Sunday, December 6, 2015

Viking Lady - my award winning novel - is scheduled for publication next year. I am posting the first chapter as what I hope is an enticing peek!




A.D. 980

An arrow pierced the villager’s chest almost to its goose feathers.  He fell against the ox he had been goading, then sank to his knees, and toppled over.  Viking warriors, some carrying burning torches, sprinted past him toward the Northumbrian village. 
            Men, women, and children screamed as they were cut down.  Flames crackled above thirty-three thatched roofs, creating dark spires in the still air.  But for the crackling and a few barking dogs, the village was stilled.  The acrid smell of burning thatch quickly spread.  
Aden, captain of the Vikings, and his second in command, Janborg, burst into the last cottage.  Besotted with ale, its owner drew his sword, but the effort was futile.  Aden looked at the dead man’s calf-high leather boots; they would probably fit.  He loosened the thongs that bound his badly worn boots and pulled them off.  The new ones fit well and were not even blood stained.  A full wineskin hung from a peg, and Aden slung it over his shoulder.  He saw nothing else of value.
            “Kith and kin?” he asked. 
            “Under the hay or maybe with the hogs?”  Janborg rubbed his eyes.  Smoke from the burning cottages began to drift, choking the two Vikings as they thrust their swords into the nearest hay pile.  A woman and two children rose up, looking like straw-filled scarecrows. 
            The woman glared at them, then arched her neck and drew a forefinger across her throat, eyes fixed on Aden.  
             “One of them has the walnuts, anyway.”  Janborg grinned and raised his sword.
            “Wait.  I’ll take them,” Aden said.  “Get some rope.”
            “With all we took from the abbey and the village we have little room for— ”
            “Get the rope!” 
Janborg went back into the cottage.  He returned with a length of barnacle-encrusted line and tied the woman’s hands, looping the rope around her throat.
Aden nodded toward the cottage.  “Burn it.”
            “The pigs?”
            “Kill them.  Tell Wulfken to sink the boats at the dock before we leave.  Move.  All this smoke will bring others.”  Aden squinted at a mass of storm clouds that had cast a sudden darkness over the carnage.  The wind stiffened, sweeping the smoke inland. 
“Signal the recall.”  Aden pointed at the roiling clouds, which were moving as if hurled by the gods.  “I’ll start for the longships.  If the children don’t keep up, you’ll find their bodies along the way.” 
            But Aden wouldn’t do that.  Behind his back, his warriors called him the “children’s friend,” for he’d never been known to kill one, carrying many back to his estate near the port of Kaupang, in the Vestfold region of the Norseland, there to be raised as thralls.  It made little sense to the other Vikings.  The older thralls bred readily enough.
            Aden yanked on the rope and started toward the longships.  Buffeting winds, along with distant rumbling and muted flashes, heralded the coming storm.  Huge waves crested far out upon the horizon.  The rope bit into the woman’s neck, and she stumbled trying to keep up with him as he quickened his pace. 
A pig squealed its death agony, answered by wailing from the older child. 
Aden didn’t look back.

Chapter 1

      31 August 1967


God, I can’t even remember what my wife looks like.  The Continental DC-8, Flight 317 out of Travis Air Force Base, lurched, and the LA Times, folded to show the headline: Twenty-three Marines Die in Vietcong Ambush, slipped to his feetLorring asked for his fourth cup of coffee from a smiling stewardess.  His hands shook.
“I’m sorry.  Did I overfill your cup?”
“No, no.  Uh, just an article in the newspaper.  No sweat.”
The ever-smiling stewardess moved to the next row.  Lorring glanced at his watch and cinched his seatbelt tighter.  He felt a lot older than thirty.  His tanned arms and face were dark against his summer Air Force uniform—paper thin and bleached white from too much sun, monsoon rains, and the tender mercies of his beetlenut-chewing mamasan.  He hadn’t worn his hours-old Bronze Star or any of his other ribbons.  Officers only wore ribbons on the Class A uniform.  He thought of the presentation at Headquarters, 7th Air Force, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, on the outskirts of Saigon.  How many hours ago was that? 
“Attention to orders.  Citation to accompany the award of the Bronze Star: Captain Lorring Arthur Wilson, USAF, distinguished himself during the defense of the Headquarters 7th Air Force compound on the night of 5 December 1966.  In the face of intense Vietcong mortar, machine gun, and small arms fire, he . . .”
Lorring checked his right shoulder for body odor and wasn’t surprised.  He smelled the fear.  In less than an hour he would arrive at Baltimore Friendship Airport, and Ginger would be there.  Waiting.  Three hundred sixty-five and a wakeup; three hundred sixty-five and a bag drag.  Lorring silently intoned the mantra all GIs used to track the time remaining on their tours, changing the number every day.  He’d taken the last One-A-Day vitamin pill from a bottle of 365 just twenty-four hours earlier; the malaria pills had run out last week.  His FIGMO chart was finished, each segment of the nude woman colored in one day at a time.  Yesterday, it had been the right nipple.  He was going home.
  He’d spent a year wanting to get back; now he desperately wished he had two weeks— a month—left on his tour.  He wasn’t ready.  Lorring shook his head and rubbed his eyes.  Ginger’s last few letters were full of repairs to the clothes dryer, the car, a broken window, but no mention of wanting him.  His shoulders sagged as he pictured Mai Lee— without a photograph.  Or clothes. 
Tan Son Nhut Air Base was hot, humid, dirty, noisy, smelled bad—the GI food terrible.  He’d lost ten pounds and looked like a POW.  Traffic in the center of Saigon, where his “hooch” was, made Paris, Tokyo, and Istanbul combined look like a piece of cake.  He’d worked long hours with little time off, but his job as an intelligence officer was interesting, sometimes exciting.  Halfway through his tour the infidelity genie climbed out of its lamp, and he’d gone  “broken arrow,” as the GIs called sleeping with the natives.  He’d lasted a lot longer than most guys. 
            He rationalized: I’m in a war.  Could get blown away tomorrow.  This is an exception.  Practically every guy in the outfit has a “Vee-na-mee” girlfriend, except maybe the chaplain.  It’s not like I’m really cheating on my Ginger Cookie.  A guy can’t go a whole year without getting his horns trimmed a few times, can he?  I mean Cookie’s got air conditioning, good food, friends and family nearby, a baby to take care of.  Besides, women are different; they don’t have the same needs as men.  But the rationalizations didn’t really work—especially now.
            Lorring had another dragon, too.  All his life, until Nam, he had played by the rules.  He married a virgin and considered himself almost one at the altar, having had sex with a co-ed three times his senior year—the sum total of his “all-the-way” experience.
            “Ginger and I are a couple of cookie-cutter-kids.  We’re prisoners of the morality of the uptight fifties,” he had moaned to Gil, a weather forecaster and foxhole buddy, as they ate lunch at the base officers’ club.  “I can’t believe they threw the rule book out overnight.  Flower power, pot, free love, Playboy clubs.  Can you believe how much time I wasted?  Man, was I stupid.”
            “Yeah,” Gil said.  “I sat in the same pew.”
            Lorring would get even with “them,”—all those puritans.  He had found a way to have his cake and eat it too, at least in Nam.  It began with Mai Lee.
The Continental stretch eight lurched hard.  They were in the clouds.  He thought about Gil, who was already home.  Forever.  Arlington National Cemetery.  I’ll go see him.  Call Sherry.  And say what?  Sorry he was standing on the flight line when a mortar round splattered him all over it?  The letter he wrote her had sounded so hollow.  Why Gil and not me?  Shit. 
 “This is Captain Everard.  We should be on the ground at Baltimore Friendship in about thirty minutes.  It’s seventy-four degrees and overcast with light winds.  Thank you for flying Continental.  We hope you fly with us again soon.  And to all you vets returning from Southeast Asia, let me add my personal thanks for a job well done.”
Was it?  Lorring shook his head, remembering the cold, drizzly evening in Zweibrucken, Germany when he’d told Ginger he had volunteered for Nam.

