Frequently Asked Question: What are five objects we’d find in your writing space?

insecure2bwriters2bsupport2bgroup2bbadgeThis question comes from the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, and will be the last one for 2018.

1. One of the cats. Seriously, they like to “help.” At the moment, it’s Gracey; she’s a lavender point snowshoe Siamese, and is the most mischievous of our feline family members.

2. My bulletin board. It’s always covered in reference ephemera from my most recent research trip, so I can grab what I need if I want to double-check something.

3. Model horses. I have a huge collection, and most of the display shelves are in my office.

4. A soda. I don’t drink coffee (I know, it’s a shocking thing to confess). My favorite sodas are regular Coke, Vanilla Coke, and Dr. Pepper.

born of war5. My diploma from the Defense Information School. I graduated from Public Affairs Officer Course 4-90, with honors. The first 16 years of my “day job” career were with the Dept. of the Army as a civilian, and it was during that time that I wrote my first book. Born of War … Dedicated to Peace is available via Scribd.

 

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Uncle Al’s Autograph

I was eight years old when my uncle Al died. He was only 42.

I was seven years old when he gave me his autograph.

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Alonzo Jackson Fretz, Jr.

When Uncle Al was a younger man, he’d enjoyed singing and playing the guitar.  He’d turned down a chance to go play with the Grand Ole Opry, because he had a young family and didn’t want to be on the road and far away from them. He and my aunt Jan had gotten married when they were only 19 years old; they met in the Air Force.

My cousin Tim asked for and received Uncle Al’s guitar; I don’t know whatever became of it. But I had his autograph, and that was my great brush with fame as a kid.

Anyway, it was the first year I was going to summer camp. My mother bought me an autograph book from the Camp Fire Girls store; it was red leatherette and had a gold embossed bluebird in the corner (Bluebirds were analogous to Brownies in the Girl Scouts). My aunt Jan, Uncle Al, and their two sons (my cousins Kenny and Barry) were visiting.  Uncle Al was pretty sick with emphysema; he spent a lot of time lying down in my parents’ bedroom.

It was the fashion at that time to have autograph books for school or camp friends, and I guess my mom didn’t want me to go to Camp Namanu with an empty book.  So, she, my dad, and our visitors all signed the book before it was given to me. I never saw my uncle Al again after that visit.

Over the next couple of years, between camp and school friends, the book started to fill up a little bit.

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Your intrepid author, in the 6th grade

I don’t think I knew yet that we were moving the summer between sixth and seventh grades, but I do remember bringing my autograph book to school on the last day of class at Fairview Elementary. One way or the other, I would not be back at that school; I suspect I figured I’d see lots of my classmates at Columbia View Junior High, but there were some kids who would go on to different junior high schools and, of course, some teachers whose signatures I wanted.

It was the typical last-day chaos, and our teacher was distracted.

More than anything, I wanted the signature of the boy on whom I had a crush. Looking back, I’m hard pressed to say why I had said crush.  He wasn’t that cute and he was a bully … but I had a crush nonetheless. And Jon made it very plain that he was not going to sign my book.

My best friend, Bobbi, had an idea. She would get him to sign my book by pretending it was hers. So, she took my book, flipped it open to a blank page, and asked Jon to sign it. He did, and then he saw her return it to me.

His rage was immediate and incandescent. He demanded that I give him the book, and I refused. One of Jon’s friends ran and grabbed it from my desk and tossed it to him; Jon ran out the door with my little red book.

He came back into the classroom and announced loudly that he had torn up the autograph and flushed it down the toilet.  He flung the book on my desk and said “Oh, someone called Uncle Al had written on the other side.”

I was 11 years old when Uncle Al’s autograph was stolen from me by that horrid kid. All I had left to show for my uncle was the ragged bit of blue paper where a cruel sixth-grader had yanked it out of the book. My crush died in that very instant.

I burst into tears; Bobbi knew why, of course. She yelled at Jon: “Her uncle Al has passed away. Have you no respect for the dead?”

She then told our teacher, Mister Marsh, what had happened … and he made Jon apologize. Of course, it was the kind of sullen, muttered apology that made it clear the only thing for which he was sorry is that he was caught.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have looked up many old classmates from those days and found wonderful adult friends among them.  Jon is one person I have no desire to talk to; I suspect he’s still a nasty bully all these years later, because sometimes a leopard doesn’t change his spots. Maybe I should forgive him for what he did, but I don’t want to. He took something precious and destroyed it in a fit of childish anger, and then he reveled in what he had done to cause pain to another person.

I have only a few photographs of Uncle Al now. I don’t remember what his autograph said. I don’t even know where the book is. Somehow, I just didn’t want to get signatures in it after that day.

