Category Archives: Stories

The Moment of Learning

Local schools will be back in session soon, and for a moment I want to enter the realm of contemplating our collective navels about the actual process of learning.
I hope we can all agree that regurgitating facts and figures on a standardized test is not proof of true learning. So what exactly is learning?
The best illustration of the moment of learning is the climactic scene in The Miracle Worker. This is, of course the story of Helen Keller. She was a child who lost her hearing and sight very early in life. By the time she became prepubescent Helen was totally out of control. Her wealthy Southern parents were at their wits end about how to handle her.
Enter Annie Sullivan who was almost blind herself. Annie had a plan: communication through hand signals. However, this little girl and this Irish woman have some pretty fantastic battle royales. Who’s going to win? The stubborn little Southern girl who doesn’t want to learn anything or the strong-willed Irish woman who’s determined to pound learning into her head.
In the big scene at the end Annie drags Helen out to the water pump to force her to fill a pitcher which she had just knocked off the dining room table. She pumps the water, sticks Helen’s hands into the flow and repeats the finger movement to water.
Suddenly it dawns on Helen that the wet stuff equals wa-wa which was one of the only words she learned before going deaf which equals the finger movements. Once she had “the” learning moment, she picked up more words quickly, urgently wanting to know the signs for everything.
My wife said she witnessed a high school science teacher having a similar epiphany while he drew the life cycle of the fern on the chalkboard. Actually, he was a football coach assigned to teach science so he memorized what he was supposed to say and what to draw on the board while his mind was already on scrimmage practice after school.
On that particular day, he stopped in mid-sketch, took a step back and stared at the illustration before him. The students watched as his stooped shoulders straightened as though endowed with a miracle elixir. He erased what he had drawn so many times before and replaced it with a new version, created by his newly acquired learning of what the life cycle of the fern truly meant.
My wife went from bored incomprehension to thrilling understanding because the teacher finally understood what he was teaching. Anyone who wanted to learn about the life cycle of the fern should have asked my wife. She knew.
On the other hand, my wife never had the moment of learning with the mysteries of the playing the piano. After 12 years of lessons she was in the dark. She knew what the notes on the page meant. She knew how to put her fingers on the keys. But the concept of how it all blended together to create the ethereal quality of music eluded her. At her church, everyone loved the way she played “Onward Christian Soldiers”. She could bang that march tune out to beat the band, but she couldn’t attempt to interpret “Clair Du Lune”.
I can honestly say that I was in my fifties before I finally found my writing style. It’s not like I didn’t know grammar and syntax. I just didn’t know how to make the words work together the way they should. Better late than never.
When were your best “aha” moments? They can come at any age so keep on the lookout. And I hope all the children sitting through classes this year have that experience of widening their eyes and letting their mouths go agape. “So that’s what the teacher is talking about!”

My Role in the Moon Landing

I know exactly what I was doing fifty years ago today:  I wanted the astronauts to leave the moon after midnight.

That summer I was an intern at the Paris News.  Not the Paris in France but the one in Texas.  My job was to do whatever needed to be done—police beat, sports reporting, obituaries, if a lady called and said her dog could talk, I was the one they sent out to interview the dog.

My favorite duty was helping out on the wire desk.  Way back then each newspaper had a machine typing out news from the Associated Press.  At the beginning of each news cycle, morning and afternoon, the AP sent out a list of recommended top stories.  Some wire editors followed the list religiously while others struck out on their own and decided for themselves.  I decided the AP had a long history of getting it right, so I followed the list. The Paris wire editor follow AP’s list too.

I learned more from her about the nitty gritty of getting a newspaper out on time than I did from all the PhDs at my college.  She came in during the day and went through the list and asked the managing editor if there was any local news that needed to go on the front page.  She then, showed me what story would go where and what headline size to use.

She did allow me to make changes if something big broke right on the midnight deadline.  At nineteen years old I didn’t like to make that kind of decision.  The big sweaty guys in the print shop, press room and circulation department didn’t like when I missed the deadline.  I had never heard such language directed at me as when I made them work late.  I mean, it was really bad, car breaking down on the Dallas freeway at rush hour bad.

The situation this night fifty years ago was that she had already written the main headline in huge bold type:

Man Lands on Moon

She had never used that type size before.  She was saving it for the Second Coming, but she decided landing on the moon was close enough to being the biggest event she ever wrote a headline for.  All I had to do was keep up with the updates throughout the evening.

After she left for the day I was left at the wire desk watching out for the stories from the list she had selected.  When one came across, I carefully ripped it off, edited it(even the big pros at the Associated Press could misspell something from time to time), trimmed it to fit the space reserved for it on the layout, write the headline, stick it in an air tube and sent it on its way.

