Monthly Archives: May 2019

597. Who Speaks for Us?

A teacher in a classroom in Sierra Leone.

I had a post written for today, which I will now boot on down the road, maybe a couple of weeks.

My wife and I frequently watch a morning so-called news program, mostly because the hosts are pleasant people. This morning (that would be two days ago, Memorial Day) they took a moment from time to time to “remember those who served”, and went immediately to the men of Big Little Liars and promised an upcoming interview with Lamar Odom. Then they were going to do in in depth piece on where to find the best Memorial Day sales.

Yikes.

I left quickly. Most mornings all I wait for is a hit of good fellowship, a touch of news and weather, and I’m on to other things. Like writing this.

Their treatment of Memorial Day seemed to strike somewhere between grabbing for cheap emotions and checking off a box, but I’m going to give them a pass. I am not the one to judge, because I can’t be satisfied on the subject. Every time Memorial Day comes around I find myself caught between tears and anger, no matter how well things are presented. I have great respect for those who fought for freedom, but I don’t forget the atrocities committed in America’s name. I know that most Americans are offering genuine respect, and that some Americans are using Memorial Day to push military agendas, and a few are doing both at the same time.

I’m just going to have to let go of Memorial Day for another year. 

Lamar Odom is another matter. Mind you, I don’t know the man, and I avoid any news broadcast containing the word Kardashian. He probably has a story to tell, and certainly has the right to tell it.  Nevertheless, he represents something ugly about America — the Redemption Tour.

You are nobody in America until you’ve hit rock bottom, and clawed your way back up, in full public view.

If you’ve simply lived a wholesome, useful life, you don’t count. But if you’ve ripped off a charity, gotten dragged down by drugs, or cheated your kid’s way into college, welcome to celebrity. America is crying out to forgive you, if you can first tell them a stirring tale of depravity to keep them entertained.

Lamar Odom isn’t the problem; he just set me off. He dredged up something ugly from my past.

I was teaching middle school and we all turned out for a rally. It was one of those manufactured teaching moments, half sermon, half vaudeville, but it went wrong from the start. The presentation was by a batch of ex-cons, who had come to the school to tell our kids to go straight. Supposedly. In fact, it was anything but that. They were strutting baboons, flexing their muscles in their tight T-shirts, showing off their tattoos, and tearing phone books in half.

And, no, baboon is not a racist dog whistle this time. These were all white guys. It’s just an accurate description.

They told the kids, “Stay in school, keep on the straight and narrow, don’t end up in prison cause the guys there will eat you alive. You don’t want to end up like us.”

And the teenage boys all said under their breaths, “The hell we don’t!” These parodies of masculinity were exactly what they wanted to become.

Then one of the ex-prisoners began to harangue a tough looking Mexican-American student. He said, “I know you. I know what you’re thinking . . .” But he didn’t. He didn’t even know the boy’s name. He had never seen him before, but that didn’t stop him from calling the boy out.

It was always like that. Whenever somebody came to our school to make our students into better people, they always zeroed in on Mexicans as the ones they planned to reform.

Any teacher in the room could have told you the boy’s name. A lot of them could have told you his parents’ names, and would have had a pretty good idea of their income. Many of them would have known his sisters and brothers names, and would have taught them in years past. Some of those teacher had probably been in his home.

Any teacher in that gym could have stood in front of those children and have given them good advice about their futures — in fact they did just that every day in their classrooms. But those teachers hadn’t been to prison, so they were in the bleachers while the ex-cons cavorted like movie stars.

If you think I don’t believe in second chances, that isn’t the point. I don’t believe in parading your failures like badges of honor and I don’t believe you have to go low before you can go high.

There is nothing wrong with not going to prison.

Just go high, without bothering to go low first. Nobody will ever notice you. They won’t put you on television or in front of a gym full of kids, but that’s okay. We can live with that.

596. Memorial Day

My father was the tenth of eleven children. He had brothers and sisters much older than he was, some of whom I never met. The ones I knew were my father, his immediate older and immediate younger brothers. All three were of an age to serve in WW II.

The older brother was a welder. He spent the war working at a bomber plant in Tulsa. I never knew which one. He would have passed through the war on a deferment for someone who was essential to the war effort at home, and so he never entered the military. I didn’t say he never served. Making bombers was service, but he got to sleep in his own bed at night, and nobody was shooting at him.

My father was drafted into the Army, and joined the First Division somewhere in France, not long after D Day. He stepped into the shoes of the ones who had already fallen. He fought across France and into Belgium, where he endured the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded shortly after. When he had recuperated, the war was over and he spent the occupation in Bavaria.

