2021: The Magenta Zone

“…then he just threw down the stadia pole, screamed ‘THEY’RE ALL WATCHING ME!” and took off running down the road. I don’t think he stopped running before he hit Fairbanks and the department had him flown back down to the Lower 48 by the end of the week.

…and with that comment break time was over and the formal lecture resumed. The course was called SnowHawk, a week-long orientation course teaching the principles of arctic and mountain operations to new arrivals in the command. As I was both an officer and a home-grown Alaskan the instructors dealt with me a bit differently, seeking me out at breaks to get my input.

That latest anecdote dealt with a summer job the instructor had worked on before joining the army. The job involved making surveys of federal property up in the Brooks Range, and the stress of long daylight hours, isolation, and basic exhaustion had basically unhinged the screamer in the story. Hallucinations followed, prompting him to constantly scan the surrounding wilderness for the mysterious watchers that he knew were stalking him. 

The story brought on a chuckle, but as the class resumed I continued to think about it. Truth be told, hikes and camping trips out in the wilderness had always had a slightly spooky feeling, especially when we were in the area that had burned out the middle of the Kenai Peninsula during the epic 1947 fire. As the forest was still taking baby-steps towards recovery the trees were much lower than normal, and half-burnt snags were scattered everywhere, giving a surreal flavor to the surroundings and scant protection from winds off the mountains to the east. Between the alien landscape, the constant moaning of the wind, and the isolation, it was easy to let your imagination get the best of you. This eerie atmosphere  was exacerbated by my preference for speculative fiction in both print and media. After watching the series premiere of The Invaders I spent the entire night wide awake, sitting up in bed grasping a baseball bat, convinced that aliens would make a beeline for me up in my attic loft while completely ignoring my sleeping parents and sisters in the house below.

But with the same logic as “your paranoia does not rule out the possibility that someone is out to get you!”  these imaginings did not rule out the existence of things that go bump in the endless Arctic night. While there’s been a paucity of Bigfoot sightings, we do have home-grown cryptids like the Lake Illiamna monster and the Kush-da-ka1, and as a teenager I saw something over the Chugach Mountains that looked and moved like a UFO.

…so there is definitely a spooky side to life on the Last Frontier, and a good portion of the fiction I have started to write involves that “oooheeeyooo”2 influence; stories that are not fully speculative/otherworldly, but also not fully anchored in reality. In any other by setting, I’d identify them by the classic television series The Twilight Zone, but even that analogy isn’t completely accurate. Dawn and dusk during the Alaskan winter is unusual; while the actual hours of daylight are short, dawn and dusk are lengthy, and bathed in an 0therworldly orange and magenta. These colors have figured prominently in my art, and now they’ll be part of my written work – from here on out I’m using the term The Magenta Zone when referring to these slightly scary stories set in Alaska.

________________________________________________________________________

Notes

  1. …and once we get into Alaskan Native beliefs and things like shamanistic transformation even scarier concepts crop- up.
  2. Think Moog synthesizer, theremin or the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet.

Music: On The Threshold of a Dream

( I have to warn you what follows is much longer than my usual posts about music…but then this album is one of the most important bodies of music in my life.)

(1) Moody Blues On The Threshold Of A Dream 01 In The Beginning – YouTube

Nothing beats a small town when it comes to rumor-mongering, and the folks running the local music store were being mongered more than usual. They were all members of, or friends with, a long-time Peninsula family, and at various points of time in the summer of 1970 I heard that at least one of them was:

  • Dealing drugs
  • Receiving stolen goods
  • Pregnant

…the last option being extremely doubtful seeing that the group running the store was overwhelmingly male, the only female on staff was a middle-aged aunt that started working in the place well after all the gossip started. I didn’t care – I was caught up making my break between two-a-day pre-season football practice sessions as leisurely as possible, and a post-burger stroll through the store seemed just the ticket.

I hadn’t shopped there since the preceding spring, and the only visible sign of distress was a noticeably large SALE box holding albums marked down to $1.00. Surprisingly enough, there were several top-sellers in the stack, but none of them posed any threat to the prospect of a second hamburger until a tree-branch with ears floating in the middle of a midnight blue square of cardboard caught my eye. Red letters in a modified Arnold Bocklin font skewered me with The Moody Blues and On The Threshold of a Dream – and while none of the songs on the back cover were familiar Moody Blues AM hits, such as Nights in White Satin or Ride My See-saw, all the titles hinted at being listenable, so I forked over a buck and walked out with the album later described by a little sister as “the record with the weird tree on the cover.”

