Wednesday, April 21, 2021
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REBECCA

I was walking down the sidewalk. It was a lovely evening, and I passed an old movie theater. The kind you rarely see anymore, and that reminded me of going to movies when I was a teen and younger. It looked like someone was renovating it, and I hoped that was so. I stopped to look closer, and a man, probably in his late 30s, early 40s, came out carrying a ladder which he set up under the marquee beside a cardboard box.

“Evening…” he greeted me.

“I love to see this kind of thing…” I gestured at the work done on the building facade, its repaired stone, and then up at the marquee with its vertical neon sign above. “That’ll be beautiful when you light it up.”

Pausing before he climbed the ladder, he turned and grinned. “She’s a unique lady.” He was proud of the work he’d done. Rightly so. “I’m just about to put lettering up and test it.”

Thinking about what tomorrow (now today) was, an idea came. “This is so lovely… like you said she has style.” I stepped over to the box of letters, some already spread out next to it for him to select. “It makes me think of a particular lady with those same qualities. If you don’t mind… could you put a message on the…” I pointed up, overhead, “for me?”

He paused, and I bent and sorted the letters spelling out what I wanted. “Please,” I smiled.

He looked at me, up at the marquee, then back and grinned.

“Well, we have to appreciate the special people in our world, don’t we?” He started up the ladder. “Hand me the letters.”

Once done and with the lights on, it was beautiful. Just as I knew it would be.

ABOUT | The Taking

THE TAKING - Short Fiction by Dennis Lowery-2

Time drops in decay
like a candle burnt out.
And the mountains and woods
have their day, have their day;
but, kindly old rout
of the fire-born moods,
you pass not away…

W.B. Yeats, excerpted from Celtic Twilight

About the Story

Enveloped in a strange mist, at 14:14 hours on 24 April 1945, the unescorted British steam merchant cargo vessel Grania was torpedoed and sunk by U-1305 seven miles off the northern coast of Wales. Launched in March 1924 for M. Murphy Ltd., captained by Master Albert Henry Standen and en route from Sligo, Ireland, she never made it to Liverpool, England.

The Grania

The master, 13 crew members, and two gunners were lost along with 841 tons of sulphate. The log of the U-1305 (which surrendered to the Allies on 10 May 1945 at Loch Eriboll, Scotland) confirmed the sinking of the Grania and approximate location. It was the only sinking by the U-boat commander, Helmuth Christiansen, Oberleutnant zur See der Reserve, in his eight months commanding the submarine. In his log, he noted the odd afternoon sea mist that enshrouded the Grania and his U-boat.

U-1305

There was a sole survivor from Grania. The messroom boy, Derek, who still carried the ship’s log with its final entry about the strange weather. The ship’s master had often told the boy about myths and legends of the sea they sailed and the coastline they passed. Rescued by an Irish fishing trawler, there was something wrong about the survivor and his tale. It was one he told his family over the years. All believed it was just that… a doubtful story and even it faded. On his deathbed, he swore to his namesake grandson it was all true. So, Derek became determined to investigate it, see for himself, and prove his grandfather had not spun a tall tale.

Guinevere had green eyes
Like yours, mi’lady, like yours
When she’d walk down through the garden
In the morning after it rained…

Guinnevere drew pentagrams
Like yours, mi’lady, like yours
Late at night when she thought
That no one was watching at all
On the wall..
.

From Guinevere, Crosby, Stills & Nash — full lyrics here.

A music video of the song follows below.

Told in nine installments:

Part 1 | The Sinking of the Grania (read online now).

The sinking of the Grania off the northern coast of Wales in a strange mist by U-1305 on 24 April 1945.

Part 2 | The Sole Survivor (read online now).

Picked up by an Irish fishing trawler, there’s something odd about what Derek, the survivor, tells the trawler’s captain. What he says cannot be…

Part 3 | The Namesake (read online now).

Derek’s namesake American grandson arrives in England headed to the northern coast of Wales with his soon-to-be fiancé, Anne, to find the site of his grandfather’s story.

Part 4 | The Discovery Begins (read online now).

On the road from London, Anne gets to read Derek’s grandfather’s logbook for the first time.

Part 5 | The Locals (read online now)

The oldest locals remember the story of Grania’s survivor and smile at what they say is nothing but a folktale for tourists. They had laughed–back then–at the boy they publicly considered crazy (privately there were those who believed him). Then they deny it could ever have happened and grow angry at Derek, warning him of the consequences if the foolish American persists. Derek and Anne find the son of the old man mentioned by Derek’s grandfather that befriended him and told him more about the legend of the cursed lady.

Part 6 | The Storm (request access)

Derek keeps looking though Anne would rather not. Lost, they come upon a ruined castle keep still occupied and ask the caretaker for directions just as a fierce storm breaks. With the weather worsening, Derek and Anne accept the caretaker’s offer to stay the night. In their room, through a window, Anne sees something revealed by a jagged bolt of lightning and tells Derek to watch for the next flash. One soon comes, and Derek knows he has found the place he sought described in his grandfather’s story.

Part 7 | The Caretaker (request access)

Derek and Anne seek the caretaker to ask about what they saw. They find the caretaker—in what seemed a combination library/sleeping room—who had pulled aside a tapestry to reveal a sigil carved into the stone of the wall. What the caretaker does next makes Derek and Anne run for their car through a thickening fog. But it won’t start, and lightning is striking all around them. They return to their room, barricade the door and plan to leave at dawn, even if they must walk.

Part 8 | The Taking (request access)

Anne awakes at dawn to find Derek gone. She goes outside to search for him through tendrils of mist and follows the sound of laughter coming from far down a descending and winding trail canopied by the gnarled limbs of ancient trees. Further below, she hears the surf, and as the path and canopy ends at a cove, she sees the old caretaker ahead leading Derek by the hand.

Part 9 | The End (of Derek… of Anne)? (request access)


Click on the button at the end of this post or go here to follow my writing and receive a notification as each part becomes available.

Here are two songs from my playlist for the story:

About Cry For Jerusalem | Book 2

Just received the proof copy for pre-publication review for final changes: EPIC Historical Fiction - Book 2 (155,319 words) of a 4-book Series
Just received the proof copy for pre-publication review for final changes: EPIC Historical Fiction - Book 2 (155,319 words) of a 4-book Series

Cry For Jerusalem is one of my client projects (a 4-book series). Book 1 was published last year by Stadia Books, Book 2 publishes late August 2020, and Book 3 is in work for publication Summer 2021.

About Book Two: Against All Odds

Two thousand years ago, men and women were driven to act by the same emotions, needs, and wants as they are today. In Cry For Jerusalem Book One, we experienced how such actions forever changed the world for Jews and Christians and met our main cast of characters. Yosef, Nicanor, Cleo, Sayid, and Miriam.

In Book Two, in this series of four, their epic saga continues its sweeping arc from Rome to Jerusalem, from Antioch to Galilee. Ancient history comes to life through the actions of historical figures, and events unanswered by history become plausibly explained. You’ll read of the Siege of Yotapta (Jotapata) where thousands of Jews died fighting Roman legions—against all odds—in one of the bloodiest battles in Jewish history, witnessed and chronicled by the famous Jewish historian, Josephus. You’ll follow the developing story behind the legendary (but real) Copper Scroll, considered “the most unique, the most important, and the least understood” of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This scroll describes the locations of the Temple treasure moved from Jerusalem to be hidden—assumingly—from the Romans (but has never been found). You’ll learn of the factions and dissension that weaken Jerusalem, and the intrigues within the Roman Empire leading up to the Year of Four Emperors and the civil war that would then shape the empire for decades. And that the Great Fire in Rome, started by Nero, still figuratively burned and had triggered a series of events that would end with the burning of Jerusalem and its Temple.

Historical Background

Historical Background

By the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the culmination of Cry For Jerusalem, Rome had much of the known world under its control. The empire reached its largest expanse in 117 CE under Trajan.

