Veterans Day — of Sacrifice, Sadness, and Sorrow

“A time to be born, and a time to die;
…A time for war, and a time for peace.”

– Ecclesiastes

In honor of Veterans Day—Friday, November 11—I offer a short history lesson and a story.

Veterans day was originally called “Armistice Day,” denoting the the end of World War I, when hostilities ceased on November 11 at 11 a.m., 1918—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. In 1938 Armistice Day was declared a legal holiday each year—a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace.

Then on November 11, 1947 Raymond Weeks, a World War II veteran, organized a “National Veterans Day” parade in Birmingham, Alabama to recognize veterans of all wars. This celebration led to Congress changing Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954 to recognize the veterans of all US wars.Veterans Day

Every Veterans Day, I think about the veterans I know, I think about the veterans I don’t know, and I consider the sacrifice made by veterans and their families. In fact, for the last decade, I’ve called my Uncle Edwin on Veterans Day and thanked him for his service during WWII. Two years ago, he said, “You are the only one who called me today.” I was shocked—and deeply saddened. He died around Memorial Day earlier this year. I thought about him several times on Friday and wished there was a way to call him.

A few years ago, I learned of a family in San Joaquin Valley, California who was mourning the loss of two sons killed in the war in Iraq. The Hubbard family lost one of their sons, Jared, to a roadside bomb in 2004. Months later, they also lost Nathan, 21, after the Blackhawk helicopter that he was in spiraled to the ground during a nighttime mission.

A third son who was also serving in Iraq, Jason Hubbard, escorted his brother’s flag-draped casket into a church so that more than 1,000 friends, family members, and military servicemen could say their final good byes.

Given the circumstances, military officials ordered the surviving son, Jason, to return to the United States and asked that he never again redeploy to a hostile firing zone.

I can’t imagine the pain that a family who has lost a child, a spouse, or a parent in wartime experiences, much less the Hubbard family’s pain in losing two sons. I was deeply moved by the weight of this tragedy and remembered a letter I read years before.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln penned a letter to Lydia Bixby, a bereaved mother who supposedly lost five sons during the Civil War. Although it was later determined that only two of her sons perished in the war and that some experts say that Lincoln was not the true author of the letter, it is still significant—eloquently powerful, sincere and sympathetic. No matter who wrote the letter, it speaks from the heart of most Americans.

The Bixby Letter

Executive Mansion
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Friends, fly your flags year-round. Thank military servicemen and servicewomen. Support families who have loved ones who are deployed in dangerous areas of the world. Hug the family members and friends of our fallen soldiers—hug them often. Talk to your children about America’s history and the price of freedom. And never allow yourself or those around you to forget the personal sacrifices that extraordinary men and women have made for our country.

Death in the South

DeathintheSouth
Mrs. Gump: “I’m dying, Forrest. Come on in, sit down over here.”
Forrest Gump: “Why are you dying, Mama?”
Mrs. Gump: “It’s my time. It’s just my time. Oh now… don’t you be afraid, sweetheart. Death is just a part of life.”
—From Forrest Gump 1994

I rose early that day faced with the long, four-hour drive down to my stepfather’s home in Southeast Georgia. I suppressed my many melancholy feelings by singing along to the radio and focusing my attention on each milestone along my journey—Atlanta’s downtown connector, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the large outlet mall in Locust Grove, Rose Hill Cemetery along the banks of the muddy Ocmulgee, and the point where the brown dirt on the sides of I-16 transitions to the white sand hills abundant in the lowland areas of Georgia.

“Which shoes should I wear?” Mom asked just moments after I arrived. She had hung her funeral attire on the door of the spare bedroom with two pairs of black pumps parked underneath.

“I don’t know. Maybe those,” I said pointing to one pair.

She agreed with my decision and dressed as I washed down a pack of cheese crackers with an ice-cold Coke. A half hour later, I was behind the wheel again, but this time, I chauffeured two others—Mom in the backseat and my stepfather in the front.

Freshly plowed dirt roads. Live oaks draped with cascading Spanish moss. Weathered clapboard houses. Barns strangled by tangles of kudzu. Saw palmetto. Towering longleaf pines.

The three of us arrived at the funeral home in Richmond Hill and entered the building. Dozens of relatives—some I had not seen in over a decade—ambushed us. We mingled, hugged, waved, dried tears and pressed our way through a sea of grieving people to the open casket. My cousin, Yancey, dressed in a navy blue fisherman’s shirt, lay peacefully before us as if he were taking a nap.
I stood next to my cousin’s body and spoke to him with my thoughts.

I hate seeing you like this. I’ll miss your wit—we all will.

I had not seen Yancey in a while, although he and I shared conversations and photographs via Facebook. He was my Aunt Joyce’s youngest child—her baby boy, even at forty-seven years old. His rotund body seemed a perfect match for his larger-than-life personality, but his heart and his lungs couldn’t support the surplus weight. Health problems plagued him in the end. His death was somewhat expected, but still, when my sister called and told me he had died, I was simply shocked. I gasped. News of death has that effect on me every time.

I hate saying goodbyes, and I’ve said a lot of goodbyes in my lifetime.

My Papa Lanier died of emphysema when I was seven, and I remember the weight of his death on my family and the pained, primitive yowls of my grandmother and my Aunt Colleen in the days that followed. They seemed inconsolable.

