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The Invasion

This is another story from the Short Fiction class that I took in the spring of 2012. It was a very short, short story assignment.

The Voyage

Corporal Jack Scott had been on the ship for nearly three days. Journeying across the North Pacific by sea wasn’t something he had ever expected to be doing. Just the thought of a listing sea ship made him wish he hadn’t taken last night’s supper. It’s one reason that he hadn’t joined the Navy. He wouldn’t have joined anything had he known about the war. It wasn’t the war that he had been sent to fight, but the one that came upon him–upon everyone–that left him so far from home.

Before the invasion, it took roughly twelve hours to travel from the Middle East to North America. After the invaders halted all air-travel, it seemed like no amount of time would ever bring him back home.

Communication had also broken down. While many local telephone systems still worked. All satellite communication had ceased and it seemed nearly impossible to get a message across the ocean.

Scott stayed with his unit for the first year. It still seemed possible that the government might come to some kind of accord with the enemy, but the enemy never even spoke to them. The humans were largely ignored by the invaders, when they weren’t being hunted and killed for getting in the way.

It was only when home seemed farther away than wherever these invaders came from that he had decided to leave. He spoke to his commander about making his way home and they decided to call it a communications mission. He convinced two of his army comrades to come with him and they started driving east. It took him nearly a year to reach Hong Kong and both of his friends were dead. He traded the vehicle that they had commandeered–his last item of any real value–for passage on this ship.

In just over two weeks, Scott would be back on United States soil, in San Francisco. There were rumors that the United States wasn’t as united as it once was, with at least seven independent nations replacing what was once the world’s only super-power. It might take him another year to get back home to Oklahoma, but he would get there. Whether or not there would be anything left of home once he arrived, thoughts of that would have to wait.

Harris Burdick

This comes from a Children’s Literature class. The assignment was to write a piece inspired by The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg.

From The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

“Archie Smith, Boy Wonder”

Archie had spent all afternoon playing baseball with his friends. He arrived home just minutes before his mother.

“Did you have a good day at school?” his mother asked.

“It was okay,” said Archie. “Mom, can I go play baseball tonight.”

“Do you have any homework? Your teacher said you’re starting to fall behind.”

“It’s okay, I did it this afternoon.” replied Archie. “Please mom, everyone’ll be there.”

After supper, Archie’s sister cornered him in the garage while he was getting his bicycle.

“You little liar,” she said. “I heard you tell mom you did your homework this afternoon. She’s going to pitch a fit when she finds out you’re failing.”

“I’m not failing,” said Archie. “And I’ll have my homework done. Just mind your own business. And you better not tell, or I’ll tell mom about the smokes you keep in your bottom drawer.”

“I’m not going to tell,” said his sister. “I don’t need to. Everyone knows that fairies come and kidnap little boys who lie to their mom.”

“No they don’t. That’s stupid.”

“Ask Mom or Dad if you don’t believe me.” His sister had him there, he knew he couldn’t ask his parents about lying or they’d know he’d been lying.

“Just leave me alone,” said Archie. “I’ll do my homework.” And with that, Archie hopped on his bicycle and rode off to the corner baseball field.

That night, Archie lay sleeping in bed. A group of small lights gathered outside his window. Then two of them floated in.

A tiny voice asked, “Is he the one?”

“That’s him,” a second voice replied. “Archie Smith, Boy Wonder. That’s what they call him. He hits that baseball like no one else. It’s a shame, really, that we get to take him.”

“What’s he done?” the first voice asked.

“Lying to his mother and not doing his homework. Multiple offenses.”

Suddenly an alarm went off. Archie flew out of bed, and the lights sped out the window.

“What’s he doing?” It was the first tiny voice.

“It looks like he’s doing his homework. Sneaky little kid went to bed to fool his mother. Then set the alarm so he could get up and do his homework.”

“But we still get to take him, right?”

“I’m afraid not, he’s doing his homework now, and sneakiness isn’t against the rules.”

“That’s too bad, we’ll probably have to come back tomorrow to get him anyway.”

“Maybe, but it’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Right now let’s get going. The girl down the hall has been lying to her mother and smoking. Multiple offenses.”

Fairy Tale Retold

Written in December of 2012. The assignment was to write a 500 word story inspired by a fairy tale.

Not Always a Happy Ending

Once upon a time I was on a bus from San Antonio, Texas to Key West, Florida. I had just been discharged from the Army after serving a year overseas in Afghanistan. I tried to tell them I grew up in Key West, and that they should buy me a plane ticket home for my discharge. Tough luck, they said. You signed up in San Antonio; that’s where we’re leaving you.

Sitting next to me on the bus was a tired looking old woman. We talked a bit while we were riding. When we got to Key West, I offered to carry her bags the three blocks to her home.

“Take these,” she said, and handed me a box of matches.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Those are my lucky matches,” the old woman replied. “They’ve always brought me fortune.”

I took my leave of the aged woman, and headed to the tiny house that my father had left. The power was turned off, so I fumbled around in the dark until I found an old candle. Those matches might just be lucky after all, I thought to myself as I opened up the box and fished one out. I struck the match on the side of the box and lit the candle.

That’s when I heard movement from across the room. I looked up and saw a dog standing there. It stared at me with its huge eyes; eyes the size of teacups.