I loved the clickety-clack of the teletype machine typing out each word, one letter at a time.  I loved the suspense of waiting for each word to appear.  I even loved the smell of the lubricant squirted into the machine to keep it running.  The most heart throbbing experience was the ringing of the bell to announce a top-of-the-list story, updated leads to stories already sent or—most exciting of all—a totally new unexpected top story.  Those stories like that got multiple bells which sent everyone in the news room scrambling to the wire machine to see what had just happened.

The wire editor had laid things out very precisely for me so there should have been no worries.  But, being a nerdy, over-thinking type, something popped into my head as the AP gave regular updates on when Apollo 11 would leave the surface of the Moon.  Remember, now, that I was in journalism school which impressed on me to try to make each headline as accurate as possible.  What if the spaceship left the lunar surface before deadline?

The headline would not be accurate.  Yes, man landed on the moon; but, by the next morning when the readers got their papers, man would have already left the moon.  Remember, I was this wonky nerd and being completely accurate was very important to me.  If the departure occurred after deadline, then the decision had left my hands.

“Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding.”

Now why didn’t the AP editor decide to take a coffee break and eat a doughnut before sending out the updated lead that man, indeed, and left the moon?  Before I made a decision about the headline, I ripped the new lead paragraph and prepared it to go to the print shop and shot it down the air tube.  Next I checked the headline itself.  If the word ‘leaves’ made the headline too long, then I could justify to myself the change wasn’t worth the trouble.

My next thought was to call the wire editor herself, but I remembered she was going to be out all evening.  So I called the managing editor at home to let him make the call.

“Sure, why not?” he replied in a casual, devil-may-care manner.

I was not completely satisfied with his tacit agreement with my idea.  I don’t think he got as excited about putting out an accurate product as the wire editor and I.  He started out as a sports editor so he wasn’t as interested in the front page as the sports page.

When I delivered the new headline, the head of the print shop didn’t give me any arguments.  As long as it was before deadline he didn’t care.  So there it was, in Second Coming type”

Man Leaves Moon

The next time I came to work I checked the table where they kept the other papers.  All the others kept their Man Lands on Moon headlines.  I apologized to the wire editor, who was the closest I ever came to having a mentor, but she was very gracious about it.

“It’s all right.  It’s just I always wanted to see Man Lands on Moon in the paper.”

A few months later, another newsroom worker came to me and told me that the Texas State Archives had chosen my headline to be in the collection of Texas news coverage of the moon landing.  Here in my emeritus years I have considered that the wire editor put the other person up to telling me that about the archives just to make me feel better. It seems like something she would do.

Remember Chapter Nineteen

Previously: Retired teacher Lucinda remembers her favorite student Vernon. Reality interrupts when another boarder Nancy scolds her for talking to her daughter Shirley. Lucinda remembers Vernon decided to marry Nancy but instead was drafted. Her last advice to him was less than kind. She tries to advise Cassie but she shrugs it off by saying life is what it is.
Maybe life is that simple.” Lucinda decided if a student had made that observation in an essay she would have scrawled across the top, give this more thought.

“I don’t know. To say mommy’s the way she is because of something that happened to her a long time ago seems awful simple to me.”

“Perhaps you’re right.” Lucinda knew Cassie wasn’t, however. “How are you going to live after — I mean — financially?”

“Oh, daddy left me enough money in my insurance policy to live on.” Cassie’s face lit. “And then I git whatever he left mommy that she doesn’t spend. I’ll sell the house — of course, I won’t git much for it. It’s such a firetrap. Did I tell you how you can git out of this room if there’s a fire in the hall?”

“No. That might be useful information.”

Cassie stood to walk to the window and lean out. Lucinda followed her and peered out too.

“There’s a good sturdy drainpipe right outside here.” Cassie pointed to it. “You can climb down it. See, there’s even places to put your feet. Those thingies that strap the pipe to the wall. It’s right next to the honeysuckle trellis, but I wouldn’t try to climb down it. The wood is rotten.”

“Are you certain the drainpipe would hold my weight?”

“Oh sure.” Cassie lost interest in looking at the pipe, walked back to the rocker and sat. “The reason I know is because when Nancy used to have this room she’d climb down the drainpipe at night after that goofy lookin’ Vernon Singleberry left after one of their dates. “She had that handsome guy from the movie set awaitin’ on her at his motel. She always said it was Warren Beatty but between me and you I think it was really his stand-in.”

“Who she said fathered her child,” Lucinda filled in. She returned to the bed to sit.

“You know what’s funny? He wasn’t even the father.”