Roman Empire Circa 117 CE
Roman Empire Circa 117 CE

The empire encompassed an area of three-million-square miles and stretched from the British Isles across western, central, and southern Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia. Its estimated 60 million inhabitants accounted for between one sixth and one fourth of the world’s total population. The empire was the largest unified political entity in the West until the mid-19th century. More recent demographic studies suggest the population could have risen to 100 million at its peak. Each of the three largest cities in the empire—Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch—were almost twice the size of any European city before the 17th century.

The Romans had occupied greater Judea since the invasion of General Pompey in 63 BCE. Many large buildings and a grand Temple complex in Jerusalem were constructed by King Herod the Great from circa 20 BCE until after well after he died in 4 BCE. After Herod’s death, the greater province was divided up into four tetrarchs ruled by Herod’s descendants, who functioned as Roman-controlled governors.

About Cry For Jerusalem and Book One: Resisting Tyranny

Cry For Jerusalem—a four novel series—is historical fiction based on the writings of Yosef ben Matityahu (Titus Flavius Josephus). Yosef’s (Josephus’s) work as a historian provides valuable insight into first-century Judaism and the background of early Christianity. He has specific details on the First Jewish–Roman War, which he not only witnessed but took part in at a high level. The story takes place from late 63 to 70 CE, a little over one-third of the way into a 200-year period of increased and sustained internal peace and stability for Rome, though not without lesser wars, conflicts of expansion, and revolts. This Pax Romana was first broken by the Jewish (Judean) first war of rebellion.

First-century Judea was a time of new belief systems, persecution, and economic upheaval. Ruled by Rome’s puppet-King Agrippa, the Judeans had fragmented into three factions under the Romans: the status-quo pro-Romans; the Zealots/nationalists, who wanted Judean and Jewish independence; and the Sicarii, a violent splinter group who not only wanted independence from Rome—once the revolt intensified—but also had a goal to kill pro-Roman collaborators.

Book One in the series is described best by two recent reviews:

“First in a four-novel series, Resisting Tyranny introduces readers to four unlikely friends brought together by a life-threatening accident at sea. A Roman centurion, an auxiliary soldier, a wealthy and soon-to-be-married noble lady, and a Jewish scholar form a bond of friendship that could save Jerusalem from the greed of their Roman overlords. But can they stop a war before it’s too late? The story sweeps across a first-century world that’s diverse, gritty, and laced with tension. Majestic and colorful landscapes such as Jerusalem, Rome, and the many places in between, both on land and sea, are richly detailed. I loved the maps that are included at the beginning. Sanford uses his characters well. Men and women have strong influence on the plot, including women who interacted with and changed their circumstances despite social constraints. Everything is supported by an incredibly well-researched foundation. The time period and social customs are delightfully developed… there is political and religious strife, moments of ancient beauty, and well-developed characters to carry the plot forward. Sanford is a talented author with an exciting new series to get lost in.”

Historical Novels Review Issue 91, February 2020

“Four lives fortuitously intersect in this historical novel that focuses on the tension between Jews and their Roman oppressors in the first century…

“Yosef ben Matthias, a Jewish scholar, is tasked with traveling from Jerusalem to Rome as a representative of the Sanhedrin. He plans to petition the Roman authorities to release Jewish prisoners awaiting trial. Yosef is apprehensive about the dangerous journey but also excited to see Rome, long impressed by the discipline and sophisticated organization of those who rule it. He travels by sea, but the ship that conveys him is waylaid by a powerful storm, and he ends up floating precariously in shark-infested waters on a wooden plank. He manages to survive and, with the help of two passengers he befriends—Nicanor, a veteran Roman soldier, and Sayid, a Syrian boy—saves the life of Lady Cleopatra, a noblewoman promised in marriage to Gessius Florus, a prominent quaestor and tax collector. The three rescuers are rewarded for their parts in saving Cleopatra, whose best friend, Poppaea Augusta Sabina, is married to Emperor Nero.

“In this first installment of a series, Yosef comes to realize what a tinderbox the political situation has become. As Roman leaders become increasingly authoritarian and hungry for tax proceeds, Jewish militancy increases, setting the stage for a brutal confrontation, a historical predicament vividly and intelligently depicted by Sanford. And Nero, looking for an excuse to rebuild Rome, raise taxes, and consolidate his power, takes Florus’ advice to burn the city to the ground, starting the “most extensive and destructive fire that Rome had ever experienced.” The plot is as gripping as it is historically edifying, remarkably authentic, and rigorously researched. At its conclusion, readers will be left impatient for the book’s sequel. An impressive blend of historical portrayal and dramatic fiction.”

–Kirkus Reviews June 2020

Yosef, Nicanor, Sayid and Lady Cleopatra’s (Cleo’s) shared experience forms an unlikely bond of friendship tested throughout the four novels in the series. Was it fate, destiny, or some divine plan that brought these four very different travelers together during an extraordinary time in history and to witness events that have repercussions still today?

In Rome, the reader meets Emperor Nero and is introduced to the intrigue that permeates the empire. Nero—at the suggestion of Gessius Florus, and to serve his own purpose—sets Rome afire while shifting the blame on to the Christians. This sets events in motion to replenish Rome’s depleted treasury by igniting a war in Judea to steal the vast treasure believed held in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

Yosef, Nicanor, Cleo, and Sayid experience the Great Fire of Rome and its aftermath. Then each separately returns to Judea, where their fates further converge. Yosef to report the release of the Jewish prisoners and to attempt to stave off the increasing militancy of the anti-Roman factions, hoping to find a peaceful resolution with Rome. Nicanor—having avoided the Praetorian Guard duty he did not want—to return to his beloved legion duties in Antioch. Cleo, now married and accompanied by her husband, Gessius Florus, who is to become the new procurator of Judea. And Sayid, glad to return to auxiliary duty in a land where he feels at home, is assigned to Lady Cleo and often thinks of Yosef and Nicanor.

In Jerusalem, the reader meets Miriam, Yosef’s sister, who survives a tragic attack by Roman soldiers that changes her forever. Turning her into something and someone she could never have imagined, which becomes a dark secret she must hide from her family.

In Judea, Gessius Florus shows his true colors. His oppressive actions are designed solely to squeeze more tax revenue and to heighten tensions between the factions within Jerusalem and Rome itself. He creates situations and events—including a massacre in Jerusalem shortly after Passover—that lead to chaos of conflict and the birthing of a full-blown war. All were intended as justification to steal the Jewish Temple treasure and to further his plan to keep a large part of it for himself and send the rest to Nero.

In Antioch, the reader meets Cestius Gallus, governor, and commander of the 12th Legion. Circumstances and the actions of the rebels forced him to lead his legion and allied forces into Judea for an ill-fated, ultimately aborted attack on Jerusalem and one of the worst defeats of any Roman legion during their retreat through the pass at Beth Horon.

Yosef, Nicanor, Cleo, and Sayid, along with their family and friends, play critical roles at a focal point in the history of Western civilization. For as the winds helped to spread the great fire in Rome, they also carried embers to Judea, where they threatened to ignite a conflict that would forever change the world for Jews and Christians.

In between the recorded historical events of that time, there’s the story of the people involved. The reader gets to meet them in Book One of Cry for Jerusalem: Resisting Tyranny, and in Book Two: Against All Odds, their epic saga continues as the war begins.

Book Three is in work and will publish Summer of 2021

The Boy Who Got Away

THE BOY WHO GOT AWAY A Short Story by Dennis Lowery
“There is no pain like the pain of transformation.”
― Leigh Bardugo, The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic
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Saturday mornings after chores, we usually pick out a scary movie or maybe a science-fiction classic to watch. But for a period, it was Supernatural, a series I didn’t know at the time but completed it’s run this year after 15 seasons. Binge-watching bounty. On the show, Sam and Dean, the Winchester brothers, hunted and killed all kinds of ghosts, creatures, demons, and paranormal, supernatural thingies. The show draws on myth and urban legend as the basis for the story-lines. I enjoyed it as much as Alpha and Beta [my then 14-year-old twin daughters, not their actual names]. One morning, I was working on story notes while they watched.

