On the Road to Xuan Loc

Now and again, one should be offering excerpts from their published works.

Waiting for Westmoreland is a memoir that describes how Vietnam became an essential path to my enlightenment–and true happiness.

The excerpt below doesn’t really speak to that theme, but it provides a historical perspective on the time and place. It also illustrates the corruption and loss of innocence a 20th century Candide experienced in that war.

It’s all true, so far as I recall the episodes. For more on what the book is really about, click this link. There you will also find how to get the tenth anniversary edition (2017) of the book in paperback or digital (Kindle, iTunes, eBook–from various sources).

It was crazy, volunteering to ride shotgun on a 5-ton truck hauling a load of 105-mm howitzer shells. Sure, the trucks ran with the windshield down and no top so you could scramble out faster if the truck caught a round from the VC—but how likely is it that you could get far enough away, if at all, if the ammo got hit? But when you’re 20 years old and bored, what the hell. Besides, sex and drugs (if not rock and roll) was readily available in Xuan Loc. Unlike the guys fighting in Iraq 35-40 years later, nobody was complaining about a lack of armor for the vehicles; we were all too crazy to care. Many guys didn’t bother to wear the heavy and hot flak vests (very inferior to those in use today), of which there weren’t always enough to go around anyway.

For the guys from Service Battery, driving the trucks hauling ammo was part of their regular duties, which may have explained why they were so wild. They always ran a jeep escort in front of the ammo truck, providing a couple extra guns in case of problems. On one run to Xuan Loc, I watched the driver and passenger in the jeep passing a pint of whisky back and forth. As I said before, the guys in the Service Battery were mostly boozers, not dopers. The driver of the ammo truck squawked on the radio that he wanted a swig. So the jeep driver slowed down, closing to within 15 feet of the truck. Then his passenger flipped the bottle up in the air and back over the jeep, where it hung briefly in mid-air—allowing the ammo truck driver to move the truck under it. He caught it with one hand. It would have made a great slo-mo in some movie.

After dropping the ammo to C battery, we stopped in town for short-times and dope. Marijuana could be had at low prices (even at a private’s low wages) in 1967 Vietnam. Five dollars scored a bag of dope the size of those pre-shredded salads now sold in the produce section at the supermarket. Or you could pay two dollars for 20 joints repackaged in a regular cigarette pack. I don’t know why, but they were always Paxtons. The original menthol cigarettes came in a crush proof pack. It was difficult, nearly impossible, to tell a pack of 20 joints from a pack of regular cigarettes. Somebody had to have carefully unsealed the cellophane at the bottom, pulled out the pack and removed the 20 cigarettes. Then they had to have gently massaged out the tobacco below the filter tips, before restuffing the former cigarettes with marijuana and twisting the ends shut. Then all 20 joints were put back in the pack, the top foil replaced, the pack slid back into the cellophane and the cellophane resealed. It must have taken a great deal of patience to be so meticulous. Why did they go to the trouble? I don’t know who did the work, the kids who sold the packs, saying, “You buy pot, GI?”—or someone older, but it was always quality work.

 

Odd Dream at Dawn

Woke too early, 4:30 am. Took a couple of Ibuprofen for achy hands. It helps me sleep, whether in pain or not. Awake again at 6:40, late for me; the sun usually gets me up as morning light comes in the east bedroom window. That would have been some minutes before six. What woke me up later? No noise. No bathroom call. Just a scene from the technicolor movie playing in my REM sleep.

I should start from the beginning. An old house, from more than six or seven decades ago. Much larger than the one we live in now, the one built high atop a hill eleven years ago. A recurring theme in my only occasionally recalled dreams—a house different than our dream house. Hah, ironic that—our dream house. That home was more thoughtful; analytically conceived on a desktop computer app.

No, this one was neither one we could have wished for nor a nightmare. Just odd. I found myself in a room with a pocket door—much like what we do have in our real dream home. But it also had a sliding curtain that covered the door frame from within. Heavy fabric, a dark and dreary deep red. A man sat on a gaudy sofa, adjusting a lamp, better to read with, he said, apologizing for the redirection.

A stranger came through the open pocket door, pushing the curtain aside. He matched a tall statue or image on the wall across the room. Maybe fifty years old, graying, bearded and wearing coveralls. Said he needed to get on the train for work. He opened a gate to an elevator of sorts. But the elevator seemed to be a part of a tiny train. He boarded and it descended ten feet to a track, where it moved off with him and a few other passengers that were already inside. A small, aging car of drab steel, apparently more a pod sort of compartment rather than a part of an inner-city or suburban rail system.

