cross my arms, trying to snuggle more tightly into my old, worn-out sweatshirt. The flower garden is tangled and ragged, retreating from its summer glory. A few red and white roses remain. They bask in the sunshine among the remnants of what was once a chorus of colors transformed daily by blooms. My arms cramp up. I reach above my head, grasp one hand in the other, and stretch, feeling my shoulders pop.

Above my head, magpies quarrel with two squirrels in a canopy of leaves. The grass is lush now, neatly mowed, a green gift of the September rains that have washed away the parched, brown summer. Cool air trickles into my lungs. I attempt a deep breath, but my chest feels shallow. Three years ago when I moved to Colorado, I was thirty-six and alone. I’d traveled from New York to Boston, then to England, New York again, Israel, and back to New York. Wherever I landed, my life started, stopped, revved up again, sputtered. I could never get comfortable. Things kept falling apart.

I had hoped that Boulder, on the edge of the mountains and inviting to thirty-somethings without wedding rings, would become my home. This hope persisted for a couple of years. I’ve loved living among the skiers and the bike paths, but now I’m restless again. I’m still alone, and soon I’ll be forty. Does the tightness in my chest reflect a sense of foreboding? It could be simpler than that—caused only by the smoke and haze hanging in the sky after a summer of blazing wildfires.

I’ve been told that life is less painful if you stay in the present, dismiss the past, and avoid thoughts of the future. Be here, now. So I try to stay here, with my breath and the smoke and the sky and the sun on my skin. But memories beat their fists at my door and beckon through the windows with crooked fingers. I am tempted and give in; my mind slips out.

I see an eleven-year-old girl. A boy is teasing her, calling her “button chest.” She is embarrassed by the changes in her body. She wants to run fast like the boys. Her mother is at home doing laundry, depressed. The girl doesn’t want to end up like her mother. She doesn’t like dolls; she wants to be strong. Her body is betraying her.

Now the girl is thirteen. They didn’t let her join the Little League team; they won’t let her play soccer at school. She joins the gymnastics team. She has dark eyes, pigtails, and a clear-skinned face. She dances on the mat, dips down and stretches, moves in time with the recorded music. She reaches toward the audience, turns and stands straight, pauses for a moment at the corner of the mat. She raises herself on her toes as the music speeds up. Then she runs, turns and twists, tumbles in the air, and lands standing on the mat, arms up. Her chin lifts, and she flashes a smile. The audience applauds. The judges’ pencils move quickly across clipboards.

Older selves replace the thirteen-year-old girl. They appear and recede at a distance. A high school girl in a peasant costume sings “Matchmaker” on an auditorium stage. She is told her performance was affecting, but the next day she pulls on her gymnastics leotard and stares at her body in the mirror. She is embarrassed by the size of her hips. At the end of the day she writes in her diary, listing every calorie she put in her mouth. The boys eye the cheerleaders who have slim, perfect legs, wear lipgloss, and blow-dry their hair. She knows that is what it means to be pretty, and she also knows she is not that. She wants the boys to like her, but not for the things that she wishes she could make disappear.

A college student with long, unkempt hair, in patched blue jeans and a Grateful Dead t-shirt sits alone at the edge of a pond near her dorm. During summer break, her boyfriend visits. He lifts her shirt and glances at her backside. “Not bad,” he says. She is glad that she has not gained weight.

A woman  in  Boston, twenty-seven now, says a tearful good-bye to a man who is leaving. She should not bother to cry. She won’t see him again for five years, and when she does she will no longer care. But I can’t tell her this; she stops eating and drops to 103 pounds. She thinks her reflection in the mirror finally looks good, but her friends at work ask if she is sick. She leaves. She boards a plane for Israel, where she lives in the desert and takes Hebrew classes. She starts eating again and begins to gain weight, and berates herself for starting to look heavy.

She hikes through the desert and swims in the Dead Sea. She sings “On My Own” from Les Misérables at a small coffeehouse, accompanied by a pianist. The people at the tables clap their hands. She has given another great performance.

I am back in the garden, watching one of the squirrels make his way down a tree toward the roses. Upside down, he clings to the bark and stops to lift his head, assessing any danger I might present. “I won’t bother you,” I tell him. The squirrel understands and continues his descent. I glance at a nearby Tupperware dish to be sure there is water inside. I started leaving water for the squirrels after one of them followed me around one morning in the middle of the scorching summer. I was watering the flowers, and he drank from the end of the hose.

How I crave a sip of my own gentleness.

Friends have been relentless in their crusade to convince me that forty is not old. It’s a beginning, they explain, not an end. “Remember,” one said, “on your birthday you are just one day older.” Still, I sense that I am running out of time.

My mind slips away again. The woman, twenty-nine, is back in the States. She sits in a doctor’s office. She is shaking, her mother beside her. Now she is wheeled into an operating room. She panics, and the nurses sedate her. A hot, white light hangs above her head. She sees masked faces. Hands pat her arms gently in an attempt to offer comfort. Voices grow softer, more distant. Tears slide down her cheeks. She has a tumor. They will fix it, but she will never have children.

Her body has betrayed her.

Back in the garden, I focus fiercely on the red and white roses. They blur as tears sting my eyes. It occurs to me that my body and I have been estranged for a decade. I have been banished from the only shelter I ever occupied. But did my body betray me? Or did a childhood battle become a full-blown war?

My mind drifts back a few days. I am taking a dance class in a dimly lit exercise studio. Dirt from the wood floor grinds into my feet. Hot spots burn my toes where blisters are forming. Still, I dance, twist and turn with three other women in the class. The teacher is slim and young, with a blond ponytail and a small tattoo of a rose on her right shoulder. She wears black stretch pants and a tiny tank top. Noticing the top, I feel ashamed and embarrassed. Beneath the embarrassment is anger I stuff down. My chest is too large for tiny tank tops, and I must be careful to wear shirts that hide scars. I glance into the mirror and wait for the voice that I know will soon enter my head. It happens when my right arm moves up. My shoulders and arms are too thick, it says. My legs are too large. I glance at the legs of the woman beside me. She is thin and pretty and sleek, and I wish that I looked like her.