As a child, I also attended funerals for Uncle Lee Roy, Uncle Louis, and many other relatives, and each time, Mom would escort me up to the body and say, “You might want to look, Honey. It will be the last time you get to see him.”

I didn’t want to look, but I did. I saw death laid out before me—the lifeless, empty shells of people from my life. I witnessed the anguish of the survivors who occupied the front pews of the churches. I smelled the overpowering aroma of Chrysanthemums arranged in baskets and stuck in large, flashy sprays. I listened to the comforting messages of preachers guiding my imagination to images of winged souls flying up to Heaven. Unfortunately, I heard the other kind of sermons, too—the hellfire and damnation kind designed to terrify a congregation, wounded and weakened from loss.

“If you want to see him again, you must repent your sins and accept Jesus as your Savior today,” some preachers howled while standing over the casket. “Only then can you be reunited with your loved ones in Heaven. Come to the front of the church now and reaffirm your faith. There may not be a tomorrow.”

Friends and family members streamed forward. No one wanted to be left behind. No one wanted to spend eternity in Hell. No one.

Even as a little girl, I found the fire-and-brimstone sermons of some funerals distasteful. To me, the words “today could be your last chance for salvation,” sounded a lot like a used car salesman’s cheesy pitch—“What do I have to do to get you in this car today? It may not be here tomorrow. Better go ahead and buy it now.”

My grandmother Lanier died in 1990. My father wept for her.

My daddy joined Grandmother and Papa on the other side in 1992, and I cried for him and my mother who became a widow at fifty-five. We buried him in denim jeans and a flannel shirt because that’s what he was most comfortable wearing. My father was a Mason, and so a band of Masonic brethren wearing white gloves and ceremonial aprons surrounded his body at the graveside. One man wore a hat and spoke directly to us.

“Our Brother has reached the end of his earthly toils. The brittle thread which bound him to earth has been severed and the liberated spirit has winged its flight to the unknown world. The dust has returned to the earth as it was, and the spirit has returned to God who gave it.”

The service brimmed with poetic phrasing and symbolism—my kind of sermon. At one point, the man with the hat placed a sprig of cedar on my father’s casket.

“This evergreen is an emblem of our enduring faith in the Immortality of the Soul. By it we are reminded that we have an imperishable part within us, which shall survive all earthly existence, and which will never, never die. Through the loving goodness of our Supreme Grand Master, we may confidently hope that, like this Evergreen, our souls will hereafter flourish in eternal spring.”

I loved the thought of my father existing in eternal springtime somewhere.

We buried my father that afternoon then went to a family member’s house and ate. Women of the family and community had prepared a generous spread of fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, potato salad, cornbread, sweet tea, chocolate cake and other delicacies. Taking food to a grieving family is the epitome of Southern grace, like saying, “I’m sorry for your loss. I care. And don’t ever forget—you are loved by so many.”

After we picked at our food and rested for a while, my family caravanned back to the cemetery and stood beside the mounded dirt and flower arrangements for a few minutes. Mom reached down and plucked a limp rose from the spray that covered Daddy’s grave—a keepsake she eventually dried and pressed between the pages of a Bible. We each selected a potted peace lily to take home.
I found it difficult to turn and leave my father there that day. I believed that his soul had moved on, yet I had a strong connection with the vessel that contained his being. I lingered at his graveside delaying the inevitable.

With its granite and marble obelisks and monuments, the cemetery looked a bit like an outdoor art garden. There was a strange beauty to the setting, although it was a barren land flush with death and sadness. Some of the plots were well taken care of, while others seemed forgotten—faded plastic flowers leaning to and fro and weeds invading the marble rocks.

I continued to stall by wading through the sea of headstones and reading the names, dates, and verses engraved on the surfaces. Finally, my husband grabbed my hand and led me away.

Since that day, I’ve lost others—my beloved Grandmother Jarriel, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. I’ve watched my husband’s parents deteriorate mentally and physically and fade away, too. They were both cremated—their ashes scattered together underneath a tree in a forest near Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

I’ve lost pets, and I’ve mourned for them, too—sometimes more than I’ve mourned for people who’ve passed away.

But back to my cousin’s funeral.

Yancey’s niece, Ashley, stood up in front of all of us and shared some lovely memories. I admired her courage and composure and wondered if I could push my pain aside for ten minutes and speak about a loved one at a funeral service. I’m not sure.

After my cousin’s burial, I gathered my passengers and drove off into the blazing sunset while Mom, my stepfather, and Aunt Gloria recapped the events of the preceding days. They talked about how good this person looked and how bad that person looked. They talked about who brought food and how delicious so-and-so’s cake was. They talked about relatives that didn’t attend the funeral or burial service and speculated as to why they didn’t show up. They talked about Yancey, and what a beautiful little boy he had been so many years ago. They talked about my Aunt Joyce and wondered aloud about her future. They talked about life, and they talked about death—sometimes in the same breath.

I’ve reached an age where my parents and my remaining aunts and uncles are all surpassing the average life expectancy. Friends and contemporaries are fighting and losing battles with cancer and other debilitating illnesses. I find myself thinking about mortality more and more these days. I brace—not for my own decline and death, but for the eminent loss of the lights around me who brighten my world.

My mother has always talked candidly about death, dying, and the afterlife. A few years ago, she called and told me matter-of-factly to prepare for a whole slew of deaths in our family.

“There’s no easy way to say it, so I’m just going to come right out with it,” she said. “We have so many in our family who are either really sick or really old, so be prepared. When they start dying, they’ll drop like flies.”

