Monthly Archives: February 2017

309. Two Hands and a Knife

There has been an interesting rhubarb in the back stacks of Amazon, where that company acts as a conduit to a battalion of independent used bookstores. The controversy concerns a book/two books which is/are Two Hands and a Knife.

How’s that for convolution? Do I have your attention yet?

In 2003, Terry Gibson wrote a book called Two Hands and a Knife, a young adult survival story set in the Canadian wilderness. It garnered mixed and confusing reviews. It was almost as if the readers were reviewing two different books.

It turned out, they were.

In 1956, Warren Hastings Miller had also written a book called Two Hands and a Knife. I remember it well. I was in fifth grade at the time, in a tiny school, with no access to bookstores. Our school held a TAB book fair, and I bought Miller’s book. It was superb. I remember it better today, than I remember the books I read last week.

To be fair, it was also probably the first book I ever bought.

When Two Hands and a Knife came back onto my radar about a year ago, and seemed to be claimed by some modern author, my suspicions were aroused. Had some schmuck found an old copy and resold it as his own work?

No, it turns out, he hadn’t.

I made my way to the Amazon page which has a Look inside function and read the first chapters of the 2003 version. It was an entirely different book with the same title and similar plot. Of course, young-man-survives-the-wilderness is a sub-genre of its own, so plot similarities would be inevitable. Remember Hatchet?

Some of the reviewers of the 2003 book were clearly remembering their own distant childhood as well. Some reviewed Gibson’s book in glowing terms that showed clearly they had not read it, but were remembering the Miller book. Some noticed the difference, with disappointment. One hated Gibson’s book enough to give it one star and a “don’t buy”. A few reviewers had clearly read only Gibson’s book, and loved it.

If you’re curious, go to the page and go clear to the bottom. There are supposed to be eight reviews, but every time I go to this page, I only find five or six, and not always the same ones.

By now I’ve read enough of Terry Gibson’s book to know that it is reasonably well written, but not completely to my taste. Fair enough; I’m no longer the target audience. I have tried to find out who the author is, with little success. I did finally get a look at the back of the paperback cover in Google books and picked up this minimal biography.

Terry is a retired self-employed businessman. His love of the outdoors has taken him from North America and Europe to deep within the Amazon rain forest. It’s this ‘call of the wild’ that inspired Two Hands And A Knife, his first novel.  He currently resides in central Illinois with his wife Patricia.

This puts him pretty much in my generation. Did he read the Miller book as a child? Or not? Was it floating around in his sub-conscious? Or was Gibson’s book a conscious homage to Miller’s?

Don’t misunderstand. The 2003 book is not a rip-off, despite the crack you’ll find in Goodreads. It is an independent work. But we all have influences, ideas come from somewhere, and I find the entire process fascinating. In point of fact, Miller’s original Two Hands and a Knife was floating around in the back and front of my mind when I wrote my first novel Spirit Deer.

So Terry Gibson, if you someday google your own book title on a lazy afternoon, and stumble across this post, drop me a response. I’d love to talk.

Raven’s Run 103

“We should talk about him some time.”

I handed Ed a cup of coffee and said coldly, “No, we shouldn’t.”

He smiled slowly and said, “Well, maybe not.”

“Why do you care, anyway?”

“Habit. I need to know everything. Even things that are none of my business. I’m always getting in trouble over that.”

I could get to like this laid back FBI agent. He had loyalty and an odd way of looking at life. But I wasn’t going to tell him about my past just because he was likable.

Ed sipped and leaned back. “So you got discharged and spent three months wandering around Europe. Then you came to San Francisco. Why?”

“Did you ever live through a Wisconsin winter?”

“No. But I get your point.”

“I had met my Aunt Adele a few times when I was a kid, and I liked her. She was about the only relative I had left, so when I was in Germany I started writing to her. She invited me out. I’d gotten my GED while I was in the Army and wanted to go to college, so she put me up here and gave me this job. She paid my tuition, but I worked for the rest.”

“How does Joe Dias fit into all this?”

“I met him through Rusty Dixon. Joe and I both fire at Rusty’s pistol range. I was complaining about the price of Rusty’s reloads, so he introduced me to Joe. I went to work for him a few hours a week for spending money.”

“How long were you a P.I.?”

“I wasn’t – exactly. Joe called me three-quarters of a P.I.. I went to work for him in 1982. There weren’t many computers around then, and I had learned how to use one in the Army, so I started out doing computer searches. Eventually, I did everything, but it was never a profession with me, just a job. It was exciting sometimes, and it paid OK, but mostly I was interested in college.”