The Stories We Never Hear

Hi, everyone. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we have to listen to people’s stories to truly get to know them … and how we don’t always do it.  I had fictionalized this story for It Happened in Memphis and Other Stories, but I decided to take out the fictional bits and just tell the tale.  I wish I had known this man’s story before now.

——

When I was little, we lived in Oregon. My folks didn’t make much money, so we didn’t have a regular house or even an apartment in a building. We lived in a trailer court, in a single-wide that was just about the same size as some of the old shotguns you see around New Orleans.  For most of my childhood, I shared a bedroom with my brother, because my Grandma lived with us. We had bunk beds; I had the bottom bunk, and I liked to pretend that it was a four-poster canopy bed. That was just about the most beautiful kind of bed I could imagine. I guess it’s because I didn’t know the tester was intended to keep bugs from dropping down on you. Anyway, I always wanted one of those damn beds, but I never got one. So, I pretended.

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Via CherryBlossomMobileHomePark.com.  The grey trailer on the right-hand side of the image is the space where we lived.

The trailer court was shaped kind of like a capital E. We were at one of the end legs, nearest the entry drive to the place. I used to ride my bike up to the hill at the end of our street; it let out onto what would have been the back of the E. Then, I’d ride down to the other end, down the hill, and back home to do it again.

There was a playground, rec room, and laundry house along the middle leg of the E. The playground didn’t have anything but a big swing set, but it was still something. The rec room had a pool table that was almost always covered; we used it as a workspace for projects when I was in Camp Fire Girls. There was a swimming pool, too, but after the first year or so that we lived there it was drained and never refilled. I don’t know why.

Anyway, there were a lot of other kids to play with … although there were always factions. Those factions would change from time to time. It was the most ridiculous stuff: “if you play with so-and-so, you can’t play with me.” I look back on that with a lot of regret, you know? Because I probably missed out on some neat kids.

But that isn’t the biggest regret.

See, we lived across the street from the man my parents called either the manager or the landlord. He was the man who collected the space rent from everyone. I never heard him called anything but Cecil; even I did it, as a little kid, although we should have called him Mister Bozarth out of respect, you know? He lived with his wife, Amy, in a trailer full of more photos and mementos than you could shake a stick at.

I went to elementary school with Mister Bozarth’s granddaughter, Patty. She and I weren’t friends. I thought she was kind of stuck-up, but looking back on it I think she might have been shy. Plus, there were some kids in the class who’d known each other since kindergarten, and I came along a little later. So, those friendships were already formed. When you’re a little kid, you don’t feel like there’s room for strangers. And anyone you haven’t known forever can be a stranger, you know?

I remember looking out the living room window one time and seeing Patty and her folks piling out of a nice car at Mister Bozarth’s. Everyone was hugging and smiling. I thought about going outside and asking Patty if she wanted to come over and play checkers or something after they’d had dinner with her grandparents, but I didn’t. I didn’t think she’d say yes, so I didn’t bother. Who knows what kind of opportunity I missed because of that?

No one, that’s who.

Anyway, I can’t say why exactly, but I was intimidated by Mister Bozarth. He never did or said anything mean to me, but I was kind of scared of him. He looked a little rough, even though he was an elderly guy. He wore work pants held up by suspenders, and a plaid flannel shirt. A lot of times, his hair was messy. His wife, Missus Bozarth, she always looked like she’d stepped out of a bandbox. She wore pantsuits with a brooch, earrings and necklace every day, even just to collect the rent or go to the grocery store. Their car was an old blue and white Rambler, and I’d see the two of them go out occasionally in it. Most of the time, though, they were home. Come to think of it, the car and their trailer matched.

I can’t say for sure, but I think Missus Bozarth. had a health problem of some kind. Mister Bozarth kept unusual hours, and I think it may have been because of that. I only know because sometimes I’d wake up before anyone else in the house. I’d go to the bathroom, and then go see what time it was. See, my folks or grandma would get me up to get ready for school, so I didn’t have an alarm clock. If it was 5 or 5:30 in the morning, I’d just stay up and read, because my folks usually got me up at 6.

Mister Bozarth saw my mom coming from the city bus on her way home from work one time and asked if there was someone sick at our house, because he’d seen the lights on so early and wondered whether we needed help. That’s what makes me think, looking back, that he wasn’t the scary guy I thought he was at the time.

Anyway, I used to take the rent check over for my folks now and again, which is why I knew what the inside of that blue-and-white trailer house looked like. I think they must have downsized a lot when their son grew up and had a family, because there were almost too many knickknacks for the amount of space they had.