“What is your wish, master?” the dog asked. What the hell? A talking dog? When did I start dreaming?

I really didn’t know what to do, but seeing as I was a little hungry, I said, “How about a sandwich?” The dog ran out of the room and returned carrying a bag with a sandwich inside. I couldn’t believe it; I had my own wish-granting dog. But as soon as the dog had dropped the bag, it turned around and left. I looked back down into the box and counted the rest of the matches. Three. Only three left.

I lit another match, and asked the dog for money; a million dollars. That should keep me going for a while. I lit another match, and asked the dog to bring me my high-school sweetheart. She had dumped me after I graduated for some guy who went to the University of Miami. A moment later, she was being dragged in, screaming and bloody from the dog’s teeth. I didn’t anticipate that the dog would bite her. She ran from the house and before I knew it, the police were busting down the door and accusing me of kidnapping.

While I was talking with the police, I asked if I could smoke. I struck the last match on the side of the box and the dog returned.

“What is your wish, master?” the dog asked once more.

“I wish I’d never met that old lady.”

Then I was standing in the dark, once again. Tired, hungry, and without even a match to light a candle.

The Coyote

This is another exercise from Writers as Readers, written in November 2012.

Canis Latrans

Danny had been wandering the woods for days. Tired and starving, he had almost given up hope. Then he saw it. A chicken coop. There must be a farmhouse around here somewhere, but Danny couldn’t see it. Surely the farmer wouldn’t begrudge him a few eggs to stave off his hunger. Danny was starving after all. He approached the small rectangular building and reached inside. Just as he was about to check for eggs, he heard a voice off in the distance.

“Hey you, get out of there,” the voice said. Danny jumped around to see a man off in the distance.

“Please Mister, I haven’t eaten in days.”

“I don’t want to hear it,” the man said. “Get out of here now.” That was when Danny noticed the gun. The old farmer had a rifle trained on him. As hungry as Danny was, he wasn’t ready to be shot over a couple of eggs, so he slowly retreated into the woods.

He walked as far away as he could while still being able to see the chicken coop, and watched the old man collect the eggs. He wanted to spend the night there, wait for the chickens to lay more eggs, and collect them before the farmer showed up the next morning. There were two problems with that plan; first, he’d have to sit here for a whole day thinking about eating hard cooked eggs; second, it was obvious the farmer wasn’t willing to give him the eggs, and Danny wasn’t sure he was ready to steal them.

Then, the impossible happened. No sooner than the farmer had walked out of sight, a wolf started to approach the chicken coop. No, Danny thought, not a wolf, it must be a coyote. The coyote crawled into the coop and the chickens started squawking up a storm. He was sure the farmer would be back to shoot the wild dog, but he was nowhere to be seen. A moment later, the coyote darted out of the small structure and started running straight toward Danny.

He froze; he didn’t know what to do. There was a coyote running straight for him with a chicken in his mouth. Coyote, Danny thought, canis latrans, carrying a chicken, gallus domesticus. Why, he wondered, was he thinking in Latin? The whole situation seemed absurd. The coyote approached and Danny let out a yell. The coyote looked up at Danny, dropped the chicken and ran back in the other direction.

Danny looked at the chicken, and pictured it sitting on a spit over a fire. It was probably worse to steal a whole chicken than it would have been to steal a few eggs. But he wasn’t actually stealing from the farmer. The chicken, he thought, most recently belonged to the coyote. Danny picked up the bird by its feet, and then continued his retreat from the lonely chicken coop.

Dialogue

This was an exercise in dialogue for a class called Writers as Readers, from September 2012.

The Unpaid Bill

“Hello, Jane,” the man said.

It always unnerved her when a stranger called her by name. A side effect of wearing a nametag. She thought that she would get used to it eventually, but she never did.

“What’ll it be?” she asked.

“What do you have?” the man replied.

“There’s a full menu, and even if you can’t find something there, Charlie in the back can fix you almost anything.”

“Oh, no need to bother Charlie.” The man looked around briefly. “I’ll take a slice of that pie there, and a cup of coffee.”

“Here you go,” the waitress said, as she filled a cup of coffee for the man.

“Thank you kindly, ma’am.”

“You know, I thought I was down on my luck,” the waitress said. “But you look like you just escaped from prison. Shirt one size too big, and those pants make you look ready for the oncoming flood.”

“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” the man said. “I did just escape from prison. What do you think about that?”

“You’re pullin’ my leg,” the waitress said. “There’s only one prison within fifty miles of here, and that’s the federal lock-up. No one escapes from there.” the waitress said confidently.

“Well, there’s a first time for everything,” the man replied. “And I’ve already gotten a change of clothes. Maybe I’ve been traveling for days.”

“So I should do my civic duty and call the police on you right now,” she said, mostly in jest. “Or are you plannin’ on keepin’ me quiet somehow?”

The waitress suddenly didn’t like the way this conversation was going.

“Nah, I ain’t gonna do nothin’ to keep you quiet,” the man replied. “I’m sure Charlie in the back wouldn’t let anything happen to you anyway. Not that I’m that kind of a convict. But I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to pay you for the pie. Here’s two dollars that I found in the jeans. All I have at the moment. Have to catch you later for the rest.”

The man got up from the table and walked toward the door.