“Dad?”

I looked over at Alpha. “Yeah, honey.” It’s funny with twins. They often ask questions they seem to have reached a consensus on through some nonverbal means of communication. I looked up from my notepad to see them glance at each other and nod their heads like, ‘Go ahead, ask him.’

“What, girls?”

“Do you believe in…” Alpha used the remote-control to point at the TV and pause the show, “ghosts and demons?”

I put my mechanical pencil down. [at that time I handwrote story and scene notes with a Staedtler Graphite 771 or a Faber Castell Pearwood E-motion, now I use this] and sat the lap desk on the Ottoman by my chair. I turned to them both. “You know about what happened to me in Italy?” [Which I’ve told in another story.]

Alpha nodded her head. Beta asked me, “But what about when you were a kid?”

“I can tell you about a boy and what happened to him. Want to hear?” They nodded, so I told them:

He was always happiest outside and on his own. His family lived, barely above the poverty line, in the country on thirty acres of land. About two-thirds forest, the rest pasture and a pond. It seemed all he did was work; there were always things to fix or repair when everything’s held together with baling wire, tape, and a prayer it lasts until money came in. When he had free time, late in the day, he would take a book and disappear into the farthest corner of the woods. He’d bring a canteen of water (sometimes a can of Coke), a bag of beef jerky and a flashlight to read by once the sun started going down.

One autumn day, he was in the back corner where his family’s land ended, and sloped toward the road leading to what he and his friends called The Point but was Grey’s Landing on the lake.

The sun was setting, and through clear patches, he could view the moon rising low in the sky behind the trees. Their tops rustled and moved in the crisp, fresh wind that bent them away from the direction of home. He shined his light on his wristwatch. Seeing the time, he rose from the knee-high stump he’d been sitting on and headed that way along the path. As he stood, stretching and brushing off the seat of his pants, behind him, came baying. An ululation that speared the night [I had to stop to explain to Alpha and Beta what that word meant]; strong enough to beat through the wind’s gasp that flowed around tree trunks and through leaves to reach him.

The boy was halfway out of the woods when came a second, closer howl, accompanied by the sound of gnashing teeth and chattering of fangs. He ran through the dry season forest; sticks and branches snapped and cracked as he made his way. Ahead a wail flowed down to him, followed by a third howl behind him. Whatever they were, he realized they were working together. He angled to his left off the trail, hoping to lose them, now running fast and hitting limbs that didn’t break. They tore long gashes in his face and neck, his forearms protected by his jacket. His hands became scored and cut, trying to protect his face. Blood flowed in streaks.

Gasping, the boy gripped a tree for a moment’s pause, hanging on to catch his breath. At the caterwaul behind him [had to stop and explain that word too]—of beasts close on the scent of their prey—he ran on.

Clouds were building, and the wind picked up as he broke through onto the crest where trees ended, and the pits began. Broad swaths of excavation and deep gouges made in the pasture; the source of fill-dirt his father sold to local construction companies. He had to go down into and through them before the climb back up for the open stretch to his home.

He sprinted, his lungs straining and heart pounding louder than the wind. He slowed to listen, but there had been no more cries. Off the upward slope that plateaued, he passed the set of pear trees atop the rise overlooking the pond. Only 1000 yards down, then up again to his home sitting on the next hill. His thigh muscles twitched and jumped, and his gait became choppy. The impact of his feet as he planted them, a flat-footed, jarring jolt with each stride and a near-puke feeling in his throat. Leaden arms he could barely lift, he spat to the side and looked up at the house back-lit by the last remnants of sundown. He could make it.

Halfway there, he felt something almost on him. The snarl so close he smelled rank, rotted-meat breath. He looked over his shoulder. Its yellow eyes widened, and long teeth glinted in the moonlight as a taloned hand thick with coarse black hair reached for him. Claws dug into flesh and turned him. Spun to the ground, a spray of saliva hit his face as the howl climbed to a shriek. He rolled and got to his feet, his shirt ripped from his back. In his hand was the WWII era bayonet he always carried with him into the woods. Just then, a sheet of rain swept over them…

My daughters’ eyes had widened as I told the story. They became larger still when I stopped talking and waited.

“Dad…” they finally blinked, “what happens next? Did the boy die?”

I said nothing and pulled my t-shirt down, showing them my right shoulder and the scar that ran across. “He got away… but he always remembered.”

# # #

Howling at the Moon / Man Overboard by Kansas (1976)

ABOUT ALPHA & BETA:

I have four daughters. My oldest has grown up during a period when I worked for others and then myself. My second oldest was born 15 days after my resignation from my corporate job became effective on January 2, 1996. So, she’s seen my life as an entrepreneur and business owner from day one. Those early years in business were hard, as they often are, and I became like the father in ‘Cats in the Cradle‘ (the Harry Chapin song). Always busy, too much to do and not enough time, eaten up with stress and worry about many things. Then, in 2008, I made some changes and pursued what I do today. Writing and publishing. And that made a world of difference in having time for my family. The two youngest—twins I refer to as Alpha & Beta—have had more daily time with me as they grew up than their two older sisters… and much of it has been through the ‘lens’ of a writer. So, our conversations and kitchen table discussions—several times—have turned into a series of ‘stories.’

A Mighty Struggle

A MIGHTY STRUGGLE - from Dennis Lowery t-mu01

“Dennis, your stories are excellent to use for teaching moments. Very intriguing, well-crafted, challenging, yet clearly answers the situation. I am going to use these stories for my great-nieces, -nephews. I just love stories which are a great way to make specific points. Former Secretary of VA, Eric K. Shinseki was a wonderful storyteller and it made a difference in how he related to people, especially veterans.” –Dr. Irene Trowell-Harris, Major General, USAF (Ret)


Alpha strained. She was trying, but I could tell she was becoming frustrated and close to giving up.

I’ll cut away from that scene for a moment to say this: I believe, as a parent, you have to let your children take their efforts all the way to the wire… and beyond sometimes. I think you have to watch them—let them—struggle with things great and small. And they must see them through even to failure. We must resist the compulsion to do things for them, whether to relieve their frustration or because of our own urgency. “You’re taking too long,” we tell them, trying to move them along faster because of our time agenda. They’re on our clock, and we’re waiting. So, we step in too soon. But every time we do, we teach our children something negative and limiting. We teach them to accept a token effort. And embed becoming frustrated quickly can lead to someone stepping in to do things for them. Or stretching out a less than full effort while complaining is how to handle a difficult challenge. If someone needs it bad enough, they’ll help them.

Sometimes we have to step in; we have to help our children. No disagreement there. But we must be careful not to create and reinforce the expectation in them (or other family members… and even close friends). We must choose when it’s an absolute necessity, and to not do so lightly because we have a low frustration threshold of our own. If possible, don’t give in. Do the right thing for your child and learn something beneficial yourself.

I opened this with Alpha in a mighty struggle. She gets frustrated and angry too quickly, and I’m afraid she gets her quick temper from me. But I practice what I preach… what I just told you. And like I said, challenges come in all sizes, and their magnitude is not in proportion; their timing and context can make the most trivial seem momentous. So, was this case.

Her—Alpha’s—task that morning was something she’d encountered before. What I had shown her… how to handle it, hadn’t stuck with her. We had finished breakfast, and I drank my coffee as she and Beta completed their preparation for school. In less than 15 minutes, they’d have to go.

“Come on…” Alpha cried, and with her announcement, I knew what had begun; the frustration. I watched her. “I can’t…” she complained to Beta. Something came to mind; an iconic image of a woman… she represented those who rallied, served their country, and did what needed to be done in a time of war. I stepped to the center of the kitchen, and raised my arms and voice:

“There was once a tiny battle within a vast war.”

