Written By The Fire

Just another little anniversary song, written for Sugar Babe about 3 years ago. A little different for a love song, but it made her smile so it did its job. Sharing something that says “I love you” during the season of love…hope it might encourage somebody else to do the same and maybe we can all warm up the electronosphere a degree or two.

Christmas Eve in Vietnam, 1966

This is a story written by my friend, CMSgt Walter Stolpa, USAF Retired, about Christmas 1966 in Vietnam. It’s always good to remind ourselves of what it was like for those troops, and to also realize that there are US troops going through the same thing right now. He posts this story on his Facebook page each year, and I like to share it a little farther and wider because it’s an important thing to understand what a lot of life is like for our military personnel who put themselves between us and those who would do us harm.

(There are a lot of military-specific terms in here, most of which can be understood by context. The “AP” in the title is for Air Police, one of the older terms, along with Military Police, Law Enforcement, and Security Police, for what is now known as Security Forces in the US Air Force.)

An AP Christmas Eve in the NAM

By Walter M. Stolpa Jr.
CMSgt, USAF/Retired

Monsoon rains danced off the tin roof of the guardmount area. The troops were lost in thought and subdued as they assembled for guardmount. It was Christmas Eve and most were focusing on sweethearts and family back in the world. “Fall in!” the flight chief barked and the men quickly and noisily fell into their squad positions. “Squad Leaders Report!” and the Staff Sergeants rattled off in turn, “All present or accounted for!” Roll Call was taken and the men responded with their post assignments. “Open Ranks, March!” and the ranks opened for inspection. The old Master Sergeant did an about face and faced the young LT, saluted and reported, “Shadow Flight is ready for inspection.”

The inspection was just a formality, just the lieutenant shaking hands and wishing each a Merry Christmas. The guys were swathed in ponchos and assorted rain gear so there was not much to inspect. There could have been a few whiffs of alcohol on some but nothing was said; after all, it was Christmas Eve. “Close Ranks, March!” and the troops once again merged into a flight. The LT commented that OSI says we could be having hostile visitors around, and stay alert. He sheepishly wished them a Merry Christmas and departed the guardmount area.

The old sarge surveyed the troops and knew none of them were motivated to commence the twelve-hour grind in the miserable rain, and he sought to improve their spirits but had trouble choosing the words.

He growled, “We’re 7,000 miles from home, lonely, and feeling sorry for ourselves. While we are here, our families are gathering to celebrate Christmas. Your presence here allows them to do that. Tonight you are not alone; you are with your brothers who share this moment in time with you. Years from now when you are old and grey, you will recall this Christmas Eve with clarity and tell your grandchildren, ‘I spent Christmas Eve in 1966 with my brothers in the Republic of Vietnam at Nha Trang Air Base, fighting for freedom.’

“I want you to be especially alert because our intel says something may be brewing. The local VC units are active and there is an NVA battalion within a day’s march. Focus on your job. You are here to protect your buddies — those here in ranks and everyone on this base.”

I thought, what the hell would we do if we got attacked by a battalion?

The Flight Chief closed with words that tempered our spines. “If the cost tonight involves the loss of life, then let it be mine and not of any of you, for it is you I will fight and die for. Take care of your brothers. Post!”

Sobering at the Flight Chief’s words, we loaded up our gear and hoisted ourselves up into the trucks and jeeps for transport to our sandbagged defensive positions. We sloshed through the muddy trails, picking up and dropping off troops at their assigned posts. My post number was announced and I jumped off the truck with my two buddies for the night and stumbled into the drenched bunker, shining my flashlight looking for rats and snakes. Thankfully, there were none visible for the moment and we laid out our gear to prepare for the long night ahead of us.

The night passed agonizingly slowly, and try as we might to prevent it, the cold seeped into our core. The temperature had to be in the 70s but we were shivering. The relentless rains splattered against our ponchos and bounced off our helmets. Flashes of lightning eerily illuminated the concertina wire, allowing us to survey the claymores forward of our position. My buddy peered through the sights of his M-60 machine gun into the darkness and was humming “Jingle Bells.” From the bunker 50 feet on our left, lyrics were added to the tune. “Jingle bells, mortar shells, VC in the grass, take this Merry Christmas and shove it up your ….” The radio squawked and the Flight Chief boomed out, “Knock it off! Maintain noise discipline!” and all went quiet. Evidently, someone had keyed a mike during the carol.

Later, the unmistakable drone of “Spooky” appeared circling overhead. As per normal procedure, the aircraft was not illuminated so as to make it a lesser target. Flare kickers commenced dropping flares over the distant rice paddies. Shortly thereafter, mini-guns opened up, spraying arcing red tracers through the floating flares. A nervous troop in a far-away bunker slapped a flare, adding to the Christmas festivities. I thought to myself that despite the misery of the rain the aerial display was quite impressive. Thankfully, there were no green tracers searching us out. My partner wondered aloud if the chaplain would be making the rounds this Christmas Eve. I replied, “I don’t think so. Probably too tired from saying midnight services.”