My father’s younger brother was also drafted, probably after VE day. He trained and was put on a troop transport. In his words, “they put me on a ship and sent me over to Japan to die.” While he was crossing the Pacific, America dropped two atomic bombs and the war ended. His service was spent in occupation of Japan.

None of my immediate relatives died in service, but when Memorial Day comes around, I still feel the weight of those who did. I think of Frenchy, a man I never met, who was my father’s friend before I was born, and who died somewhere between France and Germany.

It was a war that had to be fought, and a lot of men never came home.

Two decades later, I was quasi-drafted. That is, my draft lottery number was up, and I joined the Navy to have some kind of say in where I served. Times were different. Viet Nam was a war without justification.

I spent my time working at a Naval Hospital that sits in the middle of Camp Pendleton Marine Base, the place Marines were trained just before deployment to Viet Nam. I was head tech in the oral surgery section, which meant I spent my days chairside assisting our oral surgeons. Over three and a half years, I helped relieve about 5000 marines of their wisdom teeth, helped set about 350 broken jaws, and assisted in about a dozen maxilo-facial reconstructions.

I often wonder how many of the Marines I worked on never made it back.

595. Apollo 10

Apollo 10 CSM, viewed from the LEM in lunar orbit.

Apollo 10 is a mission that, from the outside, looks unnecessary. It was anything but that. To appreciate it, you have to project yourself back into the state of ignorance that represented best knowledge in 1969.

I was also guilty of underrating it when I taught middle school science. I called it the most frustrating flight in the history of space flight, which was half true and half exaggeration. I also called the Command Module Pilots NASA’s soccer moms because they got to go to the game, but never got to play.

You have to know your audience, and middle school kids are looking for excitement, not “slow and steady wins the race”. And certainly not “they also serve who only stand and wait.”

In actual fact, without Apollo 10, the would have been no moon landings. There were two basic reasons for this. The LEM had only been tested in low earth orbit, not falling into a gravity well and then clawing its way out again. And we had an entirely inadequate understanding of the conditions on the ground at the proposed landing site. We especially needed to fine tune our understanding of lunar gravity for navigation purposes.

As the NASA history website puts it, “a test of the landing radar, visual observation of lunar lighting, stereoscopic strip photography, and execution of the phasing maneuver using the descent engine” were all performed on Apollo 10’s pass over the proposed landing site. If you want more data, check also here.

================

On May 18, 1969 Apollo 10 lifted off from Cape Canaveral on its way to the moon. Thomas Stafford was Commander, John Young was Command Module Pilot, and Gene Cernan was LEM Pilot. They entered orbit of the moon three days later. Stafford and Cernan undocked the LEM and began their descent fifty years ago today.

John Young was left alone in the Command Module, the first of seven men who would fly around the moon solo while their companions dropped toward the moon’s surface.

Stafford and Cernan fired the descent stage engine to slow the LEM. There followed a long unpowered descent, a rapid flyby of the proposed landing site, and a rise back up to the level of the CSM.

The reports at the time called it a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11, but it wasn’t that simple.

For comparison let’s look at a mission designed to land. At point A on the figure given here, the descent stage engine would fire briefly, changing from the black orbital path to the green one. At point B, a carefully calculated spot nearly half way around the moon, the descent engine would fire again. The descent from 60 miles to about 8 miles would have been in a flat curve, followed now by a very steep curve. The descent engine would continue to fire until the vehicle landed at point C. This is basically the exact reverse of a launch, as shown Monday.

Later, the ascent stage engine would fire, leaving the descent stage on the moon’s surface, and proceed along the second half of the green curve back up to the 60 mile level.

Apollo 10 (red orbit), on the other hand, passed over the prospective landing site and continued on.

This has always been called a dress rehearsal, so one would assume that the ascent stage would separate somewhere near the surface, fire its engines, and continue back up toward rendezvous separately from the descent stage. That’s what I thought for fifty years.

I was wrong. Imagine that. I probably learn more researching these posts than anyone does who reads them.

In fact, on Apollo 10 the descent stage fired again at point D (the red orbit represents Apollo 10), but it was merely a course correction, and the entire LEM continued up to the 60 mile level.

Apollo 11 would leave from the moon’s surface, starting at zero speed. Apollo 10 at its lowest point was at an altitude of 8 miles and a speed of 3554 miles per hour. Dress rehearsal was a considerable exaggeration. It wasn’t that reports were inaccurate; things were just more complicated than the summaries suggested.

It’s a little like science fiction novels. A two line blurb on the back of a 180 page paperback may not actually lie, but it can certainly give a false impression.