Mom suggested I keep at least two appropriate funeral dresses in my closet at all times and urged me to make sure my husband’s suit still fit him, which I did. She also said, “You might want to plan and visit with some of your family that you haven’t seen in a few years. You never know—you may not get another opportunity to spend time with them.”

Her words made me sad, but her warning proved to be prophetic. Mom’s always on the mark.

As far as her own death, Mom talks about that, too, even though she has the health and stamina of a woman half her age. For the last several years, she regularly sends me a spreadsheet that itemizes all of her bank accounts and personal business. She’s given me a copy of her will and a key to her safe deposit box. I know exactly where she wants to be buried—beside my father’s body at the cemetery east of Collins, Georgia.

Her main concern is my stepfather, Johnny.

“If I go first, please be there for him,” she has pleaded with me. “He’s going to need a lot of love and care. I know you will help him in every way that you can.”

And I will.

Yes, I’ve seen death, and I understand both its finality and its truth. Like Forrest Gump’s mother said, “Death is just a part of life.” It reminds us of what’s important—that we are only here for a finite number of days, that we should live each day as if it is our last, that we should love one another, that we should show compassion and forgiveness to others, and most of all, that we should never take one moment for granted.

Freelance writer Amber Lanier Nagle has written nonfiction articles for Georgia Magazine, Grit, Mother Earth News, Points North and dozens of other magazines. Her book, Project Keepsake (www.ProjectKeepsake), is a collection of nonfiction stories about keepsakes. She facilitates workshops for writers of all skill levels on topics such as freelance writing, writing family stories, and writing creative nonfiction pieces.

RIP Uncle Edwin

It was the late Sixties, and I was about four years old. My hungry siblings and I sat around my family’s dining room table looking at sacks from Krystal, one of the first fast food restaurants to open in Warner Robins, Georgia. Uncle Edwin sat at the head of the table, unloading the contents and handing boxes of square burgers and long, greasy french fries to each of us.

“We’ll play a game while we eat, okay?” he said. “Let’s see who has the longest french fry.”

Andy, Audrey, and I were intrigued—each of us digging in our boxes to retrieve our longest fries for the competition.
As my little hand held up a french fry toward Uncle Edwin, he held a longer strand of limp, greasy potato next to mine, and said, “Nope. Mine’s longer,” then grabbed the fry from my hand, popped it in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed.

One-by-one, we held up our fries for him to measure, and each time, he snatched them from our grasp and devoured them like the Cookie Monster. He ate almost all of our french fries as we laughed.

It’s a beautiful memory and one of the first I remembered when my mother called to tell me Uncle Edwin had passed away over Memorial Day weekend a few weeks ago. He was 91 and sharp as a tack until the very end.

Uncle Edwin was born in a small, yellow house on the outskirts of Collins in 1924 and grew up on a farm just a few miles from the Ohoopee River during the Great Depression. He was drafted during WWII when he was still a teenager and served in the US Navy as an electrician aboard the USS Wesson (DE-184) in the Pacific.

At a family reunion a couple of years ago, Gloria Anderson stands beside Edwin Jarriel while he fries fat back. I'm at his side.

At a family reunion a couple of years ago, Gloria Anderson stands beside Edwin Jarriel while he fries fat back. I’m at his side.

“I was just a young country boy who’d never been out of the South,” he told me one time in his deep voice. “One day, I was on deck, and I could see places in the water that were bright red, and I remembered a passage in Revelations that said the sea would turn to blood at the very end. I got really upset and the cook asked me what was wrong. I told him, ‘It’s the end of the world. The water is turning to blood.’ He laughed and said, ‘Don’t worry, Ed. We’re in the Ring of Fire. That’s just red, hot lava seeping up through cracks in the ocean floor.’”

My uncle’s ship was in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945 when Japan officially surrendered. When he returned home, he fell in love with my Aunt Monteen (Higgs) of Toombs County. They married in 1948 and started a family.

He and my father opened AAA Trailer Hitch and U-Haul in Macon in the mid Sixties. For forty-six years, Uncle Edwin ran the business, talked politics with the customers, and helped install the trailer hitches. In fact, even in his eighties, he scooted under cars and trucks to help.

He was a lifetime member of Pine Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Tattnall County. He loved to garden and eat heaps of Southern foods including greens, biscuits, fried chicken, fried fish, stewed tomatoes, steaming-hot cornbread, and anything and everything Aunt Monteen cooked up in the kitchen. He was happiest with a fishing rod in hand or surrounded by family at reunions as he shared stories while deep frying fat back in a pool of bubbling grease. Oh, how he loved family reunions.

We were all there at his burial. A serviceman played “Taps,” and another serviceman presented a folded American flag to my aunt. My husband and I stood close enough to hear what he said to her.

Edwin Jarriel standing with young siblings Wanda, Leon, and Gloria.

Edwin Jarriel standing with young siblings Wanda, Leon, and Gloria.

“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy, and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

At times when I think about Uncle Edwin’s passing, a wave of heavy sadness crashes into me. I close my eyes and hear the slamming of a screen door and footsteps on a porch. I envision him sitting down at the large farm table in my grandparent’s kitchen surrounded by the others—my grandmother, Ona; Papa Hub, who I’ve only met in my dreams; Archie, Gilbert, Robert, and Leon; and other family members and friends who have died. In my mind’s eye, I watch that kitchen come alive with conversations, laughter, and love—so much love. I smile at the thought of such a reunion, and my sadness dissipates for a little while.

