Friday, February 24, 2012

On Goodbye, Stories in 25 Words or Less

Someone started a thread on the Amazon forums. Can you tell a story in 25 words or less? The theme was goodbye. The following are some of my contributions to this clever writing exercise.


Down the trail he trode and trode through snow and drift and mud. Would he return? No one knew. But not without loss of blood.


Wing healed, strength regained, she knew it was his time. Yet still a tear she shed while smiling at his climb. Goodbye, eagle. Soar high.


Soft snow slowly fills his tracks. The icy air kisses her hot streaming tears. A gust, a final sob, every trace of him is gone.


Her lip quivers at the emotions unexpressed. What if he never calls?
Knock, knock.
"I forgot to say goodbye."
He missed work that day.


The solemn look. The pomp and circumstance.
The fateful knife plunged in and out, waved to and fro.
"Goodbye sammich," said the boy.


Resounding bang. Muscles explode. Like lightning I am off. Goodbye suckers. See you at the finish line.


As I end the call, I can hear her crying, alone. The ocean between us cannot sooth the way I feel. I am an ass.


As I began to walk, I could not see the yawning gulf of homelessness and fear. Bright, welcoming freedom made me blind.


As the final threads parted, my heart leaping into my throat, our eyes connected and I mouthed my final I love you. She survived.


Three years he had watched this one but today she watched him back. He could taste his growing excitement. Tonight, we rise again.


Turning away, bright eyes glistening, she takes in the sights. Shimmering sunlight burns a morning road across the lake. Her new life beckons.


Before, after, since. Who were these people? As the first shovel full of dirt fell, she cried, alone in the crowd. And then, she died.


I once met Ned and Fred
Who both would soon be dead.
They drew their knives
To end their lives.
Fell off the roof instead.


Evoking his last sigh, the poet sets pen to desk and waits for ink to dry. His work is done. Goodbye.


Roaring orange flames blossomed from the tail of the ponderously rising craft. As it faded into the darkness of space, a small boy waved goodbye.


As the last crenelations vanished into the rising surf, Henry happily ate his chicken fingers, unassailable fortresses of sand long since forgotten.


Twenty five words is a potent format. What would you write? You can see the original thread, along with many other spectacular twenty five word stories here.

The Blind Juggler's Pants

In Rota, Spain, where I was stationed in the Navy, there were a lot of west European girls, young women, whatever, who were basically working their way across europe. They would work someplace for a while until they'd saved enough money to move on to the next place and then they would travel until they ran out of money again and repeat. There were girls from Dublin, from the UK, and from various other places. Many of them worked as bartenders in the bars that catered to the Americans from the military base. Several of these women were street performers in addition to everything else and at one point, I and a friend hung out with several of them.

I had always juggled but I never really progressed beyond three balls. While I was with the women, I taught myself to juggle clubs. I also went out a few times with them. I would juggle while they performed. One night, as we were busking our way through town, I decided to do cartwheels across the street. Being who I am, I split my pants. This was one of those complete air conditioning splits too, a vent from front to back. Because I was young and shameless, I went around the rest of the night with split pants juggling.

Another time, we went to Carnival over in Cadiz across the bay. I wore garb from my SCA days, including a liripipe which was a sort of hood. It turned out that I could pull the hood down over my eyes and just barely see through the hood but it looked like I was completely blind. At one point, we took a table outside a tavern and just to amuse myself, I pulled my hood down to see if I could still see well enough to juggle. I only had the hood down for thirty seconds or maybe a minute but when I pulled the hood back up, there was a huge crowd of people gathered around our table watching me. I must have appeared to be juggling blind. I couldn't see well enough to see them gathering and they thought I couldn't see at all. It was a surreal experience.

On Drinking

I was an unusual child. Obvious biological imperatives were always something I resented. When most children were learning to go to the bathroom or pee themselves, I was learning to hold it. I would go longer and longer without finding a way to relieve myself. As a result of this, between the ages of 8 and 12, I got a lot of kidney infections and bladder infections, often associated with a high fever and a trip to the hospital. Often, at the hospital, they would have to draw blood two or three times because the pain of the needle was so much that I would struggle, breaking the red blood cells. I believe this is where my irrational, or perhaps not so irrational, fear of needles came from. I was 18 before I conquered that fear with a sheer act of will. I still have to watch them stick me to completely control it.

