The Mystery of the Right Rear Gunner–and Merry Christmas!

by Nancy Means Wright

For Christmas this year I’ve wrapped up for my book-loving son Kate Atkinson’s novel, A God in Ruins, about Teddy Todd, an elderly man thinking back on the World War 2 experiences that colored his life. His British bomber he called J-Jig was caught by flak as it approached the French coast and a shell blasted through the fuselage, almost knocking it out of the skies. Smoke was coming out, though no sign yet of flames. As pilot, Teddy did a crew check and heard from everyone but his rear-gunner, huddled at the very back “in a cold and lonely nest,” a distance from the rest. He always worried about Kenny, an usually cheerful Australian, in that “cramped, claustrophobic space.”

Because there was already a good deal of damage to the plane, it was flying lower and slower with each mile and he felt they should abandon ship. But no one wanted to ditch, especially over the sea, and they struggled on, overshooting the runway, smashing through hedges and ploughing up the field where they finally landed. The aircraft filled with smoke and Teddy urged them to be “as quick as you can, lads.”
When most of the crew got out, he saw that the rear-turret was still attached, but the rest of the plane was in pieces. “J-jig had left a trail behind her—wheels, wings, engines, fuel tanks, like a wanton woman divesting herself of clothing.” The fuselage was burning fiercely, and not a word from his rear gunner, who appeared to be trapped.

Oh my! The story brought me back to a memoir by my older brother Donald who was a 19-year-old flight navigator in that war. I was too young at the time to know much about his life, flying B-29s over the India “hump” to bomb the Japanese. But I recall the story he told and retold through the years about Sgt Oren, the rear gunner in the aircraft they’d named “Bachelors’ Quarters.” In 1944 they were flying over China when they lost #3 engine, fell behind their formation (like Teddy’s fictional plane), but carried on, dropped their bombs, made a 180 degree turn toward “home”– when #1 engine quit. They were still flying through flak, over Jap-held territory. Flight engineer Shoales had been desperately transferring fuel from one engine to another (today was his December birthday). To conserve fuel, they threw everything they could out of the plane: a chopped up radar set, a bomb sight, an empty bomb bay gas tank. It became obvious that they’d have to abandon ship by bailing out of the bomb bay in the rear.

It was a tight squeeze, according to my brother, because they were wearing parachutes with jungle kits, shoulder-holsters with a 45 pistol filled with ammunition, and leather flying jacket. On the back of the jacket was a silk flag with words in Chinese noting they were friends helping with the fight against the Japanese. Pilot Malone gave the order to bail out, and my brother had the gunners and others standing on opposite sides of the bomb bay. Through an open bulkhead door he saw Sgt Oren at his gunner’s position, head set on. Looking down, Donald, who would be the last to jump, saw bodies floating in the air and chutes opening. He signalled to Oren in his rear turret, but no response. The plane was already in flames–and no time or way to yank him forcibly out of his hole. So Don jumped,too, with a last shout to Oren, hoping he’d follow.

Don landed on a grave marker in a peasant farmer’s field, coming up with a fractured ankle and leg. Greeted by a group of suspicious men, he gave a thumb’s-up, saying the only Chinese he knew: ‘Ding how.” And they fed him soup and chicken. The next day he discovered the plane had crashed into a tea house, killing several people. And the rear gunner went down with it.

Why didn’t Sgt Oren bail, the only married man with a wife and young children? Or was it because of that family—afraid he’d be captured on the ground and leave them abandoned? Or was he frozen with fear, a panic attack that kept his legs from moving, his voice from calling out on his intercom? Perhaps he’d swallowed poison to avoid what he felt “the very worst”? Or was it a moment of acrophobia, a desperate fear of heights that wouldn’t let him even look at the far-off ground? No one will ever know the truth. Later his fellow crew members held a funeral service in Kunming where they buried his remains, and after the war, they met with his grieving family.

As for the rear gunner in Atkinson’s novel, I won’t be a spoiler. Except to say that he got out alive–but only after a crazy, explosive escape. I wrote a “Sgt Oren flight situation” into my new historical novel, Queens Never Make Bargains—based on reality, but nevertheless fiction. For young Oren, though, it was one more tragedy of a real war, and the sick minds that had started it.

