Cigarettes & Spotter Cards (Dad’s war, 2)

When the Nazi air attacks began in earnest, every aspect of life in Britain became channeled into the war effort. Theirs was a small island nation with limited resources facing a military/industrial colossus with the entire provender of conquered Europe at its disposal. Desperate measures would be called for in order to survive. Brits were encouraged to grow their own food, re-use everything and build bomb shelters in their backyards. The government sponsored a war bond drive, collected scrap metal for use in fabricating weapons and carefully rationed consumer goods. The talents of the advertising industry turned to creating posters reminding people that loose lips sink ships and even the space on cigarette packages that normally advertised tea, tinned cakes and beer was used to reinforce the information everyday Brits needed to survive.

I remember one thing about my father that always struck me: his uncanny ability to identify aircraft. We would be sitting on the couch watching a TV show set during the war and he would immediately identify any plane that appeared onscreen: Corsair, Mustang P-4, Spitfire. These were fairly common allied planes known to most people, but dad could name them at the briefest glance. This was impressive enough, but it was the German aircraft he knew best: the Heinkel, the Junker-88, the Stuka, the Messerschmitt 109. He could identify these by silhouette, tell you each one’s effective operational range, crew complement, armament and the kind of engine it used. I assumed he knew these things because he liked aircraft and had studied them for fun as a boy. But I later realized that, as a Blitz kid, my father’s motives for learning about German planes had nothing to do with enjoyment. It was a matter of survival.

My Grandpa Joe, who worked in the shipyards, smoked. A lot of men did back then, but the war took a toll on the tobacco supply so Grandpa took to storing tobacco and old butts in the pocket of the coat he would wear to work each day then hang on a coat tree by the door upon his return home. My father confessed to me that he would occasionally raid that pocket for half-smoked cigarettes and scraps of tobacco that he and his friends could roll and share. Like a lot of Blitz kids, dad started smoking early.

The cigarettes my grandfather could buy when they were available included cards, similar to modern-day baseball and hockey cards. In pre-war days, these contained images of sailing ships, sports personalities or historical figures. But with the war, cards were repurposed to convey reminders and tips about the skills necessary to survive bombardments and gas attacks. Cigarette cards showed the average Brit how to turn his living room into a bomb shelter, help a child put on a gas-mask or extinguish an incendiary bomb with a garden hose. These cards were intended to convey as much information as could possibly be fitted into a tiny space. They also contained images of planes.

Airplane cards often featured an attractive illustration of the airship in question on one side and a list of specs on the reverse: engine make, top speed, crew complement, ordnance – the works. Men who smoked would sometimes keep these cards. Grandpa Joe gave his to my dad. Too bad we lost track of them, because they’re worth a fortune today on e-Bay.

I imagine my father collecting and studying these cards, trading them with friends, one-upping each other on how well they knew their facts. In such times, a boy’s natural fascination with machinery and war would have been tempered with the knowledge that some of those beautiful machines he admired were being sent to kill him. Some ‘spotter cards’ (for so were cigarette cards of airplanes called) featured silhouette charts, enabling an observer to tell whether the plane above was a fighter or a bomber. Deciding what to do with such knowledge meant the difference between life and death in an air raid. Such was the brutal calculus of war and the basis of my father’s impressive knowledge of Nazi airplanes.

Unfortunately, my father’s career as a big-time tobacco thief had one built-in problem: getting a light. Grandpa used a lighter, which my dad could not very well pinch. “And your grandmother watched every wooden match in the place,” he complained to me once.

“So how did you get a light?”

Dad smirked. “Gas street-lamps. We’d roll a smoke and then send one of the kids up to light it from the gas jet.”

I had to laugh. Life during war-time. Kids always find a way.

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My Father’s War

My father never spoke much about the war. He was born and grew up in Leith, an exurb of northern Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth. When the Battle of Britain began, a great many middle- and upper-class children were evacuated from the cities and sent to live in places in the country. But my father’s family was solidly working class and poor. Grandpa Joe labored in the shipyards on the Firth of Forth as a blacksmith. When war came, the family stayed because that’s where work could be found.

Grandpa balanced with his forge and tongs on the great scaffolding that rose around the ships, pouring and cooling bolts that would be used to tighten the hull-plating, screwed in by riveters while still slightly warm so they would contract as they cooled and so tighten the seal. The men at the dockyards worked incredibly hard. Over the course of the war, the shipyards on the Firth built 42 vessels for the Royal Navy, 14 merchant ships and repaired or refit nearly 3,000 war and merchant vessels. On average, a ship was repaired every day and a new ship launched every six weeks.