Spooky was drifting off toward the mountains as the expended flare canisters impacted on the ground. I wondered if the mini-guns had targets or just some special Christmas present for the VC? The flares had ruined our night vision, so blackness enveloped us as the steady rain continued to assault our senses. Sirens wailed and the radio squawked, “Incoming! Take cover!” and that answered my question of targets. We hunkered down behind the sandbags as we had clearly heard the mortar shells’ distinct thump, thump, thump as they burst from their tubes. We held our breath as we anticipated the impacts. In the distance, the alert siren wailed as counter batteries searched for the source. Ear-splitting explosions tore into the darkness as three mortar shells — crump, crump, crump — landed in quick succession.

We waited for another volley but nothing but silence ensued. I noted that Spooky had turned to and was on the scene, once again kicking flares and spraying arcs of airborne mayhem. We anxiously wondered if any of the mortar rounds had found a target, but flames coming from the Army helicopter pads answered that. Later we would learn that two Army Hueys got lit up, but thankfully nobody was killed or injured. We also learned that the mortar rounds were just a diversion as sappers had penetrated the Army defenses and destroyed the helicopters with satchel charges. I wondered why the sappers always picked on the Army? We liked to think it was because they knew we would kick their a– if they attempted to come through our wire.

It was 0300 when the Comm/Plotter notified us that the Major and the Chaplain were visiting posts with coffee and Christmas goodies. We were so far out in the boonies that they seldom got this far but we didn’t care much for company anyway. At 0415, the SAT team pulled up and told us to put away all the unauthorized stuff because Santa was a couple of posts down the line. The only thing I had that was not authorized was my little transistor radio, so I made sure it was out of sight. A light flashed from the bunker on our right and that told us we were next in line. Sure enough, a jeep came roaring through the mud to our position. The lights flicked on and off with the proper sign and we allowed it to approach without challenging. I always thought challenging vehicles here was stupid because no VC had a jeep.

Looking uncomfortable and ill at ease, there were the Major and the Chaplain, both in rain gear. They dismounted the vehicle and entered the bunker to get out of most of the rain. “Airman Jones Reports Delta 16 all secure, sir!”

 “It is Christmas Eve so we can dispense with that,” said the Major. “Merry Christmas, men. We have hot coffee and chocolate for you and some treats from the mess hall. Help yourselves. “How are you all doing tonight?”

“Business as usual sir.”

“Any damage from the mortars?”

“No, the mortars were off target and hit nothing, but sappers got two of the army choppers. We think the mortars were just a diversion.”

The Chaplain asked us about our families and told us how much the base counted on us to keep them secure. He then produced some Christmas cards sent from children to the soldiers in Vietnam. They were unopened and he asked each of us to take one. “Well, Merry Christmas, men, and enjoy the fantastic Christmas dinner the mess hall is preparing.” I thought, damn if I will be staying up and waiting in line after a twelve-hour mid, as the jeep disappeared down the road.

So we settled in for the remainder of the long dark night, watching Spooky dropping flares and working out the mini-guns, and wondering if Charlie had any more Christmas surprises in store for us. However, the night passed without any further activity.

Thankfully, the rains had ceased and the eastern sun hurt our eyes as it rose into the sky. Relief rolled around and an hour later we had turned in our equipment and were in the hooch. I looked at my rack and it was inviting me to join it. As I climbed into the rack, I remembered the card the Chaplain left us and decided to open it.

Dear Soldier,
Thank you for my freedom and for fighting for me. I will be spending Christmas with my family safe because of soldiers like you. I hope your family has a Merry Christmas and I am sorry you cannot be home. I hope you do not get killed and that you can be with them next Christmas. My older brother Bill was in Vietnam and died at some place called Ia Drang and my mom and dad have been very sad ever since and so have I. I hope your mom and dad don’t have to be that way. When I grow up maybe I will be a soldier like my big brother was. Thank you for protecting us and Merry Christmas to all the soldiers.

My eyes misted up on me as I crawled into the rack and I thought in comparison to a lot of people, I have a lot to be thankful for. I made a mental note to write back to Eddie with how I spent my Christmas Eve with my brothers and how much I appreciated what his brother gave for us. I hoped all Americans appreciate the sacrifices being made for them, but from what I saw on the news I doubted it. The Vietnam War was grinding on and the worst was yet to come.

New Website Music Page

I’ve been trying to concentrate on my next novel and doing some blog posts and a few newspaper columns and suchlike, but the music has been pestering me for an outlet, so I guess it’s time I made a new page for it so it will leave me alone.