May this be a Christmas of peace across the world, and may the new year be one of brotherhood for all–with no need for gunners, wherever they may be seated in a war plane. Wishful thinking perhaps, but we’re all fiction writers here. And so, farewell to the old year.

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THE JULY 4TH OUTHOUSE PARADE AND BERNIE SANDERS

My part of the world has had an unusual amount of press lately with the mind-boggling, stranger-than-fiction escape and re-capture of two murderers from an upper New York state prison, and with our independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for president and attracting huge crowds. The Fourth of July celebrations have only added fuel to the flames with their patriotic parades that have grown ever more crazy and creative.

For the past two decades our family has converged on the Fourth in the small town of Bristol, Vermont, on Pleasant Street where my daughter and husband lived and where the parade traditionally marched through with its bands, floats, clowns, fire engines, and politicians. My daughter would throw together an abundance of brown rice and lentils, greens, and strawberry shortcake, and we’d line up our lawn chairs on the edge of the street for a close-hand view. The kids, too excited to sit, would leap up and down, water pistols in hand to squirt back at the clowns or at the redneck kids on their dairy farm floats for whom the Fourth meant battle. My daughter always had dry shirts ready to throw on her overexcited adolescents.

This year my daughter and family have moved to a small farm in Leicester, Vt and rented out the Pleasant Street house—but the family tradition goes on, and most of us make the trip back to Bristol for one of the oldest and most colorful July Fourth parades in the country.

The 2015 excitement began, as always, with an outhouse race where teams of ingenious pairs, in four suspenseful heats, maneuvered a fabricated, boxy outhouse on castors: one guy pulling in front, one pushing from behind, and one waving at the crowds from his or her triumphant seat on a shiny white toilet. The two inch castors rotated 360 degrees, so that keeping the unit rolling forward was a challenge. One outhouse veered to the right early on, barely missing a photographer–then its cardboard roof and sides blew off. Nonetheless, like the presidential race, the betting was high, the competition keen, and the cheering loud and wild.

Next came the parade of horse-drawn carriages, fire engines, colonial militiamen in tricorn hats, exploding their ancient muskets; the Bristol Band tooting away on a red and white be-ribboned flatbed; a fat, straggly-haired clown equipped with drum, horns, bells, whistle and sticks to smack the dinger on his head; the Monster buggies from the Freemason Shriners zooming in and out of the road, their drivers tossing candy to our kids; and Bristol’s own horse-drawn trash disposal cart, with its driver stopping every few feet to scoop up the poop into a plastic bag.

Then a shout: “Here comes Bernie!” But no–it’s not Senator Sanders but old Harold Allen from up in Lincoln, with a white wig, red striped tie, one arm gesticulating wildly as the real Bernie would do to make a point. And behind the impersonator a band of buzzing membranophone kazoos blasted through, with a happy-go-lucky dancing gaggle of folks shouting “Bernie! Bernie!”

Then to my amazement: my two young granddaughters appeared among the Kazooers, bearing a huge placard touting BERNIE FOR PRESIDENT! The girls were obviously thrilled to be part of the spectacle, forgetting no doubt, that Bernie himself was not with them. For Bernie, someone called out, was marching in Iowa that day, with even louder crowds trumpeting in his ears. “Bernie tells the truth,” these fans allege: this middle class fellow whose immigrant dad came to Brooklyn from Poland, penniless at age 17. Plain-speaking, “democrat-socialist” Bernie Sanders who wants only to reverse “the obscene levels” of income and wealth inequality, and who thrives not on the Super Pac like most presidential candidates, but on small, grassroots donations.

Finally the parade wound down, the last fireman drove his big truck back to the starting point, and my dancing granddaughters settled down with family to devour the strawberry shortcake my daughter had brought. The ice cream had pretty much melted, but spirits were soaring and even the youngest of kin were released by their parents to run into town and enjoy a day of freedom—the two syllable word that pretty much summed up the whole day.

A MURDER MYSTERY CLOSE TO HOME

by Nancy Means Wright

I was shocked and horrified back in 1971 when an 18-year-old freshman at Middlebury College (in my home town) went missing just before her 1 o’clock December exam. According to a friend, she had run back to her dorm “for a favorite pen.” But she never got to the exam.  Her roommate left for home on semester break without realizing that Lynne Schulze would not be back to claim her things.