Leith’s importance to the war effort is best illustrated in the fact that it was the target of the first Luftwaffe airstrike on Britain. On the 16 October 1939, British fighters engaged a bomber squadron in an action now known as the Battle of the River Forth. The Battle of Britain would officially began the following summer, but it came early for my father and the residents of Leith. From that point forward, bomb shelters and night air raids became an everyday fact of life. Leith was critical to the British war effort and so the Luftwaffe showed it no mercy.

As my father got older, he waxed nostalgic. Not for the war, but for the memories of his boyhood. I suppose that was when I first began to catch glimpses of the world he knew growing up. There were two films in particular that he loved. One was Empire of the Sun, which recounts the experiences of a young Brit held prisoner along with his family in a Japanese internment camp in the Far East. I could see my father’s absolute veneration of all things American mirrored in the young protagonist’s worship of the Americans in the film. But it was Hope and Glory, the story of an urban child, that perhaps gave me the clearest view of what life was like for Blitz kids.

My father would sometimes mention the fires, the ruined buildings. The Luftwaffe were fond of dropping these incendiary devices that would simmer fitfully for a while before exploding and blasting a fiery, napalm-like substance in all directions. Incendiaries were devilishly hard to extinguish, requiring use of a specialized hand-pump and an air warden like Grandpa Joe who was willing to stand out and brave the bombing to water the ordnance with the necessary patience extinguish it. The bullet-shaped nacelles were set atop a brass base embossed with a swastika. My father and his friends used to collect and trade these like hockey cards. Gutted buildings, freshly pummeled by air raids, afforded a playground containing a wonderland of things to smash and shatter (always an intoxicating prospect for young boys). I’m sure that my father and his friends, like the protagonists of Hope and Glory, busted up their share of wardrobe mirrors, crockery, porcelain sinks and toilets in the wreckage of displaced peoples’ homes.

But aside from the occasional allusion or reference to a scene in one of those two films, my father said very little about those years. Until one day aboard an airplane we were taking somewhere. I forget where or when or on which airline, but I remember you could still smoke. My father asked me for a cigarette and I lit one for him, then waved out the match before lighting my own.

“Not two on one match,” he said. “You remembered.”

“Yeah. You taught me that. A World War II thing, wasn’t it?”

He nodded, smoked and said nothing for a minute. Then:

“You know they used to make us sing?”

“Who?”

“The grown-ups. In the bomb shelter.” He turned and looked me directly in the face, something he rarely did. “When the air raid sirens would sound, we’d break like hell for the shelters. You had to get in there right away before they filled up. We’d close the door and then we’d sit and wait. You could hear the bombers approach. A low drone. It was horrible. The bombers cave in waves. So when we heard the drone, the adults would make us start singing.”

“Singing what?”

“Oh, anything. Football songs. Christmas Carols. ‘God Save the Queen.’ Anything. They did it to keep us from getting scared.”

“Oh, sure!” My mind went back to every World War II movie I’d ever seen. “You mean the sound of the bombs, right? They whistle as they drop.”

“No. Not the whistling. The silence. The whistling meant the bomb was going wide and wasn’t going to hit you. It was the sound of the air against its spoilers. But if it was coming straight down right on top of you, there’d be complete silence. Silence was frightening. We never knew if it was the end of the raid, a pause between waves or curtains. So they made us sing.”

“So you couldn’t tell if a bomb was ever coming on top of you.”

“Sure. What difference would knowing make anyway?”

It was the first unique memory he ever shared with me about the war.

I have been thinking about World War II a lot lately. The nationalist upheaval in the United States bears a frightening resemblance to the growth of Nazism in Hitler’s Germany. Much is being written in periodicals and discussed on social media regarding this unexpected development. A great many concerned, politically-active people from across the social spectrum are uniting to oppose it and I, for one, thank them – particularly the young people. For as the son of a Blitz survivor and all that entails, I can never hear the word Nazi without picturing shattered buildings and fires, and imagining my father wandering the wreckage. For me, there is no separation between the idea of Nazism and the inevitable destruction it wreaks. In the absence of any coherent ideology or logical goals, fascism inevitably leads to social violence which, in turn, leads to war. Those opposing the Nazi movement in America today are involved in taking the necessary preventative steps to deflect that possible future for us all.