The rain soaked us during the second afternoon practice, and washed out all thoughts of that new record, so it wasn’t until I painfully climbed up to my loft later that afternoon that I recalled the purchase. I was too sore to climb back down the ladder, but one of my sisters blessedly retrieved the record and cued it up on my stereo while I laid on the carpet and tried to mentally will the lactic acid out of my muscles. That mental effort almost blocked out the cosmic hum at the beginning of the first track leading into a restrained synthetic crescendo, but the subsequent ethereal catechism alternating the question/response of human to computer dashed all thoughts of passive listening:

I think

I think I am

Therefore I am I think

Then in the dystopian mood of speculative fiction popular at the time those tentative words are pushed aside by a mechanical voice identified elsewhere as the Voice of Establishment:

Of course you are my bright little star…

Human and computer trade words until both are abruptly supplanted by a third voice that contradicts the mechanical response with wise words ending in a phrase typical of the times:


…and keep on thinking free.

I sat there stunned. I had been expecting some pop kissy love song, but was instead blindsided by philosophical commentary that I would have expected from an episode of The Prisoner or an Arthur C. Clarke story, but before I could gather my thoughts I was musically slapped on my other cheek by the fanfare of guitars and drums of the second track, Lovely to See You. It was an irrepressibly upbeat tune that quickly dispelled any dystopian mood left by the poetry that opened the album, but just as my toe started tapping along with the beat, the song smoothly blended into the slower cadence of the more melancholy third track entitled Dear Diary, which sounded so different from the preceding selections that I flipped the record cover to see if I’d inadvertently purchased a greatest hits or K-tel collection.

The change was so abrupt that I stopped for a moment to extract background information from the stunning gatefold album cover and equally dynamic lyrics booklet. However I became almost immediate confused when the grid-like arrangement of individual portraits and figures in the group photo facing each other across the open interior didn’t match in number. Determined to solve the mystery, I read down the roster:

  • Justin Hayward: Guitar
  • John Lodge: Guitar
  • Ray Thomas: Flute
  • Graeme Edge: Percussion
  • Mike Pinder: Keyboards (organ & Mellotron®)
  • Tony Clarke: Engineer

Armed with this knowledge, I went back to connect each band member with the songs they wrote/performed, and in the process pieced together the fact that Tony Clarke wasn’t a member of the band, but instead was the guy that organized things and got the music recorded correctly. It was a job that I knew little about, but even with that lack it was obvious the wonderful sound quality and the superb manner in which the songs all worked together more than deserved acknowledgement. It was a complex task as each song was a reflection of its author’s personality, which explained the buzz-kill brought on by the somber Dear Diary as it followed the extremely upbeat Lovely to See You.

The acoustical whiplash continued with the quasi-country tune Send Me No Wine on the third track, which in turn seamlessly led into the electric introduction of To Share Our Love, a number that quickly had me wondering if I’d taken one too many hits to the helmet during practice earlier in the day. I could swear I was hearing two songs playing at the same time; a mid-range tune and an almost-falsetto parallel song with a slightly different but supporting message, but it turned out that was exactly what was going on when I checked the lyrics booklet. It was fascinating stuff, but the complexity came with an almost physical effect, which combined with the consequence of back-to-back practice sessions earlier in the day made me extremely tired. I considered just turning off the stereo and going to bed, but in my truest OCD manner I held on till that last track on the first side…and I was glad I did because So Deep within You was a perfect stopping point.  While the song itself was an entreaty for communication, Mike Pinder’s commanding tone made me think of the “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” intermission clips at epic movies – it was a good time for a short break, which was perfect because I needed time for proper digestion of:

  • The cheese and mustard sandwich that I made in lieu of a supper that had gone cold.
  • The fundamental question haunting me, “What the hell am I listening to?

…after which I wasted no time getting back to the music that had me so enthralled. Until recently my album purchases had been limited to “Greatest Hits” compilations or Beatles albums, which given the chop-job Capital Records did to the original EMI playlists, weren’t that far removed from that first category. On the Threshold of a Dream was something completely different: none of the tracks fit the 2:45 AM radio hit format and each song sounded completely different from all the others, yet fit together to tell a story that the listener felt rather than read.