The DOs and DON’Ts of Writing Critique Groups

A small group of writers and I met for the first time last month in the back room of a local restaurant and launched a writing critique group. Writer extraordinaire, Karli Land, is our facilitator.

I’ve participated in a writing critique group before when I was active in the Chattanooga Writers Guild, and so I know one of the best things a writer can do for his or her writing career is to join a good critique group. These groups are not one-size-fits-all, so you may have to try out a few before you find a group that fits.

Our critique group is made up of writers of different skill levels, both published and unpublished, working on projects in different genres. The projects range from a book about Jesus, to a historical fiction book revolving around Huguenots, to a collection of humorous stories, to a book about a little girl who goes to church camp, to a book about a defiant man who can’t stand his job, to a work of science fiction with vampire undertones.CritiqueGroup

Me? I’m trying to advance my first novel, a fictional tale that’s been floating around in my head for several years. Writing fiction doesn’t come natural to me, and so I’m hoping that attending the monthly critique group will help me stay on track and complete a manuscript by the end of the year.

Our mission is simply to help each other. We move page to page through each writer’s work and share thoughts. The writers of our group are voracious readers, and so, it is easy for each of us to read a passage and spot what works, and more importantly, what doesn’t work. The challenge is delivering to other members of the critique group honest, helpful feedback without hurting their tender feelings and crushing their confidence.

Here are a few DOs and DON’Ts from our writing critique group.

  • DO show up.
    Everyone in the group has made a commitment to attend and help one another. Even if you haven’t written a word in a month, show up and help the other members with their projects. Writing critique groups are only as effective as their participation. Everyone wins when all members participate in the process. If you can’t attend a meeting, send an email to all members and offer your critique of their projects by phone or email.
  • DO be kind and respectful—or in other words, DON’T be an ass.
    There is no room for mean, disrespectful comments at the writing critique group sessions. Remember the Golden Rule and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Consider your words. Don’t say, “This part is a mess! It sucks!” Instead, start your remark by saying, “I really love this part, but I have a suggestion about this other part…” And don’t have distracting side conversations during the critique sessions. Give the other members your full attention during their critiques.
  • DO critique the works of the other members.
    Dive deeply into the other members’ projects and really try to offer assistance. You won’t help anyone if your only feedback is, “That was great. Way to go!”
  • DO offer suggestions that help.
    If you tell another writer that something is weak or doesn’t work, propose a fix or solution to the problem.
  • DON’T short change other members.
    Every member of your group is deserving of a thorough critique, even if the meeting is running long. It’s not fair to rush through the last critiques because it’s getting late. One way to address this is to determine in advance, how many minutes to spend on each critique. If five people are sitting around the table, and the meeting is an hour long, everyone can have a 10-minute critique and discussion.
  • DON’T be overly sensitive to criticism.
    Remember, everyone has different opinions about books and movies, and so the members of your group will have different opinions about your writing. The key to success is to consider everyone’s opinion, but in the end, make your own decisions about what to change and what to keep. Don’t let the criticism hurt your feelings. Shake it off and keep writing.
  • DO say thank you.
    Remember to thank everyone at the end of the session and encourage the other members to continue working on their projects and participating in the group. And don’t forget to thank the business or homeowner hosting your writing critique group.

If you have other suggestions and tips, please list them in the comments so that we can all learn.

So Long Shew

I knew the moment I glanced down at my phone and saw Coleen Brooks’ name on my caller ID this morning. I knew.

She was calling to deliver the sad news—that our buddy, Wayne Minshew, had passed away last night after a brief battle with cancer.

Coleen and I visited Wayne a few weeks after he moved his base camp from a local downtown eatery to the living room of his town home. As we sat eating sandwiches we’d purchased from Thurston’s, I shared something very personal with them. “You guys are two of my favorite people,” I said. “Really! I value our friendship more than either of you know.” I felt the need to say it out loud for the universe to hear, because something told me that time was running out.

ColeenWayneThurstons_Filtered2

Coleen Brooks and Wayne Minshew on the sidewalk in front of Thurston’s. We met often and read each other’s writings.

Wayne, Coleen, and I launched a very informal writing critique group a few years ago. They were already friends, and they welcomed me into their inner circle. Being part of their prestigious writing tribe made me feel special. We met about every other month, shared writing projects, and gossiped a bit over lunch.

Wayne always greeted me with a cheery, “Hello, Kiddo,” which is funny because I am fifty—far, far from a kid. But Wayne always made me feel like a young grasshopper—an apprentice listening and learning from the master.

“Well, Kiddo, what are you writing this week?” he would ask me. And we would discuss my assignments and projects.

BookDelivery_ColeenWayne

Coleen Brooks and Wayne Minshew in 2014 at Thurston’s in Calhoun.

He and I shared a love of writing and storytelling. He always encouraged me. In fact, Wayne was one of the first writers to contribute a story to Project Keepsake. He wrote a story about a brick. I loved it from the time he sent it to me. During my dozens of book rejections, he and Coleen encouraged me not to give up. And when the book was finally published, I couldn’t wait to meet with them and hand them their copies. The three of us sat in a booth at Thurston’s, signed each other’s books, and giggled – such a happy memory.

Wayne was always full of stories from his past.