“You volunteered?  Without even talking to me first?  How could you do that, Lorring?  Rachel is hardly out of diapers.  Where will we live?  For a whole year?”  Tears shimmered in her eyes, and she jumped up from the dinner table and stood before the slider to a tiny balcony.  The backs of grim concrete military quarters looked even bleaker in the rain.
            Lorring tried to put his arms around her, but she shrugged him off.
            “Cookie, I’m sorry.  You’re right, I should have come to you first.  But I’m a career officer.  It’s my place to go.”
            “Do you ever think of anyone else besides yourself?  No, I don’t think you do.  Well, when do you ship out?  When do I start being a war widow?”
            “I don’t know.  Probably a couple months.  I’ll get a delay-en-route leave to take you home and get you set up.  We can find an apartment near your dad.  You’d be close to your friends from the University of Delaware, too.  And when I get back, we’ll buy a house.  I’ll get my first choice of assignments, probably back to Fort Meade, and we can get a nice one.”
            “If you get back.”  Ginger’s head sagged against the cold glass.
            “Hey, Cookie, I’ll be a headquarters weenie.  They don’t send Signals Intel guys out in the field.”  He knew that wasn’t true but hoped she didn’t.  “It won’t be any different than when I visited all those bases in Turkey last year.”
            “Lorring, they weren’t sending body bags back from Turkey.”

*        *        *

Ginger finished balancing the checkbook and looked up at the mantle clock.  He’ll be home in four hours.  Four hours!  She’d forgotten to make Rachie’s lunch.  Shit.  She threw together yet another PB&J with Oreos and chips and waited for Rachie to emerge from the potty.
“Rachie, hurry up in there.  Nana Wilson will be here any minute.”
“I’m tying my shoes, but the bow keeps slipping out.”
Ginger checked Rachie’s overnight bag.  Her “horse statues,” as she called them, a yellow hairbrush, and two teddy bears spilled out of a Safeway grocery bag near the door. 
Rachael skipped across the room.  “Mommy, look.  I got ‘em tied.”
“That’s just great, Rachie.”  And on the right feet.  “You are getting so grown up.”
Nana Wilson said the same thing as Rachie jumped into the backseat of her car. 
Ginger poured another cup of coffee and sat at the desk.  She was proud of having learned how to balance the checkbook.  Not to mention the taxes.  And she’d gotten the car fixed twice.  And the dryer.  Though her dad had helped her with buying the new house, it was a gutsy thing to have done on her own.  The military might refer to her as a “dependent,” but she wasn’t.  Not now.  Not anymore. 
Who needs a husband?  I do.  She clasped her hands behind her head, bent over, and pulled her arms over her ears, as if to prevent any other thoughts.  It didn’t work. 
            Why did most of my old friends turn out to be raving, anti-war-demonstrating peaceniks?  They stopped calling me.  Except Greta.  She called me a Fascist. 
            She glanced at Lorring’s last letter.  He had berated her—again—for not writing with more passion.  Why couldn’t he understand how hard it was for me to write like that?  I’m the laundry and housecleaning lady, repairman, nanny, and checkbook balancer.  Where’s the passion in that?  Besides, why get my withers in an uproar when he isn’t here to take care of them?  I’ll bet some Vietnamese girl took care of his, though.  Her heart shrank, as it always did when she pictured her husband with some petite Asian woman.  “Dammit,” she mumbled, suddenly feeling fat.
Someday she’d have to burn a lot of his letters, they were that torrid.  But she could feel tingling down there, feelings she’d stuffed for a whole year, except when she’d read his letters.  She had to get going, had to shower and dress before she left for Friendship.  In less than four hours she and Lorring would be. . . .  A flush crept up from “down there.” 
A carry-on bag slung over one shoulder, Lorring hoisted his duffel bag and suitcase off the carousel and headed for the airport exit.  But Ginger was right there, just outside the baggage claim area, wearing his favorite blue dress, her short, wavy hair perfect, eyes locked on his, her smile showing the dimples he loved.  His gear dropped to the floor, and in a few strides he held her hard, kissed her hard, breathed her hard, and his throat closed up.  She dabbed her eyes with a crushed tissue.
            She told him he looked skinny.  He told her she looked great.  She promised to fatten him up.  He said they would attend to first things first.  She blushed.  He was hardly aware of stowing his gear in their ’64 VW wagon or driving out of the airport parking lot.  His heart raced and his face felt hot.  He smiled till it hurt. 
              “Aren’t you going to shift into high, Lorring?” Ginger asked. 
He looked down, saw he was still in third gear, and heard the engine winding up. He was in the wrong gear.  He shifted into high.  Shifting his emotions, his whole being, was going to be a lot harder.  Where is my internal clutch?   He wondered how his guys at Tan Son Nhut Air Base were doing without him.  He hoped Charlie wouldn’t pay them any more visits.
            Ginger had bought a three-bedroom colonial in Bowie, Maryland, about fifteen miles from the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, where Lorring was to report the following Monday.  Lorring said the house looked great and insisted on a complete tour after dumping his gear inside the front door.  But mostly he watched Ginger. 
She looked different.  He could see tension in her face, and her movements were awkward.  She had always been so graceful and coordinated, could beat him at tennis two out of every three games.  For an instant he saw Mai Lee in the shower, her body as fluid as the water that flowed through the silky black hair that almost reached her waist.  It could have been a Renoir canvas. 
“—fenced in backyard.  We could even get a puppy.  Lorring?”
He blinked and shook his head.  Ginger’s dress was short.  Way short.  But why not?  She’s got great legs.  He’d pictured her in high heels and stockings though, not loafers and white gym socks. 
“Uh, sorry.  What about the rest of the furniture?”
            “It all comes Monday.”
Her little surprise was the master bedroom, which was fully furnished. 
“We’ll have to spend from now through Sunday afternoon in bed,” Ginger said.
            “Whoa, Cookie, I’m jet lagged up to here.”  What if I can’t hack it?  What if I think about Mai Lee at the worst possible time?  What if I call Cookie Mai Lee?  Lorring looked out the window at the row of Leavitt-built houses, all lined up like aircraft revetments on a flight line.
“Captain, I’ve never known jet lag to bother you before.”  Ginger smiled and leaned against him, brushing his arm with her breasts. 
Ginger had a more ample figure than Mai Lee, but she couldn’t ride him as he stood against the bedroom wall the way Mai Lee had.  He wished Ginger had lost all of the weight she’d gained while pregnant.  Cripes, I’ve got to get my head screwed on straight.  Unconsciously, he wiped his hands on the sides of his uniform trousers.
            “Ummm.  What?”
            “I lost you again.  What were you thinking?”
            “I, uh, was thinking about Rachael.  When did you say we would see her?”
            “Not till Sunday afternoon when we go over to your mom’s.  Is everything all right?” She frowned, the tip of her tongue protruding just slightly.
            “Sure.  Well, yeah, mostly.  It’s kind of a shock to the system, you know.  A handful of hours ago I was in Nam, in a combat zone.  All of a sudden I’m standing here, and, uh, the grass needs mowing.”
            “No, my love, that is not what needs to be done.”  She smiled, took his hand, and pulled him into the one furnished room in their new house.
            His hands were sweating.