At point A on the trip back up for both missions another burn was necessary to get back onto the black curve. However, the CSM had gone its own way; it wasn’t waiting there for the LEM. The final rendezvous for the LEM and the CSM, which were at different places on roughly the same orbit, would be up to the pilot of the ascent stage, and would take an additional three hours.

At this point on all the moon landing missions, the ascent stage would be by itself. For Apollo 10, the ascent stage still needed to separate from the descent stage before performing the orbital insertion burn using its own engine.

That was the plan, but things didn’t entirely go well. Just before the separation, the LEM began acting up, corrected itself, then seconds later started a rapid roll. It was later determined that this was due to erroneous computer input. Stafford and Cernan quickly separated and regained control, but it was another of those close calls which could easily have led to a deadly outcome.

The crew rendezvoused and docked with the CSM, then returned to Earth. The ascent stage engine was fired again and went into solar orbit. The necessary data had been obtained for the moon landing in July.

================

At present, I plan for this to be my last full Apollo mission post. Everybody will cover the anniversary of Apollo 11. Everybody has already watched the movie Apollo 13, and I covered the other landings in 187. The Rest of the Landings. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind.

594. Into Orbit

Fifty years ago last Saturday, Apollo 10 left for the moon. As you read this, depending when you click in, they are/were part way there. The mission’s big events will have their anniversary Wednesday, and that is when the main post will come.

Meanwhile . . .

From the fifties onward, there were dozens of books by people like Arthur C. Clarke and Wily Ley that explained in great detail how  we would go to space. I read most of them — at least every one I could get my hands on. There were a lot of people like me then. A lot of them spent the last decades working for NASA.

Now our knowledge of the universe is vastly greater, and most kids today know more than the best informed knew then. Still, some basic things get missed, because “everybody already knows them”.

Actually, they don’t. Here is an example, which I need to get out of the way before I talk about Apollo 10 on Wednesday.

Imagine, a rocket leaves Cape Canaveral with rocket engines flaming. The engines only burn for a  fairly short time, for reasons of efficiency; then the rocket coasts upward into orbit.

Right. And wrong. There is one more important thing that happens, but rarely get mentioned any more. A second critical burn has to happen at the high point of the initial orbit (apogee).

A rocket heading for orbit leaves the pad vertically, but it immediately begins to roll over. It needs to gain altitude to get above the atmosphere, but it also needs to gain velocity horizontally, so its upward path is a precisely programmed curve that begins vertically and ends horizontally (i.e. tangent to the surface of the Earth). This tangent is reached long after the rockets have ceased firing, at apogee, roughly half way around the Earth.

Caveat: everything in orbital mechanics is more complicated that the explanation you will get from someone like me. Nevertheless, this should be close enough for our purposes.

Let’s assume that the orbital insertion burn did not happen at apogee. Our craft would have achieved enough speed to reach its orbital altitude, but not enough speed to remain there. It would immediately begin to descend.

Think of a high fly ball to center field — up, then down again. Same Earth, same gravity, same result.

Such a rocket leaving Earth would burn up on reentry. If it were launched from an airless body like the moon, it would end up in an elliptical orbit with its low point very near the surface.

Instead, if all went well and the secondary burn took place when the rocket had reached its orbital altitude, it would change from a sharply elliptical orbit to a more nearly circular one. This is the normal way things get done.

You’ll need to have this in mind when we look at Apollo 10’s “dress rehearsal” on Wednesday.

593. Flying the Good War


A note before we begin. The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 10 liftoff is Saturday, but my post on that event will wait for the anniversary of the descent, next Wednesday.

For Americans, WWII was The Good War. For many of us, it was the last war we could be proud of. It is also the last war we won. There has to be a connection in that somewhere.

My father came home from the war, found a wife and had a son, all in a year. I grew up in the shadow of the war he had just fought. The idea of being a pacifist, or even questioning going into the military never came up for me until much later when America found itself in Viet Nam.

In 1956, when the Soviets invaded Hungary, my cousin and I played refugees escaping to America. In 1962, when the first theatrical movie played on TV, it was The Enemy Below. Our whole family watched together as an American destroyer played a game of wits with a German U-boat. After that, I wanted to join the Navy.

(I did, eventually, but that was an entirely different set of circumstances, and a whole different story.)

That’s how it starts for a boy, and reading can be a big part of the story. A lot of space adventure juveniles are really stories about space navy or space marines. The Bullard and Rip Foster books mentioned about a month ago (post 582) are examples, but they are much toned down compared to the juveniles about WW II, written while we were actually fighting.

