Saturday, May 25, 2013

Memories from Soldiers Not Memorialized

It's Memorial Day weekend here in the United States.  
It's an odd holiday.  You don't wish other people, "Happy Memorial Day."  I noticed that this week.  You write something like, "Have a great long weekend," in your emails.
I have no one in my family to memorialize this weekend, though several served.  
My Grandpa, Roy H. Melton, was a Seabee in World War II, for instance.  He was in a unit called "Acorn 51."  It's a designation for an advanced construction base, building things like airfields and the like.  
I don't know much about Grandpa's experiences.  On the voyage to his base from San Diego they served so much sauerkraut and hot dogs that he got sick of it, and never ate it again after the war.  The closest he got to action was watching some fighting taking place, "across the river" from the construction site he was working at.  
Dad was in the Marines.  He almost saw combat.  It was while he was on a Mediterranean tour that the Lebanese Crisis took place.  This was when the muslim portion of the Lebanese army revolted, threatening the Christian, pro-Western government at the time.  President Eisenhower sent my dad, along with about 54,000 other Marines, soldiers and sailors, in response.  
The Marines landed on the beach outside of Beirut City.  My dad was in the third wave to go ashore.  The way he put it, "People got scared, man," when they started passing out the live ammunition.  
Fortunately, the landing was uneventful.  They met more sunbathers than jihadis on the beach.  The only delay came from a Lebanese Colonel who used his car to block the road.  I've seen pictures of this officer with a group of Marine officers, reviewing their papers, maps and identification and things.  Once he was "satisfied" the orders were authentic, he gave the Marines "permission" to proceed.  
Good thing he gave them permission. That road didn't look wide enough to turn all those tanks and APCs around and send them back to the ships.  
The story I remember best about Dad's experience was this one:
Dad was walking the perimeter of their camp.  He came upon a bunch of boys scuffling outside the fence.  There were three or four other boys beating up on another.  Dad shouted at them tand the bullies ran away.  He talked to the kid that was being bullied then sent him home.  
The boy came back the next day with his family.  They wanted to thank my dad for helping him.  One of the people that showed up was the boy's older sister.  
The sister apparently took a liking to my dad.  She came back to visit him several times, and sent him gifts as well.  The family was an affluent Christian family so the gifts were pretty impressive.  New watches, new suits, things like that.  The last gift she sent him when it was announced that the Marines were pulling out was a voucher for a One Way airline ticket from the United States to Lebanon.  
After he got out of the Marines, Dad stayed in Southern California.  After he met and married Mom, she threw away the remaining stuff from that Lebanese woman.
My uncle, Ray Wilson, my Mom's older brother, served in the Army in Korea.  He actually saw combat and was awarded a Bronze Star.  
This is the story I've heard: My uncle was on patrol and got separated.  While trying to find his way back to his lines, he stumbled across a Chinese patrol.  This could have been bad, but it happened late at night.  They couldn't see my uncle's uniform.  Also, my uncle was something of a polyglot.  My Pops, my Mom's father, once told me Uncle Ray spoke six languages fluently, including some Chinese.  Plus my uncle was something of a con-artist, a ballsy guy that could convince you of anything.  
So, when out of nowhere this Chinese patrol stumbles out of the bushes and raise their weapons toward Uncle Ray, what does he do?  He steps up to them and says something like, "You guys lost, too?"  
Yes, the members of the Chinese patrol reply, lowering their guns.  We got lost, too.  
"I think our camp is this way."  Ray hooks his thumb in the opposite direction of where the Chinese came from and starts heading that way.  He picked the right direction, and when they reached the American lines, Ray took his rifle and pointed it at the startled Chinese and told them to surrender.  
It sounds far fetched, but I've seen one photo of Uncle Ray holding a gun on the Chinese as he was leading them in, and the official photo of him receiving his Bronze Star.  And I used to play with the Bronze Star as a kid, so I know something happened.  
My brother, Philip Melton, was in a war, too.  
It was the First Gulf War, when Operation Desert Shield turned into Desert Storm.  My brother was a mechanic for "Large Power plant Vehicles."  Basically, he fixed tanks.  
My brother has always been the most mechanically inclined person in our family.  When we were teenagers, and I was in my room reading science fiction and fantasy novels and writing up scenarios for Dungeon and Dragons, my brother would be in the driveway taking Mom's car engine apart for fun.  When he joined the army, he made his goal getting qualified to fix tanks.  I remember the phone call I got when he got his qualification.  It came in about five in the morning...
"Hey, Erick...?  You awake?"  
"I am now."  I wiped my face, wondering if he thought I was answering the phone in my sleep. "What's up?  Anything wrong?"  
"I made it!  I qualified!"  
"Huh?  Qualified?"  
"My MOS.  They're gonna let me fix tanks!  And..."  I could picture him waving his hands at the phone, thousands of miles away, to keep me quiet and let him finish.  "They're going to teach me how to operate the M88."  
"Yay.  Good for you.  Congratulations."  I woke up a bit more.  "What's an M88?"  
My brother explained to me, in somewhat exasperated tones, that it was a tank recovery vehicle.  It used the same chassis as the M1 Abrams, the Main Battle Tank the army uses, but the turret was removed and replaced with a huge crane.  As I was listening, I was nodding.  It made sense.  To pull an 80 tonk monster of a vehicle you'd need something about as big.  
But then something else came to me.  
"They're gonna send me to Ft. Benning for my mechanical training, then Ft. Hood..." 
"Hey, Phil...!"  
"What?"  I could tell he was annoyed that I was interrupting his good news.  
"This, Ehm-something, something..."  
He sighed.  "M88." 
"Yeah, that.  With the turret gone...  This tank tow-truck of yours, does it have any weapons?"  
"Naw!"  His tone told me he thought I was missing something obvious.  "There'd be no room for the crane if the turret was there.  Duh!"  
"Ok...  But, think about...  A tank gets broken...  You get sent to get it..."  
"So, what do you do if you come across the people that broke it in the first place?"


