judgement by Julie V
|Hello all. Our little Nicholas is back from Doha for a few weeks until school starts in Jan. His dad's trial is finished and the judge has set the date of Feb 8 for sentencing. We are hopeful but have no idea what the end result will be. If the news is bad there is an opportunity to appeal.
A couple of short stories:
The Marines of Flower Valley
“Blumenthal, Tennessee,” my dad said. “That means Flower Valley in German. I saw a great old farm, on the river. You’ll love it.” He was excited, so was my mom, and 6 months later we moved to the farm. It was a poor valley, hard scrabble farms, people on disability or supporting family by truck driving or working in distant factories. It was 1965 and the boys I knew all wanted to be Marines or Green Berets, hardly anyone mentioned college. My friends all seemed to have big brothers in the Corps, doing heroic things in Vietnam. These boys all had guns and we would go on “patrol” through the woods, taking turns at “point,” watching for ambushes. My siblings were useless babies—I envied these guys with their warrior brothers.
Fall came and I started 6th grade and my troubled started too. My dad was a gentleman farmer from the city. He ordered books and records by mail and had the Washington Post delivered. The old biddy at the Post Office gossiped about our mail. We didn’t go to church, more gossip. He had the old farmhouse bulldozed and built a new one. This angered people; the old house was perfectly sound, they said, over their coffee at the café. More money than sense, they said about us. The bus came for me every morning and the kids would gawk at our half-finished house, several kid’s dads working as carpenters. The bus ride was 45 minutes, about half on dirt roads, dusty and arduous, with windows open in hot weather. I was new and different, and picking me up added 10 minutes of dirt road to the bus route.
Benjy Harris liked to point this out. He was a fat, red haired kid, a carbon copy of his dad. He started punching me in the shoulder and stealing my fresh #2 pencils. Then he suggested I move away or maybe even die, so the bus ride would be shorter and they could sleep 10 extra minutes. They he started the rumor out family didn’t believe in God—this got tongues wagging. Benjy’s brother was a Marine and Benjy adopted some of his jargon. I never met the brother but probably he had used Benjy as a punching bag. Benjy couldn’t wait to finish 10th grade and enlist.
My worst encounter with Benjy came one morning when the bus stopped at his house, he was waiting with his dad. Benjy had on full Highland clothes, even a kilt, and we holding a bagpipe for a school demonstration, evidently his dad’s idea. It was stunned silence when he got on the bus, flushed and angry, and I let loose just a tiny laugh. Benjy grabbed an algebra book from another kid and brought it crashing down on my head, filling my eyes with tears. The driver was oblivious, as usual, and fighting Benjy was impossible. I asked my dad that afternoon about him driving me to school but he refused, said the bus was good experience for me, it would make me tough. So I was stuck.
Then there was Floyd Mack. He was skinny and tall, had been kicked off the basketball team for fighting. If Benjy was unavailable to pound on me, Floyd was happy to fill in. One day he grabbed a book from me and tossed it to Benjy, back and forth it went. Just as the driver looked up in the mirror the book sailed out the window, landing in the dust. The bus stopped and the tired old driver walked back, got the book and was seen thumbing through it as he returned. The book was my dad’s copy of “Lolita,” which I had brought to school to show a friend some naughty parts. Mr. Beaver, the driver, decided to keep the book and show it to the principal, so I was in trouble rather than the bullies. Floyd and Benjyo enjoyed spreading gossip about my “dirty book collection.” The Principal had me promise to bring no more dirty books to school and assigned me a 6 page essay. My dad thought the whole thing was funny and again refused to drive me to school.
The next fall things got easier. Benjoy and Floyd were caught breaking into a pawn shop and given a choice by the judge, jail or enlist. They joined the Corps, Benjy losing 40 pounds of flab at Paris Island according to reports. They could now torment the Vietnamese, great news for me. Apprentice bullies on the bus eagerly took their places, of course. My dad hired a quiet boy from a nearby farm named T.J. He started riding our bus and thoroughly pounded the first punk who made fun of his name, instantly earning respect. T.J. was tall and strong from farm work. He missed school sometimes to help his dad so I tutored him a bit. I think now my dad asked T.J. to “help me” on the bus and when he was there I had no further problems. T.J. was another guy with cousins and uncles in the military, all branches; they talked about the 82nd Airborne like their Alma Mater. My dad started paying T. J. to come over and be tutored by me after his chores were done but it did no good, he was failing in a school that passed nearly everybody. When the year ended he joined the Green Berets. It was his favorite movie.
