Am I a Soldier

Am I a soldier?

Hearing the stories of

soldiers going to war

Am I a soldier?

I have not been deployed

no ribbons on my chest

but always ready to go.

Just training one weekend a month

Am I a soldier?

Going through the motions—

don’t want to leave my family

Am I a soldier?

Soldiers telling their stories—

not wanting to listen anymore.

Am I a soldier?

 

 

Michael Barata has been in the Army for ten years (prior service). He was in from 1993 to 1999 as a medic and surgical tech, had a 10 year break, then went back in as an Officer in 2010. He is currently an operating nurse working at a local hospital. He is married and has two boys, ages 8 and 10. He likes to ride his bicycle and spend time with his family. Michael attended a Warrior Writers workshop in May 2015, which is the reason for the creation of this piece.

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When I say I’m a Soldier

WHEN I SAY I AM
 
When I say I am, a Soldier, I feel pride for my country, for duty, for honor
 
When I say I am, a Soldier, I feel strong in my stance, head held high, shoulder’s back
 
When I say I am, a Soldier, I feel emotions and heart, the excitement, the tears
 
When I say I am, a Soldier, I feel purpose and belonging, the comfort, the camaraderie
 
When I say I am, a Soldier, I feel whole and with reason, the mission, the cause
 
When I say I am, no longer a Soldier, I feel lost and missing, the dark, and empty ME.
 

 

 
 
James Everett Jr. is a veteran of desert storm desert shield and operation Iraqi Freedom. He spent 20 years in the military, recently retired. He has no writing experience but was pleasantly surprised how easy writing comes to him, especially when it comes to spreading the word about his years in the service. He has 3 kids and a wife.

 

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15 Minutes of Forever

2:00 am:

I wait alone, your side of the bed empty, but filled with your scent.

I smother myself deep inside you waiting to hear your voice one more time.

 

3:00 am:

I still wait staring at the monitor, filled with heavy thoughts.

What are you doing?

Where are you?

The unrealness of it all is I’m a Soldier too “I Know” that makes it worse……

 

4:00 am:

It’s you…

I’m seeing….

I’m crying…

I’m listening…

I’m loving….

You’re here with me, but not…

I feel you, but I can’t touch you….

Joy and Pain….

 

4:15 am:

You’re gone…

I’m Alone, buried in your smell again.

 

 

Dana Everett is a veteran of operation enduring freedom and recently retired after 15 years in the Army. She has a husband who is also a veteran and 3 kids. She loves to write poetry but has never published anything. She enjoys using her writing as a way to express her emotion and share her thoughts with others.

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Morning in Tal Afar, 2005

Silent dew on everything
the men under gear
spread out like shells after a storm.

They sleep under a heavy
mat of exhaustion
like grounded kelp beds, wasted under early sun.

I sit re-typing old poems,
sifting through sea-wrack,
and I my teeth want to know

why sleeping men look dead?

 

 

ry=400

 

 

TJ Reynolds writes poetry and fiction in Long Beach, CA for the vain and hopeful purpose of changing the world. He dislikes war, squabbling or even extensive horse-play. One day, TJ assumes, this will seem prudent and even kind to his three small children.

mosul-6

Hello Mosul

(I am sad, your face has changed. I don’t know why, but I miss you, and sometimes I wake
with a howling sternum and for one waking second I still think we’re going back. My friends
in the dream are always eager, and then they see me, they see the drooping sad man I’ve become. I try to feign courage, but I’m transparent. They scowl at me, my fear. I am nothing if not fear
remembering close calls in stairwells and the blanked faces of the people I was told to scorn.)

              Seven stories at least, with twelve
shades of concrete. My hand knew
Death, somewhere in the middle
of this tower, as I touched an exposed
wire thinking it was a sniper or an IED.
I didn’t die though, but saw the city instead,
from morgue to smoldering trash heaps,
then descended the wobbling metal stairs
covered in lime and ghost dander.

Buildings only lie down once.

 

 

ry=400

TJ Reynolds writes poetry and fiction in Long Beach, CA for the vain and hopeful purpose of changing the world. He dislikes war, squabbling or even extensive horse-play. One day, TJ assumes, this will seem prudent and even kind to his three small children.

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Interrupted Sonnet, A Boot’s Fade

I got them at the end of a long line,
beige and stiff like new bark.

I stood taller in the mirror – the mouths
of each boot felt dry like moths in sand.
A pale, fine dust they touched first
at Syria’s shifting border.

Then East to Mosul, East over
Nineveh plain, East to fallow Tigris

where I first heard the Shahid’s cry.
Boots and Men stretch like wineskins.

(The days held hands and fled before us as we slept standing or crouched under mortar fire
those hollow chuff morning sighs we saw lambs bled in street markets as we searched for signs
of subtle hatred the white of our youth bleaching the concrete to the color of pumice or bone)

Along river banks and the giant gutters
of the city, among flies and the joined dregs

of everyone’s chai, we tasted deepest
black, the rot of a rainless mud.

 

 

ry=400

TJ Reynolds writes poetry and fiction in Long Beach, CA for the vain and hopeful purpose of changing the world. He dislikes war, squabbling or even extensive horse-play. One day, TJ assumes, this will seem prudent and even kind to his three small children.

iwojima08

Mom’s Cousin

As if
touched by the
rubber and metal
talons of tragedy—
mom’s cousin
an air traffic
controller based
at Olathe Naval
Air Station during
WWII had his
head severed
from voice box
to vertebrae ,
neck blood
bubbling up
like allied
victory
champagne

 

 

PD_0155  David S. Pointer served in the United States Marine Corps as a military policeman. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library asked to use one of David’s poems to open the first issue of their literary journal “So It Goes” for their “War and Peace” themed issue. David currently serves on the advisory panel at “Writing for Peace.” He is also a new Assistant Editor for “As You Were: The Military Review.

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Famous

 

When I said “I want to be famous among my friends”
What I meant was “I wasn’t born in a leap year.”
What I should have said was “I can’t do this anymore.”

When people ask “What was it like?”
What I think of saying is “Let me show you”
And then whacking them over the head,
Taking them to a wet fug summer
And shaving their heads bare. Men and women.
I’d PT them until I got tired, until their hearts popped,
Until the sun came up in the west.
I’d level sea salt wisdom at them, sprinkled
With wit that makes a gut distend, not bust,
And challenge their very notion of left and right.
That’d be Day One.

By Day Three Thousand Eight Hundred Seventy Two
They could learn to tie their shoes, the ones
With the steel toes made for slicing off the digits,
And when they’ve been around the world
So far
From home where the stars look different than anything
You could imagine
Constellations with names given by living memory
Equators and meridians
Slicing off the digits of the world
And stood to face the wind
and sea
and fire
and sand
And a thousand other elements
Then we can begin to talk
Of kings and queens and politics and
Duffel bags and Velcro paint and
Camouflage and

I prefer the statement to the question:
“Tell me what you remember” – “Tell me
what you liked” – “Tell me who your
friends were”
Ask and you shall conceive an answer
Tell me to tell you and I’ll talk your ears off.

 

 

go to   Travis Klempan joined the Navy in 1999. He served as a Hospital Corpsman and Surface Warfare Officer. After leaving the Navy he was accepted to Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac    School of Disembodied Poetics, where he is pursuing his MFA in Writing & Poetics.

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Military Effects

 

 

“You talk to my girlfriend again and I’ll take out your teeth out with a fucking pair of plyers!”

 

Not exactly the best wording, but still, Bryson got his point across.  I was there with him and his girlfriend, Sarah, walking through a Sonic drive through.  It was late and our group consisted of several others accompanying the three of us.  The fellow having his behavior corrected was familiar only from that night.  He was tall with blond hair looking like an Abercrombie model.  He was flirting with Sarah and Bryson wasn’t taking too kindly to it.  Strike that, I’m not sure Abercrombie was even flirting.  He was just talking, drunk and making conversation.

I watched Bryson as he spoke to this student, appearing to be in full-fledged PTSD mode.  Indicators included eyes opened wider than usual, voice constricted to a scratch, sideways stepping, and of course the language and tone.  I stepped in front of him and he calmed himself almost instantly.  Looking back, it is difficult to determine if he was being crazy for the sake of looking intimidatingly cool or if he was about to gnaw your face off.  Bryson had several conflicts in his personality that didn’t quite match up.  In modern times, maybe there is something scary about a man who has a deserved confidence in publicly illustrating that there is nothing to be thrown at him that will scare him anymore.

When I first met him, Bryson was a well built, good looking, college freshman, 24 years of age.  He had served one tour for our country and was now ready to get an education.  He was smart and had a natural charisma to him.  Because of this, our small group of friends found him to be our unstated leader for the first year I resided at OU.  Our small group consisted of most of the occupants living on the third floor of our upperclassman dorm.

When we met, Bryson invited me into his room for drinks.  College campuses and military barracks share similar living conditions, smaller that possible rooms and an indefinite supply of alcohol.  His room was just down the hall from mine and when I say invited me in, I mean opened the door as I walked five steps down the hall.  From this living situation, I met several friends, most of which I am still in some form of contact with on a regular basis.  Bryson, though, mostly left our group.  Possibly it was the intensity of his missions for his country that screwed with his head.  Maybe his values were challenged by civilized life, those same values that he could have died for in battle.  The different aspects of thinking patterns, changed only slightly, made him see himself as the outcast, though it was a dead wrong assumption.

Being the close quarters and not knowing too many people, our group became close rather quickly.  We drank together almost every night and went to bars and parties, and even more intimate daytime activities including lunch at the dining hall and sometimes even class.  Bryson was every bit a part of our group and usually even constructed the plan for our evening activities.  This was because his girlfriend had been at OU two years prior to us and helped Bryson find his and then our social circles.

I believed that Bryson truly loved Sarah.  He conducted his behavior in such a manner that he seemed to push away other girls.  He seemed to be protective of the girls in our dorm and even more, he constructed a presentation of ungendered specific relations.  “What up dude?” he would ask everyone in greeting girl or guy.  Eventually I learned this presentation to be a hoax in an attempt to secretly sleep with the girls in our dorm without anyone noticing.  What bothers me about this isn’t his tactics, but rather the dissected character that it would have taken to set this up.  I learned this as I was cuddling next to one of our dorm mates.  She was a red headed, slightly plump, unattractive female.  We had become close and this night we were sharing a bed, though no sexual exploits were accomplished or attempted.  College was a time a bending perspectives and without some of the more practical rules, I quite often shared a bed with members of the opposite sex without dubious intentions in mind.  Here though, she informed me that she had slept, meaning had sex, with Bryson recently.  From this I was able to follow clues to find out that he had slept with nearly every other female member of our floor without any of us knowing.

There were further mysteries to Bryson’s behavior.  After that first year, he moved out of our dorm and into an apartment with Sarah’s girlfriend, though only on a platonic basis of course.  I wondered what came of that.  Anyway, we met a few times after that, but for as close as our group was, it felt like he must have faked his sincerities towards us as our visits faded.  Worried I had been fooled, I waged an investigation of Bryson’s personalities and found that he prided himself on being the soldier type.  He had no problem with more intimidating actions or being heroic when the time called for it, but found less use for himself with the lack of such circumstances.  His mind must have searched for the qualities that made him unique even as he struggled to learn why he was allowed to leave the battlefield.  Those small unique qualities that kept him alive may have simply come down to chance and now as a civilian, the style of the clothing he wore may have a greater effect on the way he is perseeved.  I believe he just wanted to be able to fit in, but couldn’t bring himself to do so.

 

At the time I lived with him I accepted most of what Bryson said as truth, but perspective shapes a different picture.  He had many conflicting human qualities and some were flawed.  Was he inventing stories to gain greater acceptance within our group of peers or was there something to the affects of PTSD that had him supplementing memories?  Maybe it wasn’t a military thing and more of individual issues with the development of his character.

What I can now determine is that he had needs that he desperately wanted to satisfy.  It is depressing to think that possibly what draws most individuals to a military career is that it offers some stability, financial or in intent, but idealistic notions of honor and country are not fully understood by the self-awareness of often a teenager.  The truth is that such notions give us troops, but at what expense to the individual.  What can be seen, aside from actual physical injuries, is a plethora of mental disorders stemming from trauma, but also from the unrealized potential and character growth of the individual.

Bryson and I lost touch, but I believe he did graduate, probably with a degree in political science.  I choose to believe that he decided to distance himself from our group because he had shown us a heroic personality and feared that we may eventually see him for what he was, human.  He was veteran struggling to find his way back to society.

 

 

It was cold one night and for one reason or another I didn’t have a jacket handy as Bryson and I were to go out to smoke a cigarette.  It was college, so the mental state of the two of us was probably influence by alcohol.  Bryson handed me his military jacket, before we went outside.  There on me was that familiar pattern etched into my mind of the different shades of green, forming the camouflage.

Somewhere either in the process of receiving the jacket or our walk outside Bryson told me a story.  He explained of an extremely traumatic experience that he once had.  At this point I was quite familiar with stories of burning shit and carrying tampons on missions in case of bullet wounds, but this was something much more serious.  This was the epitome of what he would reveal to me about his military exploits.  He told me of how his close friend, one of the members of his platoon, was blown up in front of him.  He told me of his initial reaction.  In this description his friend was in pieces, with nothing really to salvage.  In a state of shock, Bryson walked over to his friend’s remains and picked them up putting them into the pockets of his jacket, the very one that I was now wearing.

As I stood accidently picturing this horrific image my hands crept into these pockets searching for such remains.  What would dried blood and flesh feel like now?  I found nothing out of the ordinary, maybe a few pieces of what seemed like crumbled leaves.  I still have that jacket, Bryson later gave it to me for keeps.  Every time I see it I check the pockets.

 

Athor Pic  Scott W. Trainer has multiple articles published at watchfit.com on personal fitness topics.  He works with children at Avondale Youth Center, taking them on kayaking and other adventure oriented trips to build efficacy and esteem. Currently he is finishing his MFA in creative writing at Ashland University.

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Marilyn

So easily she took her place in my
sterile southern life, coming from
San Francisco hills to find she loved
me and not the short haired aviator
who thought she was his.  We have
stayed together for five years
flying back and forth by letters,
telephone lines and noisy jet rides.
Long curly haired, skin and bone
lady girl that I love.
She is wildness in sedimentary browns,
nervous moving fingers, a calm thin
lipped sigh, sensual soft strength
skin stretching finely over an ivory
skeleton, delicately carved form.
She is neatly putting all her notes
bound by a rubber band into her shoulder
bag.  Together we have seen the red
beach rocks, the weaving traffic colors.
We share secret longings and telepathic
talks, miles of water matter not.
She soars through my days and clutters
my night table, gold framed bikini
bodied with a blue backdrop, laughing
lightly at me, with me.
I am watching her from my window which
looks into houses of people I don’t
know and cannot talk to, she writes
I see her alive, doing laundry, playing
her guitar, wide eyed in the company of
women who prefer women, I am waiting for
our moment, it will come.
Lady of black night times, strolling into
lives, lean, leaning, looking out for
love in the changes of faces, places,
does anything really ever change?
Mar and me, we love.  We are locked in
love, her silky body, her thin arms
her serious eyes soothe me, move me
lovers linked in mind, bone and flesh splendor.
.
.
The author, Lynn Skapyak Harlin, and Marilyn.