In the garden, I stare at my hands. They are red, the skin dry. I lift them and hold them up to the sky.

I am here, yet somewhere else, not now, someday. The garden is knotty and tangled and old, but I understand that it was once beautiful. In fact, it is still beautiful. I see disarray but also past glory, and have affection for them both. I hear music and feel my body dancing. My hair is long and gray, and it tickles the bare skin on my shoulders. When my arms move to the side, there is a twinge of pain. Still, I move with the music. My legs bend, and my hips begin to sway. I smile and turn my face to the sun, then lower my arms and hug my chest. I take a deep breath. I am home.

No one watches the old lady dance, just a cat who sits on the fence. Or maybe the cat is watching the magpies. They are quarreling with the squirrels in the leaves above my head, on a cool September day in Boulder, Colorado, three weeks before my fortieth birthday.

 

Copyright © 2014 Faye Rapoport DesPres

Previously published in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact

 

Categories: Memoir | Tags: | Leave a comment

First Chapter Reveal: Hamster Island, by Joan Heartwell

HamsterIsland_medTitle: Hamster Island

Author: Joan Heartwell

Genre: Memoir

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Purchase from Amazon B&N / OmniLit

 “Bittersweet, engagingly written, and populated by a household of strong-willed, idiosyncratic characters, Hamster Island has, at its core, a conflict familiar to us all: How can we be good to others while also being good to ourselves? This is a matter of profound importance to Joan Heartwell: her brother had an intellectual disability, her sister a psychiatric one, and her parents were consumed by their own unhappiness. Joan’s six-decade journey to find the answer starts in a 1950s world limited by religion and rules, and ends in a contemporary world open to generosity and love. This tale of caregiving and self-actualization is unique, but it abounds with insights for us all.”

—Rachel SimonNew York Times bestselling author of Riding The Bus With My Sister and The Story of Beautiful Girl  

————————————————-

Chapter One

Miracle Climb

Grandma doesn’t give a hoot about shrines, but if visiting some means getting out of the house for a few days, she is all for it. She hates the house—especially on weekends when my father is home. She hates my father. He is loud and dirty and he pisses like a racehorse. The bathroom is centrally located, right between the room I share with my brother and my parents’ room, right at the end of short hall that joins both bedrooms with the living and dining rooms. We can easily hear him pissing, and grandma is right: it does sound like something big—as big as a horse—is in there. A worse offense, in her mind, is that he takes the long-sleeved shirts she feels obligated to buy him every Christmas and on his birthdays and cuts the sleeves off. Since he doesn’t bother to hem them, the edges fray, more and more over time, and she hates him most when she sees him wearing faded shirts with sleeves that have frayed edges. Still, she goes on buying them, and he goes on accepting them without a word of complaint.

It is Tyla Topal who has invited us to go to Montreal to see shrines. Tyla is a widow like my grandmother. She lives across the street in a tidy brick ranch-style house with her three children, the youngest of whom is Denise, my best friend. Since it has already been decided that Denise will go on this trip with her mother, it is all important to my grandmother that I be allowed to go as well. That way we will be matched sets—two widows, two little girls to keep each other company.

But when we leave the Topal house and go into our own, my mother says no. No, I can’t take off time from school. She is sitting at the dining room table, her face puffy and unhappy looking, her short dark hair looking like it was cut with a hatchet. She has the appearance of someone who has been freshly insulted. Her eyes blink out the code for her confusion. She doesn’t get us, Grandma and me. We are a mystery to her. David, my brother, who is two years older than me, is sitting on her lap. On the table is a checkerboard. We have caught them at play.

My mother and grandmother argue for a while. “Why the hell…?” my grandmother asks. That is how she starts all her questions. Grandma reminds my mother that my grades are perfect, that taking off a few days from school will not make much of a difference. My mother says there is not enough money for me to go on such a trip. Grandma says I don’t need money, that she will cover my expenses herself. My mother says it’s not fair for me to go since David has not been invited.

Grandma stops arguing for a moment to look at him. We both do. He is squirming on my mother’s lap, getting cranky because while she’s still playing, still moving pieces around the board, she’s not really paying attention anymore. David has terrible allergies, and his big beak of a nose is red and his eyes are watery. He breathes through his mouth. His bottom lip hangs loose, as if it weighs too much for any normal lip muscle to support it. Sometimes a string of saliva will drip from one side of his mouth, though nothing is dripping just now. “What the heck’s the matter with that woman, anyway?” my mother finally asks, breaking the spell. “Doesn’t she have enough to do with a house and kids? Who the heck does she think she is, with her highfalutin trips? You want to go, fine, but she stays here.” And with that she casts an angry glance in my direction.

For all that my mother’s domestic routine is based almost exclusively on my grandmother’s guidelines, when it comes to my brother or me, once she makes a decision, she will not budge. “I guess you’ll have to stay home, Joan,” my grandmother says. But when I look at her, I can see in her eyes that she is only egging me on, letting me know that she’s done what she can and now it is my turn to go a round in the ring.

At first I’m not sure what more can be said to change my mother’s mind. But then it comes to me, loud and clear. “Ma,” I say, approaching. As if he thinks I am coming to steal some of the checker pieces, my brother raises an arm threateningly and emits a sound that is midway between a growl and a hum. “Ma, this is not just any old trip. This is a trip about God. This is the kind of trip God would want me to go on, because He wants me to be closer to Him. And this is a trip He would definitely want Grandma to go on, since she’s not close to Him at all.”

While my kickoff is dignified enough, as I continue, I collapse into a shameless whine: “And if you don’t let me go, then Grandma can’t go either, because Mrs. T already told Denise she could go, and she’s not going to want Grandma tagging along if only Denise’s going, and then you’ll be responsible for Grandma’s soul not getting saved. This is Grandma’s big chance. If she goes to hell, it’s all your fault.”

