Brie: It's What's For Breakfast

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Breast Cancer Awareness


Breast cancer has taken the lives of women we knew and loved, and has made the lived of other women we know and love very difficult. Has anyone’s life been unaffected by it?  Don’t we all know someone who has had breast cancer?

The Susan G. Komen Foundation is the beneficiary of a Three-Day Walk for a cure for breast cancer. The walk is a National Philanthropic Trust project, aimed at nationwide and even worldwide participation.

With money for cancer research, more women diagnosed with breast cancer can be like my friend Ellen, who miraculously survived with a spontaneous remission despite being given a death sentence by her doctor, and my aunt Jackie, who survived with successful treatment.  I can name others who have recovered and others who, sadly, have not.  My cousin Margaret, my neighbor Sassy, my old friend Faye…. all have been the unlucky victims of this insidious disease.

As many of you reading this blog know, I’ve had cancer twice. I’ve not had breast cancer, but my nightmares tell me to I expect to. None of us are safe.

Please donate to this worthy cause.

My friend Kathi, who happens to be my former husband’s girlfriend, is participating in the three day walk in October. If you don’t participate yourself, please donate to her effort to raise money for a cure.

Is it weird that I ask you to support Kathi?  She’s dating my ex-husband, after all.  If you don’t already know, Skip and I have a wonderful relationship – much better than when we were married – and it all revolves around a certain boy who is closing in on adulthood.  Our son Jack is sixteen, personable, creative, and reasonably well-adjusted despite  his parents’ divorce.  Skip and I have worked hard to make sure we work together for Jack’s sake.  He is the single most important thing in our lives.  Skip and I encourage each other constantly, talk almost daily, and support each other’s goals, hopes and dreams.  We call each other for support and to vent. We still like each other.  Thank the gods we divorced before we could develop hatred for one another!

I support Kathi not only because she is my friend and Jack’s possible future stepmom, but because she is actually doing something for a cause I believe in strongly.  If you don’t participate in the walk yourself, support someone who is.  Support Kathi!

The link will get you to the page where you can donate money to the cause.  Five dollars, ten, any amount you can contribute will help.  Please help!

Here is the message Kathi is sending out to her friends:

I just wanted to send an update on the Breast Cancer 3Day Walk that I am doing in October.

We are asked to raise $2200 per participant and I have already raised $400 toward my goal! How exciting! Some of those donations are from people forwarding my email to their friends and I want you to know how much I truly appreciate your support. I joined a team called the “Buttercups” and our team has already raised $5,672! We are all training and getting ready for the 60 mile journey.

If you have already donated I can’t thank you enough! If you are still interested in donating here is the link to my site. You can donate online or print a donation form and mail it in. Nothing is too small and it is all tax deductible.

http://08.the3day.org/goto/kathianne

Thank you again!

Kathi

May 21, 2008 Posted by | Children, Death, Health, News, Personal, Science | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gun Control


In the last couple of years I’ve changed my stance on gun control.

I don’t like guns.  They scare the hell out of me, and I see nothing “sporting” about attacking unarmed animals with them in the woods. I don’t own one and I’ve never been comfortable with the notion of having one in my house, despite the fact that my ex-husband had a hunting rifle and a boyfriend had a pistol.

I’ve represented kids with criminal charges involving guns.  I’ve seen bullet holes in children’s bedroom walls from drive-by shootings. I’ve represented women who were threatened with guns by their husbands, boyfriends, and even their sons. I’ve been to funerals of people killed by guns.  I’ve held and hugged a weeping grandmother when a stray bullet in a gang shooting left her favorite grandson, a good boy with an “A” average and college-bound, dead on a dark street in a small town in southeast Arkansas.

I don’t like the attitude of the NRA. It comes across as arrogant, shrill, and combative – not the kind of attitude a responsible gun owner/handler should display, especially around guns.

This is going to sound stupid, probably, but one of the things that tipped the scales for me against gun control was a movie.  It wasn’t just any movie.  It was a movie based on a comic book. Bear with me.  I’ve watched V for Vendetta, a film by the incomparable Wachowski Brothers, multiple times, and I find no fault with its future history philosophy.

Perhaps the helium in my brain is showing, but the point that disarming a populace oppresses the citizens makes sense to me.

One of the very best quotes from the movie is, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”  Why?  Because the power to change government, to oversee government, and to demand that government be accountable lies with the people.

There is a poignant scene in this movie in which thousands of unarmed citizens in Guy Fawkes masks confront the well-armed military. As they pour into the open areas on this auspicious night, the astonished military doesn’t open fire. Perhaps it is the sheer numbers of people; perhaps it is the eerie, surreal fact that they are costumed like that seditionist of the past, but for whatever reason, the armed forces of the government holds its fire and allows itself to be overrun. Perhaps it is because the members of the armed forces are citizens, too, and the whole point of the movie is that citizens must require and compel change in the government.

And then there’s this quote, the source of which I’m desperately seeking:

“An armed society is a polite society.
An unarmed society is a police state.
A disarmed society is a tyranny.”

April 14, 2008 Posted by | Children, Death, History, News, Philosophy, Politics | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nagge and Foy


   “Tell us the story of the Hruang, Grandmama!”

The boy’s plea made Ciannait smile. Her great-grandchildren never seemed to tire of her stories, and at every meal they asked for a favorite. Sometimes she was able to remember a new tale for them, or even to create one out of fragmented memories of the tales told to her by her own grandmother.

“The Hruang? That beast that was captured and brought into the marketplace when I was younger than Foy?” Ciannait grinned at the children, then wet a corner of her apron and wiped Foy’s face. “I don’t think you washed up properly before breakfast, young man.  Did you even bathe last night?”

The eight year old boy ducked his head. “I did, but the water wasn’t wet enough to get all of the dirt off,” the child explained.

Ciannait laughed.  “Minna, the boy says water isn’t wet enough to clean him,” she said to her granddaughter, who set a bowl of warm cereal on the table.

“It may not be, Grandmama. I think he paints himself with grime every day.”

“He doesn’t paint himself with it, but he does roll around in it,” remarked Nagge, Foy’s ten year old sister.  She reached for the ladle and filled both her bowl and her brother’s, then sat down at the table.

Foy grinned.  He picked up his spoon and began eating with enthusiasm.

Ciannait filled her own bowl, and one for Minna. Minna came back to the table with a pot of tea, pouring for all four.

“I’m going to the orchard today to help Ben,” said Minna. “Children, you’re to help Grandmama here at home after your lessons.”

“How is Hanh?” Ciannait asked. “Is she getting any better?”

“No,” answered Minna. “And Zocha won’t say so to either Ben or Hanh, but she’s completely stymied. She thinks perhaps the illness is in Hanh’s mind more than in her body.”

“An illness of the spirit,” nodded Ciannait. “ It’s rare, but not unknown.”

“What happens when your spirit gets ill?” asked Nagge.

“You die!” yelled Foy.

Nagge rolled her eyes.  “No, you don’t, silly.  You only die when your body dies, not when you have a spirit sickness.”

“I thought you didn’t know what happened when a spirit got ill,” her mother teased.  “Didn’t you just this instant ask what happens?”

“Well, I know enough to know your body doesn’t die.  What does happen?”

“Spirit sickness is very serious,” answered Ciannait. “The person with spirit sickness wants to die, but cannot.  It makes the people who love her very unhappy, too.”

“Can they catch the spirit sickness?” asked the girl.

“No, child.  Spirit sickness is rare.  It isn’t like a cold or the seasonal ills. It happens when the spirit and the body become separate,” her great-grandmother explained.

Nagge wrinkled her nose, thinking. How does a spirit separate from a body?”

“When you die!” Foy made a choking sound and pretended to fall off his stool.

His sister rolled her eyes. “Really, Grandmama, how does it happen?”

“No one is quite sure. There used to be healers who could call the spirits back to the living bodies they had left, but anyone with that knowledge is gone now.”

“When a spirit leaves a person’s body, what happens?”

“The person gets sick, and sometimes cannot even move or talk.  It depends upon how close the spirit lingers.”

“Can you see a spirit when it leaves the body?”

“You have more questions than appetite this morning, Nagge!  Eat your cereal.  You have lessons today and you’ll be learning about the orchard plants.” Old Ciannait rose from the table. Over her shoulder, she admonished the children,”Eat well, because you’ll get hungry talking about the food plants of the farms.”

The children grinned at each other, knowing that their grandmother would make the lesson fun.

* * * * *

    After their lessons, the children were released to play.  Their great-grandmother’s only requirement was that they bring back one piece of fresh produce from the market for each of the four people in their home, and that each had to be different.  They were told to talk to the market vendors about each fruit or vegetable, and to report to her what the vendor said about it.

The children raced each other to the open market near the great wall that surrounded the city. In the shade of the north wall farmers had stalls from which they distributed their produce.  Crafters such as the potters, weavers, and basket makers also maintained stalls.

Their first stop was for a peach.  Both children loved the sweet, juicy fruits and even when they had not been assigned the chore, in the warm months they might find their way to Momo’s stall where he sweetest, juiciest peaches sat waiting for people to claim them.

Momo’s stall was closed when they arrived, and the bent old woman was nowhere to be seen. The stalls on either side of hers were doing a brisk business, though. Neither vendor had seen Momo and both were too busy to talk to a pair of children. Nagge and Foy visited several other stalls.  Knowing that Ciannait would expect them to bring home four completely different items, they visited the root seller, the bean vendor, and the squash seller. The children were determined not to go home without peaches, and asked after old Momo at every stall.  No one had seen the old lady.

“I think we should go to her house and check on her,” Nagge said after they had exhausted their search of the market for knowledge of the peach vendor.

“She’s probably in the orchard with Ben,” Foy said.  He was unconcerned about Momo herself, but his mouth watered for the sweet peaches. “Maybe Mama will bring home peaches today, since she’s helping Ben, too.”

“Maybe.”  Nagge’s brow furrowed. “I don’t think Momo goes to the orchard much anymore.”

Foy shrugged.  “Then let’s go check on her.  You want to, and you’ll keep talking about it until we do.”

Nagge grinned. “Yes, I will,” she admitted.

Momo’s apartment was east of the marketplace, down a wide street that at night was lined with the barrows of the farmers. The walls of the homes were as white as the wall that surrounded the city itself, and the staggered rooftops of the buildings rose and fell with no perceivable rhythm.  Each rooftop was planted with a garden, a place for the inhabitants within to grow herbs and a few vegetables for quick harvest for their dinner tables.

Interspersed among the buildings were slim towers, some narrower than a man’s shoulders, and some with more that one peak. The towers were made of the same mud-covered stone as the walls of the dwellings, but looked like the weathered remains of brittle, leafless trees, resting for the winter even against the blue skies.

The children made their way across the city’s north side, stopping to speak to the adults who greeted them. They raced each other the last few steps to the old peach seller’s door, but the old woman’s home was shuttered and the children’s calls went unanswered.

“She must have gone to the orchard,” Foy proclaimed.

“Momo hasn’t been to the orchard this year at all,” objected Nagge.

“Where else would she be?”

“How should I know? Maybe she’s gone to visit a friend.  Maybe she’s just sleeping.”

“Sleeping? In the middle of the day?”  The notion of a nap was completely alien to the boy.  Even if Momo were sleeping, it seemed only logical to his eight year old brain that their calls would summon her since their cries always got the attention of  Grandmama, who was older than Momo.  The fact that old Momo might not have Ciannait’s health would never have occurred to him.

“I think perhaps we should check on her.” Nagge’s troubled expression arrested Foy’s attention.

“You think she might really be sick?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

The pair of them looked at Momo’s door, this time with a little trepidation.

“So, open it,” urged Foy.

“Let’s call her again.”  They called. Still there was no answer.

Nagge reached out and touched the door. Just as she put her hand on the handle, Momo’s voice sounded from within.

“Here, now, what’s all the racket about?”  The old woman sounded gruff and hoarse. She pulled open the door and blinked in the sunlight at the two children on her stoop.”Nagge? What are you and Foy doing here? Come in, come in.” Momo left the door open and without waiting for an answer turned and shuffled back into the dark interior of her home.

The children exchanged a look, then followed.

“We looked for you in the market.  We wanted peaches.” Nagge told her.  Foy looked around the apartment, obviously hoping to spot unclaimed peaches lying around loose, waiting to be given to him.

“You’ll not find me at the market today,” muttered Momo. “Nor are you going to find me there tomorrow. Or ever again.”

The children looked aghast at each other.  “Never again?  Why not? Aren’t there any more peaches?” Foy’s high voice wavered with momentary panic.

“Of course there are peaches, silly,” Nagge said quickly.  “But, Momo, why aren’t you going to be in the market?”

The old lady snorted. “Ben says he wants Hanh to take over those duties.  Not that she’s likely to get her lazy backside out of bed long enough to set the peaches out for anyone to see.”

“If Hanh’s going to be in the market, what will you do?”  Nagge liked visiting with Momo, and was glad the old lady was there to give children extra fruit.

“I don’t yet know. I may help with tutoring or with the creche. I may just stay here in my apartment and enjoy my peaceful old age. Hanh won’t last long.  She’ll sleep in the stall, if I’m any judge.” Momo sounded disgusted with her daughter in law.

“Mama went to the orchard to help Ben today,” Foy offered.  “Do you have any extra peaches here?”

Momo raised an eyebrow, twisted her mouth into a grimace. “Ben better know what he friend he has in Minna,” she said.  “Here, boy.  There are always peaches in this house.” She handed both children a plump, firm fruit. “Now what are you doing here and not playing somewhere?”

“Grandmama told us to find four different foods from the market,” Nagge explained between bites of the juicy, sweet fruit.  “We decided one of those ought to be a peach.”

“Oh? And how will she know you found a peach at all?”

“We’ll bring one back, of course,” said the little girl.  Then Nagge’s eyes widened. “Only we’ve eaten our peaches!”

Momo laughed. “So you still need a peach for Ciannait, do you?”  She grinned at the children’s solemn nods. “Fortunately for you I happen to have extras. Here.”

With grateful smiles the children accepted four more peaches and tucked them into the pack with the other food from the marketplace.

“Now get on with you,” scolded Momo, and watched the children cheerfully bounce out of the apartment and into the sunny street. “Mind you, don’t get caught by the Hruang on the way home!” she called after them with a smile.

Nagge and Foy had heard the stories of the Hruang.  Their great-grandmother, who was one of the oldest people in the city behind the Wall, claimed she had seen one many years ago as a child herself.  It was this story Foy had begged for at breakfast.

The beast had been captured by a band of hunters, and had died in the central marketplace from the stones thrown by angry old men and women who remembered the days of terror brought by the Hruang. When she told the story the old lady described the horrific claws and fangs of the beast, its bulging muscles and its naked flesh, but at the same time her tale evoked sympathy for the beast, captured and dying alone, injured, uncomforted, never itself having done wrong to its killers.

The frightening creatures had not come close to the walled city of Gaerwyn in generations. The wall was too intimidating to them, according to Ciannait.  They would never bother, or dare, come close now. According to Minna, the children’s mother, such a beast was the stuff of legend, if it had ever roamed the world at all.

“Let’s go to the orchard,” Foy suggested, his mouth once again full of peach. No one was supposed to go outside Gaerwyn’s walls except on business, and children were never to go out without their parents. Since their mother was at the orchard, though, Foy and Nagge might be able talk the adults at the gate into allowing them to pass.