“I know,” Lucinda whispered.

“Yeah. You see, she told Vernon she was already married, but that guy wouldn’t marry her until after a blood test.”

Lucinda saw how Cassie relished the telling and the retelling of the juiciest gossip ever to emerge from her mother’s boardinghouse.

“And the test showed the baby was Vernon’s.” Lucinda wiped a stray tear from her cheek.

“Yep, and that guy dropped her like a hot potato.” Cassie nodded and resumed rocking. “Then Nancy didn’t have the nerve to tell Vernon the truth.”

“Yes, I know.” Lucinda’s heart was breaking once again as she remembered Vernon’s numbing grief.

“Anyway, after I sell the house I’ll git me a nice apartment somewhere, maybe with a nice view of somethin’ pretty, like a lake, to look at.”

“Do you think you’ll get a job?” She resumed her questions on Cassie’s personal life so she would not have to think about Vernon any more.

“Maybe I’ll babysit. I like that.”

“You have the ability to do more. I know you do.” Playing the part of the cheerleader always lifted Lucinda’s spirits.

“It’s too late.”

“It’s never too late.” Clichés always were comforting.

Cassie stopped rocking. Her shoulders slumped. The thrill of the rhapsodic movement was gone. “I could have gotten a job doin’ somethin’ but mommy wouldn’t hear of it. You see, those doctors said I wasn’t crazy enough to go to a mental hospital, but they said I — I never learned — well, what most people learn to git along in life — you know, out workin’ and with adults. Now babies, I love to be around babies.

“I’m sorry.” Why she was sorry, Lucinda did not know, but the sentiment was genuine.

“I’ll be all right. It’ll be downright heaven to live where I want to and do what I like without mommy tellin’ me I can’t or shouldn’t.”

“So you’re just waiting for her to die.”

“If there’s one thing havin’ a club foot teaches you it’s patience.” Cassie cocked her head.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothin’s wrong. They’ve all stopped now. Aunt Bertha’s probably cryin’ in her room, and mommy’s off cleanin’ somethin’ or other.” She stood and went to the door.

“You don’t have to leave now, Cassie.” No matter how sad the conversation, Lucinda was enjoying it nonetheless.

“Oh no. It’s time for my soap operas.” And she was out the door.

“How sad. How terribly, terribly sad,” she mumbled, allowing herself to fall back onto her pillow. “At least she took my mind off Vernon. I shouldn’t have kept my nose stuck in my papers that day. And I shouldn’t have been so flippant about his going to Vietnam. But it was true. More people are killed on the highway than in . . .” Realizing how foolish her rationalization sounded, Lucinda stopped in mid-sentence.

Booth’s Revenge Introduction

Author’s note: This is the sequel to my historical novel Lincoln in the Basement which I recently finished serializing on this blog. I would like to point out the title, Booth’s Revenge, does not imply that he was in the right to seek revenge, just that he took revenge.
A little known American myth* alleges Secretary of War Edwin Stanton became so disillusioned with the way President Abraham Lincoln was handling the Civil War in the fall of 1862, following a summer of disastrous Union defeats, he decided to kidnap Lincoln and his wife and hold them under guard in the White House basement. Diverse historians pieced the story together from reports of interviews with surviving participants of the bizarre ordeal.
Stanton found a deserter in the Old Capitol Prison to impersonate Lincoln and an imprisoned Confederate spy to impersonate Lincoln’s wife. After intensive research, historians identified the man as Duff Read of Michigan who was sentenced to hang and the woman as Alethia Haliday of Bladensburg, Md., who was convicted of trying to sneak an escape plan into prison to notorious spy Rose Greenhow. After the war, Smithsonian Institution officials requested Old Capitol Prison to turn over its records for historical preservation. Mysteriously they discovered pages missing during September of 1862. Careful study revealed that Duff and Miss Haliday were admitted to the prison in early 1862 but no records noted when they were removed. When the Smithsonian delegation confronted Prison Superintendent William Woods about the missing records, he refused to comment. After museum researchers went to the hometowns of the missing prisoners, they found evidence the couple indeed bore striking resemblances to the Lincolns and that no one ever saw either one after the war.
Stanton chose Private Adam Christy to guard over the Lincolns and tend to their daily needs. Christy, by coincidence, came from Stanton’s hometown of Steubenville, Ohio. Rumors began to circulate throughout Steubenville after the end of the war that Christy did not die at the Second Battle of Manassas as reported in official War Department documents. Christy’s father swore to the day he died that Secretary Stanton had assigned his son to duties at the White House.
At the turn of the twentieth century, relatives of poet Walt Whitman found among his papers a curious story about a half-witted janitor in the White House named Gabby Zook. According to the story, Zook stumbled into the basement to discover the kidnapping. The story also claimed that Stanton forced Zook to join the Lincolns for the next two and a half years. Literary circles dismissed the story at the time as poetic expression of the feeling of confinement all Americans underwent during the war.
The questionable Whitman papers also alleged Stanton often went to the basement for advice from Lincoln because his own policies were not working as expected. Zook told Whitman of an incident in which the guard Christy became so distressed by his role in the conspiracy that in a rage he killed an unnamed White House butler. Zook insisted Stanton and one of his henchmen disposed of the body. Some historians speculate the henchman was Secret Service officer Lafayette Baker.
By the end of the war, the secretary faced the dilemma of what to do with two Lincolns. No one knows exactly what happened to the Lincoln impersonators. According to the Whitman account, Zook believed Stanton blackmailed Christy with the butler’s murder, forcing Christy to find assassins to kill the real Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, Secretary of War William Seward and Vice-President Andrew Johnson. Conventional history identified the presidential assassin to be John Wilkes Booth.
Zook confided in Whitman that Lincoln in the final days of the war had succumbed to extreme melancholia. He did not interact with his wife and Zook in the basement room nor did he eat. On the last day, Zook described Lincoln’s emotional state as one heading to the gallows, unable to control his own destiny.
Grandchildren of President Andrew Johnson told friends in Greeneville, Tennessee, that Johnson revealed on his deathbed that he discovered the kidnapping plot and the eventual assassination of Lincoln at the hands of Stanton. That discovery led Johnson to fire Stanton in 1867, provoking Congress to impeach Johnson. The Senate failed by one vote to remove Johnson from office.
To this day, no one knows what happened to the other participants in the plot.
*This report is absolutely true because I made up the myth myself in 1988.

