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Keeping Memories Alive

Sunday, August 26th, marked 114th anniversary of my grandmother’s birth. It seems inappropriate to call it a birthday, when she has been gone since 1980. Still, I spent a few dedicated moments on that day thinking about her and what she meant to me and the rest of the family.

She was a diminutive person, barely 5 feet tall, married to a man well over 6 feet. Although she was small in stature, her heart was as big is the world. She was a woman who loves her family. Although my grandfather, who raised horses, farmed, worked as a civil engineer and a sheriff’s deputy, among other things, died over 20 years before she passed, she was still the center of the family, the anchor, and nearly all family gatherings were at her modest home in Pueblo, Colorado. Her yard was big, filled with old growth cottonwood trees, and me and my many cousins would swing from the branches like monkeys in the jungle. We would chase one another, dogs nipping at our heels, as my father and uncles slaved over the barbecue pits, and the women folk worked worked busily in the kitchen. The 1960′s were not a time as casual as we are today. Men still wore suits and hats. Women wore skirts and aprons. The young boys wore jeans and t-shirts with Keds or Pf Flyers, and the young girls still wore dresses for these gatherings.

I still picture my grandmother wearing an apron, although she always took it off whenever she left the house, and she never left the house without a hat. Her customs were very much those formed by life in rural America of the early 20th Century. She was born in Springfield, Illinois, and traveled west with her family when she was still a child. She had over 20 siblings, a large family even by the standards of that day. She was born Pansy Mertyl Pike, a name that seemed destined for a life in the Wild West. Her father was Robert Lee Pike, a Virginian, born in the antebellum South, who, like many Southerners of the time, decided to seek a life in the West. Another Pike, Zebuon Montgomery Pike, had already made his mark in what would bec

Celebrating my grandmother’s pioneer spirit.

ome the state of Colorado, and although Zebulon was rumored to be an ancestor, the explorer/soldier hailed from New Jersey, and he was killed in Toronto at a relatively early age when an ammunition dump exploded. The Pike surname, however, served the family well in Colorado.

My grandmother bore 9 children. The oldest girl, Roberta, drowned in an irrigation ditch while swimming with other kids. My oldest uncle, Charlie, was an Army Ranger who survived the invasion of Italy at Anzio, where he saved his cousin’s life, then fought unscathed in the European campaign until he was killed in Germany by a sniper on December 24th 1944. My grandmother survived these heart aches and many more, including the death of my grandfather from a heart attack at the age of 58. It is good and right that I remember these things about her. She has always been an inspiration to me, and for the rest of my life I will mark August 26th as a day of remembrance.

The picture below is based upon an Esquire Magazine cover from the 1970′s. I always found that cover fascinating and imagined what it would be like to meet with a room full of authors that I admired. I have had a few brushes with some grand literary figures. I once happened upon James A. Michener in the middle of the department store sitting by himself at a poorly planned book signing when his book Centennial came out. I pulled up a chair and proceeded to have a 45 minute conversation with him. I told him off my literary aspirations and he encouraged me. We talked about the old tv series Adventures in Paradise with Gardner McKay, which was based upon his short stories of the South Pacific, and then he proceeded to talk about the research the had compiled for Centennial. Frankly, he seemed a little stiff and the information he gave me seemed as though it was regurgitated from countless interviews he has probably already given. Still, the meeting with personal and exciting.

I relish a 20 minute conversation I had with John Edward Williams, winner of the national book award, andmy professor at The Univerdity of Denver. We talked about developing a theme for a novel and he used Conrad’s Lord Jim to illustrate his points. I remember it was a cold and snowy day but when I came out of his office I was warm with the glow of inspiration. There have been a number of other authors that I have spoken to over the years who have been just as inspirational. I treasure those moments. To me they are as good as gold.

An Author’s Fantasy

A gathering of authors.

Left to right: Margaret Mitchell, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, Keith Olsen, James Joyce, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Ayn Rand, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound

MacDonald not only wrote good stuff, but he looked the way I imagined a writer to look.

I minored in English literature at the University of Denver with an incredible faculty, among them, John Edward Williams, winner of The National Book Award for his novel Augustus (Viking, 1973). The understanding of literature and those who produced the quality stuff, such as Joyce, Steinbeck, Conrad, and even contemporaries such as Joseph Heller, John Irving, and Tom Wolfe, set me on a path that has been frustrating but rewarding. Much of what I had read to that point were popular authors, which left me wondering whether Ian Flemming and John D. Macdonald were worthy of my attention. The problem was, their books were so damn good and they were masters of their craft, just as Conrad and Steinbeck had mastered their brand of literature.