“Have I ever told you the story of when I had to fire Chief Noc-A-Homa?” he remarked one day. I nodded my head from side-to-side, and so he treated me to the story of his terminating the screaming Indian mascot of the Atlanta Braves. I was pleasantly entertained, as always.

Wayne carved an eternal place in baseball’s history by pitching in the minor leagues then working for the Atlanta Constitution for thirteen years as the newspaper’s first beat writer for the Atlanta Braves. He later worked for the Braves for eleven years as their director of public relations and promotions. He also served as the Atlanta correspondent for The Sporting News, a prestigious publication that many referred to as The Bible of Baseball.

Wayne’s soulful, autobiographical narratives from his career glorified the game of baseball and delivered interesting insights into the lives and personalities of many of the boys of summer. He knew all of them.

“I was there that night, you know,” he announced one day. “Everybody knew that Hammerin’ Hank Aaron was going to hit the 715th homer that night. Well, everyone except maybe Hank. I don’t know if he knew it. He was humble. A class act—just a class act.”

Wayne waited to witness history that night so he could write about it. But he told me that the words wouldn’t come that evening. He stared at a blank piece of paper and panicked a bit. He finally typed out something and turned it in. The newspaper placed it on the front page.

WayneMinshew_Young

Young Wayne Minshew – a baseball man through-and-through.

Back then, Wayne formed relationships with everyone connected with baseball, including players of the other teams. At the end of the day, he produced some of the best sports articles in history by observing the game up close and personal and pounding the keys on a portable typewriter with a deadline breathing down his neck.

He was honored a few years ago by being included in a book titled, Keepers of the Game: When the Baseball Beat was the Best Job on the Paper (Dennis D’Agostino). Wayne’s story was chapter nineteen. He was proud to be in that book with other members of an elite sportswriting fraternity including Ross Newhan, Hal McCoy, Murray Chass, Peter Gammons, and Bill Madden.

“Yeah, I knew Ted Turner,” he said to me one day after I inquired. He told me three or four stories from his memory about the eccentric founder of Cable News Network (CNN) and once owner of the Atlanta Braves.

“Ted was such an interesting character.  When Ted first bought the club, he’d call me twice a week at home. I remember one night he called and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m about to watch a movie on TV.’ He said, ‘What movie?’ and I said,  ‘The Longest Yard .’ He said, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to see that one. What channel is it on?’ And I said, ‘Yours.'”

“Ted Turner paid someone to pick up pitcher Pascual Perez and bring him to the ball games after that incident in the early eighties where Perez missed a game start because he got lost on I-285,” he laughed. 

The stories rolled off his tongue.

“I learned my first swear word at the ballpark. The big one,” he told me one time. “I brought it home, and my mom forbade me to go back to the ballpark. I often wonder which direction my life would have taken had I not disobeyed her, because I kept going to the ballpark.”

He often told me about his mother’s last days before Alzheimer’s claimed her life.

“She had not known me for a while, but that last day, my brother and I went to see her together,” he recalled. “She said, ‘There are my two boys.’ That moment was such a gift.”

The man was a repository of golden stories from his golden life.

“Did you see the Braves last night,” I asked him during my last visit just a few days ago at Morning Pointe in Calhoun.

“Yes,” he said and his face lit up. “I don’t think its going to be a great year for them, but that was a great game. They are building a new team this year. You have to do that sometimes. We’ll see.”

And then Wayne and I watched an old black and white Western together and tried to figure out who the beautiful, young actress was the main cowboy was interested in. We still had not figured it out when the nurse brought him his lunch —chicken and dumplings his sister-in-law had made for him.

“Who was your favorite cowboy?” I asked him.

“Of all time?”

“Yeah, out of all the cowboys, who was your all time favorite?”

“Well, that’s a good question. Maybe Gene Autry,” he finally said. “Roy Rogers was just too fancy for me.”

Wayne wasn’t a fancy kind of guy. He was one of us—down-to-earth, authentic, and genuinely sweet. He was Calhoun’s Harper Lee—our local resident writer who everyone in town knew and loved and protected. Our community embraced him until the very end.

His passing hurts. I’ll miss his smile and his kindness and his concern for others. I’ll miss reading his columns and hearing his stories. I’ll miss seeing him at Thurston’s. I’ll miss his phone calls. I’ll miss his calling me “Kiddo.” I’ll miss my friend.

Somehow, Coleen and I will carry on without him. That’s what Wayne would have wanted us to do—continue writing, meeting, reading each other’s work, laughing, gossiping, and loving one another.

I’ll close with a joke Wayne would have appreciated.

Two old men had been best friends for years, and they both lived to their early nineties, when one of them suddenly fell deathly ill. His friend came to visit him on his deathbed, and they reminisced about their long friendship. The friend said, “Listen, when you die, do me a favor. I want to know if there’s baseball in heaven.”

The dying man responded, “We’ve been friends for a lifetime, so yes, I’ll do this for you.” And then he died.

A few days later, the surviving friend was sleeping and he heard his friend’s ghostly voice.

“I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” the friend’s voice said. “The good news is: there’s baseball in heaven.”

“What’s the bad news?” the living friend asked.

“You’re pitching on Wednesday.”

Wayne, I know you’ll pitch a no-hitter, my friend. Love to you always!

Contemplating Writing Contests

I’ve published hundreds of nonfiction articles in magazines, newspapers, and online publications, and I’ve published a paperback book (Project Keepsake) and two eBooks, but I’ve only won one writing contest during my writing career. Just one! Then again, I haven’t entered very many.