God is my Co-pilot wasn’t a juvenile, but it is still that kind of book. During the days just before America entered WWII, Robert Scott was a volunteer pilot fighting the Japanese on behalf of the Chinese. Millennials will have to do a mental reset on that issue; Japan was an industrial powerhouse then, China was a backward country of peasants, and the Japanese attacks were brutal. America’s sentiments were with the Chinese.

Robert Scott wrote his memoir in 1943 and thousands of American kids read it from that time forward. I was one of them. When he shot Japanese planes out of the sky, I cheered him on. But he also strafed soldiers on the ground. That was a little tougher to read about, but they were the enemy, after all. He nicknamed his plane “Old Exterminator” . It was quite a bit different from fifties TV where the cowboy always shot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand.

Even though Scott’s tone was dispassionate, hating the enemy came through clearly. That was also true of R. Sidney Bowen, who wrote the Dave Dawson series, but there was nothing dispassionate about his way of putting things. For example:

The dark of night had come again to war besieged England, and from the northern most tip of Scotland clear south to the Isle of Wight British eyes and ears were on the alert for any and all surprise moves by Hitler’s devilish hordes on the other side of the English Channel and the North Sea. . . . At Lands End Base, however, there were two who were not waiting for “Satan,” with his trick mustache and ever drooping lock of greasy hair, to make the next move.

The Nazi was almost screaming by the time he finally came to a pause. Dave, looking at his flushed face, spittle drooling mouth, and popping eyes, knew that he was not looking at just one man but at a living symbol of the whole rotten to the core Nazi breed. Just as Air Marshal Manners had said, “Clever, cunning, and a genius at his work, but a black hearted, ruthless murderer.”                         both quotations from Dave Dawson on Convoy Patrol

Like Scott, Bowen had been a military pilot. He started out driving an ambulance during WW I. He later lost that job because he was underaged, returned to the US, and when he turned seventeen, volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps. He saw limited service as WW I wound down. He then joined the US Army Air Service.

He became a journalist, and later became editor-in-chief of Aviation Magazine. When WW II broke out in Europe, he began the Dave Dawson War Adventure series which produced fifteen volumes during the war. They were still available in one local library when I discovered them fifteen years later.

They weren’t literature. They were really pretty awful. They did have something going for them besides slam-bang action and hyper-patriotism, and that was all the airplanes. Dave and his buddy Freddy were constantly flying different Allied planes, forever getting shot down or parachuting behind enemy lines for reasons of espionage, and always escaping in a captured Nazi or Japanese plane. Over the course of fifteen volumes, they must have flown sixty types of planes.

Whatever Bowen lacked, he knew his planes.

Dave Dawson began as an American volunteer in the RAF, just as Bowen had done one war earlier. When America entered the war, Dave and Freddy bounced back and forth between flying for Britain and flying for America. Eventually, they fought in every theatre, taking young Allied readers with them.

They hated Nazis and they hated Japs (Bowen’s word), but they were never cruel. They would never have strafed troops on the ground, as the real Robert Scott did regularly. In Dave Dawson with the Pacific Fleet, two spies were escaping from the boys’ aircraft carrier, carrying vital information to the Japanese. Dave and Freddy shot down their plane, but the spies parachuted. Dave and Freddy agonized about the situation; the information the spies were carrying could cost American ships and lives, but in the end they could not bring themselves to machine gun the spies as they floated down.

Robert Scott would not have hesitated a heartbeat.

Dave and Freddy couldn’t keep the spies from reaching a pair of Japanese cruisers, but they did manage to singlehandedly sink both ships, killing thousands of Japanese with a clear conscience. (If you think you detect my tongue jammed securely into the corner of my cheek, you are quite right.)

I admit to liking the excitement, the danger, and the mystery of those books, but for me it was mostly about the planes. Before the space race started with Sputnik, I was already in love with hot planes, and there are no hotter planes than military ones. I put those sentiments into the mouth of Snap in Like Clockwork, when he said to Pakrat:

“Weapons of war are the most beautiful machines men build. I don’t know why it is so, but it is.”

The Dave Dawson books are available in an e-book megapack, which I bought while doing this post. I don’t recommend them, but one reviewer said, “I appreciate that they are clean books, but with enough adventure for a boy.”

Okay, maybe. If John Wayne shooting a few hundred Indians to save the fort was good clean fun, so was Dave Dawson.

When I was a kid, I used to watch those cowboys-and-Indians shoot-em-ups, but I can’t do that any more. I can still ignore the Dave Dawson book’s failings under the excuse of nostalgia, and read one once in a while when it’s late at night and I’m too tired to think. I’m sure it’s the planes that make the difference.

