Category Archives: Fire This Time

Nuggets from a Mystery Reading Binge

Here are three  great snippets from Rain Dogs,the latest mystery by Adrian McKinty I just read, a terrific tale set in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles.” It’s Book #5 in a series I started just a week ago, and have binge read in seven days. Like I said in a blurb: Catholic & Protestant, war & peace: their yesterday (and our tomorrow?) —a fine writer spins compelling crime fiction from Northern Ireland’s time of “The Troubles.”

Yeah, they’re that good.

#1- Theology, in a Hibernian Nutshell Two northern Irish cops, Sean & McCrabbin, aka “Crabbie,” are on the way back to the station:

Heavy rain. Floods on the top road. Slow movement from the Seventh on the radio. 

“What’s it all about, Crabbie?” 

He stared at me with alarm. “What? Life, you mean?” 

“Aye.” 

“Endeavour to discover the will of God,” he said firmly. 

“And if there is no God?” 

“If there is no God, well, I don’t know, Sean. I just don’t know.” 

I looked at him. As stolid a Ballymena Presbyterian as you could ask for. He’d do the right thing even if you could prove to him that there was no yGod. While the rest of us gave in to the inevitable, he’d be the last good peeler attempting to impose a little bit of local order in a universe of chaos. 

Rain. Wind. The afternoon withering like a piece of fruit in an Ulster pantry. . . .”

 – – – – 

#2- Tickling the Ivories

Sean the cop visits his friend Patrick’s piano store, where he frequently browses, but never buys. This time he asks to see a smoke-damaged privately-discounted model:

Patrick eyed me suspiciously. “Are you sure this isn’t some sort of police investigation?” 

“I’m hurt, Patrick. Seriously. I thought we were friends.” 

“I’m sorry, Sean . . . of course you wouldn’t . . . look, come over here, out the back.” He took me to a storage room out the back and set me down in front of a gorgeous pre-war Bechstein. 

“Go on, then,” Patrick said. 

I played Liszt’s “La Campanella” and, just to annoy myself, Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G Minor.” 

The piano had a beautiful tone and wasn’t damaged in the least. When I played the last bar of the “Prelude,” Patrick thought I was money in the bank. 

“You play very well, you know,” he said. 

“I’m rusty.” 

“No, Sean, you’re really good.” . . .

I looked at my watch. It was 11:45. 

“Well? Will I put it aside for you?” Pat asked. 

“Nah, I’ll have to think about it, mate,” I said. 

“I knew it!” Patrick groaned again. “I fall for it every bloody time.” 

I walked to the door. “Hey, Pat, why could Beethoven never find his music teacher?” 

“Why?” 

“Because he was Haydn.” 

“Get out of my shop!”

– – – – – 

#3- The Big Belly Laugh:

Beth, Sean’s ex-girlfriend comes back. She’s pregnant; his. She wants him to take her to an abortion clinic in Liverpool. Sean’s a (bad) Catholic who hates the idea, but he takes her anyway.  When she gets in his car:

She lit a cigarette. Camel. Unfiltered. Should you be smoking that? You know, what with you up the spout and everything, — that is a line I don’t use. This time tomorrow, it won’t make any difference. 

“Got one for you, Duffy,” she says.

“OK.” 

“Why do anarchists only drink herbal tea?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“Because all proper tea is theft.” 

“You should put your seat belt on.”

[TEASER: Does she go through with it? Do they have a future? Read the series.]


McKinty labored in productive but penurious obscurity for years, turning out novels that won numerous awards, while he scuffled at everything from Uber driving to teaching and went broke. Just this year he was “discovered” and hit the big-time. I hope he makes a bundle and keeps on turning out more new un-put-downable books.
And I also like his attitude, summed up here, From “”Why I Write,”  a post in his blog:

” .  . . Writers write. Writers sit down at the typewriter, legal pad or computer and they write. All the writers who are popular and successful see writing as a no nonsense job and they just bloody get on with it. I like these people and I like this school of thought. I’ve met a lot of these writers and they are cool.

But this is not my way.


I see things differently.


For me writing is nothing to do with deadlines and word counts and getting the job done. For me a writer is a shaman. A holy man. A holy woman. A witch. A writer has been given a staff made from meteor iron and with that stick she scratches a message into clay tablets and the tablets are baked and they are put in a library and the river moves and the city fails and the library’s pillars fall and the clay tablets lie buried in the sand for four thousand years until someone finds them and reads them and understands. You are telling them a story about life and death and the meaning of life. You are talking to them across the centuries.