Marilyn (left) and Lynn Skapyak Harlin (right).

Lynn Skapyak Harlin is a poet who made a living selling her words as a freelance writer, photographer, and newspaper reporter and correspondent. Her first published poem “War Waste” appeared in Time magazine, in 1970. Her work has appeared in Street Review, Arbus magazine, Section Eight Magazine, Florida Speaks, Aquarian, deadpaper.org, A.C. PAPA and many others. Her two chap books, Real Women Drive Trucks and Press One for More Options were published in 1997 by Closet Books. She is an editor and leads the Shantyboat Writers Workshop on the Trout River.  

Five-Twenty-Two Harrison

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522 Harrison as it looks today and much as it looked in 1906. Domenico’s door is to the right of the storefront windows. Photo credits to Christopher Calcara.

 

As much as he loved me, Terry hated 522 Harrison. I think he psychically anticipated conflict – not with me but with my family, who owned the property – as if he, too, might come to be acquired, or turned out for being an in-law and not a member by blood.

Outsiders marrying into our tribe are called outlaws and when photographs are taken, they are poised at the outskirts, where they can handily be outcast with a pair of scissors.

Neither my first love nor the love of my life, Terry’s was the love that made me feel the most alive. Still, I have only one frayed snapshot of him, standing conspicuously alone.

Like the three-story brick shotgun of a building that stands on its own at the intersection of Harrison Street and East Missouri Avenue in Kansas City.

“If this is what you want, babe,” he said sweetly, “if this is where you want us to live.”

The history of 522 Harrison Street that passed to me from my father, who inherited it when his mother died shortly after Terry and I met, began coincidentally with my mother’s family. Her mother’s uncles, Angelo (who we knew as Old Uncle Angel) and Domenico (who I never met), erected 522 in 1906.

 

My maternal grandmother is five years old in 1906. Theodore Roosevelt is President and her enterprising immigrant uncles want their share of his promised “Square Deal.” In January, for the first time, Dow Jones closes above 100. This is the year Einstein introduces his Theory of Relativity. Buoyed by the Wright Brothers’ patent of a “flying machine,” Domenico and Angelo see a future without limits.

But 1906 brings with it tragedy and uncertainty as well. The great San Francisco earthquake levels 75% of the city and takes nearly 4,000 lives. Italy’s Mt. Vesuvius erupts and devastates Naples. In both catastrophes, relatives are lost, rendering kin ever more precious.

Closer to home, Kansas City, which officially became Kansas City only 17 years earlier, is booming. With its sophisticated livestock and rail transport industries, the town rivals Chicago. Thirty miles to the west, the first federal penitentiary is built in Leavenworth, Kansas. Thirty-six years hence, political boss and Harry Truman patron, Tom Pendergast, will check into a cell there. Angelo and Domenico shun the stockyards and organized crime.

 

522 took to its feet as Kansas City and the country took to theirs – painstakingly, progressively, hopefully. The Irish were the first colonists to settle in this part of the city. After establishing themselves, they moved to better neighborhoods, while additional waves of immigrants, including the Italians, my relatives, replaced them, followed in lesser degree by German Jews, Russians, Poles, Blacks, Cubans, Mexicans and more recently, various Asian persuasions. For all, family, business and church intertwined as major threads in the area’s fanciful cultural embroidery.

Though it was formally named Columbus Park in 1908, and has housed one huddled mass after another, insiders know the district as the North End for its northernmost nearness to the Missouri River. My people called it Little Italy.

 

Terry wanted to know if my father was in the Mafia. I was so used to hearing the question from bad-mannered “peckerwoods” that my pat answer became, “No, but my mother is.”

He was married when I met him (without her, in a bar). For a short while, Terry and I carried on furtively, then earnestly, and ultimately he introduced me to his wife Ellen. Passing me off as Terry’s new friend, the three of us got along well and even enjoyed doing things together. On Sunday drives to the country in her canary yellow convertible Volkswagen “bug,” we flitted from scene to scene, pausing along our way to study the zoetropic rows of a cornfield or the brooding presence of a dilapidated barn. Ellen and Terry were artists. It was mandatory to marvel, as the fickle midwestern seasons changed, along with the directions of our lives.

In the thick of it, Terry and I never thought of ourselves as adulterers, not even I, the Roman Catholic. We believed we belonged in a dissimilar country and had happened across a border without legitimate passports. This may have made us trespassers, but not sinners.

And so I became a friend to her, too, until the truth came out, and then she and I were unhappy peas in a crowded pod, two equally misguided souls in love with the same man. I promised I’d never ask him to divorce her, but that was a lie. In a situation like this, there has to be a victim and a separate peapod for the others.

 

I am just out of college in 1972 – eager, naïve and untested. Having escaped the concluding war in Vietnam by earning a degree in journalism, I have yet to untangle a real snag. My résumé is short, my hair is long and together with my olive skin, I look more European gigolo than American wage earner.

There are dress codes for Terry, a teacher who appears conservative but is in fact a true redheaded bohemian. Weekends find him in ragged pants and tee shirts, Indian water buffalo sandals, no underwear, paint-spattered from head to toe.

Terry is older, more experienced with men, accomplished and ambitious, and it does not feel unnatural for me to defer to him. I’m not exactly the woman in the relationship (whatever that means), but I am happy to serve in a subservient role just to be near him and his energy.

As we become lovers, he teaches me how to make picture frames to complement his works without overpowering them, and so I come to be his judicious framer as well. Unable to immediately find employment after graduation, back home with parents, the grown-up activity restores to me a sense of worth. I find I have the capacity to form something that requires patient deftness with my hands, a certain aptitude for math, an intuitive eye for decoration and color.

 

Designed in the Gothic Revival style, 522’s architecture distinguishes it as a gangly wallflower of a building with no distinctive ornamentation, save for the uppermost notched cornice that mimics Holy Rosary Catholic Church raised 10 years earlier across the street. In reverent genuflection within its nave, Angelo and Domenico whisper the same simple prayer at Sunday mass: May the Lord see fit to hold family and business together in our adopted United States. This is what Italian émigrés do – they flock – to preserve tradition and sustain lineage, they claim, but likely more to gather apart from pale and wary strangers, their peculiar slangy language, critical peccadilloes, and privileged American way of life.

 

Terry and I long to be among our own kind. I take a retail sales job and leave home. Terry divides his time (splits his personality) between life with Ellen and life with me. We quickly grow tired of trudging back and forth with our toothbrushes from my costly eastside apartment to the empty bedroom at the rear of their lake house, where Ellen surprised us on one occasion – in our nakedness. It’s probable she knew about Terry when they married, perhaps only intuitively, but was somehow devoted enough to look the other way, to shut her eyes to the one inevitable conclusion.

I know she never closed her heart to him; she was that kind of person. Both tenacious Scorpios – she was born on the twenty first of November, and I on the twelfth, a reversal of digits, a juxtaposition of genders – I fully grasp her inability to let him go.

By the time I become interested in it as subtext of my ancestors’ romantic narrative, with few tenants and no commerce, 522 is more a crenellated decaying fortress than an Italian castello. It faces east toward level Harrison Street, while Missouri Avenue slopes uphill. The first floor on the Harrison side contains the mercantile space that backs into the Missouri Avenue elevation. It attends many uses after my father’s father presided over a butcher shop there, but now it stands empty, inert and without purpose.

A short flight of stairs beyond the storeroom, with its 12-foot ceilings, provides direct access to the business from a small, five-room apartment, the front door to which lies on the first floor at the rear of the building, on the shoulder of the Missouri Avenue incline.

 

Angelo and Domenico plan five apartments for 522: the one closest to the store; two larger ones back-to-back on the second floor; and two more the same size above those, on the third floor. A tall ocean liner built to transport legacies point to point, as families and fortunes ebb and flow.

Wood piazzas and stairs are anchored to the hull’s aft to access the upper rear apartments. For the top unit on the Harrison side, a narrow hallway and staircase leading to the third floor are constructed within the second level interior. There are no emergency exits or fire escapes. A rigging of clotheslines on squealing pulleys socially connects the tenants living in one apartment house to those of another across the verdant harbors of driveways and alleys.

The double doors of the business entrance, like open arms of a bow’s figurehead, slash a corner of the east façade, just a few yards from the curb, and face the headwinds of the crossroads straightaway. To the north of the doors, on a broad plate glass window, the establishment is christened with the brothers’ surname, my maternal grandmother’s maiden name, followed by “Grocers.”

522 Harrison, 2006. Photo credits to Christopher J. Calcara.

Over the decades, the once majestic piazzas on the drunken boat had pitched and drooped, as their decking planks split and swelled amid seasonal shifts. Between college sessions one summer, I was hired to paint them. My father was color-blind, having become heir to his mother’s abnormal X-chromosome as well as her property, and together they chose sea foam green. This shade looked atrocious beside the grimy hemoglobin red brick. Clinging perilously to posts and rails three stories off the ground, a sailor tight to a mainmast, teetering on waves of aqueous slopes and seasick with nausea, I had to quit the job.

 

His premonitions regarding 522 and its scruffy neighborhood aside, Terry does want to live with me, and after a fair degree of acrimony all around, he and Ellen finally agree to divorce. I begin searching for an apartment for the two of us, yearning for the day he’d leave their pretense of a marriage and come free and clear to me. Ellen must despise me. I’ve stolen her husband, after all, and have no intention of returning him this time, as I had all the other times.

Terry consents to consider my father’s tenement. I inform him that many young people, some of them like us, are moving into the area. This intrigues his freethinking spirit. We would be plucky prospectors on a migratory march, I enthuse, in the forefront of a movement – urban pioneers.

Two units are vacant – one being my deceased paternal grandmother’s apartment behind the store, the other the third story front walkup. Though we acknowledge them, neither the tumult of traffic below us nor the footfalls of occupants above us figures in our decision.

Ascending the stairs – the umbilicus between my family and our new home, which had conveyed generations of related travelers, their baggage more laden with obligation, convenience and sentiment than common sense – I know we are but two in a long line of wide-eyed turisti.

The only practical vision in the matter is divined by Terry, and that is for an art gallery (showcasing his work) in the shop space. But the demographic, rutted and unrefined, won’t support such a venture. Not yet. And then there is my landlord father, who’d invent deficiencies for condemnation before letting it to us to engage in his view of a silly scheme. A pool parlor, maybe, but never an art anything. He would rather the store remain deserted – a ghost town of cobwebs appropriated by a runaway herd of spiders grazing in the rent-free dust  – than be a mortification to the family names.

Overlooking the concrete junction of Harrison Street and Missouri Avenue, the apartment contains six rectangular rooms of varying sizes. If each were the cardboard box of a household’s shoes, they’d nestle neatly, one inside the other. We imagine enormous potential. What captivates Terry, more than the French-paned double doors prettily separating the dining room from the kitchen or the one-windowed alcove off the living room that would be his studio, is my palpable intensity as I explore the home of my mother and father throughout the first eight years of their marriage, before I was born.

Might I discover subconsciously in which shoebox I was conceived when Terry and I make love there? We would consecrate each one to find out.

It’s the rent that seals the deal – $45 a month – a pittance, even to a middle school art teacher contemplating alimony. And me now in my first real job.

“If this is what you want, babe,” Terry says sweetly, “if this is where you want us to live.”

There is no lease to be negotiated or signed by my father and Terry and me, only handshakes and a gentlemen’s agreement among us that we will take care of the place, not burn it down. Dad is relieved to have family living on the premises again, to keep him abreast of any mischief or bursting pipes. He thinks Terry and I are friends about to become roommates, a couple of confirmed bachelors, and if he suspects otherwise, he never says so to me.

 

During the building’s construction, there are irregular approaches and relaxed contracts between Uncles Domenic and Angel. There is little in writing, since neither has beyond a third grade education. Historical documents mention Angelo but not Domenico, who is four years younger and dies 11 years before his brother. After the death of his first wife, Angelo takes a second one and has several children. Battista, born in 1911, passes away only 19 days later and Raffaele, born in 1917, lives two months and eight days. Uncle Domenic, “cèlibe,” never marries.

 

Terry and I embrace the spaces with hands both heavy and tender. Sanding nearly 70 years of wear from the blackened honey oak floors, patching and painting every square inch of plaster wall and peeling papered ceiling, re-staining and varnishing blistered wood casements, doors and trim, a formerly flat pen and ink inspires a tactile impasto. We throw open the windows and the apartment takes a deep breath, resuscitated.

My father comes on Saturdays to collect the rents. I am high atop a stepladder when Dad sees Terry climb the treads to kiss me. He pretends not to notice.

Another time, my mother and I watch while dad and Terry install linoleum in the kitchen. She recalls that 30 years earlier, they didn’t have a refrigerator but a crate outside a window in the winter and the iceman in the summer.

Before my father’s sickly mother died, we frequently took her into our home. My mother, vexed, nursed her. Whenever she talked to my father about his mother, she invariably referred to her as “522,” as if the old woman and the moldering building were one and the same.

Dad visited his widowed mother on Saturdays, too, always without mom. My grandfather predeceased her by 23 years, and so she depended heavily on the son who had his own hands full with a needy wife and three children. Her mother-in-law absent from 522, mom seems easier, able to relive their honeymoon years, and to mingle them privately with Terry’s and mine.

With dad’s permission, we take a portion of the old counter from 522’s storefront and fashion a breakfast table under the window that frames Holy Rosary’s bell spire and the Kansas City skyline in its view. Terry builds a loft for our bed in the high-ceilinged bedroom and constructs a ladder that I learn to scale backwards and forwards while balancing a tray of food in my arms.

The unit comes with a miniature gas stove – a trio of burners and a too-narrow oven. It takes me a while to learn gas cooking, having grown up in the transistor 50s with electric. My parents give us a brand-new “ice box,” delivered up two soaring flights of stairs by burly icemen from Sears. In the dining room is a squat pilot burner furnace, which we try to hide with paint to match the walls. I get used to its intrusion and labored hiss but live in fear of an explosion. I appreciate that in winter, it keeps the entire apartment, a steeping teapot under a cozy, thoroughly warm.

 

Angelo, 31 at the time 522 is built, has been in this country longer than Domenico, and finds success as a liquor merchant. 522 is to be the family’s first real estate owned outright. The neighborhood is without an Italian grocery, and Domenico, 27, single and more a son to Angelo than a brother, is eager to be his partner in the project. That 522 can be home, generate income and be of value to the community are blessings. Good fortune – “Buona fortuna” – is predicted.

 

Bristling with creative vitality, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol splash painting their way out of a watercolor tin, Terry and I coat the second and third level corridors and lay cheerful golden ochre vinyl squares over their deeply scarred wood floors. I lather the steps to our landing in a glossy tangerine. Though not enamored of our decorative choices (or seeing them differently than we do), Dad is thrilled we assume such an interest and gladly pays for all materials.