David, Wallis and the Mercenary Chapter Seventy-Five

Previously: Mercenary Leon fails on a mission because of David, better known as the Prince of Wales. Socialite Wallis Spencer, also a spy, has an affair with German Joachim Von Ribbentrop and marries Ernest. David becomes king. Wallis divorces, David abdicates and they marry. The Windsors escape oncoming Nazis. Leon shadows their every move. Leon dies.
Sidney Johnson’s day was the same as every other day of his life in the last few years. He worked on Jinglepocket’s fishing boat. He liked the spray of the brisk salt water in his face. Jinglepockets commented regularly about how Sidney’s body was growing stronger and how soon Sidney would be working harder than he did.
“You may be only seventeen years old,” the old fisherman said, “but you put in a better day’s work than men twice your age.”
The compliment only made Sidney work harder, which gave him more coins to jingle in his own pockets.
He knew his mother would have a good supper waiting for him and afterwards he would go to his room to read the books his father brought back from his many travels. Sidney learned about history, mathematics, business principles, proper English, a smattering of other languages like Spanish and French. He memorized whole passages from guides on self-defense. He knew how to be aware of his surroundings, to heighten his reflexes so no one could catch him off-guard. Most crucial part of his studies was the art of killing his enemy quickly and silently.
This education led him to do the same job his father did. Leon had revealed in bits and pieces over the years to Sidney that he worked for a secret organization which often needed his expertise in stealing valuable items and killing people.
“Were they bad people?” Sidney asked.
“I don’t like to use words like good or bad,” his father replied with due deliberation.” If someone is good or bad must always be determined by the person who’s trying to fill his family’s bellies.”
Sidney did not know if he entirely believed what his father said, but he worshiped his father, and it would take great thought to reject anything he said.
Walking down the sandy lane from the pier to his house, he saw Pooka come up to the gated wall around his large home. It looked out of place in the neighborhood of fishing shacks. They had this house because his father killed people for a living. Nagging guilt kept him from feeling any sense of pride. His mother opened the gate to let Pooka enter. A churning in his gut made him break out in a trot. When he reached the gate he heard his mother scream.
“No! You lie! Leon said you were evil, and he was right!”
Sidney ran to his mother’s side and put his arm around her, murmuring loving words in her ear. He knew very well his father’s feelings about the high priestess of Obeah, a religion that mixed Christianity with Caribbean superstitions
“I have friends in Lisbon,” Pooka continued, “who sent me about a newspaper article.” She extended it to her. “Read it for yourself.”
Sidney took it. His mother’s eyes were already filled with tears. The headline was, “Windsors Sail for Freeport.” He scanned the article until he reached near the bottom of the story.
“As the crowds dispersed from the pier they found a black man lying on his face. He was dressed as a Portuguese peasant.” He read in a soft respectful voice. “Police authorities reported finding a bullet wound in his back. He was dead. Police found a key to a nearby hotel in his pocket. When they investigated the hotel room, they found a passport belonging to—“Sidney stopped, not wanting to say the name.
“Go on,” Jessamine ordered. “Read it all.”
“Leon Johnson,” Sidney continued. “An investigation revealed Johnson had been observed in surveillance of the home where the Windsors were staying. The police concluded Johnson was responsible for the attack on the house earlier in the week.”
“Your husband is dead, Jessamine. I tried to protect him through the years with the powers of Obeah, which he repeatedly rejected—with scorn.” Pooka raised her chin in pride. “Now will you believe me? Will you now follow me in the belief of Obeah?”
Jessamine stared at her. “You say friends in Lisbon sent this to you.”
“Yes.”
“You have lived on this island all your life.” Jessamine’s words were calculated. “How could you ever have friends in Lisbon?”
“Obeah.” The smugness faded from Pooka’s face. “I have friends around the world because of Obeah.”
“A little religion in the Caribbean has followers around the world?” Contempt licked each syllable Jessamine said.
“Your faith is weak.” Pooka’s eyes fluttered, out of control. “I can teach you to believe Obeah has believers around the world.”