“Wait!” the waitress said. “You can’t just leave without paying.”

The man opened the door. The waitress heard sirens growing louder in the distance.

“Looks like I’ve got to be going,” the man said, as he walked toward a beat up Chevrolet.

“Okay,” the waitress said.

She looked in awe as the man crossed the parking lot.

“I guess you’ll catch me later.”

The Wilderness Family

I have sometimes called this my boring wilderness family story, but others have said it is not so boring. I wrote it for a Short Fiction class that I took in the spring of 2012.

The Hike

I’d been in the wilderness going on three days when I first met them. They were a family of four coming down the trail looking bedraggled as could be.

“We saw your fire,” the man said. “You don’t happen to have a phone we could use? One of our canoes tipped earlier, and we lost most of our gear.”

“Afraid not,” I replied. “I feel like it’s a distraction, and besides, the reception is spotty at best.”

“But you must know which way we need to go to get out of here.” he stated more than asked.

“Well, there’s a major campground a good day’s hike that way,” I said as I pointed. “You’ll be able to find help there. Lost your GPS too?” I asked.

“Damn thing’s probably at the bottom of the lake.”

I looked again at his family. Wife, two kids under ten, one boy and one girl. They looked like a model American family.

“We went camping to get away from it all,” the man said. “Then we end up lost, tired and hungry.”

“It’s a bit late to start hiking now,” I said. “Why don’t you camp here tonight? I’ve got a little food, and I’ll walk you out in the morning.”

“I guess that’ll have to do,” he said. “We managed to save the tents from the lake. I’ll get them out and see how bad the damage is.”

“Thank you so much for your help,” the woman said. Up until now she had been patiently waiting while her husband and I spoke.

As we examined the tents, the man told me that his name was Roger, his wife was Amy, and the kids were Nathan and Mabel.

“Mabel must be a family name,” I said.

“Yeah, Amy had an aunt named Mabel.”

“Me too,” I said, “Except that it was my great-aunt.”

“You don’t think you two are related somehow?” He asked.

“Nah,” I replied. “I’m sure there are enough old Mabels to go around.” We looked over at his wife as she tried to keep the kids under control and laughed.

I struggled with how much food I should prepare for my guests. I finally decided that I would heat everything except for the granola bars, and those would be saved for the next day.

“So, what do you do?” Amy asked over our meager supper. “When you’re not helping beleaguered campers, that is.”

“I work in a grocery store,” I said. “Stocking shelves, helping beleaguered customers. That kind of thing.”

“Was that your dream when you were a kid?” asked Roger. “Working in a grocery store?”

“I don’t think anyone dreams of working in a grocery store.” I said to them. “Honestly, I never had many dreams. For a while, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. That was before I found out that I’d have to go to school for eight years to become one. What about you guys? What do you do?”

“I work in finance,” said Roger.

“I stay at home with the kids, now,” said Amy. “Before that, I was an administrative assistant.”

“You two didn’t work together, did you?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah we did,” Roger said with a sigh, like he knew exactly what was coming next.

“So, you married your secretary?”

“Well, there were only two secretaries for the entire department,” he said. “But yeah, I married the secretary.”

I couldn’t help myself and started to laugh, and before long, we were all laughing together. The kids were running around and playing in the darkness, seemingly unfazed by their harrowing day or our conversation, but it wasn’t long before we all turned in for the night.

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I woke with a start, alone in the woods. At least I thought I was alone. No, I wasn’t alone, and not in the woods. I was in a park. In fact, it was a park I had spent some time in during my childhood. There was a bridge across the river there.

As I approached the bridge, I saw Nathan walking alongside the edge. This wasn’t right, they had put up fences so that you couldn’t walk that close to the edge, and where were his parents? I decided I better round him up before his mother saw him out there.

“Nathan,” I called out to him. He turned around, smiled and waved, but kept going across the bridge. He wasn’t far ahead, so I picked up my pace and quickly caught up to him.

“Your mother would probably have a heart-attack if she saw you out here like this,” I said as I walked alongside him.

“Where is she?” Nathan asked.

“I’m not sure,” I replied. Then I looked back to the park. Where was the rest of his family? “Maybe they…” I started to say, but then realized Nathan was no longer there. There was nowhere to go, and he hadn’t fallen over the edge. He couldn’t have fallen over the edge. I looked down, only to see the water raging far below in the depths of the river gorge. I suddenly felt weak, dizzy, disoriented.

I woke again, this time back in my tent. It was still dark. I closed my eyes and tried to go back to sleep.

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The next morning we started out early. I knew the way back to civilization fairly well and my charges trusted in my ability, so we walked and walked. It was about midday that I heard a noise behind me.

“Ah,” a voice cried out. I looked back to see Mabel on the ground, holding her ankle. Instantly, her father was at her side. How did he move that fast?

“Let’s see if she can put weight on it.” I suggested.

“Roger, I told you that we’re pushing these kids too hard,” Amy said to her husband.

This was really starting to annoy me. I was going out of my way to help these people, and all they could do was complain. Amy had been going on about our fast pace all morning. She said that the children weren’t used to such exertion, but I didn’t see that we had a choice. It would be even more difficult to make the hike after another night, especially with no more food. Still, Mabel’s ankle was twisted. After that, Roger and I took turns carrying the girl. What had been a relatively leisurely day of hiking with this family had suddenly turned into quite a chore.