I don’t see books like these any more, but today’s youth don’t need them to get a military fix. They have video games. (There’s that tongue in cheek again.)

592. Armed Forces Week 2019

Armed Forces Week comes in May. It runs from the second to the third Saturday. The third Saturday is also Armed Forces Day.

As holidays go, Armed Forces Week isn’t particularly notable. Mother’s Day also gets caught up in the mix as the only Sunday in the week. For “right thinking people”, that probably seems appropriate. For those of us whose thinking is always a bit off center, it is ironic.

It all depends on your view of the question of the legitimacy of military force. To a very few (not including me) it is always wrong. To the average American, a simple statement that, “We support our servicemen,” ends the discussion.

It really doesn’t end anything.

We all know, whether we want to admit it or not, that every military organization in history has committed atrocities. If your answer to, “Do you support [fill in the military action of your choice?]”, is “I support our troops.”, you are just avoiding the question.

I have problems with all this. I’m no pacifist, and I believe in defending my country. Still, I see example after example of our government screwing things up and getting our servicemen and women maimed and killed for unsupportable reasons. Viet Nam comes to mind, but the problem didn’t stop when that quasi-war was over.

It hits close to home for me in a rather odd way. My wife and I make quilts, and are members of a local quilt guild. There are several organizations like Quilts of Valor which coordinate the making of quilts to be given to veterans. It would be hard to find any organization which seems more useful and harmless, but I don’t participate. Most people see these organizations’ efforts as support for troops and veterans. I respect that position and I never argue with them, but, for me, it feels too much like validating the jackass generals in all the stupid and useless things they do.

It is the same with  Armed Forces week. Most people see it as an appreciation of our soldiers and sailors, but it looks to me like a smoke screen. It tends to make legitimate questions about American military actions look like a lack of patriotism.

I came to this opinion when I was in the service. To clarify that, it was in the Viet Nam era, but I was not deployed to Viet Nam itself.

And it all starts with boot camp. I wrote a post about that experience for Armed Forces Week of 2016, That was three years ago when the blog was new and not many people were reading. I repeated it two years ago, so I won’t print it again, but if you want to know what I think of that institution,  go to 432. The Making of a Navyman.

591. The Flower and the Seed

This is the picture of a place near my home. For eight months of the year it is a dry wash, surrounded by vegetation burned brown by the summer sun. It only looks like this during the brief rainy season.

Every year the water off the surrounding hills reconfigures the falls and pools, so every spring the place shows a different face.

Two years ago here, I saw a sprig of grass growing at the edge of a rushing torrent, ready to be torn off and swept away. This poem occurred to me:

Though the bee did not come,
And the fruit did not form,
            It does not follow
That the blossom lived in vain.

Of course it isn’t about bees, flowers, and seeds — or springs of grass — but about songs unsung and books unread.

I am short of time today, after Monday’s massive post, so I thought I would share this brief poem again.

590. The Road to Corlay

Cold curtains of November rain came drifting slowly up the valley like an endless procession of phantom mourners following an invisible hearse. From beneath an overhang of limestone a boy and an old man squatted side by side and gazed disconsolately out across the river to the dripping forest on the far bank. Suddenly a salmon leaped — a flicker of silver in the gloom and a splash like a falling log. The boy’s eyes gleamed. “Ah,” he breathed. “Did you see him?”

That’s a lot of description for an opening paragraph. Hemingway would have hated it, but it works perfectly to present the quasi-medieval setting and elegiac mood of The Road to Corlay.

The novel came out in paperback from Pocket Books in 1979. I read it some time that year and it made a permanent impression, so much so that I named it as one of my fifteen favorite books earlier this year. The impression, however, was of its quality and was not accompanied by anything like a scene by scene recollection.

I had to read it again, and I am glad that I did.

What appears between the covers of the Pocket Books version is a novella called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Hugo and Nebula nominee for 1977) and a short novel called The Road to Corlay. Together they tell one seamless story, but it will be easier here to talk about them separately.

Beware — I normally avoid spoilers but I can’t do it in this case.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is allegorical, but don’t let that put you off. Allegory is often just a lazy author’s attempt to achieve false profundity, but Cowper does it right. My personal test for allegory is, “Does the writing stand by itself? Would I like it as well if I didn’t know the story it mimics?” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn passes this test easily.

 It takes place on the eve of the new millennium, 2999 AD, in a post-flood England. The waters began rising in the 1980s due to global warming. (Yes, I said global warming, even though this story was begun in the 1970s.) By the time Piper opens, technological society is a thing of the past and the Church Militant rules the land.