*        *        *
After the first two weeks the lust wore off and life wore on.  They clashed over who was going to balance the checkbook.  Lorring began to drink more; Ginger drank less.  The joy and spontaneity drained from their lovemaking.  Her ready smile faded, replaced by a pensive look, later sadness, and finally, anger. 
Earlier he’d yelled at Rachie for watching TV cartoons with the volume up while he was trying to read and threatened to break her record of The Littlest Pony if he heard it one more time.  Rachie cried, and Ginger had gone to bed angry. 
Lorring stretched his right leg over and rubbed Ginger’s legs.  It was one of their signals.  No response.  He began to massage her back.  She stiffened.  “Cookie?  You okay?”
            “No.”  Her reply was muffled.
            “You want to talk?”
            “That’s all we’ve been doing since you got back.  And it hasn’t helped very much.”  She was still facing away from him.
            He was silent for a few moments.  “I guess I’m not all that good at talking, Cookie, but I’m trying.  Maybe you could give me a little credit for that.” 
She rolled over.  “You want some real credit, Lorring?  How about you agreeing to go to a marriage counselor?”
            Lorring groaned and sat up.  “Marriage counselors dispense a bunch of psychobabble and charge for the air you breathe.”  It’s bad enough going through all the hostile interrogations with Ginger, he thought.  I’m not about to volunteer to let a stranger crawl into our bed.  Why does it feel like I left one battlefield to come back to another? 
“Look, Cookie, we’ve been all through that.  I’m not going to change my mind.  This is personal between us.  We are intelligent people, and we can work it out without resorting to some marriage shrink.  No matter how hard this is or how long it takes, I love you.  Always have and always will.”  His voice sounded tired and resigned.
“I love you, too.  I want to love you like I used to.  Honest to God I do.”  Her voice broke.  “Do you really want us back, Lorring?”
            “Hell, yes.”  He was becoming angry, but fear tempered his anger, as it had of late.  What if she left me?  And took Rachie.  My whole life.  I’ve got to get my head screwed back on straight. 
            “Well, what are you willing to do to get us back?” Ginger asked.
            “Oh, hell, anything but go to a damn mealy-mouthed shrink.”
            “Yes, goddammit.” 
“Okay.  I’ll hold you to that.” 
He stalked out of the bedroom headed for the liquor cabinet.  She surely couldn’t come up with something worse than a damn shrink.  Could she?  Why can’t we just talk this out?  His hands trembled.  Life was so simple in Nam.

*        *        *

I am posting the first chapter of Adan the Last, a Viking novel I hope to publish next year. Enjoy!


            “Aden.  Aden!”  Uncoiling from a troubled sleep, the Viking captain quickly scanned the horizon, then looked at Oaken, eyebrows raised.
            “Can you not see it?  Have your eyes turned to stone?”  Only Oaken dared speak to their captain that way.
The sail on the horizon could spell their doom.  Especially if other sails were to follow it through the fog bank from which it had emerged.  The Norsemen were exhausted from fighting the storm that Loki, the trickster god, had no doubt hurled at them for sport the previous day.  Only five of their number had survived the disaster on the Northumbrian coast of Britain, and they could barely manage to sail the longship with so few.  The normal complement was thirty-three.  Pulling on the oars through the night to keep the bow into the wind, with two of them weakened from wounds they had sustained fighting King Ethelred’s soldiers, the other three were slumped on their sea chests, senseless from the storm that had abated at first light.  Oaken, their Kendtmand—senior navigator—had remained vigilant while the others slept.  Though he had passed more than 50 winters, his eyes were those of a bird of prey.
            Aden groaned as he stood, hanging onto the single mast with one blistered hand to steady himself.  As the longship rose on the next swell, he squinted.  From just in front of a fogbank that stretched across the sea from end to end, there emerged a square sail, blue and white stripped.  Definitely a longship.  Yet another disaster.  Aden had long been known for his good luck as well as his fighting skills.  He would need both to survive.  He glanced up, as if to summon a bolt from Thor.
            The other ship would surely offer to fight, especially when they saw how few men Aden had.  And it was likely there were other longships still in the fogbank.  If he turned to try to outrun them, he would be headed away from their destination, the Vestfold region of the Norseland, where Aden was master of a large bir, with its farmstead, in Kaupang.  If it had survived his half yearlong absence.  The five of them had little strength left, either for fighting or for sailing.  But Aden could not give back any of the twenty-five days of hard sailing they had endured since they left the British Northumbrian coast.  He had less than the turning of a small sandglass to devise a plan.  Squinting, Aden counted thirty-four warriors in the other longship, its blue and white-stripped sail hanging limp.  They were quickly fitting the oars into the oarlocks.  It would not take them long to close with thirty-two warriors rowing.

            “Who be your captain?”
            “Aden the Last.  Who hails me?”
            “Where are your crew?” the speaker demanded.
            “Plague.  The whole of Northumbria is rotting from it.  Lay a course for the south coast and pray it has not found its way to York.” 
Lars, Aden’s master of archers, retched over the side.  His face, and those of Aden, Oaken, Wulfken, and Mangus were yellowed and dark splotched.
            “Ye’ll not be needin’ the longship, then, will ya now?  Best find your way to the feast halls of Valhalla and put an end to it.”  The blue and white sail crewmembers guffawed and pulled fingers across their throats.
            “I demand the right to parlay,” Aden yelled, then staggered back in a coughing fit, as the two longships closed to within three oar’s lengths.
            “Parlay!  And what might we have to say to the likes of you half-dead she-goats?”
            “One last draught of ale.  We’ll drink to your quick deaths from the plague, then meet you on the field of battle when the Valkyries bring your stinking hulks in for the pickings.”
            “Send us your ale, you rotting dung.  I’ll propose a toast that . . .”
            The swell dropped the other boat and raised Aden’s, and he heaved a cask down into the other longship.  It splintered on the deck, the warm, liquid pitch flowing across several of the Northmens’ legs as it ran from near the bow towards the stern.  By the time the startled warriors recognized what it was, Lars had fired a flaming arrow amidships, then flung the concealed burning torch amongst the panicked warriors.
“Row!” Aden roared.  He and all the others, save Lars, pulled with every sinew of remaining strength.  Lars fired arrows into the stricken longship, picking off their captain and several who were attempting to put out the fire.  Six burning men had jumped into the water and were now clinging to the sides.  Four sprawled in the flames, arrows protruding from chest or back, while two others tried to pull protruding shafts; one from his shoulder, the other from his knee.  Several of the attackers shot arrows and threw spears at Aden’s longship, while a dozen others battled the fire.
 As the range increased, Lars jumped to Aden’s side, motioning him to man the steering oar.  Screams and curses followed them, but were soon muted by the creeping fog that gently enfolded the burning longship.
            “Hold,” Aden commanded when they were out of range.  The four Vikings bent over their oars, gasping.  “Oaken, can you get us through that fog?”  Aden pointed behind them where a faint glow outlined a burning sail.
            “Only if one of the gods owes me a favor.”
            “Turn us around.  We row slow and quiet till we are past their boat, if she still floats.  And if one of the gods owes you, Oaken, we will find the backside of the fog and make sail for home.  Quickly collect the arrows that were ‘gifts’ from the bastards we burned, then we row. Speak no further word; make no sound.  Not a ripple.”
In an hour they broke into the dull gray, high overcast noonday.  Shipping their oars, the Northmen pulled the rust-colored square sail, made from heavily oiled wool, from its sealskin pouch and began to raise the mast.  They were momentarily terrified by a strange voice.
            “By all the gods, help us!  Have mercy.”  The faint cry came from dead ahead.
            The Vikings recoiled and instinctively lunged for their weapons.  Oaken spotted the struggling men first; they were clinging to oars and strakes, waving frantically, about fifty oar’s lengths ahead of them. 
“By the turds from a thousand assholes,” Oaken growled, “we’ve been rowing in circles around the motherless bastards.  I think I can get my bearings now, though.”  Oaken ignored the men in the water and looked up at the weak sun.  “We should eat something before we get underway, Aden,” he added. 
Of Aden’s three original longships, the surviving one was the largest at just under a hundred feet long and fifteen feet wide, with thirty-two oars.  Most of the provisions—dried meat and fish, sour milk, dried apples, onions, biscuits, and ale—had been stowed in the large boat, so the survivors had not suffered from want of food and drink during their return voyage.  But crewing with just five men had been exhausting. 
            Aden nodded, staring astern at the floundering men, then glanced at his ensign—twin ravens on a white background—at the top of the mast.  The breeze had changed direction and strengthened.  The ravens snapped.  It was a good omen. 
            “They can watch us eat before they drown,” Wulfken chuckled.
            “If Thor hadn’t owed Oaken a favor, we would be the ones in the water, Aden replied.  “I wonder . . . ?”
            Oaken returned with a butt of ale, filling each man’s horn, then portioned out some tough, dry deer jerky, stale biscuits, and apples.  Aden continued to watch the men in the water.
            “We need extra crew,” he said.  “Pull over to them.”
            “Aden, are you sure?  They’d number the same as us.  They could slit our throats,” Oaken said.
            “We finish eating, then I’ll talk to them.”