The tiniest room, a four-pack box of crayons, is Terry’s studio with a separate entrance from the hallway. It contains an east window and at one time, had been a bedroom for either my brother or sister, or both. Not the best exposure for painting, but Terry is deeply into batik now, the African fabric art of waxing and dyeing and boiling, although we use the easier and safer steam iron. This method doesn’t remove all the wax, however, leaving the cloth stiff in cool temperatures and flaccid in warm ones, and makes stretching and framing a nightmare. I propose banners secured top and bottom to dowels, liberating the material to give and take as it would. Terry says we will have to try that.

For a painter, Northern light is the most consistent but completely inadequate on dark days. Notwithstanding right light, Terry craves any amount of unrestricted space that he can call his own and from which he may come and go. He is photosensitive and claustrophobic, side effects of his long cloistered existence in the dim monastery of his metaphorical closet.  New to the lifestyle, I, too, need freedom.

With Terry divorced, the renovation complete, we move in. Our first holiday alone together is Christmas. Every Christmas thereafter becomes our favorite, for all the frothy commotion we whip up awaiting the coming, and the going. Stealthily, we axe a cedar tree from a farm’s fencerow and sneak it home in the old Ford van we buy to haul Terry’s art works to shows and fairs for sale. We sprinkle jubilant faces on sugar cookie Santas and watch the snow bank and drift from our window ledges to the stone saints guarding Holy Rosary. We snuggle in the affections of our home, like two kittens in a basket with a ticktocking timepiece.

The thoughtful gifts we squirrel away for one another are never costly, for we can’t afford much. Should a stirring impulse travel from Terry’s head to his fingers, I can anticipate a painting or drawing or ceramic. Or a tattered, titanium white bed sheet debauched in broad brushstrokes to portray me nude in several revealing positions. Ode to a Grecian urn, our own Michelangelo, it would make a wonderful (though profane) mural for a wall in the apartment, but I am too modest to display it. With his left hand (he is right-handed), Terry sketches my portrait in lampblack. He so captures me. I keep this one forever.

In spring, we toil in the courtyard, tending precise processions of produce in our garden patch. Tomatoes, green onions, radishes, herbs. And summer catches us sleeping restlessly on the tiny balcony outside our third floor landing. To escape the oppressive July/August heat of our loft bed beneath the flat black tar roof, we carry our mattress and alarm clock to the balcony. 522’s outdated electrical system hasn’t the amperage to sustain window air conditioners, but we try several. Each one blows the fuses of the entire building. Fans merely regurgitate the stifling fever. We awaken ourselves early enough to avoid the French-speaking dowager and her temperamental dog on their own porch across the courtyard. They seem to get along fine without air conditioning.

Occasionally, we treat ourselves to dinner at an Italian restaurant a short block away. On the first floor of a similar three-story structure, it continues to look very much like a home, furnished with a sideboard borrowed from its proprietor. The same dedicated owner, still cooking and waiting tables and living above the business, had served my young mother and father on their nights out.

Saturdays, we walk to the city market and purchase what we do not cultivate, prepare meals that we consume in erotic candlelight, after (or during) which our passions prostrate us on every horizontal surface in every room and on the mattress under the mirrored bedroom ceiling that reflects us.  Forsaking contrition, we attend Holy Rosary, where my parents were married, my siblings baptized.

A year into the relationship, Terry admits to being of a different mind, that he is agnostic, and stops accompanying me to church. We lug our dirty clothes to the neighborhood Laundromat and pay fifty cents a load to wash, a quarter to dry. Terry continues to teach art at the junior high school and I, in my spare time, take up painting. I, too, am developing a mind of my own.

Angelo’s exterior staircase and the balcony of the third floor – Harrison Street-side apartment. Photo credits to Christopher J. Calcara.

 

When the moment arrives during construction to decide which units the brothers will take for their homes, Angelo sacrifices the larger quarters on the upper floor to Domenico so as to be closer to the business in the apartment atop the stairs beyond the storeroom. To this end, Domenico orders a graceful archway in the stonework on the north side of the store window to accommodate a door. From the street, he wants a private entrance and steps to rise conveniently to his second-floor apartment, as those behind the storeroom lead to Angelo’s.

Angelo maintains that a set of stairs plopped in the middle of the business would gobble up important shop space and reduce the efficiency and value of the property. A more suitable place for the staircase, he argues, is on the exterior wall of the building, around the corner from Domenico’s gaping hole. And so he has a doorway built on the second level where he thinks the outside stairs should terminate.

 

In telling her chapter of the story, my mother’s mother said of her uncles’ obstinacy, “Teste dure.” Hard heads.

Terry maintained that middle schoolers are the most difficult to teach, at the age when their hormones rage, their stubborn independence flares. And yet, accepting of their worst and coaxing their best, he was adored. Often, projects he and his students produced in class came home and we decorated the apartment with them. For an academic art magazine, I wrote a piece that described how they fabricated abstract wall hangings from carpet samples and scraps. When the school year ended, we used these masterpieces to softly line the old van and protect Terry’s works in transit. I attributed authorship of that essay to him to embellish his curriculum vitae. I regret it to this day. It was the first of my literary writing to be published, and I have no record of it now. Even if I did, it would not bear my name. Rest assured, my left-handed portrait bears his.

 

In anger, Angelo and Domenico board up their hollow signatures on 522. Construction halts while the brothers bicker over placement of the Harrison Street-side staircase to the second floor.

 

If Terry had ever feared his identity being veiled by me, my family or 522, the opposite came to be true. As his art obsessed him, and I assumed the role of apprentice, I became the still life hiding among his vivid canvases. In awe of his artistic talent, of which I despaired of having any, I let this wonderment eclipse me and my own skills. My immature worship sketched me in his silhouette, but only so long. When I began to paint, I began to grow.

Unquestionably, Terry was gifted. In the words of author Edmund White, “To watch a genius at work is the highest civilized pleasure.” On the contrary, to endure his theatrics is the lowest form of entertainment.

He was insecure, aloof, forgetful and changeable as a mood ring. Conditioned to listening for mice in the walls, given to casting sidelong glances and bending reality to thwart the suspicious wife, he had long searched for domestic tranquility in the muted, somber tones of winter, which he preferred over fluorescent ones of other seasons. While this tempered his emotional paint pots, it left him personally with a rather meager palette. As a result, much of his work was dark and foreboding.

Hot-blooded and Latin, autumn had always been my favorite season, with its ripe burgundies, mustards and pumpkins. Living with Terry, like a pet that resembles its beloved master, I came to adopt his preferences, unknowingly hunting for harmony myself. As our days and weeks lengthened into months and years, we behaved more like dogs marking their territories than men in love.

 

If they couldn’t reach agreement on something as basic as a set of stairs, brothers Angelo and Domenico concluded they could never be partners. For years, their last words to each other were:

“Non si sa nulla di affari.” You don’t know anything about business.

“Non si sa nulla.” You don’t know anything.

Unwilling to resolve their differences, Angelo had a staircase built around the corner from the storefront window that beamed beside the frowning archway, which Domenico plugged with a frame and a door without a knob or keyhole. Then they put the building up for sale.

My father’s father bought 522 Harrison for his own growing family and butchering business. He mounted six mailboxes on the panels of the infamous door, one for each apartment and one for the store. And that’s how 522 remained for decades.

 

It was in our mailbox months after moving in that I found the newspaper with its notice of Terry’s divorce from Ellen. He had lied. After filing, she kicked him out and he came to me – still legally married. I was furious. Suddenly 522, and all the intense pigment we had restored to it, went stark black and white with the untruth. I now saw objects that were his and objects that were mine, nothing that was ours. When before everyday events were adventures, punctuated by commas or exclamations, each now ended dully with a period.

Terry was sincerely, tearfully sorry. I forgave. We had sex somewhere in the apartment. Life went on, but the cracks in the relationship grew as deep and wide and prescient as those yawning holes in my uncles’ building.

Our resentful, possessive tendencies resounded as reliably as clicks in a time bomb. I can’t tell you what made us that way, whether it was the notion, from my point of view. that if he cheated on his wife, he’d cheat on me. Or from his perspective, if I’d sleep with him while he was married, I’d sleep with anybody. Either way, detonation seemed constantly imminent. We blamed each other for our garish troubles: him for my indigo blue discontent, me for his remorseful maroon divorce.

In Victorian times, our unspoken feelings might have been expressed to each other in the language of flowers. A yellow carnation from me would say to him, “You have disappointed me.” An asphodel bouquet from him would say to me, “Carry my regrets to your grave.” Did he wish that he were back with Ellen, as early on with her he lamented not being with me?

I never fully trusted Terry again after that first big lie, and I know he felt completely unstable with me, especially at 522. We separated many times over one idiotic argument or another, and on several occasions, he packed up the van and moved in with a fellow teacher.

I, on the other hand, had nowhere to go, having lost or given up friends he did not like or want to be part of our lives, felt threatened by, as he was by my early juvenile amusements of smoking pot and getting high. It was Terry who got me started on cigarettes, and it took me years to quit them, but marijuana transported me away from him and, therefore, was forbidden.

When you lose faith in someone, his every uncontrolled move is a case study, dissected time and again on a slide under the microscope, and to what end? Without a control variable, there is no change. And without change, there can be no cure. If we fought, and there were fights, he would invade my personal journals to infect my thoughts and record his own snide, convoluted prescriptions in the margins: “Just because you heard it happened doesn’t mean it happened.”

Alone at the sporadic pauses during which we lived apart, I suspected him of being with other men. He phoned once to forewarn me that in the course of an earlier separation, he found himself cavorting in the swimming pool of a wealthy female patron of his art and had acquired a common sexual infection. I didn’t believe him – that he had intercourse with a woman.

The red-hot obsession that bound us to one another like match to flame was doused on its mad getaway down the stairs, out and into the atmosphere, into the world of others, trailing the bitter smell of burnt sulfur in its wake.

After three years together at 522, I decided to leave Terry. Boxing up my belongings, I prepared to move out of my family’s cherished edifice, anxious to shed the shadows, particularly his and mine.

Why was it, I grieved, that partnerships forged at 522 Harrison could not coalesce?

Curse or coincidence?

“It’s like a business,” my father said to us the Saturday he came for the rent, and to convince me that I must stay in the apartment, that Terry should be the one to vacate. “Sometimes partners just don’t get along.”

From experience, in a business transaction gone sour, he knew this to be true. After Terry walked out of our home, betrayed and wounded, Dad told me, “Do you really think I’d let him stay here without you?”

I remained another lonely Christmas. Then I decommissioned the teapot, completely emptied the rooms of our lives and went my separate way. 

My father eventually sold 522 for a song to a foreigner who barely spoke English. The new owner disguised the bricks under a dreary paint that extinguished its old-world charm and made it look even less significant than time has a way of doing by itself.  A string of ethnic endeavors engaged the storefront to serve the neighborhood, as its residents changed gradually and almost imperceptibly over the years. For all I know, Middle Eastern refugees or some aimless aboriginal tribe may be the present nomads.

I can pinpoint exactly the moment Terry and I split apart, the second in which fate malformed two distinct embryos from the one zygote. It happened when I stopped framing for him and began painting for myself, and when he said to me, “You’re not an artist. You haven’t been trained.” As if he were telling a wife where she belongs, her place not remotely synonymous or as relevant as his.

But it’s true, of course. I had not studied art as he had. I could never teach it. The most I could do was copy what I saw, and that made my expression sheer imitation, me a dabbler. Without being invited, I stormed a door that he had earned the right to pass through. For him the journey inspired a life’s labors. For me, the door led nowhere.

 

Christopher J. Calcara: Following an education and degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, he worked eight years in the field of advertising and public relations in Kansas and Missouri creating marketing campaigns for businesses and institutions featured in both print and broadcast media.

He has written in fiction and semi-fiction genres, which include short stories, memoirs, poetry, plays and novels. He has collaborated with composers to write plays with musical scores. Joan is one such musical play that vividly portrays the triumphs and tragedies in the life of Joan of Arc. A portion of its book, music and lyrics was performed in 2002 under his own direction at the “Living Room,” Kansas City’s original entertainment/talk show.

Christopher was one of eight authors, and the only Charleston writer, to win the 2011 South Carolina Arts Commission Fiction Project for his short story “Truckers,” published online in the fall of 2012 by Sandlapper Magazine.

He moved from the Midwest to Phoenix, Arizona in 2004, from Phoenix to Sarasota, Florida in 2007, from Florida to Charleston, South Carolina in 2010, where he was a member of the Lowcountry Creative Writing Forum. He returned to Kansas City in 2012. Each of these locations greatly inspired and informed his work, but there’s no place like home.

Eggshells and Tulips

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tired of catching flies
with my sugar and honey
I’d rather have one butterfly
than all your lies
I tiptoe through eggshell tulips
only to have you trip me with your tongue
I’ll never do it right
so why even try
I am me but not who you want me to be
you are you and I love you
warts, worms, turds and all
but I am tired now of this cowboy and Indian game
Bang! in my heart shot
the ball is in your court
and you don’t play fair
I play tennis with a basketball and racquet
while you smack a badminton birdie with a baseball bat
so I lay down my gun and holster filled with love
the white flag I fly
is torn to shreds

Be careful the next time you walk on eggshells
for my heart is under there

teresa 2x2 (2)

Author, Teresa Bissegger

Teresa Bissegger has published poetry in Illuminations, the creative arts publication of Southeast Community College, Nebraska. She has served on the editorial board of Illuminations for four years. She is a Nebraska native, who owns and operates an antiques store, Antiques Paradise, in Beatrice, Nebraska. In addition to writing poetry, she also enjoys travel and photography.

The Confession

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*Inspired by public speculation about the song, “Sally, Go ’Round the Roses.”

Sally went ’round the roses in 1963

For more than 50 years, her secret was safe with me
Though roses didn’t hurt her, the thorn of scorn cut deep
For girls who loved each other then
the backlash was too steep

 

If Sally hadn’t gone downtown on that fateful day
she never would have seen the kiss that made her run away
Sally went ’round the roses to deal with her pain
Hair hung down, thought she’d drown
Tears fell just like rain

Roses won’t tell secrets…and I won’t tell a lie:
I had been the other girl, the one who made her cry
The ex of Sally’s girlfriend, we were saying our goodbyes–
and that is what went down that day
right before her eyes

We lived in different times then – closet doors were closed
For those who’d want acceptance, a straight life was imposed
Sally went ’round the roses; in solitude she cried
Now a friend has shared the news that last week
Sally died

I regret I never told her: Things aren’t always as they seem–
but she couldn’t face her lover; Sally’s hurt was too extreme
So before the final farewells; casket lowered in the ground
I’ll bring roses to her funeral
for one last go around.

Sandy Stert Benjamin is a writer/poet with an interest in popular music.