I spent the summer missing T.J. and hoping for a growth spurt and it finally came. In the fall my role of punching back was taken by a new kid, Jerry Moon. Jerry was small, homely, buck-toothed and bug eyed, seemingly designed by nature to provoke bullies. His buck teeth seemed to always sbe grinning, even in a head-lock, with enraged them. Even the girls bullied him. Several cheerleaders would surround Jerry, seated alone at lunch, and tousle his hair, spill his milk and pretend to swoon, demanding that he call them. This was the worst torment of all for the blushing, buck toothed kid. It got so he could hardly move around campus since both the punks and the cheerleaders were keeping an eye out for him.
T.J came by our place on leave, very handsome, like he was chiseled from stone. He told us he was worried the war might end before he saw any action, it would be embarrassing. It seemed like every family in the valley had someone in Vietnam—many enlisted and the draft officers caught other. T.J. said Benjy and Floyd had received decorations for valor, had their pictures in the local paper. They had changed so much they were hard to recognize. T.J. shook our hands and left, my dad was unable to speak for several minutes.
After years of abuse it was fun sometimes to join in the attack on poor Jerry. He was such a target of ridicule it would be social suicide to stand up for him, even though I was now one of the bigger kids on the bus. School became so difficult for him he finally moved away and went to live with an aunt. I got several postcards from T.J. in Saigon. He just sent blank cards with his signature, he was ashamed of his writing.
I was at a Boy Scout meeting at the church one evening when the Scoutmaster took several of us aside and told us T.J. had stepped on a mine and did not survive. My mom came to get us early and we drove home in silence. My dad was in the ack yard in a lawn chair, very upset. He said he’d visited T.J.’s farm and spoke to his dad, who was confined to a wheelchair. It was amazing, he said, how calm the old man was. My dad looked at me, hands on my shoulders. “You will not be going to war, son. I couldn’t stand it, I’m not like that old man. IF I have to drive you to Candad myself or go in your place, you will not be going.” Then he hugged me and walked inside.
They buried T.J. at the veteran’s cemetery. My dad was about the only man there not in some sort of uniform and he felt somewhat out of place. He never spoke about him again and I never learned more about their friendship. Other valley boys died too, of course; seems like our guys, prized for their hunting skills, were always in the worst fighting. Jerry Moon never seemed to grow—I think he shrank a bit over the time when he was gone, in fact. I started sitting with him on the bus, reputation be damned. It’s the sort of thing T.J. would do.
Tom Abbott rolled over on the 2 inch mattress on the cell floor, fighting for just a bit more sleep. Arab jails are noisy, people pray all the time, recite the Koran out loud sing it from memory. Tom stuffed cotton back into his ears, just a few more minutes of snooze. He thought of his family in America, thought f his daughter at a part perhaps or finishing her homework, 8 time zones away. He sat up, walked to the bars and rattled the lock for tea, sweet and with milk, the drink that powers the great belt of sweat and fanaticism stretching from India to Sudan.
Alex was late to the first class of Writing 301 at the University of Kentucky. Good, only 4 students, perfect. He was slim, maybe 30, author of a novel and book of short stories, and this was mid level creative writing, something fun. Tom sat at the table with the others, Alex put down his case and said hello. The year was 1979.
“How about we start with introductions? You first,” pointing to a husky, bearded student, mid 20s.
“Ok. Hello everyone. I’m Big Ray from L.A. I have a screenplay and a bunch of stories. I’m hoping to get some help with them, maybe start a novel.” He had a strange high pitched voice and cracked his knuckles nervously.
“Welcome, Big Ray. I like that,” chuckled Alex. “Look forward to seeing your stuff. You?”
“Hi everyone. I’m Stephanie Curtis, Elementary Education major. I grew up overseas and would like to write about that, “said a petite blonde girl, very pretty, her notebook bearing Greek letters. She brushed her hair back nervously and smiled, just a doll.
Alex smiled. “Great. You know this is fiction writing. We tell lies here, make stuff up. We’re not writing biographies.”