            “Are you here to kill us?” one asked, his voice the sound of a rasp on metal.
            “We need some oarsmen.  You’d be slaves.  You’d work day and night and be cold, hungry and thirsty.  But if you serve me well, when we reach our destination I will offer to accept your oath as a warrior . . . or, I might keep you as my slaves.  I own a large estate with many cattle, many people, good buildings.  I need four of you.  Who is willing to accept my offer?”  All were.  “But there are five of you.  One must be left behind.  You decide.  The rest may swim to our longship.  We will begin rowing in five minutes.”
            “Lungar is wounded.  He can’t pull an oar.  Took an arrow.  Everybody else swim for it,” their spokesman said, beginning to paddle.  Three others followed him.
            “May the gods roast your balls over a low fire for all eternity,” Lungar yelled.
            “We will send you to Valhalla,” Aden shouted.  He nodded to Lars, who notched an arrow.  It struck Lungar in the neck.  He gurgled once, then slid from the strakes he had been clinging to.
            “Grab that arrow, and bring it back!” Lars yelled.  The man nearest to Lungar swam back to him, took a breath, and finally resurfaced with the arrow in his teeth.  In a few moments the exhausted warrior handed it up to Lars before being heaved aboard.
            The rest of the spent, shivering men were dragged into the longship and searched.  Only one had a knife, which Mangus took.
“You will be watched.  Fail to obey any order and you join Lungar,” Aden said.  The four grunted.  “Oaken, give them each a horn of ale, and a biscuit.  When they have finished, assign them to oars amidships.  When it becomes full dark, rope them in pairs and tie off the ends to the mast.  Give them two sleeping hammocks to wrap in.  We sail for the Vestfold and home.”  The captives collected four arrows and one spear—“gifts” from the defeated longship, handing them to Lars.  Lars had fired nine arrows; the four that had been scavenged proved most welcome.  And the spear might prove useful for fishing.  Even with nine crewmembers they were in no condition to do battle.  Their weapons were too few.

I have posted snippets from my memoir Sleeve 'n Me. I hope you enjoy reading it. I hope to have it out next year. Vic


At the Feet of the Greatest Generation





Late Summer, 1942


The Battle of the Atlantic.  German U-Boats sink ninety-eight allied ships.  A Japanese sub sinks the U.S. aircraft carrier Wasp off the Solomons, and the U.S. battleship North Carolina is badly damaged.
The air raid siren on top of the fire station in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., started wailing, and I ran to the window to see if I could see any searchlights.  All the dogs in Northwood Park began to howl as they always did during an air raid.  Maybe this would be one of the times they sent our own bombers over on a pretend bombing mission, and you could hear all those motors roaring away.  My best friend Sleeve an’ me had decided to be B-17 pilots when we got old enough to enlist.  It didn’t take me any time to race around the house and pull down all the blackout shades so no light could get out and tell the bombers where to aim.  I was good at doing that. 
The screen door slammed as my pop took off to be an air raid warden.  I was right proud of him, wearing his helmet with the Civil Defense insignia painted on it.  He wore an armband, too, and carried the hugest flashlight a body ever saw.  The wardens patrolled the neighborhood.  I guess they must go looking for Jap or German spies.  He was probably the best air raid warden in Northwood Park, but it bothered me he wasn’t in the army or navy.  My mom said it was because he was doing important war work for the government, and he had a “deferment” from the draft.  Sleeve had an older brother who would soon be fighting the Japs, he said, so I didn’t say too much about my pop being an air raid warden around him.
Unlike Sleeve, I didn’t have any brothers or sisters.  Didn’t even have a dog like he did—his name was Boots—so it could get pretty lonesome. 
Growing up in a war was hard.  But it was exciting, too.

*        *        *

And it was special.  We were the kids of The Greatest Generation.  Sometimes it felt like most of them were too busy with the war to pay much attention to us.  I understand that now, from the perspective of more than sixty years since that kid, whose name was Charlie Brown—long before the famous one—watched for searchlights and listened for our bombers over D.C.  This is that young boy’s story, in his own words.  Folks who write memoirs are supposed to tell you what it all meant, and I’ll try.
The stories in Sleeve an’ Me are about beginnings and endings, about relationships and loyalty, passages, loss and death, about getting into trouble, and surviving dangerous stunts because God was our copilot.  We didn’t talk about God too much, though; He stayed in church for the most part.  But we did talk a lot about “The Hand of Fate.”
For over three and a half years World War II consumed the lives of almost everyone.  We were a part of The March of Time, the name of a newsreel series, and our days unfolded on “Eastern War Time.”  Everything worth having was rationed: gasoline, tires, meat, sugar, cigarettes, and shoes.  You could get a ticket for “pleasure driving.”  Bubble gum, Hershey bars, and caps for your cap pistols were early wartime casualties.  We saved or collected all manner of things: old tires, tin foil off of cigarette packs, grease, newspapers—you name it—for the “war effort.”  We helped our parents work in their victory gardens, sold victory seeds, struck victory matches, bought victory stamps to put in books that, when filled, you turned in for a war bond.  We sang the “National Anthem” before every movie, and halfway through the movie they took up a collection for the Red Cross.  Everyone contributed, too.
We knew the words to “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” by heart, along with all the other war songs except maybe the ones about love.  War news frequently interrupted radio programs throughout the day, a deep voice stating:  “We interrupt this program to bring you important news from the front.”  Families with someone in uniform displayed a blue star in a window.  They hung a gold star if that someone got killed. 
Well, if you want to know—or remember—what it was like to grow up in the 1940s at the feet of The Greatest Generation, with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Betty Grable running the country, Sleeve an’ me will help you do it.
 It was a special time.  And it is important to remember.

Chapter 1: Beginnings

September 1940

Battle of Britain.  German bombers continue to pound British airfields.  Biggin Hill is almost put out of action, and Debden, Hornchurch, and four other airfields are severely hit.  Hitler signs the operational orders for the invasion of Britain.  He announces that he will decide on the date for the start of Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Britain, on September 10th.  Britain’s Royal Air Force defeats the German Luftwaffe, and Hitler cancels the invasion.