I spent a lot of time in the hospital and I did permanent damage to my body. I remember one of the radiologists telling my mother that I had the bladder of a 65 year old after one of my tests. Eventually, I had surgery to remove one of the causes of my kidney infections. By then, one kidney only functioned at 30% effectiveness. I'll probably never be a kidney donator.

Part of the course of treatment for my problems was drinking, a lot. As I look back on it, that doesn't make sense. The kid is too stupid to go to the bathroom when he needs to. I know. Let's make sure he has to go all the time. Anyway, by the time I was ten, I had to drink a gallon of water a day and generally a 32 oz bottle of some form of cranberry juice. Imagine, 50 lbs and drinking at least 1.25 gallons of liquid a day. I had to drink all the time. If you put a glass in front of me, I had to drink it. No hesitation. No thought. Just drink, glass, drink. As you can imagine, this formed a strong habit towards drinking.

This habit of finishing whatever glass is in front of me posed a challenge as I started to consume alcohol. No one ever taught me about pacing. I just sort of pieced it together. After a few problems with getting quite drunk, I figured I had to do something. First, I tried drinking one and then two glasses of water for every alcoholic drink I consumed. This was moderately successful although I can still be pretty stupid about using the facilities when I need to instead of when it seems convenient. Eventually, I learned to pace myself and when I pay attention to avoid severe effects from alcohol.

Still, if I don't pay attention, say I'm distracted by someone, I don't control myself as well as I should and I might drink four drinks in a row without realizing just how much I've drunk. And sometimes, though not recently, I do just let loose the controls and drink to capacity and damn the effects. This has become more likely in the last couple years but it is still a pretty rare occurance. Generally, attention is more than enough to control my drinking, unless distracted.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Missed Inspection

Another story from Monterey. The missed inspection.

At one point, I was roommates with Hartung. I can't remember his
first name but his last name was Hartung and that is what everyone
called him.

Hartung was a disagreeable fellow. He drank every night and came in
wasted and always woke hung over. Through some strange occurrence, he
often didn't have to get up when everyone else did in the morning.

One morning, when there was an inspection, I had stayed up until
something like 0300 sewing rank insignia on a uniform so I would pass
inspection in the morning. After I passed out in exhaustion, Hartung
came in. He didn't have to go to the inspection and he didn't want to
wake up in the morning so he kindly unset MY alarm clock. As in,
intentionally, physically manipulated my alarm clock so the alarm was
no longer active.

Muster and inspection was at 0720. I woke up at 0730, shot up in bed
and looked out the window as my window overlooked the muster grounds.
There was everyone lined up on the muster grounds being
inspected. I think I put on my uniform and sought out my next in
command after the inspection. I'm not really sure and it doesn't bear
on the story. Obviously, I was in a lot of trouble for missing a
muster and missing an inspection.

Now, we introduce the XO (executive officer). The XO is the second in
command next to the CO (commanding officer). It is the XO's job to be
a real bastard so the CO doesn't have to. The XO is responsible for
maintaining discipline in the command. Our XO in Monterey was known
for being really mean. He would scream at people when they went in
for disciplinary action. I mean, he screamed at everyone. Usually
for a long time. People down the hall could hear him. People in the
next building could hear him. He tore every single swinging dick that
came his way an asshole so big an aircraft carrier could sail though

The next morning, I report to the XO's office for my ass chewing. "So
you missed an inspection. What happened?" "No excuse sir." And
then, the unheard of happened. He assigned me corrective duty and let
me go, without ever, not one single time, raising his voice. Everyone
was stunned. No one could believe it. People stared at me in the
halls. I had done the impossible. I face the XO without any yelling.