She did not respond so Alex turned to Tom, “And you, sir?”
Tom cleared his throat, “I’m Tom Abbott, Physics major. I’d like to write about scientists and science, but fiction of course.”
“You mean science fiction?” Alex smiled.
Tom shifted, “No, not exactly. More about real scientists.” It was a weak answer, he knew.
“Ok,” replied Alex, “I suppose there’s some material there, tension among the test tubes perhaps. Good. And you, ma’am?” He nodded to a medium height lady in glasses, 60ish.
“Good morning. Do you mind if I read it?” she asked, holding a page of neat handwriting.
“Sure, fine,” replied Alex, amused. She began her essay. Her name was Violet Smith, she had taught school in Montana 30 years and wanted to write her experiences. AT about the third paragraph Alex stopped her.
“Very good, welcome. I would repeat, this is fiction writing. It’s OK to make stuff up, encourage in fact. Looks like those of you who have led dull lives will have to lie like hell to compete with Violet here, “ he chuckled. Violet was not amused.
His first few months in jail Tom thought about writing. All writing materials were forbidden but he had a box of books with many blank pages. His cell was special, with a private bath and western style toilet. As the only Christian the manager was unsure about what strange rituals non-Muslims performed so he was given privacy. They also did not search him carefully, avoiding his groin area, very fastidious. He began with soap on the bathroom door. He would write a verse, say from Blake’s “Tyger,” and memorize it, walking to and fro. He tried some poems of his own, love poems for his children and mother. He tried to write some for his wife but nothing would come.
Tea carried in Styrofoam cups and he found a piece of wire in the yard during exercise. Tom found he could write on the cups so he flattened several out and wrote out his best poems, quietly, in his bathroom. He had a good dozen written out this way when his cell was inspected and they were taken, their fate unknown
The next week of class they got their nicknames. Ray was called Big Ray, of course, Tom was Tommy Boy because of his youthful appearance. Stephanie was Steph, Violet Alex started calling “Violence”; she was a bit deaf and did not appear to catch on. “Next week bring some fiction, short story, play, whatever, to read to class,” Alex said.
Tom picked at the caulk in his bathroom, removing chunks with a sharpened chicken bone. He needed a hiding place and this half centimeter gap could survive inspection if he worked it right. After an hour’s effort he had almost a meter cleaned out, flushing the loose caulk down the toilet. He took his toothpaste and recaulked a section, it matched. Now he could hide stuff, papers perhaps, in the crack and get them by simply prying out dried toothpaste. He carefully removed blank pages from his Bible and stashed them in the crack, then caulked them.
Class began with Big Ray reading fiction about a guy visiting the Mustang Ranch in Nevada. It had some juicy details, Alex and Tom obviously enjoyed it.
“Thanks Big Ray, very good. Comments, Steph,” Alex began, smiling. Steph was quite fetching that day.
She blushed a bit. “Well, I thought it was good. Very descriptive.”
“That’s a pretty non-committal response. Violence, your thoughts?,” Alex continued, glancing at the retired school teacher.
“I’m afraid I don’t have much experience with that sort of writing. I can’t imagine who would publish such a thing,” she remarked, somewhat upset.
“Thank you, Ms Smith. Well Ray, not rave reviews, but you got everyone’s attention and that’s important for a young writer. Keep at it. Not Miss Steph, your turn.”
Stephanie read a short story about a pretty blonde teenager living in Tehran and who wanted to go out with a handsome Iranian boy, whose parents did not approve. It ended inconclusively. Ray and Tom made helpful comments, Stephanie appeared to listen.
“Good, gents, good comments. I agree. Steph, love, you’re not writing fiction here. What if this girl were black? Could you write it? What if she were a lesbian?,” almost shouting the last word, causing Violet to jump and Stephanie to blush deeply. “You need distance from your subject, dear,” he concluded.
Tom removed all black pages from his books. Folding them carefully and inserting them in the crack and caulking over them. This could only work if he was not abruptly shifted to a different cell, but that seemed unlikely. He had an electrical engineering book with large fold out diagrams, black on one side, so he tore these up and concealed them. He now had several dozen pages.
Next class Tom read a story about an American physics grad student who discovers his Chinese office mate is collecting data for the Chinese CIA, confronts him, and threatens to go to the FBI. Before he can inform, the Chinese student is killed in a mysterious car crash, end of story. Students’ comments were wildly positive.