"Phil...?  You still there?" 
"Uh...  Yeah."
"You didn't think about that.  Did you?"  
Uh...  No."  
During Desert Storm, my brother was in his tank tow-truck.  His unit was right behind the front line, behind the tanks doing the fighting.  He didn't tell me anything about it until years after it happened.  
It was during a family reunion.  My brother and I were sharing a bedroom at our Uncle Jerry's house.  The first time in decades we'd done that.  We were laying in our separate beds.  We were talking in the dark about stuff.  We hadn't seen each other in about a decade at the time.  I remembered the time he called to tell me how he'd qualified to fix tanks and how I burst his bubble.  I told him I was sorry I'd done that.  He said it was no big deal. 
"Did you get to pull any tanks to safety in your...  Ehm-number-something."  
"M88," he said.
"Yeah.  That thing.  Did you?" 
"Naw...  None of ours got shot up for me to do that.  I moved their vehicles though."  
"Yeah.  Iraqi."  I could hear him swallow across the room, in the dark.  "After a fight, they'd be in the way.  I'd have to move them."  
"With your Ehm-Eighty-something."
"Not always.  Like the first time..."  
I waited.  I turned my head on my people and looked toward he was.  I could hear him breathing, slow and steady.  It was oddly familiar after all those years.  
"The first time?" 
"Yeah...  We... They'd shot up a convoy.  Trucks.  On this waddi.  They were using it like a road and they were in the way.  So I was told to go up and drive them off.  So...  I ran up to the first truck and opened the door..."
"Where was the guy that was driving it."  
"He was there...  What was left of him."  
We were both quiet for a time.  
"What did you do?" 
"What I was told to.  I pushed him to the passenger side, started up the truck and moved it."  I could hear his shoulders move up and down against the bedsheets in a shrug.  "Kept doing it till I got them out of the way."  
He told me some other things after that.  Finding Kuwati refugees in the desert that had been hiding out for weeks, with no food and little water.  After giving them all the MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) they had, they'd drive over the next dune and find another group of Kuwatis in the same situation.  
And everything was black.  The sand.  The vehicles.  From the oil wells Saddam Hussein had set on fire.  "Hell isn't burning," he said to me in the dark that night.  "It's greasy and black."
Two people died in my brother's unit.  Both times when they came under enemy artillery fire.  One of them was killed by accident.  When the shelling started, he jumped into a depression in the ground seeking cover.  An American vehicle, spreading out to avoid fire, ran over him.  
I don't personally have anyone to memorialize this weekend.  All of my family that went to war came back, unscathed.  I'll take this weekend to rest.  Have some fun.  Go to a movie.  Go to a barbecue if someone invites me.  
I will remember, though.  The two guys in my brother's unit.  And the others.  I can do that much at least.