Here is the only real weakness in the underlying story. Why revive Catholicism as villain? In the 70s its power was essentially dead in Britain, and its resurgence is merely assumed, never explained. I can only chalk it up to the extreme Englishness of the novel. Brits have been seeing the Catholic Church as bogeyman since Bloody Mary’s reign of terror in the 1550s. If this novel had been written by an American (like Davy was), we would probably have seen cold, heartless Puritans hanging witches instead.

Logical or not, the Church Militant makes a good foil, and offers a medieval tone without needing a lot of backstory.

The story itself — that is, the plot — can be summarized quickly. Tom, a boy of about thirteen and Old Peter, a storyteller, are walking toward York where Tom is supposed to enter a Church school. Tom has the ability, taught to him by a wizard, to play his pipes so that he can control animals and make people see visions. He also knows a lot more about unfolding events than a boy should know. His playing amplifies Old Peter’s storytelling so that by the time they reach York, they are raking in money and followers.

Tom is a very docile and agreeable lad, but every time he gives in to Peter’s schemes, it moves him closer to his own destiny. Peter seems to have no clue that this is happening. We are not told that Tom is manipulating, but he never seems surprised when things go his way.

The world is in turmoil with prophesies of the coming of the White Bird of Kinship at the turn of the millennium. Once in York, at the end of the year, Tom slips away to play his pipes for the gathered crowd. The White Bird descends upon the land, but just at the climax of the event Tom is killed by the bolt from a crossbow.

Piper is allegorical, certainly, but not a true allegory. It is a retelling of the Christ story, but with more differences than similarities.

We have the self-sacrificed innocent, but he has preached no sermons and promulgated no gospel. We have Gyre, who fires the bolt but has no memory of the deed or the reason for it. There is a touch of Judas here, but only a touch, and that lies primarily in his regret.

We have the White Bird, which even a character within the story recognizes as being like the Holy Spirit, but the death of Tom does not bring about any redemption. It only causes the Bird’s descent to misfire.

We have Old Peter who takes Gyre with him to spread the word of what has happened, like two apostles after the resurrection. But there was no resurrection and the Bird has flown away. Peter and Gyre are not actually spreading the word of what has happened, but of what is still to come, and here we find a trace of John the Baptist.

It isn’t a Christ story, but a slightly Christlike story. And it is not an ending, but a beginning. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is the most emotionally unified and satisfying part of the overall story, but it demands the follow-up provided by The Road to Corlay

=============

I sometimes hear reviewers say that, while they are ready to meet the characters in the opening chapter of a novel they don’t want to have to do it all over again on page fifty. My novel Jandrax caused great irritation to one reviewer for that very reason, but sometimes a complicated story requires a rotating cast of characters.

The Road to Corlay is that kind of work. It begins eighteen years after the boy Tom’s death. Old Peter and Gyre have been spreading the gospel of the White Bird of Kinship, but they remain mostly off stage. All the characters are new, and many of them won’t live to see the end of the book.

The Church Militant has tried to absorb the new religion into itself, but now its leaders change tactics. An proscription for heresy is released, and all the people we will come to care about become the hunted.

In researching for this post, I ran across a review of another Cowper novel which contained the lines, “This novel has real people in it that you can care about . . . just don’t expect too many laughs.” He could have been talking about The Road to Corlay.

The novel begins with two fishermen dragging in body bound to a spar. It is Thomas of Norwich, the second of three Thomases in the book. That is a little confusing, but a necessary part of the story. He is alive, but he shouldn’t be after all his days in the water. It will take the rest of the novel to answer why this is and what it means. He comes into the hands of Jane, who is gifted with huesh, which is something like ESP crossed with foreseeing. She enters his mind, but finds two men there, one being Thomas himself, the other a stranger she can barely touch.

It is in chapter two that the disaffection starts for most reviewers, including Joachim Boaz and Thomas Anderson, two reviewers I enjoy and respect.

In this new chapter the scene changes to 1986, a decade in the future from Cowper’s perspective. It is a familiar world of cars and hospitals, and of scientists working at the edge of current knowledge. A scientist name Carver is having a chemically induced OBBE (out of body experience) and his colleagues can’t wake him up. No one is worried at first, but then he sinks fast and the chapter ends with him in danger. We know from what Jane said in the last chapter that Carver is the other man in Thomas of Norwich’s head.

And it is raining — has been raining for months. Without ever saying so, Cowper has let us know that the rising of the waters has begun.

Let’s dispose of this 1986 intrusion, if it is an intrusion, before we get back to 3018. Everybody seems to hate it, but I didn’t mind it at all. On a visceral level, it was a relief every three chapters to spend a few pages somewhere that my new friends weren’t being hunted down.