Alex’s turn: “This was good Tom, interesting. The two guys need more work, more substance. There’s no passion. Your guys have no gonads.”
“They have no what?,” asked Violet, taking notes.
“Gonads, Violence! They’re all gray matter, gotta be something more. Keep at it, Tommy Boy. You’re trying to make dull people interesting and that’s hard,” he concluded.
Stealing or making some sort of pen was the next step. Stealing was possible but Tom decided to try making one first. He gathered materials. Cotton from the doctor, wire from outside, foil from the trash.
He opened his pillow looking for a feather to make a quill pen but the feathers were tiny and useless. One day he thought of a straw from a juice box, perfect. Ink was another problem. He found milky tea darkened after a day or two, tried various amounts of soap powder mixed in to vary its thickness.
The next class Alex brought the newspaper and read a short section about a prisoner in Utah, named Gary Gilmore, who was scheduled to be executed, a story that preoccupied the news. “Our jobs, as fiction writers, is to compete with reality,” he began, emphatically. “We’ve for to invent stuff better than this Gary Gilmore thing, our stuff has to be more compelling. But can we even imagine his life? Can we imagine no hope? Can we imagine the brutality he endures, the cruelty he takes and dishes out? Can we imagine being buggered by a cellmate?” He was trying to provoke and was successful, Violet quite taking notes and the other tittered. “It’s hard as hell to compete with reality, folks,” he concluded.
“Now, Tommy Boy, tell us a story.” Tom read his latest story about a physics grad student with a basement office and ground level window. The office is next to the open air theatre where pep rallies are held and after each one drunks come down the dark alley next to his building to urinate. The area around his window seems popular with sorority girls needing to pee, they have sort of staked it out and he can see their bare behinds while they squat, giggling. He takes surgical rubber tubing and straightened paper clips and pops a chubby one from the window, provoking a howl of pain and shower of filthy language. They he goes back to proving Dirac’s Theorem.
The group laughs, Violet even chuckles a bit. “Ideas, Steph?,” asks Alex.
“Are you sure that is fiction? Sounds like some rumors I’ve heard around campus,” she remarks.
“Oh my God, Steph!” says Alex, feigning shock. “Have you been a victim of this cruel perpetrator? I doubt your slender frame was the one mentioned. Say it ain’t so!” Laughter drowns out her blushing response and the class is over.
After further experiments Tom finally got a pen working. He stuffed the straw with cotton, then made a nib out of aluminum foil around a wire, then inserted into the end of the straw. He made two so he could write with one while the other soaked in tea. Many trials and adjustments followed and he wasted a lot of his paper. He discovered writing on a vertical surface, changing pens every sentence or two, worked quite well, with the results dependent on the coating of the paper. The tea dried slowly on plastic coated paper, he would save that if he managed to get a pen.
The next class Alex appeared shaken by something, Tom noticed for the first time his thinning hair. Violet was gone, the room seemed empty.
“Thanks for coming, everyone. You can see who’s missing today. Ms Smith has written to the Chairman complaining of some of my methods and language, evidently quite upset. She has dropped and now the class will be combined with another section if your schedules allow.” He paused a moment. “I hope to continue to see you around the department. Stop by and show me your stuff, ok? Can anyone guess what I said that set her off?”
Tom cleared his throat. “It might have been the word “bugger.” She seemed a little disturbed.” Alex smiled, “Tommy Boy, you mean like “you little bugger?,” everyone chuckled. “Maybe I got a bit carried away, trying to make a point; it’s a flaw, I admit,” he said, the smile leaving his face. “Your stuff has shown most improvement, Tommy. Don’t be a stranger, ok?”
Tom outlined his first story in soap on his door and sat down in the bathroom to write. It was good, about grad students of course but with some passion, even a bit of violence. He dipped the pen in the milky tea and thought of his teacher. He spoke softly.
“Ok, Alex, you SOB. Here I come.”