By this time serious fatigue had set in, causing me to start the “bob & nod”, so after placing the needle down on the “B” side of the album I crawled up on the bunk built into the sloping wall of my loft. I had meticulously read the lyric booklet, so it was obvious that the careful acoustic guitar chords and soft vocals that started Never Comes the Day marked it as a Justin Hayward tune. He was already my favorite out of the bunch, but I wasn’t prepared for the effect the song had on me as it built to a crescendo:

If only you knew what’s inside of me now

You wouldn’t want to know me somehow

I sat up so quickly that I damn near knocked myself cold on the low ceiling tover the bunk, so I laid back down and let the music wash over me. Taking to an entire album so quickly was a novel thing for me, but Never Comes the Day was hitting so close to home that it was almost uncomfortable. At seventeen I had reached a crossroads where self-fulfillment intersected with transpersonal commitment, leaving me frantic for a way to balance finding my direction in life with responsibilities for, and expectations of, those around me. Mr. Hayward was coming up with some pretty good ideas, and he making music that seemed like answers to me, words that were “stealth scripture” – necessary knowledge or truth from a Higher Power that would have been otherwise rejected by an audience had it been presented via traditional organized religion.

…then once again one song faded into the next, and I was listening to Lazy Day, another folksy Ray Thomas tune that seemingly extolled the delights of a lazy Sunday afternoon before introducing a parallel lyric line bemoaning the tedious sameness of workaday life. The tune was very similar in tone to his earlier song on the first side, and while I loved his work on the flute, I wasn’t sure if I’d want to spend much time Mr. Thomas in person. In those pre-Prozac® days I was just beginning to recognize depression’s effect on my life, and the downbeat nature of Ray Thomas’ work wasn’t helping…

I almost didn’t pick up on the soft singing and acoustic guitar work of the third track, Are You Sitting Comfortably, another Justin Hayward composition that washed away any angst the previous track may have brought on. I had just started learning about my Celtic heritage and the idea of a historically correct King Arthur, so the lyrics about Camelot, Guinevere, and Merlin the Magician combined with Ray Thomas’ haunting flute was particularly meaningful to me. It was all very happy-making, but as the track ended on a high flute note seamlessly blended into Mellotron music I fell again into a Moody Blues blindside attack:

 When the white eagle of the north is flying overhead

 And the browns, greens and golds of autumn lie in the gutter dead

I don’t know if it was Graeme Edge’s rich baritone voice, the faint Mellotron keening in the background, or the powerful lines of the poetry itself: I sat up a bit too quickly and bumped my head a second time in response to poetry that could have been tailored for me personally. The album was rife with multiple levels of symbolism, but these spoken words combined dream imagery with the cycle of both an individual day and the entire year, which in turn brought to mind the changing of the seasons, and my favorite time of the year — fall.

I hadn’t felt that way before moving north. California’s climate is temperate to an extreme, and autumn had just been something on a calendar involving new crayons, new television shows, and Halloween. The idiosyncrasies of the South Central Alaskan climate are such that fall starts in early September with the countryside exploding into yellow, gold, orange, and the occasional splash of red, and it’s the only time of year with reasonable weather set against a backdrop of equal parts of day and night. Starting school meant regular days for a while, but there was always the specter of winter and the menace of long nights lurking just over the horizon.

Then as softly as a sundown the backing Mellotron merged into a subtle introspective melody entitled Have You Heard?

Now you know that you are real

Show your friends that you and me

Belong to the same world…

By now the blended transitions are expected and the music eases into the beginning of The Voyage before slowly transforming into something like the soundtrack to a movie, musically taking you through a magic door. A hauntingly slow minor key melody is joined by a flute, then jumps into a rumble, conjuring dream images of running through dark forests, narrowly escaping barely seen dangers, but then the rumbling becomes less intense as piano notes move up and down the scale, the intensity slowly increasing to a more forceful, more frenetic level, before dropping off to a reprise of Have You Heard and returning full circle to the cosmic whistle with which the album began.

I was stunned. I had never heard anything like it – ever. While it was true that I had previously enjoyed both Rubber Soul and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, neither Beatles masterpiece so thoroughly embraced the idea of the concept album as the album I had just heard – or reached its level of meaning. The music had touched me on several levels, becoming important enough to warrant going through two vinyl copies, two cassette copies, a compact disc, and a download, giving me ready access to its stealth scripture throughout my life.

Quite a bargain for just a dollar, eh?

First Watch (20:00 to 24:00)

(Second in a series of short stories tied in with the upcoming Gun Kingdoms III book. Picks up directly after the events in my previous story Dog Watch)

“Now this is going to hurt you more than it will hurt me.”

The young man sitting on the examination table visibly blanched, and a shudder rippled through his body from the end of his ponytail to the soles of his feet.