They stopped, turned from what they were doing at the kitchen counter, and studied me as I continued:

“She was young, this warrior, and alone. The stronger men and women by her side at the beginning and those who led them were all gone. She was the last one standing at their objective, the building they had sought and fought to get to. She stood, in her simple blue one-piece—now shredded and stained—uniform with its Women’s Corps collar badge, in a room, holding what would end the struggle; its release would save the world… and herself too.

“The least experienced—she wore a headscarf to hide her recruit camp, fresh-cut, short hair—and the weakest. But she had fought alongside the others. At the entrance, the bone-deep wounds in her legs were too much and weak from the loss of blood, she sank to the floor.

“The long room before her was littered with shards of glass and shredded twisted bits of metal covered the floor. At the far end was a pedestal, as high as she was tall, and on it was what so many had died to reach… and to release. She would have to crawl.

“She cried as she dragged her legs behind her. When she reached the pedestal, with dozens of new lacerations leaving a trail of scarlet smears along the path from the door to where she lay, she was close to completing the mission. She cried more as she pulled herself up, knowing she did not have long. Her slashed legs would not hold her weight, so she clawed up the dais. Reaching one-handed to grab the canister with what was so precious to so many. And at this moment, was what she could not do without.

“Her legs gave away, and she collapsed, holding and cradling the object against her chest. On the floor, gasping, she pushed into a sitting position as she gripped the top of the container. Only 5 inches in diameter and perhaps 8 inches tall, incredible something so small contained what was so needed.

“Giving thanks, it would soon be over, she twisted the top. Didn’t budge. She tried again. Still stuck. She straightened, pinning it under one arm, pressing tight against her side, struggling to free the contents inside. ‘No!’ She screamed and was on the verge of giving up. Then she remembered something a wise man, the leader of her group, had told her… something important.”

I stopped talking. Alpha and Beta stared at me… waiting. I pointed to what Alpha had struggled with and made a gesture of holding it, tilting at an angle, and rapping against the countertop. I made an unscrewing motion. “You can do it…”

Alpha exclaimed, “Oh!” picked it up, and tapped twice. At the first try, still didn’t turn… she tried again, left-handed—Alpha’s a leftie—and it gave… the lid spun off.

“Unleash the mayonnaise!” I cried. “The world is saved…” I gave her The Dad Look; she understood what I meant. Alpha smiled as she finished making her turkey sandwich. She’ll remember this bit of advice the next time she fights with a jar lid.

A somewhat extravagant story—and yes, this is almost verbatim how I told to them—for a minor incident, a small point and part in my daughter’s day.

But then… this was about more than just opening a mayonnaise jar.

ABOUT ALPHA & BETA:

I have four daughters. My oldest has grown up during a period when I worked for others and then myself. My second oldest was born 15 days after my resignation from my corporate job became effective on January 2, 1996. So, she’s seen my life as an entrepreneur and business owner from day one. Those early years in business were hard, as they often are, and I became like the father in ‘Cats in the Cradle‘ (the Harry Chapin song). Always busy, too much to do and not enough time, eaten up with stress and worry about many things. Then, in 2008, I made some changes and pursued what I do today. Writing and publishing. And that made a world of difference in having time for my family. The two youngest—twins I refer to as Alpha & Beta—have had more daily time with me as they grew up than their two older sisters… and much of it has been through the ‘lens’ of a writer. So, our conversations and kitchen table discussions—several times—have turned into a series of ‘stories.’

The Sign of Fools & Sages

The Sign of Fools & Sages - An Alpha & Beta Story from Dennis Lowery

SOME READER COMMENTS

“Great read, Dennis Lowery and great adulting. And yes, I would officially like to hear you sing ‘Ball of Confusion’ Make it happen.” –Michael Koontz, Sweden

“Wonderful words. Sage.” –Cilla C.

“Awesome in many many different ways. Parenting done the right way. Written the right way. Teaching done the right way. And also simply a lovely read filled with smiles, giggles, agreeing nods of the head, words to sing out loud, wise words, things to ponder on, to learn from, and to remember. All of that in a single story.” –Nina Anthonijsz, The Netherlands

“Love!” –Dawn Jackson

What a wonderful thing to wake up to and read. Thanks for this glimpse into your world. I love how the music helps us tell our tales…wisdom in those lyrics, indeed.” –Bobbie T.

“Love this…” –Kawthar A.

“Those are wonderful words to say to your daughters.” –Roxy May


Dream On started. I was at the kitchen counter, making sandwiches.

“Do you like this song?” I asked my two youngest—twin—daughters. Alpha and Beta [not their real names] nodded at the same time; Beta with her spoon still in her mouth.

“Do you know the words?” Beta asked, wiping milk from her chin.

One of my favorite songs to sing.”

It’s a thing with us, listening to music as they eat breakfast while I make their lunches for school. Also excellent talk time (with topics ranging from the music to things silly and serious). We discuss school, what they’re studying, they ask me about stories I’m working on… and we talk about travel, places we’ve been and where we want to go. And I talk about life (often my stories are a good segue for that).

I had my phone on the kitchen table Bluetoothed to our home music system. [I relish the rich sound from the speakers set in the high ceilings and bass thrum from the subwoofer on the floor in the corner.] We enjoy new music but play a lot of oldies: the 60s and 70s (the decades of my youth) with some from the 50s to go way, way, back. My twins are the only kids in their grade that know all the words to Zager & Evans ‘In The Year 2525.’ And a whole slew of songs from The Temptations (you should hear them sing ‘Ball of Confusion’), Johnny Rivers and Bad Company and other greats from back then. We were recently on a Styx kick, pre-Mr. Roboto songs.

I walked over and turned the phone so Alpha and Beta could watch the lyrics scroll. A favorite line was coming up, and I sang along. “Half my life’s in books, written pages. Live and learn from fools and from sages….” Beta stopped me with a question—I hate to stop when I’m rock-n-rolling—but it was a good one. The question a parent needs to consider and answer thoughtfully.

“How do you learn from fools, dad?”

I turned the volume down (sorry, Steven Tyler). “Well,” I sat at the end of the table, it’s important to pay attention to all kinds of people around you. But mostly those closest you might listen to or think you can learn from. Watch how they act and interact; what they say and do, especially the impression they give you. And then compare that to reality.”

Alpha’s bagel kicked up in the toaster. I put on a small plate for her and brought it, and the not-really-butter spread she likes, to the table. [I’m a butter believer, so look down on such pretenders, but she loves the stuff.] I explained what I meant. “Does what they say and do make sense.”

Alpha raised her hand and glanced at Beta before speaking—it seems twins do that; I think it’s telepathy—and they said while shaking their heads: “Martin.” [Name changed to protect the not so innocent. I’ve heard tales about Martin; heaven help his parents.]

I nodded and continued. “Odd and unusual people are easy to spot. You learn to avoid them and not take them seriously. But Fools can be hard to identify and often sound like they know what they’re talking about.”

Alpha had not-really-buttered her fingers, and I handed her a napkin. She asked, “How can you tell?”

“If they tell you about things, they can do… but they never do them. Or when they do, it never works out as they said. And they always want to blame someone else… they never take responsibility. People like that and those full of excuses are not the ones you should listen to… chances are they are Fools or delusional.”

“Does delusional mean crazy?” Alpha asked.

“No.” Though in my mind, I thought of people I’d met and known who seemed at odds with reality and could qualify as bughouse bizarre… batshit crazy. “Not exactly. It means the world inside their head is not the same world normal, rational, people live in. No matter what reality shows them, they still believe in their own version of things. Stay far away from people like that… they’re Fools.”

Beta studied me, “But Sages are wise; smart people. Right?”

Back at the counter to gather their lunch stuff and put in their bags, I sipped my coffee, nodding, “Supposed to be.” I took another drink.