On the Way to McKinders
Tom and Joel climbed steadily up through the bamboo zone of Mt Kenya, the second highest peak in Africa, a few hundred meters junior to Kilimanjaro. Unlike it’s famous brother, Mt Kenya could be climbed unaccompanied. Trekking companies operated on the main trails but many visitors walked in pairs or small groups, some assisted by native guides, many without. The bamboo zone was a green belt, like a holiday wreath, encircling the broad, flat-topped volcano from 3000 to 3500 meters. Above this was sparse alpine vegetation, left over from the ice age, taking refuge on the mountain as the world warmed up. Below was forest and scattered farmland.
This was Tom’s second trip on the mountain, both times he climbed with a local guide. Joel was a last minute substitute for Stanley, who had gotten drunk on Tom’s advance and was hit by a car in NaruMoru, showing up with arm in a cast on departure day. He said Joel was reliable, so Tom, annoyed, agreed. Joel was strong, mid 30s, maybe 6 feet tall, with fair English but not a licensed guide like Stanley. So far they had done well, Joel carrying the large pack, along with his own meager gear, a total of maybe 25 kilos. Tom had prepared well, spending the previous week hiking in farmland at around 2800 meters before trying the mountain.
They emerged from the bamboo zone into the tundra, the ground damp and mossy with the strange ice age plants, many like yuccas or strange hairy cacti, seen nowhere else in Africa. They stopped for lunch. Tom did all cooking, setting up the small kerosene stove and heating water for soup which they enjoyed with boiled eggs left over from breakfast, topped with bread and jam. Joel was s simple farmer, strong but clumsy, and tended to break things. The cooker was delicate and there was no way to fix it. Besides, Tom reasoned, he was carrying a big load and deserved his rest at lunchtime. They continued after lunch arriving at McKinders Camp at 4000 meters with a roomy bunkhouse.
They spent the following day resting and acclimating at McKinders, Tom taking pictures and chatting with other climbers. Joel bought fuel and food from a descending party, Tom cleaned and repaired equipment and washed a few clothes. Poachers came through with fresh trout for sale and Joel struck a bargain, they were delicious. It was late August and peak visitor season was over. Tomorrow they would make it to Minto’s Hut, about 10 kilometers.
The next day was clear. Sleet during the night gave everything a coating of ice, generally it dropped to just below freezing each night with frequent rain and sleet. Joel had bought quite a bit of food, he now had both a heavy pack and grocery bags in each hand. Tom consulted the map. They had an initial steep climb to 4500m over a pass, then down to 4200, then across another ridge at 4500, then down to Minto’s at 4000. They were traveling clockwise around the ribbed, rugged flank of the mountain, a popular well-marked trail.
They took off. A friend of Joel’s having a rest day hauled the heavy pack up the first leg. They paused at the windswept ridge for pictures, the friend returned to McKinders. They were alone on the trail. Joel loaded up and they continued. They began a descent around lunch time, Tom checking the map. They saw a saddle ahead with a small lake, ideal for lunch. On their right were the barren, snow covered summits, forbidding terrain. To the left were steep scree slopes of loose volcanic rock, far below the bamboo belt could be seen. Temperature were mild, maybe 60’s, a perfect day.
Boulders by the lake provided a windbreak and Tom set up the cookers. It was soup, as usual, with canned tuna and cheese. Tonight they would have brown beans with bacon, the beans were softening in a plastic bag with water in Joel’s pack. One reason Tom hired a porter was the food—he liked cooking and disdained freeze dried pouch food, the usual high mountain menu.
Across the lake was a woman, alone it seemed, her large pack off, having lunch perhaps. Joel was not much company so Tom got a better look when he went for water. Starting the water heating he told Joel to mind it and walked around the pond sized XXX, perhaps she’d join them. She was Tom’s age, blonde, European looking, maybe German thought Tom. She wore good quality new-looking boots and outdoor gear.
“Hello,” said Tom, “you’re welcome to join us for lunch.”
“Thanks,” she said, her face flushed. “I…,” her sentence was interrupted as she leaned forward to retch, strings of vomit hanging down. Tom felt embarrassed.
“Sorry,” she said, recovering. “Bit of altitude sickness. I take pills but can’t keep them down. Which way are you going?”
“Minto’s,” Tom replied, “You?”
“I caught the jeep to Minto’s this morning, meeting a group at McKinders. Not sure I can make it. Could I hire your man? With some help I can get there and rest a bit.”