More importantly, 1986 is a counterpoise to the future. It isn’t there to give backstory; that could have been done in a few carefully chosen sentences of authorial omniscience. It shows that the past and the future are the same. The scientists with their machinery basically don’t know what the hell is going on. The people like Jane who use and are used by huesh, don’t know where it comes from or why it works. The central purveyors of the new religion basically don’t know how any of it works, or what is going to happen next. Confusion is the human norm in all eras, which perfectly agrees with my prejudices.

Meanwhile, back in 3018: Thomas of Norwich takes refuge with Jane’s family. Only a small portion of the population has embraced Kinship, but those who have take care of each other. Jane is troubled, not only by the other man inside Thomas, but because she hueshed Thomas washed up on the beach, drowned. In her experience, huesh foreseeings never fail, and she has become fond of Thomas.

(Speaking of things to hate, I hate this kind of foreshadowing, but once again, Cowper made it work.)

Thomas has a mission, to find Gyre, who killed the boy Tom and became his greatest advocate, and to carry the boy’s pipes and written testament to safety in France. Jane takes him part way on that journey by boat, and is later attacked, then rescued. She learns that her family has been killed and she is herself now a refugee. She and Thomas come together again and he comforts her in her grief. In their days together, fondness has already turned to love, and now that leads to a night of lovemaking. Shortly after, they are captured together, and held for those who are hunting them.

Meanwhile, in a separate strand of the story, Brother Francis is sent by Cardinal Constant, head of the English Church Militant and prime mover against the Kinsmen, in search of knowledge about the boy who died. Francis travels from place to place, tracing the boy’s history, and hearing from those he has touched. He is slowly converted to Kinship, so as he nears the end of his journey, he changes sides. When he finds Gyre, he does not turn him over to the Church, but chooses to help him.

Gyre offers to play on the boy’s pipes, so Francis can hear an echo of an echo of the melody that is converting the world.

Raising his head abruptly the dying Kinsman gazed up at the vaulted ceiling and cried with a voice so strong it seemed almost as if it must be coming from some other throat than his: “Boy, show now at the end that I am forgiven! You know that I shot in ignorance of what I did! Speak you now through my darkness that his darkness may become light!”

He drew a deep, panting breath, raised the twin mouthpieces to his lips, and fixing the Advocate Sceptic with an unwavering gaze he began to play.

The Road to Corlay is a long and complicated story, but none of it would mean anything if it weren’t so beautifully written.

Gyre passes the pipes and testament to Francis and dies. Francis goes on, now looking for Thomas of Norwich to deliver them to him, but he finds him captive of the Church. Using his standing as a priest, since no one knows of his apostasy, he effects a rescue, but Thomas is killed.

Jane, with her unborn son, the pipes and the testament, escapes to France where her coming son Tom will fulfill his destiny.

=============

Tom the boy who died by crossbow, Thomas of Norwich who inherited his pipes and testament, Tom the unborn son in Jane’s womb at book’s end (who I’m told is the primary figure in the two sequels) — clearly we have a reincarnation sub-text going on here unexplained.

We also have a sub-text of repetitions. The birth of Christianity, medieval days, the rise of technological hubris smashed back by a flood (again, just like Noah), the rebirth of a quasi-medieval society and a new Church Militant, followed by the birth of Kinship (the primitive, original Christianity?). From what little I know of the two sequels, Kinship wins out, becomes the great power, and is itself corrupted.

To my eye, this all looks very Hindu, with age after age, and avatar after avatar of basically the same Gods, repeating variations of the same myths. I’ll say more on that in a month or so when I deal with the Earthsea books.

=============

Now I’m going to take you down the rabbit hole of my Southern Baptist childhood by way of this quotation:

. . . midway out in the Somersea a three masted barque, its white sails drooping like tired petals, floated becalmed above it’s own reflection. High above it a solitary star twinkled, a silver drop suspended from an invisible thread.

There are white boats in the offing in several places in this novel — white like the White Bird. In this case with “white sails drooping like a tired” (bird?). A three masted barque — where else have we seen something that looks like three upright wooden masts crossed by yards? Oh, yes, on the hill at Calvary? And where but above the manger did a solitary star twinkle?

You doubt me? I don’t blame you, but this is the world of types and symbols scattered through a sea of parables that I grew up in. This book speaks to me the same way, with little hints and teases that float untethered through the text. No? Then tell me, if that barque is not symbolic — even if my reading of it was not precise — why was it there? It had no place in the plot.

These are the little touches — images and turns of phrase — scattered throughout The Road to Corlay which make it read like a new scripture to those of us who spent our childhoods reading the original Christian scripture.