I didn’t (don’t) want to make my daughters grow up paranoid or suspicious of things and people in the world. But I think it’s crucial to learn to not place faith in anyone or anything because of a label, a position, a title, or perception they are an authority. And not because the media covers them extensively. That does not confirm, nor is that evidence of their value. My girls need to know to verify and validate that for themselves. I told them. “People who get things done and are right more times than wrong… who have real experience and produce actual results aligned with doing what’s right. People who, when they talk, make sense and show intelligence and compassion… and you can match words to accomplishments and action. They are the ones worth listening to.”

I gave them the line again from the song. Yes, I sang it: “Live and learn from fools and from sages….” I want them to learn to acknowledge labels or reputations, but—and this is a big but and I cannot lie—I want them to define people and assess situations based on their own relevant criteria. I continued, “Something important in life to understand.” [That’s not the first, or hundredth time they’ve heard me say that. I got eye-roll from them but kept going.] “You can learn from both types of people. The way to do that is judge by actions… results, and not words. Listen to what people say, but what they do is more important. If a person proves to be a Sage, an intelligent person with sound, moral, ethical, judgment… then their words have weight.”

Beta raised her hand. “What does weight mean—you know—how you just said it?”

“It means to take them seriously and listen. They have value and merit attention.” I went to the pantry for napkins and came out with their allotment. [I harp on being wasteful… my ‘don’t use more than you really need’ thing. If they have five, they’ll use five… if they have one they’ll use it wisely. On pudding or fruit cup days, they get an extra napkin. I’m not unsympathetic on this issue.] “But don’t give people’s words power over you. Only you can—rationally, logically and contextually—decide what’s right and wrong for you.”

Alpha poured more milk, adding some to Beta’s glass. “But what can you learn from fools?” She brought me back around to the original question.

“What not to do… and how not to be. We don’t live in a perfect world, and humans are imperfect, too. We all have flaws. The thing to do is to not just understand our own flaws, but also see them in others. Because that can be a factor in gauging the value of what they’re telling you and any advice they give you.” I put a drink-box, chocolate milk today, a snack bag of carrots, fudge brownie, and their sandwiches (Alpha’s turkey with mayonnaise and Beta’s peanut butter—not spread too thick—with grape jelly) into their lunch bags.

I made my ‘wind it up,’ motion, twirling my index finger and hand clockwise to speed them up, an eat-your-cereal signal. “So, Fools can talk a lot and have little worth listening to. Sages may not say much, but when they do… you listen. And the most important thing is to think about what they say and decide what it means to you. That’s called giving it context.”

It was time to finish so they could read awhile before walking to the bus stop. Alpha and Beta brought their bowls to the sink. Murphy—our Irish Terrier, my only boy—had discovered two Cheerios under Alpha’s chair and was underfoot exploring for more. While they wiped down the kitchen table and counters, another song came to mind; another favorite of mine. I switched from Pandora to my music library, found Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and pressed play. It got to the line I wanted before they finished cleaning up. I put my hand on their shoulders, and they looked up at me. I sang a slightly changed version of a line from that song:

“Your father’s telling you… while you’re young. Come sit beside me, my lovely ones. And listen closely to what I say. If you do this… It’ll help you in so many ways.”

They smiled at me—used to this sort of thing—and gave me a hug. As they headed to their bathroom to brush teeth and hair, I told them, “We’ll talk more about this….”

And we have….

ABOUT ALPHA & BETA:

I have four daughters. My oldest has grown up during a period when I worked for others and then myself. My second oldest was born 15 days after my resignation from my corporate job became effective on January 2, 1996. So, she’s seen my life as an entrepreneur and business owner from day one. Those early years in business were hard, as they often are, and I became like the father in ‘Cats in the Cradle‘ (the Harry Chapin song). Always busy, too much to do and not enough time, eaten up with stress and worry about many things. Then, in 2008, I made some changes and pursued what I do today. Writing and publishing. And that made a world of difference in having time for my family. The two youngest—twins I refer to as Alpha & Beta—have had more daily time with me as they grew up than their two older sisters… and much of it has been through the ‘lens’ of a writer. So, our conversations and kitchen table discussions—several times—have turned into a series of ‘stories.’

SONGS MENTIONED:

Dream On – Aerosmith

In The Year 2525 – Zager and Evans

Ball of Confusion – The Temptations

Simple Man – Lynyrd Skynyrd

THE TAKING (Part 5) | The Locals

THE TAKING - Part 5 - by Dennis Lowery

READ ABOUT The Taking (this serialized fiction story).

Read parts One TwoThreeFour.

Conwy, near Llandudno

“This is it?” Anne asked.

Derek could see she had expected something else. Someplace newer and on the water. “It’s been modernized inside.”

Anne’s expression didn’t change. “It looks like that cottage in—”

“My grandmother’s favorite movie we watch with her on St. Patrick’s Day. When I saw it on VRBO, I had to book it.”

“Why here and not,” she hesitated at the double Ls, “why not in Llandudno?”

“My bamps believed those that know anything of the region’s history—believers in the legend—would always protect their town. They would not do anything to stir up what had died down or let him make anyone—any thing—angry. He took their threats seriously, so I thought it best to stay outside of the town.”

Anne walked to the door of the whitewashed-stone home, the overhang of the thatched roof not far over her head. The darkness of the door lightened to forest green as clouds shifted, and a slanting ray of late afternoon sunshine revealed its color. Glancing over her shoulder, her expression changed with the sun on her face, and she smiled at Derek. “Okay… let’s check it out.”

He kissed her cheek and bent to enter the code on a keypad that looked odd on the old heavy wooden door.

* * *

Llandudno

Anne held the photo the newspaper’s archivist had given them, a second—different—one of Derek’s grandfather not used in the article 69 years ago. “Nice of them to give you this,” she studied the squinting young man in the glossy 5×8 then Derek’s profile in the morning sun. “You really look like your grandfather.” Other than to thank the newspaper’s archivist, Derek had been quiet as they stepped out onto the sidewalk. “What’s next?” she had seen his expression as he read the reporter’s margin notes that questioned his grandfather’s honesty and sanity. Then the archivist had laughed when he asked about any local legends that corroborated his grandfather’s story, and the look on Derek’s face had hardened, become dour. It made him look years older, even more like his grandfather.

“I begin searching….”

* * *

Conwy, near Llandudno

Anne saw him studying her as she left the single bathroom, but knew he couldn’t have heard her retching over his music while cooking breakfast in the tiny kitchen. She took some toast and juice as he turned it down to a soft background.

“No eggs, no sausage?”

She shook her head. “What’s today’s plan? We’ve spent a week along the coast and not found anything your grandfather described.”

“He told me of an old man who was the only one who would talk to him.” Derek set his plate across from hers on the small table. “After the other locals went from laughing at his story to ignoring him, they spread talk he was daft… crazed and should be locked up. The old man was the only person to treat him kindly toward the end, just before he left to work on a cargo ship for his passage to America. The old man told him the story of Gwyndud.”

“Who’s that?”

A thousand years ago or more, she was the daughter of Helig, who ruled a modest kingdom here. Years passed, and she wanted to keep her youth and beauty. She sought dark knowledge and witches who could teach her what she wanted to learn. One—cast out of Llanddona in western Wales by her own coven when her attempts to unchain the devil frightened even them—brought her what she wanted. A Faustian bargain with the devil to remain young and beautiful. But there were some limits. It worked only as long as she remained in her father’s kingdom. She could never step beyond its borders, or she would age. But she tried to cheat the devil… and as punishment, he sank her father’s kingdom and banned her to remain on its shore. A soulless spirit, an aged crone always agonizing over what she lost but never to die. Until the necromancer, I told you about summoned her. Mistakenly thinking, he could control and use her to get into Helig’s sunken kingdom and take its treasure and books from Helig’s library that held even more lost knowledge. Instead, the warlock broke the part of the spell that kept her harmless. She must have killed him….”

“And your grandfather believed all that? That some cursed ghost haunts this area…” Anne felt another twinge of nausea and shifted her chair away from the plates on the table.