The rhythmic calls and movement of the people in the market provided the children with cover to slip out the city gate.  The adults nearby were engaged with their bartering and bickering, their gossip and their industry.  None paid attention to the two children.  Nagge and Foy walked confidently near the opening in the great white wall.

They watched the dyemakers and the threadmakers, whose stalls were near the gate. Practiced in the art of sneaking out of the gate, the children asked questions and talked with the spinners who eventually told the children to move on and stop bothering them.  The timing was perfect, as far as the children were concerned.  They had seen the dyers toss their dyes into the boiling pot and knew that they would be shooed away from there, too, as they dyers were busy dipping the fabrics and threads into the steaming cauldrons.

As expected, the dyemakers shouted at the children to move back as they brought bolts of plain cloth over to the big pots for dipping in the hot dye. Nagge and Foy edged around the unguarded opening in the wall, sidestepped around its corner, and once out of sight of any adults ran to the great gray boulders that served as steps down to the valley where the orchards lay below the city.

The boulders had been left there by mysterious giants of the past, in a convenient formation that allowed relatively easy passage down the steep hillside to the fertile river valley below. Small, twisted trees grew amid the granite outcroppings. The stone was worn smooth by the passage of generations of feet.  It was debated among the sagamen as to whether ancient chisels actually carved either the boulder steps or the base of the great wall that surrounded Gaerwyn.

“I am the leader of the Hruang, and I demand treasure!” cried Foy, making his child’s high voice deep to growl at his sister, standing on the boulder above his sister, glaring down at her with his small fists on his hips.

“The Hruang never demanded treasure,” objected Nagge, her status as the elder making her all-knowledgeable.  “They just attacked and killed people.”

The boy stuck his chin out defiantly. “Well, this time I want treasure.”

Nagge grabbed a stick fallen from a nearby scrub tree and waved it at her brother. “Never!  We will fight to the death!”

Foy saw a larger stick lying half on a granite step below in, to Nagge’s left and out of her sight. He made it to the weapon just as his older sister found her way to the side of the boulder where he had jumped.

They sparred with their weapons, shouting, growling, and happily banging their sticks.  Foy had the better, stronger weapon.  Nagge’s scrubby stick was older and drier, and a power thwack by Foy’s fresher weapon disarmed her.  She shrieked.

“Admit defeat!” roared her little brother.

“You have defeated us, oh mighty Hruang!” cried the girl, crouching and covering her head with her arms.

“You must bring me treasure or I will take it myself from every home!”

“Will you attack our people if we give it to you?”

“No.  I’ll take your things and go back to the other side of the mountains.”

“Sure,” said Nagge, standing slowly and assuming the persona of the Gaerwyn City Leader.  “Drop your weapons and come close, and we will give you what you ask for. You have to promise to go away forever, though.”

“Give me good treasure and I won’t have to come back.” The small Hruang-boy’s avarice gleamed in his grin.

“Oh, we’ll give you the best. We promise.  But you have to leave your weapons to come get it because we’re too afraid of you otherwise.”

The boy dropped the stick he brandished as a sword and took two steps closer to where his sister spread an imaginary pile of gifts. The girl bowed low to her brother, hiding her smile. “Please, honorable Hruang, take these gifts and leave us in peace!” she cried.

Foy swaggered closer, holding out the skirt of his tunic so it could be filled with riches. Nagge described each handful of leaves, each rock, each cluster of twigs as another impossibly desirable treasure.  “A crown of silver, sparkling with precious gems. An ivory hunting horn, carved with scenes from legend. A bolt of the finest cloth, worked with threads of gold. An ancient scroll containing the secrets of the ages. Rare medicinal herbs. A vial of delicate perfume, guaranteed to make even Hruang smell pleasant.” Her litany of valuables brought a superior smile to her brother’s eyes as each item weighed more heavily in the stretching fabric of his outstretched pouch.

“Take more!” pleaded the eager treasure giver, piling the small boy’s Hruang arms full of leaves and twigs to represent the choicest of plunder.

When his skinny arms were full of the promised treasure, the Nagge leaped on Foy with a leafy branch, swatting at him with it. Howling, the boy dropped the leaves and twigs and leapt toward his own discarded branch.

“You cheated!” he yelled.

“I did not! I tricked you!” his older sister retorted gleefully, swatting him with a new branch she had surreptitiously retrieved during the treasure collection process and driving him backward along the rocky path.

The boy’s battle cry was another howl of indignation. Being older and stronger, his sister was able to drive him back further, laughing as she did so. The fierce duel of the branches brought them along the path to a flat place that overlooked the valley and led to another hill. Nagge stopped her attack long enough to catch her wind, and Foy ran up the path to the top of the crest beyond.

He stood upon it, throwing out his chest like the bravest hero of battles, bellowing his outraged superiority to the empty land beyond the whipping wind and throwing wide his skinny arms.  His sister laughed and jumped to her place beside him.

She struck a mocking pose with one hand on her hip and a graceful arm outstretched to accept the adoring cheers of imaginary crowds.  She bowed deeply.  This time her brother laughed as well.  The children jumped from the rocky crag to greet the throngs of their admirers.

In sudden panic they seized each other.

To be continued…

January 16, 2008 Posted by | Children, Creative Writing, Fiction, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Writing | , , | Leave a comment

We’re Going to China!


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Jack and Maggie

I’m going to be an Auntie Anne again. Or maybe a godmother. I’m getting another baby from China, and I’m sending her home with my best friend.

As some of you know, almost two years ago I traveled to China with Jane and Rich and got Maggie, their first daughter. Maggie’s full name is Margaret Lili Anne… yes, she was named after me. Why?

It’s complicated.

Jane came to work for me in October 1994. I was just back on my feet after my first bout with cancer. Thanks to Gloria, her predecessor, my solo law practice was able to hobble along for the six months I was at home. Almost as soon as I returned to work full time, Gloria told me she was moving back to Virginia. I was devastated. I was losing a phenomenal legal secretary and the woman who had kept my hopes for my business alive. I was our primary breadwinner at the time, and without Gloria I can’t imagine how bad things would have been for us financially. Jack was three years old.

Gloria assured me she would find me a good replacement for her. I despaired. She smiled at me in the cooly confident way she had and told me not to worry. Worry? I had to rebuild my practice and train a new assistant at the same time, making sure the bills were paid, while still recovering from cancer. What, me worry?

We interviewed several people. Gloria handled most of the questions. For some reason, I remember Jane’s interview but not any of the others. Maybe it’s because Jane was such a superlative candidate for the position.

Jane had worked for a part-time municipal judge who had an active law practice in her home town, which was about 45 minutes from Little Rock in the Ouachita Mountains. “The commute will be long,” I remember saying.

“I’m moving to Little Rock whether you offer me this job or not,” Jane replied with determination.

I explained they type of practice I had. It was a general practice, and I handled a little bit of everything. The complex things I referred to lawyers who did those cases more frequently, or I associated the lawyer on the case and let him do most of the work. There were lots of divorces and post-divorce matters, settling estates and probating wills, writing wills, advising small businesses, creating corporations, the occasional car wreck, real estate transactions, evictions for landlords we represented, leases, paternity cases, boundary disputes, juvenile delinquency, custody cases, and child welfare cases. She’d be exposed to almost everything but securities work and adult-sized criminals.

“Not a problem,” she said. “That’s what my boss and I do now.” She had worked for this lawyer for six years.

During my conversation with Jane, Gloria excused herself then reappeared with a cup of coffee. She set it carefully on my desk, then turned to Jane.

“I want to hire someone who will take good care of Anne,” she said to Jane. “That means bringing her coffee, calming clients who are upset, screening her calls, and making sure her parking tickets are paid.” That last bit was not a joke. Someday I’ll tell about the parking tickets. It’s a subject for a completely different blog.

Jane smiled. “Right now, I pay my boss’s bills for him, arrange for babysitters, screen his calls, and handle the calls from the defendants in municipal court who think they can talk directly to the judge. I’m used to taking care of my boss, and I think he will tell you I do a good job. Call him and ask him.”

I will do that, I thought to myself, an I’ll check these other references, too.

Gloria and I were both impressed with her. “That’s my replacement,” Gloria said as Jane left the building.

I called her references. First was Jeannie, a lawyer in her hometown I knew from some volunteer work she had done in Little Rock’s juvenile court while she was in law school.

“Jane can’t spell her own name,” Jeannie told me, “but she goes the extra mile. She knows what to do and when to do it. She is the person I go to when I have questions about cases.”

“You don’t ask her boss?” Jeannie and Scott, Jane’s boss, were sharing office space.

Jeannie snorted. “Why would I? Jane does all his work.”

Next I called the insurance agent whose office was next door to Scott’s.

“Jane is the best lawyer in Morrilton,” he declared.

I laughed.

“Really,” he insisted. “She writes all the wills for my clients. I send them over there and Jane fixes them right up. I’m really going to miss her.”

I called Scott. Jane had said I could, and the current employer is no better person to give an assessment.

“She told me she had interviewed with a lawyer in Little Rock,” Scott said ruefully. “I guess this means I’m going to lose her for sure.”

“You don’t want her to leave?”

“Lord, no! She’s the person who runs my practice! I’m not going to find anyone to replace her anytime soon.”

“How’s her work?”

“She’s fantastic. She can’t spell, but that’s what spell check is for. She writes my letters, takes care of my clients, and makes sure I know where to be and when to be there. She does it all.

“I can’t keep her here as long as the big city lures her. I think there’s a man,” he confided.

Offering Jane the job was definitely not a mistake. Over the last 13 years we’ve had our ups and downs, but not with each other. She’s become my best friend, my confidant, my cherished girlfriend. She’s my right hand and my left brain. She’s the reason I have time to write the occasional blog.

I’ve sent her to paralegal school and announced on Friday afternoons that we needed to go see a chick flick. Our husbands wouldn’t take us to them, so if we wanted to see tear-jerkers we were on our own. Every once in awhile we’d take the morning and go for pedicures. It’s not all about work. The work gets done, though.

Jane and I celebrated our tenth anniversary together with a trip to New York without husbands or children. We saw shows, went shopping, and played tourist. Our families vacation together in the summers. We go to the beach as soon as school gets out for a week. She is like my sister. In fact, people often ask us if we’re sisters. We’re both short, plump, and have dark hair. We laugh. We are sisters in spirit, we tell them. We are good judges of each other’s moods. We can finish each other’s sentences. We laugh at each other. We are not at all alike, but we complement each other beautifully.

After years of fertility treatment, Jane and her husband Rich, who she met a year or two after coming to work for me, were finally able to have a son. After that, though, the fertility treatment was frustratingly ineffective. She became pregnant twice and miscarried. Her doctor told her he’d keep doing the in vitro, but he doubted it would work. Jane and Rich had spent years and tens of thousands of dollars on fertility therapies. It was time to look into adoption. I was relieved. All those hormones made her into a raging monster. I was glad to put up with it, though. She put up with me, after all.

Jane was terrified of adopting a child through a local agency or through the state. Practicing family law, we were all too aware of how badly wrong things can go, especially when the birth parents start fighting each other and drag the adoptive family into it. Several high profile adoptions going wrong cemented Jane’s resolve to adopt internationally.

Jane came to work one morning and solemnly asked me if we could talk. Their health insurance didn’t cover the fertility treatments and they had borrowed money to keep trying to have a baby. Although they were steadily paying the debt off, and had already paid a significant amount, there was still a lot left to pay. If they were going to adopt, they needed to borrow money.

Jane outlined a repayment plan to me, and I agreed. I would have agreed whether she had a plan to repay it or not. This baby was important to her, and I had the power to make it possible. I told her that day that I didn’t expect repayment. This was something I could afford to do and something she needed. There was no way I could, or would, refuse her. She insisted on signing a promissory note. I never got around to drafting one. Jane is important to me.

China seemed to offer the best program. China’s been exporting girls for decades because of the law that allows each family only one child, and the Chinese preference for sons. They began the long process of applying for approval from China.

From the time they made the decision and started gathering paperwork, it was a year before they were told that Maggie was waiting for them in Guangdong Province, the place we used to know as Canton.

“We’re going to China!” Jane exclaimed joyfully.

“Not without me, you aren’t,” I told her.

That’s right. I tagged along when they adopted her baby girl. In fact, one of my very first blog entries, before I started writing regularly, was made from China.

Jane and Rich’s family still wasn’t complete, though. About six months after we returned from Guangzhou, Jane told me that she believed there was another Chinese girl who would be calling her “mommy.” This little girl’s name would be Kennedi. Kennedy is a family name on Jane’s side.

They started the paper chase again. All the documents that had been gathered for the Maggie’s adoption were out of date and had to be replaced. Jane got busy and replaced them and sent them to China. The debt from the fertility treatment is almost paid off, and Jane and Rich have paid all Kannedi’s adoption fees to date with money they have managed to save.

Jane called me today, in tears. We only work two days a week now. She spends lots of time at home with Maggie, who is now two and a half and acting every bit of it. She is able to pick her son, Cade, up from kindergarten every day.

“We got the referral,” she said. I barely understood her she was crying so hard.

“Tell me about her!” I demanded.

“She has a cleft palate.” We expected this. This time Jane and Rich had requested what the Chinese refer to as a “waiting child” – one with a birth defect or some other special need that prevents them from being the most desired for adoption.

Jane and Rich specifically asked for a child with this particular birth defect. We can have it fixed here in Little Rock at Children’s Hospital. One of our clients works for a local doctor who specializes in this surgery, and makes regular trips to China to donate her time and skills doing the surgeries there.

“We haven’t got the last of the fees saved yet,” Jane told me. They hadn’t expected the referral this soon.

“You know that’s not a problem,” I told her.

Once again she outlined a repayment plan. Once again, I will forget to draft the promissory note.

I’ve spent the afternoon staring at the pictures of a very pretty baby. Yes, she has a funny smile, but that smile will be as perfect as it ought to be shortly after we get her home. She’s bald. She’s 9 months old. She lives in an orphanage near the border of Tibet. If only she was actually in Tibet!

Jane and I are going to get Kennedi without Rich, this time.

We’re going to China!

October 3, 2007 Posted by | Children, Health, Lawyer, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

How “Star Wars” is Like Jesus


starwars_anewhope_12.jpg

“My English Teacher is ruining Star Wars,” Jack moaned the other morning.

“What? How is that possible?” I was twirling my hair into Princess Leia rolls on either side of my head in the bathroom mirror.

“Archetypes. Only she says ‘arc-types.’ I think English class is nothing more than a conspiracy to ruin every good book ever written, and now it’s being extended to movies, too.” My 10th grade progeny was glum, very glum.

“Give me some examples of how Star Wars can be ruined just by talking about it,” I said reasonably. “I mean, we talk about Star Wars all the time and it’s never ruined it at all.”

“Yeah, but when we talk about it we don’t get the story wrong, and we don’t compare every character to Jesus.”

“Compare every character to Jesus!” I echoed. “I can see the similarity in Obi Wan…”

“No, Mom. According to a substitute teacher we had the other day, every character in Star Wars is like Jesus.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Really. She pointed out the ‘arc-type’ then she talked about it for awhile then she compared it to Jesus. I swear.”

“Fine. How is Han Solo like Jesus?” I demanded, imagining that roguish grin. I have always loved pirates. I have known pirates, and Jesus was no pirate.