Hot Summer Nights

It was hard going to sleep in a new house.  I'd wanted the door to my room all the
way open with the hall light left on.  Mom said she'd leave the light on and open my door just a crack.  A thin slice of light went across the footboard of my bed and ended up on the corner of my bureau.  Which was only a little help.  Aunt Minnie sliced cake about as thin as the light was.  She didn't know how much a boy liked cake.  I hadn't even had time to figure out what was way back in the storage closet off of my bedroom yet, which is why I didn’t want it to be all the way dark.
  I smelled the swamp the first night we moved way out into what my pop called the suburbs, though it seemed a deal more like country to me.  It was hot as all blue blazes, and the black Westinghouse fan my folks had put in my room didn't do a whole lot.   It kept turning back and forth all the time.  I'd get up and stand right in front of it but had to keep moving all the time to keep it in my face.  At least you could blow the sweat off of your upper lip that way.
Nights were pretty eerie on Pinewood Avenue.  We lived on a dead-end street with the woods growing right up to our house.  Well, almost.  There was a swamp just between our house and the woods, in the middle of which was a slime-filled pit.  It wasn't just the swamp being there I had to worry about; there was an unnatural bunch of swamp noises that only came out at night.  Once you got used to the steady hum of the fan you could hear 'em clear as day.  And when you added 'em up, it was like a long rumble of thunder.  See, in the swamp were bullfrogs, crickets, owls, mosquitoes the size of B-25 bombers, and copperheads—well maybe some of them were black snakes—which you could hear slithering around.
Now that doesn't count all the normal sounds you could add in.  It was nothing to hear squirrels scurrying across the roof, a faucet dripping, a neighborhood dog barking, a car door slam, or the distant wail of an ambulance.  When it got to be late and the sheet and my Fruit-of-the-Looms were all scrunched up at the foot of the bed, I'd go over to the dormer window. That's where you could hear the loudest.
Mystery noises were what got a body upset.  Every time I heard an unnatural creak in one of the floorboards downstairs, a crash in the woods, a muffled thump from the storage closet off of my room, or maybe a low moaning coming from somewhere, I'd leap to the dormer window and look out.  There'd be pretty near a gazillion lightning bugs blinking on and off.  Buzzing would be coming out of the old yellow Japanese beetle traps hanging in everybody’s front yards.  If the wind was right I could smell the sickening licorice-sweet smell of the dead beetles, but usually the slime-filled pit would out-smell the beetle traps.
We only had this one ol’ street lamp at the end of our street. The corrugated, rusty green metal shade around the bare bulb hung down, like the bulb was wearing a hat.  It would shine into my bedroom through tree branches from the great big ol’ tulip poplar in the front yard, and through the window dividers, which made the light all splotchy on the walls and ceiling.  When a puff of wind came along, the shade on the streetlight would rock up and down, making the light splotches in my room dance around. It was like being in a rowboat when a wake went by.
Since there were two windows in my room, I'd have to check the one lookin' out to the swamp every so often, too, even though there was hardly any light that got to it from the one street lamp.  And anyway, the swamp just sucked in light and ate it!
 Sometimes you'd hear a loud splash come from the swamp. And light gray mist would rise up from the black pit, and it would ooze out into the woods.  Straining, I could sense it.  There.  In the wavering mist.  An evil thing.  A monster.  Disturbed by our house being built almost on top of it.  And my bedroom was the closest!  But what could a body do?
Soon after we moved in I decided to make a sacrifice to it.  I wondered what it would want.  Something dead.  How about the dead crab I was saving in my shirt drawer? It would probably be a good idea to get it out of there before my mom found it anyway.  And everybody knew swamp monsters love dead stuff.  And why not give it all my jar full of lightning bugs I'd collected earlier in the evening? 
I went to dump 'em out and step on 'em so's they'd be good and dead by morning.
But wouldn't you just know when I turned the jar upside down they mostly all flew off before I could step on 'em.  Oh well, plenty more where they came from.  And of course it was a grand sight watching them flit around, blinking off and on, the light splotches from the street lamp rocking up and down, up and down, up and. . . .
“CHARLIE BROWN, I’M GOING TO WEAR YOU OUT!” my mom yelled, clean in the middle of the night.
I never could figure why moms were forever sneaking open your door and waking a body up like that.  Mothers being what they are, she didn't like me letting loose all my fireflies any better than me saving the dead crab in my shirt drawer. 
Oh well, Mom had a lot to learn about raising a boy, and I aimed to help her every chance I got.

How Sleeve an’ Me Met

September 1940

How you meet a guy has a lot to do with what happens after, and this was to be no exception to that.  In the Brown family there were just the three of us: Mom, Pop, and me.  When Pop went to work that just left Mom and me, but she'd always get real busy doing housework and talking to the neighbor ladies, so I was on my own a right good bit. 
One afternoon I decided to ride my trike all the way to the top of Pinewood, which I hadn't done before.  It took a lot of peddling, and when I finally got to the top, where Lorain Avenue comes down, I was pretty tired, having only stopped once on the way up to rest.  In two shakes of a cat’s tail I heard this rattly kind of noise and looked up to see this other kid on a tricycle tearing down Lorain like all get out.  It didn't look much to me like he knew how to drive it.
"Look out!" is all I got to yell before he bashed right into me.  The front wheels mashed together and we both got pitched onto the street and the other guy tore the knee in his dungarees and got a little blood out of it.  The trikes went over too, a'course, and one of the front wheels was spinning but the other one was bent and three of the spokes had come out.  Luckily it was his trike they’d come out of.
"Wow!  Did'ja see that?" I asked, although how a kid could miss seeing his own wreck I don't know, but if you're gonna start talking with a strange kid you got to start with something.
"Yeah.  I done worse before though," the kid replied.  "My brother can fix it.  He's a lot older'n me.  You got any brothers?" he asked as we picked ourselves out of the wreckage and began brushing the pebbles off.
"Too bad.  I got an older sister, too.  You got any sisters?"
"No, but my mom's home an’ if you wanna' come home with me I betcha' we can get a cookie and some milk out of it.  It'ud be good for us after the crash an all."
"Where you live?"
"The house down on the end on that side," I replied, pointing.
"What about the trikes?" he asked, looking at his bent front tire with the dangling spokes.
"Let's haul yours to your house an’ then we can both ride mine back down."
"Okay.  What's your name?” the new kid asked.
"Charlie Brown.  What's yours?"
"David Hattersley."  David had blond hair; mine was brown.  But we were both the same height so that made everything even.  And it turned out I could run the fastest.  
We lugged his busted up trike a block up Lorain and left it in the yard behind a tree where his folks probably wouldn't see it and think their son had got run over by a truck and was lying around bleeding and like that.  Parents were known to take on over just that kind of thing a lot.  Then we ran down to where we'd left my trike, without David's skinned knee bothering him enough to slow us down any.  He stood on the back holding on to me, and I got us going as fast as I could, sort of hoping we could have another wreck so his brother could work on mine too, but we didn't.
And that's how David Hattersley—soon to become "Sleeve"—an’ me got started being best friends. 

The Swamp Monster Club

September 1940

You don't just find a monster any ol’ place.  You got to look for 'em in special places, like haunted houses, the tombs of Egypt, sunken ships, and swamps.  I’ve already told you that right next to our house was a swamp in the middle of which was a slime-filled pit.  This was long before people went around putting houses over top of all the best swamps.  So if you wanted to bump right into a monster you couldn’t hardly asked for a better place to start than the swamp that came almost right up to your house.  On the other side were the woods and a creek over which the neighborhood fathers had built the ol’ green bridge.
It did all the things you'd expect out of a swamp.  It oozed and bubbled, and it had snakes, bullfrogs, giant turtles, and bats that came out at night.  And it was bottomless, a'course.  My mom said that all the mosquitoes from Perdition lived in it, not to mention a million jillion lightning bugs and about any other bug that crawled or flew for that matter.  On a good day you could find bones in it.  One day you'd see 'em, next day they were gone. 
Some folks, grownups mostly, said it stank.  It didn't, really.  It smelled exactly like a slime-filled pit in the middle of a swamp ought to smell like.  Dank, slimy, rotting wood smells.  Actually, it smelled right good for a swamp.  And it wasn't just filled with mud.  Like I been saying right along, it was filled with slime, which is mud that's gone to seed.  When you take some good ol’ mud, keep it wet, let it lay around about a couple hundred years, throw in some dead bodies every so often along with some rotting plants and trees to give it the right color and help the smell, you end up with slime.
All of the mothers hated the swamp just because of the slime.  When you came home with some good ol’ slime on you, they took off to wailing and fussing about it to beat the band.
"Charlie, how many times do I have to tell you to stay out of that god-awful place?"  She didn't know to call it a swamp like us kids did.
"What place?" I would always say back.
"You know exactly what place I'm talking about, young man.  Look at your dungarees.  How am I ever going to get then clean?  The last time I washed them I could hardly run them through the wringer, and you should have seen what came out!  And those sneakers!  If you ever once come home with a live turtle in your pocket again I'm going to wear you out.  Honestly.  You're going to be the death of me.  Let me tell you, young man, there are trees growing yet that should have been worn out on you, and it's not too late!" 
Boy she could really talk up a blue streak when she put her mind to it.  I kind of think it helped get her mind off of all the war stuff.  Being as she only had one kid, I had to work extra hard to make up for it.  And generally I did.
Before we moved in, the big kids had shinnied up this great big ol’ tulip poplar tree that had a gargantuan branch that hung way out over the swamp pit.  Then they hung this used tire to it from a long piece of hemp rope.
"You little kids stand back and watch how a professional pit-jumper does," said Albert Jamison, from up on Lorain.  Then he swung way across the pit and jumped. 
Fred's jump was even longer than Albert's.  "There.  See who can beat that."
"Nothing to it," Johnny Bladen jeered. 
It went on like that as the big kids demonstrated the art of pit jumping—something we were still too little to do.
"One day when I grow up I'm gonna set the world record for swamp jumping," David announced.
"Yeah.  Me too," I agreed. 
The big kids were jumping better than usual that day, we noticed.  Not one fell in.  You had to time your jump just right else you'd plunge right down into the gaseous bubbling ooze.  Well, it probably bubbled mostly at night.  If a kid panicked and froze on the tire as it swung out over the far bank, he was doomed to swing back and forth until he found himself hanging about four feet overtop of the pit. 
The big kids finally got tired of pit jumping and left.  It was a warm, fall Friday afternoon, with leaves raining down, and the scratch-scratch of rakes blending in with the droning of a red Stinson overhead.  We all liked Stinsons better than Piper Cubs, which were usually yellow.  Up the street somebody was pushing a lawn mower, which clattered away.  Layers of blue smoke hung over the neighborhood from all the leaf fires.
"Sure smells neat when the leaf smoke drifts over the swamp, dudn'it?" I asked.
"Reckon it does, but it's not so . . ." David broke off and was just staring at the far bank of the swamp pit.
"What'sa matter?"
"Don't you see it?  The Swamp Monster!"
"There!  Haven't you got any eyes in your head?"  He was pointing at a half rotting stump that looked exactly like the decomposed face of a monster rising up out of the ground with one bony hand stretched toward the moon.  It was a known fact that monsters didn't point toward the sun.
"Wow.  How'd we miss seein' it before now?" I asked jubilantly.  It goes almost without saying that the discovery of a genuine monster in one's very own swamp is accompanied by a moment of jubilation.
"'Cause it just rose up out of the ground.  I saw it with my very own eyes."  And with that David grabbed my arm and pulled me around to the backyard.  "We got to figure out what to do about that there monster," he informed me.
"Right.  What?"
"In order to be in our club every kid'll have to visit the monster by himself after dark for a whole hour!" 
"What club?" 
"The one we're gonna' start today.  It'll be called The Swamp Monster Club."
"Yeah.  Great idea.  Who'll we get in it?"  David had lived in Northwood Park a lot longer than I had, and he had met more kids.
"Gimme a minute to think.  Jimmy Hamlin, Cugot, Doobie Barrington the Third, and maybe Sydney Greenhouse." 
Doobie’s first name was really Duane.  We often would say his whole name followed by making a noise like somebody cutting a fart 'cause we thought his name was too snooty.  Sydney and Doobie were almost too young to join the club, but we decided to make an exception for them.
"Doobie an Sydney would wet their pants I'll bet," I said, laughing.  David joined me doing it.  "What about Freddy Wymer?"
"He lives too far away.  'Sides, we got to keep this club a secret, you know.  Our mothers don't much like us hanging around the swamp anyway, never mind having a secret club about it."