I’ve been singing and playing guitar in an incredibly amateur fashion for most of my life, keeping myself amused and seldom bothering others with it…except for that short period when I’d get all the beer I could drink (the fee for that was actually just $2, anyway), at the bar where the submariners hung out on the Navy base, if I sang “Sunshine On My Shoulders” for Roger, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. I’ve been writing songs for around 25 years, but not prolifically and never really intended for the public. Come to think of it, everything I’ve written was very personal and written to tell somebody “I love you.”

But really, all good writing, of any kind, comes from a very personal place, with a deep meaning to the author even if not to Everybody Out There. Some other people may find that meaning, too, and if that’s not a giant throng of humanity, so what? If it enriches one other person’s life in some way, then it’s had a positive effect on the universe. Miniscule, perhaps, but every little positive helps. Maybe it’s a good thing to add every positive you can, because I think it’s everybody’s job to make the universe just a little better off than it was when you found it. Maybe that’s what humanity is all about.

Recently I read a quote by a smart lady named Glennon Doyle: “If you feel something calling you to dance or write or paint or sing, please refuse to worry about whether you’re good enough. Just do it. Be generous. Offer a gift to the world that no one else can offer: yourself. “

I’ve always been too much of an introvert to say, “Hey, universe! Look what I did!” So I reckon I’m not cut out to be a performer…but writers gotta write.  My songs were just meant to make someone smile and know how I felt. Gifts. But it’s possible that somebody else out there might hear one someday and smile, too, and the universe might do a miniscule quiver…a tiny little happy dance. So maybe it’s time to let some of them just swirl around the electronosphere a little, and spread a smile or two on the off chance somebody stumbles across them one of these days, and just maybe I’ll feel that little quiver all the way back to me, and I’ll smile, too.

So maybe from time to time I can manage to record one of these little gifts and post it. It couldn’t hurt too much, could it?  And maybe George Strait will stumble across one and come out of retirement just to record such an awesome, wondrous song.  Maybe Darius Rucker and Garth Brooks will arm-wrestle over the opportunity to sing one of them.  Let’s not hold our breath, but if you’re gonna dream, dream big!

And best of all, this just might get somebody else to say, “Heck…I can write better than THAT!”  And they’ll write and sing and give gifts to the universe and make it a happier place.  Big dreams or miniscule happy dances or inspiration…it’s all good. 

Look out, universe!

So to start out, here’s a song I wrote earlier this year for my wife, Sugar Babe, for our 20th anniversary, called “Legendary Love.” Just written to say “I love you” and make her smile, and it was a resounding songwriting success in that one way.  Maybe it’ll get somebody else to smile, and that would double my success, so here goes! If it makes you smile, I’ll be all tickled and flutterated and the world will have warmed up a notch.  Can’t beat that.

Unusual Writing Tips

I scour the universe to find amazing morsels of knowledge so that I can share them with the multitudes and thereby raise the intelligence level of all mankind.  Some call it stumbling across trivia about writing, and posting it in people’s way just to be irritating.  Whatever.

But you can always benefit from other people’s thoughts.  At least I can, because that way I don’t have to do all that thinking myself, and I’m lazy.  And it’s always possible you’re bored and need distraction.  I’m here for you either way. 

So I came across this blog post by James Altucher the other day.  In case he stumbles across this post some day, I apologize to you, Mr. Altucher, for not having a clue who you were until then.  On the other hand, you still don’t know who I am, so fair’s fair.  I now know that he’s an author and entrepreneur and hedge fund manager and a whole lot of other things, and after sifting through his website a bit, I’ve determined that he’s smart and fair-minded and it’s apparent he’s known by pretty much the whole world except me.  Being a basic cave-dweller, I’m okay with that.

He has lots of thoughts.  This particular group of them is full of points to ruminate on if you’re a writer, because it’s all about becoming a better one.  It’s good to look at what you do from a fresh perspective now and then, to help you get out of your rut and shake up your paradigms a little, and these are certainly different ways of examining the process.  They aren’t all new and different, but there are some different ways of illustrating them in here, and a stroll through the list is entertaining and enlightening.  Not everything will help, of course, but it’s all worth looking and considering.

Take a look.  Consider.  Stretch your mind.  Be a better writer.

33 Unusual Tips to Being a Better Writer

by James Altucher

Back in college, Sanket and I would hang out in bars and try to talk to women but I was horrible at it.

Nobody would talk to me for more than thirty seconds and every woman would laugh at all his jokes for what seemed like hours.

Even decades later I think they are still laughing at his jokes. One time he turned to me, “the girls are getting bored when you talk. Your stories go on too long. From now on, you need to leave out every other sentence when you tell a story.”

We were both undergrads in Computer Science. I haven’t seen him since but that’s the most important writing (and communicating) advice I ever got.