“How long?” Ed prompted.

“I can’t say, exactly. It was off and on. There were months when I wouldn’t see him at all, and times when I would work for several weeks straight. He let me work around my college schedule. I had a pretty tough time at first, and Joe was always understanding.”

Ed didn’t say anything, but he didn’t look bored either. He had the knack of drawing you out, making you want to explain further.

“A GED is no real substitute for High School.  My junior year was a disaster after my Dad ran off and I was trying to raise my sister. Then I missed my senior year altogether. When I got to college, I made really bad grades at first. It took me a while to learn how to learn. Then I had to retake some classes to get my GPA up so I could get into grad school. It took me a long time to get my M.A..” more tomorrow

308. All I Really Need to Know

dscn4338All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from my Dogs

Please don’t throw rocks at me, but that kind of prissy, perfect, and pretentious tag line activates my gag reflex. Let me suggest a different, more realistic take on life.

Everything I need to know, I learned in the dairy barn.

I’m not talking about a modern milk factory, but a real, old fashioned 1950s kind of dairy. To find one today, you’d have to go to a third world country.

You’ve all seen milk and yoghurt ads showing perfectly clean, starkly black and white Holsteins standing knee deep in green, green grass. Erase that picture from your mind. It never happened.

Holstein calves come out of the womb clean, but from three days after birth they will never be black and white again. They are brown to the knees from the dust and dirt – and other things – that boil up when they walk. Their tails become a black club of matted cockle burs – and that other thing.

The grass in the ads looks so perfect because no creature is allowed to graze there before the ad is shot. Turn a herd of cattle out and in four days it will be matted, scarred, pockmarked with hoofprints, and covered with steaming piles of the fertilizer which completes the circle of life.

No complaints, you understand. A herd of cattle on a green meadow is beautiful, but the grass will be eaten down, and the ground itself will look like a billion angry golfers have been making divots. It will be nothing like pristine.

It all comes down, finally, to this. Cows produce three things. One is a clear, yellow, somewhat odorous liquid, which they produce in copious volumes. One is a brown to green semi-solid, and they produce mountains of this. One is the thick, white liquid that feeds the nation.

You can’t get the one you want, until you figure out how to handle the other two.

Just like life.

Raven’s Run 102

The window groaned when I opened it, letting in the night fog to ease the stuffiness of the place.

“You live here?”

“Seven years.”

“Why? Did you take a vow of poverty?”

“I never had to take a vow; I was born to poverty.”

“Your dossier said you have a rich aunt?”

“Adelle Wilson. She owns Grayling Motor Freight. This isn’t it. Its a big complex in Oakland. This is just a little outfit she bought out about the same time I came to San Francisco, which she runs as a local annex to the main business. I needed a job and a cheap place to live; she gave me this room and a job as a night watchman. It was ideal. No rent to pay, a small salary, and all I had to do was be here from ten at night to six in the morning. I made rounds a couple of times a night and responded if an alarm went off. Otherwise I could study or sleep.”

I pulled the blanket off the mattress and whipped the room with it. For a minute, the dust filled the air, but cross ventilation carried most of it out the window and made the place more habitable. Ed Wilkes sank down on the sofa while I went through the cupboards and found an unopened can of coffee. I set water to boiling. “If you want to stay here tonight you can sack out on the sofa. I have a sleeping bag you can use.”

“OK. We need to make some plans.”

I plugged in the ancient refrigerator and put water in some ice cube trays. “Excuse me while I’m being domestic,” I said. “The place isn’t very complicated. I’ll have everything that matters running again in a minute.”

Ed looked around and shook his head. “Seven years?” he said.

I filled the filter cone with coffee and poured in boiling water. “Yes. You read my state department documents, so you know that I dropped out of high school to enter the Army.”

“At age sixteen.”

“I was only a month shy of seventeen and those days the Army was pretty unpopular. It was only a short time after Viet Nam. You could still get in if you were upright and breathing.”

“Fake ID?”

“Homemade. It wouldn’t have worked if the recruiter hadn’t had a quota he couldn’t fill.”

“You were in the Army three years out of a four year enlistment. You went out on a medical discharge. How is your knee these days?”

I looked at Wilkes. He was amused. No doubt he had some idea of the truth. I said, “As good as can be expected.” 

There was nothing wrong with my knee; never had been. And I was sure Ed knew that.

“How is Sgt. Davenport?”

He knew.

“Still in prison, as far as I know. I haven’t had any contact with him since I last saw him in Germany.”