. . . Look, look at this! The writer says. I am gone. We are gone. But we were here and we saw and we loved and laughed and we dreamed. We saw beauty and we experienced pain. And we were given a task by the ones who died next to us in the lifeboat: tell them about us.  

Yeah, I know, I just write hack crime novels who am I to talk? But that’s the whole point isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what you write about, it’s your attitude. Your words could be smuggled on toilet paper out of prison to one old friend or they could be texted to a million followers as you ride the subway car. It’s what you think about the words that counts. An audience of one is still an audience.


So I don’t see writing as just another job. I don’t write to fill my word count. I am on a sacred fucking mission. I’m waiting for the goddess. Because I believe in the goddess. I believe in ghosts. The ghosts of the ones who went before and the ones who have not yet come. And I will witness against the beast. And I will defy the darkness and I will tell our story.“

 

 

 

 

Wanna Call John Dingell? Don’t Ring Through Hell

One day in 1980, I was at my desk on an upper floor of a  way-past-its-prime hotel that had become a staff office annex for the U. S. House of Representatives.

The onetime hotel that had been turned into the House Annex where I worked in 1980.

My boss — Congressman Pete McCloskey of California, wanted some information about an obscure part of a not-so-well-known energy bill: say, Section 227D of the 1979 Energy Act Amendments, something like that, and the request had been bounced down the office status ladder to me.

I knew nothing about the Energy Act or the amendments, and Google hadn’t been invented yet.

But I knew who did know: Rep. John Dingell, of Michigan; or someone in his office. I think maybe Dingell even wrote the amendments. So I picked up the phone and dialed his office number.

By 1980, Dingell had been in Congress for 25 years; he would stay in Congress for almost 35 more.

John Dingell is sworn in as a Congressman by the legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn, in 1955. (But Rayburn served a mere 48 years.)

Dingell was a tough, tenacious Democrat, who was already high up in the House hierarchy. That meant he had lots of staff assistants like me, only likely better-informed, with more political hustle, who could set me straight, if they bothered to take the call from a Republican nobody. (My boss, McCloskey was a Republican, and this was the time when Ronald Reagan was eating Jimmy Carter’s lunch.)

The phone rang once, maybe twice, then was scooped up with a pre-cellphone rattle that meant the receiver was grabbed with alacrity, not reluctance.

“John Dingell.” said a voice.

What?? Err, uh, I, uh–”

If I was a coffee drinker, this was a java-spewing-from-my-nostrils moment. It wasn’t a receptionist. Nor an intern. Not even the assistant chief of staff.

The Boss. Himself.

When I recovered, I identified myself and my office and stumbled through my query.

“Sure,” Dingell said, and then reeled off the answer, clearly and concisely, as if I was calling from the White House, or maybe the New York Times (or the Detroit Free Press?)

I scribbled a couple of notes, and asked for clarification of one point, which he patiently offered. I thanked him, he said I was welcome and then it was done.

The call only lasted about three minutes. It took me awhile longer to recover my balance. Thirty-nine years later, I still have questions.

Why was Dingell picking up cold calls to his office phone? And why was he taking time to answer a rookie question from a minor league staffer from across the aisle?

And how, with hundreds of bills and laws and amendments streaming across his desk, day after day, week after week, was he up to the minute even on Section 227D?

(Would he have known Section 227C as well?? Probably.)

After much pondering, I’ve come to a simple answer: Dingell was a mensch, and a natural. He also didn’t have an inflated view of himself; he could, and did, speak to me as one colleague to another, from out of the blue.

It’s no wonder he was re-elected to Congress more times than anyone else in that body’s history.

Rep. Paul “Pete ” McCloskey. A war hero, but an anti-Vietnam war campaigner, and a fine public servant. But his is another story.

Now my boss, McCloskey was a fine guy. But if there’s a special gallery in heaven reserved for the best of Congress, I bet John Dingell has a seat in it.

I know that’s an iffy notion; Mark Twain concluded long ago that “There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress,” and we have recently heard much corroboration for that view, especially from one side of the aisle.

For that matter, my boss McCloskey argued, even before he left Washington three years later, that “Congressmen are like diapers. You need to change them often, and for the same reason.”