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Several hours later, after all the food was gone and we were nearing our destination, Roger returned to our conversation from the previous night. “So, you thought about becoming a doctor, but you didn’t want to go to school. Did you attend college at all?”

“I tried for little while,” I said.

Why was this guy so interested in my education? And why was I letting it get to me?

“I was going to work and going to school,” I continued. “But it seemed like I never had any time or money for what I wanted, so I stopped going to school.”

“I suppose I can understand that,” replied Roger. “Do you ever think about going back?”

“Sometimes,” I said, reluctantly admitting this to myself as well.

“Well then,” replied Roger. “Maybe it’s time to do more than think.”

That’s—when I hit him. I don’t know what I was thinking. He was still carrying his daughter on his back, but something just snapped. I balled up my fist and pounded it into his jaw. Surprisingly, nothing happened. He didn’t lose his balance. There were no cries of outrage. The whole family just stared at me calmly.

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“Why be sorry now?” replied Roger. “You’ve been fighting with yourself all week, even before we met you.”

“Fighting with myself?” I asked. “Is that supposed to sound esoteric? Look, I know it’s been a long day, but we’re almost there. In fact, we should be able to see the campgrounds from the top of this hill.”

I looked ahead, toward the horizon and said, “See? There it is.”

But when I looked back, they had gone. Where could they have gone?

The Missing Twilight

Originally titled, “A Satellite for All Seasons,” I wrote this science fiction short story for a creative writing class way back in 2011 based on an idea that I had years earlier.

The Missing Twilight

It seemed odd to Jim that there was no twilight. The rest of it, he didn’t think about so much. The thin atmosphere wasn’t a problem for him, and he didn’t even mind wearing the respirator for strenuous activities. The low gravity was something that bothered others, but Jim kind of liked being able to jump so high. There was also the fact that he could no longer survive back on Earth, even if there was some way for him to return. He had resigned himself to that particular problem even before he had started out on this adventure. Yes, it was definitely the twilight that bothered him the most, the visual passing of day to night.

There was an indoor simulation of the effect, but it was not entirely pleasing to most people. For Jim it seemed almost to offend the senses. He understood, of course, the reasoning for the sun to always burn. Even though this moon had its own geothermal heat source, the surface could never maintain an adequate temperature to support human life unless the sun was blazing constantly. Such was the reality of living this far out in the solar system. This, he supposed, was just one more thing that he would have to resign himself to. Perhaps tomorrow, or the next day, he would accept it. Today, he would mourn the loss of what seemed to be the most natural thing in the world, here in this decidedly unnatural one.

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As Doctor James Pearson began his work the next morning there was a quietness among the staff. They seemed not to be their regular upbeat selves.

“Something going on today?” he asked the staff.

“Just some bad news from the first new field we’ve studied,” his lab assistant answered. “Nothing to be upset about, I’m sure.”

Jim knew the kinds of problems this news could bring if it wasn’t handled properly.

“I’d better look it over before I do anything else.” Jim was in no mood to open up a new can of worms without adequate reason. He sat down to examine the findings. Only time and persistence would tell him what he wanted to know.

Jim considered himself fortunate to be a part of this colony. In what was supposed to become a completely self-sustaining settlement, there were only so many positions available. While Jim was certain he could have lived out his days on Earth with no less satisfaction than he had now, he felt like taking part in this colonization project made him part of something bigger, something far more important than the every-day.

Besides, most agronomists on Earth rarely achieved the recognition he had received here. Agriculture on Earth has become refined to the point where there was little left to do other than to maintain the current status. Here, there was an opportunity to conduct real research. There was also the added benefit that he didn’t have to involve himself in power management or waste reclamation. Anyhow, this report he was looking over was not good news. This was the kind of news that could bring an end to a project such as this. He would have to tell the director himself.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Director Thomas Calhoun’s office was cold and utilitarian, as was most of the compound. Built from pre-fabricated materials shipped directly from the Earth’s moon, this building and every other one in the colony was built in the same style. The walls were bare, but there was one picture frame standing on his desk, a photo of his wife and son.

“I’m not happy to hear this news of course,” said the director. “In fact, if you had brought this to me much sooner we would have had a major issue. As it is, we may have to do some adjusting, but since we’ve made it past the first checkpoint, I don’t think this will put the mission in jeopardy.”

Jim knew the checkpoint the director was referring to. A lot of important people back on Earth thought this colony wouldn’t make it past the first five years, so it had been decided that if there were any major problems within that time frame, the project would be abandoned. Now that they were in their sixth year, even this news wouldn’t mean an automatic recall.

“And you’re certain it’s a problem with the sun?” The director asked. “It couldn’t be an atmospheric disturbance?”

“Well, it could be almost anything,” Jim replied, “but the only statistically probable explanation is the sun. There just isn’t enough light to feed the plants outside of the current growing area.”

“What do you suggest?” asked the director. “Are there crops that we can grow with less light?”

“There are,” said Jim. “But they bring their own problems to the table. What we really need is another sun. The overlapping rays should be more than enough to quadruple our growing area.”

“Another sun!” The director sounded like he had just been asked for a miracle. “Why don’t you ask me to make it rain as well? Then we wouldn’t need to bother building a new irrigation system.”