No Room for Hate

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dirt beneath our feet
welcome mat beat

trampled on
looked down
kick ‘em when they’re on the ground

call ’em out
niggers, dykes, Jews
liars, cheaters
queers, spics, fatso, chinks

you should be ashamed
if you use those names
we’re all something
no one is nothing

there is no dirt beneath
our feet
not beggars
lying in brown bottle gutters
or slaves
digging their way to the grave
prostitute
on the street
she has a name
and it ain’t ‘ho

you ain’t gotta like ‘em
you don’t have to even help ‘em
but there ain’t no room for hatin’ ‘em

wipe your own dirt
on your smiley-faced welcome mat

teresa 2x2 (2)

Author, Teresa Bissegger


Teresa Bissegger has published poetry in Illuminations, the creative arts publication of Southeast Community College, Nebraska. She has served on the editorial board of Illuminations for four years. She is a Nebraska native, who owns and operates an antiques store, Antiques Paradise, in Beatrice, Nebraska. In addition to writing poetry, she also enjoys travel and photography.

Take Off Your Shoes

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We met, blind-folded
by sun-glaze, on a ball
field in Columbus, Ohio.

You, too short-sighted to
see I was willing to go
barefoot in a crowded
stadium, drink beer while
squatting on a crumpled box,
for you.

I was too carefree to notice
you searched endlessly for
shoes, up and down, back
and forth, aisles in a swaying
sea of Clippers fans, for my
naked heart.

I panicked when my shoe broke.
Our first date. Your slender
fingers reaching inside my
lustful mind. Proving
I was a tough girl for all
your butch friends, and you,
I tossed the pair of sandals
into the closest trash bin,
looked over at your wide-eyed
shock, and smiled my best
I don’t give a damn
smile. All I need is you.

Put me on your back again.
Carry me to the car with that
same youthful, gluttonous
grin. Tell me I am beautiful,
again and again. Take me
back to the ball field. Baby,
take off your shoes.

N and A

Andrea Collins, “Tough Girl”

Dear Springfield, Ohio

10403043_10205562856805533_8138399291743376429_nI remember when hearty crimson and yellow colors, and those brilliant sharp orange hews, fell meekly into your deep valley. I felt secure, folded between the plump foothills of Appalachia, the wholesome Great Miami River, and glossy eyes of does dipping into the backdrop of corn fields and an azure sky. I hid inside the filaments of your Kelly green grass, rolled on your soft hills, took my time peeling the casings from walnuts, as I laid underneath the canopy of pine trees and birch leaves. Sometimes, I felt light, airy, as if in flight on the wings of your sparrows, clasped in the beaks of your mourning doves, but sometimes I felt suffocated by your smallness and the authority of your churches, stationed prominently in each part of town. I no longer live among you, not since 2010, after my civil ceremony with my now wife. It’s easier on my conscience to remember your topography rather than your religious values holding, in my view, significant dominion over civil rights mentalities. 

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Rick 13 (2)

Picking up the Story in 2010: Coming Out LGBT in Springfield

My own story of engaging Springfield with LGBT concerns begins the same year that you, after years of navigating this town’s prohibitions and silences, started your new life in Florida.  I arrived in Springfield in 2002 when I took a job teaching British Romantic literature at your alma mater, Wittenberg University, but I didn’t get caught up in LGBT activism for some years.  The coincidence of timing—your packing up in 2010 and my stepping out more publicly that same year—makes me wonder if we both hit a similar breaking point from being lesbian and gay in a town that discouraged our visibility, that offered a warm reception and helpful services as long as parts of who we are remained a private matter.

My own breaking point was accelerated when a friend, who teaches in the public school system, shared with me why he chooses to keep his sexuality and his long-time partner concealed from his co-workers.  He said that he had a good working relationship with the principal at his school, but because principals change from time to time, he had no guarantees that his security would continue.  Under those circumstances, the risks of living openly as a gay man weighed more heavily on him than the benefits.  At one level, his life and mine were similar:  We were both educators in Springfield.  But at another level, our lives were very different.  I taught at a school that, besides including “sexual orientation” in its nondiscrimination policy, valued the perspective that my interest in gender and sexuality brought to a literature classroom.  Not only would I not be penalized for being gay, but I also stood a chance of being appreciated for it. What’s more, Wittenberg has been generous enough to provide my spouse with benefits once we could demonstrate—in the absence of a marriage license—that our lives were, in fact, intertwined.  Meanwhile, my friend in the public school lived much of his day managing a careful boundary between his work life and his home life. He also lived with the very reasonable fear that, regardless of how discrete he managed to be, he was always one homophobic parent away from losing a teaching career in this community.

 

A Springfield Coming Out, Part 1:  Putting It in Print

I’d known that conditions like these existed, but my friend’s account made the problem more intensely visible and personal for me in 2010.  Not knowing how to address the problem but nonetheless feeling some compulsion to try something, I wrote an editorial for the Springfield News-Sun with the aim of making the hidden struggles of some friends and neighbors more visible.  Their struggle, so far as I can tell, is very similar to your struggle.  For you, it was the Catholic school, the Catholic Church, and your Springfield community that held your sexuality hostage, sending you the message that acceptance and support was contingent: “You can be loved and nurtured,” Springfield seems to say, “as long as you don’t live your truth as a lesbian woman—or, at the very least, as long as you have the discretion to avoid living that truth so openly that children might see.” 

Of course, there’s no way to live in this arrangement without also validating the sense that we are corrupt in some way.  It’s a self-limiting message that can come from family, from the workplace, and from community groups.  Regrettably, the church or the mosque is almost always the most powerful and the most efficient messenger of such lessons.  Few people utter an anti-gay sentiment in these parts without quoting Paul or Leviticus shortly thereafter.

I wasn’t sure how to push back against these messages, so I started by asking readers of the editorial to reflect on our community by taking stock of the kinds of human diversity they could see in their city as well as the kinds of diversity they could not.  One conclusion was obvious.

Regardless of your chosen avenue, one dimension of Springfield’s diversity is conspicuously hidden, namely the gay, lesbian, and transgender Springfielders.

To get some sense of the peculiar silence of this group, just compare our city to those other urban centers along I-70, Dayton and Columbus, both of which offer annual pride festivals, community centers for sexual minorities, openly gay elected officials and active organizations for gay citizens (as well as their parents and friends).

Yes, we’re a smaller place than those cities, but something is surely amiss when we come up with blanks in all of the above categories.

(“Springfield Gays Shouldn’t Feel that They Need To Hide,” Springfield News Sun 7/10/10)

That editorial may not have changed a lot of minds about public policy, but it certainly brought an end to my own invisibility in Springfield.  Up to that point, I’d shared my sexual orientation with work colleagues but not with everyone in my church or in my community service activities.  That editorial also marked the start of a long and hard education about the potential and limitations of grass roots activism, as well as the possibilities and impediments within more institutional kinds of power in town, be it ecclesiastical, political, municipal, or social.  There have been good lessons, not the least of which being that Springfielders have an itch for community engagement to a degree that other towns do not enjoy.  Friends began sharing with me that the editorial had stirred up conversations at their workplaces and at dinner parties.  Then, a few weeks after that editorial appeared, a second letter found its way into the Springfield News-Sun, this one by the mother of a gay son.

For anyone who missed his article, Mr. Incorvati spoke of being gay, and, in particular, being gay in Springfield. It was so gratifying to read his courageous article, obviously written for every gay and lesbian person who has wanted to say those same words, but who is unable to come forth with the courage to do so.

(“Mother of Gay Son:  Tolerance the Least We Should Give,” Springfield News Sun, 8/7/10)

The mother who wrote this editorial, along with others interested in organizing, eventually created Equality Springfield, the city’s first LGBT advocacy organization.  In the weeks and months that followed, the group sprung a set of bylaws, elected a raft of officers, earned its non-profit bona fides from the IRS, and set about the work of helping lesbian, gay, and transgender people feel more at home in this part of the state.  Since then, Equality Springfield has become widely known and a regular presence in the city’s cultural life.Rick 1

We co-sponsor the Farmers Market, set up a booth at a City Hall’s Culture Fest, host (along with partner churches) the Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus for an annual holiday concert, and keep an active presence on social media with 1,200 Facebook followers and counting.

 

A Springfield Coming Out, Part 2:  Feeling the Blowback

Not everyone has been thrilled by our presence. Over the past five years, we’ve seen the other side of Springfield.  The narrowness.  The bigotry.  The fear mongering.  LGBT people still leave our town for more affirming communities to call home, more welcoming places where they can devote their talents, time, and energy, and they do this for good reason.  As much as many of us activist types are pleased to see signs of progress, we still get tired of it all and talk about leaving the place behind.  My partner and I are better situated than most LGBT people by far, but we get weary of the bigotry, disgusted with the tactics of conservative clergy, and exasperated by the irrational fears that pass for prophecy in some circles.

We know full well why you left here.  You had good reason.

One of the early indications of inhospitable feelings toward LGBT visibility surfaced, of all days, on Mother’s Day in 2011, when the Springfield News-Sun printed a feature story about a lesbian couple, Becky Hall and Jodi Curnutte, both of whom were softball coaches at Wittenberg.  The article seemed innocent enough, recounting the steps in the couple’s adoption of their daughter, Donyale, who was seven at the time the story appeared.

 A few days later, in June 2009, Hall met Donyale at Chuck E. Cheese’s in Springfield.

“I fell in love with her at first sight,” Hall said. “She was just a lovable, bright-eyed, active, intelligent little girl who would match really well with our family.”

Hall sent Curnutte a photo of Donyale with the message, “By the way, she’s coming to our house tomorrow.” Hall kept telling Curnutte Donyale was a perfect match.

“And when I met her,” Curnutte said, “I couldn’t have agreed more.”

Donyale stayed with them that weekend, and then the next weekend, and the weekend after that, until they had to coach at a softball tournament in Hawaii. When they returned, they brought Donyale into their home for good.

(“Adoption Changes Life for Wittenberg Softball Coach” Springfield News Sun 5/8/11)

The story struck some readers as heart warming.  Others took the story much less favorably. Faithful and long-standing readers of the News-Sun threatened to discontinue subscriptions at a time when print journalism was facing an uncertain future and when the paper’s staff had already been downsized.  Becky, Jodi, and Donyale’s story moved into new territory for this community—and it struck some landmines.

This is not the West Coast or New York. This is Middle America. We do not want to see articles about homosexuals on Mother’s Day or any other day. Keep that trash out of the paper.

What kind of newspaper do we have when on Mother’s Day you have an article on a couple of lesbians. It was a slap to the face of real mothers. You hit a new low.

(Speak Up Editorials, Springfield News Sun 5/11/11)

People that I knew at the newspaper expected some negative response but were surprised by the outrage that flew at them.  For Equality Springfield, the blowback was an indication of developments to come, developments that would emerge when the group began asking questions that had not been asked before.

 

A Springfield Coming Out, Step 3:  Learning about City Hall and Its Ties with the Conservative Church

In 2011, members of the group coordinated a campaign for the inclusion of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance.  We expected some resistance, but most of us were naïve in assuming that only voices on the fringe of our community would actually defend the right to fire, evict, or deny services to someone on the basis of sexual orientation.  It turned out, in fact, we were the fringe. 

The liberty to discriminate against LGBT people was a right that a good many Springfielders had no inclination to part with.  Perhaps these anti-gay voices don’t accurately represent the community as a whole.  It’s tough to say with certainty.  What is certain is that these voices represented many of the people who were willing to make a trip to City Hall, to send furious emails and make multiple phone calls to their commissioners, and to write indignant letters to the paper.  In my better moods, I tell myself that more moderate, more thoughtful, and more progressive Springfielders were interested in the community conversation as well, but were just more apt to go out for Indian food than to participate.  In any case, we learned a tough lesson about the motivational power of outrage.  We also had one of our strong suspicions confirmed: We should not consider the option of a popular vote to secure rights for LGBT people in the city.Rick 2

There were also some hard lessons in that first year of work about the way local politicians would deal with upstart advocacy organizations like ours, organizations that had little history in the town and even less clout.  It wasn’t too long before we had a good fix on where our City Commissioners stood on LGBT matters.  We knew that if the votes were there to make any change in current policy, the issue would have made its way onto City Hall’s agenda.  It neverRick 3 did.  Two of the Commission’s five members stated their support for including “sexual orientation” in the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance:  They were Mayor Warren Copeland and Commissioner Karen Duncan. The remaining three commissioners did what many politicians do in an election year:  They refused to move the issue forward while relying publicly on expressions like “I’m still thinking about this very important issue.” 

Meanwhile, we knew from scuttle in the community that Joyce Chilton wasn’t thinking it over (“Not in a million years,” was her private comment that made its way to us); we suspected from party affiliation that Dan Martin, the sole Republican on the Commission, would not have an easy time being a deciding vote; and we received word from many sources not to trust Kevin O’Neill, a commissioner with a reputation for being a power broker and a manipulator, a guy who takes his lead from the Greek heroic code, who likes to cultivate alliances and dispense with those who cannot be of use to him.  LGBT advocates fall to the latter category, and in the buildup to his re-election, his tack was to keep his enemies happy with encouraging but hollow commitments.

It is important that we add to the ordinance protection for the GLBT community, not only in the workplace & with housing, but also within other areas of our community. It must go further. I can’t emphasize enough my position on bullying of our kids, physically & online. That is paramount to me & certainly to Joyce. I know it’s easy to say,”Patience is a virtue,” & “Good things come to he who waits,” but I have seen those old cliches proven to be true time & again. Let’s continue the dialog. As long as we keep talking, good things will happen.

(Kevin O’Neill email correspondence, 5/3/11)

O’Neill eventually voted against the inclusion of LGBT people in the city’s nondiscrimination policy.  By the time the commissioners finally voted on inclusion of “sexual orientation” on Feburary 28th, 2012, his opposition was no surprise.  At an earlier City Commission meeting in September of 2011, when Commissioner Martin moved to send the issue to committee for six months, we recognized the intent to delay the vote until after the election, when O’Neill would be safe from any fallout we could create.

What we didn’t anticipate was the extent to which O’Neill was courting the conservative churches in town, leading up to his election, spreading word that he would send the gays packing if they voted for him.

What we also didn’t anticipate—it’s safe to say we were blindsided—was the extent to which some of the largest churches in Springfield, white and black churches, would coordinate their opposition to rights for LGBT people.

That capacity, the willingness of clergy to don their clerical collars and reverend titles while playing power politics has been the hardest development for me personally to accept.  Commissioner O’Neill manipulates and works situations to his personal advantage, but because he is a politician, I’m inclined to give him a pass.  No one likes being burned, but then we also come to expect, and maybe event accept, doublespeak from politicians. Call me naïve, but I’m less prepared to excuse clergy who go to work in the same fashion, smiling and speaking of God’s love while they stir their congregations with misbegotten fears about gay men coming after their children.  This is the sort of ugliness in Springfield that makes it difficult for some of us to use expressions like “hometown” with the unambiguous affection that we would like to feel.