Monday, May 20, 2013

My Own Private Alamo

It's always nice to find that there was someone out there that gets what you're feeling.  Even if they were in the distant past.  
I was shown a new yojijukugo yesterday.  In Japanese, a yojijukugo is an idiomatic phrase made up of four kanji characters.  The majority of them come from Buddhist teachings, but there are others that are based on historical events, or are contractions of other sayings.  Knowing them is considered to be a sign of kanji literacy and eloquence in communication in Japanese.  
The yojijukugo I learned is 四面楚歌.  In romanji, or English characters, it's spelled "shimensoka."  
The compound has three parts.  "四面" or "shimen" means "four sides," or all around you.  "楚" or "so" is a kanji that refers to a switch made from a branch used to flog someone.  "歌" or "ka" means song, and is used in all sorts of related words like "singer," "to sing," "opera," etc.  
Together, the compound literally translates to something like, "All around you, the song of flogging sticks."  A more natural interpretation would be to be beset on all sides by enemies; to be betrayed or forsaken by everyone.  
It's easy to get this meaning from the literal translation.  Imagine hearing, from all directions, the sound of sticks whistling through the air as a crowd of people swing them at you.  
It's kinda how I feel these days.  
One of the native Japanese speakers at our language exchange asked if we had a similar phrase in English.  The English speakers at the table looked at each other for a bit.  One brought up, "Custer's Last Stand," though he couldn't remember a particular phrase or saying one would use.  Someone else mentioned the Alamo.  Someone else made a more natural translation of, "Everyone is against me."  
I turned to someone else at the table and said, "You could say something like, 'I'm in my own private Alamo.'"  
"Yeah!"  He nodded back at me.  "You could say that!"  
The Japanese speakers at the table asked me to repeat it and wrote it down in their notebooks.  I dutifully did so, though I was also trying to figure out just where I got the phrase from.  The first thing I could remember clearly was the B-52's song, "Private Idaho."  A song about getting lost in negative thoughts, sitting there staring out into space as you slowly spiral down into a darker place inside your head.  
"You're living in  your own private Idaho, you're living in your own private Idaho..."  You remember the song, right?  "You're in your own private Alamo," has the same rhythm to it.  And it conveys the sense I was trying to capture.  You're trapped in your life, surrounded by problems, people who seem to be working against you, and all you can do is fight back as best you can while waiting for them to overwhelm your defenses.  
"You're in your own private Alamo, you're in your own private Alamo..."  Top twenty material, I'd say.  
I actually found a reference to the phrase itself online, though.  It was an article written back in March of 2000, for Texas Monthly.  The author of the article was writing about how most people, the casual visitor as he describes them, are underwhelmed by the small, unassuming building they find when they visit the historical site preserved as a monument in San Antonio.  It doesn't seem to find the grand historical drama, the songs and sayings, that we are fed as Americans as we grow up.  "This is it...?" is the reaction a lot of people have, which I had already heard from other sources.  
One point I got from the article, though, is that a lot of what made the alamo, The Alamo, is missing.  The building you see is only one of a much larger compound that has been erased by history and modernization.  The town the Alamo was attached to is gone as well.  He even recommends climbing to the observation deck of a nearby building, called the Tower of the Americas, to view the contours of the old frontier town associated with the famous battle.  
This is also the case, I think, when you try to explain your situation to others.  You almost always get advice that, while well-meaning, doesn't seem to help you much.  "Just hang in there," to "you just ought to take care of yourself," to "why don't you just quit?"  Yeah, sure, I can do that, but...  It makes you wonder if you explained it right.  
I'm going to be going to WorldCon, the World Science Fiction Convention, which will be held in San Antonio this year.  I'm going to take some time to go see the Alamo for myself, I think.  I don't know what the transportation situation is like in San Antonio, but I assume whatever bus lines they have there at least one has a stop by the monument.  I want to see for myself this tiny place that holds more history that most people think it ought to, and try to feel what the defenders were going through.  
At night, they probably could hear the Mexican army surrounding them.  Like the song of whistling sticks carried by people wanting to beat them down, it probably sounded.  In my own small, private way, I'll try to understand what they went through.  