Snoopy2Entering a writing competition can be time-consuming and sometimes rather expensive if there is a reading fee associated with the contest. But there are a lot of great reasons to enter a writing contest. If you are thinking about entering a contest, here are a few reasons to complete that submission form and cross your fingers.

  • Winning a writing contest or award can draw attention to your name and your writing projects and instantly propel your writing career.
  • Some writing contests offer cash prizes to the top winners, and that’s really nice.
  • Some writing contests publish the winning entries in magazines, websites, or blogs. Publication translates into exposure. You never know who will see your story—publishing executives, magazine editors, literary agents, famous authors, etc.
  • Winning helps your writing resume and gives you credibility and experience.
  • Winning can give you a much-needed published writing clip to help you market your skills as a writer.
  • Entering writing contests can help you feel like a “real” writer.
  • Winning a writing contest can give you confidence and motivate you to write more.
  • Entering a writing contest can be a great exercise. It can give you a purpose and a deadline to work toward. Some writers need that creative push from time to time.
  • Entering can be fun. Much like fishing, there’s a bit of a thrill involved. You cast your line out (send in your contest submission) and hope a fish swims by and bites your worm (the judges find your submission worthy of a top prize).

Still interested but don’t know where to look for contests to enter? Try looking at the Writer’s Market. Each year, the Writer’s Market categorizes dozens of contests and lists the entry details. You can also look on Twitter using the hashtag #writingcontests. I always see a few opportunities there. Finally, network with other writers and ask them if they know of any contests that may fit your work.

Finally, if you are a nonfiction writer and a keeper of keepsakes, you may want to consider my 2014 Project Keepsake Story Contest. The deadline is Monday, November 21, 2014. First prize is rather modest—a $25 MasterCard gift card + a copy of Project Keepsake + a blog spotlight, but there is no fee to enter and entering is pretty easy (fill out an online form, paste a short story about a keepsake, upload a photo of the keepsake, and hit a “submit” button). For more information, click over to the Project Keepsake site.

If you have more to add about the benefits of entering writing contests or you know of another contest, please leave a comment. Thanks! And happy writing!

“Gone Fishin'”

“Writing is therapeutic,” I often tell aspiring writers who attend my workshops. “Getting your thoughts on paper will help you sort things out and move through loss, illness, and sadness.” I’ve had something on my mind all week—something heavy that wouldn’t go away. I finally took my own advice and wrote about it. Enjoy!


GONE FISHIN’

by

Amber Lanier Nagle

I woke to a nearly perfect October morning. The air was fresh, clear, and a bit crisp, and the golden sunlight danced and flickered through the changing leaves.

I pulled on my padded cycling shorts and a neon, dry-fit jersey, filled a water bottle, and walked my bicycle down our gravel drive to the paved road. Bike riding during the autumn is a spiritual endeavor for me, equal to sitting in a grand European cathedral or watching the sun sink beyond the horizon at the end of the day.

Alone with my thoughts, I pedaled along country roads lined with flashy goldenrod, deep purple ironweed, and scarlet shoots of Indian paintbrush. Eight miles into my ride, I pedaled beside a small lake fringed with velvety cattails and cooters sunning on wet, exposed branches. And that’s when it happened—I inhaled a memory. As that swampy, organic perfume entered my body, I was suddenly transported back in time.

FishingI was in the boat with Daddy, maneuvering to his favorite spots on a pond in Bolingbroke, Georgia—our vessel brimming with rods, a tackle box, a styrofoam container filled with sticky red wigglers, a wooden paddle, and a small cooler containing saran-wrapped fried egg sandwiches and bright red cans of Coca Cola.

He sat on a floatation cushion at the back of the boat controlling a trolling motor with one arm, his eyes fixed on the watery expanse. He wore a pair of black Reeboks which he referred to as hot boxes, and a ball cap—he always wore a cap to protect the top of his slick head and shade his pale blue eyes.

“Cast your line over there,” he whispered, pointing to a mass of vegetation growing along the shore. “Try to get it about five feet from those bushes.”

Fishing was not my forte, but it was almost instinctual for my father. He had to guide me and walk me through every motion.

I clumsily slung my line—my worm hanging on for dear life then hitting the water with the plop of a fat platform diver. I envisioned the hook and worm sinking slowly through the murky depths before coming to rest just above the slimy underwater floor.

I stared at the white and red plastic bobber and anticipated any jiggle or movement indicating that a fish was teasing my bait. A few minutes passed. Nothing. I tugged on my line a bit.

“No, no, just leave it there,” he said. “Be patient.”

We sat perfectly still in the boat, drifting ever so slightly. We were as motionless as statues—watching, waiting. We merged with the natural world.

My father was known for his quiet nature and his incessant desire for solitude. His patience was boundless during our fishing excursions. He seemed perfectly at peace with the world when he was near the water. At his core, he was a fisherman, as were his father, his grandfather, and generations of Lanier men before him.

Minutes passed—my eyes still glued upon the still bobber.

“Okay, just keep yours there,” he said softly. He lifted his rod and with a smooth, fluid whipping motion, he cast his worm six or seven feet from where my bobber floated. He made a few adjustments before resting his rod between his legs to light a cigarette. He took a deliberate, satisfying draw and picked up the rod.

Plomp. Plomp.

His bobber dipped then vanished beneath the glistening surface.