Your humble blogger, in a sketch from around this time, with daughters Molly (left) and Annika (right)

But still; I say IF.

I gather that some fatuous pretender recently spoke of John Dingell as being in hell.

It only took me about two minutes to learn, but I’m pretty sure I know otherwise.

More like vice versa.

Quaker House: Domestic Military Murders and the War at Home

When I arrived at Quaker House at the beginning of 2002, work on domestic violence was not in my job description. There was already plenty else to keep a one-person staff busy: troops from Fort Bragg were already fighting in Afghanistan, and plans for invading Iraq were clearly taking shape. Besides, I had no experience in that area.

But events didn’t care about that. Two weeks after moving in, I opened the Fayetteville Observer on the morning of Monday, January 14, 2002, to this headline:

   Victim Stabbed Outside Eatery

   A Fayetteville woman died Sunday afternoon after being stabbed by her estranged husband in front of the Mi Casita restaurant on Raeford Road, police said.

Shalamar Franceschi died at the scene, Fayetteville police said. She was 24.

Officials said her throat was cut and she was stabbed multiple times.

   A warrant has been issued charging her estranged husband, Damian Colon Franceschi, 26, with first-degree murder. Authorities were looking for Damian Franceschi on Sunday night. He is considered armed and dangerous . . . .

Continue reading Quaker House: Domestic Military Murders and the War at Home

Hiroshima, El Paso, Dayton & Us

Ross Douthat, a very conservative Catholic, is persistently the most interesting of The NY Times’s stable of right wing columnists.
For me that’s because he frequently articulates perspectives that resonate to my experience, even if most of his desired remedies sound predictably retrograde.

Ross Douthat

Take, for instance, this reflection from August 6, 2019 on the recent carnage in El Paso & Dayton:

“I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that.

But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse.
The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.”

Thus far, I’m with him (& by extension, New Ager Williamson):
Continue reading Hiroshima, El Paso, Dayton & Us

“White Lies,” Selma, Two Murders, & A Cameo

One sunny day in April last year, I woke up in Selma Alabama, prepared to go to jail.

It was just for a friendly visit, though, with two new acquaintances: Andy Grace and Chip Brantley. I met up with them first, for a generous southern breakfast at Mr. Waffle, on Highland Avenue, with my pants cinched up tight: It’s The Law.

Mr Waffle, keeping up standards.

Andy and Chip teach journalism at the University of Alabama. They were working on a big podcast project about Selma intended for NPR. It’s about two civil rights murders there, and is now online, at their website, as “White Lies.”

In their research they found my books on Selma, and tracked me down, about an interview. Turns out, I was planning to visit Alabama before long, to be on a panel in Montgomery marking the 50th anniversary of Dr, King’s murder.

As a certified living fossil on the shelf of artifacts from a genuine piece of “history,”  I’ve done a few such events. So I offered to make a side trip to Selma, and give them my personal guided tour with the interview.

The Reeb Memorial, on the corner where the Silver Moon Cafe stood, outside which he and two other ministers were attacked. The others survived.

That starts with the Selma jail. On the way we passed the compact corner memorial to James Reeb, a Boston Unitarian minister, who was attacked with two others in the heat of the movement, and died of a fractured skull the next day. Three men were tried for his murder, acquitted by an all-white jury; all are now dead.

But there was talk of a fourth man there, who evaded prosecution, and could be still alive. Chip and Andy were still in search of him.

Wilson Baker.

I had no leads about that, so we moved on to the jail. It’s still where it was, though in 1965 it was part of City Hall. That’s moved, and the Police now have the whole building. High on the wall of the downstairs hallway is a photo of Wilson Baker, who arrested me. Later he became Sheriff, and word is he was a good one. Up on the second floor, the small cellblock remains.

Those yellow bars even now look solid enough to withstand the collapse of the whole block. Which may not be far off, the collapse that is; most of the buildings close by look empty, boarded up or just abandoned.

As a landmark of black liberation, I told Andy and Chip, Selma fifty-plus years later is a hot mess. The poverty rate is as high as it was then. More than a dozen payday loan shops, their vampiric essence camouflaged by bright colors, crouched along Broad and Highland, the two main business streets. The house where I rented a room in ‘65, a solid Black middle class dwelling then, stands empty, literally falling down, like so many others on that, the “historic” side of town. If there’s any money in that history, it looks like payday usury vacuumed it all up.