By ten o' clock the next morning we'd rounded everybody up in David's garage.  "Charlie an’ me are starting The Swamp Monster Club an’ you are gonna get initiated," David began.
"What's imishiated mean?" Sydney asked. 
"Can you just possibly be still for a split second, an’ let me tell you?" David snarled, with no small amount of irritation over the interruption.
"Well, I just wanted to know is all."
"If you don't pipe down I'm gonna give you an Indian rub," Cugot said, taking a few steps in Sydney's direction.  Sydney's eyes got big and bulged out, and he piped right down.
"Yesterday afternoon we were at the swamp, just hanging around after the big kids had finished pit jumping, and I saw the monster rise up right out of the ground on the far bank next to the woods.  Right before my very own eyes!  Charlie saw it, too."
"Wha'dit look like?" Jimmy asked.
"The face was half rotted an’ you could tell it had vengeance on its mind.  You could tell just by looking that it had been murdered an’ thrown in the swamp years an’ years ago, an’ now it was coming back to make somebody pay," David said. 
You coulda heard a pin drop.  All eyes were peeled on David.  "Fact is, he's probably waiting for some kid to fall off of the tire smack dab into the slime.  Then it'll pull him under an’ suck all the life blood right out of him."
"Yeah, an’ then there'll be two swamp monsters," I added.  David nodded in agreement.
"Well, what do we have to do to get in the club? Cugot asked.
"I'm gettin' to that," David said.  Each one of you has to go at night, when it's pitch dark, an’ put a stone in its mouth.  Charlie an’ me will paint each stone a different color so's we can tell if you really done it.  Plus Charlie an’ me will be watching from the side of his house.”
"How we gonna see to do it in the dark?" Doobie asked.
"You gotta grope your way an’ do it," David responded.  By now it was clear David was in charge of The Swamp Monster Club.
"Well, I'm gonna carry a trusty ol’ flashlight," Cugot stated.  There was a chorus of "me too's," so we agreed it would be okay to carry one.
"When do we get imishiated?" Sydney asked. 
David scowled at him.  "It's initiated, bird brain, an’ we're gonna do it tonight!"  A shudder ran through the group.  "Be at the side of the Browns' house at seven o' clock sharp.  And sneak!  We don't want anybody knowing about this—especially any parents.  Now let's go out an’ play a game of guns, an’ act natural so we won’t give away to anybody that something's up."
Just then Fred, David’s older brother, walked into the garage, picked up a wrench, and walked out without saying a word.
“Cripes amighty,” I said, “Do you think he heard us?”
“Naw,” David said.  “Besides, what would he care?”
“Yeah, but he was smiling,” Cugot said.
“Probably ‘cause he’d found the wrench he was looking for,” David said.
“Maybe . . .” Cugot said, looking at the rest of us.
“Just forget it,” David said.  “Let’s get going on that game of guns.  If we hang around here any longer we’ll just give the whole thing away.”
And so off we went to the woods for an ordinary ol’ game of guns.  No one in Northwood Park suspected a thing.  Or so we thought.

"Turn that flashlight off, lame brain," David hissed at Cugot.  "We could see you coming all the way from Ganaway's backyard!
It was about five minutes past seven, and going on pitch dark.  David, me, Cugot, and Jimmy were standing next to the side of my house, our backs pressed to it, speaking in whispers.
"Ya think the dodo brains are gonna come?" I whispered to David.
"They'll be here." 
"Couldn't find my flashlight is why I'm late," Doobie announced upon joining us a couple minutes later.  Everybody "shhhd" him, and David shoved him roughly against the brick wall.
"Just stand there an’ keep quiet about it," he hissed.  David could out-hiss anybody I ever heard do it.  The next moment we all heard a noise.  It came from the bridge.  Footsteps.
"Hey.  Anybody there?"  It was Sydney. 
"That absolute Nincompoop is on the bridge!  I bet he still can't wipe himself," David hissed, as he dashed over to the bridge and roughly hauled the hapless Sydney to where he should have gone in the first place.  After everybody settled down, David picked up the bag with the small painted stones in it.
"Okay, who's gonna' go first?"
"Not me," Cugot stated immediately, followed by "not me's" from Doobie and Sydney.
"I'll go first.  I'm not afraid of the Swamp Monster," Jimmy said. 
It was a brave thing to say, and I admired him for it.  Since David and me had started the club, we didn't have to be initiated, of course.  David handed Jimmy the red rock.
"Now everybody turn off your flashlights 'cept Jim.  And remember, you have to put that rock in its mouth and touch it on the face three times.  We'll be watchin' with our trusty flashlights, which we'll turn back on soon as you get there.  Any cheating an’ you're kicked out of the club," David warned.
My mouth went dry, and I was squeezing my flashlight for dear life as Jim disappeared into the gloom of the swamp, just like a wherewolf, headed for the monster.  He had just got to it and kneeled down, reaching out with his stone just inches from its mouth.  We clicked on our flashlights.  And that's when it happened.
We heard a voice say, “Now.”  With a sucking sound a skeleton rose up over the pit, caught in the beams of five flashlights, oozing green slime from its horrible empty eye sockets.  Terrible moans erupted from its throat. 
"Jumpin’jimminy!" Cugot yelled and dropped his flashlight. 
“Gawdamighty,” Jim hollered at the same time.  He leaped backward from the monster so violently that he rolled down into the pit, flinging his flashlight into the middle of it where it slowly sank out of sight just like the Titanic going down, the beam of light shining straight up on the dancing skeleton till it sank under the green slime.
Sydney leaped sideways, tripping over Cugot's dropped flashlight, and crashed into the corner of our house, head first, causing a nasty gash on his forehead and another one on his knee, both of which started to bleed black blood in the night. 
Doobie, trying to dodge Cugot and run into our backyard, and probably all the way to China, made too wide a circle, and his right foot sank into the slime up to his knee.  Screaming, he yanked out his leg, but no one saw his right shoe ever again.  It hardly slowed him down though.  In the process he'd knocked all the wind out of Cugot, who lay on the ground wheezing, as his flashlight rolled down to the edge of the pit, following Jimmy’s into total obliviousness.
David and me stood rooted with fear, our flashlights illuminating the horrible moaning skeleton that was hanging by the neck, green slime dripping like ancient blood.  From across the swamp a pitiful mound of slime we'd once known as Jim emerged on hands and knees, whimpering about how he couldn't see.  He should have talked to Cugot, whose glasses lay smashed on the ground where Duane Barrington the Third had stepped on them just before he lost his right shoe.  Cugot was blind as a bat without his glasses.
If I live to be a hundred I'll never forget Sydney bellowing as he hobbled up Pinewood Avenue.  Porch lights started going on all up and down the street.  The slimy skeleton sort of danced as it hung just above the old tire.  And from behind the tree the moaning disintegrated into howls of laughter.
"Charlie, what on earth is going on out there?" my pop demanded to know from the front porch.  "I'm trying to write a speech.  How can I concentrate with all that hullabaloo?" 
The laughter ceased abruptly.  David bolted for the backyard, following the slimy trail of Duane Barrington the Third and "Whimpering Jim."  Cugot groped around the bank, found the remains of his twisted frames, and wheezed off after them, muttering as he went.
"Did you hear me, son?  I asked you a question."
"Uh, nothing, Pop.  Nothing special."
"Well, it's past time for you to be inside.  Come in and read a book.  Quietly." 
I cast one last glance at the skeleton and shuddered, even as I began to figure out what had actually happened. 
I checked myself out in the mirror when I got in.  It was reassuring to see my hair hadn’t gone snow white like the guy who saw Dracula climbing out of his coffin.