Sidney watched his mother’s face turn crimson. He had never seen her so angry with Pooka. She had always had the highest regard for the priestess. He often overheard arguments between his parents about the high priestess. Jessamine promised Leon she would shun Pooka, but whenever he left on one of his long mysterious trips, she ran to the old woman for guidance and comfort. But no more.
“You leave my house.” Raging emotion clouded his mother’s voice. Not as a thunderstorm but as the black billowing clouds rolling in before the light and explosions. “And never come back.”
“You will come crawling back to me because you know I have the truth.” Pooka paused to look down her crooked nose at Jessamine and spit on the ground before going through the gate and turning down the road to her own hovel.
Jessamine wiped a few tears from her face, turned to Sidney to smile and put her arm around him. As they walked into the house, she whispered, “I have freshly caught grilled fish, rice and roasted vegetables, your father’s favorite meal. I had this feeling he would be coming home, and he did. He will never leave again. He lives in our hearts forever.”
Sidney thought this was a strange reaction, but much better than the screaming and rending of clothing he had often imagined would be her behavior when news came of his father’s death. Even though he doubted her sincerity, he did find it soothing.
As they sat at the table eating, Jessamine revealed her inner thoughts. “As you may remember, I never got along with your grandmother but I did love her and respect her. I want you to believe that.”
She paused. Sidney decided it was more discreet to say nothing at this point.
“I am carrying on as I know your grandmother would have. Your father would have wanted it that way.”
Sidney was relieved with his mother’s promise of stoic silence. He could feel his heart pounding. He needed blessed nothingness hanging over them like a sanctified blanket of comfort. It was not to be.
“Don’t worry about your future,” Jessamine continued. “Your father provided well for us. This house is ours. No one can ever take it away from us. It will be yours until the day you—well, are no longer here. You are faithful to old Jinglepockets. He loves you like a grandson. When he—well, is no longer here, his fishing business will be yours. Follow your father’s example. Find yourself a good woman—hopefully, a better woman than he found—and have many children. Be the example to your children like he was to you.”
Jessamine paused to look out the window at the setting sun. “You have three aunts. Just at the moment your grandmother Dorothy needed them most, they moved to Nausau to find husbands—well, they found men, instead. If they ever come to you asking for money, don’t give it to them. I know your father always said to fill the bellies of your family, but when your aunts turned away from Dorothy, they were no longer members of this family. Your father demanded it. Trust me. He told me so many times.”
Though he had never heard his father speak of his sisters, Sidney believed his mother. The command rang true with every other decree his father issued on matters of family.
“I appreciate your helping me clean the dishes every night,” Jessamine continued without emotion, “but I want you to get your rest so you can put in a hard day’s work on the fishing boat. You are the man of the family now. I will wash the dishes by myself tonight.”
Sidney stood, walked around the table and kissed his mother on the cheek. Without a word he climbed the stairs to his bedroom. But Sidney stopped and cocked his head. He did not hear the clanking of dishes in the sink. Instincts told him something was wrong. Leon had often commented about his son’s uncanny intuition and insisted he should always follow it. It would keep him alive. Sidney rushed from his room and bounded down the stairs. He glanced in the kitchen. His mother was not there. He ran outside, through the gate and around the house.
There he saw his mother walking with serene determination into the sea. Sidney began to chase after her, but Pooka came out of the shadows and wrapped her old arms around him.
“Sshh, this is what your mother wants,” she whispered.
“No!” He struggled to get away. “Mother! No!”
“Your mother lived for your father,” Pooka continued. “Would you make her suffer through life without him?”
Jessamine splashed through the waves and continued walking until she disappeared in the ocean. Sidney stopped struggling. It was too late.
“Do not worry.” Pooka released her hold on him. “I will guide you.”
Sidney lashed out, pushing her down into the sand. “Go away! My father hated you! My mother told you never to come back! I hate you! If I ever see your face again, I will kill you!”