At about 12:30 p.m. someone spotted Lynne standing near a gas station in town eating dried prunes purchased across the street at a health food store called All Good Things, owned and operated by young millionaire real estate heir, Robert Durst and his wife Kathy. A second spotting came that same day at 2:30 p.m. outside the store across from the bus stop. But was it Lynne?

No one had seen Lynne since.

At the time, I had a 17-year-old daughter Lesley, 5 foot 3 and brown-haired like Lynne, who had already applied for the liberal arts college.  After she began her freshman year at Middlebury, my Lesley became Lynne in my nightmares of abducted girls. Yet Vermont is safe, my reason told me–who would harm a vibrant young girl in the small, congenial town of Middlebury? If Lynne had been abducted, well, it would have been someone “on the outside.”

In her last photograph, Lynne sits in the lotus position (as my daughter often does), a pretty girl with long shiny hair, smiling confidently into the camera.

Police inquiries turned up nothing for almost 43 years. The case was handed down to a number of town investigators, each one taking a fresh look, but finding no evidence of foul play. If the girl had run off, her parents heard nothing from her. Odd, we all thought. And such a close-knit family.

Durst sold the store the following year, left the state, and unbeknown to many of us, became a suspect for killings in Texas and California (for the death of a 16-year-old girl)–including a recent arrest in New Orleans for the possible murder of his wife. A documentary, “The Jinx: the Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” shows him muttering to himself: “There it is. you’re caught. What the hell did I do? Killed them all of course.”

In 2012, almost thirty years after the disappearance, local police had an unsolicited phone tip about Durst’s connection to our town and to the young girl who shopped at his store; and our police chief, recalling the unsolved case of Lynne Schulze, termed Durst “a man of interest.”

My daughters and I had shopped on occasion at All Good Things with no suspicion of the man, who seemed pleasant enough. A retired county sheriff recalls buying peanut butter there and chatting with Durst. Another local store owner called him “kind of quirky…but with a wry sense of humor.” A dozen questions now bubble up in my head. Had the then young, attractive store owner charmed Lynne with prunes, presents, and peanut butter? Then tried to seduce her? Had she taken the next bus out, met him somewhere and then been “dumped,’ so that his wife, living in their nearby Ripton home, wouldn’t suspect?

All as yet unanswered questions. One can only make up scenarios of what might have happened. Calling the case “a possible homicide,” our local police have not, at the time of this writing, found any tangible evidence. Lynne’s parents are dead, and her bereft siblings want justice, but also privacy. Our dedicated police, however, are determined to “investigate all leads until Lynne can be found and resolution can be given to her family.”

A resolution I, too, would like, as a grandmother living near the college with a granddaughter at that school, about to take her final exams.

Tuck a madcap teenager into your manuscript?

by Nancy Means Wright

As a youngish mother with four lively children teaching high school and trying to write between classes, I was losing weight and, all too frequently, patience.  My oldest son had been expelled from his pre-school for breaking the toys, and was too fidgety to concentrate in first grade, so I had to teach him to read–with the help of Dr. Seuss.  I hadn’t yet heard of ADHD or the drug Ritalin. My daughter, two years his junior, was  a teacher’s darling in school but a mother’s nightmare at home with her negativity and a closet full of rabbits, guinea pigs, and white rats. When her clothes got too smelly she would raid my closet/bureau for school apparel–usually just what I was planning to wear. How many rainy days I’d come home, exhausted from teaching, to find the living room window glass shattered by flying pucks from an indoor hockey game organized by my eldest!

If they were wild as pre-teens, they were beyond control as young adults. My daughter graduated high school with ease, then took a gap year before college to wander, alone, through Europe, then into the explosive Middle East. My oldest son poured all his energy into hockey–his college coach phoned with abject apologies when the lad crashed into a goal post and knocked out half his teeth (another “gap” year and don’t ask about the cost.)

I got my revenge by writing them into stories and books. Teens appear in almost all my twenty books–mysteries, mainstream novels, poems.  My daughter howled when I wrote up her risky gap year adventures in a local newspaper column. “How could you?” she’d cry, “that was my story!”