Another guy walked in, unannounced, taking measurements and photos. Who are you I asked. He replied he was there preparing for the listing. Quite a steal he said, buyers were ready to make this their own. Not for sale, I said. How did you get in, I asked. Well, the door was open, he replied.

Then came a steady stream of people, not all together. But all for the same purpose—looking at the house that they thought had come on the market. Soon enough, another agent followed, with questions about the house. I explained we had lived there ten years and had no intention of selling. Which made no sense, since it really wasn’t our current one to look at it.

Finally, a black and white squad car with red lights flashing atop the roof arrived out front. Not sensible either, since our local authorities didn’t drive such vehicles. They let two dogs out of the vehicle, who ran as if to come inside. Oh no, I thought, they’ll get engaged with my dog Max and trouble will ensue! Six-forty and I woke up, with the memories of this strange dream. Which, of course, is the only way dream details are recalled—waking from them.

© John Maberry

Quail Shuffle the Deck

Life in the Southwest. We live among the denizens who make sounds city folks, as we once were, don’t hear. A creative nonfiction. Yet it could as easily be part of a scene or setting in a bit of fiction in the right story.

The quail broke from their brushy cover in a flutter of wings—a card shuffling sound, at the four-legged’s approach. Max wanted to pursue them. At each foot fall, they flew 30 more yards in another riffle of the deck. There is always more for him to discover. He pauses, thoroughly sniffing each cluster of scat from this critter or that, despite investigating the same piles from days before. Perhaps he forgot or he is reliving the adventure, secure in his identification of the crapping culprit.

Entering a Trance

This snippet stems from long ago. A recollection as a process for trance self-induction. College, so many years ago. Now, it looks useable as a starting paragraph of a story–short or part of a longer piece. 

Steps receding down, far into the distance. In the dimming light he saw no end to the path. He knew where it led, despite the failure of vision. Into the place where conscious and subconscious were separated by only a thin veil. There he found quiet away from the sounds, smells and distracting sensations that crowded his mind, keeping him unaware.  Here it took no word association to retrieve the memories he needed. He could direct the search.

Blue Weeds

Some like prompts. Others don’t. You could use this title as one.

This came into mind looking at the pale blue wall in front of me. Then the weeds. I will admit I had need of some inspiration on something–anything, to write. This is a short snippet that I might find a use for in a fantasy/SF piece someday. I’m not a poet but some might consider this free verse.

Blue weeds flow in a faint breeze, arousing Art Nouveau memories. Sinuous, undulating images appear on mental murals. A vision of beauty fades. Melancholy moods return, days spent pursuing indigo hues. Forbidden palettes, love lost during the color wars. No, he would not go there again. She was gone forever. He could paint her no more, lounging within a garden of earthly delights far beyond Hieronymus Bosch. Too much sorrow. The oils weren’t made anymore, not in those tones anywayby decree.

Pickup Hockey–Outdoors

He might have been an NHL star, growing up in Minnesota as he did. But he lived in Minneapolis, not the Iron Range or International Falls, where the stars came from. They had a few more weeks of outdoor ice each winter near the Canadian border. Then too, the kids that grew up to be hockey stars were on skates in pre-school, peewee leagues in elementary school and junior leagues as they entered junior high.

He never had those early experiences, with a father suffering from the cancer that took his life shortly after the son’s seventh birthday. The next few years were not spent in athletic pursuits. Not until he and his mother returned to Minnesota when he was 13, after two years in Arizona after she lost the house to foreclosure, did he begin skating.

Each winter the parks department put up boards and the fire department’s hoses filled the enclosure with water that soon formed an icy rink. He stayed out on the ice for hours, in 20-degree weather, warmed by exertion. Not a great skater, he preferred staying in the goal. The parks didn’t supply goalie gear for the pickup games he played. He asked that fellow players not raise the puck above the knees since he had neither chest protection nor a mask. He did have a first-basemen’s baseball glove and a goalie stick.

He made do with regular shin guards that were usually enough against the younger players. There came a time when one did raise the puck high, hitting the frame of the glasses that covered his face. The impact took a chip from the frame, but didn’t hit the lens, fortunately for his sight in that eye.