“Listen Tom, I know that it wasn’t planned this early, but it has always been a long-term goal to put another reactor satellite in orbit.”

“Yes of course it was, but certainly not this soon, and then only if it were deemed absolutely necessary. We’re going to have to keep this quiet for a little while. That won’t be a problem will it?”

Jim didn’t like where this was going. Keeping a secret like this in a relatively small colony would not be easy. The reactor satellite that acted as the colony’s sun was easily the most expensive part of this expedition. The long-term plan was for the colonists to mine this moon for resources and eventually build new satellites. That way, the settlement could be completely self-sufficient and eventually expand; maybe even to other locations in the Solar System. But the director was right; that part of the mission hadn’t even gotten started yet, mainly because keeping the existing settlement going was taking up almost all of their resources.

“Well, my people aren’t going to go spreading rumors based on preliminary data,” replied Jim. “But once this is verified, which I’m certain it will be, it’ll be hard to keep quiet at that point. I really think we should be ready to meet this head on. Once word gets out about the crops, setting up a reactor satellite committee could do wonders for people’s morale.”

The director’s eyes suddenly brightened.

“What an idea Jim, a committee. They’ll spend years discussing the problem. We’ll give them a small budget for research. I’ll probably be retired before any real resources need to be allocated. But who to head such an auspicious committee?”

The director’s gaze fixed on Jim.

“Me sir?” Jim stammered. “Surely there must be someone better. After all, I’m no physicist.”

“Now Jim,” answered the director. “You don’t need to be a specialist to head up a committee. You just need to be able to organize its members and report to the council. You run a department, don’t you?”

Jim nodded.

“ It’ll be grand Jim, you’ll see. And you’ll be seeing a lot more of me.”

“Just what I always wanted.” replied Jim, only half-jokingly.

“Now I’ll need you to prepare a statement for the next council meeting. Nothing too involved, just something to show them that you’re competent. I’ll need a draft by Friday morning, and I’ll see you again then.”

Then, before Jim could protest any further, the director was walking him right out of the office door.

“So much for keeping a low profile.” Jim muttered to himself.

It was cold walking away from the director’s office, far colder than Jim liked. But then, all of the days were cold here, just one more side effect of living under a weak sun. Perhaps he would feel better tomorrow. Would the future appear brighter because he might have a hand in making it so? Jim could only hope.

The Mustinka River

I spent the weekend at a family gathering. It was near the town where my mother grew up and I got a chance to visit the old family farm. I waded in the river that my mother played in as a child, and decided that this would be a good time to share a short memoir piece that I wrote about her childhood. This piece was written way back in 2012 for  a Memoir and Creative Nonfiction class.

Soda Pop in Glass Bottles

My mother grew up on a farm and, like most of us, she has stories to tell. I ask her to tell me what it was like on the farm and get small bits of disjointed narrative. There was the river that ran through the property, although upon description, the river sounds more like a creek, not being very deep or wide. But it was a river, the Mustinka River; I looked it up. The river starts near the city of Fergus Falls, and flows for 68 miles through the counties of Otter Tail, Grant and Traverse in western Minnesota. This was where my mother, her five brothers, and her two sisters played on hot summer days. It seems odd to think of my mother playing in the water as a child, when she never did learn to swim.

I remember my uncle telling me about ice-skating on the farm. I thought it must have been on the frozen river, but when I ask about it, my mother says they never skated on the river. “One winter” she says, “so much snow fell, that we skated right there on the hard-packed snow.”

“Did it rain, and form an ice sheet?” I ask.

“I don’t know about rain,” she replies. “But we skated on the snow.”

There’s a picture of my mother on her fifth birthday. With no flash-bulbs for the camera, they took the cake outside for her to pose with. Of course, being December, it was cold outside, and her little fists are balled up tight to keep warm. There was snow on the ground, and bare trees in the background; and what looks like an angel food cake sitting on a glass plate on a small table. Of course, standing in the snow in what was probably her best dress doesn’t keep her from having a huge smile on her face.

Then there’s the picture of my mom on a pig. That’s right; she’s on a pig, riding it like a tiny horse. She would ride real horses later when she visited her friend at a nearby farm. She says her friend was poorer than she was, but having horses seems like a luxury to me. While I was growing up, I never knew my mother rode horses. It’s one of those strange things that I didn’t find out about until after I was an adult. “You rode horses, really?” I ask her, after hearing the story for the first time. It seems like something I should have found out while I was growing up. It amazes me that there are still things I do not know about my mother.

The story that I remember most from my mother is that of a school party. It was a special occasion and my mother had been given money by her mother to buy two bottles of soda, one for her, and one for her younger brother Robert. When I was growing up, soda was a treat that we didn’t have every day, but for my mother, it might be the only bottle she got all year. Unfortunately, after she bought the sodas, one fell and broke. Being the younger brother of older sisters myself, I thought for sure that Robert was going to be the one to lose out that day. It was only after the story unfolded that I found out that my mother went without her soda. I like to imagine that Robert was blissfully unaware of the small sacrifice my mother made that summer day.

I ask my mother if she has any other good stories about her and Robert, but there’s nothing that seems to compare. “I wasn’t always nice to him,” she says. “Sometimes I was downright mean.”