Well, we’re all familiar with the “my story” syndrome, yes?

They’re grown up now with wilding kids of their own. This year I’ve four grandchildren doing their thing in the developing countries of Central America, Africa, and the Near East. And I worry about them as they wander. Because adolescence, I recently read in a piece by a professor of clinical psychiatry “is synonymous with risk taking, emotional drama, and all forms of outlandish behavior.”

Apparently, the professor says, we afflicted elders have never understood the dark side of adolescence, the “surge in anxiety and fearfulness.” For the brain circuit, he claims, develops far ahead of the pre-frontal cortex (the seat of reasoning and control). In other words, teens are overwired for anxiety but underwired for calm reasoning.

I could have told him that years ago! But if my daughter was so afraid and anxious, why did she keep traveling through Iran, Afghanistan and India, where they threw pebbles at her, a young woman daring to explore the world–alone?  And why did my eldest hurtle his body into contact sports that might injure his brain and eliminate his teeth? (Even as a college hockey coach, he was recently hit by an errant puck and bled all over the ice.)

The three top killers of youth, I’ve heard, are homicide, accidents, and suicide. My offspring, and now my grandkids, have all had accidents. One granddaughter was a passenger in a rented car en route to Duke University when the car was rear-ended and a heavy suitcase fell and killed a girl in the back seat. Even though it wasn’t my granddaughter driving, she still suffers PSTD from the death of her close friend.

I’m not surprised to see the increasing popularity of young adult novels these days, as we authors write about  this risk-taking circuit in the adolescent brain. One might  add a world filled with guns, bombs, drugs, civil wars and children fleeing violence to travel on their own to a U.S. that is trying to keep them out. And the young brain has gone crazy with it all–wanting to escape–not like me as an aging writer into books–but physically: to another part of the untamed world, not knowing what the welcome might be.

All I can do now with my tired brain is to stand out on the village green in my Vermont home town and wave a petition for universal background checks for guns. And then go home and work on a story about–well, yes, a runaway teen.

Green Gas, Video Games, and Great Writing on The Great War

by Nancy Means Wright

100 years ago this summer, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off (for complex reasons) one of the cruelest wars in history.  Whole generations of young men were lost on all sides, and I, for one, can’t stop reading and writing about them. I wept through the heartbreaking novel All Quiet on the Western Front when a disillusioned German soldier in the last months of the war stands up out of his trench to gaze at the fall foliage–and is killed.  I thought about that young German a fortnight ago as I heard the Stuttgart Boys’ Choir sing (on tour from Germany). Ah, those pure high voices–one sweet-faced pre-teen with blond hair falling to his shoulders–no soldier there! And now I’m rereading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in which he recreates his WW1 months in an Italian ambulance unit, the agonies of war, and the role of a deserter.

I think of the poems of British poet Wilfred Owen, who wrote of a soldier in a gas attack “floundering like a man in fire or lime… / Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”  The poem ends with the irony of “The old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” (It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”) Tragically, Owen was killed just days before the November Armistice–as were the brother and fiance of British nurse Vera Brittain, who wrote in her classic Testament of Youth of tall Americans marching jauntily along “like young gods” to the killing front.

On a happier note, my father-in-law dropped out of Middlebury College in 1918 to “join up” and fly an observation biplane over enemy territory. Luckily for him it was a short war, and he returned to college a student hero, and began barnstorming at country fairs.  He loved to bellow out euphemistic war songs like “It’s a Long Long Way to Tipperary” and “Over There.”  Then there was old Charlie Willson, our octogenarian family carpenter, who was gassed in that war and for the rest of his life had nightmares of “shrieking shells and cries of the wounded.” While he was working on our roof or barn, he would shout down war stories to anyone who’d listen–as though compelled to tell them.

TV productions like Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge  move their characters in and out of The Great War, and we hold our breath, praying our fictional heroes will survive–even if it’s with a missing arm or leg. The characters in my new multi-generational novel, Queens Never Make Bargains, endure the war at home and in the trenches, where in the confusion of shell fire and greenish gas, my protagonist’s soldier-lover stumbles off, his legs taking over his brain–away from the terrible war.