Rick 4The church opposition to workplace and housing protections had four components leading up to the City Commission’s vote.  The first step was to bring in a strategist.  The expert of choice in Ohio is Phil Burress of Citizens for Community Values, the largest anti-LGBT organization in the state, and his arriving in town to meet with City Commissioners and with the conservative church community stirred up interest.  Excited by a scheduled visit from the preeminent tactician of anti-gay politics, the Clark County Tea Party got on board and shared word with people on its roster.

On October 31, 2011 at 6:30 p.m., I ask that you join us with Mr. Phil 
Burress, who is from Cincinnati. He is the president of CCV (Citizens for
 Community Values). He will be coming to our church (Springfield Church
 of Christ) to help us organize to help us defeat this immoral ordinance. At the last meeting we were out numbered three to one. So
 Christians, Men of Faith, and Women of Faith, it is time for us to be COURAGEOUS, and stand against evil, we can be silent no more. Please pray about your decision. Our city depends on it.

(Email correspondence for the Clark County Tea Party, 10/15/11).

Despite his celebrity status, Burress belongs to that ever-growing list of conservative Christian ironies.  At one level, his disgust with LGBT people is couched within the language of preserving the family.  Here’s how the Citizens for Community Values puts it on their website.

[W]e believe that the campaign, the militant agenda, of homosexual activist organizations threatens the emotional and physical health, indeed, the very life, of those trapped in such behavior. That agenda also represents one of the greatest threats to our traditional Judeo-Christian family values, and to societal stability as a whole, of our generation.

(“Where We Stand,” www.ccv.org)

But, lo and behold, this great defender of the family is also a recovering porn addict, who is now into his third marriage.  (My partner and I, together for 21 years, do enjoy the irony of Burress labeling us “the greatest threat to traditional Judeo-Christian family values.”)  None of the staunch “defenders of family” in Springfield or in any other community has, to my knowledge, raised questions about Burress’s credibility as a guardian of the family.  Questionable credentials notwithstanding, he remains the unquestioned leader of Ohio’s Christian conservatives interested in docking the value of LGBT people. 

His record is impressive.  In addition to serving on the board of Exodus International (the now defunct reparative therapy outfit), Burress was the strategist, who added a marriage inequality amendment to the state constitution, and he iss the mind behind the repeal of nondiscrimination policies in Cincinnati.  No wonder, then, that his dance card is filled with visits to conservative congregations ready to absorb what he has to offer, congregations like those he found in Springfield.

Around the same time as Burress came to Springfield, a number of churches got involved in our municipal election.  In 2011, Commissioner O’Neill was in a contest against another Democratic candidate, Richard Spangler, who openly supported an LGBT nondiscrimination policy.  In some communities, churches may be cautious about non-profit guidelines that prohibit involvement in politics, but in Springfield, the local election, the homosexual agenda, and “the greatest threat to our traditional Judeo-Christian family values” became the stuff of Sunday sermons.  At Springfield’s largest church, First Christian Church, Rev. Craig Grammer spoke in plain terms.

I’ve researched this issue with our five city commissioners.  There are two who want to adopt this special language.  There are three who do not want to adopt this special language.  Of the three who do not want to adopt this special language, there is one running for re-election, Kevin O’Neill. Kevin O’Neill is running against a guy by the name of Richard Spangler [. . . .] I called them both and said I’ve got hundreds, I’ve got thousands, a couple thousand people.  We’ve got pastors all over the community who are interested in this.  What say you? [. . .] 

I’ve had three conversations with Kevin O’Neill as we’ve navigated in this dialogue.  I’ve probably spent a good hour and a half on the phone with him.  There is nothing that he has told me that leads me to believe that he would vote for changing this ordinance.  Everything that he said to me, man, leads me to believe . . . Now could he change his mind?  He could, and I will hold him personally responsible if he does.  But the bottom line is that everything he told me leads me to believe that he would not adopt this special language.

                        (“Watchman at the Gate,” Sermon on 10/30/11)

This is the word of God in some congregations in Springfield.  Yes, there is good reason why a lot of LGBT people keep a safe distance between themselves and anything that looks like a pulpit.

Rev. Grammer’s reference to “pastors all over the community who are interested” may have been a reference to yet another show of opposition in the works:  Right about the same time as this pre-election day sermon, twenty-five area clergy signed a petition asking city leaders not to protect LGBT people from firing and eviction.

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The fact that many of these congregations were large and influential was noteworthy, but the most dispiriting aspect of this petition was seeing the clergy stoop to the point where the itch for power overwhelmed any misgivings they might have about bearing false witness.

City Commission of Springfield, Ohio

The pastors who have signed this letter would ask the City Commission to not adopt the discrimination policy that is now in committee that expands the city’s discrimination policy to protect those of any “sexual orientation.”

We believe the city’s current policy is more than adequate for protection of all citizens against discrimination.  We also want to affirm that this “pending change” is not state or national policy and that there have been no cases of discrimination because of “sexual orientation” known in Springfield, Ohio.

(Letter dated 11/11/11)

There have been a number of moments across five years of LGBT advocacy that have the power to twist up my stomach, but none match this one.  All the invisibility of my lesbian and gay friends, all their hiding, all their personal risks, their fears in the workplace, all their self-doubt and self-loathing, all the imbibed signs of illegitimacy that Springfield offered its LGBT citizens was being taken advantage of by religious leaders, leaders who could have no reasonable conviction that what they signed their names to was actually true.  No cases of LGBT discrimination in Springfield?  Really? 

How about the minister who put his name to this petition, but who is also on record at City Hall saying that he did not want to rent his property to gay people because of what they would do in the bedroom?  Did he believe the statement about no cases of discrimination?  So far, I only have one explanation for this kind of misrepresentation, and it’s not a pretty one:  The degree of truth in this statement was less relevant to these ministers than their realization that no one of any importance in Springfield was likely to call them on their shoddy reasoning.  True, some LGBT advocates might make a stink about baseless claims, but the probability of their objections leading to any consequence in Springfield was nil.

These are tough memories to process, but there’s one more point to make before setting this ugly petition aside.  It’s an obvious point.

Before being convinced that “there have been no cases of discrimination,” these ministers didn’t look anywhere for evidence.  If these clergy, these members of the body of Christ, these representatives of the Kingdom of God, did have a single living concern for anyone LGBT, if any of them had bothered to ask the Springfield Police Department to provide them with reports of anti-gay activity in the last ten years, then these stories would have surfaced.

On September 17, 2000, a 47-year-old man was assaulted near a Kroger store on Derr Road. Two suspects “pulled up in a dark car, got out yelling ‘faggot,’ and began beating him with their fists.” The two suspects drove away, and the complainant was taken to Mercy Hospital for treatment.

On September 21, 2000, a 28-year-old man was walking down W. Main St. when a suspect drove by, called the man’s name, and offered to give him a ride. After the complainant got into the car, the suspect drove to Memorial Dr. where he stopped. “The suspect got out, pulled the complainant out of the car, tearing his clothes. The suspect then grabbed the complainant by the throat and threw him to the ground. The suspect said, ‘I’m not through with you, faggot,’ and drove away.”

On June 24, 2008, a 39-year-old woman was assaulted while walking to her home from the Night Gallery Lounge on Mitchell Blvd. The complainant reports hearing a “female voice say  ‘Lesbian,’ and then she was struck from behind.” She fell down an embankment and was partially submerged in water. She was unable to free herself but was able to contact two friends with her cell phone. When these friends arrived, they “found her on the east side of [Buck Creek] just south of Mitchell on her side and face partially submerged.” They were unable to free her. A medic unit arrived, removed her from the bank, and took her to Mercy Hospital. The woman reported that “she could not feel her legs and that her head was hurting.”

On the morning of October 11, 2008, a homecoming parade float prepared by the Wittenberg University Gay/Straight Alliance was set on fire. The fire was set around 1:30 a.m. and was eventually extinguished by the Fire Rescue Department. The GSA president reported that the group’s banner was saved from the fire but that the rest of the vehicle was lost resulting in a reported $1,200 in damage.

On March 1, 2009, a 14-year-old was assaulted at a party that took place on Lincoln Park Circle. A witness confirmed that 5 teenage males attending the party hit and kicked the victim. The witness reported that “they were accusing him of being homosexual throughout the night, and she thought that might be why they were assaulting him.”

On October 19, 2010, a 16-year-old woman was assaulted by 19-year-old male who knew that the woman was a lesbian and who found her sexual orientation offensive. She reported that, while at a Sunset Ave. location, he “forcibly grabbled her around her throat and began choking her as he ‘slammed her onto the stairs.’” A witness to these events also attributed the violence to the suspect’s disgust with the victim’s sexual orientation.

While I would like to think that reading these accounts would have had some impact on the clergy, I have my doubts.  After all, Commissioners Chilton, Martin, and O’Neill had this information, and they found it easy enough to vote against protecting LGBT people in their city.  Members of the Springfield NAACP are also familiar with this history of cases, but the organization refuses to advocate for LGBT rights.  Ministers who were key in kick starting our local NAACP chapter, by the way, also signed the letter.

Lastly, many of us looked on as pastors motivated their followers with fear tactics and misrepresentation.  The notable among these ministers is Rev. Bill Warax at Springfield Church of Christ, a man who can use the slippery slope logic to bring down the apocalypse from the slightest act of tolerance.

I believe that LBGT behaviors . . . are destructive to the dual base of our community: the family and the individual. . . . Wise discrimination in personal association based on legitimate beliefs is a virtue, not a hate crime. A hate crime is exposing my children to sexual behaviors that are unrestrained and openly approved. . . . Special status for choice and behavior actually opens a Pandora’s box for legalization of all manner of aberrant personal behaviors: pedophilia, incest, public transgender activity, etc. . . . I, as a parent of one elementary school and one high school child, do NOT want homosexual behaviors or the choice of same sex liaisons held out as acceptable and healthy options. . . . We wouldn’t tolerate any other approach that puts our children at high risk of disease, death, or psychological trauma—why would we do so in this matter? . . . Approval of the choice to be LBGT would also grant special rights to those practicing apotemnophilia, cropophilia, exhibitionism, frotteurism, gerontosexuality, incest, kleptophilia, klismaphilia, necrophilia, pedophilia, prostitution, sexual masochism, toucherism, voyeurism, and bestiality.”

(Written correspondence to the City Commission, 11/14/)

But Rev. Warrax is, for all of his ungrounded claims, one of the most likeable warriors in the conservative ranks, in part because (I think) he is sincere about all that he says.  I cannot say the same thing for his colleague Rev. Grammer.  When he told an audience that the addition of “sexual orientation” to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance could lead to men in dresses teaching third graders and taking them to the bathroom, he knew what he was up to.  He knew he could play on trans-phobia, homophobia, and fear of pedophilia to create a strong reaction—and he did it, pleased with his effectiveness and apparently unconcerned about the consequences of validating disgust in fellow human beings.  If rhetorical techniques gave a few more people license to express their own disgust more passionately and directly, well perhaps that’s just a consequence of doing the Lord’s work in this fallen world.

And there were times during public debate at City Hall when those in attendance took their cues from their pastors and let the venom flow freely.  If the good pastor said it, they seemed to believe, then it must be true, and if the pastor shows that it’s valid to show disgust, then it must be a righteous moment when others give vent to the same impulse.  Here’s the experience of sitting in City Hall captured by an audience member, who sent her account to the Commissioners.

While taking notes on the proceedings of Monday night’s meeting, my attention was consistently drawn (diverted really) to the family sitting in the row behind me. Their casual comments to each other were so venomous, and so loudly shared, that I found myself transcribing more of their words than those issued from the podium . . . [They laughed] as a young teacher (also a lesbian), tears dripping down her face, stated that she has been made to feel like a ‘second-class citizen.’ ‘Good,’ one in the row behind me answered. On more than one occasion, when a speaker would claim that they have had to leave or are trying to leave Springfield because of the intolerance and discrimination they faced or are facing, the crowd behind me would answer ‘good riddance.’ Any speaker that would identify him or herself as a homosexual would immediately elicit groans of ‘disgusting,’ and ‘it’s a sin, it’s a sin.”

(Written correspondence to the Springfield City Commission from 11/17/11)

 

A Springfield Coming Out, Step 4:  Remedying Stagnant Policies with Social Change

Since you’ve left Springfield, we’ve seen very little by way of encouraging policy developments. On February 28th, 2012, the City Commission voted predictably in a 2-3 split to deny workplace and housing protection to LGBT people.  More positively, the Springfield Fire Rescue, of its own accord just this past year, made “sexual orientation” a protected category in its nondiscrimination policy.  The Police and the teachers still do not have such protection, though there are gay and lesbian people serving our community in those departments.

In the least welcome development, Kyle Koehler, a local business owner who strongly opposes protections for “sexual orientation,” has moved into a new role.  Koehler first came to many of our attentions when, as the first to speak at a public forum, he explained his desire to keep gay people and their sexual practices, as he puts it, away from his family-owned business, K and K Tool.  Since that day in 2011, he earned the Republican nomination for State Representative, received an endorsement from Phil Burress’s Citizens for Community Values, and went on to win the general election.  He now works in the Ohio Statehouse where he has made headlines for expressing his support for the sort of religious liberty legislation that got Indiana’s statehouse in hot water not long ago.

But all is not dire and dreadful.  If you’ll let us just bracket for a moment the mixed bag of policy inaction and anti-gay political office holders, we can show you changes outside of City Hall worthy of celebration.  A youth group called SAY IT now meets once a week in town to give community and encouragement to gender nonconforming teens and their friends, the list of welcoming churches grows a little more each year (I’d put the current tally somewhere between eight and ten congregations), and Equality Springfield continues to go about its work of establishing a positive visible presence for LGBT people in this area.  Some efforts have had a modest impact—the LGBT Documentary Film Series had great screenings with mediocre audiences—but we’ve also dreamed up some winning events. 

In 2014, Equality Springfield recognized Pride Month with five billboards around in the downtown area, each one drawing attention to the LGBT presence in Springfield as well as to the city’s policy shortcomings, and all Rick 7of them were made possible by the support of Diesel, a local nightclub, and their drag performers, who donated time to some successful fundraisers.  One billboard, with Commissioner Karen Duncan calling for an expanded nondiscrimination policy, received loads of feedback (positive and negative) as well as welcomed newspaper coverage.

 

Rick 8This year, the billboard campaign returned with five new designs, and, in what is probably Equality Springfield’s proudest moment, we’ve gone and pulled off Springfield’s first Pride Celebration at City Hall Plaza with the help of Diesel and JR’s Why Not III, another watering hole in town.  Maybe the day felt so good because it all came together despite four years of disappointment leading up to the day.  Whatever the cause, a warm sun shined its light on Springfield when June 13th, 2015, came—and it did the heart great good to see drag performers pulling in an audience a few yards from where, a few years earlier, an ugly and unconscionable vote degraded a lot of people.

Rick 10More than a few of us are still feeling the excitement of a Springfield Pride Festival, which went so well in a community that has shown its ambivalence—and occasionally, its hostility—to LGBT residents.  Protests?  We didn’t have any.  Someone put bubbles in a fountain at City Hall the night before the festival, but no one suspects a bad element behind that gesture. 

