Friday, January 18, 2019

InCoWriMo 2019

Six years ago, actually six years and a month ago, I first heard the name InCoWriMo for the first time.

InCoWriMo means International Correspondence Writing Month.   The month is February and the objective is " send a handwritten letter every day for the month of February to a person on the list.  It doesn't have to be a novel or even news, it's entirely up to you what you write."

The key word in that quote, taken from a blog post on the InCoWriMo 2019 site, is handwritten.  The snail mail logo is more than a cute picture.  It is reminder to slow down, reach out and get in touch.  I don't know of a better way to do that than write a letter - a handwritten letter.

I began writing letters fifty years ago when I served in Vietnam.  When I first read about InCoWriMo, I jumped at the chance to get back into it.  I quickly discovered that the magic was still there.

The first month of the first InCoWriMo, February 2014, was half done
when I heard about it.  I thought about waiting to 2015 to participate, but decided it was too good to wait a year for, so I jumped in and caught up.  I haven't missed a year since.

Many of the people I've met through letters have become my good friends, and I expect many more will.  I have pen friends in Thailand, the United Kingdom, Canada, Netherlands, Taiwan, and the United States.

I just assembled my 2019 InCoWriMo mailing list, and it includes individuals in Germany, France, Hong Kong, Israel, Macau, Kuwait, India, Mexico and the U.S.  All of the information for this year's event is here.   If you don't know whom to write to, a list of individuals who would love to hear from you is here.

Happy writing!


"Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company."  Lord Byron

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Yours To Count On

J.E.B. Stuart
All things evolve and words are no exception.  For example, originally a cavalier was the name given by puritans to royalist supporters of King Charles.  Not a desirable name.  Over time Cavalier evolved to mean a flamboyant, supportive soldier. 

James Ewell Brown Stuart, commonly known as "Jeb," is often called "the last Cavalier."  The West Point graduate was a cavalry general who served under Robert E. Lee during the American Civil War.

Lee called Jeb, my good right arm.  Stuart was notorious for the daring recon missions he led, usually conducted far behind enemy lines.  In his detailed written accounts of those missions to General Lee, he signed under the closing line, "Yours to count on."

I've had the good fortune to know a few cavaliers in my time, men and women I knew I could always count.  My cavaliers include, Lieutenant Bogdue, helicopter pilot, once a Sergeant, then a Warrant Officer, and finally a commissioned officer, thanks to a battlefield commission following his unsupported rescue of a General during the war in Vietnam.  And there was Private Castellanous, who defied mortars and rockets to make sure "I was alright."  And of course there is always Christina, my good right arm, who always has my back.

Before Bogdue, Castellanous, and Christina, I had another cavalier, Gerald Decker.  Prior to Vietnam, I was stationed at Fort Sam Houston (San Antonio).  There I worked for Gerald Decker, the smartest man I've ever known.  Though he left school when he was 14, Gerald radiated intelligence.  He was born and raised in Detroit, where he lived on the street from the time his old man kicked him out of the house at age 15, until a judge gave him a choice of prison or the army.

In less than three years, without serving in Vietnam, Decker rocketed through the ranks, from Private to Staff Sergeant.  When he told me of the choices offered by the judge, he added, "I'm not sure I picked the best one."

I had been at Fort Sam about four months, when I was joined by my wife.  She tried, but couldn't get a job in San Antonio because soldier's were moved often unexpectedly, and their wives went with them or back home.  We lived off-base, on my E-4 salary.  To say we were strapped would be an huge understatement.  Decker, my section leader, knew our financial situation and asked if I would like to work Friday and Saturday nights, with him, at The Landing.   I said "YES!" and became his assistant bartender.

We rode to work together and got to know each other pretty well.  He told me about his life on the streets of Detroit, but I had serious problems relating his stories to the soft spoken, straight-arrow, young Staff Sergeant I knew.  My skepticism disappeared at 4 AM one Sunday morning.

We were on our way home.  I was driving. The streets were empty, or so I thought until a car pulled to a stop beside us at a traffic light.  I turned to my left, noting there were  two young men in the front seat and three, maybe four more in the back seat.  I locked eyes with the passenger, smiled and nodded.  He gave me an angry look, then leaned out his open window and aimed a pistol at my face.  Before I could move or scream or even think about what was happening, he pulled the trigger.  Fire erupted from the muzzle of the gun as the sound filled my head.

I sensed, but could not hear Decker shouting as he leaped from the car.  I turned to my right just as he leveled the little automatic pistol I carried in the glove box at the shooter and methodically began firing.  I've often thanked God for Decker, and that he was a horrible shot, and that I saw him transform himself from Clark Kent to Superman and, of course, I gave thanks that the kid was firing blanks that night.

Why that story on this day?  Because I always like to spend some time, at the beginning of a new year, recalling the cavaliers in my life and giving thanks that they were and are there.  Maybe that's something you enjoy also, and who knows, maybe you'll share one of your cavaliers in the comments below.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Along A Road He Had Never Traveled

I haven't written a blog post in almost a year.  Maybe it's like riding a bicycle, and I haven't forgotten how it's done.  Or maybe what we've been told about riding a bicycle is wrong, and I have forgotten how.  This is where we find out which is true or, if just maybe, both are false and something else is true.

It's Christmas morning, 2018.  Warm for Christmas morning in north Alabama.  The sounds I associate with long ago Christmas mornings, kids on new skates, kids learning how to operate new toys, kids laughing and playing, have been replaced by nothing... nothing human that is.

An hour ago, as I filled the bird feeders and scattered peanuts for the squirrels and "Baker Street" (three groups of blue jays who love raw, in the shell Virginia peanuts) the only sounds I heard were me rattling the bird seed can and Baker Street warning the squirrels to stay away from their peanuts.

The Christmas sounds of kids playing outside with new toys only exists in my mind and maybe in a parallel universe that isn't running close enough to this one for me to access this morning.

For me, the only bit of Christmas past that seems to be part of this Christmas morning is the last paragraph of Wallace Stegner's short story, The Traveler.  I've pasted it below, but before you read it, you should know this, these words have the power to become a permanent Christmas memory for you.  These words could even erase any feeling of loss you are experiencing around the absence of the source of your childhood Christmas memories - Now, if you are willing to risk that, read on:

"Along a road he had never driven he went swiftly toward an unknown farm and an unknown town, to distribute according to some wise law part of the burden of the boy's emergency and his own; but he bore in his mind, bright as moonlight over snow, a vivid wonder, almost an awe. For from that most chronic and incurable of ills, identity, he had looked outward and for one unmistakable instant recognized himself."  

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Thought Trains

Some call it "stream of consciousness," others refer to it as a "line of thought." I suspect most don't have a name for the phenomenon that we all experience every day twenty-four seven.

I call it "thought trains," a personal reference that reminds me of my favorite opening line, actually my favorite opening paragraph.  It's from "Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend," by James Waller." 

Here's how it goes:

"The Trivandrum Mail was on time.  It came out of the jungle and pounded into Villupuram Junction at 3:18 on a sweltry afternoon in south India.  When the whistle first sounded far and deep in the countryside, people began pressing toward the edge of the station platform..."

This morning the whistle of the "Trivandrum Mail" woke me at least an hour before I had to get up.  Before I actually heard the train, its whistle sounded again, followed closely by a third blast.  Listening close, I heard the first pounding of the train, followed by the screams of Baker Street (a flock of blue jays whose addiction to raw peanuts I enable once and sometimes twice a day).

I tried to close my eyes and pretend Baker wasn't outside the window hanging onto a rain drenched branch, doing his best to get me out of the warm bed.  I even had the crazy thought that if I clenched my eyes closed tight enough, I could banish both Baker and the train.

The whistle sounded again, much louder than before, and Baker faded from my consciousness, replaced by a question, "I wonder what James Waller is doing these days."

That was quickly followed by a thought of James Patterson, the current best selling writer of fiction in the world - specifically I thought about the MasterClass lectures I'm loving.  I thought specifically about the lecture on openings and wondered if I would ever learn to write a pounding line like Waller's.

The whistle blew louder sweeping James Patterson out of my mind, leaving in his place John Davidson driving down a stretch of western interstate, in his old tractor/trailer, saying to himself, "I spent my 62nd birthday the same way I spent the 38 before it, moving freight from one side of the country to another... no cake... no party... no celebration at all, unless you count my birthday surprise from Harry..."

Before I could go any further with John, the protagonist from my unpublished book, The High Road, which is undergoing a major rewrite, the whistle sounded again, and I remembered that I'd told myself last night about writing a blog today.  I immediately recalled my response to that thought, "but I don't have a single idea to write about."

Then, in the rush that always startles me, the train rounded the last bend, charging out of the jungle in a slow arc, growing bigger and even bigger, until it filled my entire thought frame.  That's when I knew the commercial was over and the message was at hand.

I waited, feeling the pounding of the monstrously huge steam engine and the heat of its presence, and marveled as I was encompassed by the glow of my own anticipation - then came the message, Write About Thought Trains.

So I did.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Happy Birthday My Love

I've started writing this about a hundred times but nothing came out right.  The only thing that worked was the Vince Gill song, Look At Us, which I've known all along I wanted to make part of my message to you.  Then, I listened close, real close, to the lyrics... slapped my forehead and said... Damn, it's already written and it's perfect.  So Darling, here's what I want you to know on your birthday...

Look at us
After all these years together
Look at us
After all that we've been through
Look at us
Still leaning on each other
If you want to see
How true love should be
Then just look at us.
Look at you
Still pretty as a picture
Look at me
Still crazy over you
Look at us
Still believin' in forever
If you want to see
How true love should be
Then just look at us
In a hundred years from now
I know without a doubt
They'll all look back and wonder how
We made it all work out
Chances are
We'll go down in history
When they want to see
How true love should be
They'll just look at us

written by Max Duane Barnes
echoed by Bert Carson to Christina Carson 

Friday, February 23, 2018

On Hereos And Cowards

Fifty years ago, the field phone on my desk chirped.  I pulled the handset out of the cradle, and raising it to my ear I pressed the transmit button and said, "Sergeant Carson, how may I help you Sir?

"It's me, Sarge," Corporal Fleury, our Company Clerk said.  Without waiting for a response, he continued, "We just got a new man.  His name is Castellaneous.  He will be working in your section, and he'll be in your platoon.  He's on the way over...."  There was a long pause, finally broken, when Fleury, who couldn't define a sense of humor, much less give an example of the term, managed to add, "Sarge, he must be the last man who could pass the physical."

Before I could snap the handset back in place, the door opened and a duffle bag, with legs, stumbled in, took two steps, then the bag and legs separated, revealing a PFC, who couldn't have been over 5'7" and on a tall day maybe weighed 140 pounds on a heavy day.  His geeky-looking, Army-issued, plastic-framed glasses, hid a lot of his pimply face. Still I could tell he could easily pass for fifteen.  He spotted me in the dusty gloom of the quonset hut, pulled his cap off and slowly made his way toward my desk.

Too shocked to move, I sat and stared.  Six inches from the desk, he snapped to a stop, and I saw his right arm start moving upward.  "Hold it, Castellanos," I said.  I'm your Sergeant, not your commanding officer.  Don't even think about saluting.  Now, relax."

With some effort he managed that.

I said, "As my Daddy says, 'you look like you're worn to a frazzle.'"

He grinned shyly and said, "I haven't slept in..." he paused, sneaked a look at his watch and said, "Eighteen hours."

"Then this conversation is over until you sleep.  Come on, I'll show you your bunk."  Thirty minutes later he was sound asleep about ten feet away from the door to what I called my room, though, it was only a few sheets of plywood nailed to the joists, in the corner of the barracks.

It was furnished with a makeshift door and a cot I'd raised a foot with bunk extensions to give me room to slid my foot locker under.  I conserved every square inch of floor space to give me room for a second foot locker, which served as my desk and was accompanied by two folding patio chairs - one for me, and one for any infrequent visitor to my den.

A few hours later, Castellanos was jackknifed into my second chair, sobbing.  There is nothing in the NCO Manual that covers "Sobbing New Guy."  I watched, listened and finally, afraid one of the other guys would hear and wonder what was going on,  stood, reached across my desk/footlocker and touched him on the shoulder. "Castallaneous, I can't fix it until you stop crying and tell me what's wrong."

Finally after shaking and snorting and wiping his nose on his sleeve a few times, he raised his head and said something I'll never forget. "Sarge, I'm afraid I'm going to be a coward."

There's nothing in the manual for that one either, but I charged ahead anyway.  "What the hell are you talking about Castallaneous?" I said.

The short version of his story was, he came from a long line of war heros that began with his great-great-grandfather and progressed, without missing a generation, or a war, though to his father.  "And that's why I'm here Sarge.  It's why I volunteered.  My family expects it, and I have to do it, and..."  he sobbed again but recovered quickly, "I'm afraid I'm going to be a coward.  The first in my family."

A lot of things ran through my mind, but all I managed to say was, "Castallaneous, when the time comes, if it comes, you'll do what you have to do.  Now go back to bed."  He did.  A few minutes later the lights were turned out.  I listened a long time until I heard the sobbing stop and the sounds of Castallanous' sleeping blend in with the sleeping sounds of the rest of the squad, at least those who weren't on duty.

Sometime between 2:00 and 2:30 AM, Victor Charlie came past Camp Bearcat on his way home from a firefight in Long Binh, Binh Ho or Saigon.  The first rocket hit on the small 9th Division Helipad just behind our barracks.  Strapping on my gear, I walked into the bay.  Castallanous, horror paralyzing his face was sitting up but not moving.  I slapped him on the back, "Forget everything except getting in the bunker.  NOW!"