I swear, until this day, about an hour ago, it had never once occurred
to me how I escaped the wrath of the XO. In addition to being
hard-asses, XO's are supposed to be prescient. The should know
everything that happens in the command. It occurs to me today, that
he knew Hartung had reset my clock. He was prepared to chew me out
for blaming my problems on someone else. I suppose most people would
have. But I didn't claim a defense. It was my fault I didn't make
it. Hartung interfered with my plans but I could have planned better.
I could have asked someone to check on me or gotten more sleep. I
relied on the unreliable and took responsibility for my fuck up. I
see, now, that I was something rare, in the military and otherwise. I
had character. It is so rare, we barely recognize it, especially in
ourselves. When faced with character, the XO let me go. I already
had what he meant to instill.

My punishment was to stand for inspection twice a day (0800 and 2000)
over a four day weekend. Again, I made it into a game. I found out
just how close I could cut it getting from my girlfriends barracks in
civilian clothes to my uniform to the watch floor. By the time the
weekend was over, I had it down to tens of seconds.

Now, having made the character statement, I also recognize what my
company commander saw in boot camp. When all the leadership in the
company was called into the office and made to do push-ups as they
came in. I did four push-ups when one of the company commanders said,
"now, that is character," and had me stop. I've pondered that
statement for two decades. What did he see? I didn't see it. I
couldn't see the difference.

Now, I know. When I was told to do push-ups, I did them. I didn't
question it. I didn't ask why or whinge or complain. I didn't slouch
or huff. I just did the push-ups. Everyone else, as they came in,
resented the push-ups. They wanted to know why or what they had done.
To me, push-ups were part of why I was in boot camp. To everyone
else, they were a punishment and here they were a punishment
undeserved and thus resented. It has taken me 20 years to understand
that statement by my commander.

The question becomes, do I still have character? Can I display it in
this time of my adversity? I don't know. Can character be lost?
Have I lost it?

Polishing the Brass

I graduated boot camp and went to Defense Language Institute (DLI) at
the Presidio of Monterey in Monterey, California. Usually, "A" school
is the school you enter after boot camp and almost acts as an extended
boot camp. They tend to be very strict with things like inspections and
watches, etc, in order to prepare you for military life.
DLI was not like that. To say it was relaxed may be an
understatement. We wore civilian clothes at night and only wore
uniforms on watches and in class. Most people ate food out in town.
It was a bit like going to a high school with a school uniform.

After approximately 50 weeks of my 67 week course, a new XO (executive
officer) came in and started to change things. He wanted things to be
more like a traditional A school. He instituted weekly uniform and
room inspections and failing an inspection had severe consequences,
things like not being able to leave the base on the weekends and
standing extra watches.

I failed room inspections several weeks in a row. I resented the imposition
of new standards and I always failed for tiny infractions. Finally, I
snapped. I turned the whole thing into a game. I went way overboard.
I mean, I cleaned everything like it was going to be used for an
operating room. This included the light fixture.

We had these bulbous round light fixtures on the ceilings. They had
been there so long that they were mostly painted in place. Initially,
they were brass. They were a uniformly drab color now. Well, I
cracked the thing free of the paint very carefully and set out to
polish it. I got brasso and started putting some serious elbow grease
into it. Unfortunately, this wasn't nearly enough.

Something many people don't know about military bases is because their
people move all the time, they make an effort to accommodate nearly
every hobby under the sun. For me, this is significant because my friends,
Jon and Veda, lived on Fort Ord army base and Fort Ord, as so many
other bases, had a jewelry making shop.

I took the light fixture to the jewelry shop, set it against a
polishing wheel and by god, I had that entire fixture shining as it
may not have ever done. I mean, seriously, it may not have come off the
production line with as much polish as I put on it. The thing fucking
shined. It nearly glowed. It was like the sun shown down in the room
when you turned the lights on.