Derek bit into the southern Wales Glamorgan sausage he’d bought at the market the day before. “He believed that was who took and held him.”

Anne stood and opened the window over the sink, turned toward him, and leaned against the counter. “Why?”

“Because the story goes, though she could now physically exist, she was still bound geographically to somewhere around here. And she could only continue to exist through taking life from those she could catch… like a spider in its web. With enough lives taken, she became young again.”

“What, she drinks blood like a vampire?” Anne laughed, feeling better.

Derek shrugged, “I don’t know….”

“Did your grandfather give you the man’s name who was kind to him?”

“No, just that he was old when bamps was young… he must be dead now. But he owned the oldest pub in northern Wales. I searched and found it’s still in business.”

* * *

Llandudno

Anne and Derek stood on the sidewalk facing the harbor. An uneven crimson-orange corona outlined the bulk of the Great Orme to the west, with the sky shading to cobalt rising into black above. Derek was so angry he was shaking.

“I heard you mention, y ddynes felltigedig… the cursed lady.”

The voice had a similar cadence as his grandfather’s, and Derek turned toward it. The man stood outside the pub they had exited. “What’s that?” Derek studied the white-haired man and recognized him as the only person inside the pub who had not laughed or bristled when he started asking questions. And that had led to explaining who he was. The oldest men at the bar remembered his grandfather, and not fondly.

“Who are you?” Derek asked, gesturing at Anne to move closer and behind him. Some men and women in the pub had grown angry and threatened him to stop stirring up the past or there would be consequences.

“Folks don’t want to hear anything to shake the bit of world they live upon. Most—the oldest—know the stories you speak of and treat them as old wives’ tales. Some worry or believe they’re true—or were long ago—and wish not to awake something that’s been sleeping for years. When you walk in with that story, tell them you’re Derek Meredith’s grandson… and are looking for ffang y diafol, the Devil’s Fang… they’ll not welcome it, boyo. And I heard you asking if it,” he cocked a thumb over his shoulder at the pub, “was the oldest here on the northern coast.”

“They said it was.”

The man nodded, “Now,” then contradicted himself with a shake of his head, “but not when you spoke of. Before 1959 my dad owned the oldest pub,” he pointed at a pay-parking lot used for the beach access and overflow from the street. “Sat there for more’n three centuries, in my family, it did.”

“What happened?”

“The fathers and grandfathers of some of those gits in there,” the gnarled thumb shot up and back at the pub again, “burned it down.”

“Why?”

The man hawked a wad and spat to the side, “That’s a thirsty tale, and my throat’s dry.” The old man moved closer under the arc of the streetlamp to display a seamed face of shadowed creases. “Don’t go in there often,” he flicked a hand over his shoulder, “and listening to them taunt you… spoiled my drink.” He studied Derek then smiled, “But I’ve a bottle at my place if you’d like to hear it. It’s a bit of a walk, or if you’ve a car,” he was close enough now to hold his hand out, then remembered that once familiar gesture had faded and lowered it. “My name is Iwan Pryce… my father knew your grandfather.”

* * *

In the shadow of the Great Orme

Iwan offered the bottle again to Anne, who shook her head. “Water’s fine for me….”

Derek glanced at her, a little surprised. In the lantern light—Iwan’s small cottage built into the shoulder of a hulking mount had no electricity—her face seemed pale, the eyes a deeper emerald in the glow. He held his glass out, and the man topped it off. Derek had seen the label and was surprised. His grandfather had taught him about Welsh whiskeys, and the Penderyn 10-year-old Madeira Finish Single Cask was moderately expensive. That didn’t fit with the man’s worn clothing and rough dwelling. Along the wall behind the table where they sat was a wide hearth and smoke-stained fireplace. Above it, on the long mantle, was a row of hardback books. They, too, seemed out of place. Their titles a shifting gleam—stamped in gold—lost in shadows where the low-flickering fire and lantern shed little light.

“So, your father’s pub was burned down because he talked with my grandfather?”

“It wasn’t the talking boyo… it was the topic. Just like now. Well… maybe not so much now. But back afore things like that…” Iwan tapped a finger near Derek’s cell phone sitting on the table. “Afore all the things that take away a reason to talk in person with people. Folks, when in their cups too deep, sometimes not far in at all… would tell their stories to barkeeps that served the drink that loosened their tongues. And my father’s father’s father, on and on, would listen and wrote many of ‘em down. My family became wardens of the stories. Not the scandal and gossip… but the old tales, the lore and oral histories of our land.”

“Of Cymru?”

Iwan smiled at Derek’s use of what many Welsh called their country. “Mostly this part of it,” he nodded and knocked back his glass. “Nowadays we speak of countries and nations… but long ago the land was made up of clans and communities… and petty kingdoms. By that, I don’t mean poor… just small and what you’d call insular. One such—Helig’s—included where we are now. Right under the haunches of the Great Orme and all along this coast. Legend has it King Helig’s daughter, Gwyndud, was beautiful… the most in all the kingdom. But vain, spoiled. A right wrathful bitch when wronged or not attended to. The stories go, she wanted her father to use his riches to grow the kingdom she would rule when he died. Then she would have more to preen over and to worship her. But long-lived Helig was content, and at relative peace with his neighbors. So, Gwyndud, as she grew older and the luster of eyes and hair faded, and figure thickened, found a witch to help her and bartered with the devil to become young and beautiful again. And forever. The devil agreed, but only within the borders of the kingdom. But as soon as Helig died… she broke her bargain by trying to expand the kingdom by taking from others. The devil likes his collateral, where they can be bound. He sank Helig’s kingdom, much of it’s out there under the sea just beyond the Orme,” Iwan pointed out the window. “And expelled Gwyndud, and took away what he had granted her. So as centuries passed, she became a story told—about conceit and avarice—to frighten not just children. The legend grew of the cursed Gwyndud, and some began calling her the White Lady. Some thought she could possess others, including Gwenhwyfar, the beguiler of Arthur misrepresented over centuries as his fair lady love. A tormented soul trapped in a place—a pocket of reality—outside the world we know. Her only means of existence, to steal life… to feed on fear and pain.”

“My grandfather,” Derek sipped from his glass, “wrote of her—the woman who took him—and he had scars that still hurt him even up to his death, where she slashed his arm six times….”

Iwan got up and walked into the only other room and came back with a small chest. “This is what’s left of my dad’s letters and such. He saw it once… one thing you mentioned in the pub,” he slid a stained page from the stack inside. “Here’s the sketch of the Devil’s Fang he drew from memory. My father told your grandfather he wouldn’t—and you won’t—find it by searching.”

From beneath more sheets of yellowed paper, some with singed, brown-blackened edges or partly burned away, he pulled a stained green bank ledger. Opening, he leafed through to find a page to turn so Derek and Anne could both see. He tapped a block of text sandwiched between rows of inventory notes and the cost and number of barrels of whiskey received.

Derek shifted it more into the light and read aloud:

“Talked with young Derek today… his arm was afire and swollen. He said doctors gave him medicine that wasn’t working, and I had to tell him nothing would. It’s the cursed lady’s work. The marks—those six slashes he’ll feel all his life—were to open a channel for her to draw from him. The seventh and final would have opened it fully for his life to pour into her, leaving only a husk behind. There’s a heavy fog from the Orme tonight… she’s casting it to find him… or to find someone new.”

Derek looked at Anne, “There was a woman, just like bamps said.”

“There’s the legend of a woman,” she replied, putting a hard on his arm and staring at the old man who had moved to look out the window. “You don’t believe it, do you?”

 “The moon’s gone dark….” Iwan turned to them, shaking his head, “I don’t know. My father believed… and tried to help young Derek.” But the townsfolk—you see at the time the fog and storms were stronger than they had ever been—grew scared and wanted your grandfather gone. Some even talked of taking him back out to sea to leave him where he’d been found. Then your grandfather did the smart thing and left. It angered my father that they would do that to a good Welsh lad, run him from his homeland, and he said as much. Not afraid to believe in the boy and the wrongness of what they’d done, he said too much and too often. So they burned him out.

Derek picked up the sketch of the Devil’s Fang, and the rose-gold of the ring glinted in the lantern light.

“Did your grandfather give you that?” Iwan pointed at the ring.

“Do you know about it?”

“Only something I heard my father tell your grandfather… that sigil on it… the twining that wraps around the band, is the serch bythol. Two Celtic knots—triskeles—that represent the binding of two people in spirit, mind, and body. A symbol of everlasting love. There was more my father wrote about it, but lost in the fire.”

Derek rotated the ring on his finger and studied Anne’s pallid face in the lantern light. “Grandfather wrote he found it his last morning held captive by the lady. On the remnant of a skeleton, the forearm and hand that crumbled to dust as he touched it. Then he fell through an opening into a vertical shaft with steps that led down and away to come out on a debris-strewn beach. The mist disappeared, and he cobbled together a raft. This time the tide carried him out to sea.”

“He was lucky then. My father told Derek he had never heard or read in the lore of anyone escaping her.”

“But something he said puzzled me, Bamps told me once he never wore the ring because it was safe only in Wales. What did he mean?”

Iwan shrugged thick shoulders, “I don’t know, lad. Some people and things are deeply connected to the land where they’re born. And where that first stirring of life or purpose occurs has a meaning, we rarely understand… until we do.” He shook his head, “Sometimes that never happens,” he looked out once more, but the darkness had swallowed the view beyond the glass, “it’s late, and I’m old… if you like, we can talk more tomorrow.”

Anne stood, her hand smoothing the shirt over her stomach, “I’m tired too, Derek.”

Iwan went with them to the door, stepped outside, looked up at the sky, and reached in to take a flashlight from a hook just inside. The faint glow of the moon was buried behind a dense bank of unmoving clouds, and the sea wind had stilled. Past the small pool of illumination cast from the window, all was shades of black and gray that deepened further from the light. “I’ll walk you to your car,” he flicked the flashlight on, and its beam fought that darkness. He shook it, “Thought I put in fresh batteries.”

In an eerie silence, shining a waning shaft of light ahead of them, Iwan led them up the narrow, winding path to where they had parked their rental SUV on a shoulder off the main road. “Take what I’ve told you and shown as the proof you want, Derek—your grandfather told the truth—and leave it at that.” The flashlight flickered and weakened more. He turned his face up to the shrinking moon, trying to free itself from the clouds. It seemed smaller… backing away from tendrils of clouds, reaching for it as others—almost rootlike—twisted toward the earth and the Great Orme looming above his cottage behind them.

“Derek, Peidiwch â deffro’r ddynes felltigedig…” Iwan didn’t take his eyes from the frightened orb, “don’t wake the cursed lady. It’s been years since any reports of unexplained missing people. If she exists, she’s weak now and can do no harm. Unless you find her,” he looked from the sky to Derek and Anne as they got in their Vauxhall, “or she finds you….”


Part 6 — 9 (request access)

NOTE FROM DENNIS

What you just read is a draft–not edited beyond my self-edit–so bear in mind it’s not had that final polish. But please do share your thoughts about this piece. Comments and feedback are always welcome.

IN STONE (for Memorial Day)

IN STONE - a nonfiction essay for Memorial Day by Dennis Lowery

Many confuse Memorial Day with honoring our living veterans and currently serving servicemen and women. That’s Veterans Day. Memorial Day is about remembering and honoring those who served our country and have passed on.

I’m a veteran who, as a professional writer and publisher, has dealt in memories and the stories of other veterans. Making sure they do not fade with time and become lost and forgotten. I’ve spoken, worked, and spent time with many of our most decorated veterans from World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Cold War, and the 21st-century War on Terror. They want to get down the WhatWhere, and When of life-shaping events in their lives… and often the Why. And every day, not just Memorial Day, they want to honor those they served with that have died. Their stories help serve that purpose, and they have deepened my appreciation for the holiday.

My friend, Jim Zumwalt, shared in his book Bare Feet Iron Will | Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields, a perhaps apocryphal story. In late 1968, during a Viet Cong mortar attack against Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, Vietnam, a memorial chapel was destroyed. A few days later, as a chaplain passed by its ruins, his eye caught the edge of an object among the rubble. He pulled it out to find a board upon which was inscribed a poem of unknown origin:

Not for fame or reward,
Not for place or rank,
Not lured by ambition
or goaded by necessity,
But in simple obedience
as they understood it.
These men suffered all,
dared all, and died.
Lest we forget… lest we forget…

So, in the rubble was found something that admonishes us. Destruction and death—especially witnessed at first hand—sobers and alters us. Perhaps that gives the words above greater import. It makes us pause and reflect on our own mortality and appreciate what we still have that others have lost. We have few ruins in the United States that evoke similar thoughts. But have many buildings and monuments that should make us grateful for those the structure honors and value the sacrifice they made. The best and most lasting are those erected on firm ground, resolutely attached to the bedrock underneath, stable and able to bear great loads, withstanding wind or storm. Societies and nations are built the same way. But not with bricks and mortar. A country is made of the character of its people, manifested in the traditions of its history and the principles it espouses. Some individuals stand out for contributing more to that history—often becoming the sum and substance of a nation’s foundation—so that the ‘center does hold.’ Like mortar and stone, it is their blood and bone—their grit and determination—that joins us.

Over two centuries, our land has become dotted with remembrances in stone. Of the men and women who wore our nation’s military uniform, swearing an oath to protect and defend all we hold dear. The cloth they wore is the fabric of hopes and dreams of the past, present, and future. And many died so young… so very, very young. “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top… In our youth, our hearts were touched with fire.”—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (who served as a young Union soldier in our Civil War). At Valley Forge (I know, not a battle but a turning point in our country’s history), the Continental army was bloody and beaten, ready to quit… but didn’t. At Gettysburg, the Meuse-Argonne, Guadalcanal, the Battle off Samar, Leyte Gulf, Bastogne, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Getlin’s Corner, Khe Sanh, in the USS STARK and USS COLE, Baghdad, Fallujah, Kandahar and many other places—domestic and foreign—known and regrettably unknown, they served and died.

Their gravestones, monuments, and memorials stand to remind us of those who have served and died. The markers of their death, the placards above their resting place, should forever call for us to speak in more than a hushed whisper. These men and women, above all, should be honored and remembered this Memorial Day. No matter where they rest, they are forever rooted deeply in that bedrock—in the stone—of our nation.

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.”

—Laurence Binyon, ‘For the Fallen’ (1914)
just before the slaughter on the Western Front in WWI.

General Richard ‘Butch’ Neal, USMC (Ret.) used the following as a dedication epigraph in his memoir What Now, Lieutenant? Leadership Forged from Events in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Beyond:

“From this day to the ending of the world,

We in it shall be remembered,

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother…”

William Shakespeare

Brothers. I want to tell you about one; my friend Jim Zumwalt’s. Because not all our heroes… not all of those we should honor die on the battlefield. Some survive and die after a full measure of life. Others, who come home wounded and injured, are ill-destined to fall too soon and far from where fate has placed a finger upon them. Upon commissioning in 1968, Jim’s bother Elmo R. Zumwalt III attended the Navy Communications Course in Newport, Rhode Island, and later reported to USS Claude B. Ricketts (DDG-5) in Norfolk as the Electronics Officer. In 1969, he volunteered to serve as a swift boat commander, one of the most dangerous assignments in Vietnam. LTJG Zumwalt took command of Swift Boat PCF-35 and, during his tour, was awarded two Bronze Stars for heroic conduct. He and his crew also received the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry for their heroism in Cambodia. Jim’s brother did—for a while—survive the war. Elmo died in August 1988 from cancer believed caused by exposure to Agent Orange. The defoliant used by the U.S. Armed Forces in Vietnam and sprayed continually along the rivers he and his crew patrolled. The very thing meant to help him, and his men was what ultimately led to his death.

The often mortal—life-shattering—wounds of war resulting from service to our country are not always seen, but they are there, and we must recognize and honor those who suffered them.

I’ll share with you a brief vignette from Butch Neal that’s a fitting close to this perspective on Memorial Day. A chance meeting, he told me about at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as we were finishing work on his book. When I heard it, I knew we had to add to his story. The Marine mentioned in it, *John Bobo, is a 24-year-old posthumous Medal of Honor recipient. He died providing defensive fire for his men after his lower right leg was blown off in a battle that pitted a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalion of 700+ men against the approximately 150 men of Company I, Third Battalion, Ninth Marines, Third Marine Division. Of the seven officers in the field at the beginning of that battle, only three walked out. Butch was one of them and afterward was awarded his first Silver Star. Here’s what he told me (that became the postscript to end his book):

Recently, as was my custom, I stopped at the Vietnam Wall just to see the names and think for a few minutes about my Brothers. As I stood in front of Panel 17E looking at the fifteen names all clustered around row 70, a little elderly lady (a grandmother type, my age) moved almost in front of me. I was about to step back to give her more room when I realized she was one of the volunteers that help people at the Wall find names, and learn the history, etc. She was polite and said she was looking for row 70. I pointed it out to her and asked. “What name are you looking for?”

“John Bobo,” her eyes didn’t stop scanning the names.

I almost fell over. I pointed to his name.

“Thank you. I’m doing a pencil etching of his name. Someone requested it on our website,” she said.

Talk about a coincidence, it’s a small world, whatever, but it was an amazing happenstance. “John was a Medal of Honor recipient,” I told her. She immediately checked her list, nodding her head when she saw that was so. “Thank you for what you’re doing,” I told her then turned away to continue my walk, happy although it was cold, raining, and the cherry blossoms had not yet exploded. There were those—other than me—who would not let my Brothers be forgotten.

Butch Neal

This Memorial Day, please take a moment to pay respect to—and remember—all who served like *John Bobo and Elmo R. Zumwalt, and have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country.

*Medal of Honor Citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Weapons Platoon Commander, Company I, Third Battalion, Ninth Marines, Third Marine Division, in Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam, on 30 March 1967. Company I was establishing night ambush sites when the command group was attacked by a reinforced North Vietnamese company supported by heavy automatic weapons and mortar fire. Lieutenant Bobo immediately organized a hasty defense and moved from position to position encouraging the outnumbered Marines despite the murderous enemy fire. Recovering a rocket launcher from among the friendly casualties, he organized a new launcher team and directed its fire into the enemy machine gun position. When an exploding enemy mortar round severed Lieutenant Bobo’s right leg below the knee, he refused to be evacuated and insisted upon being placed in a firing position to cover the movement of the command group to a better location. With a web belt around his leg serving as a tourniquet and with his leg jammed into the dirt to curtail the bleeding, he remained in this position and delivered devastating fire into the ranks of the enemy attempting to overrun the Marines. Lieutenant Bobo was mortally wounded while firing his weapon into the main point of the enemy attack but his valiant spirit inspired his men to heroic efforts, and his tenacious stand enabled the command group to gain a protective position where it repulsed the enemy onslaught. Lieutenant Bobo’s superb leadership, dauntless courage, and bold initiative reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

The ‘Morning’ Dove…

Some of you have read the following. After Awakening is another day… another morning:

Awakening…

I sit facing the sun. At first, the sky blushes with pride in its beauty to come and then prouder still, it brightens. Its rise now two hours old… the sun feels warm—good—on my upturned face. A slight breeze teases the pine needles in the towering tree I see profiled against the bluing sky. The wind caresses my face, adding to the feeling of warmth as it ebbs. I feel life moving through and around me. To my left and above, I hear the Doppler sound of geese, perhaps landing or taking off from one of the nearby ponds. I listen to birds warbling. I don’t know what kind. The honks of the geese, my favorite morning sound, the chirps, and melodious buzzes coming from the surrounding brush and trees… all are music to me and beautiful.

I’m reading from John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. But it now rests face-down on my lap. I’d just read of Kino’s perfect morning and must set his aside to enjoy my own. I take a deep breath, and though my day began three hours ago, in the pre-dawn darkness, our day is here. Behind me, inside the house, rises the sound of my two dogs and soon, my daughters and wife. The Song of Family and the call to be with them.

Tamara, when you read this, you’ll know where I took it. Something I do—take a picture with The Pearl where I am—when I travel and have a morning’s moment to re-read Steinbeck’s story and reflect.
Not from that morning at home… but a different one in another place. Tamara, when you read this, you’ll recognize where I took it. Something I do when I travel—take a picture with ‘The Pearl’ where I am—and have a morning’s moment to re-read and reflect on Steinbeck’s story.

“The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” ― Emerson

Another morning… another moment to appreciate…

Some of you might recall the above piece–Awakening–from a few years ago. It came to mind, and I’ve reshared because, for the past month, I’ve noticed something that bears appreciating even amid the human tragedy, economic and social impact of the pandemic. I hope you have observed or experienced it—or something similar—too.

The music of birds has increased in my small part of the vast world. Their calls and cries (a seeming good—welcoming—kind) are more plentiful and constant; fewer cut off or that abruptly end. Their melody is sustained. And the ends of the stage it comes from—just beyond our eastward facing backyard fence bordering a copse of woods—have curved toward me. Forming an arc that now includes backup singers in the trees of our side yards.

This morning—before this writing—brought a new accompaniment. And though we have birds frequent an alternate stage in our front yard, it’s the first time I’ve seen this performer. One I didn’t recognize, having not seen any in the 25 years since building our home. A male Mourning Dove handsomely perched atop the fountain in our front yard, in the sunlight beginning to slant over our rooftop. Grayish-brown with a long tail, and black spots on folded wings. A pale blue orbital ring around each eye, and a splash of iridescent light pink at the neck that caught and shone in the sun. First watching him through a window, I stepped out hoping—not expecting—he would stay long enough for a better picture. He did.

In the soft wind, and to the low burble of the water… I heard his mournful call: “cooOOoo-woo-woo-woooo.” I watched him watch me. After a moment, he took flight with a distinctive warbling, almost whistling sound. As I write this—now sitting in my backyard with my writing assistant—I’ve looked up the bird. And learned the sound I thought came from his throat— sonation—comes from the speed of its beating wings upon takeoff and landing. The Mourning Dove can fly up to speeds of 55 mph.

Sadly, I watched him go. A trajectory taking him higher and over my neighbor’s house. I hoped he would return, and I believe he might. Beta mentioned seeing what she thought was a pigeon on our fountain a few days ago. So perhaps I’ll enjoy the meeting and the moment again. But if that never happens, I know I’ll remember him. There’s a—purportedly—Chinese proverb: “The palest ink is better than the best memory.” And if you’ve read much of my writing, you know how strongly I believe that’s true with what I’ve recorded from my own experiences. I’m glad to have done so.

“Now, remember: they’re not for eating, but for listening, because you’ll often be hungry for sounds as well as food. Here are street noises at night, train whistles from a long way off, dry leaves burning, busy department stores, crunching toast, creaking bedsprings, and of course, all kinds of laughter. There’s a little of each, and in far off, lonely places, I think you will be glad to have them.” ―Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

Now the sun is rising higher, the day is warming. Murphy—parked in the shadow of a sago palm—has his nose up into the morning breeze that’s fading. He rises, looks at the shrinking shade, and turns toward me. I glance down at the patio table, my tablet, and the wrapped bar next to it. When your dark chocolate—the three squares I allow myself with morning coffee—melts… it’s a sign. Time to go inside. And just as Kino in Steinbeck’s story appreciated, I hear ‘the Song of Family and the call to be with them.’

Murphy too…

“Dad… it’s time to go in….