“Not to worry cadet. Just a bit of sick bay humor”, continued the doctor, mentally cursing his feeble attempt at bedside manner. Holding the torn fabric back with his mid-arms, the doctor stitched the wound while applying a balm with his upper set, all the while continuing with his commentary, “For as much as they smell, loopies leave fairly clean wounds. Keep the stitches sanitized and make good use of the healing potion I’ve given you and the rot won’t set in”.

The young cadet stood up, straightened his spectacles for the umpteenth time, and then left the sick bay, a subdued “Thanks” trailing behind him. The four-armed doctor then turned his attention to cleaning up the detritus left from treatment, putting implements and medicines away with his upper arms while mid-arms swabbed down the examination table and laid out new linens. “So young”, he thought. “The cadets we get now seem to be little more than children. Was I ever as green as young Mr. Gilgamesh?”

He continued to wipe down and restock the containers and bottles scattered around the compartment, pausing only when a low rumble from somewhere further aft in the boat shook the sick-bay slightly. Before treating the young cadet’s wound he’d been swamped with several senior petty officers suffering from what seemed to be food poisoning after dining with the Captain. It had been a special occasion, and judging from the brilliantly-colored but evil-smelling liquid splattered on the deck, the cook had apparently taken a chance with a rather exotic dish for the festivities. Fortunately only selected members of the crew had attended the banquet and sampled the exotic cuisine, and so far there had been no gastric complaints outside of that group.

With the compartment clean, the doctor sat back down, and his thoughts returned again to the young cadet.

“So young…”

Nana had always loudly maintained that his peculiar anatomy was a blessing from heaven, but Trevor Norridgewock considered his extra arms a curse. The valley was blessedly free from the bigotry and insults that plagued those with physical differences in other places and times, but there were constant subtle reminders that others viewed him less favorably. It had started early on when classmates complained that his extra appendages gave him an unfair advantage on the playing field, and clerks never shifted their gaze from him when he went shopping, some of them confessing later that they wondered if his mid-arms were pocketing goods while his upper arms were involved in a transaction. Most distressing was when his invitation to the cotillion was rejected with, “It’s hard enough watching where two hands are drifting during a dance, much less contend with four”, so his early departure to the academy came as a blessing rather than a sad development in his life.

At first, attitudes outside of the valley were different enough for him to wonder if he’d been overly sensitive when younger, but despite the lack of open prejudice he couldn’t help but notice the slight hesitations and diverted glances that came with every social interaction, so it was just easier to avoid the parties and concerts that came with academy life. As it was, the isolation was actually a blessing as it allowed him to concentrate on his studies, but upon graduation a career at sea seemed the best choice given the limited social interaction in a ship’s company.

His reverie was broken by the bustle of a burly master-at-arms supervising two crewman as they man-handled a crumpled and broken figure through the hatch and up onto the examination table. This definitely was not another case of food poisoning – Trevor recognized the man as Boothroyd, a crewman assigned to monitor a cargo compartment just down the passageway, and he was bruised, broken, and definitely quite dead in a manner that suggested attack by a small kraken or large bear. The doctor recognized the master-at-arms as Petty Officer Calderoni, and while one of his men placed Boothroyd’s effects on the table, Calderoni informed the doctor that they’d found him buried underneath a mountain of sacks of mealy-corn in the port cargo hold while making their rounds.

As the doctor wrote his report, Calderoni rifled through the dead man’s effects and held up a sheathed knife. “He was one for always talking about his knife and what a fine edge there was on the blade,” he said softly. He sheathed the blade and continued, “Cleaning and oiling it every time he used it. Going on about how his blade put your scalpels to shame”. Trevor smiled slightly sideways as he went about examining the body. How could such a powerful man be so soft spoken and easy going? Scuttlebutt had it that Calderoni could lift a tusker in each hand for exercise, common wisdom second only to the “Can animals talk?” rumor, but for now the doctor was just glad Calderoni was easy-going and considered the doctor to be a friend.

A conference with Captain Trinidad via speaking tube followed the examination, and after a brief discussion, Trevor was designated as the investigating officer in the matter of Boothroyd’s death. Within minutes he was standing in the port cargo compartment’s hatchway silently taking in the scene: the space was not much larger than his sickbay, and other than a lamp mounted on the bulkhead next to the hatch, unlit. The only bare spot on the deck was where the unfortunate crewman had lain, the deck being otherwise covered with the toppled sacks along with scattered mealy-corn kernels from a single torn bag.

The doctor felt a slight pressure against the side of his leg as he studied the room, and looked down to see Nick the dog standing next to him, equally engrossed in the scene. When a quick glance confirmed they were alone, Trevor reached down to the terrier with a mid-hand and scratched the dog’s head while asking, “Do you know anything about this?”