Daddy’s body jolted to action. His left hand clutched the rod’s handle as his right hand cranked the reel—the clear fishing line tightening then moving toward the boat’s edge.

“Woo, Boy,” he said. “He’s a strong one.”

Like a crane operator, Daddy lifted the fish—wiggling and writhing—from the water and laid him in the floor of the boat near his feet. The incandescent scales shimmered as the fish flipped and flopped. Being careful not to let the fish pierce his palm, he grabbed him with one hand and twisted and yanked the hook from the fish’s mouth with his other.

He looked at me and grinned—his cigarette dangling from his lips. It was the story of my life. My father could catch a fish with a bare hook if he put his mind to it. He had the gift. I did not.

I spent a childhood fishing with Daddy in boats and on the banks of ponds, lakes, and streams. The activity bound us together, especially after my older brother left home and I became somewhat of a surrogate son. I refused to hunt with him as my brother had, but I willingly fished with him.

After our trips, we stood side-by-side scaling and gutting our catch with paring knives. I scrutinized the guts and identified the tiny organs as if I was a surgeon. It was Biology 101. It was life.

I remember the smell of the fishy pond water mixed with the fragrance of smoke from Daddy’s Winston. I remember the silent hum of the motor and the rocking motion of the boat as we repositioned our bodies in that boat from time to time. I remember the taste of those fried egg sandwiches slathered with a layer of creamy Miracle Whip dressing and sprinkled with salt and pepper granules.

And that was the unexpected memory that came crashing into me last week as I pedaled past Nelson Lake in the perfect light of a late fall morning.

I turned my bike around and rode past the lake again, slowing to smell the familiar smells. Then again. Then again. I engulfed myself in the aroma, trying to recapture all that was lost twenty-two years ago when my father died suddenly. His leathery face, his personality, his essence—I felt him with me that day as I navigated my bicycle by the water.

I think I’ve gone fishing three times since 1992. The activity lost much of its appeal after my father passed away.

Today would have been his eighty-first birthday. I close my eyes and try to imagine what he would have looked like had he been allowed to age two more decades. I think about him sitting in a recliner watching college football. I see him hoeing in a large fall garden full of collards and turnips. I see him dressed in camouflage—loading his guns in his truck and heading out to the hunting club for the weekend. I hear him whistling. I imagine him holding my nephew’s children. Most of all, I see him fishing—floating, drifting, and waiting ever so patiently for the next big fish to bite.


Amber Lanier Nagle has published hundreds of articles in national and regional magazines including Grit, Mother Earth News, and Georgia Magazine. She is the brainchild behind Project Keepsake (www.ProjectKeepsake.com), a published collection of nonfiction stories about the origins and histories of keepsakes—a pocket knife, a cake pan, a quilt, a milking stool, etc. She says, “Everyone has a keepsake, and every keepsake has a story to tell.” She’s also published two eBooks and facilitates writing workshops on freelance writing and writing family stories.

Day 7—The Welsh Harp

In an effort to help my writer friends promote their books, I launched Seven Book Reviews in Seven Days.

I met Merrill Davies at a book signing event at Barnes & Noble in Rome a few months ago. The following week, she and her husband sold books next to me at the inaugural meeting of the Calhoun Area Writers group at the Harris Arts Center in Calhoun. Merrill and I traded books that day. She left with a signed copy of Project Keepsake, and I went home with my own copy of The Welsh Harp.

WelshHarpThe book is a coming-of-age novel for young adults set in the early 1900’s. Her story begins in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales, where young Gwen Thomas and her family prepare to move to Eastern Kentucky to reunite with Gwen’s father. Gwen uses her savings to ship her grandfather’s harp to America.

She dreams of learning to play the harp as eloquently as her grandfather, but she’s forced to postpone her dreams to deal with life events in the harsh coal mining community—a hostile school environment, her mother’s severe depression after a tragic event, a flood, etc. Through the trying times, Gwen demonstrates a blossoming strength and maturity as she navigates obstacles and thinks through her problems and situations.

In this excerpt, Gwen is talking to her brother, Simon.

…”Of course you know I want so badly to study the harp. I don’t know if they even teach the harp. Then there’s Mother. Do you know what she said? She said that maybe I should just stay home this fall. Simon, I won’t do it! But the problem is, I don’t know what I want to do.”

“Have you ever though of studying some other instrument, the piano maybe?”

“Not really,” said Gwen. “The harp is a kind of symbol to me. It stand for our country, our people, our kind of music.”

“I guess so,” said Simon. “But sometimes you have to give up your personal dreams because they don’t fit at the time. You have to keep making progress, even if at times it seems you’re going in the wrong direction. You can’t just sit and wait for the perfect set of circumstances.” —Merrill J. Davies from The Welsh Harp (page 112)

Another interesting element to the novel is that Davies drew upon a handwritten family memoir (her husband’s Aunt Ellen Davies’ journal) to describe the Thomas family’s voyage across the Atlantic and arrival at Ellis Island. She was inspired by the history and story.

The Welsh Harp is a great story of determination and perseverance for young readers.

The Welsh Harp
Author: Merrill J. Davies
ISBN:  978-1478186977
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Price: $10.80 (Paperback)
Buy it HERE.

Day 6—A Southern Place

In an effort to help other writers promote their books, I launched Seven Book Reviews in Seven Days. Today, I celebrate another book by a writer with a Calhoun, Georgia connection. Elaine Drennon Little is the author of A Southern Place.SouthernPlace

Last spring, I saw a copy of A Southern Place sitting on a counter in Wanda Dills’ lovely gift shop (A Gift of Season) in downtown Calhoun. As I plucked it from the counter, Sherry said, “A local author wrote that one. It’s good!”

I replied, “Hmm. I don’t know Elaine Little. I know a lot of writers from this area, but I’ve never met her.”

The cover art took me back to my roots in the flatlands of Georgia—south of the state’s fall line where hills and valleys are not plentiful and fields are a deep, verdant green. The back text teased me, but I put the book down remembering the dozens of unread books I had at home.

Two days later, Elaine and I connected via the magic of Facebook. A few days later, she sent me A Southern Place, and I wrapped and taped a copy of Project Keepsake and sent it to her.

Little hooked me from the first page. The book starts in 1989 as a beaten, broken young woman (Mary Jane “Mojo” Hatcher) fights for her life in the ICU of Phoebe Putney Hospital in South Georgia. Sheriff Wally Purvis tries to question her, but she codes before she can push any details out. What happened to her? Where’s her family? Will she survive?

The story then moves back in time to 1958 and uncovers the backstories of Mojo’s mother (Delores) and Uncle Calvin. Here’s an excerpt from the third chapter, as the reader is introduced to Delores.

She was outside under the smoking tree, on break from her job at the Nolan Manufacturing Company, a sweatshop that produced ladies’ panties from size 4 to size 44+. One Pattern. All cotton. In white, pastels, and various floral some big-wig found for next-to-nothing at going-out-of-business warehouses.  —Elaine Drennon Little


Mojo meets Danny Hatcher in Chapter 17. Here’s a part of her narrative:

I paid him no never mind, not at first, I didn’t, and I meant not to at all, but after I talked to him, well, things changed. People aren’t always as bad as you think they’re gonna be, you have to at least give them a chance, before you make a decision about them. My mama didn’t trust nobody, ‘specially men, though she must’ve trusted on at least one or I wouldn’t be here. —Elaine Drennon Little

The rest of the book chronicles Mojo’s journey and the events leading to her unfortunate trip to the ICU.

A Southern Place is not a happy, feel-good story. Instead, the book is about enduring. Surviving. Inner strength. Moving on. It’s a real story that maps a life’s trajectory—the sadness, pain, and misfortune that accompany so many lives throughout the South, and beyond. Little weaves alcohol abuse, the plight of the working class, poverty, pregnancy, and domestic violence into her book with panache. Her story is about real people living real lives, and I loved it!

A Southern Place
Author: Elaine Drennon Little
ISBN: 978-1-937178-39-0
Genre: Southern/Fiction
Price: ~$16 Paperback
Buy it HERE.

Day 5—Miss Dimple Picks a Peck of Trouble

In an effort to help my writer friends promote their books, I launched Seven Book Reviews in Seven Days. Today, I celebrate Calhoun’s magnificent mystery writer, Mignon Ballard, and her novel, Miss Dimple Picks a Peck of Trouble.

Mignon is a natural-born storyteller, which doesn’t surprise anyone who knows even a little bit about her background.  MissDimple

“We were creepy children with large imaginations,” she told me during an interview last year.  “Some nights, we walked up to Fain Cemetery, sat outside the Pitts family mausoleum, and told ghost stories or pretended to have a funeral with all the characters—the widow, the preacher, the mourners, and of course—the corpse.”

Mignon has written lots of interesting books during her writing career, but she’s also passionate about helping other writers. Last Saturday, Mignon invited a small group of writers ( I was included) to her house for sandwiches, melt-in-your-mouth Chocolate Chess pie, and fellowship. She said, “Ask me anything about my books and publishing—anything!” And we did, and Mignon answered all of our questions with great candor and humor. She’s a jewel, and we love her.

Mignon’s latest book was released just before my publisher released my book, Project Keepsake. I attended her book signing at the Harris Arts Center and bought a signed copy. Miss Dimple has been at it again.

“Did you hear that? Dimple Kilpatrick added another couple of peaches to the basket on the ground and paused to listen.

“Hear what?” Charlie Carr, her fellow teacher and former pupil, stood on a ladder almost concealed by the leaves of the tree.

Dimple frowned. “It sounded like someone screaming.”

Set in Elderberry, Georgia during WWII, beloved first-grade teacher Miss Dimple Kilpatrick hears a scream as she picks peaches at an orchard. She rushes to the peach shed to see if she can help the person in distress, but no one is there.

She soon learns that 18-year-old Prentice Blair, who was working alone at the shed, has disappeared. Blair’s lifeless body is later found at a location where she and her boyfriend, Clay Jarrett frequently had romantic rendezvous. Jarrett becomes the prime suspect, but did he do it?

From page 179, as Miss Dimple speaks to the suspect’s mother: “I assume it’s because the evidence—what there is of it—points to Clay. And there’s nobody else in the picture—at least right now. But I told you in the beginning I would help find out the truth, and I will.”

Miss Dimple and a band of school teachers investigate the homicide and unravel the mystery.

Like the other Miss Dimple mysteries, Miss Dimple Picks a Peck of Trouble is a fun, delightful read fusing a cast of quirky characters, a murder mystery, and life in a rural American town during wartime.

Miss Dimple Picks a Peck of Trouble
Author: Mignon Ballard
Genre: Mystery Fiction
Price: $18.29 Hardcover $10.67 Kindle
Buy a copy HERE.