And we all admire Charles and Caroline Todd who write two award-winning mystery series set during and after WW1, featuring the shell-shocked veteran inspector Rutledge (Hunting Shadows); and Bess Crawford, a nurse in France (A Question of Honor). Mother and son make us relive all the passion and panic of the times.

Finally, I was surprised to read about a new, interactive, virtually non-violent French WW1 video game, “Valiant Hearts,” in which a young soldier named Emile must choose  between his officer’s orders to charge to the right, through gas and shells–or run left (to desert)  and onto an officer’s sword. Tough choices! The game depicts four years of war as lived by Emile, by an American volunteer Freddie, a field nurse Anna, and a dog–among others. One discovers the brutality of the trenches but also the human drama. Instead of firing rifles, players dress wounds, dig trenches, duck aircraft fire, and liberate prisoners. They hear the night quiet–or the muttering enemy, and they fear what’s ahead. They run, hide, and solve puzzles, all in real life locations and scenes from the war.

Surely a video I’d want to buy for my grandchildren! To keep the memory alive, yes–although a video game can never wholly emulate the horror of a war the did not, as hoped,  end all wars.

 

LATE BLOOMERS: WRITING ON INTO THE SUNSET

In fifth grade I picked up a novel my mother was reading called Life Begins at Forty. At that time the age of 40 was too far in the misty future to even contemplate, and I discarded the book and went back to my beloved Anne of Green Gables. Now, of course, I look  back at the age of 40 with nostalgia. My first novel had just been published by Ace Books: I called it an autobiographical feminist novel, while Ace labelled it a romance and hoped we might have a future together. Our paths soon diverged, and I started writing and publishing mystery novels; Ace moved to science fiction, and our relationship  ended.

But not my writing. A late bloomer to the publishing world, I became a perennial writer as time went on. I’m winging along through Medicare now, with 18 published books, and two more coming to fruition this spring–one, a small collection of poems, using, in part, the voice of 18th-century Mary Wollstonecraft, who looms large in my Perseverance Press mysteries.

How long, I ask myself, can I keep going? Who will want to publish me? How long does a flowering weed like blue vetch keep blooming?

Well, I answer myself: consider that hot pink bleeding heart in my garden. It has been coming up spring after spring, and it still looks robust.

A romp through Google brings up dozens of brave hearts still writing and publishing past 65. Wallace Stegner, 62, when his prize-winning Angle of Repose appeared, was 78 when his beautiful novel, Crossing to Safety came out. The British novelist Mary Wesley wrote her first novel, The Camomile Lawn at age 70, and went on until she died at age 90 to publish three million copies of her books, including ten bestsellers. Her popular work has been described as “arsenic without the old lace,” and “Jane Austen with Sex.” And speaking of arsenic and Austen, we now have P.D. James’s latest mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley, published when Dame James was 91!

The list goes on. James Michener wrote forty novels after the age of 40 when Tales of the South Pacific wowed the world. I met his editor once, who claimed she had to do a good amount of editing in his latter years, but he was still publishing when he died at 90. And we can’t forget late blooming debut novels like Harriet Doerr’s Stones of Ibarra, which she wrote at age 74–a national Book Award winner. Or Katherine Ann Porter’s award-winning Ship of Fools, which debuted when she was 72. And then there is Helen Hoover Santmeyer, who published her first book, And Ladies of the Club, at age 88.

Ah, but then I read a N.Y.Times essay, “Writer of a Certain Age,” in which the famous Fay Weldon, novelist and playwright,  laments the continuing prejudice against older women writers. Write two mature women into a conversation on stage, she complains, “and audience members would cough and shift in their seats.” A fiftyish female writer trying to describe “the sexual and social predicaments of a woman her age,” Weldon says, would “find it hard to get a publisher.” Her agent, she allows, would invariably suggest that the protagonist’s age “be taken down 20, even 30 years.”

Do I  want to do that? Don’t older women make up the larger part of fiction readers? Don’t I myself prefer to read about a character, male or female, who  is closer to my age? Yes, I do! Chick lit isn’t for me. Is there no solution here?