My mother’s eyes flood slowly with tears of frustration. She doesn’t raise her hands from the checkerboard to wipe them away. She lets them pool there. She lets us have a good look at them. Once again I have filled her with unhappiness, and now it is running over. It is palpable, unavoidable, soaking through everything in the room. Her head droops. “I know God wants us to go on this trip,” I add gravely, through my teeth.

My mother has broken. Grandma and I exchange a quick look that confirms we both know this, but we stay quiet and wait. My mother is the most devout Catholic on the face of the earth. She will deny God nothing. Nothing at all. “Go ahead and go,” she snaps, lifting her head. “Go ahead. Go. I don’t care anymore what you do.”

*

And so it is that a few days later we leave for Montreal, me and Denise and Mrs. T and Grandma. Mrs. T drives us to the bus terminal and there we park the car and get on a waiting bus with other people taking the tour. The women sit behind us on the bus, and for hours and hours they talk and talk. It surprises me to see how chummy they are; at home my grandmother says plenty of nasty things about Mrs. T. She calls her a know-it all, a conniver, a whiner. But now they are the best of friends, agreeable on every matter. Grandma mostly talks about my father, about how much she despises him, and Mrs. T clicks her tongue disgustedly in response, as if to say she totally understands. Grandma also talks about her job, the people she works with at the garment factory; Mrs. T talks about various neighbors in her nasal, heavily-inflected voice. They are comfortable in each other’s company.

Denise and I take turns sitting by the window. When it is my turn, I rest my head against the glass. I know as surely as I know my name that I am getting sick, that I am coming down with a fever. My throat rages and I can barely keep my eyes open. But I have never been out of New Jersey before, let alone out of the country. And I know Mrs. T and Grandma will find a way to make the driver turn the bus around and take us back to Bergen County if they learn that something is wrong with me.

We reach Montreal in the evening and stay the night at a hotel that is glorious. The halls are wide and dark and thickly carpeted. There are alcoves on every floor, small sitting areas where you can look out the window at the city lights. I have never been in a hotel before and I can’t believe my good fortune, that my first one should be this one, a hotel as big and old and dark as a castle. We put our suitcases down in our room and decide who is sleeping in which bed—me and Grandma in one and the Topals in the other. The adults are still gossiping. If it were just my grandmother and me, she wouldn’t let me out of her sight. But Denise tells her mother that we are going to explore, and when Mrs. T says to go ahead, just be careful and don’t get lost, my grandmother doesn’t make a peep.

Then we are gone, flying down halls, soaring up through elevators, gliding down stairs, alighting on every sofa and wing-backed chair in every alcove, smudging every window with our noses and our breath. We are two princesses in this fine, dark castle—one small, petite, and beautiful, with long dark banana curls, as light on her feet as fairy dust, her laughter a jangling of tiny bells; the other, bigger, chubby, clumsy, not incapable of falling over her own feet, tripping over her shadow, a bowl of dark straight thick hair gleaming atop her head like the helmet of a knight. We hide on each other and shriek with joy when we are found. Our little girl voices echo back to us. It seems that we are the only people in the whole castle, in the whole world. It is the best night of my life.

In the morning we have breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I order French toast because I am in Quebec. Everyone laughs when I explain myself. I am beet red with fever, my throat is swollen and practically closed, my breath is insufferable, my vision is so blurry I can hardly see what the others are eating, and my head is so thick that I feel as if I am hearing the conversation from under water. But as no one notices, I don’t volunteer the information. Everyone is talking and laughing and having fun. We are having an adventure and no one, not even Denise, needs to know I am as sick as a dog.

After breakfast we board the bus that will take us to the first shrine. While we travel, the driver tells us a bit about where we are going and what we can expect. For the most part I don’t pay attention. Just keeping my eyes open takes enough of an effort. But then I catch something about a chapel at the top of a hill where miracles occur. Even in my leaden state I quickly become excited.

I know all about miracles. I go to a Catholic school and we talk about miracles every single day, usually in the late morning just before lunch, and sometimes again at the end of the day. We talk about sinners who have seen the floors split open before them, who have miraculously been granted the glimpses of hell that ultimately turn them away from sin and save their souls. We talk about Our Lady of Fatima, Joan of Arc, statues that weep, hands that bleed, food that multiplies…. I love miracles. I have been praying all my life for a miracle of some kind, even a small one, but it hasn’t happened yet. I demand that Denise explain what the driver has been talking about. Denise, who attends the same school and has in fact experienced a miracle (she awoke one morning to find the Blessed Virgin Mary sitting at the foot of her bed) says that this chapel of miracles that we are going to can be gained by ascending a flight of almost three hundred stairs on your knees. The pain is enormous, horrendous. But if you get to the top and go into the chapel there, you can pray for whatever you want and your prayers will be answered. St. Joseph rules over the chapel; he’s the one you pray to. That’s all she remembers, she says.

We bounce along on the bus. I stare at her with my mouth open, in part because I am speechless and in part because I can no longer breathe through my nose. She stares back at me for a while, expressionless. When she looks away, I glance at the faces of the other people I can see, a man and a woman sitting across the aisle holding hands, and the profile of the young woman sitting just in front of them. They all stare ahead or out the window, their expressions too vague to read. Behind us, Grandma and Mrs. T are still chatting, speculating now on whether an old woman in our neighborhood might be not the mother she pretends to be but the grandmother of the child who lives with her, and if so, what improprieties that might suggest. How is it, I wonder, that we are not all on our knees? That we are not all holding our hands over our hearts to keep them contained? That we are not all chanting Alleluia, Alleluia, Gloria in excelsis Deo?

I know I am going up those stairs on my knees, even if I have to run away from Grandma to do so and endure her nagging for the rest of my life. I think about all the things I can pray for when I get to the top. There is Francis Amato, the boy I am in love with. I stare at him constantly in class. When we get up to pray or sing or do the pledge, I stare at his straight back, willing him to turn his head and look at me. He did once. Once he twisted his neck and turned his head and one eye fell on me, and in that instant I flushed crazily and knew I wanted one day to marry him, only him, my Francis, my true love. I could pray for that.