The Boynton House, where I lived in 1965, empty in 2015. The museum project fizzled, and by 2018 the house was in even more dilapidated condition.

History is still plentiful in Selma, if ramshackle, but there’s only one spot of beauty I remember, and I discovered that late: less than a mile west of the Pettus Bridge stands the Live Oak Cemetery, often called the New Live Oak, though it goes back to the 1820s.

Old live oaks, in New Live Oak.

The big moss-draped trees, the greyed, crumbling, mostly Confederate headstones and slabs, the multi-colored lichen splotches on almost everything, all are classic, archetypal, undead Old South: Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, only in color.

The grave of General Edmund Pettus. After the Civil War, he was later elected a U.S, Senator, and reputedly once was head of the Alabama KKK.

New Live Oak has recently been made newer by construction of an elaborate memorial in honor of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

This is the work of a local Neo-confederate group, which won a long, acrimonious court fight with the Black-controlled city administration for control of an acre of land there.

Neo-Confederate activists Todd Kiscaden, left and Pat Godwin, being interviewed, March 2015. Godwin was the spearhead of the Nathan Bedford Forest memorial in the New Live Oak Cemetery.

Forrest had only a brief connection to Selma: he attempted to defend the city from surging Union forces shortly before Lee’s surrender in April 1865.

Even so, for true Neo-Confederates, Forrest is an immortal, an icon: a brilliant tactician, a relentless, fearsome  fighter (biographers say he personally killed thirty Union soldiers in hand to hand combat) and a founder (and first Grand Wizard) of the original Ku Klux Klan.

The new Forrest monument, looking toward the Pettus bridge.

There could hardly be a visage more discordant – or revealing — than that of Forrest, glowering east over General Pettus’s grave and toward the eponymous bridge which the courage of local blacks, and tagalongs like me, turned into a civil rights landmark. The local devotees of Forrest’s flock have struck back with billboards, and more solidly, with this shrine.

Radio guys Andy Grace (left, with hair) and Chip Brantley (right, with headphones), getting familiar with the Forrest monument at New Live Oak.

But I can turn my back on Forrest; then it’s no wonder I linger there. Andy and Chip did too; pictures of them at New Live Oak are on NPR’s publicity webpage for “White Lies.”

From there we headed for another burial ground, about 25 miles northwest near Marion.

The Heard Cemetery, near Marion, Alabama. Jimmie Lee Jackson’s marker is next to the red wreath.

This one, the Heard Cemetery, lacked the allure of Live Oak: no venerable trees, only secondary growth; no stone wall, no fence, no sign; it lay exposed, within gunshot range but easy to miss, along Alabama Highway 14. It was much smaller, with only a scattering of markers, and a single sizable headstone.

Jimmie Lee’s headstone. The orange spots and notch at the top are among the bullet damage. There are several more, visible from closer up.

That marker was our goal; and despite lacking the amenities of the genteel Dixie death cult, the Heard graveyard enclosed what Chip and Andy most wanted to visit, the resting place of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Here I knew a little something. I had been part of the funeral cortege which carried his coffin here from the church in town, behind his family and Dr. King, through the rain.

I knew about how his killer also got away with killing another young black man a year later, then walked free for more than four decades. And how Jackson’s family finally caught a brief glimpse of justice; heard a rumor of it, topped a thin, crumbled slice of it with the curdled margarine of old grief.

Jimmie Lee Jackson, left. His killer, James Fowler, right.

I had also visited the cemetery a year or two earlier, and could point out the dozen or so places where the granite had been nicked and gouged by bullets. It still stands, but within gunshot range is not hyperbole. (An earlier blog post on the shooting of Jackson is here.)

From there we soon wrapped up the interview, and I headed off to Montgomery.

I admit I soon mostly forgot about the project; several such interviews have wound up on disks or as transcripts on some obscure library shelf, waiting to enlighten, or bore, a stray grad student or two. Other such relics have been of use to me, though, and I do not despise them.

But now, more than a year later, the podcast is done and out. And amid all the recorded palaver, I turn up for a cameo in Episode Five, describing — well, that’s enough of a spoiler. They uncovered history I knew nothing about in solving their cold case; let them tell you that part of the story. . . .

An abandoned house, one of many, near the Brown Chapel AME Church, which was the gathering place for the Selma voting rights movement.
A collage of bumperstickers from a van belonging to one of the Neo-Confederate activists.