Derek Is Back In Time

He is still far away in print but I must revisit his future stories–they offer a respite in trying compositions of other storylines. This is a revision of I Think, Therefore I when, seen here before. This post will be included under that title in the upcoming collection that we hope intend to have out this summer.

The first incident happened like this.

An old mix tape played through his earbuds. He didn’t know the song was on it. It took him back to that day when she told him it was over. She’d had enough, she said, and played Voices Carry to illustrate why. He wasn’t that guy anymore, he hoped. A sudden gust tossed unbound hair in his face. He tied it back before moving on and looked up in shock.

“What the hell!” Derek said. He wasn’t recalling the event with Susan anymore—she was there in front of him, physically, in their apartment. With Aimee Mann’s voice resounding as loudly as her own.

“No! No! This can’t be happening, again” he said, pulling out an earbud. “We’ve been through this before!

“Yes and that’s why I’m leaving. I’ve had enough, Derek—it’s over! I’ll come back for my stuff in a couple days,” she said, slamming the door behind her, drawing air through the open windows.

The breeze brought Derek back to the present, stumbling along the sidewalk barely missing a woman passerby.

That was then; this is now. A memory and nothing more. That couldn’t have happened. She wasn’t really there. Maybe that green chile cheeseburger overpowered me. Maybe I’ve been working too hard. I’m not a jerk now—why this reminder of the past?

After a few days of worry and bewilderment, he put the strange incident aside. An episode of the Twilight Zone—perhaps one he’d watched in syndication. Then it happened again, six weeks later—not the past this time, but the future.

A book signing at the Barnes & Noble in Las Cruces. Derek lived on the edge of Silver City. Close enough, the events manager said. With three weeks to go, Derek had 30 copies of The Onions Down Below for sale. He’d be lucky to sell 15, other writers said.

He tossed and turned that night, worrying had he done enough social media and networking. Dawn’s light eased through the honeycomb shades. He gave up on sleep, hoping a sunrise walk would brighten his mood. A curved-bill thrasher called to him as he set out. He looked up and felt  a breeze across his face. That’s when he found himself sipping a Mocha Grande at the B&N café in Cruces.

“It’s complimentary for authors at their signings,” the events manager said.

“Thanks! I need the caffeine.”

“Oh, don’t worry—we’ve had 20 people in here for the event already, and it’s still half an hour away!”

Derek kept hearing the thrasher’s song, while sitting at the table, talking about the setup. Am I disassociating? How can I be here—this is three weeks from now, and still be hearing a bird on a walk in Silver City?  How can I be talking with this woman and be thinking about this?

The signing went well—extraordinarily well, if the visit to the future held true. It did. All 30 copies sold and orders were placed for ten more. Derek finished his morning stroll, smiling at the birds and the rabbit who crossed his path. He decided to bring 15 more copies of his book to the signing. He did more promo and sold all 45 books.

. . . .

Time switching directions, moment to moment, like the wind in Mimbres Valley. A wind blowing from the west and then the north or south and back again. Time carrying him toward tomorrow when he’ll be doing this or doing that. The next moment the wind of time reverses, carrying him back to yesterday or yesteryear. Perhaps to travel a path not taken.

Growth is measured by straying from the comfort zone–into untried and unknown. Unknown could be scary to some, especially in scary stories. Stories of unexpected events or visitors that appear in otherwise comfortable places. Places one frequents without incident until that time. Time should be a well known thing, a thing that behaves itself by moving in only one direction from past, through present, to future–never alternating. Alternating currents of time–what would, what could he do with that?

Derek faced this unknown alternating current of time, unprepared for its effects. Disorienting. Frightening. It took a long time—HA, for him to find it exhilarating. To fully appreciate the opportunity. First to make the most of each moment. Then to actually bend his brain to control the current–a capacity he’d never known might exist. No time traveling machine a la H.G. Wells–no, Derek mastered time itself. A mastery not without consequence.

 

Mele Kalikamaka

Well, this hasn’t been a spectacular year for writing and publishing here. Let’s get 2022 off to a good start with this preview of an eventual Buddhist fiction series. Huh–Buddhist fiction? Hey, Christian fiction is a big genre, let’s fill the gap for Buddhists, neh? [May be a while coming, but there are lots of drafts and notes filed away]. 

Try this on for holiday fun!