A Word from the Author

I hope all of you are enjoying reading my stories. Just a reminder that I have a picture of my Storytelling Fund basket off to the side. If anyone would like to make a small contribution to defray the costs of the website I would be very grateful. Everyone have a happy summer!

David, Wallis and the Mercenary Chapter Seventy-One

Previously: Mercenary Leon fails on a mission because of David, better known as the Prince of Wales. Socialite Wallis Spencer, also a spy, has an affair with German Joachim Von Ribbentrop and marries Ernest. David becomes king. Wallis divorces, David abdicates and they marry. They fail to kill Hitler. David and Wallis volunteer to help France. Leon receives orders to go to France and says good-bye to his son.
The servants finished packing the limousine while the Windsors bid adieu to the staff. David embraced Monsieur Valat and whispered, “Take care. Thank you for helping Wallis with the recuperating soldiers. As soon as we leave dismiss the staff and lock the residence. I have informed the owner we are not renewing our lease. Then you and your son disappear into the hills. If you can, make it to Switzerland. As a former employee of an Allied officer and a volunteer at a convalescence hospital, you will be viewed with suspicion by the Germans.”
Wallis hugged Jean. “Thank you for saving my life.”
The sun was low in the sky. Valat looked around and frowned.
“Are you sure you do not want to wait until morning?”
“No,” David replied. “The trip to Barcelona will take twenty-four hours. It’s best if most of that time we are traveling in darkness.”
The Windsors pulled away in their car and drove down the winding driveway. After a couple of hours they stopped in Cannes for a supper. They had a salad and soup. Their anticipation of the long drive kept them from a larger meal. David pour the last of the wine into their glasses. After a sip, Wallis leaned in.
“Are you sure all these precautions are worth it?” Wallis asked. “If Joachim’s behavior the last time we saw him is any indication, the Germans have no idea we tried to kill Hitler.” She took out a cigarette and lit it.
“Two points, my dear. One, I’m not concerned about an assassination attempt on our lives. They want to kidnap us so we will be available to place on the throne if their air attacks on London are successful and the country falls. Two, the world must view us as escaping with our lives to keep up the pretense we are the mere abdication couple with no stomach for war.”
She blew smoke his way. “Since when did I give you permission to call me ‘dear’ in private?”
“Haven’t you noticed?” he smiled like an imp. “I always have.”
Amusement danced across her thin lips. “Oh really? You’re right. I hadn’t noticed.” She stood. “And now I have to go to the Johnny.”
“If you must.” David frowned. He didn’t understand why, but Wallis’s use of American slang irritated him. He looked out the window onto the dimly lit street. A motorcyclist sat at the curb staring at him. Normal people might not noticed such behavior, but as an experienced espionage agent David took in every detail.
Wallis returned. “You better go too, unless you want to pee in bushes.”
Damn her slang, David thought; however, what made it so aggravating was that she was right. She goaded him again when she slid in behind the wheel of the car.
“You need to get some sleep.” She turned the ignition. “It’s going to be a long night.”
After midnight, the roads begin to fill with villagers from Frejus, St. Maxine and St. Tropez. They were in a panicked march away from the oncoming German army. David and Wallis settled into a forbidding silence as the traffic crawled to a halt through larger towns like Toulon. At one point an ambulance blocked the road. Two men appeared to be changing all four tires. A woman, wearing a ragged coat stood by the side of the road holding a lantern up to the oncoming traffic. When they reached the woman, she shone the lantern in the car window and motioned them to the side.
“Now what can this be all about?” David muttered.
As soon as he cleared off the road and stopped, the woman limped over to them and opened the car door. She leaned in and whispered, “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been waiting all night for you.”
“Thank God it’s you. Now we can get some information.” Wallis grinned like a school girl.
“What do you have for us?” David asked.