 

 

An Active Shooter in Friends Meeting. Now what?

If you blog about Quakers long enough, you get asked a lot of questions — including some surprises.

An emergency instruction folder kept in a slot on the back of dorm room doors at a midwestern college, where a Quaker conference gathered a few years ago. The document seemed very out of place in the quiet, bucolic setting of the school. But then, similar Quaker conferences had been held successfully at Virginia Tech, also in a “quiet rural village.” Then in April 2007 a shooter killed 32 Virginia Tech students and staff and wounded 17 more.

Like the one that came in a few days ago, from the Clerk of a meeting located east of the Mississippi. The Clerk wrote that in an after-meeting discussion, a Friend asked what the Meeting would do if an active shooter appeared there. Did I have any ideas?

Ideas? No.

Paranoia? Plenty.

Five days a week, my grandson who lives nearby walks down the street to the school bus. Our town has homicides, too many. But mass shootings? Not in my six-plus years here.

Not yet, deo gratias.

(They could say something like that in Virginia Beach, Virginia, until last week.)

So I’m no expert on this subject, and hope never to become one. But such is the sick society we live in, that any of us could become a personal “expert” in it, or a victim, any day. So after pondering the inquiry, I figured I’d do what I could.

I couldn’t find any information about the artist.

The Clerk did have one idea. He vaguely remembered a painting seen in childhood, of a meetinghouse in the woods, in colonial times, filled with plain dress Quakers, sitting quietly as a group of armed Indians came through the door.

Supposedly there was a story that went with it, that the Indians had meant to slaughter whites, and had done so in other similar places. But the warriors were so moved by their pious placidity, and disarmingly Friendly demeanor, that they dropped their murderous plans and let them be.

Was there anything to that? Could this be an example of Quaker “Active shooter training”? Continue reading An Active Shooter in Friends Meeting. Now what?

Harriet Tubman: Beyond the Underground Railroad

This Memorial Day, I’m setting aside my Quaker pacifism (briefly), to remember one of the most unique and valiant war veterans I know of.

Yeah, I’m talking about U.S. Army veteran Harriet Tubman.

Besides all her amazing exploits in the antebellum Underground Railroad (working very frequently with purportedly nonviolent Quakers), Tubman was no pacifist. And when the war broke out, she was eager to help the Union forces win it. After working with wounded soldiers, she also served as a scout and a spy behind enemy lines.

But she got her big chance after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863.

Continue reading Harriet Tubman: Beyond the Underground Railroad

Religious Liberty? Or Dogmatic Transphobia?

May 24 was (Authentic) Religious Liberty Day (at least it was here), but the Administration has some strange ideas about how to mark it. Like: turn it upside down & inside out.

Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, HHS.

That day it released  a proposed federal rule that would deny transgender persons many of the medical benefits and legal protections they gained in the Obama years. The proposal is one more chapter in the continuing drive to roll back just about everything the previous administration achieved or initiated. (Full text of the proposed rule is here. )

As the New York Times put it , the new rule Continue reading Religious Liberty? Or Dogmatic Transphobia?

Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update

In 1988 I wrote a substantial essay laying out my views about abortion, and describing how they had evolved over time. The piece also considered the increasing parallels, both rhetorical and political,  between this struggle and the Civil War.

Thirty-plus years later, despite some continuing evolution and updates, much of the piece still seems relevant, not least the potential for civil  strife.

(Author’s note from 1998 reprint: Many of the policy issues described in this essay still seem timely more than a decade later. Further, the personal journey it describes was an important part of my life, one not to be denied or concealed. It is also necessary background to the civil war scenarios that will also surface. . . . A much shortened version of the piece was published in The New Republic.)

INTRODUCTION: My Abortion Pilgrimage

Continue reading Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update

Emily Dickinson: An Epitaph for Today

305

The difference between Despair
And Fear – Is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck
And when the Wreck has been –

The Mind is smooth – no Motion
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust –
That knows – it cannot see-

Biographers note that Emily Dickinson, who died on this date in 1886, was most productive in the first half of the 1860s. Secluded within the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts (except when tending the flower garden), she turned out hundreds of poems, mostly short, striking, often astonishing — but unnoticed by the outside world; her fame came after her death, which was likely okay with her. Continue reading Emily Dickinson: An Epitaph for Today