But getting married is years away—and besides, everyone in our class knows that Francis wants to go into the priesthood—and I am only a little kid. I am torn between ensuring my future and praying for something more immediate. Money, maybe, money for toys, lots of toys, and then if there is any extra, for my family. Money so that my father doesn’t have to work so many jobs, so that we can have a nicer house, so that my mother can buy me school uniforms that fit and not stuff I will “eventually grow into.” But then I remember that the nuns have warned against praying for money, and while it is great fun to imagine all the bikes and hula hoops and yo-yos and pick-up-sticks and cut-outs and View Masters I could buy, I know in the end I will not take the risk. I know what God is like when He is angry. I know that He can (and does) hear my thoughts and see my every move. At the end of the world, the nuns remind us at least once a week, each of our lives will be run on a screen of air, like a drive-in movie, from beginning to end, and everyone will see what everyone else did—and thought! We all stare at them, speechless, when they say that. We all imagine how it will be to see one another in the bathroom. Peeing. Picking our noses. Wiping our backsides. It will be awful, awful. And for me it will be worse. Everyone will know that once, when my brother and I were jumping up and down on the bed back at the old house, I struck out at him with a belt I happened to be holding and the buckle made his head bleed. Everyone will hate me for that.

Just the thought of David settles me down. Day-Wit, he calls himself, because he cannot get the “v” sound right. What a shame they had to name him something he can’t pronounce. I close my eyes and drift away, thinking that I may never come to Montreal again, that I may never have another chance to go to a chapel that is miraculous, where all you have to do is climb some stairs on your knees to get your wish. For all that I was the ogre princess last night, sister to the great and beautiful Princess Denise, co-guardian of the ancient dark castle (and for all that I become a mermaid almost nightly, slipping two legs in one flannel pajama pant leg, imagining long curls flowing from my head instead of my short Buster Brown crop, swimming in a lagoon with the other mermaids, awaiting the arrival of Peter Pan), I am a serious child. And I know in the end I will pray a serious prayer.

Denise pokes me awake. We have arrived. We follow the others off the bus. As much as Denise and I want to take off and explore, the adults insist we eat again. It takes forever. I’m not even hungry. My grandmother is astonished, because I always have an appetite. I force myself to order something, French fries (again, in keeping with the French theme) so that she won’t suspect I am half dead.

Finally we are out in the sun, standing on the street in front of the church. The sky is so bright and the sun so strong that it hurts my eyes to look up, but when I do I see that the church is built onto the side of a hill and it features a great silver dome. Mrs. T, who has a guidebook, tells us that while construction began initially just after the turn of the century, it is still going on today and we will find that some areas are closed. It seems to me that almost sixty years is way too long to complete a project, even one as beautiful as the one before us.

We approach the stairs, which are separated into three sections by handrails. A few people in the center section are on their knees. The people on both the sides are walking up normally. I nudge Denise. “Joan and me want to climb up on our knees,” she tells her mother. Mrs. T immediately grabs her by the shoulder of her coat and drags her to her side. “You’ll ruin your clothes,” she snaps. Denise looks back at me, over her shoulder, as she begins to climb beside her mother. Her expression tells me nothing about how we are going to get free of the adults.

When we get to the top, the adults huffing and puffing after the long slow climb, Grandma and Mrs. T say they want to go into the main section of the church, to light candles and pray for the dead. Denise’s father’s name was Lou, and though he’s only been dead a few years, I can’t remember much more than his fuzzy gray-brown hair, the way it separated at the top of his head. Mr. T had a small Syrian grocery store that he would sometimes drive us to, me and Denise and Mrs. T, on Sundays, when the store was closed. That way he could do his paperwork in peace; Mrs. T could go up and down the aisles and pick out canned foods to bring home and store in their basement for when the Russians attacked; and Denise and I could pretend it was our store and carry on conversations with phantom customers. (“I saw you steal that sugar, you thief! You put it back or I’ll call the cops.” “Oh, yeah? Who’s going to make me?”) Once, when I was getting in the car to make the trip with the Topals, the car door slammed closed on my fingers and Mrs. T sent me home, crying, carrying my bruised hand in my good one, and off they went without me, Denise on her knees, watching me, getting smaller and smaller in the back window.

My grandmother’s husband’s name was Lou too, and I don’t remember much more about him than I do Mr. T. Once, at the old house, where we lived until I was five, I fell in the river that used to be our backyard, and my grandfather, who was fishing at the time, saved me. I know from my mother, who adored him, that he liked to sit outside under a tree when there was lightning and that he was forever bringing home stray dogs. I know from my grandmother that she would take his stray dogs for long walks, and then hop a bus and come home without them. When asked where Spotty or Rusty or Snappy had gone, she would play dumb. “How the hell should I know?” she would ask him.

I am tempted to tell Mrs. T that my grandmother never goes to church, that she says the roof will cave in if she does, that she didn’t even really like my grandfather and is likely to be thinking about something else entirely when she lights her candle. My grandmother is playing along, pretending to be interested in churches for the sheer pleasure of Mrs. T’s company, for the chance to go on trips like this. When Mrs. T says, “Come on, girls, let’s go in,” I hold my breath. I can only hope that Denise will tell her mother that we have other plans. I do not talk to Mrs. T myself, at least not to say anything contrary. I am afraid of her. With my grandmother here it’s not so bad, but when it’s just me at their house, I don’t even lift my eyes.

Denise doesn’t let me down. “We want to wait outside,” she demands in her little girl voice, her hands on her hips. She is so adorable that both women break form to exchange a quick smile.

“Why?” Mrs. T asks.

“It’s nice out. We want to stand in the sunshine.”

“No no no,” Grandma butts in. “You girls are crazy. We’re in a foreign country. Someone could snatch you and we’d never find you again.”

“We promise,” I chime in. “We won’t go anywhere. We’ll wait right here, just stand in the sun.”