“Is that why they took Robert to Montana?” I ask. I had heard the story of my mother being left behind to take care of her younger brothers and sisters for a week while Robert got to go with my grandparents to visit my great-aunt Verna.

“Yeah, we didn’t always get along so well,” she says. “And my parents thought it would be easier for me without him there. But it was good for him to go. It was a good way for him to spend some one-on-one time with my parents. It’s difficult to find time for everyone when there are eight kids in the family.”

There are other stories about her being the bossy older sister, first fighting with her siblings, and later trying to keep the peace among them. And there are stories about going to town to see free movies, driving through blizzards to visit relatives, the sink that they let drip through the winter so the pipes would not freeze.

But when I think about my mother as a child, I always think about broken glass at a country store, riding horses at a friend’s farm, standing in the snow with a birthday cake, and playing in the Mustinka River—on hot summer days.

The Mustinka River on the old family farm.

River rocks from the Mustinka River.

Pacific Highway One

This will be the last entry from the Writing About Place archives. This piece was written in December 2012 about a trip I took to see the ocean in 2002.

Pacific Highway One

Prologue:

I was well past twenty years old and had never seen the ocean. Growing up in Minnesota, in the heart of the Midwest, I had traveled some, but never to see the ocean. I had been to North and South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and even Texas. Not to the gulf coast of Texas, but Texas nonetheless. But, I had yet to see the ocean, and the ocean was something that I very much wanted to see. One day, I got it in my head that it was time, and started planning. I would drive, alone, from Minnesota to Virginia, and see the mighty Atlantic Ocean in all of its fury. Then, I would turn around and head west. Drive straight through from one coast to the other, just stopping to eat and sleep. That would be how I would first see the ocean.

At least, that’s the way I had planned it. My mother was worried that driving such a distance by myself wouldn’t be safe, and there wasn’t anyone I could talk into coming with me. I really had wanted to do this on my own, a rite of passage of sorts on the road to find my independence. I probably would have gone ahead by myself, but then Mom offered to bankroll the trip and come along, with the conditions that we stop to visit my uncle and only visit one ocean. I had the best intentions of saving money, but it always ended up slipping through my fingers. Short on cash, I begrudgingly agreed.

Day One:

We had driven into California on interstate 40, which merged into I-15, and then we finally reached I-10, also known as the San Bernadino Freeway. The widest freeway I had previously driven was a total of eight lanes wide; this one was ten, and it was all stop and go. It was a Saturday afternoon. Where was everyone going? They couldn’t all be headed to the beach, could they? When we finally arrived, I changed into my swimming attire, and headed out onto the sand.

The ocean was both like and unlike what I was expecting. Having grown up in Minnesota, visiting the north shore of Lake Superior was not an uncommon event for me, and since the size of that lake made it impossible to see all the way across it, I figured that an even bigger body of water would have a likewise infinite expanse to it. The major difference here was that not only did the water go on forever, but the shore seemed to reach endlessly in both directions as well. Then there were the waves. Superior sometimes had waves, but they were nothing like this. Never ending rows upon rows of relentless water crashing upon the sand. And then the smell hit me. It was like a warm, dry day suddenly turned hot and humid, only all of the moisture in the air carried the aroma of wet salt along with it.

I swam in the ocean that day, carrying myself out as far as I could walk, and then diving into the waves. Once I was past the whitecaps, I thought it would get easier, but then it seemed as if there wasn’t any progress at all. I was fighting against the ocean, and only the ocean could win. It was relentless. It never tired. It was just there, not caring that I was trying to fight it. It would conquer me without even trying, and I was in awe of it. I played in the surf for a while longer. Some folks had boogie boards, and I thought that those might be fun, but they would have to wait. This was just my first taste of the ocean, and it was time to press on.

Another difference between the ocean and any lake I had ever swam in was once again the salt. Usually, after a swim, I feel clean and refreshed. After being in the ocean, I was coated with a salty film, and completely worn out from fighting the waves. Fortunately, there were showers available to rinse off the muck. There was a line of people waiting to use the showers, but it moved quickly and before I knew it, I was taking my turn at rinsing the film of salt that the sea had left behind.

As we left the beach behind and started driving north up California State Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, I rested my aching muscles and looked out once again at the endless blue sea meeting the ever blue sky out upon the distant horizon. There were still a couple of hours of daylight left, and we wanted to find a hotel north of Los Angeles, so we began to look for vacancy signs as we were driving along. Unfortunately, there was some kind of exposition being held, and there wasn’t anything open for miles.

We drove on and tried a few places. There was one hotel that had a single room. My mother would have taken the bed, and they offered to throw up a cot for me to sleep on, but it was a smoking room, and Mom wanted to try and find someplace else.

“We should have taken it,” I said. “There might not be anywhere else, and it’s getting late.”

“I know,” Mom said. “But there still might be somewhere a little further from town.” So we drove until it was dark, and then we drove some more, but that was the only open room we had found. We finally ended up finding a dark corner in a parking lot, setting the seats back, and trying to get a few hours of sleep in the car.

Day Two:

I woke up in the car, already driving down the road. It was still dark.

“Why are we driving?” I asked.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Mom replied. “So I figured we might as well get going.”