There was no way I could spare Joel and she did not insist. She stood up shakily and slowly walked to our side, leaving her gear. She said hi to Joel who was stirring the soup. Joining us she tried some soup but it came up in minutes. She yawned a few times, tried to stand, and laughed softly.
“I’m Jana, from Brussels,” she said, “I’m a doctor, emergency room type, car crashes and such. I should know better than take that jeep, I came up too fast. If I could keep the pills down I could make it to McKinders.”
Tom had the map out and ate his soup.
“There’s no way out of here without climbing to 4500. I guess we can return to McKinders with you. Let’s wait a while and see if a group with porters comes by, a couple of those guys could carry you.”
They waited, finished lunch and packed up. Jana could hardly stand but they began the walk back. Tom wrote out a note and attached it to Jana’s pack, left by the lake. Tom knew she needed to descend, even just a few hundred meters would help. They passed a faint trail on the right, descending steep scree sloped. It was s short cut to the bamboo zone. Joel looked at it and said it might be ok but he’d never tried it, the map did not show it. The alternative was carry the sick woman over the pass so they took the trail, Jana assisted by Joel who hid the large pack in brush. Down the scree they struggled, Jana falling several times, Joel trying to assist, Tom in front.
They had gone down maybe 100 meters when Jana fell hard and retched, saying she could not get up. The trail deteriorated below them, it was becoming a small stream with several dripping waterfalls. While Jana rested Tom asked Joel if he could climb back up and walk to McKinders for help. Joel said he could so Tom have him money and he left, scrambling up the rough trail above them. Jana appeared to doze, Tom tried to recall first aid for these situations—the only remedy he knew was “descend fast.” Jana mumbled something and tried to stand, it was impossible. Tom realized his short cut might be a very serious mistake.
Tom went back up the trail and returned with the large pack. Jana slept fitfully. Tom wondered if Joel could even find them again, especially after dark. Jana was quiet so he walked to a thicket of dead plants to father wood for a fire. He felt optimistic—maybe Jana would just doze until help arrived, then they could continue their trek to Minto’s tomorrow. He gathered some dead yucca-like plants and returned to the trail. He was shocked—Jana was gone.
For Christ’s sake, he muttered. “Jana!” he called, looking around in the fading light. He guessed she had walked down the hill, surely she couldn’t climb. He called again and descended the scree slope, wondering how in hell she had managed it unassisted. The trail dropped down several 1 meter high ledges made of igneous sills, ending at the top of a 10 meter bluff, dripping and moss covered. He saw her boot tracks in the muddy trail and then their owner sprawled at the base of the bluff, motionless. In her delirium she had walked off a cliff.
“Jesus Christ, Jana!” Tom yelled, nearly hysterical, searching for a way down. In a moment he was beside her.She was in a fetal position, face down in mud. Tom carefully rolled her over and wiped her face with his sleeve, checking her pupils. She was dead.
“You blasted fool, coming up here,” he muttered to the lifeless woman. “Some people should stay in the city,” he said as he struggled under her in a fireman’s carry. After a long struggle they arrived back at their bivouac, still no sign of Joel. He propped Jana up against boulders, being in a seated position made her look a bit more alive, and washed her face. She was cooling rapidly. “No doubt about the diagnosis, Doc. You’re frickin dead an I’m stuck here with you. Jesus.” Tom shivered and dug out his light, went to work on the signal fire. It was something to do so he could avoid looking at his companion. He wondered about her friends at McKinders, her family, what sort of red tape he might face with officials.
The fire was hopeless so he dug out a snack. It was dark, a clear night fortunately. Still no Joel. Had the fool missed the trail, he wondered? Tom had a GPS but Joel had no idea how to use it. Surely the guy could find the trail. He gave the fire another try using kerosene from the cooker, success. He thought about searching Jana’s pockets, but for what, her phone number? Better not tamper with the body he decided. He could see her now in the firelight.
Morning finally came and Tom’s sleeping bag was coated with ice, it had sleeted. Still no Joel. In the half light Tom looked at Jana. Her face and hair were glazed with ice like a polished marble statue. He stirred, the ice on his bag cracking. The sun’s first rays hit their camp, Tom decided he would hike to McKinders for help. Putting on his boots and jacket he grabbed some trail mix and water and scrambled up the hill. On a mountain in Africa the sun warmed the silent figure, the ice melting like tears.