John D. MacDonald, in particular, with his Travis McGee series, intrigued me. Here was an author who could crank out one book after another, using the same characters, yet keeping each novel fresh and exciting. His reocurring characters, McGee and Meyer, we’re so vivid, that I felt as though I knew them personally. MacDonald had honed his skills writing pulp fiction for magazines and it is apparent, even when I reread his work, that he was an author who knew his audience intimately. I read that MacDonald incorporated a color in the title of each of his McGee books to make it easier for travelers picking up a paperback at the airport to know whether they had read that novel or not. Genius. MacDonald’s popularity apparently has not diminished much over the years. A new Travis Mcgee movie is in the works with Leonardo Dicaprio in the title role. Which just goes to show that, like Conrad and Steinbeck, good work will always endure.

My daughter, Whitney (in the surgical cap), and co-workers along with Christian Bale following the recent theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado. We can be proud of the countless people, law enforcement and medical professionals, who came to the aid of the victims of the senseless rampage in Aurora, Colorado. These are the people that we can always count on to help, to be there under even the worst cicumstances.

I dog walk regularly. It is a discipline that is not always easy to adhere to, but my two companions, my two mixed breed dogs, which are approximately the same size, about firty-five pounds each, are enthusiasts, and so I relent. Hank, a cattle dog mix, is an alpha dog very much in control. Nellie, a rescued mix from a New Mexico Indian reservation, is of unknown origin, but one of the kindest animals you will ever meet. When we are walking through the local greenbelt, I am well aware that we are in completely different universes. What I see, smell, and hear is completely different than what the dogs are seeing, hearing, and smelling.
They react to things, sometimes sooner than I, and I can only imagine what has caught their attention; a snake slithering in the grass, a rabbit blending into the shrubbery twitching its nose. The summer walks take us through the greenbelt teeming with insects and other wildlife. The signs are there, the coyote scat, the rabbit droppings. I see these things, but the dogs are probably aware of what the animal had for dinner last night. Ocasionally a rabbit or a duck or goose makes a live appearance. Rarely do we spy any of the predators, although a young coyote made an appearance several times for a few weeks.

The duck pond is always brimming with activity. Water bugs scoot across the water’s surface like little speed boats, tadpoles swirl in groups as flies and dragonflies hover over the pond. I wonder how the local animals drink the water when I know that if I were to sample the same water, I’d probably succumb to a belly ache that would have me down for a week.

The dog’s ears raise and tilt like radar stations. They lift their noses to the wind, smelling things I will never experience. It is a peaceful duty, and though our experiences are worlds apart, we all find a kind of tranquility in these walks.

Introducing a new character to your readers is a task handled by writers in so many ways, you cannot begin to draw any hard and fast rules. Characters quickly begin to take on a life of their own, which leaves the author in the role of the observer.

Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, chose to introduce us to the great white whale by staying strickly to a physical description of the beast. Although the stage had been set for the introduction of the whale, it isn’t until deep into the book that The beast is actually presented to us. Melville presents the whale with a spectacular description that begins… ”For, it was not so much his uncommon bulk that so much distinguished him from other sperm whales, but, as was elsewhere thrown out–a peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead, and a high, pyramidical white hump. These were his prominent features; the tokens whereby, even in the limitless, uncharted seas, he revealed his identity, at a long distance, to those who knew him.

The rest of his body was so streaked, and spotted, and marbled with the same shrouded hue, that, in the end, he had gained his distinctive appellation of the White Whale; a name, indeed, literally justified by his vivid aspect, when seen gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings.”

Hucklberry Finnn

I’m fascinated with the way different authors introduce us to characters. Consider Mark Twain’s introduction of Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer… ”Huckleberry was always dressed in the cast-off clothes of full-grown men, and they were in perennial bloom and fluttering with rags. His hat was a vast ruin with a wide crescent lopped out of its brim; his coat, when he wore one, hung nearly to his heels and had the rearward buttons far down the back; but one suspender supported his trousers; the seat of the trousers bagged low and contained nothing, the fringed legs dragged in the dirt when not rolled up.”

It’s interesting that Twain ignores Huckleberry’s physical appearance, focusing instead on the way the boy is dressed, which is probably the way people initially saw Huck, as though the boy beneath the rags was insignificant.

The Idiot

Looking for inspiration in describing a character, I thought back to Distoyevsky’s rich introduction of Madam Epanchin in The Idiot… ”When anything extraordinary happened, Madame Epanchin used to open her eyes very wide, and, throwing back her whole person, she would stare vaguely before her without uttering a word. She was a woman of large build and of the same age as her husband, with dark hair, still thick, though getting very grey. She was rather thin, with a somewhat aquiline nose, sunken yellow cheeks, and thin drawn-inlips. Her forehead was high but narrow; her large grey eyes had sometimes a most unexpected expression. She had once had the weakness to fancy that her eyes were particularly effective, and nothing had been able to efface the conviction.”

Distoyevsky, by contrast, chose to present a rich description of the woman’s phyical nature.

Again, I think all of these examples display a means of introducing character that is fitting to the story. Setting the mood and letting the character come through is what is important in the end.

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