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Via FindAGrave.com

I know that we weren’t allowed to have much, because there was no room … although my brother had exceptions later, but that’s a story for another time.

So, Mister Bozarth. I started wondering about him, you know? The internet’s an amazing thing … and I found him. Turns out, he passed before Missus Bozarth did; she lived to be 102 years old, and he lived to be 90. He was a World War I veteran, and I’m sure he had some soldier stories.

Makes me wish I’d asked him.

That’s the kind of thing I mean; I regret the things I didn’t do far more than I’ll ever regret the things I did. Between the stories I’m sure Mister Bozarth could have told me and maybe asking Patty over for checkers or Parcheesi, I could have extended myself some.

I didn’t.

And that’s the biggest regret of all.

Blast from the Past: The Fans Who Count On You

A text-only version of this post appeared in my GoodReads blog on March 21, 2011.  I think the lessons still hold true today.  By the bye, the hobby shop to which I referred, along with the entire Borders bookstore chain, is now closed. Enjoy!


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Image via Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons License

“Don’t focus on counting the number of fans you have; focus on the number of fans who count on you.” — From the Facebook fan page of Puerto Rican a cappella group NOTA

In the past 24 hours, I’ve had cause to think about this quote from a couple of different perspectives.

I am occasionally guilt of trying very hard to “grow” my fan page over on Facebook. I had a contest for the person who brought in the most new members: the prize was having a character named after the winner in my novel, In The Eye of The Storm (it was a three-way tie, so there are three new characters). I share the page on my personal profile now and then, inviting new people to join.

None of this is bad, really.

I also spend relatively little time on “billboarding” — promoting my work. Instead, I have regular, weekly features to engage my readers — specifically because I want to focus on the fans who count on me.

Unfortunately, there are a number of examples out there where businesses don’t “get it.”

For instance, my husband moonlights a couple of evenings a week at a hobby store where he once worked full time. It’s a mom-and-pop place which, like many small businesses, is struggling in today’s economy.

For many years, the shop has had arrangements with local school districts; the students get a discount on materials they need for certain projects.

The original owner’s son is now running the shop and his roommate buddy is now the manager. The manager decided it would be a great idea to tear out many shelves to install an indoor remote control car track (he and the owner’s son are big into this hobby).

And where did the shelves come from?

You guessed it: the part of the store where the project supplies were housed. All of those supplies were literally thrown into a storage area, with no organization whatsoever — unless, of course, the manager threw them into the Dumpster, from which my husband rescued several perfectly good, unblemished items.

So, now the students come, looking for the things they need for their projects. They are counting on this store. When my husband proceeded to root through the storage area to find things for the kids, he was chastised. He was told to lie and say that Item X was no longer available, and to say that (more costly) Item Y could be obtained in the model trains department. The manager doesn’t care about the people who are counting on that store, in other words; he just cares about forcing them to spend more money.

My husband refuses to lie to people.

Another example is much bigger: the Borders bankruptcy.

I remember when Borders was a bookstore. Now they sell movies, music, t-shirts, stationery: you name it. They lost track of the fans who were counting on them in their rush to get more fans.

The Borders near my office was added the list of stores to be closed under the company’s bankruptcy proceedings. I wasn’t even surprised, given how far they’ve gone from their bookselling mission. For crying out loud, when I asked an employee there whether they carried bookplates, he responded that they didn’t sell dishes!

In the mean while, the tiny Books, Inc., store across from another Borders location (also slated to close) is thriving. Why? Because their business is selling books. The shop owner said in a recent television news interview that his focus was on his customers, knowing what they like, being able to make recommendations for other titles accordingly and so on.

In other words, Books, Inc., is focused on the fans who count on them.

Focus like that is way different from figuring out ways to part your customers from their discretionary income — and earns customer satisfaction that no amount of money can buy.

Blast from the Past: Remembering Joseph Carey Merrick

128 years ago today.

Sharon E. Cathcart

A text-only version of this article appeared on the now-defunct Red Room in 2004 and on Wattpad in 2010.  I’ve updated the date information and provided some new links. Enjoy!


joseph_merrick_carte_de_visite_photo2c_c-_1889Sometimes I think my head is so big, because it is full of ideas. — Joseph Merrick, in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man

Those who have read In The Eye of The Beholder: A Novel of the Phantom of the Opera know this already, but I don’t mind sharing it here: Joseph Merrick is featured in the story.  No spoilers, I promise.

Joseph Carey Merrick, aka “The Elephant Man,” lived during the Victorian era.  He suffered from what we now understand as Proteus syndrome, where parts of the body grow at different rates.

Merrick lived part of his life as a sideshow freak until he was taken in by Dr. Sir Frederick Treves.  Treves arranged a home for Merrick…

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