The next day I was the only one that showed up at David's garage.
"I guess that's the end of The Swamp Monster Club," I said after awhile.
"Let's not even talk about it," David replied.  And it was a real long time before we ever did.

Clancy and the Magic Hobo Dust

October 1940

David an’ me wandered down to my backyard.  You’d have thought that after the thing about the swamp monster initiation this would turn out to be an ordinary old day, but oh no.  The two of us were just about never gonna have any of those.  It was getting on to lunch and we were playing pirates back and forth between Ganaway's and my backyards.  David was as good at playing as any kid I'd ever met.  Besides, we couldn't go on our trikes till his brother fixed his.  There were lots of pine trees for sneaking around plus the ones on the ground for walking the plank, so it was right good pirate country.
"Howdy, boys." 
We both about jumped about out of our shirts 'cause we hadn't heard anybody come up.  David and me looked at each other, not knowing what to do.  Neither of us had ever seen him before, and he looked right peculiar.
"My name's Clancy, what's your names?"
"Charlie.  And this here is my friend, David."
"Very nice to make your acquaintance, gentlemen." 
We looked at each other again.  He had a mighty funny way of talking.  And the stuff he was wearing looked all worn out and right dirty in the bargain.  Take his hat for instance.  It was real old and looked like it had been in a dogfight.  His shoes, the elbows in his coat, and even his britches had holes in them, and they looked like they hadn't been cleaned in a month of Sundays.  More than that, he was wearing a coat and a vest, which was yellow and frayed to beat all.   David and me were wearing just regular old shirts, it being the end of September.  On top of that, he had a kind of a pole with a bag tied around it that he had slung over one shoulder.  We kept our eyes peeled sharply on him.
"I don't suppose you gentlemen have had lunch yet?" he asked. 
It was the sort of question you'd never expect to come from a complete stranger.  And just then the noon whistle sounded at the fire hall in Silver Spring, which you could hear plain as day all the way out to Northwood Park. 
"Uh, no, Mr. er, you didn't say your last name yet," I mumbled.
"Sir Richard of the Rails, my boys, but everybody calls me Clancy."
"Why?" David asked.
"Well now, if I tell you my story do you suppose we might share lunch together?  You could ask your mothers to fix an extra helping, and we could all sit right here on the deck of your pirate ship while dining, and I could tell you how I came to be called Clancy.  And tell your mothers I can split some firewood for them.  They'll understand."
Never let it be said that David and me were ones to waste an opportunity to turn an ordinary day into one that wasn't, so we set off to my house to find my mom, while Clancy sat down on one end of our ship.
"Mom, Mom, David an’ me want to ask you about lunch.  Could you fix us an extra one?  We met this man who's wearin' all wore-out clothes and carrying a bundle on a stick.  His name is Clancy an’ he wondered if you could fix an extra lunch for him while he tells us how he came to be called Clancy.  He said he'd split firewood if you want him to, and that you'd understand.  Please, Mom?" 
She looked at us for a moment without saying anything.  Then she smiled.
"You tell Mr. Clancy I shall make him some lunch, and if he will straighten up our wood pile there's a dollar in it for him, and I might just fix some victuals for him to carry along."
"Yea!" we both yelled.  "Let's go tell him, David.  Maybe he'll start on the story while Mom is fixing us our lunch."  We ran back to the ship and found Clancy lying against the fallen tree trunk with a cattail between his teeth, eyes closed, one leg over the other.  He'd taken his scruffed up ol’ shoes off and you should have seen the holes in his socks.  There was more hole than sock left, for certain sure.
"Mr. Clancy, we got it all arranged," I said.  "An’ Mom said if you fix up our wood pile she'll give you a dollar, too, an’ some vitchuals to travel on."  I hadn't the faintest idea what they were, but Clancy must have.
"Well ain’t that nice of your fine mother to do that," he said, pushing the dog-eared fedora back on his head.  The cattail waggled up and down as he talked.  "I've been a bit down on my luck of late.  Haven't really had a meal since yesterday morning.  It will be a real treat dining with you gentlemen on such a fine day as this."  He pulled out his pocket watch and looked at it, which was strange because the face of it was smashed in. 
"It does seem to be story time, my boys, so we best get started while we wait on your mighty nice mother to fix us an elegant meal for our noon-time repast."  He kept on talking funny like that, but we liked him in spite of it.  "Now how, you might ask, did a man named Richard come to be called Clancy?"  We sat down Indian style on either side of him.  "There is a thing or two you have to know about names, my young friends.  Who gave you your names, by the way?"
"My parents," we both said.
"Of course.  Now have your parents ever made a mistake of any kind?  Have they ever been wrong about something?"
"Yeah," we both replied.
"Well, that's my point.  When it comes to names some parents haven't got the gift of giving the right ones.  And their offspring have to go through life saddled with the wrong name.  That's exactly what happened to me.  I was no more the right person to be a Richard than Franklin Roosevelt is.  I mean can you imagine the very idea of calling the President of the United States Richard Delano Roosevelt?"  We couldn't, and shook our heads to let him know.
"When I first fell on hard times and began to ride the side-door Pullman cars, I met up with some mighty interesting folks.  One of them was Tin Pan Turpin."
"What's a side-door Pullman car?" David asked.
"Ah, my boys, your education needs attending to.  The favorite mode of travel for a hobo is riding the rails.  And since we don't have the money to buy a ticket, we avail ourselves of the freight cars, which have side doors, unlike the Pullman cars for the paying passengers."
"Do you sneak on 'em?" I asked.
"Let's say we use the utmost of discretion when traveling.  There's a knack to it.  Would you boys like to ride the rails?  You'd have to miss some school—"
"Uh, I don't think my mom—"
"Just teasing a bit, don't you know.  School is the most important thing for you fellows now.  Get as much education as you can.  That's the ticket." 
Just then my mom gave her special whistle for me to come home, which meant one thing.  Lunch was ready. 
"Be right back, Mr. Clancy." 
And before you could say “Jack Robinson,” we were back with lunch.  Mom had made a great big paper plate of chicken salad sandwiches, and there were dill pickles, potato chips, and cookies, with a coke each.  She absolutely couldn’t of done any better about it.
"Such elegant fare.  You must compliment the chef, my boys." 
Before I even got one of the sandwiches off the plate Clancy had almost finished his first.  I'd never seen a man eat like that.  Mr. Clancy didn't say another word till all the food was gone.
"Don't forget my mom said she was making you up a bag of, uh, vitchuals to travel on," I said. 
"Did she now?  Well how very kind.  What splendid company I have the good grace to have fallen in with."  We didn't know exactly what he meant, but it was obvious he was a deal pleased about things.  "Now.  Where did we leave off?"
"About the names an’ all," David said.
"Ah, quite right, my boy.  You remember me mentioning Tin Pan Turpin?"  We nodded.  "Well, Tin Pan took me under his wing when I first took on the mantle of the hobo.  He taught me a great deal: how to ride the rails, polite pandering, slight of hand, the art of story telling, where to find a handout, and many another of the hobo's arts."  He paused, opened his hands, then reached over and plucked a potato chip right out of David's left ear.  It was amazing.