“We should talk about him some time.”

I handed Ed a cup of coffee and said coldly, “No, we shouldn’t.” more tomorrow

307. Give Me Air

I exist for open spaces. I lived a long time in a small city, but I could walk to the edge of town in five minutes. I spent four years at Michigan State, but that campus was a sylvan paradise. I only lived in a true inner city once, and it almost killed me.

It was Chicago. I know people who love Chicago – Andrew Greeley made a carreer out of loving that city – but they didn’t live where I did. 53rd street, student housing for the University of Chicago, a few blocks from the true south side. The same general area where President Obama got his start.

No, I didn’t meet him. He was in Hawaii, still in middle school, when I was at Chicago.

I never felt more at home intellectually, or more adrift in every other aspect of my life, than the year I spent there. It wasn’t just the dirt and the crowding and the nightly killings. It was that I would have to drive for hours through packed traffic to get to see open space. Without a car, I could have walked until my heart broke and never have reached the open sky.

I left after nine months with a master’s degree and a permanent case of cold chills.

When Keir Delacroix, in the novel Cyan, finds himself stranded on Earth after returning from exploring that virgin planet, I knew how he felt, and I knew where I had to put him. Chicago.

* * * * * * * * * *

The sky was slate gray to match Keir’s mood.    

Snow had been trickling down from ruptures in the sooty sky since noon, and now the dark of evening was upon him. He squatted against the bole of a smog blasted tree, staring at the house where he had been born. It was a half century older now than it had been then, although Keir was only thirty-nine. Even then, it had been old; a two story cottage subdivided to hold a dozen apartments. Now it had endured fifty more years of smog, fifty new layers of winter soot from a thousand chimneys, and half century more of the assault of air borne chemicals from the steel plants.

The orbital factories around L-5 were supposed to have removed the stigma of pollution, but even they were unable to cope with the needs of an Earth groaning under the weight of twenty billion people.

Someone came out the front door. Like Keir, he was bundled against the cold and he kept his right hand in the pocket of his coat. He looked around uneasily, saw no one but Keir, and advanced across the lawn. The grass was dead and brown, withdrawn from the sidewalk near the street to leave a barrier of frozen mud.

Keir drew a deep lungful of cannabis and threw the drag away.

The man was lean to the point of emaciation. His eyes were sunken in deep hollows. Keir nodded a greeting, but he only responded, “What do you want?”

“Nothing,” Keir answered. “Not a damned thing in this world!”

It was not the answer the stranger had looked for, but Keir let it hang between them for a moment before he went on, “I was born in that house – grew up there. In the little apartment to the left at the head of the stairs.”

“Who are you?”

“Keir Delacroix.”

The man knew him; it was written on his face. “What do you want with us?” he demanded. His voice was as tight as his face, all hard edges and deep hollows.

Keir sighed and shook his head. “Like I said; nothing. I don’t even know you.”

“I think you had better move along.” The stranger gestured with the hand in his pocket, and Keir finally decided that he did not have a gun. It was a foolish and dangerous bluff. Keir rose stiffly and threw back his shoulders to ease the strain of sitting too long in one position. The man stepped sharply backward toward safety.

Keir only shook his head and turned away.

Raven’s Run 101

The adrenaline rush had washed all the doubts out of my system, and that took me back.

When I was eight years old, there had been a fire in a house on my block. As soon as I smelled the smoke, I ran there, cutting across back yards and jumping fences. It was an old abandoned house; I can still remember the raw disappointment when I realized there was no one for me to heroically rescue. I crawled under the shelter of a lilac bush to where I could feel the heat of the blaze and watched the flames and smoke. I stayed there until the backwash from a fire hose caught me and washed me out, wet and embarrassed as a kitten in a rainstorm.

There are men who live for quiet and security, and men who live from crisis to crisis. I have always been one of the latter.

So why had I applied to the State Department to be a junior officer in an embassy, a job about as exciting as being a clerk at Macy’s? Because the other half of me was the abandoned child who wanted to be accepted and respectable. There is not much respectable about a private eye. But it was probably a mistake to think I could give up the rush.

*       *       *

A layover in Dallas meant a morning arrival in San Francisco. I watched the Nevada desert give way to the crumpled mass of the Sierras, which then graded out too oak dotted foothills and the vast, hot, flat, green expanse of the San Joaquin Valley. When we crossed the Coast Range, we were too low to make out its true shape and then the bay area was spread out beneath us like a map.

It was home. I had lived here for years, but until now, coming back after seven months absence, I hadn’t realized that it was home.