Mele Kalikamaka

The weather forecast nailed it this time. A Nor’easter. A foot had fallen by nightfall, covering trees and shrubs in a heavy white blanket. Retired, Phil had no reason to venture out. Kelly had stocked up on supplies ahead of time. The generator would kick in if power went out in their home far off the beaten path.

They had their usual light dinner, half a sandwich with some chips and apple slices. In honor of the snow, they added a glass of merlot. Went well enough with the news. Political news that could otherwise be good—the bad guy lost, though he didn’t believe it. Painful for him; more so for the rest of us.

“More news or Blu-ray?” she asked.

“I’ve had enough of the real pain,” Phil sighed, “let’s watch the faux pain, the Murray family Scrooged. No need for White Christmas—we got our snow already.”

“Yes, we watched Crosby and Clooney last year anyway, dear. Let’s do Scrooged and laugh at Bill Murray getting scared, slugged, and coming round in the end.”

“Sounds good to me, Kelly,” Phil nodded, chuckling.

Halfway through the movie, they paused for sips of bourbon-laced eggnog and a few pfeffernusse. Just the thing for a holiday snow. It helped them along for bedtime. Forget the snow, Phil thought to himself. So he did—in a way.

Phil woke up disoriented. Well, he thought he did, in an unfamiliar bed. He left Kelly sleeping as he found his way to a strange bathroom. As he walked toward a kitchen a few more feet down the hall, he remembered. It’s cousin Bob’s place in Hilo. He’d visited once, while on a scuba trip. Bob wasn’t to be found, but the coffee maker was. I need some coffee and I need it now, Phil thought.

He took the coffee out a sliding back door into the lush garden of a backyard. “This is way better than snow!” he said out loud, emptying the cup. He rinsed it out and left it in the sink, on his way to a knock at the front door.

“Uh, can I help you? Phil asked of the stranger.

“Hey Phil, how the hell are you?” the blue-eyed café au lait man said.

“Do I know you?”

“Sgt. Cox—Bearcat, Vietnam. I left six months before you did.”

“That was fifty years ago—fifty-three years ago! What are you doing here in Hawaii? What am I doing here? I don’t even live here!” A puzzled Phil shook his head. Soon, the shaking spread to his limbs—his whole body. “And why don’t you look 50 years older?”

“Hey man, relax. Just here to visit you. Give you some tips before the end, one way or another.”

“The end—you mean my death? I’m healthy; take of myself,” Phil slumped into an uncomfortable papasan chair—the kind he hated.

“No, nothing like that. Just a little karmic tune-up. I was a Buddhist just like you are.”

“Was?”

“Oh yeah, got mistaken for some other brother on a street in New Jersey—twenty some years ago. Guy that held up a convenience store. There’s systemic racism and there’s karma,” Cox did a little bow, Asian style.

“Sorry to hear that. But why are you here? We barely knew one another.”

“Exactly. You wouldn’t want someone close to you, visiting from the grave or the urn. Too much emotion.”

“Uh, yeah. I guess.”

“So, here’s the deal. You just watched Scrooged. You know about ghosts past, present and future. No strangers in this dream. Past, but no future. You got one more past visitor and then some folks from the present. Like people you have encountered at a doctor’s office, store or wherever.”

“Ah, a dream. Took me long enough to figure that out. Thought I’d smoked some of that weed that’s sold today. Those joints in the hard pack Paxtons in Nam were strong but what’s around now is too much for me.”

“You don’t need it anyway, right?”

“No, not really. I gave it up 40 years but tried it a couple times last year. So, what’s next with this dream cycle?”

“Let’s go visit West. Just a short trip down the street—more or less.”

“West? The surfer that always talked about grabbing a beer from the turtle hull?”

“His surfing days are gone now. He runs a shop south of San Diego, does board waxing and stuff. He gave up the booze after he got married to the woman of his dreams—dreams that he didn’t know he had.”

“How do we get to California?”

“No worries—this is a dream. Just think of the blue Pacific and a new you. Oh, and borrow that bird of paradise from the garden out back. I’ll whisk you right there.”

Phil woke up for real before arriving in Southern California. What a dream! Must tell Kelly about this one. But it would have to wait. She still had the covers up to her chin against the cold. Fifteen minutes before the furnace kicked in per the thermostat settings.

Phil headed to the glassed-in back porch to check the snowfall, coffee cup in hand from the auto brewer. Whoa—another foot! He almost yelled aloud before recalling the sleeping Kelly. Need a little rum in this coffee and a hot roll before I do the sutra reading. Phil thought to himself. He watched the winter birds attacking the feeder as he downed his own continental breakfast. Just a little more coffee—and some rum, to warm the innards, he thought.