"How'd ya' do that?" I asked, gaping.
"Tricks of the trade, my boys.  Now the first thing Tin Pan said was that Richard would have to go.  He told me I'd need just the right name for my new, uh, profession.  Said he would think on it and give me a new name as a gift.  And he did.  He said the trick was to start with a formal name and sprinkle some magic hobo dust on it and out would come the perfect traveling name."
"What's magic hobo dust?" David asked.
"Patience, my boy, patience.  You can't rush a man of the rails when he's telling a tale.  Tin Pan closed his eyes and sat for a time, rocking back and forth.  Suddenly he grabbed his walking stick and wrote the name Clarence in the dirt.   Then he sprinkled some dust out of an old handkerchief over it, and erased it with his foot.  He closed his eyes, rocked back and forth some more, and then opened his eyes again.  He said one word: ‘Clancy.’”
"Wow, that's neat.  I wish we had some magic hobo dust," I said.
"You are in luck, my fine friends.  Just before Tin Pan left for California, he shared some of his with me and taught me exactly how he used it to pick just the right traveling name for any person I chanced to meet who needed one."
"Mr. Clancy, could you pick hobo dust names for David an’ me?" I asked eagerly.
"I most assuredly could.  And being such fine fellows I would be happy to."  With that he reached back into a pocket and took out the dirty handkerchief again, which we guessed contained magic hobo dust.  "Now who wants to go first?" 
We both hesitated.  "I will," David finally said.
"Good.  Let's walk over to that patch of ground," he pointed to the path between our backyard and the Ganaway's, "and we'll get started."  David an’V BrownPage 212/6/15 me skipped over; Clancy walked, smiling the whole way.  He smoothed out a patch that was worn flat by so many people walking over it.  "Let's sit in a circle, Indian style, and close our eyes.  I will sprinkle some of this on the ground, calm my mind, and the Hobo Guide will inform me of the first name." 
We shut our eyes.  Birds were twittering, and somewhere up Pinewood a dog was barking in a half-baked way.  A lawnmower clattered, probably up on Timberwood, the street David lived on.  The sun's warm rays slanted through the trees and a few puffy clouds seemed to perch here and there, making it just a perfect day to get our new hobo dust names.
"The Great Gildersleeve has been given to me," Clancy said after about a minute.  He wrote that in the sand.  "Now close your eyes again and the Master Hobo Guide will tell me what to make of that," he said, sprinkling some magic dust from the dirty handkerchief and then erasing the name. 
David was off to an interesting start 'cause we both listened to The Great Gildersleeve on the radio every week.
"Ah, thank you, oh Master Hobo Guide," Clancy intoned, as he wrote a name in the dust.  "Now open your eyes."  We looked down and there it was, David's new name:  "Sleeve." 
"That's the best name I ever heard," I said, looking at my friend.  "Sleeve!  You're Sleeve now."  Sleeve just nodded seriously.  It just suited him perfect.  "Me next," I said, looking excitedly at Clancy.
Erasing Sleeve from the dust he told us to close our eyes again as he sprinkled more hobo dust from his handkerchief.  We sat silent for a long time, the birds still twittered, some bees droned nearby, and that no-account dog went on barking now and again.  The summer sun beat down on us, but my heart was thumping to beat all.
"I am hearing Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy."  I held my breath.  Peeping open my eyes I saw he had written something in the dust.  A'course Sleeve an’ me always listened to Edgar Bergan and Charlie McCarthy every week, too. 
"Speak to me again, oh Master Hobo Guide," he said, his voice real deep.  More moments passed.  "Now open your eyes."
Mac.  My heart sank.  It didn't feel right, and I knew it the first second.  It wasn't near as good as Sleeve.  David didn't say anything, just looked at me.  I jumped up quick so's they couldn't see I'd got some hobo dust in my eyes, and they'd gone to watering.  "I'll just go see if Mom has any more cookies for us," I called over my shoulder as I ran through our backyard. 
But I went into the basement instead and sat down, my back against the cool, whitewashed cinderblock.  Tears squeezed through my eyelids even though they were tight shut.  Even Sleeve’s dog had a better name than I did!  Later I could hear Mom talking to Clancy about the woodpile and the meal she'd fixed for him to take.  I just couldn't let him see how bad I felt at getting a hobo dust name that wasn't right for me. 
I never saw Clancy again.  Mom came down to the basement to ask what was wrong, but I didn't tell her.  She never would of understood.  I was stuck with Charlie, which I'd never particularly liked.  David, which was a perfectly good name to begin with, got an even better name.  It wasn't fair, I thought bitterly.   Why hadn't I asked Clancy for some magic hobo dust so I could try it on my own? 
Hot tears of despair dripped onto my shirt as I thought about spending the rest of my life as Charlie while David got to be Sleeve.

"Hey, Sleeve," I called to him next morning.  "Wanna' play a game of guns?"  We never spoke about Clancy again, ever.  But from then on David was Sleeve.
 I always wondered if he knew how lucky he'd been to go first.

Reflections on the Beginnings
 My mother taught me to exaggerate.  It all started when I was in the womb, and she told my pop that she was carrying triplets at the very least.  She could see an ant crawling across the living room carpet, and by noon the floor was sagging because the beams had been hollowed out by a colony of termites the size of small birds.
She could really tell a tale, and folks usually coaxed her into it.  She also served the best ice tea in Christendom.  On a hot summer day, the mothers would gather around to hear whatever tale my mom was telling—almost a one act play—all the while drinking her ice tea, made with orange juice, fresh-picked mint, lemon, sugar, and I don’t know what all else.  And I sat at her feet on no few occasions while she would entertain the neighbor ladies. 
When I was born she inoculated me with a Victrola needle, at least that’s what she always said, and I haven’t shut up since.  It wasn’t really true; nobody could get a word in edge-wise around Betty Brown.  Okay, so I exaggerate a little.  Later in life, about the sixth grade I think, I became a fiction writer.  Okay, so a little exaggeration seeps out when I go to “memoirizing.”  I’ll point out those places as best I can.  It has been six decades since Sleeve an’ me shared all these great adventures.  So I’ve had to add a little mortar to the bricks, you see.
Take the Swamp Monster Club for instance.  I remember vividly the moment Sleeve pointed the monster out to me.  And we did form a club, which was very short lived.  I am a bit vague on how the big boys spooked us during our initiation night, but they spooked us really good, and that’s what matters.
God bless you, Clancy, for giving me my first opportunity to cope with despair.  And my first lesson in being generous to those in need. 
David, I have envied you your nickname all my life.  The world just wasn’t ready for another “Mac,” but it sure welcomed its first “Sleeve.”  We did meet by crashing our trikes together—that happy accident lives vividly on the back roads of my memory. 
Like Master Charlie said to his mom that evening at dinner, “Even though we busted our trikes and got a skinned knee out of it, it couldn’t of been a better day!”