A) Write whatever you want. Then take out the first paragraph and last paragraph

Here’s the funny thing about this rule. It’s sort of like knowing the future. You still can’t change it. In other words, even if you know this rule and write the article, the article will still be better if you take out the first paragraph and the last paragraph.

B) Take a huge bowel movement every day

You won’t see that on any other list on how to be a better writer. If your body doesn’t flow then your brain won’t flow. Eat more fruit if you have to.

C) Bleed in the first line

We’re all human. A computer can win Jeopardy but still not write a novel. If you want people to relate to you, then you have to be human.

Penelope Trunk started a post a few weeks ago: “I smashed a lamp over my head. There was blood everywhere. And glass. And I took a picture.” That’s real bleeding. My wife recently put up a post where the first line was so painful she had to take it down. Too many people were crying.

D) Don’t ask for permission

In other words, never say “in my opinion” (or worse “IMHO”). We know it’s your opinion. You’re writing it.

E) Write a lot

I spent the entire 90s writing bad fiction. 5 bad novels. Dozens of bad stories. But I learned to handle massive rejection. And how to put two words together. In my head, I won the pulitzer prize. But in my hand, over 100 rejection letters.

F) Read a lot

You can’t write without first reading. A lot. When I was writing five bad novels in a row I would read all day long whenever I wasn’t writing (I had a job as a programmer, which I would do for about five minutes a day because my programs all worked and I just had to “maintain” them). I read everything I could get my hands on.

Character Craft Continued

Characters…everywhere…poor little lumps of blah scattered across the manuscript like they’d been urked up half-masticated, limp and lifeless and gooey, by a word processor with a hairball and indigestion.  Yeah, you’ve seen ‘em.  Maybe you’ve made ‘em.  Can’t say I haven’t…it’s too easy and tempting to just blurt them out and go on with all that action and suspense and romance and suchlike.  That’s where the fun is!

But, doggone it, characters need to breathe and feel and live!  You owe it to the lives you’ve created to put a little spark in them.  If they just lie there, drab and mundane, taking up space on the page, your readers won’t connect with them and won’t be interested in what they might be about to do.  And giving them feelings and thoughts and, well, character will even help you get your own feeling about what direction they’re about to go.  The character will frequently lead you to your next plot point if you pay attention.  Giving your characters life is one of the most important things to do when you write, and one of the hardest to get right until you form the habit of doing it.

I recently shared another article about Character Craft from The Creative Penn website, and you can find it here if you’d like more.  This article is by Rebecca McClanahan and brought to you by the folks at Writer’s Digest.  Many more thoughts about the character-building process are laid out quite eloquently, and I recognize problems I’ve had and picked up some good tips.  The very first point reminded me of a friend’s novel I read recently, in which he introduced each character with their height, weight, and the color of their hair and eyes.  He had a law enforcement background and it showed.  Perhaps you don’t always want to be as obvious…mix that stuff up and give your readers a little variety, and they’ll thank you for it by staying engaged and reading more of your stuff.  That couldn’t hurt, now could it?

Here’s Ms. McClanahan with more wisdom for you.

11 Secrets to Writing an Effective Character Description

11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through effective character description, including physical and emotional description.

Rebecca McClanahan
Jan 14, 2015

The characters in our stories, songs, poems, and essays embody our writing. They are our words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Until we anchor them with words, they drift, bodiless and ethereal. They weigh nothing; they have no voice. Once we’ve written the first words—“Belinda Beatrice,” perhaps, or “the dark-eyed salesman in the back of the room,” or simply “the girl”—our characters begin to take form.

Soon they’ll be more than mere names. They’ll put on jeans or rubber hip boots, light thin cigarettes or thick cigars; they’ll stutter or shout, buy a townhouse on the Upper East Side or a studio in the Village; they’ll marry for life or survive a series of happy affairs; they’ll beat their children or embrace them. What they become, on the page, is up to us.

Here are 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description.

1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”

It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”

This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him. He appears as a cardboard cutout rather than as a living, breathing character. Yes, the details are accurate, but they don’t call forth vivid images. We can barely make out this character’s form; how can we be expected to remember him?

When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds. Since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues, it makes sense to describe our characters using visual images. Green eyes is a beginning, but it doesn’t go far enough. Are they pale green or dark green? Even a simple adjective can strengthen a detail. If the adjective also suggests a metaphor—forest green, pea green, or emerald green—the reader not only begins to make associations (positive or negative) but also visualizes in her mind’s eye the vehicle of the metaphor—forest trees, peas, or glittering gems.

2. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage cliché.

It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair. If you use an adjective to describe a physical attribute, make sure that the phrase is not only accurate and sensory but also fresh. In her short story “Flowering Judas,” Katherine Anne Porter describes Braggioni’s singing voice as a “furry, mournful voice” that takes the high notes “in a prolonged painful squeal.” Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”