Mrs. T’s thin lips press together under her hook of a nose. She shakes her head. “Oh, let them, Maggie,” she says to my grandmother. “They’ll be okay.” She looks me up and down and I can’t read what she is thinking.

The women go in, my grandmother turning her head to shoot daggers at me and Mrs. T reaching into her purse for a black lace doily to place on her head. As soon as the big wooden doors shut behind them, Denise and I run down the stairs we have just climbed up, quickly, skirting current climbers as if we are skiing down an obstacle course. “What are you going to pray for?” I ask Denise breathlessly as we near the bottom.

“Not telling,” she responds.

“Why?”

“Might not come true.”

“Did the driver say that?”

“I know that; that’s how it works.”

“Like wishing on a star?”

“Yeah.”

“I think you’re wrong. Why would God care if someone told or not? He’s God, not some shooting star.”

She doesn’t answer. Even though I’m arguing with her, I know I’m not telling either. Why take the chance?

Once we are on our knees, the church at the top seems very far away. And even when we reach it, we will have no idea how to find the chapel of miracles. We can’t ask; from what I can tell, most of the people here are speaking other languages. And I’m not supposed to talk to strangers anyway.

Denise looks upward too. “Do we really need to go on our knees?” she asks.

“Do you want a miracle or not? But we better move fast. When they come out and don’t see us, they’ll throw a fit.”

“Your grandmother will. My mother will know we’re just exploring.”

“Come on. Let’s go. Three hundred steps. Three hundred prayers.”

We are only on the bottom step and already it hurts like hell. We are wearing skirts and knee socks, and our knees are exposed. Denise is wearing a little pale green coat that is the same length as her skirt and the same color as her knee socks. She has a bow that color in her hair as well. Her shoes are black patent leather with T straps. Mrs. T always likes to make her beautiful, like a little doll. It is her greatest pleasure. Every day when I call for her for school, I must stand at the door in the kitchen and watch while Mrs. T, seated sideways at the kitchen table, puts the finishing touches on Denise’s banana curls, brushing each curl around her finger until it is perfect and then pulling her finger out so very carefully, so the curl will hold. Then Denise must gently, gently lift her hair while Mrs. T slides her coat over her shoulders. Only then can we leave for school.

As for me, I am wearing my brother’s reversible jacket, which doesn’t fit him anymore. One side is solid navy and the other is a navy and red plaid. Today I have the plaid side facing out. A pink plastic headband curves over the top of my straight black hair. (My mother says I must keep my hair short so it will be easier to dry. In the winter she dries it with the exhaust end of the vacuum cleaner, and it’s not fun for her—or me.) My knee socks are black, and I am wearing my school shoes, white and brown saddles. “Say a Hail Mary before you climb to the next one,” Denise warns.

“HailMaryfullofgracetheLordiswiththee,” I whisper. I say the words so quickly they sound like a mere rustling of wind in the trees. Denise is praying the same way. We look at each other and smile through our muttering. Without saying a word, we have just agreed that we will race, to see who can get to the top first. I am glad for this, glad that we will move quickly. I am worried about my grandmother being worried, and I have to fight to keep the thought of her worrying—and her anger—from overtaking me.

We pray so fast that we are really walking up the stairs on our knees, not stopping to pray on each one. We shudder and tremble with suppressed laughter. By the time we are halfway up, our knees are scraped raw, and while blood is not yet flowing, it is visible, beneath the outermost layer of purple skin. As we get closer to the top, we pray faster yet; watching each other’s mouths and eyes carefully as we mutter, still racing along despite the pain, still trying not to punctuate every Amen with wild laughter.

Finally we reach the top, and after ascertaining that the adults are not there looking for us, we begin a wild race from door to door in search of the chapel. I am the one who finally finds it, the door that leads into a long hallway full of candles, more candles than I have ever seen in my life. My head is burning with fever; every tooth in my mouth is screaming in pain; my eyes feel like they may pop out of my skull at any time. But I know as I enter the chapel that I am in a holy place, that I have arrived in the presence of the Lord—or at least in the presence of Saint Joseph—and in I float on a cloud of enchantment.

I am about to experience a miracle. I keep thinking about how so many of the saints were made to suffer right before their miracles happened. It’s all part of the process; I understand that now.

To our amazement, you cannot even see the walls of the chapel because they are totally covered with crutches, canes, and braces. I have never seen anything like it. I have to think for a minute why they would keep crutches on the walls, but then it hits me that these are the crutches of people who came up on their knees like us, who said their prayers and received their miracles. But how could a person on crutches get up all those stairs? I think about it some more and conclude that someone else must have gone up on their knees and said the prayers for them, and when they were cured, they carried the crutches up themselves. Some of the crutches and braces are very small. It takes my breath away to imagine all the children whose whole lives changed as a result of someone coming up here on their knees to pray for them. There is only one other person in the chapel, an old woman lighting a candle near the statue of St. Joseph. It is as quiet as a crypt.

Denise and I approach the wooden kneeler together and squeeze our eyes closed and pray. It only takes a few seconds. And once we are done, we do not linger. We are out of the chapel, rushing around to the front of the building to find the adults.

They are there in front of the main part of the church, turning in circles, shielding their eyes from the sun to look for us. When Mrs. T sees her daughter, her hand flies to her heart. My grandmother begins to mutter under her breath. I can see in her eyes that she is really angry. I am sure she will smack me, but when we get close, she only grabs my arm. “Where the hell were you?” she yells as she shakes me. I look around to see if anyone has heard her cursing in a holy place.

“We climbed the steps to the chapel,” Denise explains to her mother excitedly.

“What are you talking about? I told you not to do that. What about your clothes?”

“They’re fine. We said a prayer on each step, like the bus driver said. It was our only chance for a miracle!”