I’m taking the lack of protest as a sign of Springfield’s better nature.  Yes, the people who oppose expanded rights for LGBT people—or who even disapprove of those who identify as LGBT in the first place—are capable of manipulation and fear                                                            mongering.  But the city has shown that there’s space, even in the heart of downtown, for all kinds of celebrations.  Rick 11That’s a gain of decent sorts.

And, yes, we’ve reserved City Hall Plaza for 2016, 2017 and 2018.  We invite you to visit at some point when Pride is in full bloom.  For the time being, we’re still working toward a day when we can also say to our relocated LGBT friends, “We hope you’ll move back,” but we’re not that community yet.  We’re a good place to visit, but, if you’re gay, lesbian, or transgender, there are still some better places to put down your roots.

 

 

 

 

 

Rick 12Rick Incorvati is Associate Professor of English at Wittenberg University where he teaches courses in British Romanticism, sexuality, and writing for social justice.  His academic publications have addressed women’s romantic friendships in 18th century-poetry, Thomas Holcroft, and and Walter Scott, and his LGBT advocacy writing has appeared in the Springfield News Sun and the Dayton Daily News.  He is currently serving as president of Equality Springfield and has served on the Board of Directors of Equality Ohio.  He lives in Springfield with his partner of 21 years, Kent Brooks.

*All photo contributions by Rick Incorvati

Year 2015 at a Glance

Cave, Cavern, Nature, Geology, Stone

If the New Year were a rabbit hole
I’d blow it up. No need to chase anything
special, no fantasies to consider differently
than this and all years before. I’d hold back,

turn to faces of Miley Cyrus and Mila Kunis,
Yahoo articles about baby bumps and twerking
rumps, videos capturing clueless passersby on

their way to vote for politicians they will never
meet, a military forgotten, colliding groans and jerking
grunts of women marching, hauling their kids and empty
bags painted in American flags, empty stomachs
and hollow chests, each one, veterans, mommies,

white shirts and star spangled ties, skinny tongues
and swollen breasts splashed across glossy news
prints mimicking human flesh. No need to consider

a year that does not promise human interests, a state
that appeals and suppresses equality of gay marriage.
They have never met me, and the chances of my right
to name myself on the certificate of a baby my wife

will soon bear are more likely given to Miley and Mila,
proud to be naked and full of human life, and legislators waving
olive colored cotton notes in linen scripture overlay.

No. I am part of the hungry, my hope long
abandoned, my service to the USA can be counted in dollars and cents,
like veteran homeless, starving women and patriotic newborns
drifting through glass doorways into welfare waiting rooms
where they’ll put their mind on better things:

Beyonce and Jay Z, Kimye and plump baby North
spending holidays in Italy with politicians they call friends.

Andrea Collins, “Tough Girl”

Battery Cage 2

The Battery Cage

shutterstock_223061617 (2)

Image credits to A. Mazurkevich / Shutterstock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My name is Loretta. I belong to the Onion Head. I call him the Onion Head because his appearance is that of a fresh picked onion hanging upside down – his round yellow head, the bulbous onion and its hollow green stem, his wrinkled coveralls. His pant legs chafe and swish as he robotically makes his rounds at the same monotonous pace with his hands in his pockets – no doubt fingering coins. When he arrives at camp, we skitter and cackle. It’s the only light we’ll see all day.

By we, I mean my sisters, and by camp, I mean our windowless prison that runs by remote control. We share a room. Or rather, a cell – eleven of us, counting me. We’re allotted space that’s standing room only, about the size of the Onion Head’s shoe. My sisters are Lulu, Lynnette, Lori, Leola, Lizzie, Lacy, Laura, Lenore, Louise and Louisa (twins), but to the Onion Head, we’re collectively cell seventeen. Our names begin with the same letter, so that we have a sense of who lives where. The M’s, Mary and Missy, live in the cells to our right, and the K’s, Kelly and Kendra, to our left. Our methods of communication are quite complex. When one of us cries out, Vicky for instance, we know that she’s ten cells down. Since we can’t see her, it provides us with a sense of space, a sense of peace. Ten houses down, so to speak.

Yesterday, the twins Louise and Louisa, had a terrible spat over nothing. They brought no harm to each other, thank God, since the Onion Head surgically removes a good portion of our mouths. We’re not fighters by nature, but anxiety screams for release when emotions are this pent up. Lock yourself in a bathroom with thirty-two Onion Heads elbow to elbow, and you’ll see what I mean. After months and years, you pray for a spot on the floor.

At night, we pass stories from cell to cell, fantasizing, as if someday we might escape. Prisoners running through waves of grass – we raise families, splash in puddles, and blink in the sun. The intellectuals among us scoff, saying such dreams are pointless, chalking the nonsense up to instinct. Especially old Sage, seven cells down.

I stay up most of the night talking to Sage when I feel sad.

“Someday, the Onion Heads will see,” she said.

“Before I’m old?” I asked.

“No. Each layer of the onion represents a phase of enlightenment. Each time they peel a layer they discover a deeper truth.”

“How long?” I asked. “Before they see what they’ve done?”

“That’s an age-old question. They’re only on the second or third layer. There’s a long way to go, I’m afraid.”

“In our lifetime?”

“It’s not our life to live. You should know that by now.”

“It’s so unfair.”

“Don’t complain,” said Sage. “After all, you’ve got a lot to be thankful for. Born male, you would’ve been thrown in the blender and ground alive.”

John

 

John Grabski is a runner, writer and poet that lives on a farm in New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Unbroken Journal, The Harpoon Review, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Eclectica Magazine and Cyclamens and Swords. You can read excerpts of his published work at www.GRABSKIworks.com or find him on Twitter at @GrabskiJohn.

**Single Chicken image credits to Curioso / Shutterstock.

Speak My Name

bird-313614__180

A worm piercing through wet earth crawls toward the shadow of a no name dog chained to a tree, pawing at the silence of worm holes.

The sparrow is the only one who knows, leaps to the sound of a distant horn honking, circles, hovers over a farmer dressed for Sunday mass. She steals hay, swoops down to clasp her beak on the slow, wriggling creature. Baby birds chirp tight tones, restless in their nest.

The sparrow knows how to make the best of worm holes.

The worm hole vacant, the dog’s ear close, listening for echoes down through layers of well-traveled places he never goes. He paws at holes.

No name is used to hearing what he cannot see, always imagining what the sparrow is free to be. He stares at a stone at the center of night, the same moon, every night, and the sparrow sleeping.

He hears the sound of pigs squealing, baseball bats thumping on bare backs as they run from the slaughter room floor. They huff air like milk, as if silence will nourish them, like the worm in a baby bird’s mouth. They look for a worm hole, too. A well-traveled tunnel to places they will never know, imagine it will take them to the sound of their babies burrowing beside them, pawing at holes.

They chew each other’s flesh, like fresh tomatoes, out of boredom, frustration, for the sensation of being alive while locked inside gestation crates until pushed down a compactor shoot. Their screams echo off no name’s stone, night after night. He chews his toes. He watches. He listens.

He wonders what the sparrow knows. Always, he paws holes.

No name dog chews until morning light, when the farmer’s son sprays water into his rusty pail. The boy glances at the gnawed knob of the dog’s foot, beats him with a hammer for all the dog doesn’t know, can’t see, isn’t free to be.

He wipes his bloody hands on his pant leg, turns away from the panic.

In the silence of no name dog’s screaming, the sparrow focuses on the worm hole, waits for the beating to end, leaps down before the vultures descend, or the wolves begin chewing on his bones.

The dog licks his wounds. He concentrates on breath, slow and funneled through the silence that he knows. He paws at holes.

A cow bellows. Her baby, still slick in afterbirth, strangled by a lasso, desperately seeking her mother, who is chained to the back of a bulldozer, dragged over the soil of worm holes.

No name dog watches through his swollen eye, red on the white of a lamb in the field. Her baby nestled close by, painted in splashes of her mother’s red. The baby, breathless, screams from the inside, watches her mother’s skin ripping while still alive. The boy’s shadow plumbs holes.

A goat screams from the bottom of an abandoned well. No name dog hears. The sparrow knows.

He was raking worm holes.

The sparrow swoops down to inspect, clutches a worm in her claw, returns to the nest against the wave in the wind the gunshot made.

The boy returns with gasoline and a cigarette. Rubbing his right ear in fresh earth of worm holes, no name dog in flames, his swollen eye sees the sparrow whistling lamentably an animal farm incantation:

May your ash swiftly settle in the voice of burn.
Be certain. Tall. Rise up in flame.
I am the least of all, but you were still less,
no name at all.

Clear to him, no name in flames, what the sparrow is free to see and be.

He stands on his three legs and his missing paw.

The ghosts of the animal farm swell up through worm holes, disembodied voices chanting:

I live in the strained strands of your ocular muscle.

See me.

I live in the creamy cerumen of your ear canal.

Hear me.

I live in the pores of your nostril.

Smell me.

I am more than a bloody stain.

Touch me.

I live in the fragile film of your oral mucosa.

Speak my name.

 

Andrea Collins, “Tough Girl”

battling_bastards_2

Can I Borrow Your Arm?

HERALD TELLER had traveled from Jacksonville, Florida, to south of Tarlac City in the Philippines, to a place he’d rather forget, but had been etched on his heart the same as the names on the three-sided, whitewashed stone memorial. Above an embedded white cross was the name he and his friends had called themselves.

The Battling Bastards of Bataan.

Here he stood, stuck on the sidewalk, unable to climb two small steps. Unable to read the names of friends who hadn’t come home even after they’d endured as much as him.

Then he remembered Margaret in the kitchen. The smell of biscuits baking. Her leaning on the walker. Grinning, as though she stole a secret, her blue eyes as alive and lovely as when they’d first met.

“I got two tickets to paradise.”

“We’re a little old for rock ‘n roll,” he said.

“We’re never too old to remember our friends.”

Or to remember the love of his life.

The squeal of a little boy dashed his memory. Couldn’t they leave him in peace? Just a few minutes?

A parent shushed the child. They stood behind him.

He turned as much as his arthritis would let him. Surprised to see the Marine in his Class A uniform. Medals on his chest, ones he recognized; gold stripes on black sleeves, blue pants with bright red piping. This man had served his country far longer than he had.

“First Sergeant?” he asked.

“Sergeant Major.” the Marine replied.

“Purple Heart, too?”

“Three of them, sir.”

“Dear God.”

“Yes, sir. He was on my mind. IED and a mortar in Iraq. Firefight in Afghanistan.”

“Your men?”

The Marine’s silence said he knew what it was like to see men die.

“Where’s my manners,” the Marine said. “This is my wife Susie and our son Robert. He’s named after my father. Also a Marine. I’m Philip Baker.”

“Staff Sergeant Herald Teller. Army.”

“You here by yourself?”

“I buried my wife a week ago.”

Baker looked to his wife, a Filipina about shoulder tall. The fidgety mestizo boy tugged at her clingy yellow dress. She picked him up, brushed black hair from his eyes. Her eyes were watering.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Margaret always said I needed tact. Never found any.”

“We’re sorry for your loss,” Baker said.

“She’d been pestering me to come. Said a memory is like a good arm to hold on to.”

“Your friends?” The Sergeant Major nodded at the wall.

“You know why they have those walls?” the old soldier asked.

“To remember.”

“That’s right,” he said, “remember that we made it and they didn’t.”

“There’s a question in there somewhere.”

“I can see why your men looked up to you.”

“Why me?” Baker pondered, familiar with the questions, “How come you lived and your buddies didn’t?”

He nodded.

“We all want the answer to that question.”

“So you don’t know?”

The Sergeant Major whispered in his wife’s ear and she carried the small boy away. Baker faced him. “Have you ever told anyone what happened?”

He smelled wood burning. Then the powerful scent of toyo in frying grease. Filipino fried fish was an acquired taste, one he picked up a lifetime ago. His stomach grumbled. Could he stand long enough to tell the whole story, especially in this sticky heat?

“Since you’re not answering,” Baker said, “I’m assuming you haven’t.”

“You really want to hear this?”

“We’re comrades in arms, Staff Sergeant. We’ve fought and bled for our country. And I try real hard to never to use these medals, but I think these three Purple Hearts earns me the right to hear your story.”

He couldn’t argue since he owned a Purple Heart, too. “But at the end, can you answer my question?”

“Let’s hear what you have to say, then we’ll see.”

His mind drifted to long ago. To when there’d been no sidewalk leading to a monument for the fallen. When diesel fumes choked him as a line of personnel carriers passed. Pairs of worn boots dragged along a gravel road.  He smelled the stink of sweaty men who were dead but just didn’t know it yet.

He saw small boats fighting through the surf. Salt soured on his tongue. If not for the men scrambling onto the beach carrying rifles, today might have been good one for an ocean swim. Instead he stared at his three-inch gun. If he had ammunition, he could fight. Now the Army wanted him to pick up a rifle. He’d do it, but only because he had to.

His stomach grumbled. He’d learned to ignore it because MacArthur had cut rations. So much for the promised resupply. Then the General cut them again.

A gnarled and filthy rag smeared the sweat on his face. He sipped warm water from his canteen; could’ve drank the whole thing but knew better. His uniform sagged as though he were a scarecrow without the stuffing. He waited at the edge of the jungle, while his friends peeled off for the latrine. They left a lot of holes. He’d follow them soon.

Docs had run out of quinine. Yellow fever, amebic dysentery, and beriberi ate them up, along with too many other jungle diseases he’d never heard of.

“We have to go Marivales,” Tommy Dean said, his best friend since basic training. They’d decided to take orders to the Philippines knowing they might be in this fight. Now they wondered if they’d made the right choice.

In Marivales, a line of Japanese tanks and armor rumbled toward him. Dozens of personnel carriers coughed black diesel smoke. Wide-eyed Japs jumped from the trucks and surrounded them. He wasn’t sure if their scraggly looking uniforms or stick thin bodies scared the soldiers or if it were the thousands of Americans and Filipinos that had surrendered.

A Japanese enlisted man positioned a wooden crate; the squat officer looked hot in long sleeves. Red squares with gold stars were embroidered into his olive drab collars and a red sash circled his combination hat. He stood on the crate and squeezed a sheathed sword, then raised and lowered the weapon. Japs rushed into the crowd.

He saw scared faces. He saw angry faces. He saw men doing what they were ordered to do.

They were as confused as him.

He had wanted to kill them. But not now. Not with faces younger than his.

The point of a sheathed sword prodded him. Lots of units had surrendered. No telling how many men. The guy ahead of him dropped his rifle in front of the officer on the crate. The Japs kept pushing. Dean foolishly yelled at one of them. The steel blade grinded as it slid out, its shiny point deftly tucked under Tommy’s chin.

He’d never forget the Jap’s angry eyes. Ready to run that blade through Tommy’s throat.

The officer in front grunted. Tommy’s guard slammed the steel handle on his cheek; a wide gash dripped red.

That tinny smell of blood. It never left him.