=============

I don’t understand all of The Road to Corlay; I’m not supposed to. If all its meaning could be reduced to reason, Cowper could have nailed it to some college door like the ninety-five theses, and it would have been mummified in a philosophy text.

Instead, he gave us a fable. I understand that impulse. In 1975, fresh out of graduate school, I wrote my first novel, and was seduced. I could say things in fiction that I could never say any other way.

Thomas of Norwich, trying to explain how it felt to play the song of the White Bird, said:

“I knew the supreme joy of possessing something that can only exist in the giving.”

I get it. That’s how it feels every time I write, but it seems too arrogant to admit, so let’s just keep it between ourselves.

589.5 Tequila and Lederhosen

Cinco de Mayo caught me by surprise this year. It is an important holiday in California, and was particularly important to about half the kids I taught before I retired.

You will note that I did not say Mexican-American kids. Even before the advent of Trump, a surprisingly large number of (whatever) students didn’t like that name. Some wore a T-shirt that said:

Not Mexican-American
Not Hispanic
Not Chicano
MEXICAN!

I’ve already had my say on the subject of Cinco de Mayo. I invite you to check out these two older posts to see what that was.

One post had the full title: Juan Angus Georg Angelo O’Malley celebrates St. Patrick’s Day by drinking tequila and while wearing lederhosen under his kilt.

The other was titled: Who said you were Mexican?

589. A Son of the Sooner State

I was born in Oklahoma, a land on the edge of the South and also on the edge of the West. It was the land of the Indians, but you wouldn’t know it from the power structure. Its flag honors 60 tribes, but the whole place is pretty damned white. During my childhood, it wasn’t a great place to be a Black, a Jew, or an Indian.

Some say Oklahoma fought on the side of the South, but that isn’t accurate. Some Indian tribes living there fought against the Federal government, and they had reason, but the white folks who came in, took over, and dominated the new state of Oklahoma came from both north and south, long after the Civil War was over.

Kansas did fight for the North, and soon after the Civil War it had become culturally eastern. It was a place where the eastern cattle buyers bought the herds driven up from Texas, and where the immigrant sodbusters set up their farms. Dodge City, Abilene, Wyatt Earp, you know the story.

Texas fought for the South and right after the Civil War it began sending herds of cattle north to the newly built Kansas railroads. They left Texas scrawny and arrived at the railhead fat, working their way slowly northward while eating free grass.

Did I say free? Well . . .

Bear in mind what lay between Texas and Kansas — Indian Territory which would later become Oklahoma. I.T. was the dumping ground for disenfranchised Native Americans (see 247. The People’s President), and it was their grass that fed the cattle, which made the cattle owners rich, made the railroad owners rich, and fed the people in eastern cities.

Pretty soon railroads like the KATY were cutting across Indian Territory itself. That was the nickname of the MKT, the Missouri, Kansas and Texas. It started in Missouri (barely) but primarily it linked Kansas with Texas. The land between was still called Indian Territory, but more and more whites were moving in, often to railroad towns, and the tribes were rapidly losing what hold they had over their new homeland.

My paternal grandparents were both young when they separately moved into Oklahoma, while it was still Indian Territory. My grandmother liked to tell tales about getting her mail addressed to K2C, IT. In modern English, that’s Catoosa, Indian Territory. Even though this was long after the great cattle drives, my grandfather still herded cattle on horseback. Someone in the family still has a photo of him in wooly chaps, hat, boots, and six-shooter, looking like Sam Elliott. My maternal great-grandfather was a locomotive engineer on the railroads that opened up the territory.

Piece by piece, the Native Americans lost the land they had been granted when they were forced out of the Eastern United States. Whites moved in and Oklahoma was born in 1907. I came along forty years later, a year after my father returned from WW II.

When I was young, we had our own version of rich and poor, but it was a mild form of The Great American Malady. Ranchers wore Stetsons and cowboy boots, had horses and drove Cadillacs. Farmers wore ball caps and laced up work shoes, did not have horses and drove pickups, usually old and rusty ones. We were farmers, although my Dad finally treated himself to a Stetson when he was well into middle age and wore it to church every Sunday after that.

By the time of his death, and even more rapidly a few years later, the land and culture of my youth and his adulthood disappeared. Our farm no longer produced grain and milk, but was subdivided into toy farms for people who worked in Tulsa, but wanted to breathe clean air on the weekends.

By that time I was gone. I left Oklahoma in 1966 and rarely returned, but everything I have written since is filtered through memories of that place. I suspect every other writer could tell a similar story.