With a short night’s sleep and rummy coffee, Phil nodded off to find Cox wagging a finger at him. “Look, Phil, let’s skip West. You need to get serious here. Let me reintroduce you to Fred, the imaging guy at the hospital. He can tune you up better than West or I could anyway.”

Phil sat up straight. Looking around, he saw no snow and no birds. Just a green walled room with a huge machine filling most of the space and an aging gray-haired guy in scrubs.

“Hey, Phil—remember me? I did a nuclear imaging test on you last year. And a few other tests over the past three years.”

“Uh yeah, sure. The guy that talks my ear off every time I come in here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all entertaining and keeps me from being nervous.”

“No problem, Phil. It’s all good. So are you, for that matter. Still not seeing any problems on all those tests.”

“Well, that IS the problem. My primary doctor still isn’t finding anything to account for the mental—and sometimes physical fatigue. Blood tests, scans, nothing.”

“That’s right Phil. You know what that means you need to do—change it yourself. We’re talking karma. No Ebenezer Scrooge moments for you. It’s time for human revolution. Snap out of it, my friend.”

“Well, you got a point there, Fred.” In a blink, Fred faded away.

“Phil, what are you doing out here in porch, napping?” Kelly squeezed his shoulder as she gave him a kiss. It’s a sunny new day. Wake up and smell the coffee—but better skip the rum. I can smell it on your breath. No way to start the morning, honey.”

“I had a very strange dream. Given the encounters, probably right about the morning start. No alcohol before sutra is what Cox would tell me, I’m sure.”

“Who is Cox?”

“Uh, well—a Sergeant I knew for six months in Vietnam long ago. A ghost now—in the dream offering encouragement in the practice, OK, guidance to be clear.”

“Seriously? Quite a dream, Phil!”

“Oh yes. I’ll tell you all about it after we do the sutra. You get things set up and we can get to it in a few minutes after I get another shot of caffeine to clear my head.”

WATWB for November 2021

We Are the World Blogfest

Yes, this is supposed to be good news to take our minds off the bad. This is mostly true–neither good nor bad but with a tiny bit of fictional speculation that has a bit of good within. 

We followed the truck for miles, from Hatch along NM-26 to NM-27. Every hundred yards or so we’d see a red chile in the road. Hatch, New Mexico is the chile capital of the world. Some loose pods in the back, blowing from the uncovered load we supposed. The distributor’s loss. Gains for the ravens or crows—or spicy sustenance for a hungry lizard. No pain for them, unlike non-human mammals. Many folks like the burn.

Red or green? That’s what the order taker asks. A New Mexico thing–green chile cheeseburgers a menu staple. Chile relleno with the whole pod. Onions the size of Florida oranges, the giant ones. Ristras hang from porches—decorative on some, awaiting grinding into powder on others.

Barrels outside grocery stores roast the peppers each fall. Roadside vendors sell burlap bags filled with the red heat, cooked cooking as is for one dish or another. Chili—con carne for me, rather than the peppers. Still up for Kung Pao or General Tso’s Chicken—not much demand in the Southwest for those. Not quite an acclimated New Mexican foodie—yet.

Those unspoken observations ran through my mind on the trip enroute to Silver City. Then I saw the Mexican Jay. Just like the ones at home. Were they picky or kindly—knocking seed off our feeder? The other birds and the chipmunks scarf it up off the wall below. The chiles weren’t blown off, the jay was tossing them from the truck. Generous jay or?

WATWB for October 2021–Bojo, Istanbul’s favorite dog

We Are the World Blogfest

Ok, by now you must know that I am a dog lover. I’ve had two during my adult life. This story, from far away, struck a chord–how people can get along with unknown animals in their midst. See the full story on CNN.

Dog lounging on subway train
CNN photos/Getty images

It’s a story about a stray dog in Istanbul. A dog that gets on subway trains, trams and ferries. He knows where to go to get on. He has a tag in one ear that proves he is neutered and vaccinated. He enjoys the rides and has celebrity status. Municipal authorities have checked him out and Okayed his travels. The story from CNN has lots of pictures of him going here and there. You should check it out–even if you’re not a dog fan. Of course, you may already have seen it–the story has already appeared all over the world.