Mrs. T’s expression softens as she looks into her little daughter’s upturned face, her banana curls, mussed now, dangling halfway down her back. Mrs. T can’t help herself; her pressed lips part and she begins to laugh. My grandmother’s face stays pinched and angry. The year before she looked just like that, when I shot a suction-cup-tipped plastic arrow at her with my toy bow and arrow set. How shocked I was when the arrow landed on one of the lenses of her eyeglasses. And still I laughed—even though I knew what I had done was reprehensible—because it bobbed there for a moment while she screamed at me, making a booo-ooo-o-iiii-n-ing sound like you would hear in a cartoon. She didn’t speak to me for a whole week.

We get back on the bus and visit a few more churches, but they offer nothing unique and we don’t explore. Besides, now my grandmother won’t let me out of her sight. We stay at the beautiful hotel another night, but Denise is tired and doesn’t want to play castle. I almost never let an opportunity to play anything pass me by, but I don’t push her because I feel so sick. And the next morning we are back on the bus, heading for home. My grandmother is still angry. A couple of times I hear Mrs. T say, “Oh, they’re only kids, Maggie. That’s what kids do.”

When we are about halfway back to New Jersey, Denise asks me what I prayed for. “I can’t tell,” I say.

But Denise is persistent when she gets going, and she will not leave a thing alone. She tries everything. She offers to tell me what she prayed for. When that doesn’t work, she offers to tell me some secrets she knows about Debby, a girl who recently moved into the house around the corner. Debby is awesome. She is bigger even than me. She has a huge mop of frizzy red hair and she is almost always dirty. Although she is only eleven, she already has breasts. Debby will say anything to anyone. She is not afraid of her mother or anyone else’s mother, and, being a public school student, she only yawns when we talk about God.

When I don’t show any interest in Debby gossip, Denise threatens to tell Francis Amato I’m in love with him. When I still don’t give in, she says she won’t be my best friend anymore. I answer right away then, saying, “I prayed that I’ll be beautiful when I grow up.” Denise sits back, satisfied. “Me too,” she says.

I don’t believe her. Since I lied I figure she has too. Besides, she is already beautiful. She is beyond beautiful. She is perfect.

I freeze all the way home. My teeth chatter. My grandmother finally touches my head and exclaims, “Oh, my God, you’re burning with fever.” Mrs. T warns Denise not to get too close to me. Grandma tells Mrs. T that Virginia, her daughter, my mother, is going to kill her, that she didn’t want me to come in the first place.

I don’t even listen to them after a while. In spite of the fact that physically I am burning, dying, nearly delirious, spiritually I feel as calm as the settling dusk. I have made the ultimate sacrifice. I have given away my one chance for fame, beauty, an endless array of cut-out doll books and hula hoops and other possessions—I have even given away my one chance for a long life with Francis Amato—to pray for a miracle that is really meaningful. I can practically see Jesus smiling down on me.

We return to the parking lot at the bus terminal and get into Mrs. T’s car. In a short time, we are pulling into Mrs. T’s driveway. I turn my head to look behind me, at my house.

For all that they have talked endlessly for three days, my grandmother and Mrs. T still find more to say in the driveway. My grandmother is thanking Mrs. T profusely for inviting us. “It’s nothing, it’s nothing,” Mrs. T says. “You’ll have to come by soon and see Virginia,” my grandmother says, though Mrs. T almost never comes over to our house, and when Grandma and I go to visit her, my mother never comes along. I yank on Grandma’s elbow. I want to go home.

As we cross the street I fumble in my pocket for the souvenir I bought my mother. It is both a plastic replica of one of the churches we visited, and, if you turn it upside down, a pencil sharpener. Even I know it’s a cheesy gift. But I also know that my mother is the kind of a person who doesn’t mind cheesy gifts, who will say thank you no matter what you give her. She will also tell me my drawings are good even when I switch them with Denise’s.

The minute we walk in the kitchen door, I hear the TV blasting—not a good sign. My mother is standing in the dining room, near the window. She has been watching us, waiting for us to cross the street and come in. I rush to her and let her give me her quick pat-hug. She doesn’t notice that I am on fire.

“We had a great time,” I cry. But then I think about how Mrs. T likes my grandmother a hundred times more than her and I tone it down. “We had an okay time,” I say. I give her the church/pencil sharpener. “This is for you. It’s one of the churches we went to.”

Her face lights up as she ponders my gift. “Thank you,” she says, turning it in her hand. “It’s beautiful.” She has a faraway look, as if it reminds her of something wonderful that happened a long time ago.

“How’s David?” I ask.

She doesn’t answer. She is still studying the plastic church.

I run into the living room to see for myself. My brother is sitting on the floor, cross-legged, in front of the TV console. Dinosaurs are fighting on the screen, and beyond them, a little man in a loincloth is running from one boulder to another, trying to keep from getting hit with their smacking tails. “David, I’m home,” I call out over the noise. He doesn’t look at me. His mouth hangs open. His eyes are red. Even though he is only eleven, there are dark bags under his eyes, as if on the inside he is a very old man.

I take a deep breath, then I walk to the console and turn off the TV. “David, I need to talk to you,” I begin softly. But before I can say more he is on his feet. He knocks me out of the way. He turns the power dial and for a moment there is only TV snow-static and then the dinosaurs reappear on the screen. He screams for our mother. He takes his snot rag out of his back pocket and wipes it up and down his face, then sticks it back in his pocket again, where it dangles half in and half out. When he sits, he is closer to the TV than he was before. My mother comes running into the room, “Leave him alone,” she yells. “Why do you have to tease him all the time? You know how he is.”

I look at her, aghast. “I wasn’t teasing,” I say, but there is too much noise for her to hear me.

Nothing has changed.

My miracle has been denied me.

David, is still retarded.

Categories: Memoir | Tags: | Leave a comment

Break the Chains, by Jay D Roberts, MD

9781627467582medTitle:  Break the Chains

Genre:  Memoir

Author:  Jay D Roberts, MD

Website:  www.jdrobertsmd.com  

Publisher:   Tate Publishing and Enterprises, LLC 

BUY BREAK THE CHAINS ON AMAZON / B&N / TATE PUBLISHING 

If you were abused over and over again, would you become an abuser? Or would you learn to forgive? Dr. Jay Roberts had to go to prison to learn the answer.