Chapter Twenty-nine

The street ended at an iron and hurricane fencing gate. Beyond was a parking lot, mostly empty, and a warehouse with the Grayling Motor Freight logo on its concrete block side. At the side of the gate was a call box holding a simple push button which I rang. A few minutes later the guard came out. I didn’t recognize him.

“What do your want?”

“I’m Ian Gunn. Even though I don’t know you, someone should have told you about me.”

He shone a flashlight in my face, and grunted. “Yeah,” he said, “they showed me a photograph. Got any ID?”

I showed him my passport. “I also have a key, but I didn’t want to get shot.”

“Yeah.” He opened the gate. “Who’s the other guy?”

“A friend of mine.”

“Look, I was told to let you in, but . . .”

“Don’t push it.”

He decided not to. Ed followed me across the parking lot while the guard relocked the gate. I still had a key to the building, too, so I let us in after I had turned off the alarm.

“Are you going to tell me what is going on?” Ed asked.

“Sure. This is where I live. Come on up.”

The hallway inside skirted the main office and led by a narrow stairway to an upper room. No one had touched it since I left. There was a layer of dust on everything, from the Salvation Army couch, to the battered desk, to the mattress in the corner, to the dust cover on my Macintosh computer. My old bike was hanging upside down from its hooks and acres of bookcases still spilled their excess onto the floor. more tomorrow

306. White Men Only

Mostly, A Writing Life is a look at science fiction and writing in general. However, I am an American, and my country did something seventy-five years ago that needs to be remembered. See also Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 stated that citizenship was available to “any alien, being a free white person”. That set the tone for the future. When the law was amended after the Civil War, it’s new iteration was taken to mean that Chinese were not eligible for citizenship.

Economic reality brought them to America anyway, where their children became citizens by birth, even though their parents could not be naturalized. The Chinese importance to the transcontinental railroad is well known. When the golden spike was driven, Chinese by the thousand were thrown out of work, and in the years that followed, downturns in the American economy were blamed on cheap Chinese labor. By 1882, Chinese were forbidden entry into the United States, a condition that continued until the 1940s.

In 1880, only 148 Japanese were living in the United States. Between 1885 and 1894, the need for cheap labor in Hawaii coupled with economic difficulties in Japan led 25,000 Japanese to emigrate to Hawaii. Many of those later moved on to the mainland.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, particularly during the Alaskan gold rush, there was a need for cheap labor all over the American west. Chinese were prohibited from entering the US, but Japanese were not. The result was predictable; between 1901 and 1908, 127,000 Japanese entered the United States. Many entered the fishing industry. Many were skilled in a kind of small scale, intensive agriculture that was new to the United States. All came from a culture that emphasized the entrepreneurial spirit.

Like the Chinese before them, the Japanese immigrants were denied citizenship, but their children became citizens at birth.

Most of these Japanese settled in California, where they formed a tiny minority. By 1941, only a small minority of that minority were both native born and of voting age, leaving the Japanese politically voiceless.

Throughout the half century before Pearl Harbor, the Japanese, especially in California, were subject to virulent racism. Repeatedly, the California legislature made it illegal for Japanese to lease or own land, but these were poorly conceived laws that were universally evaded. Japanese children were segregated out of public education.

It is a familiar pattern. Most ethnic groups endured it when they first came to America – then used the same tactics against whoever came after them. Like hazing at West Point, it is a long-standing American tradition.

Then came Pearl Harbor. Unfounded fears of the Japanese led to Executive Order 9066, and in 1942 the American military moved 120,000 Americans from their homes and incarcerated them thousands of miles away in “relocation centers”. I call them Americans because they were either actual citizens or long time residents who intended to live out their lives in their new country, but were prevented from receiving citizenship because of their race.

Much is made of the harshness of the centers, but that is not the point. Tens of thousands of GIs lived in barracks identical to those that made up the relocation centers. There was one difference, however, that does matter. The GI barracks were not surrounded by barbed wire fences, with guard towers manned by soldiers with guns.

And those GIs who made it back from the war, returned to their homes. The homes, farms and businesses of the Japanese were largely taken by the neighbors who had sent them away.

* * * * * * * *

I said in the beginning that I would not shove conclusions down your throat. I will, however, leave you with this quotation from Personal Justice Denied, p. 28:

(Japanese relocation) is the bitter history of an original mistake, a failure of America’s faith in its citizens’ devotion to their country’s cause and their right to liberty, when there was no evidence or proof of wrongdoing.

For me, 2017 is beginning to look a lot like 1942. Decide for yourself.