Well, sort of. Old age, Weldon thinks, is “a salable proposition” for publishers, in that one is considered “remarkable” for having produced such a work. Indeed, a writer acquaintance of mine who has just published her first book of stories at the age of 80, throws her age out to the reading public like bits of confetti. “I’m proud of it!” she exclaims, and reminds me that she had a “long gestation period” before the book came out.   Well, of course she has a point. A book published in a certain year may have been conceived a decade earlier. As for e-books, Weldon goes on, without an author photo one can be “as old or young as she likes.” The quality of the writing will prevail, and we’ll be judged “by our words and ideas, not by our looks.”

I’ll close on that optimistic note. How long would you as reader want to write on?

Reflections on Real, Romantic, and Online Book Pirates

Bonney,_Anne_(1697-1720)     When I was a small girl, my father gave me an orange book of 100 Best Poems for Boys and Girls. One of my favorites was Pirate Don Durk of Dowdee by M.P. Merryman. Don Durk thrilled me with his crimson coat, purple tattoo, a dirk and dagger in his belt–and “a conscience as black as a bat.” 

     I soon became addicted to literary pirates with parrots on their shoulders who would mimic the colorful language I wasn’t allowed to use. I was enamoured of the villanous Cap’n Hook in Peter Pan, whose only fears were the sight of his own blood, and crocodiles–one of which eventually swallowed him whole. Hook was the only person Long  John Silver in Treasure Island ever feared.  I recently wrote an adaptation of the novel for my son’s Very Merry Theatre, along with lyrics for six songs. One of my verses was sung by Silver’s parrot: “a red rebel–who’s seen more mischief than the devil!”                                                                            

     Since more girls than boys tried out for that play, I had to include female pirates, like 18th-century Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who dressed and swaggered like men. Mary Read had earlier joined the British Army and fought in a war. She later married, but on her husband’s death, boarded a ship bound for the West Indies. She was captured by pirate Calico Jack, joined his crew, and ultimately, alas, died in prison. Both females roles were eagerly sought after by my son’s players.  

     Despite their bloody pursuits, I found myself rooting for pirates in books, plays and films. I even laughed at them, particularly the scene in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance in which pirates defeat the zany policemen, and the handsome pirate-apprentice Frederick wins his girl. But I didn’t laugh the day my seven grandkids dressed like pirates, went out in two rowboats to pick up “treasure” they’d left on a nearby island–got caught in a wild wind and rain storm–and had to be rescued by life guards! 

     My romance with pirates really began to fade when Somali pirates hijacked large cargo ships and oil tankers in the Arabian sea and Indian Ocean region, capturing seamen and demanding huge ransoms. And worse, killing their victims when the ship’s owner couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay the fee. The Somali government did little to stop these villains because pirate leaders had more power than the government! In 2011 four Americans were killed on their own ship by the self-styled “ocean robbers.”

     The horrors of piracy came closest to me a few months ago when Google Alert announced that the ebook of my mystery novel, The Nightmare, was free on a website of lalulock, Jimdo.com. I clicked on  it, and there it was: the kindle edition of the novel’s cover, and below, in large letters: DOWNLOAD NOW. The website boldly offered background on my protagonist Mary Wollstonecraft, and sources for information on her life.

     How did I feel about this act of book piracy? At first there was a flurry of excitement. Should I be honored that they chose my books to download for free? After all, hundreds of writers offer their ebooks for free on Kindle Select–why shouldn’t mine be in that company?  I wanted people to read it, didn’t I? What about those who couldn’t afford to buy the book and who lived far from any library?

     But then I recalled the lamp and oriental runner stolen from a craft shop I once operated in my Vermont barn, and I felt violated. Wasn’t this, too, a blatant act of “shoplifting”? Not gloves or pearls, no, but “intellectual property”? I thought of my publisher, Perseverance Press, who was losing a rightful share of the book’s sales. I e-mailed publisher-publicist Susan Daniel, who , in turn,  contacted her distributors. And none had dealt with or even heard of lalulock, jimdo.com.   “There is nothing we can do,” she responded. I imagined her leaning back in her deskchair, sighing, and thinking: “Now what?”  

     I’ll end with that question. Does anyone out there have an answer?