“Maybe we should stop and eat,” I suggested. “We can’t see anything in the dark anyway.”

We drove around until we found an IHOP. International House of Pancakes. I’d never heard of them before, but Mom said they were a famous chain. I ordered the raspberry pancakes because I like raspberries, and why would you order anything but pancakes at the International House of Pancakes. While the raspberries were good and tart, the pancakes weren’t anything to write home about; I probably should have gotten them plain with maple syrup.

It was light out by the time we were finished, so once we left the restaurant, we got back on good old Pacific Highway One and started driving north again. We drove for a little while, and before too long, we saw what looked like a giant rock coming up out of the ocean. It was Morro Rock, and we were at Morro Bay, in San Luis Obispo county.

“This place looks nice,” I said. “Maybe we should stop here.”

“Stop for the night?” Mom asked. “It’s hardly noon.”

“I know, but then I could sit and enjoy the ocean, and you could take a nap.”

“I suppose,” she said. “Are there any hotels nearby?”

“Yeah,” I said. “They still might all be filled up, but we can give it a try.” We found a nearby hotel, and Mom went in to enquire about a room.

“Don’t pay more than eighty dollars.” I said, as she got out of the car, knowing that she would ignore me. She returned a few minutes later with a key.

“They had one room because a reservation didn’t show up,” she said. “It was ninety dollars.”

“Well, that’s not too bad,” I replied. “And we are within walking distance of the ocean.”

“That’s what I thought too.” Mom paused a moment. “They said it was a non-smoking room, but that someone had smoked in it. They washed all the bedding, but there still might be an odor.”

“It’ll be fine,” I said. “Even if it’s not perfect, it will be nice to stop and rest for most of the day.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” She still sounded skeptical about the situation.

We carried our bags into the room, and lo and behold, it was the nicest room we had stayed in throughout our entire trip. Despite a faint smell of smoke, the room really was very nice. They even had a coin-op laundry down the hall, so I decided to head into town for some detergent, and told Mom she should take a nap.

There was a Target store in town, and it seemed strange to be wandering around a Target in California. It was exactly the same as it would have been in Minneapolis. I bought the laundry soap and headed back to the room. Mom was sleeping, so I started my laundry and walked down to the beach. I sat there for a couple of hours reading, and then went back to the room to find Mom awake and watching television.

“The ocean’s right outside and you’re watching television?” I asked.

“I was just waiting for you to come back,” she said. We then walked back down to the beach together.

We sat and read. I remember that Mom looked so happy then. The cares of last night and this morning washed away with a few hours sleep and the constant roar of the ocean upon the sand. The beach here was different than in Los Angeles. Lots of jagged rocks stuck out of the sand on the beach and in the water. Their rough surface was in stark contrast to the smooth feeling of the sand. I looked out again toward the horizon, amazed at how blue the ocean was, with the white caps of falling water that reached the shore with every wave.

We ate pizza that night. I could probably eat pizza every night, but there were so many different places to eat.

“You have to have an In-N-Out burger before we go home,” Mom suggested.

“When we get to San Francisco,” I said. “Tonight, it’s pizza.”

Day Three:

This was our last full day on the coast. Tomorrow we had to start driving home. There was a flyer at the hotel for Hearst Castle. It isn’t a real castle of course, but a giant mansion that was built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst. When we got to the castle grounds, there were options for three tours. I wanted to see the swimming pools and the library. All three tours included the swimming pools, but only one of them featured the libraries. It wasn’t the main tour, but we only had time for one, so that’s the one that we went on. The grounds were magnificent. Hearst Castle is five miles away from the ocean’s shore, but it sits high on a hilltop, and boasts palm trees and beautiful ocean views.

The outdoor pool was alive with marble statuary and impressive looking structures, including what looked like a miniature Parthenon. The main library was very impressive, with the room being fully furnished, including decorative rugs, and even a wood carved tile ceiling. The bookshelves all had locking glass cabinet doors that, according to the tour guide, Hearst added after one of his guests pocketed a rare first edition for his bedtime reading material. The second library featured a large meeting table, and a desk at which Hearst conducted his daily business.

Another area that the tour featured was Hearst’s personal bedroom. It was surrounded by windows, open to the elements, and featured quite the view. The indoor pool, in its own building, was underneath the tennis courts. It boasted more statuary and, excepting the entry area, was ten feet deep all around. What joy it would have been to wake up to that view of the ocean from Hearst’s private bedroom every morning, a view of freedom, and then spend time swimming laps in that pool. If only I were a famously rich media mogul.

After our visit to the castle, we headed north once again. We stopped to see a large group of elephant seals warming themselves on the sand. There were a couple that looked like they were fighting. I shot a few photos of them. Unfortunately, I didn’t really capture the effect of their movement, and the images just show the seals raising their heads up above their gargantuan bodies and throwing sand around the beach. Further up the coast, we ran into a lighthouse. We stopped to take a closer look, and found out that the lighthouse was also a hostel. I was tempted to find out if they had any room, dreaming of falling asleep to the sound of waves crashing upon the shore, but we pressed on, stopping one more time that day to watch the sun set over the Pacific.

There were clouds in the sky that evening, and the sun backlit the sky with a brilliant yellow that filled the horizon. Then, just for a moment, the sun came below the clouds, painting the sky red before it quickly sank into the ocean. We wouldn’t leave the coast until tomorrow. We would drive across the golden gate bridge in the morning fog, and have our obligatory In-N-Out burger. We would then drive back to Minnesota, across the mountains, and the great plains. But for me, that sunset marked my goodbye to the Pacific Ocean.

Epilogue:

It had been three days of beauty and reverie, with a bit of real life thrown in for good measure. This wasn’t the first trip that I had taken with my mother, and it wouldn’t be the last. We eventually made our way to Virginia to meet the Atlantic Ocean. Driving south and then west again to Key West, Florida. Riding a boat even further west to the Dry Tortugas National Park. A small island out between the Gulf of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve even spent a couple of Thanksgivings on the Gulf Coast in Texas, a tradition in my brother-in-law’s family, where I finally got to try out one of those boogie boards; they are fun. But there was something powerfully serene about the Pacific. With a quiet strength, its waves endlessly struck the wild coast of California. I miss it, and still dream of its beauty.

Maybe I dream about the ocean because it reminds me of my search for independence. Looking for a balance in the relationship that I have with my parents has never been easy. When I was still a child, I thought that once I became an adult, I would no longer rely on my parents for anything. But in many ways, I lean on my parents more now than I ever did back then. In the ocean, I can still almost see the lost dreams of my youth, just beyond the endless horizon, waiting for me with every crash of water upon the sand.

Parking at the Park

Here is another one from the Writing About Place archives. I’ve removed a few commas from the original. I don’t know what I was thinking with all those commas. Written in December 2012, this is the only time I ever attempted to write satire. I’m afraid it isn’t nearly as clever or as funny as I would have liked it to be, but here it is.

Parking at the Park

Today, I want to bring your attention to the atrocious problem we have here in the city of Minneapolis in regards to parking at the parks. It seems no matter how hard we try, it is still far too easy for people to park at our lovely city parks. There are several reasons why we need to make parking at the parks more difficult.

The first reason, overuse, is a major one. Every time I visited a park this past summer, there were always lots of people there. There does, of course, need to be accommodation for some people in the parks, but at the rate we’re going, people will have used up all the parks and there won’t be anything left for our grandchildren. The other, and probably more important, reason is that every time I try and park at a park, I end up driving around for hours looking for a parking place. Imagine all those cars driving around for hours looking for parking spots. Burning all that gasoline is bad for the environment, and ever since I was made aware of the dangers of global warming, I have been trying to live a greener life and encouraging others to do so as well.

It’s true, that the parks department has made some headway into the issue of parking. I remember when I was just a lad and we would go to the Point Beach on Cedar Lake. It was easy to park. We just drove our full size, gas-guzzling, Ford LTD across town, pulled into the parking lot, and parked. No fuss, no muss, it was way too easy. Now, the lot is split into two areas. Half of the lot has parking meters that you can pay so that you can park your car by the half-hour, hour, or two-hour maximum. This is especially effective for those who tend to accidentally lose track of time at the beach. There’s nothing like an expiring parking meter to remind one of one’s priorities. The other half of the lot is reserved for patron parking. Some of you may ask, what exactly is patron parking? Well, let me tell you all about it.

According to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board website, “The Annual Patron Parking Permit offers 12 months of easy parking at regional parks in Minneapolis. Permit holders enjoy parking privileges in specially designated parking spaces at some of the park system’s most popular regional parks including Minnehaha Park, Lake Harriet, and the garden areas at Theodore Wirth Park.” Now I know what you’re thinking. That sounds too easy. They even say the permit offers easy parking. But this is why it was such a brilliant move. They said it was easy, but when they started the program, it confused almost everybody. Most park-goers either didn’t see the patron parking signs, or just ignored them.

I remember one visit to the aforementioned Cedar Point Beach in which I had the auspicious good fortune to meet a woman who had just been ticketed for parking in a patron spot. She hadn’t seen the large blue sign posted at the lot’s entrance. Serves her right I say. Can’t be bothered to learn all of the obscure parking rules related to the city parks, she deserved a $40 ticket. The main problem with the patron parking is that people have gotten too used to it. I think it is past time to change up the rules in order to make the parking system unfathomable once again. One thing we can do, is limit the ways in which park-goers can purchase patron parking passes. Right now it’s far to easy to acquire one, as they are available online, and at six different park offices. There should be just one centralized location. This would cut down on park overhead costs as well.

Another major problem with the park’s parking system is that there is still far too much free parking. Not only are there free parking spaces along the many wide areas of the city’s parkways, but the parking at all park Recreation Centers is free. While it is true that the neighborhood Recreation Centers do not have the same overuse problems that many of the city parks do, people do park in the Recreation Center parking lots, and then go on to use the associated city park.

I have even met people who will park on the city streets near a park in order to use the park’s facilities without paying for parking; can you imagine? I think it is obvious that all of this free parking can only be bad for our park system. We should put an end to this ease of parking immediately by expanding the use of parking meters, changing the city’s rules regarding the availability of parking on the city streets near parks, and extending the range of park patron permit parking. Thank you all for reading, and please join me next week, when I will be discussing the role of lifeguards in our city parks. They cost more to employ than the grass mowers and the park trash collectors combined. Do lifeguards really save lives, and if so, are those lives really worth saving?