“The Germans are moving faster than anticipated,” she began. “Our sources in Berlin say that Von Ribbentrop has taken all of your statements to the press and interpreted them to be your signal to Hitler that you are willing to become the new king once the British lose the war. That makes them even more eager to intercept you. The Spanish ambassador has assured your passage into Spain at Barcelona, but we think he will try to influence you once you arrive. They even have contingency plans to grab you in Portugal before you set sail.”
“Set sail for where?” David wrinkled his brow.
“How the hell would I know?” she retorted. “That’s between you and MI6.”
Wallis reached out to touch her hand. “I’m glad you’re on our side.”
“I’m on the side of France.” She withdrew into the darkness.
David took over the wheel, and Wallis snuggled in for a nap.
By dawn the Windsors entered Marseilles and realized the gas tank was on empty. The first two stations they passed were still closed which made them nervous. On the western end of the city they found a station just opening and filled the large limousine take, ensuring enough gasoline to reach the Spanish border. They found a small café, and ate a large breakfast. In a few miles the Windsors entered a more isolated countryside; however, the sky darkened with rain clouds. Soon a torrent began and continued most of the day, again slowing their progress. It was night before they knew it. The road narrowed as their car reached the Pyrenees Mountains. Refuges continued to crowd their escape.
A man pulling on a donkey with a child on its back stepped in front of David’s car. He swerved to keep from hitting them, but found himself in the mud unable to pull his car out. The more he gunned the engine the more entrenched it become. He put the car in neutral.
“We’ve got to get out and push,” he grumbled.
Without a word Wallis joined him. Ignoring the downpour, they put their shoulders to the rear bumper to no success. Behind them they heard a noise.
Allez, allez!” a high-pitched male voice called out.
A short man with broad shoulders rode up on his motorcycle and waved to others to join him. Without another word, the stranger and the volunteers he had recruited put their bodies again the car and pushed, eventually placing it back on the road. All the others scurried on their way. David grabbed the stranger’s hand to shake. He noticed the man had a heavy but worn coat, gloves and a knit cap pulled down over his ears.
“We can’t thank you enough.” David patted his back. “It’s as though you arrived by design.”
Pas de quoi.” The stranger laughed. “Indeed, it was by design.”
Wallis squinted at him. His features were obscured by the night. Instinctively she reached to pull off his cap, revealing a strong black face with penetrating eyes.
“You sound like you’re from the Bahamas,” she intoned. “Have we met before?”
“Yes, we have.”
“You saved my life on the Tanganyika Express,” she said in revelation.
“So, are you saying you have been following us?” David couldn’t understand.
“Well, this time just since Antibes.”
“Then why—“David tried to continue.
“You need to be in Barcelona as soon as possible.”
“Can we give you a ride?” David offered.
“I have my own transportation.” He pointed to his cycle. “And it is faster than yours.”
“Just who are you?” Wallis demanded. “Who do you work for?”
Before they could ask any more questions the stranger disappeared into the dark swerving in and out of the hordes of refugees. David remembered the cyclist who stared at them in the Cannes cafe. Knowing he had no time to reflect on the situation, he brushed the thought from his mind. David pushed Wallis to the driver’s side of the wheel.
“It’s your turn behind the wheel.”
They resumed their trek across the mountains to Perpignon where David once again began driving. Once they reached the border crossing, a crowd milled about, discontent murmurs floating around. David went to the Spanish entry office where the immigration clerk told him he had not received any message from the ambassador about the admittance of the former king of England. David tried to maintain his composure.
“You must understand, the German army has instructions to kidnap my wife and me. I am the former king of England.” Even as he said the words he knew they sounded ridiculous.
At that moment, there was a tap on the door to the Spanish side. The clerk opened it and a man stuck his arm in and grabbed the clerk to pull him outside. A moment later he returned. His face was beet red and his eyes wide in fear.
“I—I’m sorry for the delay. You are allowed to enter.”
As they drove across the border the Windsors saw the short man from the Bahamas on his motorcyle waving at them.
Por nada.”