In 1999 Dr. Roberts was in at-home hospice care preparing for his own death from a neurological disease. At the point where he finally gave up, he experienced a spontaneous, overnight healing. It was not the first time he had “cheated” death. He had survived a fifty-foot fall from a cliff, a plane crash, and attempts on his life by rebel insurgents in remote areas in the Philippines in 1970s. This near-death escape was different though, because it was the culmination of a turbulent lifelong dialogue with God which started when he was a child being bull-whipped by his alcoholic father. Yet even after his complete recovery from disease, it would take a maximum security prison environment to reveal to him the mysterious power of forgiveness.

In the telling of his fascinating story—of extreme abuse, of the compulsion to become a pain and wound care specialist, of medical school in a third world country against a dangerous political backdrop, and of his return home to deal with the demons he’d left behind—Dr. Roberts tackles the big questions illuminating physical, mental, and spiritual growth. Break the Chains affirms faith in both God and the human spirit. It is as revealing and inspirational as it is truthful and poignant.

Prologue

Palm Springs, California
1999

My eyes water as I stare at the whirling ceiling fan. The blades blur and transform into bolos (machetes) that slice through the air and my thoughts. The physician in me dissects my infirmity, orders treatment for cure, and demands to be in charge. The Christian in me calls for faith without understanding, to die to self, to surrender to Christ and his will. My medical and religious beliefs battle and clash like opposing bolo blades.

I lay wasting in my bed with muscles, once toned and defined, now atrophied and weak. I am wounded. I struggle to push the opened Bible away from my bedside. Beverly has placed the Bible next to me for weeks. She and I have been married since 1975, after a three-year courtship. I wonder if she wants to reconsider the “for better or for worse” part of our vows. How easy those words flowed from our naive mouths.

The Bible falls to the floor. The fight is over.

I smile.

My inner voice and friend, Buddy, warns me I am wrong to
disrespect the Bible.

I tell him to go away.

He does.

My eyes close. My brain waves surge and scenes are projected on the back of my eyelids, reflections of my past. I am in fifth grade. It is late at night. I walk like a robot to the kitchen. My pajamas stick to my bottom. The dried blood from the bullwhip lashings holds the fabric to my skin. My father is passed out, drunk. His right hand, with its thick, stubby digits and brownish-yellow stain between the long and middle fingers, hangs over the edge of the couch. He snores with the intensity of a train. I select the sharpest knife and walk over to the bullwhip that hangs on a wall near the living room. I remove it from the wall, walk back to the kitchen, and stand at the table. I methodically cut the whip into small pieces. It takes several hours. I return the knife to its proper place and put all the pieces of the bullwhip into a paper bag. I open the back door and hide the bag in the bottom of the trashcan.

I look up and see a million stars, turn, and then walk back into the house. I stop to pee and go back to bed. When I awake later that morning, I try to sit up but cannot. I stand and cautiously walk to the living room. My father is not there. A squished pillow partially hides his body imprint on the sofa cushion. Stale beer odor hangs in the air. I turn and walk over to the wall. The whip is not there.

I thought it was a dream.

My eyes scan more images from my life.

Wounds dominate the picture.

I have always tried to heal wounds, others’ and mine.

Some wounds are not easily sutured, some impossible.

Categories: Christian non-fiction, Inspirational Nonfiction, Memoir | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

French Illusions by Linda Kovic-Skow

French IllusionsFRENCH ILLUSIONS, by Linda Kovic-Skow, Dog Ear Publishing, 272 pp., $13.97 (Kindle 99 cents).

In the summer of 1979, twenty-one-year-old Linda Kovic contracts to become an au pair for an wealthy French family in the Loire Valley. To secure the position, she pretends to speak the language, fully aware her deception will be discovered once she arrives at her destination. Based on the author’s diary, French Illusions captures Linda’s fascinating and often challenging real-life story inside and outside the Château de Montclair. The over-bearing, Madame Dubois, her accommodating husband, Monsieur Dubois, and their two children are highlighted as Linda struggles to adapt to her new environment. Continually battling the language barrier, she signs up and attends classes at the local university in the nearby town of Tours, broadening her range of experiences. When she encounters, Adam, a handsome young student, her life with the Dubois family becomes more complicated, adding fuel to her internal battle for independence.

Book Excerpt:

Part Two

Venturing Out of Songais

22

When my alarm sounded at 6:30, I leapt out of bed, eager for another opportunity to attend a course at the Université François-Rabelais. I wanted to make a good impression on my professors and peers, so I spent a bit more time on my appearance, brushing some blush on my cheekbones and curling my eyelashes before applying mascara. The result prompted a grin from my mirror image. Pulling on a sweater, I grabbed my purse and ran downstairs.

After I completed my usual morning routine with the children, Madame Dubois rattled off a list of chores, my pulse accelerating with concern as I listened. Has she forgotten that I’m going to Tours today?

“Wash up the dishes in the sink, change the sheets on my bed, and sweep the entranceway.”

“I have to catch the ten o’clock train, or I’ll be late for my class,” I reminded her.

“Well then, you had better get started.”

Rushing out the door an hour later, mumbling angry words, I half-jogged the road to Songais and barely arrived at the train in time.

Oooh . . . she makes me so mad!

Out of breath, I boarded the coach and found a place to sit down. Unclenching my jaw, stretching my neck right, and then left, I willed myself to relax. I was determined not to let Madame Dubois ruin my day.

As the train pulled out of Tours, the attendant, a young man about my age, sauntered down the aisle, his gaze darting back and forth as he identified new passengers. I watched him, admiring his masculine features, until he reached me. Our eyes locked, his sky blue on my moss green, and my stomach lurched.

“Vous visitez Songais?” he asked.

“Non, je suis arrivée récemment,” I said handing him my rail pass. No, I arrived recently.

He glanced at my document and leaned in closer. So close, in fact, that I smelled his cologne, musk with a hint of citrus. “Linda . . . d’où êtes-vous?” Where are you from?