The military called it milling about smartly and thats how it felt, as the Japs huddled him into one of the many disorganized groups.

“What do they want?” John Sturgeon, a lanky boy from Texas, from his sister artillery unit, asked. The Japs kept poking at him with their rifle barrels.

“I think they want you to bow?”

“What for?” John asked.

“Do I look Japanese?” he said.

Sturgeon stood a head taller, although a lot thinner. When he didn’t bow, the thicker of the two guards slammed his rifle butt into his stomach and bent Sturgeon in two.

The officer standing on the crate smiled.

The officers minions didn’t look like they wanted to hit them, but they had no choice.

When John still didn’t bow, the soldiers punched his face and kicked his backside as though he were a misbehaving child. A sheathed sword slashed behind his legs dropped him to his knees as the gravel stabbed him. They let him be after that.

From his wandering group he watched the Japanese gather hundreds of Filipino Scouts and back them against the jungle. The officer on the crate screamed to his men. They didn’t look happy with the order, but they followed it.

Shots echoed. He didn’t watch them die, instead, looked at the soldiers with their guns.  Scared and pissed off, not one had the courage to face their officer.  He almost pitied them.  By the time each of them dropped their rifles, they’d left three piles the size of small hills.

He could have mooed, the way the Japs herded them like cattle.

Except that’s when the yelling and screaming started.

And the killing.

A gun barrel poked his rib, without even enough meat to ease the stab. He plodded along, with thousands of prisoners and didn’t think about where they were headed.

Lucky for him he found Dean and Sturgeon in his weary group. Those who couldn’t walk were left. He tried to help one man but the butt of a sword changed his mind.

Screams followed him. Gooseflesh chilled his sweaty arms in hundred degree heat.

He didn’t know what the Japs wanted but even the Japs didn’t seem to know what they wanted. He guessed they hadn’t expected this many men would surrender.

When enough men dropped in the dirt the Japanese decided to stop.

Without a leaf of shade, he was lucky he’d kept his hat. The more follicle-challenged heads looked like red pool balls.

Japs watched from the shade. Sipping water from canteens, grinning and laughing. One pointed at him, walked over and tipped his canteen so the water missed his mouth. He dropped to the ground and tried to drink it but the dirt was quicker. The soldier laughed at him, then drew his sword. Dean and Sturgeon dragged him away. The Jap returned to the shade to replay the joke with his friends.

During those first hours, they took anything of value, including watches. He marched for four hours or ten; hard to tell the difference. Bivouacked near a small village, two older women carried water, pretty with high cheeks and a touch of gray in their black hair. The Japs stole the buckets and the women left when the soldiers looked at them as though they wanted more than water. He was glad they’d ran and hoped they’d be okay.

Then the Japs ate. Not them, not that he had the strength to chew.

Cramps woke him during the night. His guts knotting like a tightening rope. Groans drifted through the ranks. A tall guy from an infantry outfit grunted himself to his feet and he followed him to a plank. He cleared the sleep from his eyes and pinched his nose, not that it mattered. He had to go . . . now.

He stepped on the plank and slipped. Maggots squiggled except where footprints squished them. At least he had boots, rotten as they were. He thanked God for reaching the other end. He took his turn and squeezed water that smelled as though it came from a dead man. With dysentery and rations that wouldn’t feed a mouse, it was the best he could do.

The morning of the third day the Japs forced them into formation; four abreast, an unending line of tortured souls. He learned quickly to stay to the inside. Those on the outside were prime targets. Bored men were terribly cruel.

The Japs let them stop by a river. He snuck away with Dean and Sturgeon. The jungle canopied them, a few minutes of shade almost as cool and sweet as the water looked. He went to dip his canteen but Sturgeon grabbed his arm. A dead caribou floated in the current. Right behind was the grayish body of a headless Filipino soldier.

“We need water,” he said.

“Use this.” Sturgeon produced a paper pouch of chlorine powder he’d somehow hid from the Japs.

He felt guilty they had powder but the best he could do was survive.

Which he did. For six agonizing days and sixty-five miles.

Six hundred Americans died on the Bataan Death March, ten thousand Filipinos.

His legs felt like soaked logs, his feet skidded more than walked. He saw a small barrio ahead and a train. Finally, he and his friends didn’t have to march. Maybe they could rest.

If only it had been that easy.

He hesitated behind Sturgeon and Dean when the Japs slid the rusty railcar door open. Lots of men in front of them. Three-quarters full when he climbed inside and more men followed. When the door slammed, it reminded him of what his drill sergeant yelled during basic training.

Nut to butt.

He could stand, not kneel, not sit and certainly not lay down.

Vents were closed, only stifling still air. Men did their business where they stood. He’d lived in filth so long he thought he could handle it. Until he began to cook inside the box.

The train jerked.

Please let the air move.

It didn’t.

An hour into the train ride, the guy in between him and Dean stopped squirming.

“Herald, that guy against my back is cold.”

“I know,” he said.

“It’s too hot for that.”

“Tommy, don’t.”

Dean shook his head and mumbled, “No, no, no.” Then he grew louder. “I wanna go home. I wanna go home.”

Heads turned their way. He slapped Dean up side his head and caught enough sweat that he licked it. Too salty. What he’d give for a few drops of real water.

Dean settled enough to ask, “What are we going to do?”

“Just keep breathing until this train stops.”

“Stinks.”

“Yeah, but it won’t kill you.”

Dean shook his head side to side and continued to mutter.

Nut to butt.

Thanks a lot, Drill Sergeant.

He leaned against the cold dead man when the brakes squealed. The doors opened. Japs screamed and waved. He stumbled, jumped, and then tumbled in the dirt but at least it was cooler and fresher than the stinky oven.

Guilt chided him when he saw the ashen bodies on the railcar floor. The Japs forced him to climb back in to remove his comrades. He hauled bodies to the jungle. No time for last words; war stole everything.

He was shoved back into formation, four abreast. Now he knew; marching was better than the alternative.

He read the sign that said he’d arrived at Camp O’Donnell. Razor wire encircled the Philippine fort, guard towers at one-hundred-foot intervals, rotting buildings with the appeal of a graveyard.

His company commander, Major Charlie Donovan, called cadence with a Brooklyn accent, not that he had the strength to march in step.

As they entered the camp a Japanese captain pointed to the ground. He sat with his company in formation. An enlisted man brought the captain a box. He’d never forget what the captain said, as he stood, fist to hips.

“We hate you! You are our enemies. If you try to escape we will kill you. Because you have surrendered you must do everything we tell you. You are not prisoners of war but our captives.”

The Japs marched them to their new home; a roach-infested barracks with wood beds. Without a blanket, he shivered to keep warm as rats chewed the calluses off the bottom of his feet. Shuttered windows impeded breezes, else he might have slept. Didn’t matter. Japs rushed the aisles and beat him and others with bamboo sticks, chased them out the door, leaving welts on his legs, as they yelled the same word. “Tinko. Tinko.” A prisoner count.

Major Donovan stood in front of the formation. One of a dozen in the camp. A cold rain soaked him. The Japanese didn’t care.

The Japanese captain stood on his box. “Corregidor has fallen. The Philippines are part of the Empire. Bow to the Emperor.”

He and his friends didn’t move. The Japs wailed on them.

“Enough,” Major Donavan yelled.

For the first time he’d stood on the outside and dizziness swooned him. “Tommy, mind if I use your arm.”

Tommy stuck out his elbow and he hooked it.

Sturgeon saw what Tommy did and offered his arm. Tommy hooked it the same way. The next man followed. And the next. Before long every man in all twelve companies had hooked arms.

The major winked, turned back, and stood at silent attention facing the Jap officer.

Rain puddled around boots and bare feat.

The little prick grinned.

Chow after formation. He carried a tin with a ration of burnt rice and soupy vegetables that would fit in the palm of his hand. He sat with Dean and Sturgeon, as the rain matted his hair. A few quick bites of the tasteless meal left an empty tin.

After chow, he and Dean reported for work detail. The Jap sergeant led them to the back of the infirmary; a place his friends named St. Peter’s Ward. The sergeant snapped a tarp off of naked lifeless men and grunted.

He grabbed the ankles. Dean snagged the wrists. Slippery  heavy, it was easy to count ribs in the body that was ashen and stiff. Some bloat in the legs and arms made it clear this soldier hadn’t been dead as long as the others. The dead man had brown hair, maybe twenty. Shouldn’t he smell bad? Or maybe he was the one who smelled like death. He shivered.

He and Dean lugged the corpse across the camp and through a small gate and hiked a path into the jungle. The smell of death soured in his mouth like rancid meat. They stopped at the muddy edge, swung the body back and forth and then tossed it; adding to the growing mountain of gray corpses that matched the rainy gloom. The Jap sergeant growled. He and Dean headed to the camp to pick up another dead comrade.

Major Donovan had called it the “line of twos.”

Strange how he remembered things he wished he could forget.

Six weeks later on a sunny sweltering morning the Japs shoved Dean, Sturgeon, and him onto a crammed personnel carrier. He tore his pants on a jagged piece of metal; not that his pants or shirt were any great shakes.

But they’d left Camp O’Donnell and the line of twos. Maybe his fortune would change.

He was such an idiot.

Camp O’Donnell began his prison camp tour. The first of four that Dean, Sturgeon, and him survived at, for more than two and a half years. Too many memories, most he’d rather not relieve, but some things a man can’t forget.

Dean kicked his Cabanatuan prison bunk. Roaches clamored through the cracks.

He yawned and frowned. “Thanks a lot.”

“Why,” Dean said. “A little shaving cream and you can fry those bad boys. Better than what they feed us.”

“Japs aren’t eating too well, either,” he said.

“Never mind.” Dean waved. “Hurry up before they come in here with those bamboo beaters.”

“Counting us again?”

“I don’t think so.”

He joined Dean and Sturgeon in formation. All the men stood at attention. In front of the formation were ten men, three bare-chested, ribs showing. A line of ten Japs with rifles stood a few yards away.

The Jap captain had followed them from Camp O’Donnell and once again, he stood on his crate. “This is what happens when men escape.” the captain grunted.

The soldiers raised their rifles and fired. Blood misted the morning air, as the line of dead piled on wavy tall grass.

The warm breeze chilled him.

The escapes continued; so did the executions.

At least life improved, as much as it could, at Davao Penal Colony. He’d been very happy to leave Cabanatuan. He even had a chance to enjoy a Christmas.

Japanese Lieutenant Yuki was a Christian. The officer authorized a Christmas party.

Skits, carols, and better rations for the first time then he could remember. He even recited the entire Twas The Night Before Christmas poem from memory.

He traded some quan with Dean and Sturgeon. He and his friends had taken advantage of Yuki’s good nature, stealing vegetables and fruits from the gardens they maintained, they went well with his Red Cross care package the Japanese passed out after the Christmas meal. Cookies, toothpaste, shaving cream—to fry those roaches—and even boots. The Japs kept the boots as an incentive to work.

A few weeks later Major Donovan popped into his barracks. He jumped to attention hoping he wouldn’t be there long, as the roaches squirmed over his toes.

“Men,” Donovan said, “Japs are offering better food and clothes if we work at a new camp.”

“What kind of work, sir?” he said.

“They haven’t said. But it has to be better than here, right?”

He looked to Dean and Sturgeon and they shrugged. He followed the major and his friends and jumped on the truck with the rest of the seven hundred and fifty volunteers heading to Lasang.

Too bad the Japs wanted to build an airstrip. His major turned a shade of red he hadn’t seen since boot camp when he’d showed up late for guard duty. Digging latrines or farming was one thing. Helping the Japs attack their comrades? Not a chance.

Major told him and the others to stall. He and his buddies spent more time leaning on shovels than slinging dirt.

Their plan worked well until the Japanese brought in Lieutenant Hashimoto. He didn’t call him than, nor did the others, instead we nicknamed him Little Caesar. Little Caesar was an asshole, built like a miniature sumo wrestler, that liked to practice judo on them.

Little Caesar’s favorite game was forcing a man to kneel on a railroad tie, then sit on his shoulders while the other man dug. When the guy slung enough dirt to suit him, Little Caesar would move on. Up and down the line of men, Little Caesar repeated the game over and over. He and every other man wanted to kill the Jap bastard. Couldn’t with all those machine guns pointed.

He’d never forget when that strong hand grabbed his shirt collar and forced him to kneel. The heavy bastard squeezed his legs and it was like trying to breath through a straw while fire-heated rail spikes stabbed into his knees. His eyes blurred but he couldn’t reach to wipe them and he thought he might pass out. That’s when the air raid siren whirred.

He blinked enough to watch the bombers zoom overhead. A beautiful white star on the rear of each fuselage. American birds dropped their eggs, the ground trembled and the twilight lit in a red-orange glow, leaving pond-sized craters over the airstrip. His buddies cheered. He kept crying, even after Little Caesar climbed off and screamed at them.

Before the sun rose, the Japs shoved Dean, Sturgeon, and him, along with the rest of the seven hundred and fifty men, onto personnel carriers and headed south. He didn’t know where and he didn’t care; any place had to be better than this.

He should have learned after the first time he thought that way.

He’d read the name of the ship, SHINYO MARU, before the Japs stuffed him in the after storage compartment, with two hundred fifty men. There he stayed for two days, till the Japs opened the hatch, hollered and waved, and he and the others climbed onto the freighter’s deck.

They marched toward the pointy end. Jap Sailors pinched their noses as he passed. The full moon in the starry night probably didn’t bode well. He confirmed it when the Japs shoved him toward the ladder at the forward hold and he climbed down and joined the remaining five hundred prisoners. He squeezed around men, and mountains of luggage, to find Dean and Sturgeon leaning against the sides of a steel support beam.

“Only place to rest, unless we take turns sitting,” Dean said. Sores covered his arms and calves; nothing soap and water couldn’t cure, if they had any.

“I have to go,” he said.

Sturgeon, with puckered lips, pointed toward the center of the hold. His friend had learned the trick from the Filipinos.

He followed the pucker to two five gallon stainless buckets. The one overflowing wasn’t water.

“Maybe I can wait,” he said. “Anyone know where we’re going?”

“Doubt it matters.” Dean adjusted his back against the support beam. “Major Donovan was screaming through the hatch for twelve hours. Thought we’d suffocate.”

“I heard the alarm,” he said.

“Our guys laying some eggs.” Sturgeon wiped his brow.

“But we’re here.”

“You see any markings to say POWs are on board?”

“Like a red cross?”

“A white one,” Sturgeon said. “And there isn’t one. I looked.”

A fearful quiet took over the hold, men glued to every word. The ship lurched.  He grabbed Dean and Sturgeon for support. Others fell. A few screamed thinking the bombs were dropping.

The ship rolled left and then right. His stomach knotted but he controlled it. Those not used to the motion puked. Others shivered in corners. Some lost their bowels. With nothing to clean them they just laid in it. After so long, he’d been inured to fecal stench.

A siren blared. The hatch closed, thrusting them into the dark. He waited, like every other man. Thirty minutes later the hatch opened. He looked up. Little Caesar towered over the hole, still haunting him. Little Caesar held a machine gun in one hand and two grenades in the other.