“You know how when Luke is making the Death Star trench run? Han swoops in and saves him from evil, just like Jesus would do.”

“Huh?”

“Darth Vader. Evil. The evil archetype. Han saves him, just like Jesus…”

“Oh. Ok. So, how is Darth Vader like Jesus?” I’m sending my kid to an Episcopal school so he can learn THIS? I thought. Mentally I shook myself.

“He dies to save Luke from the Emperor and from the Dark Side, just like Jesus died to save us from all of our sins.” Jack said the last part of that sentence in his best televangelist voice.

“Well, then, the Emperor. How is Palpatine like Jesus?”

“We’re just talking about Episode IV, A New Hope. Palpatine isn’t in that one. It’s Vader all the way.”

“He’s not?” I was surprised, and thought on it. “Who else is like Jesus?”

“Don’t even get me started on friggin’ Skywalker. Whiny bi…”

“Jack,” I cautioned him. “Don’t swear all the damn time.”

“Sorry.” Somehow he didn’t convince me.

“What archetype is Luke?” Aha, I thought to myself. Let’s see how much attention he’s paying in class.

“Luke is several archetypes. First, he’s the Hero. He’s The Young Man From the Provinces. The pupil in The Pupil-Mentor Relationship, the son in The Father-Son relationship”

“Wait a minute. Back up. The Young Man From the Provinces is an archetype?”

“I kid you not.”

“Why can’t you just say he’s the naive young person, or the initiate?”

“Oh, he’s also The Initiate.”

“What’s the difference?”

“The Young Man From the Provinces is the character who is taken away from home and raised by strangers, but returns triumphant to wrest the throne from the usurper. The Initiate is a young hero or heroine who has to go through training and ceremony, and usually wears white.”

“Hmmm. Both Luke and Leia wear white, although I think Leia is already initiated, seeing as how she’s already a Senator and all.”

“Yeah, but she’s also an Initiate, and she’s also in The Platonic Ideal, with, well, Guess Who.”

“Luke. Her brother.”

“But we don’t yet know they’re twins. It’s Mrs. Tyler jumping ahead again. We don’t know of any family relationship. And oddly enough, we’re reading Oedipus Rex in History.”

I laughed. “Jack, I am your mother.”

“Uh huh. And there’s an archetype relationship of Mentor and Pupil.”

“Luke and Obi Wan, as well as Vader and Obi Wan.”

“Right.”

“There’s The Devil Figure, or Jesus, if you will.”

“What? Jesus is the Devil? What is this?”

“Vader is the Devil figure, and as I explained earlier, Vader is also Jesus. Therefore, Jesus is the Devil.”

“I can see how Vader is maybe a Jesus figure once he appears after his death there at the end of Return of the Jedi, but how is he Jesus in A New Hope?”

“Oh, we’re talking at the end of Return of the Jedi. She totally ruined the movies for anyone who hasn’t seen it.”

“Someone hasn’t seen Star Wars? Inconceivable.”

“You’d be surprised. More than half my class has never seen the original trilogy.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. What other archetypes is Vader?”

“Well, in The Father-Son relationship archetype…”

“No! We had no idea about that relationship until the second movie! She really did ruin it.”

“She sure did. She said that Like Han, he’s The Apparently Evil Figure with an Ultimately Good Heart. Oh, and he’s also the wayward son in The Father-Son Relationship with Obi Wan Kenobi. And in a way, he’s The Scapegoat, because Emperor Palpatine is really the Evil One and Vader is just trying to please, or to save his love, or is hopeless until he finds hope in Luke, although Obi Wan is kind of a Scapegoat in that he lets Vader kill him so the others can get away.” Jack peered at me. “You do see the Jesus parallel there, don’t you?”

“Yes, I see.” I was taking it all in. My mind was racing.

“And Han is also the archetype of The Outcast, and he has the archetype of The Friendly Beast, Chewbacca, as his sidekick.”

“How is Chewie like Jesus?”

“He’s always willing to put himself in harm’s way for someone else he believes to be more important than he is.”

“That person being The Lovable Outcast.”

“Exactly. Which makes Han and Chewie the archetypal Hunting Group of Companions.”

“What, Like Beowulf and his men or something?”

“Yes. There are other Hunting Groups of Companions in Star Wars, too.”

“The Jawas. The Tusken Raiders.”

“Not the Tusken Raiders. They’re just the Evil Beasts. Grendels, if you want to use the Beowulf analogy. Luke, Leia, Han, the Droids, Chewie, and Obi Wan make a Hunting Group of Companions, too.”

“That makes sense. But how are they like Jesus?”

“Duh! The disciples!”

I grimaced. Dopey me.

“And then there are the Loyal Retainers.”

“Chewie again?”

“Sort of. Really, though, R2-D2 and C3PO are the Loyal Retainers, especially R2. He’s the one who summons help, and who always comes to the rescue.”

“And he’s like Jesus because…?”

“He summons help and ultimately comes to the rescue. Like Jesus summoned help and ultimately came to the rescue in the sense that he provided a path to everlasting life. Do I have to spell this out for you, Mom?”

“No, no. Pray, continue.”

Then there is the Archetype of the Creatures of Nightmare. The Evil Beasts. Those are the patrons at the Mos Eisley Cantina, or the Tusken Raiders.”

“Creatures of Nightmare? At the cantina?”

“Yeah. Because they’re so bizarre, surreal. And then there is the archetype of The Star-Crossed Lovers. Han and Leia, obviously, Like Jesus and Mary Magdalene. And Greedo did too shoot first.”

“Not in the original movie, he didn’t. In the remake, sure, but not in the first version of the movie.”

“Whatever. Leia is the archetype of The Damsel in Distress. She even wears the flowing robes and has the long, virginal hair, like the Virgin Mary.”

“Not like Jesus?”

He rolled his eyes. “She’s a girl, Mom.”

I cleared my throat. “Right. How silly of me.”

“And there’s the archetype of the soft-spoken, sensible Earth Mother.”

“Princess Leia Organa is no Earth Mother! Well, maybe with the long flowing hair in the third movie, in the scene in the Ewok village.”

“Not Leia. Beru.”

“Luke’s aunt?”

“Yes. And no, she’s not like Jesus.” His eyes and his tone warned me not to go there, despite my temptation to do so.

“There are symbolic archetypes, too,” he informed me.

I waited. Jack was on a roll. I knew he’d go on without my prodding.

“Light versus Dark, Heaven versus Hell, Life Versus Death. You see these in the struggle between Jedi and Sith, the Empire and the Rebellion, the serene light blue of Obi Wan’s lightsaber against the angry dark red of Darth Vader’s lightsaber, the lush natural form of Yavin 4 against the mechanized construct of the Death Star.”

I nodded.

“Then there’s the symbolic archetype of Innate Wisdom that doesn’t speak much contrasted with the Educated Stupidity of constant chatter: again, in R2-D2 and C3PO.”

“I can see that one.”

“And there is Supernatural Intervention. That’s another archetype.”

“The Force, you mean?”

No, The Force is the archetype of The Magic Weapon. Supernatural Intervention is when Luke is in the channel on the Death Star and he hears Obi wan tell him to use The Force, and he hits the target using the Magic Weapon rather than more conventional means.”

“So how is Luke like Jesus?”

“He saves the galaxy. I really do have to spell it all out for you, don’t I?”

“No, no.”

“I mean, Luke’s probably bigger than Jesus, who just saved one species on one planet.”

“Stop right there, kid. You have no idea of the flap John Lennon started with a similar statement.”

September 25, 2007 Posted by | Children, Conversations With Children, Humor, Movies, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Writing | 4 Comments

Children’s Literature for Adults


Madeleine L’Engle is Dead.

I saw the headline in the online edition of the New York Times yesterday, and a wave of nostalgia washed over me. Meg Murray, the protagonist in L’Engle’s classic, Newberry Award winning series, is one of my favorite literary characters from childhood. I wanted to be her. I probably was her: nerdy, intelligent, sarcastic, a diamond (or at least a white topaz) beneath the rough adolescent exterior of too-thick glasses and a mother who didn’t pay attention to children’s fashion.

When Jack was old enough to read A Wrinkle in Time, I handed him the tattered, oversized paperback I had read so many times myself. He looked at it with a sneer. I sighed. It really was falling apart. I had actually taped a few pages back into it as I reread it before deciding that, yes, it was time for him to learn about fewmets and tesseracts.

Barnes and Noble carried the entire series in hardcover. I bought them. Besides looking really swell on the shelf in their matching dust jackets, I knew that these books would never get outdated. Jack’s children will read them, and maybe his grandchildren. Their grandmother- and great-grandmother-to-be has read them again as an adult and finds no reason not to keep them on the shelf. These are not the kind of children’s books that are outgrown and packed away for a future generation. Like our hardcover Narnia books in their cardboard display box, Madeleine L’Engle’s books are meant to be seen and read regardless of my age or Jack’s.

There are a lot of children’s books that are really, really good even for adults. It seems that the “phenomenon” of Harry Potter surprised some of my adult friends, as well as adults all over the world. Books written for and about adolescents don’t have to be sophomoric. Those that aren’t, that are well written and tell a good story, have universal appeal even if they are sold from the children’s section of the bookstore.

There is a trend to make movies of such books these days. Holes, by Louis Sachar, had a great box office return. The classic story of a teenager punished excessively for something he didn’t do, evil jailers with evil agendas, bullies, friendship, loyalty, and karma had just the right amount of symbolism, philosophy and mysticism to appeal to adult book clubs.

Eragon did poorly at the box office, but that should be no reflection on the book. In the tradition of S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders), Eragon was written by 16 year old Christopher Paolini, who followed it with Eldest. The third book in the trilogy is due to be published within the next year. Paolini is an amazing writer, and I expect to see him producing prolific amounts of real literature as his writing becomes more seasoned. Yes, adults who like science fiction, especially those of us who like dragons, will love Paolini’s books.

In the world of Eragon and Eldest, there are no more dragonriders, because the evil king, who has the only dragon left in the world, declared war on them and killed them all. When a dragon’s egg appears mysteriously in the mountains where Eragon, a teenage boy, is hunting, he takes it home. He thinks it is nothing more than an interesting stone until it hatches. Suddenly Eragon is bound to Sapphira, the young dragon hatchling, and the two embark on adventures that are destined to change their world, and hopefully depose the wicked king and bring back dragons and dragonriders. Elves, dwarves, battles fought on the backs of fierce fire-breathing dragons: it’s all there. Personally, I can’t think of anything more I need in a dragon book!

Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, is being put on celluloid. The Golden Compass, based on the first book in the series, is due to be released in December. I hope it does justice to the book. As always, I fear for the bastardization of the story. Pullman is a British author. In the UK, the first book in the trilogy was released as Northern Lights. For whatever reason the title of the book was changed to The Golden Compass when it was published in the US.

His Dark Materials have been called the antithesis of Narnia. Parallel universes serve as the backdrop for this series, and demons replace the souls which exist outside the bodies of their humans. Children are being kidnapped and used in horrible experiments with the element “dust” which the religious authority believes to be proof of original sin. The themes in the book pull at religion, authority, and justice without insulting any true existing form of religion. The church in Pullman’s books is perverted from the Christianity in our universe. These books challenge the reader think about authority and faith in different ways. I doubt the movie will be able to convey these themes. I will wait to see.

The Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud hasn’t yet been brought to the silver screen, and hopefully it won’t be. In case you couldn’t tell form my comments already, I just hate it when movies ruin the fantastic books they claim to based upon. (I know, I know- they’re making a movie, not making the book. Still, I think the movie makers ought to be true to the story, dammit.) In the first Bartimaeus book, The Amulet of Samarkand, a boy with innate magical ability is fostered to a magician who neglects him. The boy is determined to learn magic anyway, so he studies on his own. He calls up a demon just because he can, and naturally all hell breaks loose. Bartimaeus is a sarcastic, secretly good-hearted demon, though, and quite a character. Together the boy and the demon expose corruption among the magicians, managing to topple the government of England in the process. Magical duels, subterfuge, roving gangs, other demons with other agendas, exploding buildings, daring rescues from inaccessible towers… sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Cornelia Funke is to German speaking kids what J.K. Rowling is to their English speaking contemporaries. Her first book to be translated into English was The Thief Lord, and it was all the rage among Jack’s 4th grade peers. Since it was a thick book (like Harry Potter), I picked it up. What a story! Think of Oliver Twist and a teenage Fagan doing their work in the labyrinthine canals of Venice. It’s dark, the water is scary, and someone is chasing our orphaned heros… Funke’s next book to be translated into English was probably better than The Thief Lord, though. In Inkheart, a character from a book is called into real existence when Meggie’s father reads aloud. Unfortunately, Meggie’s dad dooms her mother to becoming a character in the book. Someone has to replace the one that was removed, after all! The challenge is to get Meggie’s mom back out of the book, and to put the characters who have escaped back intro the books. Two minor characters, Dustfinger and Basta, really stand out as examples of how a writer creates a fantastic, fully dimensional character.

When Jack reads something and then presses it one me to read, I do it. He reads what I tell him to, as well. This means I’ve introduced him to other books about kids his age that were written for adults, and he’s introduced me to children’s books that ought to be read by more adults.

Jack and I have always shared books. When he was in kindergarten, I’d climb into bed with him and we’d read a chapter or two from whatever book I had chosen. We read the entire Narnia series aloud that year. We also read the first three Harry Potter books that way. I think Jack became a stronger reader because he would follow along in the books as I read them aloud, giggling when he caught me skipping words or saying something that wasn’t actually written. By the third grade he was reading adult level books on his own.

I asked him about books to mention in this blog, and he told me, “Most children’s books are terrible. It’s the same stories over and over again. Kid finds something magic, kid goes on quest, kid meets girl, kid and girl become friends during the quest, kid and girl almost don’t complete the quest, but then find that the thing they need to complete the quest is inside them the whole time, like it’s ‘love’ or something.” Jack liked and likes the books that are original, that have more complexity.

Jim Butcher, the author of the wonderful Harry Dresden, Wizard mysteries, has started a series about people who can call up the elements to do their bidding. Air, water, earth, metal, wood, and fire are at the beck and call of talented individuals in this post-Roman Empire alternate world. The main characters start as teenagers in the first two books, and by the third they begin to come of age. They fight deadly giant insects who possess people making them zombies, go to war against a race of wolf-like creatures, and they get involved in diplomatic maneuvering among nobility with powerful magic. I’m really looking forward to the fourth book in the Codex Alera.

Ender’s Game is a fantastic book to give to any kid who likes video games. Orson Scott Card’s Ender series is probably his best known work, although he is a prolific writer of several genres. The Ender series is pure science fiction. A six year old boy, Ender Wiggin, is sent to battle school where he spends countless hours playing battle-type video games. Although he is initially segregated from the other students, Ender’s status as a strategic battle prodigy earns him the respect of the other students to whom he teaches tactics after regular school hours. Ender deals with bullies among his peers as well as an adult military command that puts him in charge of battle groups over his objection. Spoiler: When it is finally revealed to Ender that every battle he has fought on the video screen has been a real battle against real enemies, he falls into a catatonic state for several days. He has destroyed an entire race of aliens, including their home planet. The books that follow all address xenophobia and mental illness in creative ways. The series should be a classic for adults and kids alike.

Card also wrote an alternate history series with a teenage boy as his primary protagonist. In Seventh Son, the first book in the Tales of Alvin Maker, Alvin is known to be a man of incredible talent. He has a “knack” for making things – out of virtually nothing. His almost god-like powers change the world, and in later books characters from history interact with Alvin and have their own “knacks.” Tecumseh, William Henry Harrison, and the Indian Prophet Tenska-Tewa make their appearances, and Tippecanoe isn’t quite the same.

My philosophy has been to give Jack books that are about kids his own age, and a little older. When I read a story of a teenager who goes on the quest, or is thrust into a position of having to use his wits to survive, I give it to him. Frank Herbert’s Dune is a good one for teenagers because a teenager is suddenly thrust into a position of authority and responsibility, and must act creatively and desperately to save himself. Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shanarra is the classic quest book that Jack complained of, but its complexity is sufficient to keep not only Jack but plenty of others entertained through a long series of books. Likewise, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is about adolescents who are prophesied to save the world and fight against the veritable gods of their reality.

I recently read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Maybe it is a bit of science fiction when a man is chronologically challenged, but when he materializes naked at the age of forty-three in front of his six year old future wife, things get interesting. The wife grows chronologically through the book, but never knows whether she will meet her husband in his future or his past.

A girl is identified by a homeless man to be the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary in The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn by Janis Hollowell. Although her mother tries to protect her from the headiness that comes with being suddenly invested with the power to heal and the power to bless, Francesca’s aunt is more avaricious and sees the potential for making a profit off the situation. As Francesca herself matures, so do her powers. Book clubs loved this selection, because of the possibility of a mass psychosis that either caused or resulted from Francesca’s powers.

I know my list is weighted heavily toward science fiction and fantasy because Jack and I both love the genre. There are other books out there about kids, though, that are great. I’d love to hear what others have read.

September 8, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Children, Children's Stories, Conversations With Children, Science Fiction/Fantasy | Leave a comment

A Modest Proposal for CBS’s “Kid Nation”


Here’s a modest proposal: as soon as our little tykes are weaned, let’s put them in the desert with a bunch of bigger kids and see if anyone, say, drinks bleach on accident. Or dies. Won’t that be amusing? Maybe the kids will gang up into warring factions in a struggle for dominance and kill each other! Won’t that be neat? And if we put it on prime time TV we can all watch!

I really, really wanted to pitch this idea to CBS. I thought it would make an excellent reality TV show. I’m such a fan of TV that I can live happily without one, but I have an entrepreneurial streak a mile wide and after I saw my son reading Lord of the Flies a couple of weeks ago I thought to myself, “Hey! What an idea!”

I got all dressed up in my best lawyer outfit, high heels and makeup and perfectly coiffed hair and all, and grabbed the morning paper as I headed out the door, ready to make a few calls and set up a time to meet with the network executives. I just knew they’d clamor for me to hurry on over with my idea.

My contacts aren’t the bifocal type so I had to wait until I got to the office and found my reading glasses before I could peruse the morning tabloids, though. Once I perched them on the tip of my nose, there it was, to my bleak dismay. Over a half-eaten croissant and a cup of cooling Starbuck’s (a candy bar in a cup is still a candy bar), I saw that my brilliant idea had not only been stolen by some Hollywood thought-thief, but that CBS had already filmed my idea! Kid Nation was already in the can and had attracted its first threatened lawsuit!

There is still hope for me. Suit has not yet been filed. Bereft of my opportunity for reality show fame, I’m sure I can muster the necessary outrage for filing suit on behalf of these kids. I have represented kids for almost 20 years, after all – what’s one more suit on their behalf? And this one will give me great pleasure, because not only will it be against the tormentors of my clients, it will be against the people who publicly and obviously disregarded their best interests.

Did you get that line? “Publicly and obviously disregarded their best interests” – wow, I’m in lawyer mode! Hmmm… what other equally spurious arguments can I come up with to bring this case to dubious justice? Oh! I know! I’ll demand that the press help me investigate how CBS could manage to get the parents of 40 kids between the ages of 8 and 15 to agree to send them to a ghost town for nearly six weeks during the school year with no adult supervision and no classes! I’ll file documents requesting information on how much the children (or their families) were paid for the kids’ participation in this show ($5,000.00 is the figure CBS claims), and then I’ll demand to see documents showing how New Mexico’s and the federal government’s child labor laws were complied with, what with no adults to take care of these kids.

Man, I’m on a roll now! I can hear CBS crying foul in my mind’s ear. I’m just another money-grubbing lawyer trying to get a huge settlement out of the deep pockets of the TV network.

Those eight year olds knew what they were getting into, the corporate lawyers will insist. It will be very hard to refute, because we all know what brilliant negotiators fourth-graders are. “Because I said so” just won’t work with all of them, you know.

When I point out that only one of the kids was 15, and that a dozen of them were aged 10 and under, I’m sure the network will flick away my objections with a disinterested wave of its manicured hand. Younger children probably won’t be as mean as the ones in that famous book by Sir William Golding. In fact, I’m sure that recent news reports that kids aged seven to nine maliciously killed a six year old were grossly exaggerated. After all, those kids were in Canada, were not on a reality TV show, and had not been promised prizes like iPods for their participation.

CBS is likely to claim that there were tons of adults around all the time, and that like on any reality TV show they were quick to get the bleach-drinking kids medical attention. That won’t daunt me in the least, though, because I’ll claim that had those kids been properly supervised they wouldn’t have been drinking bleach in the first place. And when they argue that the 11 year old whose face was burned by cooking grease was doing the same thing 11 year olds do at home every day, I’ll taunt them with “Yeah, well, those 11 year olds are cooking with grease under adult supervision!”

It won’t endear me to the network, but maybe I can win another non-meritorious lawsuit and win a pile of money doing it. I need to maintain the pseudo-integrity of my profession, after all.

And maybe as an extra added bonus I can get some parents to wake up and realize that unsupervised preteens can get seriously hurt, and even (gasp) die if their parents don’t protect them.

August 19, 2007 Posted by | Children, Humor, Lawyer, News | 3 Comments

Iditarod Trail 1925: The Serum Run (Conclusion)


A Team of Dogs Pulling a Sled

The serum arrived, frozen, on Gunnar Kaasen’s sled at 5:00 a.m. February 2, 1925, two weeks after the first diphtheria death in Nome. Five people had died waiting for the serum to arrive. With 28 confirmed cases of diphtheria and as many as 80 people in Nome known to have been exposed, the 300,00 units of serum were gone long before the second shipment of 1.1million units arrived.

Dr. Welch later said that there were 70 confirmed cases of diphtheria in and around Nome that winter. Although the official death toll was five, Dr. Welch believed that the actual number was much higher since the Eskimo population may have buried children without reporting the illness. Without that first heroic run by 20 men and their hardy dogs, the death toll would have been much higher. And although the initial delivery of 300,000 units of diphtheria antitoxin serum is the one that made the headlines, without the same heroic effort made two weeks later by many of the same men and dogs, the casualties of the epidemic would have been much worse.

Ed Rohn, the man who had been sleeping at Port Safety when Gunnar Kaasen passed him by at 3:00 a.m. delivered the package containing 1.1 million units of serum February 15, 1925. Once again the teams braved howling winds and blizzard conditions to get the serum to Nome. The quarantine was lifted Saturday, February 21, 1925, a month after diphtheria killed little Billy Barnett and nearly three weeks after the first doses of serum arrived in Gunnar Kaasen’s sled.

The serum made it from Nulato to Nome in five and a half days, traveling along a mail route that normally took 25 days. Not only had the serum made it to nome in record time, it had done so in the dead of winter during a major winter storms in the Alaskan Interior as well as around Norton Sound.

Norton Sound

A Dog Sled Crossing Norton Sound

Wild Bill Shannon, the Irishman who was the first driver in the relay, returned from the initial serum run to Nenana with four dogs riding and five dogs pulling his sled. Three of the four riders, the same three he had left in Minto because of the pulmonary hemorrhaging, died a few days later. Shannon told a newspaper reporter, “What those dogs did on the run to Nome is above valuation. I claim no credit for it myself. The real heroes of that run …were the dogs of the teams that did the pulling, dogs … that gave their lives on an errand of mercy.”

His dogs weren’t the only ones sacrificed in the race to keep children alive at the top of the world in the dead of winter. Charlie Evans had borrowed two lead dogs for his run between Bishop Mountain and Nulato, both of whom died of frozen groins. Because dogs not specifically bred for the Arctic tend not to have thick fur in their groin area, mushers often wrapped the dogs in additional furs to prevent this problem. When Charlie Olson’s dogs began to suffer from frozen groins, he stopped and put blankets on each dog to keep them from freezing. Two of his dogs ended up badly groin-frozen. Ed Rohn’s lead dog, Star, was seriously injured in a fall into a fissure crossing Golovin Bay during the second serum run. Togo and one of his teammates didn’t make it back to Nome with the rest, either. They saw a reindeer and tore out of their harnesses to chase it, much like Henry Ivanoff’s dogs had done just outside Shaktoolik, about the time Leonhard Seppala happened by. Togo found his way home several days later, much to Seppala’s relief.

Leonhard Seppala

Leonhard Seppala and a Team of His Sled Dogs

Seppala always maintained that it was categorically unfair that Togo, the leader of the dog team which covered the most miles in the desperate race to save to the children, never got the recognition Balto received. Indeed, Togo is actually made a villain in Balto, that children’s movie I mentioned back in the first segment of this series. Should we blame producer Steven Spielberg and his ilk for making a truly exciting story intentionally wrong? Frankly, in this case, I do. The serum run is a story that is exciting and dramatic without having to resort to exaggeration, distortion of facts, or outright fabrication.

Leonhard Seppala

Leonhard Seppala

Togo and the man who drove his team, Leonhard Seppala, are names known mostly to hardcore followers of the Iditarod race. Seppala made the decision to cross frozen Norton Sound with the serum despite the danger of breaking pack ice that might have cost the team and the children of Nome their lives. Had he not crossed the frozen expanse of sea, though, more children would have died because of the delay in getting the serum to them. Seppala was already widely regarded as the territory’s best musher, and his part of the serum run was certainly the hardest of any of the 20 mushers who participated. Togo worked so hard on the Serum Run he injured himself and never raced again.

During the 625 miles the dogs and men ran from Anchorage to Nome, many Americans were transfixed by the story as it unfolded almost in real time in their homes via the marvelous invention called “radio.” The story gripped the imagination of the entire nation, and once the children of Nome were saved the team led by Balto began touring the country.

Within a couple of years, though, the dogs ended up a permanent attraction in one of the many vaudeville shows that were so popular at the time. The animals were apparently mistreated and not well cared for. George Kimball of Cleveland, Ohio, saw the team in Los Angeles and was appalled at their condition. With the help of Cleveland’s schoolchildren, $2,000.00 was raised and Balto and the rest of the team were purchased from the vaudeville show. The dogs lived in Cleveland for the rest of their lives. After Balto’s death in 1933 he was stuffed, mounted, and placed on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where I believe he is still a very popular attraction.

Balto’s Stuffed Carcass

Balto, at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Togo is also preserved for posterity. His stuffed and mounted form is on display at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Gift Shop and Museum in Wasilla, Alaska.

Togo, Stuffed and Mounted, at the Head of the Iditarod Trail in Wasilla, Alaska

Togo, at the Iditarod Trail Museum

The Seppala Siberian Huskies continue to be a much coveted bloodline. Leonhard Seppala imported his dogs from Siberia. They were dogs intended to work hard, pull loads, and last in the harsh Alaskan cold. Most of today’s Siberian Huskies tend to have characteristics more suited to racing, with shorter coats, longer legs, finer bones, and a narrower head. Seppala’s Huskies had wider heads with larger sinus cavities for warming the Arctic air; today’s Siberian Huskies need to be more concerned with heat than with cold.

Leonhard Seppala Mushing

The news reports of the Nome epidemic and the publicity afforded by the touring dogs inspired a drive to immunize children against diphtheria. The first successful diphtheria vaccine had been tested in 1924, less than a year before the Nome epidemic. Now, of course, diphtheria vaccines are part of all early childhood immunization programs. If there is any doubt as to whether it might be preferable to allow a child to have the disease rather than inoculate him against it, parents should read a description of the progression of the illness and be informed of the nearly 100% mortality rate prior to the discovery of the antitoxin serum.

In 1966-67 Dorothy Page and Joe Redington Sr. organized the first Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race to commemorate the original serum relay. In 1973 the race was expanded to its present course. The entire course of the relay from Nenana to Nome has never been covered as quickly as it was between January 28 – February 2, 1925.

Resources for this series of blogs include:

Salisbury, Gay & Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic (New York: Norton 2003)
Nome Convention & Visitors Bureau (http://www.nomealaska.org/vc/cam-page.htm)
The Official Site of the Iditarod (http://www.iditarod.com)
Kent A. Kantowski’s Serum Run Web Pages (http://www.angelfire.com/ak4/kakphoto/SerumRun/serum_run.htm)
Mike Coppock’s Serum Run Web Page (http://www.dountoothers.org/serumrun.html)
Race To Nome: The Story of the Iditarod Trail Dog Race (http://www.lucidcafe.com/library/iditarod.html)
Balto’s True Story (http://www.baltostruestory.net/)
Norman Vaughan Serum 1925 Run (http://www.serumrun.org/index.html)
The Seppala Siberian Sled Dog Project (http://www.seppalasleddogs.com)

August 7, 2007 Posted by | Children, Death, Health, History, Science | 20 Comments

Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run (Part VI)


Togo, Leonhard Seppala’s Lead Dog during the 1925 Nome Serum Run

Togo 

Leonhard Seppala had gambled with the crossing of Norton Sound and won. He had crossed during the daylight hours of January 31, 1925, and although he could tell a storm was coming, it wasn’t there yet. The northeast wind was at his back as he left the roadhouse at Ungalik and pushed his fast toward Shaktoolik. Seppala had come 170 miles in his three days on the trail and believed he had about 100 miles to go before meeting the serum in Nulato. Togo and the rest of the dogs were making good time, had good energy, and so far had had good trail conditions.

A few minutes out of Shaktoolik Seppala saw another sled stopped ahead of him on the trail. The dogs had apparently started after a reindeer that had run across the trail and were tangled and fighting in their harnesses. Their driver saw Seppala and began waving frantically. Seppala had no intention of stopping to help. Time was of the essence. the wind was blowing at Seppala’s back and he wanted to take advantage of it as long as he could. As he passed the other sled, though, the driver jumped over the morass of agitated dogs and ran at him, screaming, “The serum! The serum! I have it here!”

The stunned Seppala had not gotten word of the change in the plans for the relay and had no idea that the serum could have made the trip from the railhead at Nenana in just three days time. Such speed was unheard of. It was true, though. The other driver, Henry Ivanoff, a Russian Eskimo who captained a ship on Norton sound in the summers, had taken the serum from Myles Gonangnan at Shaktoolik. He had been on the trail only a few minutes when he encountered Seppala. It was mid-afternoon, and the few daylight hours had turned to dusk.

Ivanoff informed Seppala that the epidemic had worsened and that the governor had ordered teams to run with the serum round the clock until it got to Nome. Worried at the news, Seppala wasted no time turning around and heading back toward Ungalik, 23 miles away. He was to take the serum back across Norton Sound if it was safe to do so, or run along the shore to Golovin, where Charlie Olsen waited to take the serum on the next leg of the relay. He was still unaware that his only child, eight year old Sigrid, was now one of Dr. Welch’s patients.

Having crossed the sound in daylight, Seppala knew that the coming storm would wreak havoc on the ice, and now that he was heading into the wind he realized that the storm was coming quickly.He had to cross the sound before the ice broke up or he and the serum, and Nome’s diphtheria victims, might all be lost.

Seppala and Togo had crossed the sound a number of times, but one time in particular had to be preying on Seppala’s mind as he headed toward it. Togo had been leading his sled across the sound during a northeastern gale on another occasion when, a few miles from shore, Seppala heard an ominous crack that let him know the sea ice was breaking up. Togo headed toward shore even before Seppala could give the command, but drew up short so fast he nearly flipped backwards. A yawning chasm of water had opened almost at Togo’s feet, but the dog had reacted quickly enough to avert immediate disaster. Seppala looked around and realized with dismay that he and his team were trapped on an ice floe and headed out to sea.

They spent more than twelve hours on that raft of ice, waiting as it drifted in the icy waters. Finally it neared land, but ran up against another floe that was jammed against the ice still connected to shore. they stopped moving, but there was still a five foot gap of water that Seppala couldn’t hope to cross. He tied a lead onto Togo and heaved the dog across the water. Togo landed on the ice and sensing what Seppala intended, the dog began pulling with all his might, narrowing the gap between the two ice floes. Then the lead rope snapped. Seppala thought he was a dead man. Then Togo, showing himself to be possessed of more intelligence and resourcefulness than most men could expect from even their lead dogs, leaped into the water and grabbed the broken end of the lead rope in his jaws. He clambered back onto the ice and continued pulling until he had narrowed the gap enough for Seppala and the sled to cross safely.

Seppala knew that he would be trusting Togo completely to make a night crossing of Norton Sound in another northeastern gale. In the Arctic darkness, and in a blowing blizzard, Seppala wouldn’t be able to see to color of the ice or hear it creaking. He didn’t hesitate, though. When he reached the Ungalik he put his life, and the lives of Nome’s diphtheria patients, in Togo’s capable paws.

His trust was not misplaced. At 8:00 that evening, Seppala and Togo pulled back onto shore at Isaac’s Point. They had crossed Norton Sound twice in one day, traveling a total of 84 miles. Such a distance was incredible. They would rest at the roadhouse at Isaac’s Point until 1:00 a.m., then head out again. The next driver of the relay was waiting at Glolvin, another 50 miles away. As the dogs and the man slept, the ice in Norton Sound began cracking.

By the time Seppala hitched Togo and the rest of the dogs to the sled again, the wind was howling. An old Eskimo man warned Seppala not to go back out onto the ice of the sound, and Seppala would heed the advice for the most part. But unless he drove across the ice, the trail between Isaac’s Point and Golovin was extremely rugged. In fact, the current path of the Iditarod Race follows a different trail because of the dangers. Seppala’s route from Shaktoolik to Golovin was made even worse by high winds and temperatures of less than -40 degrees.

The ice Seppala and Togo had crossed just hours before had already begun to break up, so they also faced the constant threat of the ice breaking apart beneath them, even just a few yards from shore, and yawning chasms of open water. The howling wind blinded Seppala and, again in the darkness, he trusted Togo entirely. Once they crossed the last bit of frozen sound, Seppala had to be relieved, especially when he learned that by the time the sun rose the entire expanse where they had driven broke up completely.

Despite the potential hazards of the open ice, the most grueling portion of Seppala’s leg of the relay was about to begin. The team would have to climb eight miles along a series of ridges, including the 1,200 foot summit of a mountain called Little McKinley. Seppala’s hardy team was exhausted, but never stopped. They reached Little McKinley’s peak then descended three miles to the Golovin roadhouse, arriving thirteen hours after they had set out from Isaac’s point with only five hours of rest. Seppala and Togo and brought the serum 135 miles, and now, with the northeastern gale threatening even more, the serum was 78 miles from Nome and the dying children.

Charlie Olson took the Serum from Golovin to Bluff, where Seppala’s colleague, Gunnar Kaasen, was waiting with another team from Seppala’s kennels. Kaasen was to take the serum from Bluff to Port Safety after stopping to warm the serum at the Solomon Roadhouse. From Bluff, Ed Rohn was to take the serum into Nome.

None of these drivers knew how bad the storm was, though. Back in Nome, Dr. Welch was in worried conference with the public health officials. The mushers were carrying enough serum to treat 30 people, and 28 were already in Dr. Welch’s hospital. If the storm worsened and the serum was lost or frozen, all of those people would probably die. With the worsening storm threatening more than just the men on the trial, the decision was made to halt the relay until the storm had passed. Nome’s mayor could only guess where the serum was at this point, but it was almost a moot point since the telephone line only reached as far as Solomon. The mayor called the roadhouse at Solomon, where Kaasen was to rest and warm the serum, and gave the order that Kaasen should stop there until the storm passed. Word was also sent to Ed Rohn who was waiting at Port Safety, just 21 miles from Nome.

Kaasen hadn’t yet gotten the serum when the call went out, though. Charlie Olson had been hit with hurricane force winds on his leg of the relay and was making very slow time. At one point he was blown into a drift and had to dig his way out with his bare hands and then free the dogs. The fight against the wind and the blowing snow had exhausted him and he had not been able to warm himself up after digging out of the snow. When he arrived at the roadhouse at Bluff, Olson’s hands were so stiff with the cold that he couldn’t get the serum off the sled by himself. His dogs were nearly frozen, too. Their vulnerable groins were stiff with the ice and cold and the dogs limped into the roadhouse to get warm themselves. As they waited for the serum to thaw, Olson pleaded with Kaasen to wait for the storm to pass before heading out.

Kaasen was reluctant to wait. He had put together a team from Leonhard Seppala’s kennels, and believed that with the steady, strong Balto in the lead position he could make it. Balto was inexperienced as a lead dog on a run like this, and Seppala had left instructions that if another team needed to be put together his choice for the lead was a dog named Fox. Kaasen preferred Balto, though. He waited with Olson for a couple of hours. The storm showed no sign of abating. Kaasen went out at one point wearing sealskin mukluks, sealskin pants, a reindeer parka, and a second parks over that one. The wind pierced the furs, but Kaasen decided to head out anyway. He was afraid that if he waited the trail to Solomon and Port Safety would be blocked by drifts.

Just five miles from the Bluff roadhouse, Kaasen met his first drift. Balto tried to go though it but got mired in the snow. Kaassen couldn’t punch through the drift, either. Balto would have to find a way around. The dog was on an unfamiliar trail in the dark of night during a raging blizzard. He put his nose to the ground, though, and within a few minutes the team was running down the trail toward Solomon. A few miles further on the trail followed the frozen surface of the Topkok River. Kaasen was startled when Balto suddenly stopped and refused to go again. He realized that the dog had stepped into the water of a spot of overflow. Kaasen steered the team off the river and dried Balto’s paws, then ran them along the ridges toward Topkok mountain.

The storm was so bad by this point that Kaasen had no choice but to trust Balto to find his way along the trail. The man just held onto the sled and let the dogs do the work. It wasn’t until he recognized Bonanza Slough that he realized that he had completely missed the Solomon Roadhouse in the dark and the blowing snow. He was at least two miles past it. Rather than turn back, though, Kaasen decided to keep pushing toward Port Safety and the next leg of the relay. Because he missed the roadhouse, he never got the message that the health officials had ordered the relay halted to let the storm pass.

He started the dogs back on the trail through Bonanza Slough. The slough created a wind tunnel for the hurricane force winds of the storm. More than once the sled was literally picked up by the wind and the dogs became tangled in their harnesses. Each time Kaasen had to remove his gloves to right the sled and untangle the dogs. Then a particularly mighty gust picked up the team and tossed them all into a drift. Kaasen had to dig himself and the dogs out. He felt the bed of the sled for the serum. The box was gone! Panicked, Kaasen floundered around in the drift, finally locating it. He lashed it to the sled with extra straps this time and without further incident made it to Port Safety.

Believing that Kaasen would stay at Solomon, Ed Rohn had gone to bed at the Port Safety roadhouse. Kaasen considered waking him, but rejected the idea since Rohn’s dogs would have to be fed and then hitched to the sled for the continuing trip. It was about 3:00 in the morning, and Nome was about 20 miles away. Since leaving Bonanza Slough the storm appeared to be abating somewhat, so Kaasen decided to press on.

At 5:30 a.m. Gunnar Kaasen pulled into Nome with the serum. “Witnesses … said they saw Kaasen stagger off the sled and stumble up to Balto, where he collapsed, muttering: “Damn fine dog.”

Seppala with Togo, and Kaasen with Balto

Leonhard Seppala with Togo, and Gunnar Kaasen with Balto

Next: the Conclusion

August 6, 2007 Posted by | Children, Death, Health, History | Leave a comment

Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run (Part V)


Half an hour after Charlie Evans and his dead lead dogs had arrived in Nulato, the serum was thawed and Tommy Patsy, another Athabaskan driver with a formidable reputation for his wilderness survival skills, headed down the trail following the Yukon River to Kaltag, the last stop on the run before the trail rose into the Nulato Hills. He covered his 36 miles in about three and a half hours, making the best time of the entire relay at just over 10 miles per hour.

Jackscrew, a Koyukuk Indian, took the serum through the mountains from Kaltag to Old Woman Shelter. To lighten the dogs’ load and make better time on this difficult stretch of the trail, Jackscrew ran uphill through the woods of the Nulato Hills for a good bit of the first 15 miles of his 40 mile leg of the relay. Once he passed the Kaltag Divide and headed downhill toward Norton Sound, he climbed back aboard the sled.

Victor Anagick took the 34-mile leg from Old Woman Shelter to Unalakleet, across mostly open tundra and through the stunted coniferous taiga closer to the coast, where he passed the package to Myles Gonangnan, an Eskimo musher.

On the morning of Saturday, January 31, at Unalakleet on the southern shore of Norton Sound, Gonangnan took the measure of Norton Sound. He had to make the decision as to whether to cross it or go around it. The shortest route from Unalakleet would have been straight across Norton Sound to Nome. Leonhard Seppala had been warned against taking this route as it was entirely too risky. The center of the sound at this point rarely froze entirely because of the currents and motion of the water.

Norton Sound is an inlet of the Bering Sea. Nome, Alaska, sits on its north shore. The sound is about 150 miles long and about 125 miles across. Norton Bay is its northeast arm. The Yukon River, along which the teams of dogs drew their sleds carrying the precious diphtheria antitoxin serum in January 1925, flows into the sound from the south. The sound is only navigable from May to October. In October the sound begins to freeze as average temperatures dip well below freezing. By January, when the average temperature is below zero, the sound is completely frozen.

The closer you got to the sound, the more conscious you became that the ice was in a constant state of change and re-creation. huge swaths would suddenly break free and drift out to sea or a long narrow lead of water would open up…. Depending on the temperature, wind, and currents, the ice could assume various configurations – five-foot-high ice hummocks, a stretch of glare ice, or a continuous line of pressure ridges, which look like a chain of mountains across the sound. …

Then there was the wind. It was a given on Norton Sound that the wind howled and that life along these shores would be a constant struggle against a force that tried to beat you back at every step of every task. But when the wind blew out of the east, people took special note. These winds were shaped into powerful tunnels, and gusts barreled down mountain slopes and through river valleys, spilling out onto the sound at spectacular speeds of more than 70 miles per hour. The could flip sleds, hurl a driver off the runners, and drag the wind chill down to minus 100 degrees. Even more terrifying, when the east winds blew, the ice growing out from shore often broke free and was sent out to sea in large floes.

The Cruelest Miles, pp. 195-196

The overland route was safer than crossing the sound even in the best conditions. Gonangnan considered the fact that the wind had been blowing for several days from the west, pushing the ice against the coast and raising the level of the ice in the sound and weakening it. Had the wind remained from the west, the decision would have been easier. Even if the ice broke into floes, it would be blown toward shore and a sled team could navigate safely along the floes to shore. With the shift in the wind’s direction, though, the ice was being blown out to sea. More disturbing was that the northeast wind was building in strength. A storm was coming and would be there soon. When it came, the ice would be likely to break up. He decided not to risk the shortcut directly across Norton Sound. He turned northeast, toward Shaktoolik.

On the other side of Norton Sound, at about the same time, Leonhard Seppala was facing south and facing the same decision as Myles Gonangnan. Although he had been told not to risk the crossing, he knew that the fastest way to get the serum in the hands of Dr. Welch was to go across that frozen expanse. In two days he had covered about 110 miles, and had 200 more to go before he got to Nulato where he believed the serum would be waiting. Word had not reached him that not only had the number of teams in the relay increased tenfold, but that the serum had passed Nulato 24 hours before and was just on the other side of the sound.

Seppala decided the time saved by crossing the sound was worth the risk. Doubtless he would have hesitated even less had he known that his own daughter, Seigrid, had been admitted to Dr. Welch’s infirmary that very morning with diphtheria. Five more children had died, and twenty-seven were in the hospital, and at least eighty were known to have been exposed. Nome’s epidemic was in full swing. What was worse, one of the diphtheria patients was the daughter of the owner of a roadhouse at Solomon, a small settlement near Nome. The girl had been helping to cook for guests at the roadhouse. The grim fear was that she may have unwittingly spread the disease beyond Nome.

Later that day, Dr. Welch was told that Myles Gonangnan had left Unalakleet. With great relief Welch sent a telegram to the Public Health Service saying that the 300,000 units of serum from Anchorage was expected by noon the following day, February 1. Dr. Welch was unaware that the weather was conspiring against his patients.

The trail between Unalakleet and Shaktoolik is windy even in good weather, but sometimes the winds can blow from the north at more than hurricane force, with temperatures well below zero and chill factors worse than minus one hundred. Winds like that create ground blizzards, white-out conditions in which a sled can flip and men and dogs can freeze trying to find each other.

As the wind rose on the souther side of Norton Sound, snow blew in deeper and deeper drifts. At last Gonangnan had to break trail for his dogs. Breaking trail consisted of walking back and forth across the trail in snowshoes, tamping down the snow until it was firm enough to hold the weight of the dogs. The trail breaking was a slow, laborious effort. In five hours, Gonangnan had made only 12 miles. He stopped at a fishing camp to warm himself and the serum. He knew he was still at least nine hours from Shaktoolik, and had extremely difficult terrain to cross.

Five miles further along the trail were the Blueberry Hills, where the team would have to climb a 1000 foot summit then descend again to the beach. Wind tunnels in this region were brutal enough without the addition of the storm Gonangnan knew was coming. From the fishing village to Shaktoolik there were no shelters, abandoned or otherwise. If the storm hit while he was on this stretch of trail, it would be unpleasant indeed.

The wind was vicious and unrelenting on the way up the Blueberry Hills. By the time the team reached the summit Gonangnan was blinded by whiteout conditions. He had no time to prepare when the team suddenly began its steep descent toward the dunes along the sound. He held on and held his breath for the next three miles, and made it safely down to the beach only to find that the wind was blowing at gale force and and the wind chill was at least -70 degrees. He rode the sled for another four hours, arriving at Shaktoolik at 3:00 p.m.

There was no sign of Leonhard Seppala. Where was the famous musher?

Next: Seppala, Togo, and Balto 

August 5, 2007 Posted by | Children, Death, Health, History | Leave a comment

Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run (Part IV)


serum-run-1-salisbury.jpg

Newspapers had picked up the story of the epidemic early. As the tone of the telegrams between Nome and the outside world became more urgent, radio began to carry the story to an even broader audience. Winter storms swept across the continent as Nome waited for the serum, and people enduring zero degree weather on the East Coast were amazed at the determination and hardiness of the dog sleds driving through temperatures more than 50 degrees colder. The entire nation was transfixed by its radios, chewing its fingernails in hopes that the men and dogs could brave the blizzards and hurricane force winds of the Alaskan winter storms, cross an untrustworthy seasonal ice pack, and deliver the serum to the exhausted doctor and nurses as the number of victims reportedly rose with each passing hour.

On January 28, the exhausted and frostbitten Wild Bill Shannon handed the package over to a 20 year old Athabaskan musher named Edgar Kallands at Tolovana. Kallands made his five hour, 31 mile run to Manley Hot Springs under essentially the same conditions that had nearly done Shannon in. The temperature was -56 Farhenheit. When Kallands arrived in Manley Hot Springs, his gloves, with his hands inside, had frozen to the handlebar of the sled. “The roadhouse owner had to pour boiling water over the birchwood bar to pry him loose,” the Associated Press reported.

At Manley Hot Springs, the precious cargo was handed to Dan Green, who took it another 28 miles to Fish Lake, where another Athabaskan driver, Johnny Folger, took possession of it and got it to Tanana, another 26 miles closer to Nome. At each stop, just as the Anchorage doctor had instructed, the serum was warmed for fifteen minutes. From Tanana, Sam Joseph, also an Athabaskan Indian, took the serum another 34 miles to Kallands, the settlement named for the family of young Edgar Kallands. Titus Nikolai then transported the package 24 miles to Nine Mile Cabin, where he gave it to Dave Corning. Corning took it another 30 miles to Kokrines, then Harry Pitka took it the next 30 miles to Ruby. At Ruby, Bill McCarty took over and drove 28 miles to Whiskey Creek, where Edgar Nollner waited. Nollner delivered the package to his brother George at Galena, another 24 miles closer to Nome.

George Nollner took the serum 18 miles to Bishop Mountain. He arrived at 3:00 a.m. on Friday, January 30. He and his friend Charlie Evans, the next driver in the relay, sat in the relative warmth of the cabin. Like everyone else along the way, they were worried that the deep cold and the infrequent thawing of the serum would render it useless. The temperature at Bishop Mountain was -62 degrees Fahrenheit, and Evans had thirty miles to go to Nulato, the halfway point, where Leonhard Seppala expected to take possession of the precious serum and return to Nome.

Evans ran into trouble as he approached the convergence of the Koyukuk and Yukon rivers. Water had broken through the ice and the trail was covered with dangerous overflow. Overflow is caused when because of the pressure beneath the solid surface of ice, water breaks through in a gush, then continues seeping. Sheets of extremely slick, glacier-like ice result from the water flowing over the ice. An ice fog also develops at about -50, when the relatively warmer water vapor from the overflow turns to tiny ice crystals in the air. The ice fog Evans encountered was as high as his waist. He could no longer even see his dogs, much less the trail.

Eventually, a breeze began to blow that dissipated some of the ice fog. This was a mixed blessing, though, because with the breeze came a worse wind chill. Evans couldn’t get off the sled to warm himself with exercise. If he did, and the ice fog thickened again, he’d be lost, and the dogs would have gone on without him. Less than ten miles from Nulato, the unthinkable happened. Evans had two lead dogs he had borrowed for the run. First one collapsed and had to be loaded onto the sled, then the other collapsed. Evans hitched himself to the sled and led the team the rest of the way to Nulato. When he arrived about 10:00 a.m., both lead dogs were dead.

The serum had arrived at the halfway point in three days, the shortest time that distance had ever been traveled. Leonhard Seppala had expected to meet the serum in Nulato, but the Territorial governor had other ideas. On that Friday, January 30, ten days after Dr. Welch had confirmed diphtheria among Nome’s population, the death toll stood at five. Getting the serum to Nome as fast as possible was paramount.

Leonhard Seppala, who held the records for the fastest runs by dog sled, had set out from Nome on January 26 planning to travel a total of 630 miles. Traveling that distance without rest would be impossible and time was of the essence. Alaska’s territorial governor made the decision to add more drivers and dogs to the number making the relay. The idea was that the fresher the teams were, the faster they’d get the serum to Nome. All in all 20 drivers and their teams of dogs would be participating in the relay.

Seppala had already set out on the first 315 mile leg of his journey, though, and he was still the best one to take the serum across the pack ice of Norton Sound. Driving across the frozen sound would shave a full day off the time it would take to get the serum to Nome. There was no way to get word to Seppala, though, that the plan had changed. As drivers were called to participate in the relay they were told to keep a look out for Seppala and to hand the serum over to him when they saw him.


Next: Crossing the open ice of Norton Sound; and the canine heroes Togo and Balto

August 3, 2007 Posted by | Children, Death, Health, History | 10 Comments

Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run (Part III)


seppla-and-togo.jpg

Leonhard Seppala and His Lead Dog, Togo

 

Getting the diphtheria antitoxin to Nome the fastest way possible was paramount. The lives of scores of people, if not the whole town, depended on it.

The original plan for dog sleds was for two teams to meet in the middle. One team would set out from the end of the railroad at Nenana, and the other would set out from Nome. They would meet in the middle, at Nulato, and the Nome team would return with the serum.

The logical choice for the team to make the round trip between Nome and the halfway point was Leonhard Seppala and his team of Siberian Huskies, led by Togo. Togo was 12 years old, which was somewhat elderly, but he had been Seppala’s lead dog for tens of thousands of miles across the Alaskan Interior. Seppala himself held records for races like the All-Alaska Sweepstakes. He had trusted Togo with his life more than once.

Togo had not originally seemed like lead-dog material. In fact, Seppala tried to sell him twice, but Togo kept finding his way back to Seppala’s kennels. When he was just eight months old, Togo had escaped the kennel and followed Seppala. Seppala couldn’t turn back to return Togo, so he let the pup run with the team. Togo finished that trip in the harness next to the lead dog, and Seppala realized that Togo had great potential.

Alaska’s territorial governor was familiar with Seppala’s speed records across the frozen expanse of Northern Alaska’s interior, but thought that the fastest way to get the serum to Nome was by a relay involving more teams – thus, no team would be driving exhausted, the dogs would at their fastest and freshest, and the serum would get to Nome where it was desperately needed that much faster. The governor sent a telegram to the US Postal Inspector in Nenana, who would have the closest official contact with the mushers. The Postal Inspector contacted the Northern Commercial Company, which actually hired the drivers of the dog sleds. The company notified drivers all along the route to be ready for a relay. They wouldn’t be getting paid for this run. It was a mission of mercy.

Twenty teams of men and dogs took part in the relay. Athabaskan Indians (native to the Alaskan interior), Eskimos (native to the Alaskan coasts), and US Postal Service mushers all participated.

Dogs and men are believed to have arrived in Alaska together, walking across the Bering Land Bridge. Although the people native to Alaska hunted other animals, the dog was their only domesticated species. Dog fur kept Eskimos warm, dog meat filled their bellies when there was no other source of food. Dogs were used for hunting, as beasts of burden, and as guides through the confusing white terrain. It is believed that the Eskimos first came up with the idea of hitching dogs to sleds. The Athabaskans of the interior did not use sled dogs until after white men came to Alaska.

Twenty-four hours after the crate of diphtheria antitoxin serum left Anchorage, Alaska, the temperature in Nenana, Alaska, at the end of the railroad, was fifty degrees below zero. Traditionally, when the temperature reached -38 degrees Fahrenheit, so cold that mercury froze in thermometers, neither man nor beast went out. Wild Bill Shannon set out from Nenana with his team of Malamutes in that searing cold for a fifty-two mile run over very rough terrain. Normally the 52 miles between Nenana and Tolovana, where the next team in the relay waited, took two days with an overnight stop in Minto.

The train from Anchorage arrived at 9:00 p.m. January 27, 1925. Despite being cautioned by the Nenana Postal Inspector to wait until morning to start the run to Tovolo, Shannon insisted upon leaving immediately. “People are dying,” he said. His attitude was the attitude of every driver in the relay.

The trail normally used by the dog sleds had been churned up by horses in the days before, so Shannon turned his team to run on the frozen surface of the Tanana River. The air over the river was even colder, and the danger of water breaking through the ice was ever-present. As time wore on, Shannon had a harder time warming his feet and hands. He began losing his focus. Suddenly Blackie, his lead Malamute, swerved, taking the sled in a new direction. Shannon nearly lost his grip on the sled and looked around in surprise at Blackie’s move. He saw a black hole in the ice – an area of open water that the team had narrowly missed. Thanks to Blackie’s canine perceptions and quick thinking, disaster had been averted. It would not be the only time along this relay that the serum was nearly lost. But for the wit and courage of the lead dogs, the serum would never make it to Nome.

The temperature continued to drop through the Arctic night. Shannon felt his extremities freezing and knew he had to take steps to get the blood circulating in his body. So, he took steps. He got off the sled and literally ran alongside the team. This helped for only a short time, and soon Shannon realized he was in real danger of hypothermia. By the time he reached Minto, the halfway point between Nenana and Tolovana, the outside temperature was -62 degrees. Four dogs had bloody muzzles from breathing the icy air, and Shannon’s face was black with frostbite.

After four hours of warming himself by the stove in Minto, Shannon set out for the remaining 22 miles of the run to Tolovana. He had to leave three of his dogs behind because they were too weakened by pulmonary hemorrhaging caused by the cold to continue. A fourth dog looked questionable, but Shannon decided to take him. If necessary, that dog could be unhitched from the team and ride the rest of the way to Tolovana. Shannon made it to Tolovana by 11:00 a.m. on January 28. It was -56 degrees Farhenheit when he turned the precious cargo over to Edgar Kallands, the next driver in the relay.

In Nome that same morning, Leonhard Seppala set out. He had 315 miles to travel to get to the halfway point at Nulato, then 315 miles back to Nome with the serum. On the way he had to traverse the questionable pack ice of Norton Sound. The Sound might be completely frozen or it might have ice floes that would kill him and his team. the shortest distance between Nulato and Nome lay directly across the Sound, though.

In the meantime, the number of confirmed cases of diphtheria in Nome were increasing by the hour. Although both the white and native populations obeyed the quarantine, the strain was extremely virulent and and probably infected the population well before the quarantine had been ordered. The diphtheria bacterium could live for weeks outside its human host on something as benign as a toy. The children of the area had all attended Christmas celebrations and had been in school and church prior to the quarantine.

Nome’s mayor contacted the territorial governor again, begging for relief by airplane. A little more serum, enough to treat perhaps five people, had been located in Juneau and was being sent by rail to Nenana to await the next mail run. It wouldn’t be enough.

Next: more dogs, and a nation holds its collective breath …

July 31, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Children, Death, Health, History | Leave a comment

Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run (Part II)


serum-telegram.jpg

Diphtheria has now been largely eradicated in developed countries. In the US, for example, preschool children typically receive multiple doses of the DPT vaccine, which immunizes them against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), and tetanus. Children who are not immunized, especially those who are in close proximity to other non-immunized children, are most prone to the disease, even in places where it was previously under control. For example, after the fall of the Soviet Union a lapse in enforcement of the immunization programs resulted in outbreaks in several its former states. In 1924, though, the children of Nome had not been immunized against diphtheria. Indeed, the vaccine had only been successfully tested the previous year for the first time. Antibiotics were not available to treat the disease until after World War II.

Prior to 1891, a child with diphtheria could be expected to die within a few days of falling ill. Diphtheria was a dreadful disease, highly contagious and had a mortality rate of nearly one hundred percent. Children are the most vulnerable targets of this bacterium, although it can infect and kill adults, too. In a single outbreak between 1735 and 1740 diphtheria killed as many as 80% of the children under 10 years of age in some New England towns.

In the 1880s a method of intubation was discovered that prevented victims from suffocating, but this method did not stop the toxic effects of the bacteria. The mortality rate fell to 75%, which was small comfort when the disease attacked a community.

In the 1890s, however, a Prussian physician, Emil von Behring, developed an antitoxin that did not kill the bacteria, but neutralized the toxic poisons that the bacteria releases into the body. The first Nobel Prize in Medicine went to Dr. von Behring for this discovery and the development of this serum therapy for diphtheria. It was this serum Nome so desperately needed.

Six of Nome’s children had died of diphtheria by January 22, 1925, the day the telegram was sent pleading for serum. Two days later, two more children had died, Welch had confirmed diphtheria in 20 children, and 50 more were at risk of contracting the disease because of exposure to sick siblings.

The only ground-based link to the rest of the world during the winter is the Iditarod Trail, an established mail route used by the mushers and their teams of dogs. The trail stretches 938 miles from Seward on the southern coast of Alaska, across several mountain ranges and the vast tundra of the Alaskan interior before reaching Nome, situated on an icy port just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle. Because the cockpits of airplanes were open in 1925, the only way mail and supplies could get to Nome was the dog sled.

Nome, Alaska, sits at the top of the world. In January, the coldest month of the year, temperatures hover in single digits much of the time. In late January 1925, though, a series of winter storms were blasting across northern Alaska, pushing temperatures 30, 40 and 50 degrees below zero. It was through these strong winds and driving snows, and through the perpetual twilight of the Arctic winter, that the dogs and their mushers would have to transport the serum.

It was decided that the serum would travel by train to Nenana, as far as the tracks could take it. A teams of dogs would meet the train and take the serum to Nulato, approximately half the distance between Nenana and Nome. Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian musher based in Nome, would take delivery of the serum and transport it back to Nome. Seppala and his dogs were famous for having won races across the Alaskan interior, and it seemed logical that he should hurry the serum to Nome.

Now that there was a plan for transporting the serum, Dr. Welch waited to hear that sufficient serum had been located and could be sent to Nome. In the meantime, as more children and adults developed the gray membrane of diphtheria, Dr. Welch began administering the expired serum that he had on hand. Possibly the confirmed case that worried Dr. Welch the most was that of Nome’s school superintendent, who was also a teacher. Every child in the Nome area would have been exposed to diphtheria through him. Dr. Welch hoped that the million units of serum he had requested would be enough to treat the entire population.

News finally came that 1.1 million units of the serum had been located at hospitals along the west coast of the US, but it would take until January 31 for the serum to arrive in Seattle to begin the trek to Nome. The serum was gathered and began its trek north. Having confirmed diphtheria on January 20, Dr. Welch knew that if no serum arrived until well into February, it would be too late for many of the children of Nome.

A few days later, 300,000 units of serum were located at a railway hospital in Anchorage. It wasn’t enough to save the town, but it was a start. Anchorage’s supply of serum would reach Nome long before the serum being sent from Seattle. The serum was packed in as much cushioning as possible to protect it from the jarring of the sled. The doctor in Anchorage pinned a note to the blanket surrounding the crate of serum instructing the mushers to warm the serum for fifteen minutes at each stop along the trail. He delivered the crate to the railroad and sent it north to Nenana. The serum would arrive in Nenana on January 27, a week after little Billy Barnett had died of diphtheria.

Next: the dogs…..

July 29, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Children, Death, Health, History | Leave a comment

Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run


It’s almost August in Arkansas. That means it’s hot and the air is so heavy and stands so still I can lift a chunk of it in one hand and cut it with a knife.

How can someone who hates hot weather keep cool? She gets creative. In addition to tall glasses of sweet iced tea, sun dresses, and air conditioning cranked so low you could hang meat from my ceiling, I decided to pull out an old favorite: a book about dog sledding that I read a few years ago. There’s nothing like the thought of the Iditarod to put ice in one’s blood, now is there?

This isn’t a book review, although if you want to read more about the serum run the book I read is an excellent choice.

Pull up your chairs and settle in. Let me tell you a story about what really, truly happened one long wintry night in Alaska – where winter nights last for months.

 

Map of the Serum Run, January 1925, from The Cruelest Miles

 

Map of the January 1925 Serum Run along the Iditaraod Trail from The Cruelest Miles

 

 

 

Prior to reading The Cruelest Miles, a fabulous book by Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury about the legendary inspiration for the annual Iditarod dog sled race, my own knowledge about the Serum Run came from the news reports of the Iditarod, most of which I ignored, and my son’s old videotape of the animated feature, Balto, which I watched and listened to ad nauseum when he was a little guy. Although I suspected that the children’s movie had taken liberties with the facts, I was compelled to buy the book because of it as much as by the chance to read another vignette from American history. And yes, the movie did take generous liberties with the facts. Apparently, so did the creators of the statue of Balto that sits at the Children’s Zoo in Central Park in New York City.

The 674 mile trek was endured by brave Alaskan dog-sledders to stop the Nome diphtheria outbreak in the dead of winter, 1925. The Salisburys’ book is altogether readable and informative not only about the desperate race against the disease, but also about dog-sledding, Alaskan topography and climate, the personalities and temperaments of the sled dogs themselves, and of the score of determined men who accepted the challenge to risk their own lives to save a town of dying children at the top of the world almost 100 years ago.

Suspense gripped the entire world during each leg of the desperate race to get the diphtheria anti-toxin to Nome in time to save the town. The book intersperses fascinating facts and asides which leave the reader hungry for more, but not impatient with the interruptions of the dramatic unfolding of events. The story has great flavor because of the fullness of its telling. As each team of dauntless dogs is hitched to their sled, the anti-toxin’s epic journey is punctuated with the unfolding crisis back in Nome.

When an Eskimo family brought one of their four children to him in the fall of 1925, Nome’s local doctor, Curtis Welch, did not immediately suspect diphtheria, nor did he realize that he was seeing an epidemic in its infancy. He believed at first that he was dealing with tonsillitis, inflammation of the tonsils and throat caused by a virus or bacteria. None of the other children in the family were ill, and the parents reported no other instances of sore throats back in their village. Since diphtheria is highly contagious, it was unlikely that only one child would be affected, and in the decades he had been practicing medicine in Alaska’s northwest, no cases of diphtheria had been diagnosed. The Eskimo child died the next morning, though. Although Welch first concluded the cause of death to be from tonsillitis, which was rare. After the cases of diphtheria began making themselves known, though, Welch changed the death certificate to reflect diphtheria as the child’s cause of death.

That fall and winter Welch noticed an unusually high frequency of tonsillitis and sore throats. On Christmas Eve, he saw a seven-year-old girl with a severely sore throat. Her Eskimo mother would not permit him to examine her fully without the child’s Norwegian father present, and the father had left the area on business. The little girl died four days later. This was now the second death from tonsillitis. Deaths from tonsillitis did occur, but even in days before antibiotics they were extremely rare. When news came that four other native children had died after suffering from sore throats, Welch began to suspect that something was amiss.

Diphtheria is an airborne bacteria that thrives in the moist membranes of the throat and nose and releases a powerful toxin that makes its victims tired and apathetic. In two to five days, other, more deadly symptoms would appear: a slight fever and red ulcers at the back of the throat and in the mouth. As the bacteria multiplied and more of the toxin was released, the ulcers thickened and expanded, forming a tough, crusty, almost leathery membrane made up of dead cells, blood clots, and dead skin. The membrane colonized ever larger portions of the mouth and the throat, until it had nowhere left to go and advanced down the windpipe, slowly suffocating the victim. [The Cruelest Miles, p. 36]

On January 20, a three year old boy, Billy Barnett, displayed the characteristic gray membrane of diphtheria. Dr. Welch was no longer just guessing. Since the diphtheria antitoxin his hospital had on hand had expired, and the fresh antitoxin he had ordered during the summer of 1924 did not arrive before the Bering Sea froze completely that fall, Dr. Welch had no choice but to watch the tiny boy die. Then the day after Billy Barnett’s death, an Eskimo girl with obvious diphtheria died.

Dr. Welch was aware of the significance of the problem. During the influenza pandemic of 1918, the native population had attempted to flee the disease and instead spread it further. If a panic occurred, the disease would not be limited just to Nome’s population of about 1500. Diphtheria is highly contagious and the bacteria was capable of living for weeks outside a human host. Panicked flight would guarantee the spread of the epidemic faster and farther, and containing it, especially during northwest Alaska’s brutal winter, would be impossible.

The town council met and were informed of the dire circumstances. Nome had been devastated by the flu pandemic six years before, losing more than half its population. Of 300 orphans created by the flu pandemic in Alaska, 90 of them were in Nome. The men were well aware of the seriousness of the situation.

The decision was made to quarantine the town and to prohibit any group gatherings. Children, the ones most likely to be affected by the disease, would not be permitted to leave their homes at all. Two urgent telegraphs were sent. One went to the US Public Health Service in Washington, DC. The other was an all-points bulletin for the entire of Alaska.

Nome’s medical care team was quickly overwhelmed by sick children exhibiting the same symptoms. Not only was a deadly epidemic spreading rapidly through the town and neighboring villages, but Dr. Welch’s medical facility, the best in the region, was cut off from the rest of the world by pack ice and the harsh arctic winter. While this might be good inasmuch as a quarantine was concerned, no one would survive the epidemic to tell about it unless a delivery of antitoxin got to Nome fast.

Keep in mind, now: it’s the dead of winter two degrees below the arctic circle. The sea is frozen. There was no rail service within 700 miles of Nome. Even today there are no roads in or out of Nome, and in 1925 truck transport over such a distance, without roads, was completely out of the question.The only available airplane was a World War I model with an open cockpit – this was 1925 – which would have been almost certain suicide for the pilot in the dead of the North Alaskan winter.

The only way to get the serum to Nome was by dog sled, if serum could even be found.

To be continued…

July 28, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Children, Death, Environment, Health, History, Movies | 4 Comments

A Trick of the Tail


“Katie, you’re supposed to be drawing a picture of your friend!” Emily’s voice was a shrill, plaintive, tattle-tale whine that crawled under Miss Simpson’s skin and set up housekeeping.“Emily, let me handle any problems, please,” she said, moving quickly to Katie’s desk. Emily’s words had already cut poor Katie, though. The tiny redhead had quit drawing and her face was scrunched into a fierce scowl. Her thin arms crossed, then uncrossed stiffly, then crossed again tight against her little chest as she hunched protectively over her drawing. She didn’t look up when Miss Simpson reached for the paper.

“I told you!” Emily trumpeted as the teacher’s eyes fell on the drawing.

“This is a very good drawing, Katie,” said Miss Simpson. “Emily, keep your eyes on your own work, please.”

“Well, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to!” protested Emily.

“That’s really no concern of yours, now is it? And if you don’t mind your own business you’ll sit in the hallway for the rest of art period.”

Emily sniffed audibly and glared at Katie. What a perfect victim the brat makes, thought Miss Simpson.

At time for recess, Katie was slow to leave her desk and even slower to pull on her jacket. Miss Simpson bit her lip, then made a decision.“Katie, would you talk to me for a moment before you go outside?”

Katie turned slowly and walked woodenly over to Miss Simpson’s desk.

“That really was a good drawing,” Miss Simpson said with a smile. The child’s eyebrows knit together and her frown became, if anything, darker. She stood to the side of Miss Simpson’s desk glowering at a mote perhaps two feet off the ground and somewhere to the left.

“It really was okay for you to draw a picture of a friend other people can’t see.”

This time the little girl cut her eyes at Miss Simpson. “Other people see him,” she muttered.

Miss Simpson sighed.

“Katie, I’m going to ask Mr. Carson to spend some time with you, okay? And you can talk to him about problems you might be having with Emily or with the other students, or even at home. He’s a really nice man and he’s a good listener.”

Katie shrugged. The motion was exaggerated, defensive. The mote had moved another foot to the left, and the child took a half step toward it, still glowering.

“Go ahead to recess.” Miss Simpson watched the child slowly stomp out of the room.

***

“Miss Simpson showed me the picture you drew of your friend. Why don’t you tell me about him?”

Mr. Carson’s cajoling tone seemed not to penetrate Katie’s sullen mien. She sat tight-lipped in the molded plastic chair kicking her feet alternately toward the metal waste can. The school counselor’s cramped office could barely hold the two chairs, his desk, a file cabinet, and stacks of papers, files and books that littered every available surface. Mr. Carson allowed nearly two full minutes of silence before he spoke again.

“I’m going to talk to your parents,” he commented decisively. Katie shrugged her exaggerated shrug and swung her feet harder.

***

Mr. Carson rang the doorbell at the house on the edge of the small town. A baby cried somewhere behind the closed door. Footsteps pounded rapidly closer and a boy about ten years old and as red-haired and freckled as Katie threw open the door. “Mom!” he bawled over the staccato barks of a terrier when he saw who the visitor was. A man dressed in a sleeveless undershirt came from what appeared to be the kitchen.

“Mr. Holden? I’m Fred Carson.” The counselor held out his hand for a shake and Katie’s father led him to a sofa covered with unfolded laundry. Thrusting the clothes into a plastic basket sitting next to the sofa, Mr. Holden waved at the counselor to sit. A moment later they were joined by Mrs. Holden.

“It isn’t abnormal for a girl Katie’s age to have an imaginary friend,” began the counselor.

“Tishapus isn’t imaginary,” said Mrs. Holden.

Mr. Carson cleared his throat. “What I mean is that children often create playmates when they feel isolated among their peers.”

“He’s not her playmate,” said Mrs. Holden.

Mr. Carson shifted uncomfortably on the couch. “Perhaps you don’t understand. Katie insists that she has a friend who looks like a faun, or a satyr – like Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I assume that’s where she got the idea, anyway.”

The Holdens exchanged a look. Mrs. Holden nodded slightly to her husband, and Mr. Holden rose. “Please excuse me a moment,” he said. Mr. Carson gestured permissively.

As her husband left the room, Katie’s mother turned to face the school counselor directly. “Mr. Carson, we don’t expect you to believe Katie. We hope you will believe your own eyes, though.”

Before he could respond, Mr. Carson’s jaw dropped and his eyes widened. Accompanying Mr. Holden back into the living room was a creature about five feet tall which looked for all the world like it had the legs and haunches of a goat, the torso of a man, and wickedly curved horns on its head.

“Mr. Carson, meet Tishapus,” said Mr. Holden.

***

Detective Dennis P. O’Leary banged the empty coffee mug down so hard it should have broken. The sharp sound bounced off the bare walls of the interrogation room. The stranger on the other side of the table winced just slightly at the noise, then his expression smoothed out again.

“I told you, we don’t take to vagrants here in my town,” O’Leary barked. The stranger’s wide-eyed stare didn’t betray fear. Inexplicably, he only seemed curious, his head cocked slightly to one side.

“Why not?” asked the stranger in his odd, lilting accent.

“Why not? Why NOT?” blustered O’Leary. “Because we don’t!”

The stranger nodded thoughtfully. O’Leary had the notion the stranger was filing his response away to study later.

“What do you tolerate, then?” the stranger asked. His words were mild, not at all confrontational.

“What do you mean, ‘What do we tolerate’? We tolerate law-abiding citizens and visitors who know their place!”

“What place is that?”

O’Leary’s eyes narrowed as he leaned across the table, his out-thrust chin close to the stranger’s long goatee. “Are you getting smart with me, boy? Because if you’re getting smart with me you won’t be leaving my jail until a judge says you can.”

The stranger’s expression showed confusion for just a fleeting flash of a moment, then rearranged to display detached curiosity. “I am trying to become smarter, yes,” he answered. “Will you share your knowledge with me?” He held up his oddly deformed hand and reached toward O’Leary.

O’Leary slammed his big fist on the table so hard the empty ceramic mug jumped. The stranger jumped slightly, too.

“Boy, your mouth is getting you in deeper,” warned the burly policeman.

“Deeper?” This time the stranger’s confusion lingered in his expression for more than a split second. “I do not understand ‘deeper.’ Can you explain it to me in other words?”

O’Leary spun on his heel and banged on the locked door, which opened almost immediately to admit a smaller man who nodded to O’Leary as the policeman left the room. The new man took the seat O’Leary had vacated. He was silent for almost three full minutes, just studying the stranger through frankly appraising eyes. Then he cleared his throat.

“Do you remember me?” he asked.

“You are Doctor Will Handy. I remember you.”

“The police need your real name,” Handy said.

“I do not believe they will be able to pronounce my name. They may call me Tishapus, like the others do.”

“The police need your real name,” Handy repeated.

The stranger was quiet for a moment, then Handy’s head spun as a whisper of sound, emotion, and images assaulted his mind. Even seated solidly in his chair the psychologist nearly lost his balance.

“Tishapus is a good name,” the stranger explained.

“No, I need your name,” Handy objected. Again the feelings, images, and unrepeatable tones washed over him.

“Really, Tishapus will have to do, unless you prefer to use a different word for me.”

Handy’s head swam, but this time from understanding. “That’s your name?” he whispered. “How did you do that?”

The stranger peered intently into Will Handy’s eyes for several long moments. “My language works differently than yours,” he finally said. The statement was so obviously true, and so obviously impossible, that Dr. Handy’s mind reeled.

The psychologist rose shakily and paced the room. He returned to the chair, sat down, sat silently for a moment, then rose again and stood across the table from the stranger.

“Where are you from?” he asked Tishapus.

“The children call it Heaven, but it is not the heaven of your culture’s religious belief system.”

“The children are right,” Handy said it almost to himself, but the stranger heard and nodded.

“The young always accept notions foreign to them much easier than do fully grown creatures,” agreed the stranger. “In this case I believe they have imposed a familiar idea onto their new knowledge. It most likely makes the new knowledge easier for them to talk about among themselves and with others.”

Will Handy nodded thoughtfully.

“Where will you go if the police release you?” he asked after a few moments.

“Katie’s playhouse is comfortable for my present purposes,” the stranger said amiably.

“You understand that Mike and Beth Holden say you can stay in their home, don’t you?”

“Yes, but my studies will best be conducted if the local population has better access to me. Although it would probably be the best place for my research, Mike Holden said that I could probably not stay in the gazebo in the park.” The stranger hesitated. “Who could give me permission to station myself in the park gazebo?”

“You’re actually serious,” Handy said. It was a statement, not a question.

“Of course,” the stranger – Tishapus – said.

“And you have no money, so you can’t get a room at May’s boardinghouse.”

The stranger shrugged. “Money is a concept I had not planned upon when I came to study your species.”

“My species? Not my society or my culture, but my species?”

Tishapus nodded. “We must understand the basics of your species before we try to study your social structure in great detail.”

“You’re telling me there are more… people … like you?”

“You did not expect this to be true?” the stranger’s demeanor radiated cool amusement. “Interesting.”

Handy stepped back from the table. “Excuse me, please, Tishapus.”

“Of course.”

In the hallway outside the interrogation room Handy conferred with Detective O’Leary and Captain Mitchell. “I’ve not encountered anyone like him, that’s for sure,” he began.

O’Leary snorted. “Fellow’s crazy, ain’t he? We need to call the State Hospital and have him committed.”

“No, I don’t think so,” Handy disagreed.

“You don’t really think it’s okay to let him go back to that little girl’s playhouse and camp out, receiving guests like he’s visiting royalty, do you?” the big detective sneered.

“Come on, Detective. This is something different than a regular stranger in town. You have to recognize that. You recognize it, don’t you, Tom?” Handy asked the captain.

“He’s not in a costume, that’s for sure,” Mitchell replied.

O’Leary rolled his eyes. “The hell he’s not!”

“Dennis, for Pete’s sake. His knees bend the wrong way. That’s no costume.”

“Prosthetic legs. And he’s deformed. He’s as human as you or me. His mama was on drugs or something when she was pregnant is all,” O’Leary stated flatly.

“Detective, did you ask his name?” Handy inquired.

“Yeah. He wouldn’t say. He just kind of whistled at me.”

“Whistled at you,” Will Handy echoed.

“I’m saying we should take him up to the State Hospital and have him worked over by the docs there. Not that you aren’t a doctor, Doc Handy, but you know what I mean.” O Leary’s communication skills were better suited to interrogation than to diplomacy.

“No, Dennis, he’s done nothing wrong and the parents of those kids aren’t worried about him being a danger. The Holdens have even invited him to stay in their home. No one will say he’s a danger to himself or to anyone else, other than Dave Hernandez, that is, and you know he’s never happy about anything. We can’t have him committed unless we think there’s some problem.”

“Being delusional isn’t a problem?” O’Leary demanded incredulously.

“If the delusion isn’t harming him or someone else, then no, it’s not a problem. And to be honest, I’m not so certain he’s delusional.”

Captain Mitchell nodded at Dr. Handy’s words. “I’m going to release him, then. The Holdens are waiting and want to take him home with them.”

“Wait a minute,” objected O’Leary. “What if he’s a child molester? We can’t just let him go.”

“Detective, I have interviewed the fellow, and so has Dr. Jenner. Aside from possible eccentricity, we find no delusions that we can verify as delusions. The guy isn’t human. If he is, then he’s the next step on the evolutionary ladder and we can’t verify that there are similar mutations anywhere in the world. In short, he’s not from around here. We have nothing to indicate he is a threat.”

“Not only that, but if we lock him up then we’re going to have some angry citizens to deal with,” added Captain Mitchell. “Bill Costello has drafted a habeas corpus petition that he’s going to file with Judge Miller if we hold this fellow much longer. And Judge Miller’s kid is one of Katie Holden’s friends. She’s been playing with this … Tishapus. With her daddy’s permission, I might add.”

Detective O’Leary threw up his hands in disgust. “Fine,” he snapped. “But this won’t be the end of it. I can promise this fellow’s going to be trouble sooner or later.”

***

“The Bradford County Cantaloupe Festival is apparently getting off to a good start. We’ll check back with our weather team shortly and get a live update on weather conditions for the weekend. In other news, an event of a different sort seems to be going on in the small community of Pleasant Ridge. Candy Olsen is on the scene and will tell us more.”

The red light on the camera let Candy Olsen know she was being beamed live into the living rooms of television viewers across the region. She smiled directly at the red glow and began speaking.

“Thank you, Frankie. I am waiting at the home of the Holden family of Pleasant Ridge for an event that may be monumental indeed. The being that calls itself “Tishapus” has agreed to give Channel 8 an interview, and in a few moments I hope to be sitting with him at the picnic table you see behind me. There is a festival atmosphere here. It seems the entire town has turned out to observe the interview. We’ll be broadcasting the interview on the late news tonight.”

The red light blinked out as the anchor on the set, an hour’s drive away, resumed reading from the teleprompter.

The petite blonde television news reporter settled herself uncomfortably at the child-size picnic table in the Holden’s front yard. Despite her cheerful assertion, the little house on the edge of the middle class neighborhood on the edge of the small town didn’t really seem festive. Sure, people milled around everywhere, but their faces were solemn, guarded. No festival ever seems to be protectively distrustful of television cameras. When the lens would swing in their direction more often than not the people of Pleasant Ridge frowned and looked away. Candy Olsen was certain that people attending the Bradley County Cantaloupe Festival were grinning as they ate their melons and danced in the street. She was fairly certain people there would pose for the cameras and act silly. There was no foolishness or gaiety at the Holdens’ home, though.

A commotion by the small frame house drew the attention of the people milling about the yard. Indistinct voices hummed in a higher pitch of excitement and a knot of movement crossed the 30 or so feet toward the picnic table.

The creature had been described to her, but the reporter was not quite prepared for actually seeing it in reality. In one corner of her mind she was aware that she was staring stupidly and that her gaping mouth was being caught on film. She couldn’t pull her wide eyes away from the creature, though.

Its face was vaguely human, but the planes and angles were wrong. The face looked like one of those Photoshop images of the sheep-child that periodically appear on the cover of the sillier supermarket tabloids. The face was too narrow, too long; the cheekbones too high; the beard – no, there was no beard, except for the white tuft the grew in an elegantly thick corkscrew curl from the creature’s chin. Sleek silver-gray fur covered the creature’s torso and face, then became curly ginger brown at the crown of the creature’s head. At waist level, the ginger fur reappeared, longer, curlier and denser. What was it called when dogs had that kind of coat? Wire-hair. The mouth, almost a snout or a muzzle but not quite, curved upward at the corners. She wanted to reach out and touch the horns. Were they densely matted hair, like the horn of a rhinoceros? Were they light and woody, like the antlers of a deer, or bony like those of a ram?

Candy Olsen rose from her perch on the bench of the picnic table. Tishapus walked gracefully toward her. His knees bend backwards, went through her mind. Those aren’t hooves. I thought he had deer hooves, but those are pads, or paws. No, they are hooves, they just don’t look like any hooves I’ve ever seen. Her observations of the creature’s physical characteristics fled as she felt a nudge against her mind and the sensation of amusement, not her own amusement but someone else’s tickled the edges of her consciousness.

Tishapus stopped nearly three feet away from her and bowed slightly. She saw what she thought was a stubby tail tipped with a copy of his goatee. She started to say something, then wasn’t sure what to say.

“Hello.” That was inane, she thought. What a great first impression I’m making. She mentally shook herself. She wasn’t there to make a good impression. She was there for an interview.

The reported indicated the picnic table. “Shall we sit? I’m Candy Olsen.”

The creature bowed again and moved to one end of the table. Rather than sitting on the bench he sat on his haunches. He leaned forward and crossed his arms on the table.

“Please you will excuse me,” he said softly, “But it is not comfortable for me to sit on a bench or chair the way your kind does.”

“N-no, I suppose it wouldn’t be comfortable,” she replied, unable to take her eyes off the creature.

“You have questions you would like me to answer?” She heard his voice in her ears and in her mind at the same time. She wasn’t altogether certain that his spoken words were what she really understood.

“Yes,” she said, and nervously consulted her notes. The interview began.

***

“Candy, we can’t use any of this for the playback on the late news. You’ll have to summarize what he said.” The frustration in the editor’s voice dismayed the reporter.

“None of it? But he was eloquent and answered the questions beautifully! What do you mean you can’t use it?”

“Have you listened to the tapes?”

“No, why would I? You are the editor. I just do the interview.”

“Candy, the creature didn’t speak. He sang. Or, it sort of sounds like singing. And he didn’t use words. I don’t know how you talked with him.”

“What do you mean, he didn’t use words? He spoke plainly and clearly. Everyone there heard him!”

“Watch the playback, Candy. Just watch it.”

Sighing with exasperation, the reporter nodded to the cameraman. He began the playback.

Moments later, Candy Olsen stalked away to create a summary of her interview with the creature. No one had taken notes. It was all being captured on camera, so there had been no need for notes.

***

“I’m going to miss you. I wish you wouldn’t go.”

“I will miss you, too, little one.”

“Why can’t you stay?”

“When I left my home no one believed I could come here. I have learned about your race and now I need to go back home and tell my people about you.”

“Who’s going to tell other people here about you, though?”

“The ones here who saw me and knew me will tell. They will tell the people they encounter, and those people will tell others.”

“No one believed you were real until they saw you. Once you’re gone no one will believe in you, either.”

The creature looked at the human child with sadness. “Whether or not the people who hear of me believe, those who saw me do. They know. You know.”

The little girl sighed. “What if your family and friends don’t believe you about us?” She felt Tishapus’s wry amusement.

“They probably won’t. Creatures with no tails? And intelligent creatures without horns? And the odd way your bodies are constructed? They will laugh at me and call me crazy.”

“Then why tell them?”

Tishapus thought for a moment.

“I will tell them because knowledge is good, and if our races ever meet for trade my people should understand you people’s customs.”

Katie was quiet. Then she asked, “Is that why so many of the grown-ups are going with you?”

“Yes. They want to know how to get to my people. And I think some of them still don’t believe that my people exist or that my home exists.”

“I want to come with you, too.”

“I would like that. When you are older, perhaps you can be the ambassador from your race to mine.”

Katie smiled. She hopped down from her perch on the swing and hugged Tishapus. He hugged her back.

***

The vehicles had been left behind when the road ended. A group of eight men and women hiked the mountainous trail with the creature called Tishapus. Mike and Beth Holden, who had hosted him, Bill Costello, who had defended him, Candy Olsen, who had interviewed him, Dr. Willard Handy, who had examined his mind, and Dr. Emma Jenner, who had examined his body were the friendly people along for the trip. Dennis O’Leary, who had never stopped doubting him and Freddy Carson, who had reported him as a suspicious vagrant to the authorities, were there to represent those who refused to believe what was plainly in front of them.

They were above the tree line and the terrain had become more difficult. As the group crested a ridge, there was an area that was fairly flat before a cliff face rose again. Tishapus headed for a cave opening in the cliff.

“I thought we might camp here for the night,” he explained.

Detective O’Leary snorted. “You’ve brought us all the way up here to camp out. How nice.” He had grumbled and complained the entire trek.

Bill Costello shook his head. “Give it a rest, O’Leary,” he said in disgust. “You’ll get your proof in the morning.”

Talking quietly among themselves the group began making camp.

After eating their dinner, the Holdens, Costello, and the two doctors sat near the cave entrance and played cards. O’Leary and Carson sat off by themselves talking quietly. Tishapus had wandered away from the campsite to the open terrain. Candy Olsen fidgeted with her camcorder, then walked the short distance to the creature.

“I hope I can film the city better than I could film you,” she said as she seated herself next to him.

Tishapus glanced at her and again she felt his amusement wash over her. His melancholy mood dampened it somewhat, though. “That will be a difficult experience to explain to my people,” he said.

Candy snorted. “It was difficult to explain to mine,” she agreed.

They sat quietly for a time, gazing at the flood of stars that just couldn’t be seen from populated places. “Do they look the same where you live?” The reporter asked.

“The stars are the same,” nodded Tishapus. “And they are just as difficult to see from my city as they are to see from yours.”

“I suppose that is a price civilization must pay.”

“One of many prices,” agreed the creature.

“What do you believe is the steepest price we pay to live in a society?”

“Is this another interview?”

The reporter laughed softly. “I seem to have a habit of asking questions.”

“Yes. But they are good questions.” Tishapus fell silent and Candy contented herself with soaking in the sounds and ambience of the night. An hour passed, then two. She was content to sit silently beside this strange creature.

“Acceptance,” said Tishapus.

“Excuse me?”

“Acceptance.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The steepest price we pay to live in a society. We give up acceptance.”

Candy thought for a moment. “Acceptance of what? Acceptance by whom?”

“Giving up the acceptance of what our senses tell us.”

Candy looked at Tishapus quizzically. “Who rejects what they see and hear?”

Waves of sadness washed over Candy, and she knew it was a projection from Tishapus.

“How many of your people who saw me accepted me immediately?”

Candy hesitated. There were so many who had claimed Tishapus was wearing a costume or that he was a trained animal performing for his handlers. Twice Tishapus had been asked to travel with a carnival because his “costuming” was so good. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not™ offered him a lifetime billeting as a permanent attraction at its main museum, with travel benefits and luxury accommodations when he would travel to its locations worldwide. Tishapus was a freak, a sideshow attraction. Very few people believed he was a member of a real species. At worst they referred to him as a mutant. At best, they called him deformed.

“It’s hard to accept what is strange to us, what we’ve never before seen,” she said aloud.

Tishapus nodded. “When we live in a group the group’s opinion matters. If the group thinks something is odd, wrong, or somehow unacceptable, then the individual will adopt the same opinion. It makes learning new things very difficult.”

“Do your people act this way, too?”

“My people will not believe me when I tell of my visit here. They believe that creatures such as yourself are the creatures of myth.”

“I wonder if it has always been this way.”

“I believe it has not. I believe when both of our species were younger, we accepted strange and unusual things with curiosity, not disbelief. I believe that we once accepted things more easily.”

“It’s a shame our civilizations have advanced so far, then,” Candy remarked. “One voice cannot change minds.”

“The individual’s opinion matters for nothing unless he can convince the group to agree. I cannot imagine that this is anything new. Even in a primitive society, the individual needs the cooperation of the group in order to survive.”

“‘No man is an island,’” quoted the reporter.

“An apt description. No, no individual can really survive alone. Our species are both very social species. So despite the evidence the individual sees, he must sometimes reject what he knows to be true in order to be accepted, or he risks being ostracized from his society, shunned or ridiculed for his nonsensical beliefs. He rejects the proof and reality of his senses for the acceptance of the group, because that is how individuals survive.”

Candy didn’t respond immediately.

“You’re talking about acceptance on many levels,” she finally said.

“Yes,” agreed Tishapus quietly.

***

When she sun’s first rays flooded the floor of the high ledge, Tishapus leaped up with a glad cry. Candy Olsen, who had fallen asleep sometime during her vigil with the creature, opened her eyes to a flash of brightness that was gone almost as soon as she sensed it, but which left behind an impression of golden minarets against a turquoise sky.

“Do you see? Do you see?” Bill Costello’s excitement was met by a gasp of “oh!” from Beth Holden, who walked dreamlike toward the rising sun, and by exclamations of “yes!” from Will Handy and Emma Jenner. Mike Holder said nothing, but in three strides had caught up with his wife, grasped her hand, and joined her eastward movement.

Then Tishapus was gone.

“I didn’t see anything,” announced Dennis O’Leary.

“Me, either,” groused Freddy Carson. “Let’s have breakfast and head back down the mountain. I guess Tishapus ran off in the night.”

July 5, 2007 Posted by | Children, Creative Writing, Fiction, Philosophy, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Writing | Leave a comment

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