I have written elsewhere about the thread of history connecting us to World War II. The Holocaust Survivors were crucial in reminding us all of the importance of continuity and memory. As their generation passes, along with that of the veterans of the war, I find myself in the unaccustomed position of being a custodian of our family’s connective thread to World War II. Since my father’s death, I am the only one left with these memories. So I will share them as time and opportunity allow. Please know that I am only a steward of these tales; they are not my own, but rather come down to me through my family. I think there is value in sharing them here. Because I think it’s important to underline that, no matter how desperate things got during the Blitz and no matter how invincible they seemed, the Nazis lost in the end. If you had told my father that as he played in the wreckage he would not have believed you, just as there are those today who are convinced that white nationalism’s emergence as an enduring political force in America is assured. But we know from history that wherever such movements emerge, good men and women inevitably rise to oppose it. It’s never easy, but it’s absolutely necessary. Because somewhere, children are singing in the bomb shelter.

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Elegy

My mother died two days ago. Possibly three. We were estranged for twenty years, so I’m getting conflicting stories from different relatives. What is certain is that she is gone and, regardless of how our relationship as mother and son played out, the pain I now feel is keen and deep. Having some sense of the how, when and where of her passing would provide some comfort, but it seemed more important to my relatives to immediately send me a form to sign relinquishing all claims to her estate and personal property before telling me anything. Additional info would presumably be furnished upon compliance. This should tell you a great deal about my family.

Each life is like a small voice. Even before it begins to speak, this voice contains within it a story all its own: a story complete with its own unique nature, desires and impulses. Childhood is like that voice whispering, testing out its story on the world. Parents are always quick to demonstrate how their child is like them. But most I’ve encountered are just as quick to harken to that voice and celebrate its uniqueness. In my ten years as a teacher, I saw countless parents labor to nurture their child’s identity, listening to and encouraging that voice to find its adult volume. It’s an amazing process to witness. In my experience, as a child grows and assumes his own sure identity, his voice invariably falls into harmony with the world’s.

Or not.

My mother took a different view. My voice was less important, she was convinced, than the song she would train it to sing. It did not matter that that voice had no interest in singing, any more than I had an interest in attending an all boy’s school. At every turn, my mother sought to shape, influence and direct that voice into a tone and timbre of her choosing. Much of this had to do with her own class ambitions. Seeking to discover my story was less important than my learning to ape the manners and cultural forms of the upper classes to whose ranks she aspired. My being subjected – unprepared and unsupported – to the whimsical cruelties of their education and training practices was more important than remaining true to my own nature and becoming who I was meant to be.

At every turn, my voice was shouted down. It would be decades before I understood what was happening to me. By the time I reached adolescence – that period of preparing to launch into adult life – my voice, barely above a whisper, was spewing word salad. I had been taught to so thoroughly distrust my own intuition and impulses that my voice no longer even recognized its own story.

I eventually rebelled, but only at great cost. When I resisted the path laid out for me as completely incongruous with my own shattered nature (what was left of it that I could recognize, anyway) I was met with screams, threats, violence. When those failed, they were replaced with coercion and manipulation. I refused to go into the family business (the one that resulted in my parents’ arrest and indictment by a Federal grand jury). No matter what violence I encountered, I resisted. The need to discover my own voice had grown impossible to ignore.

I left.

In the years that followed, much happened. The aforementioned indictment and arrest, my father’s death, the dissolution of everything they had built: all this I watched from afar. Sadly, I missed whatever people do in their twenties to  individuate as circumstances forced me to struggle for survival. But, when the smoke had cleared, I picked my way through the wreckage back toward my mother. She was all I had left, and I hoped to re-establish a relationship within a framework more solidly grounded in reality. Yet it soon became obvious that she had learned nothing. She quickly fell into old patterns. When she was confident that I wasn’t going anywhere, the efforts to shape, manipulate and mould my life, to steal my voice – one that had just begun telling its unique story, and at great cost – returned. It infiltrated my private and professional life. I tried very hard, for many years, to maintain contact despite the negative effect it was having on my well-being. But only after she chased away the second very serious girlfriend of my thirties did I realize that as long as I was in her orbit, it would be impossible for me to self-actualize. That voice I was struggling to find and project would always be shouted down, by any means available.

I wanted love. I wanted a family of my own.

So I left again.

Two decades passed.

No one who lives as my mother did develops in a vacuum. Throughout my life I had been treated to the her birth family’s follies: the endless interpersonal squabbles, the constantly shifting alliances, the long-held grudges and scenes of dramatic confrontation. Long-stored resentments could be whipped out at a moment’s notice to refute an argument with its roots in the deep past. The only way to survive, it seemed, was for family members to gang up on each other and (you guessed it) shout each other down. Whoever lost was expected to calmly sit and accept the family narrative as imposed, regardless of how poorly they fared within its storyline. Theirs is a remarkable fantasy world, as richly-imagined as Tolkien, and every bit as untethered from reality.

I received news of mom’s cancer bare weeks before she died. Poverty spared me the task of wrestling with my conscience. A passport? A plane ticket? Out of the question. And anyway, by then the family was beginning to circle …

I’m doing my best right now to cope with the abusive e-mails I am receiving. Despite my bereavement, apparently I live in a family where it’s acceptable to send missives containing words like “despicable” and “sickening” and heartfelt wishes for destruction upon someone whose mother has just died. Apparently the stories are circulating that I am seeking to “cash in” (presumably because I refused to immediately sign over my rights to anything of hers). The speed with which their long-held contempt for me has become unleashed has been chilling. The process of shouting Jamie down – again – has begun.

But these constant attacks on my voice and my story have had an unintended result: namely, that my need to assume control of the narrative of my own life and tell my own story assumed an importance as overriding as that of three meals a day or sleep.

I became a writer.

Not a big-shot by any means. But I have achieved a certain level of visibility. I have a small but dedicated readership, a number of whom have become close friends. And a welcome circle of people who know me through my work – editors, publishers, supportive colleagues. People capable of understanding the importance of my writing to me, who understand that it is, literally, a matter of psychic survival.

At long last (and I am not convinced the process is entirely complete) I have found my voice.

And as I watch the flaming denouement of my mother’s family, as I see them age and disintegrate, I realize how many decades I wasted believing they were anything but an impediment to my becoming who I am. Even now they continue to rehearse decades-old dramas. People who live artificial lives must always dwell in the past because, having constructed their identities on a lie, they must be endlessly self-referential, shouting down any voice that disagrees. As they are doing now. The same family that was only too happy to belly up to the hog trough and snuffle down their share of the wealth while my parents were riding high (pre-grand jury) now accuse me of greed. They’re busily fabricating new patches for the family quilt – ones in which, no doubt, I will feature as a timeless villain. But it doesn’t matter.

Because I won.

My voice is stronger.

And I’m telling the story now.

Rest in peace, mom. In spite of everything, I love you. May you find peace in the Nightland.

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“… before the world changes and the dark times come”

I’ve sold my house, quit my job and moved into this fifth-wheel at the far edge of a campground. It’s the tail end of the tourist season. There’s nobody around.

 

For the first time in my adult life, the wolf isn’t at the door. I have a little money put by – my reward for having made it to fifty without having kids. I’m going to take it easy and see what the world does in the next few weeks. I’ve updated my bibliography with my publications for the year, posted this and will now tinker with a new writing project until January.

One day, we’ll look back on this late autumn of 2016 and say: I remember the days before the mad-man came to power, before his grip closed around the world and darkened everything. I want to remember this season before the world changes and the dark times come.

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Announcement

I will be leaving Permuted Press. This was a mutual decision, arrived at amicably and in consultation with the management at Permuted. I want to take this opportunity to thank Michael L. Wilson and his team for the chance to publish my work, make some great professional contacts and have lots of fun in the process. I would gladly do it again.

I am presently in negotiation with other publishers regarding upcoming projects. THE BOOK OF ASHES, coming this December, will be my last book with Permuted.

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TREK

By popular demand, the story of that time I almost got to write for STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION.

On 28 September 1987 I, along with everybody else, was parked in front of a television watching the pilot episode. I was a third year student at the University of Arizona whose enjoyment of the original series in re-run had instilled my ideal of sci-fi television grounded in the work of Harlan Ellison, Charles Beaumont and Norman Spinrad – science fiction greats who had turned their hands to writing STAR TREK scripts which justly became some of the most influential episodes in television history. What excited me about the original TREK was its willingness to discuss Big Ideas on the small screen. And, having been bitten by the writing bug, what excited me about THE NEXT GENERATION was the possibility of contributing to that cultural conversation. I was twenty-one.

Three years as an undergraduate English major had taught me, if nothing else, to do research. I videotaped and watched the pilot twice through, identifying character names from the closing credits, noting changes to the world of the United Federation since the original series and, as the first season progressed, relationships develop between crew members aboard the sleek new Enterprise-D. Having had a few scripts produced for a local community access cable show, I knew the basics of writing a teleplay. I had also read enough literary science fiction to have a sense of its breadth and possibility. I was quite sure the new show would be flooded with unsolicited submissions, so sought to write something that would stand out. That first season, episodes alternated between a half-hour and an hour-long format. I crafted a half-hour tale about an alien being that inadvertently finds itself a stowaway onboard the Enterprise. I framed it as a mystery and used the pairing of Dr. Crusher and security chief Tasha Yar as an opportunity to develop an unlikely friendship between the two women. After a few rewrites I felt I had something good. I held my breath, printed it and mailed my script (“The Shelter”) off to the STAR TREK production offices.

About three weeks later, rushing out the door on my way to class, I grabbed a stack of mail without bothering to glance through it before jumping into the car. I made the lecture on time and, afterwards, paused on a bench outdoors to smoke a cigarette and rummage through mail. In amongst the bills and junk was a cream-colored envelope addressed to me with the STAR TREK logo in the upper left-hand corner.

They had written back.

I just sat and stared at it for the longest time. It will be a pro forma rejection, I cautioned myself. Established sci-fi and pro TV writers would be vying like sharks for the opportunity to place a script with TREK. What chance did I have? I imagined a Spock-like calculation of infinitesimal odds. Still … this was pretty freakin’ cool! Trying to convince myself I didn’t care, yet determined to treasure my little piece of television history, I opened the envelope carefully and read a short letter from a man named Maurice Hurley. Sadly, the original has been lost, but the gist of it was this:

I liked your script.

Call me.

And there was a phone number.

I almost choked on my Marlboro. “Call me”? Holy shit, I thought. Hollywood, here I come! In that instant, I think I was probably the most hopeful soul on the U of A campus. What were the chances of an opportunity like this coming my way? This could very well be the fulcrum upon which my life turned …

Take it easy, bub, I chided myself. One thing at a time. Breathing deeply and working to control my heartbeat, I found a bank machine and made a withdrawal. I converted twenty dollars to quarters, found a pay phone outside the economics building and, there in the blazing sun surrounded by a milling crowd of university students, dialed the number.

A young woman answered. “STAR TREK production offices,” she said.

“Um, hi. My name is … Jamie Mason. And, uh, somebody named Maurice Hurley wrote and asked me to call -?”

In the background, a man’s voice: “Who is it?”

“A … Jamie Mason?”

“Oh, yeah yeah! Yeah, put him through right away.”

I was shaking. I lit a cigarette.

“Hello, Jamie? Hey, Maurice Hurley here. I’m one of the show’s producers. Thank you for calling!”

“Um, yeah. Actually, thank YOU … For writing, Mr. Hurley …”

He laughed. “Maurice, please. Jamie, your script was excellent. I showed it to Gene. He loved it.”

I was floored. “Gene … Roddenberry?”

“Yeah, him.” Hurley laughed again. “I wanted to talk to you because … Well, I mean it was a great idea. An alien being that shape-shifts into a meteor-like form to travel through space? Neat concept. And I liked what you did with the doctor and Tasha Yar. Some good dialogue there. And I liked how you made their different educational levels a barrier they had to overcome in order to relate to one another. It was clever. Well done, Jamie.”

“Um. Yes. Well … hey, thanks.”

“I wanted to talk to you personally about it. We’re lining up scripts for season two and yours made it. But unfortunately, we can’t use it. I can’t tell you too much right now but, well … the actress who plays one of the two characters you focused on isn’t returning next season.”

“Oh.”

“But please! Write another one. Send it along. We’d really love to see something else from you.”

“I … Sure. Thank you.”

“Not at all. We’re opening up the script pool to all comers. We want depth and breadth of ideas because that’s what STAR TREK is all about. We’ve got some great authors pitching us. But we’re also discovering some gems in the slush pile. Like yours. Keep writing. You’ve got a future.”

“I … I will.”

“I have a production meeting to go to, but it was great talking. Keep in touch okay, Jamie?”

“I will,” I promised. And he hung up.

I felt like I was standing atop a skyscraper in a windstorm.

It was the fulcrum on which my life turned, only not in the way I imagined.

Shortly after that phone call, my life would be overtaken by a series of catastrophes. My family would be rocked by successive scandals ending with a grand jury indictment and the arrest, by the FBI, of my mother and father. I would lose everything in the ensuing legal apocalypse, and be forced to start from scratch at a gig selling magazine subscriptions by phone for $4.75 an hour (the minimum wage in Arizona at the time). It would take me years to gain any semblance of financial stability and two marriages, several career changes and a return to Canada before I would start writing again with any regularity. But that phone call with a kind and gracious man on that hot October morning in Arizona remains with me to this day.

I showed it to Gene … He loved it ….

Eight words, and the proudest achievement of my life.

Go boldly.

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