My next inspection, they took one look at that tiny glowing sun on the
ceiling and passed me on the spot. I never failed another inspection
as long as I was in Monterey.


ragged like the rusted edge of an iron knife
corroded by time and tears, drawn hot across my skin
salty sweet the blood wells up from the hole in my heart
I'm drowning, lost, what's happening here

drowning, drowning in you
drowning in myself

I don't want to think, it's not safe to feel
this pain in my life seems almost too real
haunting my sight, all I see is you
what will this torrent cause me to do

Niagra has nothing on my life pouring out
crushing and pounding and crashing me down
sinking beneath the surface, churning and rolling
there is no succumbing when the water holds you down

lost beneath the surface as I drown

drowning, drowning in you
drowning in myself
drowning in myself


crashing symbols in my head
words that never must be said
touching lives they're unforgiving
never accept the pain we're living
seductive sirens taunting barkers
make our tapestry much darker
silence now the words receding
as my heart sits broken bleeding
take this lull now pay attention
everything you want is mentioned
I can't make out the voice I'm hearing
sick musicians sticks are rearing
I face them now with rising dread
crashing symbols in my head

Ode to Nothing

There is nothing here, I swear.
There's nothing here to see.
No words or thoughts to show I care.
I'll prove I know just how to be.

Everything that's here around me,
The clouds, the stars, the moon.
Nothing wrong as you can see.
The darkness comes too soon.

I can speak without offense
My thoughts would make you go away
Sometimes I think you're all so dense
You can't understand the things I never say

So why don't you just go to hell
You horrors I can't share.
There's nothing here for you to tell
And no one there to care.


Echoing nothing
Tiptoes cross our lives
Songs without verses
Or notes to surprise

Nothing finding purchase
Nothing taking hold
And sending us to places
When it sounds too bold

I shout a raucous nothing
Across the great divide
I hope it helps its audience

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Climbing Life

When I was a boy, I used to climb everything. I loved nothing so much as ascending from the ground as far as I could go. This small collection of stories shows what I mean.

When I was an infant, I learned to climb out of my crib and out of my playpen before I could walk. My parents had to put the playpen on me
 upside down.

When I was two, we lived in an apartment on the second floor of a building in Aviano, Italy. I once locked myself in the bathroom, climbed out the window and hung until my father could pick the lock on the bathroom door.

When I was four, we lived in Washington again. My only memory of one of the places we lived is of the tree outside the apartment where I fell onto the sidewalk.

At the age of six, I had climbed every tree in my neighborhood. I climbed the crab apple in front of our house and ate the crab apples after they had sprayed for insects. This was the first time I had to have my stomach pumped.

I climbed the short tree behind our house with the well-defined Y branch and went to sleep. I woke up when I fell out of the tree. I do not recall if I woke when I hit the ground or while I was falling.

Further away, I climbed the tallest tree in the neighborhood. It was a deciduous tree though I just knew it had leaves, not needles, at the time. I couldn't have weighed much. I was a very small boy. I used to climb this tree until the top half of my body was higher than every branch, every leaf of the tree. My head and shoulders stuck up from the top of the tree, my hands and feet on small green branches bent with my weight, I would sit for hours swaying in the breeze above the world.

When I was seven, we moved. I was in a new neighborhood in a new state with many yet unclimbed trees. With my newly found adventurousness, I began climbing other things.

I climbed the tallest trees I could find. I climbed trees I could not wrap my arms around. I would climb the tree with the highest unobstructed branch and I would hang from that branch and drop to the ground.

I climbed the swings so I could jump from the top. Jumping from things was one of my new joys. I climbed every piece of playground equipment, first to see if I could and then to jump from the top.

As I aged, I never lost the joy of climbing things. When I was a senior in high school, I would climb out my window at night and up onto the top of the house. When I was depressed, I would climb the sycamore in front of our house in the middle of the night to be alone with my tears.

While I was in California, I climbed over the top of monoliths half set in the crashing surf. I climbed out of the third story window of a friend over Christmas vacation so I could climb in the window next door and shut off the alarm they had left behind.

Later, in Texas, the police stopped me when I was climbing up the outside of the barracks to get to the second floor balcony. This was when I learned that being on the outside of buildings is considered trespassing.

In Utah, I started climbing in a climbing gym. I would walk three miles to the climbing gym, spend as many as six hours climbing, and then walk back to the hotel. On the weekends, I would hike up into the foothills of the mountains and scramble straight up the steep hills and crags.

Just a few years ago, they added a new park downtown in St. Louis. City Park was a beautiful place and it had this sculpture built from girders. I climbed to the top of the sculpture several times, a few, just to see if I could jump from it.