Know Your ABCs

A I’m first. I’m number one.
B Better to be me (it rhymes).
C I’m like B. I rhyme too.
D Duh, I rhyme too.
E Even yet, I rhyme again.
F I don’t rhyme, and I don’t care.
G Gee, I rhyme and I’m proud.
H What the H. There ain’t nothing to rhyme.
I I stand alone and love it.
J I stand with A because we rhyme.
K I rhyme with A too.
L I don’t rhyme and I don’t care.
M Broad and muscled, I don’t have to rhyme.
N No, no, no.
O Oh, oh, oh.
P I’m in with B through E.
Q Do you expect me to give a darn?
R Really, do you expect me to care that Q doesn’t give a darn?
S SSS—just SSS
T Totally with B and the others.
U Guess what, Q? I rhyme with you.
V I’m in with the E rhymes.
W What you talking about rhymes?
X Exactly what I was talking about.
Y Why, I’m with I.
Z Wake me when you say something important. ZZZ

The Laugh

When the kids were young and mayhem reigned supreme in the house, I sometimes begged my wife to allow me to go camping by myself for a weekend for a little peace and quiet.
My favorite spot was out in the woods by the Withlacoochee River. My little pup tent took no time at all to set up and a quick trip among the trees provided enough wood and kindling for the fire. Sometimes I could hear other campers in the distance but most of the time I savored my solitude in the silence. It was about midnight several years ago that my contemplations were interrupted by several howls of laughter.
Looking about, I tried to determine where the noise was coming from. The laughter stopped, only to be followed by the crunching of leaves and twigs. I felt my heart in my throat. My mouth went dry. I cursed myself for not owning a gun even though I didn’t know how to use one. Maybe one of the larger logs in the fire would suffice as a weapon. I heard the laugh right behind me and jumped.
“What you all fidgety about, man?”
From the shadows ambled a bear of an old man with a long gray-streaked beard which I supposed had been dark amber when he was young. He had a limp which favored his left foot which looked like it had been mauled by something with sharp teeth. He plopped to the ground up across the fire from me and let out such a giggle-tinged grunt that I could no longer be afraid of him.
“Think there be skunk apes here about?” he asked more as a joke than a question.
“Well,” I replied, “I’ve never seen one.”
“Ever thunk they be ghosts of critters long gone? That’s how you folks can sometimes see them, but never catch one or see a track. Maybe they just love these old swamps and don’t want to go away.”
When he smiled, I noticed his teeth look like yellowed stalactites and stalagmites in a yawning cavern. His tongue darted out like a pink slime creature venturing from the abyss of his gullet.
“That’s an interesting theory.” I covered my mouth with my hand to keep him from seeing the flicker of a smile. “Have you ever seen a skunk ape?”
He let go with another cackling laugh. “You’d be surprised by what I’ve done and seen in these swamps.”
“Is that so?” I replied with my hand still across my lips. I began to think my kids weren’t so peculiar after all.
“You ain’t scared, are you, young fella? There ain’t no need to be.”
“That’s a relief.”
“I can tell you don’t believe in skunk apes, ghosts or nothin’ else that lurks about in the darkness.”
“I don’t mean any disrespect, sir, but, no, I don’t believe in skunk apes, ghosts or things that go bump in the night.”
“Then more fool you!” The old man threw back his head, howled in laughter for several moments before evaporating into the darkness.

Sorry

Everyone told me the best place to make out with your girlfriend was on Radio Hill Road.
“You got to see the lights of downtown from Radio Hill Road.” Use that line to persuade her. After about a minute and a half you slip your arm around her shoulder. This action should cause her to look from the lights and smile at you. Then go in for the kiss.
I knew the radio station was on Radio Hill Road but not much else; if you didn’t need to be on the radio, why bother to go out there? At 16-years-old, I had a high squeaky voice, and when I was nervous I tended to get loud. So, the night before my big date, I drove out there to familiarize myself with the best place to park. No lie, the view impressed me for a small town in Texas. I even practiced lowering my voice. That sounded creepy so I ditched the idea. Only a few second later, however, I saw a bright object in the sky, lingering over downtown. At first I dismissed it as an airplane, but this body had no extra blinking colored lights and seemed to linger before turning sharply and shooting directly over my car at a speed unattainable by any ordinary airliner.
Had I just encountered a space ship from another planet? Here I sat all alone on Radio Hill Road, and little green men knew it. I was ripe for the picking, just a laser beam away from being transported up for some exploratory surgery. Fumbling with my keys, I finally started my car and started down the hill when I passed a pair of headlights come in the opposite direction.
“Ahh!!” I screamed like a little girl. No. A little girl could not be that loud.
“What the hell’s wrong with you, kid?”
This teen-aged boy’s eyes widened, startled by my outburst. The girl sitting next to him began giggling. I felt bad that I had broken their mood. No necking for them tonight. Not only was I afraid of what I had seen in the sky, I also feared the story of my scream would be all over school on Monday morning. At the intersection of Radio Hill Road and the county highway heading back toward town, I stopped to gain my composure. I could never tell anyone about this. Everyone in school thought I was weird enough already without this new incident. Maybe the couple in the other car didn’t recognize me. After all, it was dark.
Tap, tap. A noise drew my attention to the car window. A little green man snapped his long skinny fingers which caused my window all by itself. I screamed again. This was it, I thought. I was the object of an alien’s next science experiment. Maybe it was all for the best. My social life at high school was over.
“Pardon me, young human.” A surprisingly deep voice came from a slit in the green head. “I didn’t mean to make you scream. Could you please direct me to the nearest United States of America Air Force Base? I’m meeting with your leader tomorrow morning, and I’m lost.”