“Je viens des Etats-Unis.”

He smiled and my heart fluttered. “Enchanté,” he said, and added, “Je m’appelle Renaud.”

“Enchantée,” I responded, feeling tongue-tied.

Renaud tried out his English. “How long you visiting?”

“Many months,” I muttered.

“It is wonderful!” he exclaimed, and heads turned to look at us. I felt the heat rush to my cheeks. “I go now, Linda, but I hope to see you again.”

Picking up his pace, he moved down the aisle and exited into the next coach. A few of the passengers glared at me, but I ignored them. I had enjoyed my interchange with Renaud and felt flattered to receive so much attention from such an attractive Frenchman. From now on, my rides to and from Tours might be the highlight of my day.

Purchase your copy:

AMAZON

Categories: Memoir | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Borneo Tom: Stories and Sketches of Love, Travel and Jungle Family in Tropical Asia by Borneo Tom McLaughlin

Title: Borneo Tom: Stories and Sketches of Love, Travel and Jungle Family in Tropical Asia
Author: ‘Borneo’ Tom McLaughlin
Publisher: Tom McLaughlin
Publication Date: August 2010
Paperback: 132 pages
ISBN: 978-9838082112
Genre: Travel Memoir

Join award winning science teacher Tom McLaughlin as he moves from America to Malaysian Borneo as he tracks orangutans, dances naked in an earthquake, swims with jellyfish AND MORE DANGEROUSLY…falls in love.

Walk with him through a cacophony of emotions including great joy when he finds the love of his life and marries in a village ceremony, reunites with one daughter after a divorce, travels with another and flies the entire family on his honeymoon in Bali. Oh, yes, did I forget? His vasectomy and his wife’s diagnosis of barrenness produces a son, Dzul Patrick, now a few months old.

Each stand alone chapter is humorously sketched by Water Front Niki, a familiar face to all who visit Kuching. Niki’s sensitive portraits of the national bird, the Hornbill, decorates living rooms world wide.

**Proceeds from the book go for items that support the Matang Wildlife Center that rehabs orangutans and other amazing wildlife.**

About Borneo Tom

Science teacher Tom McLaughlin battled a rare neurological disease to a stand still, packed up his life and moved to Malaysian Borneo from a Washington D.C. suburb.

Landing in Kuching, he quickly learned the Malay language and involved himself in projects which includes orangutan rehabilitation and research about the famed naturalist, Alfred Wallace, whose thunder was stolen by Charles Darwin.

The advent of cheap air travel to many destinations in Southeast Asia transported him to many adventures. From dancing naked in an earthquake in Sumatra, to getting lost in a warren of World War II Japanese caves to walking the rim of a volcano with poisonous gas, he has jumped with foolhardiness into everything wild and wonderful, all related in his book Borneo Tom.

Reuniting with his Peace Corps family of thirty five years ago, sharing adventures with one daughter, then reconciling with another after a divorce, marriage with full kampung ceremony and then taking both daughters on his honeymoon to Bali are a few of the highlights of his remarkable personal life. Oh, but we can’t forget? His vasectomy coupled with a wife diagnosed as barren has reproduced a son, Dzul Patrick, now a few months old.

Tom teaches at the Lodge International School in Kuching, Malaysian Borneo while writing about his adventures as a US expat living in Borneo.

You can find him at:

BorneoTom.com
On Twitter
On Facebook
On Kindle!

Categories: Humor, Memoir, Non-Fiction | Leave a comment

Dina Kucera ‘Everything I Never Wanted to Be’ on virtual book tour November 2010

Dina KuceraJoin Dina Kucera, author of the memoir, Everything I Never Wanted to Be (Dream of Things) as she virtually tours the blogosphere in November ‘10 on her first virtual book tour with Pump Up Your Book!

Dina Kucera was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After completing a project to collect and identify fifty insects, she graduated from the ninth grade and left school for good. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Her first job was a paper route, and she has worked as a maid, bartender, waitress, and grocery store checker. Dina has also been a stand-up comic for twenty years, for which she receives payment ranging from a small amount of money to a very, very small amount of money. When it comes to awards and recognition, she was once nominated for a Girl Scout sugar cookie award, but she never actually received the award because her father decided to stop at a bar instead of going to the award ceremony. Dina waited on the curb outside the bar, repeatedly saying to panhandlers, “Sorry. I don’t have any money. I’m seven.” Dina is married with three daughters, one stepson, and one grandson. She currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

Everything I Never Wanted to BeEverything I Never Wanted to Be is the true story of a family’s battle with alcoholism and drug addiction. Dina’s grandfather and father were alcoholics. Her grandmother was a pill addict. Dina is an alcoholic and pill addict, and all three of her daughters struggle with alcohol and drug addiction—including her youngest daughter, who started using heroin at age fourteen. Dina’s household also includes her husband and his unemployed identical twin, her mother who has Parkinson’s Disease, and her grandson who has cerebral palsy. On top of all that, Dina is trying to make it as a stand-up comic and author so she can quit her crummy job as a grocery store clerk. Through it all, Dina does her best to hold her family together, keep her faith, and maintain her sense of humor.

Everything I Never Wanted to Be includes a number of horrific events. But in the end, it is an uplifting story with valuable lessons for parents and teens alike, and a strong message about the need to address the epidemic of teen drug addiction in our nation.

It’s a book that can change behavior and save lives—and make you laugh along the way.

You can find out more about her book at www.everythinginever.com or visit her personal website at www.dinakucera.com.

If you’d like to follow along with Dina as she tours the blogosphere in November, visit her official tour page at Pump Up Your Book. Lots of fun in store as you learn more about this gifted author as well as win prizes, too!

Join us for Dina Kucera’s Everything I Never Wanted to Be Virtual Book Tour ‘10!

Pump Up Your Book is an innovative public relations agency specializing in virtual book tours. You can visit our website at www.pumpupyourbook.com.

Categories: Memoir | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: