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Maggots Can Be Good For You

I wrote the following magazine article about the bad infection I went through last winter. The article has been published online at a medical magazine called “You & Me.” Click on their title for a link it. They trimmed it from 3100 words to 1900 words, but they kept the entire heart of the article. Plus, they published a gruesome photo of my leg which I won’t subject you to here.

 

INFECTION:

MAGGOTS CAN BE GOOD FOR YOU

by Vic Warren

  

Monday, November 26, 2012. The array of I.V. bags dripping into my vein includes saline, pain killer, and three or four antibiotics. I’m not aware of much of this beyond the rich sensation that I’m lying in a bed instead of sitting in the wheelchair where I waited for two hours on an extra busy afternoon at Kona Community Hospital’s Emergency Room.

The nurse has covered me with a warm blanket, but my teeth are still chattering, and my body is shaking with fever. The nurse also told my wife, Laurel, to go home and pack an overnight bag. Laurel explains to me that Michael Dunlap, the doctor in charge of E.R., took one look at the nasty wound on my left ankle that has my whole lower leg glowing bright lobster red, and passed on his fears to her. He’s called for a medivac to fly us from Kona to a hospital in Honolulu. He said the spreading wound has reached the life-threatening stage.

The source of all this mayhem was nothing more than a delicate little cut not much more than a quarter inch long, which made the unfortunate choice of getting infected by some vicious streptococcus bacteria. Strep is never good, but when it finds a weak spot undermined by poor circulation, trouble is guaranteed even when the patient’s healing spirit is willing.

Forty minutes later, two paramedics in khaki show up with a gurney.

“We’re ready to go now, sir,” says the shorter man. “I’m Craig, and this is Matt. We’re going to take you to the airport.”

He grabs the bouquet of I.V. branches and attaches it to a shorter, more compact standard on the gurney. The two men carefully pick me up and deposit me, then double wrap me in a sheet and blanket. They strap me on, and I focus on the ceiling as I’m rolled from the E.R. room, rattled over a couple of thresholds and lifted through the doorway. They lower the gurney to the pavement, and I can see the shine of drizzle ahead in the parking lot, Mt. Hualalai’s sharing of its liquid wealth sliding down its slopes. The warm mist is like a refreshing wake-up call.

Craig and Matt pick up the gurney and slide it home into the rear of the ambulance. Craig climbs in next to me and locks my moveable bed into place.

“How you doin’?” he asks.

“Never this bad before,” I answer. “From my toes to my knee, my left leg feels like it’s on fire.”

“Oww!” he grimaces, “I’ll pump up the pain killer.” He looks ahead at Matt in the driver’s seat and says, “Let’s do some miles for this poor guy.”

The engine is already running. Matt turns on the lights and the siren and pulls out of the parking lot north on Highway 11. The siren cries through Kealakekua, and Craig says, “We’re due at the airport about the same time as the plane, but just in case he’s early.”

I look toward the rear of the ambulance and am surprised to see a couple of 1950s West Coast jazz posters displayed on the doors of the glass cases on the sidewalls. “I like the posters,” I say.

When we reach the divided lanes of Queen Ka’ahumana I look out the back window and whistle.

Because of the observatories on Mauna Kea’s summit, the entire island is built for low-level light. The lights on Queen K are like many other island lights, dark on top and bright yellow under. I’ve seen them dozens of times before, but seeing them in reverse, each glossy stripe of yellow receding into the distance, they create a whole new image of the highway after dark.

“Nurse tells me we’re picking up your wife at the airport,” says Craig.

“I guess so,” I say, rubbing my chin. “No one talked to me, but she’s not here in the ambulance, is she?”

“Hmmm, I think I should call her. What’s her cell phone number?”

I give him the number, and he calls it, and Laurel picks up immediately.

“Hi, this is Craig, Laurel. Matt and I have Vic with us in the ambulance. Where are you? Good. Just walk south past the end of the arrival area, and you’ll see a big cyclone fence with a gate in it. We’ll be there in five.”

Matt pulls off the main airport drive and stops. Craig swings the back door open and climbs out. Then I see Laurel silhouetted in the open door. She’s put on a jacket, even though it’s plenty warm in North Kona.

“Move to the front,” says Craig, taking her duffle bag. She slides up the seat facing me and gives me a smile, touching my cheek with her hand.

“Are you okay?”

“No. But better now that you’re here.”

Matt pulls ahead to the gate and waves at the guard. The gate dings open, and we drive out onto the tarmac.

“Our bird has landed,” announces Craig.

*

Dr. Nicolas Nelken is the vascular surgeon who’s going to operate on the blood vessels in my left leg to create enough flow to heal the wound on my ankle. On Thursday, the 29th, he comes into the room and pulls up a chair. He wears a ponytail and a Van Dyke beard and has a professional bearing that makes his look work.

I’m very happy to be talking to him about moving forward. It’s taken three days of antibiotics to bring me to the point where I can speak coherently, and the pain killer level can be reduced.

He crosses his long legs and says, “We have two ways to go on this. I’ve looked at the ultrasounds and decided that your femoral artery is the problem. It looks like what should be a powerful torch is behaving more like a candle. From your groin to your knee, we have blockage. Surprisingly, the three smaller arteries in your lower leg look pretty good.”

He stands up and looks down at my leg. “I want to do an angiogram to get a better look at that large artery. If it looks good enough, we can perform an angioplasty and open it enough to work well. If it’s blocked too severely, we’ll find a good vein and bypass the femoral to get your blood moving down your leg.

“Any questions?”

“When do you think you’ll be doing the surgery?”

“We’re looking at Tuesday, the 4th. Are you free then?” he asks, grinning.

“I’ll have to check my calendar, but I think I can make time,” I answer, smiling back.

*

I need to stop right here to fill you in a little on my medical history, so you’ll understand why I have to joke about this.

I came down with Type 1 diabetes when I was in my mid-twenties. My dad and my sister had both died of it, so I took it very seriously. In spite of keeping good control, the diabetes hit my eyes with diabetic retinopathy, but thanks to an excellent program at the University of Washington Medical Center, I got laser treatments that saved them. In the late 90s, the diabetes knocked out my kidneys, and I had to go on dialysis. It turns out, I was one of the very fortunate ones—in 2002, UCLA gave me a double transplant, not just a kidney, but also a pancreas, so I lost the diabetes after 33 years. I’ll take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of my life, but what a trade-off.

*

I wake up in a room I haven’t seen before. Judging by the banks of instruments and flashing lights on the wall, I could be guest starring on a TV sci-fi drama.

Except for two things. First, the bed. It’s a very comfortable, adjustable bed with lots of levers and buttons on it. But if I were in a starship med center, there wouldn’t be a bed. I’d be suspended in zero gravity to lessen the stress on my injuries. And I’d be surrounded by a 78 degree aura to keep me comfortable, not covered with a blanket. And second, the porthole in the wall would show me a small piece of deep space. This room has a picture window. I can see blue sky with patchy clouds and the top of the peaks surrounding Moanalua Valley.

I decide I must be in the hospital’s post-op area or in intensive care. And that’s confirmed when a nurse with the name tag Teresa comes in to check on me.

“How’s the pain, sir?” she asks immediately.

“Surprisingly, it’s only a two or three, not the tough stuff I was expecting.”

“Well, you’re still feeling the post-op combo Sam gave you. Let me know if it gets worse. Excuse me, but I need to check your bandage,” and she gently pulls the covers off my left leg.

The bandage from my groin to below my knee is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It looks like it could be polished leather more than two inches wide sealed by a darker section half an inch wide that surrounds it.

Teresa presses her fingers lightly along the edge.

“Quite a bandage, isn’t it?” she asks. “The shine in the material is silver that speeds healing. And the stitches on your wound are all self-dissolving. Any pain?” she asks, pressing on the bandage.

“Not at all.”

“Good. Your operation went really well. Doctor will be in shortly, and so will your wife.”

She goes to the door. “If you need anything, just buzz. Otherwise, enjoy the rest. We’ll get you something to eat a little later.”

I’m just about to drop off asleep when the door opens again, and Dr. Nelken comes in. He’s wearing his blue scrubs.

“Hi, doctor. Looks like you’re having a busy day.”

“Right you are. Surgery is not a nice, neat job where things come in measured doses.”

He crosses to my bed and says, “Let’s take a look at your and my handiwork,” and pulls the blanket from my leg. “Looks very clean, but I had some excellent help. How’s the pain?”

“Nothing much, I’m happy to say.”

“If it gets worse, let the nurse know right away. You shouldn’t put up with pain. It just gets in the way of healing.”

“So did you do the angioplasty?”

“I told you that was a possibility, but when I got in there, it was obvious that it would have to be a bypass, which fortunately went very well. We knew that there was blockage in your femoral artery. That artery, in fact, is harder than a pencil. Completely blocked, thanks to diabetes and years of smoking. It’s fortunate you quit smoking when you did, or you wouldn’t be alive today.”

He pulls the blanket back over my leg and says, “How do you like the ingenious bandage? It not only protects, it heals, as well. We’ll take it off in five days, and your sutures will heal and disappear on their own. I can see that the bypass on your right leg was a lot more complicated.”

“Yeah, it was only four years ago, but a lot of it was staples, and because of the stress on it, the ankle was hand-stitched.”

There’s a short knock at the door, and Teresa puts her head in. “Doctor, Mr. Warren’s wife is here. Is it all right if she comes in?”

“Of course she may. We’re just about done, anyway.”

The nurse opens the door, and Laurel comes in and smiles when she sees me looking somewhat conscious.

“Hi, doctor. Is he all right?”

“We have an excellent patient here. You know yourself what kind of things he’s survived, and thrived on. He has a new bypass replacing his femoral artery. When this is done, he’ll have two good legs instead of the failed ones he had just a few years ago.”

“That’s wonderful to hear.”

“I’ll let you alone now. Mr. Warren, I’ll see you later, but we’ll have Dr. Roedel checking in on you daily.”

*

Viki Lai Hipp is a wound nurse. Her official title is Wound, Ostomy and Continence Nurse. She’s a major part of the progressive attitude of Kaiser Moanalua Medical Center. And her talents were a huge help to my coming through this rough period of my life and weathering the storm.

The first time I met her, she arrived with one of the doctors to look at the wound, now that the vascular surgery team had performed a femoral bypass to give me the blood flow I needed to heal. After unwrapping the bandages and gauze, she studied the open wound which covered about fifteen square inches of my lower leg and told me they were going to use something to help it heal. Honey!

Reflecting back, I know that even in ancient times, honey was used for its medicinal properties. And today, she was applying honey over my leg. Not just any honey, but leptospermum honey, honey from bees feeding on the flowers of the manuka, or New Zealand tea tree, which I find out is famous for its ability to work against many bacteria.

As she spreads it on, its soothing feel relaxes me. She covers it securely, wraps it in gauze and says, “We’ll let it work for two days, then unwrap it.”

Two days later, everyone who looks at the results of the honey is impressed. After cleaning the honey off and looking at the improvements, she feels that a second treatment of honey is called for.

In two more days, she cleans off the honey and tells me about the next step they are recommending. Honey can’t hold a candle to the exotic nature of this treatment. For the squeamish, it’s called MDT. In plain words, it’s maggot debridement therapy. Still used in only a few places, it’s one of the most effective treatments for infected wounds, especially for diabetics. And, even though I haven’t had diabetes for eleven years thanks to my pancreas transplant, I still suffer from what diabetes did to me.

An Irvine, California company called Monarch produces disinfected phaenicia sericata larvae, sterile common green bottle fly larvae that are administered to the wound in small nets of between one and two hundred. Maggots are not interested in healthy tissue, so they only eat the diseased areas in their surroundings. They are sterile, so they bring nothing foul with them. When they’re applied, they are about the size of the tip of a ball point pen, but kind of transparent, almost like tiny pearls.

They’re wrapped securely in a nylon sleeve which allows them to breathe, and then further wrapped in thick gauze to help control the increased seeping from the wound. After two days and one gauze changing, my leg is unwrapped, and the maggots wet-vac’d and disposed of. They’ve grown to the size of fuzzy grains of rice, and the wound is much freer of necrotic tissue.

Viki decides that we’ll probably need to clean the wound with MDT four times. Six days later, Viki and Dr. Philip Bruno, an infectious disease specialist, are happy with the results and recommend that I start using a wound vac. This machine is connected to a sponge covering the wound. It draws seepage from the wound and encourages blood flow in the area and is attached by a plastic tube to a power source the size of a small vacuum cleaner that sits by my bed.

For four days, I’m leashed to the machine, and when I go for my daily walks throughout the hospital, I attach the vacuum to my walker, which groans at the extra weight. Laurel and I are relieved when we hear that they’ll be providing me with a home wound vac and sending me home on December 21st. We won’t have to celebrate Christmas in the hospital!

            It’s an interesting feeling, saying goodbye to people that I know so well, yet hardly know at all. I know nothing of their lives aside from the fact that they are good with a scalpel, or administering pain killer, or bringing me an extra blanket. And they don’t really know anything of me. They’ve seen me at my worst, howling with pain, vomiting, fouling my bed. And they’ve seen me heal, and rejoiced in that healing. But they’ve never seen me at my best. They aren’t familiar with the way I live. My likes or my dislikes. My taste in music or food.

As I shake their hands and look in their eyes, smiling with congratulations at my leaving the hospital, I know that I will probably never see them again. I want to hold them close and not say goodbye. After all, they’ve saved my life. At the very least, my leg.

*

We’re given boarding passes when we leave Moanalua, and I go through the lengthy procedure of taking a five-pound shoulder bag, the wound vac that’s cabled to my leg, through security at the airport.

It seems strange to get off the plane at our home airport in Kona. My memories of the flight over are vague indeed. I’m also not used to walking just anywhere and choose my steps carefully crossing the parking lot to our car. It’s not too bad climbing the stairs to our condo, but the pile of nearly four weeks of mail is a little disconcerting. Fortunately, I don’t have too many deadlines keeping me from it over the next couple of days.

I’m scheduled to see Dr. Paul Faringer in two and a half weeks. He’s the plastic surgeon who will be doing a skin graft to finish the wound. Oh, I forgot to mention—I have to fly back to Honolulu for the skin graft. Happily, it’s just an outpatient trip, and I’ll be home the same evening.

In the meantime, I’m wearing the wound vac, and home health nurses are changing the connection every two days.

*

January 28, 2013. I meet with Dr. Faringer for a follow-up look today. He’s very pleased with the way the graft has taken. The donor site for the skin from my left thigh is also healing very nicely. And the best news of the day is that I can shower and wash the healing ankle. I’ve been taking nothing but sponge baths for two months.

 

#

Break-in

Here’s a short story I finished recently which I hope will give you 100% of your daily requirement for suspense.

Frank Marsden was no good at climbing, and he was afraid of heights. So why in the hell did I let Johnson talk me into getting out on the roof, he asked himself. It was pitch black, thick cloud cover with no moon. And there were only a couple of lights turned on three stories below. He straddled the roof’s peak and pulled the coiled rope off his shoulder, then tied it securely, he hoped, around the chimney. At least it’s not raining, he thought, as he took a flashlight out of his coat pocket and double-checked the knot. He knew the balcony he was heading for was directly below the chimney. The fireplace served by the chimney was at the other end of the room attached to the balcony.

Marsden put the flashlight back in his pocket, took the rope in both hands and gingerly pulled his leg over the peak to lower himself down the roof. Suddenly, something whistled through the air, just missing his face.

“Christ!” It was a bat. The damned chimney must have bats living in it. He took one baby step down the roof, and started down hand over hand. He could hear more rustling coming from the chimney. He decided he’d better damned well get off this roof before all hell broke loose.

bats-flyingHe moved down more quickly until he felt air under his right foot. Wuff! This is not fun, he thought, but kept on until his legs hung down off the edge. He looked up as he heard the rope shift on the chimney and watched in terror as a black cloud rose erratically out of the opening, splintering into hundreds of tiny shapes spreading out above him. Only a couple of bats skimmed the air near him. The rest shot up and on toward the forest on the other side of the mansion.

He breathed a sigh of relief and went over the side. Looking down, he could make out the balcony just a few feet below. He dropped and rolled onto his side and lay there, his heart pounding. When his breath slowed, he stood up and looked around. The night was perfectly still, no wind, no more bats, nothing but the pulse of his own heart in his head. He crossed to the French doors and put his hand on the latch, turning it gently. It was unlocked! A nice wrinkle, he thought. They don’t expect visitors from the sky.

Marsden let himself into the room from the balcony. It was a large, long room appointed with a gallery of portraits in gilt frames, personages that looked Napoleonic and Edwardian. In the center of the room was a grand desk polychromed in scarlet and gold. This was the senator’s office, and Marsden immediately knew he had hit pay dirt. The safe would be somewhere in this room.

He worked his way down one wall, testing the paintings and the manner in which they were hung. Nothing. When he reached the far end, he noticed the fireplace that was the source of his chimney panic. In the dark corner next to the fireplace was a modest little painting in a relatively simple frame. He smiled as he realized that this was the greatest masterpiece in the room. It was a portrait by Vermeer of a young woman looking out an open window. As he looked more closely at it, he found himself holding his breath. He could feel the breeze brushing her pale skin.

Just beyond the fireplace, a door quietly opened, and Marsden froze where he stood. A man walked slowly into the room. He was built like a linebacker, probably one of the mansion’s guards, Marsden assumed. The man was dressed all in black, thick turtleneck sweater and slacks. His shoes were large and heavy. He hadn’t noticed Marsden in the darkness and walked straight to the open balcony door, pulling something out of his hip pocket that glinted silver in the shadows.

Marsden shuddered when he realized what he had to do next. The guard stepped out onto the balcony, looked around, then crossed to the railing and looked down. Marsden hit him in the back with all his strength. It was easy, really. The guard was still moving forward and the momentum took him right over the wrought iron railing. He crumpled with nothing more than a dull thud on the pavement below.

Marsden stepped to the railing and looked down at the guard. He wouldn’t be raising a cry of alarm. The pool of blood growing beneath his head caught the light from the nearby lamp post and shone darkly.

mansion darkFocus, he said to himself. You’re not done yet. You still have to open that safe. He went back to the Vermeer. It swung easily out from the wall. It was a copy, as he had figured. He rubbed his fingers on his pants and began to spin the lock. In the silence of the room, he could plainly hear the mechanism moving. He stopped, spun the dial back, then back again. There was what seemed to be a deafening click, and he turned the latch and opened the door. Piece of cake, he thought. He took the few papers that were inside and, without looking at them, stuffed them into his inside pocket.

That was when he heard the growl. It was coming from outside. From the ground below the balcony.

Shit! Some guard dog’s found the body, and there’s sure to be someone on the other end of the leash who’ll be up here in no time. He silently opened the room’s door and peered into the hall. It was empty and lighted only at the other end where the main staircase must be. The pine paneling in the hall was interrupted on both sides by several closed doors.

As far from the balcony room as possible, thought Marsden. He turned down the hall and put his hand on the doorknob of the last door on the other side of the hall. Turning it quietly, he opened it a crack and to his delight saw another dark room. He let himself in and closed the door behind him. In the dim light, he could see that he was in a small bedroom, probably one occupied by a servant high enough in rank not to be housed in the separate building he had seen outside. He pulled back the curtain and looked out the window. All was still quiet below, and frankly, he was surprised not to hear a commotion stirring anywhere. The gable of the roof above him connected here with yet another wing, and just two windows south of him was an iron fire escape, installed long after the mansion had been built. There was a candle burning in the first window. The light from it flared and flickered, nearly guttering out from the window’s draft.

I need to get to that fire escape, he thought. He went back into the hall and turned the corner.

“Ooof!”

He had walked right into a woman dressed as a maid, nearly knocking her down. She was short and pudgy with blonde hair, in a stretch still in her 30s.

He put his hands on her shoulders, keeping her from falling. “Oh, I’m sorry. I was moving too fast.”  Think, Marsden. “Are you on your way to the meeting?”

“What meeting? And who are you?”

“Forgive me again. I’m Schwartz, the new secretary. I was sent up to collect everyone for the meeting.”

“Oh, how do you do, Mr. Schwartz.”

“The meeting is down in the drawing room. You’d better hurry. I have to go make sure everyone is coming. I’ll see you down there.”

She smiled at him and said, “Of course, I’ll see you there.”

As she started down the hall, he asked, “Sorry again. What’s your name?”

“It’s Gretchen, sir.”

“Okay, nice to meet you, Gretchen,” and he turned toward the end of the hall, his heart pounding in his chest. How could she not hear it? She had turned the corner, and the very next door was the room with the fire escape. Whoa! She’s going to go down and ask about the meeting and who’s this Schwartz character, and cause ripples through security, and I’m going to be up shit creek if I don’t get out of here.

He opened the door to the next room. Another small, dark bedroom. He closed the door and crossed to the window. The fire escape was right outside. The window was sticky, but he managed to shake it back and forth, loosening it and finally sliding it up. He looked out and around. Might as well avoid blundering into someone else. There was no one he could see. No guards. No guard dogs. He swung his leg through the window and started down the iron stairs.

A shout from the other side of the building froze him. And then he realized freezing was the absolute opposite of what he should be doing, and he raced the rest of the way down three floors of stairs and dropped the five feet to the ground below. He ducked back into the man-sized azalea bushes that edged this part of the mansion.

He heard someone running and faded back so he could see through the sparse lower branches. Another guard, also in black, came around the end of this wing of the mansion. He saw something and changed his course away from the building. Marsden looked to his right and saw the guard’s target. It was a gray-haired man wearing a tuxedo with a velvet collar. Marsden recognized him. He was the owner of this estate, Senator Ted Warrington from Ohio, one of the wealthiest men in the Senate. Influential. Powerful. In love with his power. And not afraid to wield it. He was the reason that Marsden was playing spy tonight. The papers from the safe that were now in his pocket could help destroy the connection Warrington had built for illicit arms sales around the world.

Warrington and the guard spoke too low for Marsden to hear them, except for the words “dead” and “balcony.” The senator slapped the guard’s face and sent him away to the south, around to the other end of the building, then went back inside through what must be French doors from the garden.

Marsden brightened. He might have a chance after all. He moved along the wall behind the length of shrubbery until he reached an area toward the end of the wing that was, unfortunately for him, open ground. Ahead of him, twenty yards past the mansion’s corner, were the pine woods Marsden had come through before climbing to the roof. His car was parked on a rutted lane at the far side of the woods.

dark forestHe took a deep breath, then jumped up and ran for the woods. As he entered them, he heard the same growl he had heard earlier. He kept running, dodging between the young pines at the edge of the forest. He glanced back and saw a Doberman pinscher racing after him.

It was moving fast, and he didn’t like the way the foam was spraying from its open mouth. He tried to speed up, but the trees were getting thicker here, and the freight of his age didn’t help. Dodging one tree on his left, he tripped over a root and fell headlong into the brush, rolling to his right in time to see the dog leap past him. There was a shot, and the dog fell from midair, dead.

“I never much liked that dog,” a voice said. Marsden looked up and met the steely gaze of a lanky man with a gray beard and a shotgun. Instinctively, he put his hands up.

The man smiled and lowered the gun. “I reckon you’re going to be okay, Sonny. I saw your car back through the trees a while ago. I’m the game warden for this part of Fairfax County. Name’s Miller.” He reached down and gave Marsden a hand up.

“Did you get what you came for?”

Marsden nodded, and Miller said, “Good. You better get goin’ now. They heard the shot and’ll be slitherin’ in here before long.”

“Thanks, Miller,” Marsden said, patting the barrel on the other man’s twelve gauge.

“Any time, and when you see Johnson, tell him I said hello.”

 

End

Writing, Part 3

horse-drawn-sleigh-in-snowVoting Day

On November 8th, the single worst blizzard in Spokane history blanketed much of Eastern Washington with more than two feet of snow. To the chagrin of voters in the Palouse Country, November 8th happened to be the day they were to vote for General Dwight David Eisenhower as the next president of the United States. It was a given that 90 percent of them would throw the lever for “Ike,” since he was a Republican, and a good one.

With Churchill and Roosevelt, the greatest hero on the European front. They needed to find ways to get to their polling places, assuming their polling places were open. They couldn’t risk letting those sons-a-bitches in Seattle throw the election for Stevenson, that danged Democrat.

Phones buzzed all day, and every farmer with a sleigh became a taxi to the voting machines. Folks shoveled or shouldered their way to where the street would be and stomped their feet and clapped their mittens while they waited for the muffled sound of hoofbeats padding through the snow. A few of the drivers put their soon-to-be-used holiday bells on their teams to notify local voters. The horses would arrive, blowing steam from their nostrils, and the driver would holler, “Another sleigh for Ike!”

 

eating-a-peachPeaches and Parents

He bit into the peach. It was so ripe that its juice ran down his chin and his hand, soaking the cuff of the dress shirt he had just put on.

“Damn!” He held the peach over the kitchen sink, trying to control the sweet rivers continuing to drip from his hand.

“Julie, where’s a towel?” he called.

“Under the sink, right hand side,” she answered, walking into the kitchen in a very fetching royal blue sheath. She hadn’t put on her shoes yet and was in her stocking feet.

“Oh, what a mess!” she sighed and raced to a cupboard, handing Mitch a saucer. “Here, put it on that. I’ll get you a fork. I should have warned you about those peaches.” She put the plate on the kitchen counter as Mitch turned on the water to wash the juice off his hands.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Oh, shit!” shouted Julie. “Now I’ve stepped in it!” She heel toed to the sink, got the sponge and started to wipe the sole of her upturned foot.

“That’ll have to do. We’re already late.”

She leaned against Mitch and worked the sponge on his sleeve. “Let’s get out of here before we start a fire or the roof collapses,” she said, throwing the sponge in the sink.

Mitch laughed and put his hands on her waist, drawing her to him and kissing her. “Y’know, I could get used to being with you pretty easily.”

She smiled and kissed him back. “You’d better wait until after you’ve met my parents. Daddy’s probably already looking at his watch and muttering.”

He let go of her, took her by the hand and spun her toward the living room. “Okay, let’s go.”

As they pulled away from the curb, Julie put her hand on Mitch’s arm. “I don’t mean to be nothing but business. You know you make me feel all warm and wispy when we’re together, don’t you?”

Mitch smiled, “Willow, wisp for me.”

“Willow the wisp, indeed,” laughed Julie.

mark-hopkins-san-franciscoMitch turned up California, passing a cable car on their way up Nob Hill. It was a typical San Francisco fall evening, and before too long he had to turn on the wipers a stroke to clear the mist from the windshield. Julie’s parents were visiting from their home in MacLean, Virginia, since Georgetown had made the Final Four. They were staying at the Mark Hopkins, so naturally Julie and Mitch were meeting them at the Top of the Mark. There were better restaurants in the city, but a lot of visitors were blissfully ignorant of them.

“I’m still surprised,” said Mitch, “that your dad manufactures swim masks and snorkels, although I suppose people use them in the Atlantic, too.”

“He met some guys when he was in Viet Nam, and later they decided to manufacture tires, then in a few years switched to swim fins.”

They pulled into the covered drive at the Mark, and a valet gave Mitch a ticket for the car. “Welcome to the Mark Hopkins, sir.”

Mitch put his hand on Julie’s back and followed her into the lobby, which looked like a New Hampshire autumn, there were so many leaves of every hue from yellow to red in the decorations.

He turned down a hall of shops, and she followed, wondering where he was going.

“Sorry, Julie, but this’ll only take a second.”

Three minutes later, they approached the elevators. Mitch was now armed with a box filled with an orchid corsage for Julie’s mom.

“You’re always reminding me why I love you,” said Julie, squeezing Mitch’s arm as they entered to elevator.

The hostess showed them to the McCloud’s table, and Jim McCloud enveloped his daughter in his massive arms, hugging her like a doll, while Mitch offered the corsage to Julie’s mother, Marilyn, who looked like a slightly grayer version of Julie, certainly not faded and still lovely.

“Why Mitch, how thoughtful of you,” said Marilyn. “Would you pin it on for me?”

Mitch said a prayer of thanks when he pulled the white orchid out of the box. Marilyn was wearing a burnt orange suit, and had had nearly gotten a glaring pink cattleya that would have clashed horribly.

“There,” she said, “Jim is no good at this sort of thing. His hands just can’t handle anything delicate. He might as well be wearing mittens.” She turned to her husband. “But he has a tender heart.”

Jim McCloud glared lovingly at his wife. “Mitch, my boy, you’re not a surgeon, are you?” He took Mitch’s hand in his own, large but surprisingly gentle.

“You remember, Daddy. Mitch is a college professor.”

“Right. Teaching its unwashed masses, eh?”

“Well, sir…”

“For Christ’s sake, call me Jim.”

“Most of them are really pretty clean, uhh, Jim.”

“I’m sure they are,” laughed Jim. Looking around, he said, “It seems to me like we should stop all this commotion, sit down, and have something to drink.”

 

playa santispacPlaya Santispac

The sky turned from lavender to violet, and the green spark of Venus appeared above the horizon. I sat in the warm sand that was still radiating the day’s heat as the landscape darkened, and the hill at the far end of the cove became a black silhouette. Far down the beach to the south, a pair of oystercatchers broke the silence with their restless peeps. The hill turned blacker still as a faint light emanated from behind its summit. Then, like an underworld version of Mercury and his chariot, a sliver of moon grew from the top of the hill. The moonrise brought light back to the beach, and, to my surprise, a Black-necked Stilt stood at the water’s edge, not ten yards from me. Its long thin legs ended with the plump body, made more round by its head, which was tucked under its wing. The quiet ended again as the peeping oystercatchers flew across the cove, their wings rattling like Gatling guns.

 

 sweetarts385-01SweeTARTS

“Why do they call them SweeTARTS, when they’re so sour?” I asked.

“Richard, you’re sooo dumb,” said my older sister Emily. “Even dumber than a little brother should be.”

She popped three more of them into her mouth and sucked, “If you must know, tart is another word for sour.”

“Ohh, I get it.” I took one more and sucked on it. If I ate too many, my neck would sweat, and my collar would get all wet.

We reached the corner and waited for the light to change. When it said “Walk,” Emily took my hand and started to cross the street.

“Holy moley, you don’t have to hold my hand. I might get cooties.”

“Shut up, Richard,” she tightened her grip until my hand began to sweat. “You know Mother said for you to hold my hand. Do you think I like it? I would rather have gone to Value Village alone, but you just had to come, didn’t you?” She paused, and waved to her friend Julia, ahead of us.

“Hi, Jules!”

“Hey, Em! What’s Richard doing here? How are we s’posed to shop with him in the way?”

“Oh, I’ll just tie his leash to a parking meter.”

Both girls howled at this, as I yanked my hand away and said, “Well, anyway, it’s a free country.”

Images

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Writing, Part 2

Here are some more little bits of writing.

 

ents13Sci-Fi Horror

“So, what do you think of it?” I asked Melanie when she looked up, finished with reading the page I had handed her.

“I think it’s too ambiguous,” she answered, dropping the paper onto the table. “Are they or aren’t they? And now that I think about it, I don’t really care. I think you just rushed through this without thinking it out.”

“But what about the basic premise? The virus that turns humans into plants?” I insisted.

“Well, the dead and dying can become firewood, I guess.” She sipped her tea. “Y’know, it just reminds me too much of the Ents, and I’m sorry, Nick, but I don’t think you should try outdoing Tolkien.”

My coffee was cold, but I drank it anyway and screwed my mouth up, considering the problem.

“One more thing that you may have overlooked, Nick,” she said as she put another sugar cube in her tea and stirred it, “Once they turn into plants, they’ll all be stuck in the ground. Not very cinematic.”

 

police car lightUnder Arrest

It was evident that my brush with the law would follow me for some time. The memory of it was still vivid, and I shuddered as I recalled the uniformed officer pushing me down onto the hood of my car and pulling my hands behind me to be handcuffed. The dust on the warm metal ground itself into my cheek, and I tried to speak, but “owww” was all I could muster.

“You’re under arrest for driving while intoxicated, Mr. Stanley. Your car will be towed and impounded while you spend the night in a cell at North City headquarters.”

He pulled me back up to a standing position and led me toward the patrol car and its blinding blue light, opened the rear door and pushed me in. He got into the car and turned on the ignition.

“Consider yourself damned lucky that I’m not hitting you with assaulting an officer, as well.”

I looked out the window, and the light standards flying by nearly made me sick. I guess that’s when I passed out again.

 

Eye ChartMorris and Honey

Morris came out of the ophthalmology offices into Waiting Room A. He dabbed at his eyes with a tiny tissue and sat down next to his wife, Honey.

“They dilated me.”

Honey turned the page of her newspaper and said, “It’s the yearly white sale at Macy’s. I want to stop there on the way home.”

Morris ran his hand through his thinning hair and left it there as a visor, shielding his eyes from the bright lights in the room. “I should be sitting somewhere dark.”

Honey said, “There’s a special on the Lifetime Channel about Danielle Steel that I don’t want to miss.”

Morris leaned forward in his chair and looked at his shoes. “I think this doctor is a little extreme. All I have is a cataract.”

Honey turned another page and read the headline aloud, “Unemployment has dropped to 9.5%.” Then, to herself, “Well, why can’t that lazy son of ours find a job?”

Morris stood up and told Honey he was going to the men’s room.

“That’s nice, dear,” answered Honey.

 

Treasure

The trail wound deeper into the dense jungle, which Morrissey had thought would be a relief from the blazing sun on the open hills and the crippling scree that had slowed the group’s progress to a crawl. But once inside the thick shade, he felt the enervating humidity and sting of mosquitos that he was sure carried malaria, if not something worse.

“Buenaventura,” he called out to the guide. “How long in this nasty place?”

“Only two hour,” the guide answered. “And if you want reach your quest, you should praise heaven for, as you say, its nastiness. Witout it, the cave we seek would have been found and looted hundred times over.”

An Ecuadorean spider monkey in the trees ahead shrieked at the trespassers invading its forest. Morrissey glanced to his right as a branch moved. It was a small boa coiling back in fear of the humans.

They had been hiking for three days and were finally getting close to what Morrissey thought was their destination, if they were reading the ancient map correctly. He pulled his canteen off his belt, took a small swallow and put it back.

caveA little less than three hours later, the trail started going up, and they broke out onto a hillside scattered with trees. Ahead of them were the green cliffs drawn on the map. Some time ago, the hillside had slumped, and much of the cave’s entrance was blocked by fallen rocks and overgrown with vines and trumpet flowers, whiter than calla lilies with bright golden throats. He sat down to rest while the guide put the four packers to work cutting back the tangles and moving enough of the rocks to allow us to enter.

One of the packers cut and tied some palm branches into torches and daubed tar onto them. They lit the torches and cautiously entered. Inside, beyond the sun’s reach, was an empty tunnel, hewn from the stone. It varied between five and seven feet high, so they could stand and walk if they paid attention to the low spots. At ten yards in, the tunnel turned for the second time and started to drop slightly. Now all light from outside disappeared, and their torches lit the rock walls.

Morrissey could see no sign of any living thing having used it, but at a hundred paces, the lead packer cried out, “Jesucristo!” in fear and crossed himself. Morrissey moved up with Buenaventura and looked down at a human skeleton, still wearing tatters of clothing and a leather belt rotted with age. The belt held a curved saber to what had once been his hip. His feet were inside rotting leather boots.

This wasn’t the place he’d expected to find a pirate, but the few clues pointed this casualty in that direction. His skull held a smiling grin, and a gold tooth shone vividly in the light of the torches. No treasure surrounded his bones, so he must have been just entering or else leaving empty handed. The party advanced past him slowly, expecting more at every turn, but found nothing.

torchThe tunnel began to drop downhill more steeply, and they could see water seeping from the walls, staining them with calcium and iron and running in narrow rivulets down the floor. They found themselves turning to the right until they had nearly doubled back in a hairpin turn. Morrissey had counted three hundred paces so far. A quarter mile. Ahead of them, the weak torches continued to light the floor, but the walls and ceiling fell away and up. They were in a large cavern, and the sound of running water grew louder.

The six of them spread out, using the torches on a broader scale in an attempt to illuminate the space. Morrissey walked toward the center of the cave and found a large pool, fed by springs and the flowing water. Its edges were dense with crystals of gold, pink and cadmium, formed by the chemicals in the water. The largest of the crystals were the size of his thumb, and they gleamed in the torchlight. There was no evidence anywhere of human presence. No shrines, no altars, no holy grails to be sipped from. We continued the search, and presently Buenaventura cautioned me.

“Senor, these poor torches will not last more. We mus’ go back. We can bring more tomorrow.”

Morrissey had waited so long for this moment that he hesitated. But he knew the guide was right. This tiny brush with bliss would be all for today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing, Part 1

You probably know I enjoy writing. I also like doing the research necessary to make a novel believable and accurate where it needs to be. The research is seldom needed when writing a little piece. But more and more, I’m realizing that, even with small pieces, I can’t just write for myself. I much prefer to share the writing with others, even just a few others. Which is one of the reasons I started writing a blog.

So today I’m going to start sharing a few glimpses of characters and situations that have been sitting on dormant pages in the third drawer of a vertical file. They’re as varied as the weather and my moods, up or down, when I wrote them.

 

typewriter-close-upWhere to Start

To begin at the beginning, you have to be aware that what you’re writing isn’t actually the middle or the end. The beginning needs to come first, not influenced or augmented by what came before, since nothing has come before.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to write, “To begin at the before?” Then you could start with all kinds of foreword and prologue, not to mention a preamble, the half title, copyright page, main title, dedication and table of contents.

To begin at the end, you simply need to write “The End” or “Fin” or even just “End.” However, there’s not much drama in that, and drama is what writing is all about. You could follow “The End” with acknowledgments, a glossary, index, “About the author” and even the first chapter from your next book, if you want to get the reader interested in buying your next book. But after the very short, non-dramatic book you’ve just written, chances are they won’t be looking to read more from you.

Beginning at the middle would seem to be an exercise in frustration, since you wouldn’t know what had come before. Should you go forward blindly, hoping to catch the wind of something happening, or go back and try to find out where you were? Of course, a valid argument can be made for starting where the plot thickens, then going on to relate the back story. But that’s just another way of starting at the beginning.

 

redliontavernDer Leipzig Schnitzel

The snow was falling harder now. He turned off the Berlinerstrasse onto a narrow lane nearly empty of people, stepping carefully in the three-inch deep fleece, not wanting to slip on the wet brick pavement underneath. In the distance, he heard the tower clock chime seven times. The wet flakes were sticking to every horizontal surface. The street lamp ahead was becoming an ambiguous cartoon of a cotton ball tree, its weak yellow light casting shadows of horrendous beasts skulking in the corners of the street. Ahead of him the joyful glow in the windows of Der Leipzig Schnitzel bathed the dimpled path in gold. A couple ahead of him laughed as they brushed the snow off each other before entering the hofbrau. Inside, he knew it would be almost hot with the gaiety of the crowd and the flames in the three fireplaces, but the lager would be cold, and, in spite of the heat, Kristina’s bare arms would be cool.

He opened the door, and the wave of warmth and laughter washed over him. Entering the outer room, he edged along the bar, sliding with difficulty between the backs and bellies, and hands waving steins. Liesel, the bartender, spotted him and raised her hand, holding it poised above the army of taps. He nodded yes when she moved it over the bock. She filled a stein and murmured to someone at the bar, who took it and passed it back, while she made a notation in her book.

Not bad, he thought, taking a healthy swallow of the cold brew. Less than a minute from the door to getting the first thing he’d come for. And a good pour, too, with practically no foam. He blew her a kiss, and she smiled as he moved past the bar and into the second room, which was filled with tables, but still had a standing room only feel because of patrons visiting friends at other tables. He glanced around the room and spotted the couple he had seen outside. They were standing over to the side talking to two other couples lucky enough to be sitting.

 

San Juan Matilija poppyPoppies

Poppies like white crinkled paper

Crowned by an eggyolk dome

Slender stems bend in the wind

A riot of motion and color.

Fragrant just to the eye

Spreading across the yard

A hillside of sunbursts

Welcome each morning glance.

Poppies of eggyolk and paper

Beckon the summer sun.

 

faucet_drippingRoom 649

I knocked, and then knocked again. No answer. The lock was a piece of cake, and I was inside with a slide of my credit card. I closed the door to Room 649 and stood there in the dark, listening. It was quiet except for the purr of the air conditioning and the drip of a bathroom faucet. The heavy drapes nearly blackened the room, even though it was only late afternoon. In the dimness, I could see the nearest bedstand and the lamp standing on it.

I turned on the lamp and looked around. It was an average-looking mid-city hotel room with two queen beds covered with tapestry comforters, a small desk, cabinet TV and a coffee service on a shelf back near the vanity. The most interesting thing about the room was the body on the floor between the beds. It was Jimmy Smiley’s body, but he wasn’t smiling today. Jimmy lay on his back, and he had a bullet hole where his left cheek should be. I knelt down next to him and felt his throat. He was cold. I figured he’d been there a while, and the dried blood on the carpet next to him agreed with me.

There was a knock on the door. Startled, I looked around. “It’s Brubaker,” came the voice from outside. “Open up, Simon.”

How in the hell did he know I was here? I crossed to the door and opened it. His face was beet red, but then it always seemed to glow with healthy capillaries.

“So, what have we got here, the perp returns to the scene of the crime?” He stuck a cigarette in his mouth and flicked his Zippo open to light it.

“You know better than that, Brubaker. You’re staking the place, or else you’d never have seen me come in.”

“Slither, you mean,” he said. “What’re you doing hanging out with Smiley?”

“Now that you ask, I have to tell you it was a pretty one-sided conversation.”

“Funny.”

“Speaking of funny, what do you make of the ashes in his left hand? They look like they used to be the funny papers.”

“I don’t know yet, but he singed his fingers trying to put them out. But enough about him, Simon. Let’s talk about you now. What’s the angle? Who’re you working for?” He snuffed out his cigarette in the ashtray on the desk.

“My clients pay me not to talk to you about them. But I don’t think he’d mind now. I came here because Smiley left a message telling me he was in trouble.”

“Looks like he should have called you sooner.”

 

San Juan Matilija poppy photo by Laurel Scott

 

 

 

 

True Story

JazzBakeryFriday, November 21, 2005. Jim and I had been planning to go to Steamers, the jazz club in Fullerton, to hear Annie Sellick sing. That morning, Jim called and told me that he had just heard that Mark Murphy was singing at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City. Jim hadn’t heard Mark live, but liked what he’d heard on the radio. How about going there instead?

I had heard Mark several times, and Mark had become one of my favorites, so…Great idea.

We drove up to Culver City and had a nice French bite to eat at La Dijonaise, just down the block from the JB, an excellent jazz club owned by Ruth Price, that had taken over part of the old Helms Bakery. When you enter the JB, you’re in a narrow lobby with a few small tables and chairs, a bar featuring wine, beer and soft drinks, and a collection of paintings or photographs stretching along the long wall that divides the lobby and the theatre. The box office window interrupts the wall and provides a place for Ruth to show off her lovable dogs: Alfy, a longhaired dachshund; Possum, a pretty little Pomeranian; and, later, Pork Chop, a deaf but very cute pug.

mark-murphyJim and I sat about a third of the way back in the theatre. It was pretty crowded, but then, Mark is a major draw for jazz lovers, and it was a Friday night. After Ruth’s introduction, he came out on the stage and sang, backed by a local piano trio. Amazing phrasing and surprising arrangements. I never get tired of listening to Mark.

At the break between sets, Jim decided to walk across the street from the club and smoke a cigar. I stood in line at the bar and bought a Heineken, then walked toward the entry doors. An attractive blonde was leaning against the open door next to the entry drinking a Heineken and reading the LA Times. She was wearing a dark leather coat, it being November.

I had recently been talking to myself about being more adventurous, so I walked up to her and said, “I’ll bet there’s nothing about Mark Murphy in the Times.”

She looked up and smiled, “No, not a thing. There should be. He’s really good.”

“Yeah, he’s one of my favorite singers. Not many like him. Betty Carter.”

“What about Jon Hendricks?”

“Right. A very good singer. A lot of fun.”

We continued talking about jazz we liked. She had never seen Mark before, but had heard him on Helen Borgers’ show on Kjazz. She had just decided to see him, even though there wasn’t anyone she knew who would really appreciate him, so she’d come alone.

The lights blinked to signal the audience to come back for the second set.

“Nice talking to you,” she said and started to go back inside.

“You, too. I’m glad you like Mark,” I replied.

Just then, Jim returned after finishing his cigar. “Who was that you were talking to?”

“A new fan of Mark’s. She’s never seen him before, either. She was very easy to talk to.”

“I’ll tell you what. She’s sitting right next to me.”

“What? I didn’t even see her earlier.”

“We’ll trade seats, and then you’ll be sitting next to her.”

“Great!”

When Jim and I came back into the theatre, her purse was on the seat next to her. “Would you mind moving your purse?”

Surprised, she said, “I didn’t know you were sitting right here.”

“My friend and I switched seats.”

After the concert, I asked her for her phone number, which she gave me, then said good night.

sangennaro_signThe next day, Saturday, I called her, and we talked for three hours. I asked her if she’d like to go back to the Jazz Bakery the following Friday to see Regina Carter, the popular new jazz violinist. She suggested we meet in downtown Culver City at San Gennaro, a very good Italian restaurant that was quieter than some of the other restaurants around. It would be easier to talk there.

We met at the restaurant, on the corner of Culver and Watseka. The atmosphere was perfect for talking and having a little pasta and wine.

We left her car parked on Watseka and drove to the JB in mine. Regina played brilliantly, and her band backed her well. After the concert, we drove back downtown and went into the Culver Hotel, after looking at the plaque outside that bragged about the fact that all the actors who played Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz” stayed there while filming.

culverhotelIt was getting late, and the bar was nearly empty and very quiet. We drank single malt Scotches and talked until the bartender told us he was closing. We walked the short way down Culver to Watseka, where both cars were parked, just a few blocks from Sony Studios, which had replaced MGM as the city’s main industry. The sidewalks in Culver City had been rolled up, and we stood in the middle of the street and kissed, just like in the movies.

We’ve been together ever since.

 

A few years later, Mark Murphy was back at the Jazz Bakery, and we went to see him. We told him the story about meeting at his concert, and now we were married. He thought that was so cool that during the second set, he added a line to one of the songs, and he sang right to her. The gist of it was, “Bake lots of chocolate chip cookies for him.”

A Year in Kona

Hualalai 6-12 (300x222)Today, March 1st, is the first anniversary of our move to Kona. We arrived on a Thursday with no furniture, eight suitcases and bags and Oscar, in his carrying case. Our furniture arrived the next day, and we worked like dogs for three weeks before we could step foot on any sandy beach. Now that we’ve had the chance, we’ve found the beaches clean and relatively uncrowded, and the water clear and free of pollution. Instead, we have lots of exotic fish and coral reefs for snorkeling, not to mention our favorite: Honus (Hawaiian for turtle).

Here’s a little piece I wrote in writing group about a typical Kona morning:

The gray morning silence is broken by the first cardinal’s song, perched atop one of our mango trees and happy to have all the world hear him. In the earliest hints of light, his bright red feathers look brown and drab, but in ten minutes, he’ll be painted scarlet, demanding that a permanently drab female listen to his sounds. As the monotony of the morning sky relinquishes itself to intense blue, and the sun breaks free from night and begins to rise above Mt. Hualalai, other birds, mynahs, Collared and Zebra Doves, Java Sparrows, francolins and Saffron Finch, fill the morning air with song. A Common Waxbill, dangling from a plumeria branch, adds its polite chirp to the proceedings. Right now, as the sun clears the peak of the mountain, the entire edge of Hualalai stands pencil sharp to the east. As the day wears on, if this is any ordinary day, the mountain, accepting the cool, damp air from its windward side, will build layers of clouds that will shield the sun and bring cooler temperatures and possibly showers to the higher elevations.

 

There are a lot of myths about living in Hawaii. I’m going to squelch a couple of them:

 

It’s Too Expensive.

We got a bargain on a nearly new condo, because real estate has been hit as hard here as in the rest of the country. We only need one car here, unlike LA, where you almost need two each. Gas is maybe a little more here, but you’re not driving as far. Insurance, both auto and homeowners, is cheaper. Business licenses are cheaper. Sales tax is only 4%, instead of LA’s 9.5%. I get a good haircut here for ten bucks. It was twenty in Culver City. Laurel pays under $90 for a good color and cut. LA was more than $200.

Tropical Fruit Closeup (300x225)I will say that food is expensive here, especially if you don’t learn to shop Hawaiian style. If you don’t want to pay six bucks for a loaf of bread, you need to shop Costco, the Farmers’ Market (and discover terrific Hawaiian and Asian produce), Safeway (sale items), the other local grocery stores for sales, Target sales, etc. Watch the local streets for vendors selling avocados, smoked fish, knife sharpening, tamales, smoked meat, mangos, and spam musubis (spam and rice wrapped in nori, very good and cheap).

 

Mauna Loa from Mauna Kea Slope 3 6-9-12  (300x225)You’ll Get Island Fever.

Maybe it’s because we live on the Big Island (about the size of Delaware), but we have plenty of places to go and plenty of beautiful locations to look at. Kailua Kona has all the major stores (except Trader Joe’s, which we miss) like Macy’s, Target, Pier 1, Ross, the aforementioned Costco and a Super K-Mart. It has Home Depot and Lowe’s. It has two multi-screen movie theaters, sorry—no art house movies.

The weather here isn’t really boring. We do have dark days and a little rain, but if you really want rain, just drive across to Hilo on the wet side of the island. It is cooler in the winter, and the water is cooler for snorkeling then. The highs are generally only 75-80 instead of 80-85. Add the cooling trade winds in, and it’s pretty nice most of the time.

 

What Kona Doesn’t Have.

It doesn’t have great jazz or other music all the time, like LA. Not much in the way of museums. Very limited live theatre options.

There are some exotic birds here, but the birding is far more interesting in southern California (LA county is the birdiest county in the U.S.

LA traffic-not (300x171)But it also doesn’t have millions of rude, arrogant drivers, angry people, litter or graffiti. Most large marketplaces feature restrooms so clean you could eat off the floor. Try that in LA.

Finally, although we’ve made several new friends—people are very easy to meet here, because most everyone is relaxed and mostly happy—we have a lot of family and friends we do miss. So many of you said you would come visit, but most of you haven’t gotten around to it or forgot. We’d be happy to show you around. Let us know.

One down and counting.

Much Aloha and Mahalo,

Vic and Laurel

 

 

 

Amazingly Beautiful Celebration, Part II

 

Laurel at Canoe House (Custom)This year, 2013, wasn’t a milestone birthday for me, but it was memorable since it was the first one we celebrated on the Big Island.

Vic treated me to the Canoe House at the Mauna Lani Resort, since we enjoyed our previous experience there so much. The weather was cool and cloudy in Kona, but turned out to be windy up the coast (the locals call Waikoloa “Waiko-blow-a” for good reason).

Despite the wind, I insisted on having Vic take my picture. I’d bought a new dress for the occasion, and although I usually avoid cameras, I wanted some evidence to show all the folks back home that I was still alive and kicking. It was a bit of a challenge to keep my hair clipped, though. After taking enough pictures to ensure that one would turn out, we had our server, Kainoa, take one of the two of us. He asked if we’d seen the whale, and we said we had. A humpback had been spouting right offshore on our walk up to the Canoe House from the hotel lobby.

Pipi Canoehouse Steak 2 (Custom)We started off with Dubonnet and gin cocktails. Vic had done some research on Dubonnet, and it contains quinine. We both enjoy gin and tonics, so we thought we’d try it. I found the cocktail to be OK, but I prefer Campari. The Dubonnet didn’t have as much of a pleasant bitterness, although we thought we tasted a splash of Worcestershire sauce.

Kainoa told us about the two specials of the day, both appetizers. We ordered one of the specials, which was calamari rings on a polenta base, with halved cherry tomatoes. The calamari was tender, and the dressing tasted of fennel. Delicious! Vic and I thought the other special involved kampachi, but we’re not sure. The other appetizer we ordered was the goat tacos, which had gotten raves online. They were very tasty, but had to be eaten with care since they dripped sauce and juice from the bao bun, which reminded me of a Mexican sope more than it did a cha sui bao bun. Sorry, no pictures of the appetizers. The photographer was too hungry!

Hapa Kine Lamb (Custom)It took a while for us to decide on entrées, since everything sounded so good. We decided to go Rancher this time, with me ordering the Pipi, Canoehouse dry aged local grassfed tenderloin, pressure cooked ali’i mushrooms, baked potato mash, and Singapore pepper sauce. Vic ordered the Hapa Kine lamb, which was a duo of hoisin glazed rack and Kahua ranch braised lamb with kabocha ratatouille. Both dishes were outstanding, expertly prepared and presented.

Kit Kat (Custom)We savored our dinners with a nice Sicilian red, a Nero d’Avola by Donnafugata. We were happy to see that the Canoe House was pretty busy for a Monday (my birthday was Tuesday, but Vic belongs to a writers’ group that meets online and in LA on Tuesdays). Our wonderful server, Kainoa, didn’t hurry us to move along to dessert, and since we were in the sheltered yet still open air portion of the restaurant, we didn’t need to get out of the wind. One of the hostesses saw us perusing the dessert menu, and enthusiastically recommended the ones we were thinking about selecting that evening. We’d had the house-made ice cream on the previous visit, and had our choices narrowed down to the chocolate Kit-Kat bar, the Molokai sweet potato haupia cheesecake, and the coconut crème brulee. We chose the Kit-Kat bar (crunchy peanut butter & chocolate cookie, milk chocolate mousse, lava chip, peanut butter and chocolate sauce, candied peanuts) and the coconut crème brulee with fresh berries and macadamia nut biscotti. We’ll have to try the cheesecake next time.

Creme Brulee (Custom)The chocolate Kit-Kat bar is probably illegal somewhere. It should be. It was incredibly rich, and the combo of chocolate and peanut butter is one of my faves. The crème brulee was one of the best I’d had, with a thin, brittle sugar crust and creamy coconut below. Vic and I had tasted each other’s entrees, but with the desserts, we each had half. Note the beautiful presentation of both, and the excellent chocolate calligraphy on my birthday dessert plate.

Vic and Laurel (Custom)Before we left, we caught the eye of the busy manager, Joe Gorman. We’ve been impressed by the personal attention at the Canoe House; on our first visit we met both the chef de cuisine, Allen Hess, and Joe. Joe told us that Allen had the night off. We told him that the team was taking up the slack perfectly, and that the special of calamari had more than met our expectations. Joe mentioned that the New York Times had published an article about the Big Island’s reputation for being on the cutting edge of the farm-to-table culinary movement, although the Canoe House was not singled out for mention. I searched for the article to no avail, but I’ve been impressed by the local ingredients available on the Big Island, and we are regular shoppers at the farmers’ markets, both here in Kona and when visiting Hilo.

We told Joe that we had a great dining experience. Even high-end restaurants change their management and menus; we hope the Canoe House is around in its current incarnation for a long time. It has a lot going for it: great food, ambiance, personalized service and live music to boot. I sure enjoyed my birthday celebration. Thank you, Vic, and the Canoe House!

 

 

 

 

Five Easy Pieces Redux

 Storm Front 

lightning-beachHe sat down on the log that sprawled across the beach. It had been there for some time and was bleached a pale gray. Its sharp edges had been softened by the rain and the sea water at extra high tides. Toward the end of the log, a feather from a molting gull had landed and speared its shaft into a wide crack. It was like the log was disguising itself as Native American, when it was obviously a eucalyptus and an immigrant from Australia.  

He pulled an orange from his pack and peeled it, slipping the pieces of rind into a used Ziploc bag he carried for trash. It was a navel orange at the peak of its ripeness, and he separated a section and popped it in his mouth as he heard the first clap of thunder. He bit down on the orange, and its sweet juice flooded his mouth. He hadn’t seen the lightning, and he turned around to look out over the water, waiting for the next disturbance. The sky was a mix of temperaments, with bright blue sky to the south and a front of heavy clouds marching in from the north, their undersides black with rain.  

A bolt of light shot down from under the cloud. He counted to twelve before he heard the report. He would have time to get off the beach before the rain reached the shore, but he could tell that the wind was pushing the storm in this direction. He ate about half of the orange and decided to finish it as he walked, and he started back down the beach to where his car was parked. The wind picked up behind him, and he stuffed the last two sections of the orange into his mouth and began to hurry. The sky was getting darker, and the blue sky to the south and west was leaving him as the clouds scudded southeast, aiming at his beach. Another thunder clap came from behind him as the first drops fell.

 

Chinese Take-out

chinese takeoutThe six friends got together to watch the Superbowl. The first order of business was to get a majority vote on what they were going to order for dinner.  

“Pizza.” “Chinese.” “Burgers and fries,” shouted out the voices. Heads together, they finally decided on Chinese. 

“But no sweet and sour pork, please, said Mike. “It’s great when I cook it, but most take-out joints do it very badly. They put way too much pineapple in it. Shrimp chow mein is usually safe.”  

Melissa waved her agreement at that and added, “How about their special fried rice? Otherwise, there’s never enough stuff in it.”  

“I love beef with broccoli,” said Joe.  

“Is that with real broccoli or Chinese broccoli?” asked Helen.  

“What? They’re both real! But it’s usually regular broccoli, not Chinese.” 

“How about egg rolls?” asked Freddie. “You can’t have Chinese food without egg rolls. And soup. Egg flower soup?” 

“No, hot and sour soup.” 

“Moo shu pork with pancakes,” exclaimed Sally. “Those are terrific. With that sauce. They have to have that sauce on them.” 

“Speaking of sauce, crab with oyster sauce.” 

“Dim sum. Do they have dim sum at night, or is it only for lunch? Those hum baos are to die for. But don’t ever take the chicken feet. They’re gross.”  

“Chicken! That reminds me, we have to get barbecued chicken. And pressed duck.” 

“Don’t forget chow fun. And a plate of baby bok choy.” 

“We’re going to have enough for an army.” 

“Maybe, we’d better cross a couple of things off. Forget the soup. It’s messy, and we need special bowls for it.”  

“But hot and sour soup is my favorite.”  

“Well, just get a half order, then.”  

“They don’t sell half orders. That would make their orders nuts.”  

“It would make the cooks nuts, too.”  

“How about a couple of buckets of fried chicken? Way more simple.” 

“Pizza is really easy.”

  

On The Trail 

juan-de-fuca-strait  He was pretty sure that his knees would hold out on this trail, even though it seemed more vertical than level. The surrounding growth around him changed from Douglas fir to noble, with a scattering of narrow Alpine as he ascended. This was the type of route that required scrambling on rock between the switchbacks, a path that you could never get down pat. Constantly surprising and demanding of your attention, unless you were ready to take a fall. Not a life-threatening fall, but a tumble through brush and fallen timber that could easily break an arm or leg.

The vistas at some of the turning points were delightful, with the Strait of Juan de Fuca below, the gravelly shore lapped by tepid waves that connected the narrow river of water to the more furious surf of the Pacific Ocean to the west.

A Bald Eagle soared overhead and landed in a tree east of him. He could see the work the eagle had invested in this tree; a large nest of sticks and branches balanced below him, and his mate sat in it, undoubtedly warming two eggs, since it was April. Later in the day, they would trade places, and she would hunt for her meal in the shallows near the beach.

He remembered once, at a party near home on Lake Washington, seeing a Bald Eagle swoop down and bring up an eight-pound sockeye in its talons, the partygoers stopping for a brief moment at the sound and then going back to their drinks.

 

Eagle Feather 

Jess leaned over and picked up the feather caught in the huckleberry bush next to the trail. It was ten inches long, beautiful black and white, and he wasn’t sure if it was illegal to pick it up or not. It was definitely an Bald Eagle tail feather, and he knew that they were highly prized by Native Americans, who often doctored owl feathers to use in their dance costumes in place of the real thing.

He took off his faded suede wide-brimmed hat and slipped the shank of the feather into its band, astonished at how it made the hat look. Completely refreshed and professional, he could pass for a seasoned trail guide wearing this hat. He put it back on, covering the growing bald spot, then picked a few huckleberries, enjoying their tangy sweetness.

Half a mile down the trail, he encountered a pair of younger hikers. They gave him a wide berth as they passed him and said, “Good day to you, sir.”

No one had ever called him “sir” before. The creek beside him eddied into a shallow pool, and he looked at himself in the reflection. He looked like someone who might be called “sir.” It was an interesting feeling, knowing that the new look was because of a feather, and nothing else. Unless having the feather had changed him, and his face reflected that inner change. He decided that that had to be at least part of what accounted for his new persona.

When he reached the Sequoia National Park cabin, he went inside and hung his hat on a wooden post near the door. The smell of the wood smoke, bacon and coffee was overpowering. Jenny was standing at the stove, making sure that the bacon was nice and crisp. He poured himself a cup of coffee and stepped up behind her, watching her expertly turn the bacon.

He kissed her on the neck and said, “Jenny, I’m a new man today. I found something that has changed my life.”

She turned and looked at him questioningly, and he said, “Look at this. People are calling me, ‘sir,’” and he pulled the hat off its hook and put it on.

“Sir Eagle Feather,” she said, smiling. “No wonder.”

bacon-in-panThe bacon started to smoke, and she turned and waved the fork over it, “I dub thee bacon fit for Sir Eagle Feather.”

He laughed, and poked her in the ribs.

“No, really. It looks great on you. Now go set the table.”

“You sure know how to bring a great man down,” he complained. He smiled and put the napkins and silverware on the table and stood in the open doorway of the cabin.

“Life’s just a little bit like that,” he said. “All it takes to make you or break you are tiny things.”

“Scrambled or fried?” she asked.

“You choose. I like ‘em both.”

“Then scrambled. I found some wild chives not ten yards from the cabin.”

“How’s your coffee, honey?” he asked.

“I could use a little warm-up,” she answered.

“The coffee, or me?” 

 

French Lamb

Sheep-Grazing-in-vineyard“My grandfather was a shepherd in the hills of Bordeaux,” said Dory. “He was a simple man, but never a simpleton. He tended his sheep with loving care, never lost one to a wolf or a cliff, and passed down recipes to my mother that were spicy and savory, doing justice to the lamb in the kitchen as he had in the field.

“His favorite wine with lamb was Cabernet Franc, not the overly popular Cabernet Sauvignon that too many people give grace to. He liked the more common wine, too, but felt that the darkness of the rarer grape was the perfect companion to the oily richness of the meat.

“When I was young,” continued my father, as we sat at the picnic table in our Seattle backyard, “the family would get together at a rustic table such as this, on a summer evening, the air smoky and pure from the lamb on the grill.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click here to read the true story about Yamashita's Treasure, the inspiration of the book.

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"If one wants to follow a captivating couple pursue their careers in exotic climes brilliantly described,
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“The author, Vic Warren, skillfully weaves in actual political events into his tale, making it seem so real. I can’t help but congratulate him for making me stop at parts and ask, is this fiction or fact? I would highly recommend it to readers who enjoy a gripping tale of high adventure.”
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Vic Warren is an award winning Art Director, credited with creating the "Eskimo portrait" as the aircraft tail logo for Alaska Airlines. If you need help in designing your book cover, check out these designs.

Stairway of the Gods continues to impress. The book's cover just won the Best Self-Published Book Cover Design Contest sponsored by A&A Printing.