The slap got him moving, and in the feeble light of my flashlight, I began working my way to the end of the bay.  When I reached the first bunk, I ran my hands over the cover to make sure it was empty, then I went to the second and third, until I'd checked all twenty.  Rockets and an occasional mortar were still lighting up the Stephen King scene when I started down the outside stairway of the two story building.

At the ground floor, I stepped into the bay and began checking bunks again.  Between in-coming rounds, I heard the door at the other end of the bay open.  I looked up as a small figure came in,and, in the dim light, I realized it was Castallanous.  He stopped at the first bunk, ran his hands over the cover and moved to the second.  We met at the middle of the room just as another rocket, this one further way, lit up the scene.  "I know you said go to the bunker, Sarge.  And I did.  But when I asked someone where you were, he said you always checked to make sure everyone was out before you came to the bunker."

He paused, looked at me through his tear smeared glasses, and said, "I thought I ought to come back and help you, Sarge."  That was the first of many times he "came back to help me," the kid from upstate New York, who was afraid he would be a coward.  Castallanous was one of the bravest men I've ever known.

Men and women are heroes or cowards long before they are called on to prove which they are.  I don't know why that's true, but I damn sure know that it is.  No training or rehersal can change it.  It's a built in fact.  One that most never know about, and that's not a bad thing.

There's one other thing I know about heroes and cowards, and it's the thing that prompted this post. Unless you know which you are, you aren't qualified to call a man a hero or a coward.... Mr. President.

Bert Carson    

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Parkland - From The Captain's Log

Parkland is a word.  Parkland isn't a depraved, unspeakably violent act.  It is a word.  A word we've used to name towns, golf courses, Baptist Churches, shopping centers, and the hospital where John Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was declared dead. 

For a moment, in our current grief and dismay, we've forgotten that there is nothing bad or good about the word Parkland.  We create names, and we supply the meaning to go with them. 

For example, Parkland is also the name of an elementary school in Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada.  I used the school's logo to illustrate this post because, it depicts life and knowledge, two resources we must use if we are to move beyond the Parkland of Feb 14th.

Gun control isn't the solution because guns aren't the problem.  Singling out an agency, in this case, the FBI, to shoulder the blame for a senseless shooting is as senseless as the crime itself.  Blaming Donald Trump because of his mindless tweets and remarks makes no more sense than tearing down the school, which has been suggested by more than one person.

The issue is much more complex than an individual's "mental condition," or the failure of a law enforcement agency to handle reports of suspicious behavior, or the lack of security at a school, or even the instigators unwillingness to ask for help. 

We have not identified the core problem and until we do, we're wasting time and energy proposing solutions that are as senseless as the act they are addressing.  To find the real issue, let's step further away from the horror of the manifestation, take a deep breath and think about things for a moment.  It's amazing what a breath of cool clean air wafting around the brain can do.  

The second paragraph of The Declaration of Independence begins, "We hold these these truths to be self-evident..."  And therein lies the issue.  A large portion of us no longer understand the truths the document describes.  If we don't understand them, how can we uphold and defend them?  We can't.  Taking away assault weapons won't make the truths of the Declaration of Independence any more self-evident than firing a law enforcement officer who made a mistake.  

If you've ever read the work of the novelist John D. MacDonald, you know that he was a sage, a man whose wisdom is more applicable today than ever.  In his book, The End of the Night, he tells the story of four young people who go on a mindless killing rampage.  Early in the book, the lawyer for the defendants writes, in a memorandum, his thoughts following his initial interview with the parents of one of the defendants:

"I have experienced a partial failure of communication with Kirby's parents.  I understand why this must be, as I have seen it before.  Everyone who works with criminals in any capacity is familiar with this phenomenon.  It is, I suspect a classification error.  All their lives, they have been conscious of a great gulf between the mass of decent folk and  the sick, savage, dangerous minority  known as criminals.  Thus they cannot comprehend that their son, their decent young heir, has leaped the unbridgeable gulf.  They believe such a feat impossible, and thus the accusation of society must be an error.  A boyish prank has been misunderstood.  People have lied about him.  Or he has fallen under the temporary influence of evil companions.

Their error lies in their inability to see how easy it is to step across the gulf.  Perhaps, in maturity, when ethical patterns are firmly established, one cannot cross that gulf.  But in youth, in the traditional years of rebellion, it is not a gulf.  It is an almost imperceptible scratch in the dust.  To the youth it is arbitrary and meaningless.  To society it is a life and death division."

My less than eloquent take on John D.'s statement is, when truth is no longer self-evident, it is our task to insure that it is once again self-evident.  To do that, we might have to go further back and redefine those truths: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Sobeit.  The task is before us.  Let's get on with it.