Monday, May 13, 2013

No Entry This Week.

I will have an entry posted next weekend.  I hope you return to read it.


Monday, May 06, 2013

Grading Myself on the Heinlein Scale

It's getting close to the end of the school year in this country.  The "Dad's & Grads" commercials are about to air.  I thought that an appropriate thing to do would be to give myself a writing grade. 
To do that, I've decided to us the Heinlein Rules of Writing.  Just about every wanna-be science fiction writer has heard of them.  They are the five steps Robert Heinlein, the deceased Grand Master of science fiction, said an aspiring writer has to take to become a published writer.  For anyone not familiar with them, they are:
Rule One - You must write.
Rule Two - You must finish what you write. 
Rule Three - You must refrain from rewriting EXCEPT by editorial order.
Rule Four - You must submit what you finish.
Rule Five - You must keep submitting the story until it is accepted and published. 

If these rules were provided in a college syllabus on writing, I figure they'd each be worth 20 points, for a total score of 100.  A nice, round, evaluation number.  So, how would I grade myself? 
Rule One - You must Write. 
I do pretty well at this rule.  I write pretty much every day.  The only days I missing my writing session are when "Reality," most typically things related to work these days, rears its ugly head to take that time away from me.  This happens most usually on weekends when I have to either 1) go into work on a Saturday to get stuff done or 2) recuperate from having to work too long hours during the work week to get stuff done.  But even then, I'll do my best to put my time in and get some words done. 
I even keep track of them.  Since the beginning of this year, for example, I've written 158,819 words (as of Sunday, May 5th).  That includes words written directly for the scenes and chapters of the projects that I'm working on, plus the words written down in my "word palettes," sort of a verbal sketchpad for the project, as well this blog, plus the tweets used to promote my writing.  It doesn't count the words that I write in my journal, which are written in long hand and are difficult to count, but which lead directly to the ideas for new projects and ways to handle current ones. 
If you take all of the people out there that say that want to write, I would hazard a guess that when it comes to this rule, I'm way ahead of most. 
Score: 20 out of 20 points. 
Rule Two - You must Finish what you Write.
Heinlein believed that you could not develop as a writer unless you actually produced finished drafts of stories.  It was the only way to learn how to develop a plot, build suspense, working on pacing and characterizations, etc.  Starting a bunch of stories and then dropping them to start something else didn't cut it.  It was only after you took an idea and fleshed it out into a completed draft that you gave yourself something to work with. 
This is another area where I think I do pretty well at, though I do have a bit of a caveat to go with that assertion.  I do have a bunch of unfinished stories that in my file.  These are project files where I had "something" that I wanted to see.  An opening scene that appeared in my head.  An opening line that I wanted to find out what it meant, who said it and why.  An idea for something that I wanted to see the implications of.  Sometimes, though, after writing out this little...  "Story seed" I guess I'll call them, I would discover that there wasn't much else there.  Not enough to use to actually complete a story.  
The act of writing for me is as much one of discovery as it is expression, and there are a lot of false starts in my process. 
But I do finish a lot of drafts, too.  And these "story seeds" are not abandoned.  Not completely.  I revisit them from time to time to see if I've discovered something, or have another fragment to add to them that will allow them to become full-fledged stories.  Once that happens, I work on them until I have their finished draft. 
So, if I'm allowed to look at these not-yet-finished stories as seeds germinating in my head until they take root and grow, then I feel comfortable scoring myself pretty well on this rule as well.
Score: 20 out of 20. 
Rule Three - You must Refrain from Rewriting EXCEPT by Editorial Order.