“If we attacked,” Little Caesar said, “these are for you.” The Jap grinned.

Same as the death march, time meant nothing. Hours or days, he couldn’t tell. Bored and scared. Praying for redemption or for his hell to be over. Just make a choice, God.

The hum reverberated through Shinyo Maru’s hull. He looked up, along with Dean and Sturgeon. He didn’t have to be a sailor to know that sound didn’t come from the ship.

The explosion peeled metal as though it were a boiled onion. The concussion knocked him from his friends. His ears rang until warm saltwater cleared his head.

The hatch opened above and as promised Little Caesar unloaded with the machine gun.

He dove under the water. Bullets thumped into the men above. Blood inked the filling compartment.

Two grenades blew. Boom-boom. His head bounced on the steel deck. The ringing returned. His hands stung.

He didn’t have time to check them or complain, as the second torpedo struck aft, lifting the ship momentarily before it crashed back into the sea. Surging water sucked him down. He kicked hard and held his breath, swam through the torpedo hole and fought his way to the surface. He coughed and spit water. It hurt to breathe, but the air never tasted so clean. He raised his hands. Blood oozed from them. He removed thumb-sized pieces of shrapnel without screaming. The saltwater stung. Hopefully it would help his wounds.

Where were Dean and Sturgeon? He looked

to the ship and spotted Sturgeon on deck tossing a petrified Dean into the water. Sturgeon jumped after him and dragged Dean, kicking and splashing.

He waved and they met up.

“We need to follow them.” Sturgeon pointed at others swimming toward shore.

It looked a long way off.

He saw three Jap sailors treading water. “Follow me.”

They swam over and held the terrified sailors underwater until they gave up their life vests.

“Can we swim that far?” he said.

Dean looked toward the burning ship. “Better than going back there.”

The ocean tasted like blood. He and his friends swam past a guy holding his belly.

“Help me.” The guy’s eyes rolled in his head and he bobbed to the surface, as his guts leaked from the gash that had nearly cut him in two.

He didn’t care how far, one mile or ten, he just swam, Dean and Sturgeon behind him. The coral marked the shoreline, but it also sliced his hands and feet but he’d come too far to stop now.

“Keep climbing,” he said as he navigated the coral cliff. With his remaining strength he hauled himself over the last rock and tumbled into tall grass.

Dean and Sturgeon collapsed next to him. Their breathing grew slower. He hoped it wasn’t for the wrong reason.

An explosion woke him. How long had he drifted off?  He crawled to his hands and knees.

“Take my arm,” Sturgeon said.

He extended an elbow for Dean and the three of them stood.

He tasted free air for the first time in two and a half years. Shouldn’t he feel happy?

Shinyo Maru smoldered and then disappeared under hissing foam. A final rest for so many who almost made it.

“How many?” Baker said.

He was sitting on a warm concrete bench. He couldn’t remember getting here. The Sergeant Major had helped him. He smelled flowers. Didn’t matter what kind. A sweet blessing compared to his memories. Thousands of showers hadn’t washed away the stench of death. It finally faded with time. Lots of time.

“Eight-two out of seven hundred and fifty men.”

Baker stared at him. Eyes watery. Fighting for control.

“So how about my question.”

“You won’t like the answer,” Baker said.

“Just tell me.”

“It wasn’t your time.”

“That’s it?”

“There’s more,” Baker said. “You lived to help your friends. Same as that day you hooked arms. Same as you’re helping me.”

“How am I doing that?”

“By reminding this Marine that why you fought is the same reason I fought. It’s the reason I came here today.”

He noticed the titanium rod that replaced Baker’s leg.

“Firefight in Afghanistan.” Baker grinned. “I stole it from Lieutenant Dan.”

“I saw Forest Gump. Wouldn’t surprise me, Marine. You guys are dangerous.”

“Want to go see our grandson.”

“But I’m not–”

Baker stood and extended an arm. “You are now.”

He saluted Sergeant Major Philip Baker, Unites States Marine Corps. Baker returned the salute.

“Mind if I use your arm again, Marine?”

“Anytime you want, Staff Sergeant. Anytime you want.”

 

Bill Dougherty is an aspiring novelist and screenwriter. He has been recognized in writing contests such as the Vision Fest Film Festival Screenwriting Contest (2005), the Florida Writer’s Association Lighthouse Book Awards (2007), and the Jesse Stuart Prize for Young Adult Fiction (2012). He lives with his wife, Leila, in Jacksonville, Florida, with their two dogs, Sasha and Ladybug.

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Maybe I Should’ve Lied

The teacher asked
me to come to the class
and talk about flying.
He was my son’s teacher and
the jet’s always popular.

How fast? How high?
Pretty standard stuff.
I wore my flight suit
and handed out stickers even
though they weren’t toddlers.

One kid asked
if I killed anybody.
I was surprised and
shouldn’t have been.
I told him the truth.

Later that day,
in the squadron,
I asked a buddy
what he would’ve done.
I would’ve lied, he said.

I answered the question
in front of my son.
The only time it has come up.
“That’s what happens in combat.”
Next question, please.

 

Eric “Shmo” Chandler flew 145 F-16 combat sorties during seven trips downrange. His story “Chemical Warfare” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize this year. Visit ericchandler.wordpress.com to read his published fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He’s a husband and father who cross-country skis as fast as he can in Duluth, Minnesota.”

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The Inspiring Purpose of the Art of War

In the last decade, the whole idea of war has become a very unpopular subject among certain groups. It is possible to attribute that outcome to the publication and captured images of war throughout magazines and television of the last century. Those once unknown facts of violence of war have left the general public in shock, fear and horror. However, in their disgust, the people of the world have forgotten why war is of vital importance to human development.

Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, understood this importance, and my own knowledge of the Art of War itself has impacted my desire to participate in war as a future soldier and officer.  I believe I speak for all warriors, of any historical age, when I say that peace and friendship should always be sought first in any relationship, but knowledge and preparedness for battle is vital if and when one party betrays peace for violence.

I will illustrate, through analysis of the Art of War, that certain ideals, skills and mindsets developed by warriors, and shared with people of the planet, are qualities worth fighting for and why I will spend a career as an officer gladly defending those principles from truly evil people.

One idea that I find important enough to defend, as a principle of war, is the idea of mental will power. Sun Tzu said, “Hence to fight and conquer in all of your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

This means two things: 1, the mark of a truly disciplined and duty bound warrior utilizes peaceful diplomacy if fighting and killing can be avoided, and 2, that a soldier of true strength of will can dominate a weaker adversary in any conflict; including a debate or a war.

Another example of will power, explained by the Art of War, is the teaching of putting yourself, and others, in difficult situations and willing excellence of output to succeed.

In war that is typically a life or death situation. Sun Tzu said, “Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear. If there is no place for refuge, they will stand firm.”  That loss of fear and mental realization that you do or die in any situation is how we defeated the British in America’s first war. This iron will, as well as a conscious value of life, is a characteristic that will be with me throughout my military and professional career.  This is a quality of war that most people in the general public do not usually recognize: the value of life and of people in general.

It is obvious that while in the heat of battle an individual soldier is intent on killing his enemies before they kill him. However, the taught responsibility that same soldier has to his comrades, the innocent people he fights to protect, and the enemy soldiers that surrender and ask for mercy is an equally important mentality.  I have seen many of these cases regarding the protection of lives from unnecessary violence more in the Middle East in recent years, such as the U.S. Army helping to rebuild and defend the nation of Afghanistan since 2011.

There is also the virtuous quality of family love and care for people within a military unit. I attribute that to Sun Tzu stating, “Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you unto death.”  That ultimate sense of loyalty and care a commander is expected to have for his or her troops is a quality that I would like to see more vibrant in the civilian world instead of criticized by it. A militarily intelligent desire to value life and to protect it from destruction, like protecting the value of liberty, should not be forgotten.

From recent research, as well as a continuous reading into the brilliance of the Art of War, I have discovered that victory in war is accomplished more with the brain before it’s accomplished with physical force. The ability to learn and to grow with our intelligence is why the United States has been victorious in most of the wars it has fought over the ages. To my delight, I have seen the Army practice this Art of War tactic very often, “The quality of decision is like a well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim. ”  It is always intelligent to be ahead of the enemy/ahead of the challenge.

What’s also important is that the mindset of soldiers is what achieves victory in the field. I can profess with my constant training in PT, that my mind perceives success before my body gets physically strong. Thus proving the statement by Sun Tzu, “It is in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.”

Not only do I find intelligence a privilege and a responsibility to soldier and civilian alike, I also find it to be an honor to have attained intelligence enough to grow in peace and war.

The main reason why I see, and appreciate, war as the great equalizer, is because its natural danger shows which side have the soldiers with honor in the face of fear; that then tells the person studying about the war who are the “Good Guys”.

Much like how the U.S. Army has combated dishonorable terrorists over the last decade, Sun Tzu and the Chinese Army fought the dishonorable barbarian Huns. We know these adversaries to be dishonorable due to the fact that their soldiers targeted innocents and non-combative civilians, without remorse, due to the greed and fanaticism of their commanders.

It is not a secret both America and China have had issues with greedy and fanatical commanders as well, but the educated standard of an officer and commander was never in question.

Sun Tzu said, “His victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage,” to explain that an honorable soldier and commander selflessly serves against a self-serving enemy. The historical capabilities of honor have won victory for these two historical armies and I also shall bring my honor to the table by knowing myself and knowing my enemy.

To conclude, and also to reiterate, my love for The Art of War has made me a passionate warrior that is ready for battle, and not a warlord who seeks power through violence. Those are the people I would like to see decimated from this world. These values worth defending I have taken the time to illustrate are things I have learned from great military commanders that have spanned the centuries. I find that having a military understanding, mixed with whatever profession that creates positive things in this world, is a practice I would like to see in people today, as it has built great men and achieved results. To that end, the Art of War, as a principle, is something I gladly teach to people, and one of the profound reasons why I am honored to be even considered as a U.S. Army officer, so I may have the opportunity to apply the art form in defense of my people, my country and my planet.

 

Alexander Amoroso has been writing since he was 12 and every experience since then has only built his technique. His essay writing in high school put him on Honor Roll through the public school system and then on the Dean’s List at West Valley Community College. In 2010, Alexander completed his first historical non-fiction titled The Art of Human Government, which is being published through Tate Publishing, and is currently published through Amazon Kindle Publishing. As of 2014, Alexander is a published contributing author through Thought Collection Publishing, where he has written titles such as The Death of the American Teenager and From Fate to Destiny. He currently holds two Associate Degree’s in Liberal Arts and History and is pursuing his Bachelor’s Degree in History at San Jose State University. With a father and grandfather who have served in the U.S. Air Force, and an older brother and sister who have served in the U.S. Navy, Alexander proudly upholds his family’s heritage and pushes to further the honorable duty to his country as he trains in his local U.S. Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. While in training, his writing and his work has earned recognition by his superiors and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. With a humbled understanding of the gravity of his future career, and having the knowledge of how powerful the pen could be in the right hands, Alexander strives to use his skill as an author, and a future leader, to educate, and inspire, thought, intelligence and confidence in the hearts and minds of his readers.

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Duty of Care

Bayeux War Cemetery, Normandy

Not far from the breathing saline sea,
apple orchards, and yellow rapeseed fields,
rise perfect ranks of cream-coloured stones,
as if dressed right and at attention for roll-call.
The monuments, darkened by the stain of rain,
bear the regimental seal and name, rank,
and dates of each combatant, some graced
with a grieving mother’s adoring phrase.
Others are inscribed: Known Unto God

Nearby, the Bayeux Memorial commemorates
1,808 men with no known grave.

Thousands of these had drilled in uniform rows,
then endured months of dread and hours of chaos.
For them, order is restored. In this peaceful space,
wisteria flowers bow from archways, while stately
sentinel-trees shade the sharp boundaries between
grass and perennial beds at the foot of each stone.
Like medics and nurses fulfilling humanity’s bond,
gardeners tend the wounded earth with a duty of care.

 

David Olsen’s Unfolding Origami (2015) won the Cinnamon Press Poetry Collection Award. Three chapbooks from US publishers are Sailing to Atlantis (2013), New World Elegies (2011) and Greatest Hits (2001). His work appears in journals and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic.

GettysburgBattle

Memorial Day

Lee and Meade met where the three Fates would fly
In the year 1863 during the beginning of July
There gathered exceptional soldiers of honorable mettle
I was one of many who joined in this mortal battle

1-July began an awesome scene of cruel destruction
When on a small piece of earth — McPherson Ridge — we met our foes
Then moving to Seminary Ridge and more hateful devastation
And to the aptly named Cemetery Hill, for further blows

2-July saw even more wreckage during Bloody Run and in the Devils Den
With additional casualties throughout the Little Round Top strife
Ever so near — which could have save some lives — was the end
Yes, it would have saved a life

3-July at Picket’s Charge brought the collapse of more than 10,000 men
Left in the frothy wake of this thunderous tide which had crested
A record 51,112 found their demise then
With one side proclaiming success and the other sorely tested

4-July, the anniversary of our nation’s birth, dawned
To destruction and waste, and bodies and spirits broken and twisted
This clash, now known as the Battle of Gettysburg, was finished
But for two more terrible and tormenting years this civil war persisted

I died at the Battle of Gettysburg in a blaze of fire
When at Picket’s Charge a musket ball pierced my heart extinguishing all desire
Forever more I’ll silently sleep as one of the earlier
And welcome the laying of the wreath at our tomb — an unknown soldier

Bless the ladies of the South who decorated the graves of the Confederate dead
Remember us, as you will, in January, April, May or June
And the Union families who gathered to honor their departed in Gilead
Never forget us, your children, brothers, husbands, fathers, who met misfortune

These spontaneous celebrations arose from a simple human need
And in response a special day was decreed
Not to remember the splitting of our Union, the separation
But to respect all who gave their lives, a reconciliation

Create a pleasant place for our loving mourners and guests
For today you will find more of us across this great nation blessed
Residing nearby in your town, village and country graveyards
Soldiers of all stripes in concert embracing your regards

See to it that not one soiled foot our tombs invade
Treasure affectionately our memory — we the valiant deceased
Whose bodies were battered while used as a blockade
Safeguard our final resting places that we might be released

Forget not our widows, orphans, nor our disabled comrades in need
For while I died at Gettysburg when a shot struck my heart
It is with ever more brothers and sisters I now rest peacefully
And ask that you remember it was to keep you free why we fought

So gather round our mounds and consecrated vestiges
Bring with you the loveliest of springtime flowers
Some say the delicate poppy, but any blossom will do
And raise the flag we died defending — the red, the white, and the blue

 

James Stack has published a memoir, World’s Fair, and a collection of poetry, Pleasures & Seasons of Vermont. He is currently working on a novel based on his sophomore year in college (themes: friendship, betrayal, bigotry). You can find on The Huffington Post his blog, “Postcards From Lebanon,” about his experience with chemotherapy.