This one is tricky.  The general consensus, from the blogs of other writers commenting on Heinlein's rules, is that he wasn't saying that you should never rewrite period.  But that you shouldn't continue to tinker and change a story forever, never doing anything with it.  Stories, it is said, are never finished, they are merely abandoned.  When you can't make them any better than they are right now, that's when you should give them up to others, specifically the editors buying stories to fill their magazines.  If they ask you to make changes to it, then you do it.  As long as doing so doesn't violate the story you're trying to tell. 
I tend to rewrite a lot.  I tend to rewrite for a long time.  One reason is due to the aforementioned impulse to discover what I'm trying to say.  It sometimes takes me a pass or two through a story to figure that out. 
Another reason, which is more problematic, is a desire to make the story as good as I can make it.  And this is where I may be failing this rule.  I hate rejection.  I know, from experience and an understanding of the situation, that any story I send out is very likely going to be rejected.  I do everything I can to make sure that doesn't happen.  Maybe I'm doing too much in that regard.  Maybe 
I should be getting to "the best I can do," as fast as possible and moving on to the next big thing. 
This is an area I know I should improve in.  I'm not really sure how.
Score: 15 out of 20.  I might be a bit generous here, but 10 out of 20 honestly seems too low. 
Rule Four - You must Submit what you Finish.
This is a rule I don't do well.  Getting to that point where I say, "It's time to send this out," is so very, very hard for me to do. 
Right now we're at the beginning of May and I've yet to submit a new story this year.  That is bad.  I can give myself the excuse that I've been working on my novel since the start of the year, which I want to start submitting by the time WorldCon comes around at the end of August.  But there is a feeling that saying that IS an excuse.  I have story drafts that I finished last year and set aside, to give myself some distance I tell myself, that I have yet to rewrite and submit. 
I think this is due mostly to fear.  Submitting a story is like purposefully putting my hand in the flame of an open burner on my stove.  While the hope for success is there, the belief in the worthiness of what I've done is strong, the certainty that it's going to come back rejected makes me hold back.
When I was a freshman in college, I once had a girl laugh in my face when I asked her out on a date.  If having a story rejected stung only that much, it would be so much easier to face.
But I set myself on this path and I need to find a way to do better at this. 
Score: 5 out of 20.  The facts don't lie. 
Rule Five - You must Keep Submitting the Story UNTIL it is Accepted and Published. 
This is also a tricky one, but I'm not sure it's all my fault. 
The market was different in Heinlein's day.  The number of magazines that publish fiction has shrunk, and pay you to do so, has shrunk.  And the rates they pay are almost identical to what they paid back in Heinlein's day. 
I also tend to write fairly big.  My average story is around 7,000 words.  That counts as a large short story or a novelette.  When I read the requirements of most publishers, they are asking for pieces around 5,000 words AT THE MOST.  Their ranges are usually smaller, three to four thousand words. 
I've often heard it said that you should let the story decide how big it needs to be.  But if it needs to be bigger than what most people buying them want, what do you do? 
Once I start submitting a story, I'm pretty good at keeping it out there.  For a while at least.  With a lot of publishers accepting electronic submissions, I'm not even out the cost of postage any more.  But it usually only takes a dozen submissions or so for me to exhaust the markets that accept the type of story I'm submitting, of that size, etc.  Often I'll find a publisher whose requirements match the story I'm trying to submit, but they've announced they are closed for submissions "for the foreseeable future." 
I don't know what to do about this one.  Start submitting to places that have rejected it before?  Not a good idea.
Score: 10 out of 20.  I need to do better, but the environment is what it is.  I need to figure out how to adapt. 
My grade: 70 out of 100.  It's been a while since I've been in school, but I figure that's about a low"C" grade.  Hmm.  Not bad, but not good enough for me. 
I wonder if there is a writer's summer school I can go to.