After a brief spasm of reflexive leg-kicking Nick replied in his fractured canine patois, “’s hard to say. Boof-roy and Toe-leo fought sometime. Both liked the same bitsss.”

Trevor sniffed then replied, “First off: we’ve already discussed this Nick. Two-legs don’t use that word for females – at least polite two-legs. Second: I’d heard about disagreements between the two but nothing serious enough for murder”. He paused to pick up the empty mealy bag with an upper hand while continuing to scratch Nick between the ears with a mid. He sniffed again then continued, “Where is Toadleo’s duty station?”

The terrier pointed his nose at the back bulkhead and simply replied “De udder one”, indicating the cargo compartment on the other side of the back bulkhead. After scooping up Nick in his mid-arms and the torn sack in an upper hand, Trevor walked back to the sick bay to drop Nick off before walking around to the starboard main corridor and the storage space that mirrored the compartment where the death occurred. Inside the space he found Calderoni with his two assistants flanking a visibly distraught Toadleo.

As the doctor entered through the hatch Calderoni nodded, and then with a slight smile said, “The captain told me you were the investigating officer but I think this will be an easy one. Boothroyd and Toadleo both fancied the same bargirl back in port. I think Boothroyd was making headway and it looks like Toadleo wanted no rivals for the lass.” He pointed up to a small open hatch at the top of the bulkhead separating the two cargo spaces. “Judging from appearances and the loud sound we all heard earlier it appears that Toadleo climbed up the stacks in here, reached through the emergency hatch to the other hold, and pushed the mealy-corn bags down on Boothroyd.”

Toadleo’s swarthy and dark-haired appearance betrayed his South Coast Arcansi origins but now his face was deathly pale and he was breathing in short gasps. “I never done it. Never. Boothroyd and I had our differences but we’s still shipmates. I traded fists wif him but murder? Never! ‘Sides, Mitzi made ‘er choice and there was no more trouble ‘tween us.”

Trevor and Calderoni turned away for a brief conference, then Toadleo was led off to the brig while the doctor returned to the sickbay where a long line of green-faced crewmen waited in the passageway outside. Whatever had contaminated the captain’s banquet had now made its way into the general ship’s mess and inflicted a good part of the crew, but before he saw the first man in line, the deck started to tilt and the speaking tube whistled. With so many sick the captain had taken the Hammerhead up to cruise on the surface until enough hands recovered to safely submerge again. At the same time, in an effort to forestall losing any more crewman to the mysterious illness, the cook was issuing sausage and cheese in lieu of a hot meal.

After working through the waiting line the doctor removed his coat and sat down to eat, but after treating the largish group of dyspeptic mariners, Trevor was unable to gag down either comestible. As emergency rations, they’d been in storage for quite a while, and after slicing into both of them he found the cheese to be moldy and the sausage rancid. Cleaning his utensils got him to wondering if the grease from the sausage would make a good lubricant or rust-preventative, a thought that caused him to pause and reach for the torn mealy-corn sack, but he stopped short when a half-heard whisper echoed in from the passageway.

“Betcha hexaminin’ Petty Officer Rose wit four hands is fun!” Trevor looked up to see the master-at-arms literally filling the hatchway, his face cocked in the ever-present half-smile. The doctor wondered if Calderoni was smiling at his underling’s attempt at humor before reasoning that a man who can straighten a horseshoe with his bare hands could smile any time he wanted to.

WWWWFFFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTT!

The speaking tube whistle preempted any conversation, and the doctor was surprised to hear the captain’s voice inform him that Toadleo had escaped. While being escorted to the brig he’d taken advantage of an unsecured hatch to stun his escort and exit to the main deck. On his way out he’d grabbed a boarding pistol clipped next to the hatch, and had taken cover in the captain’s gig secured in a recess on the main deck. Searchlights on the conning tower could keep the area illuminated but the vents, davits, and stanchions littering the deck cast long shadows that made the crouching Toadleo difficult to observe.

Trevor stood up and put his jacket back on, an otherwise simple task complicated by the need to get four arms into twisted sleeves instead of two. As he stepped out of the sick-bay he paused for a moment and addressed the whispering deck hand, “For your information, Petty Officer Rose is the captain’s best diver, and I’d no sooner take liberties with her as I would you”, before heading toward the hatch and leaving the crewman to wonder how additional arms enhanced one’s hearing.

The doctor followed Calderoni to the portside conning tower hatch where his assistants were keeping watch on Toadleo in a textbook example of a standoff. The boat was cruising in less-than-friendly-waters, but between the need to vent the cloying odor of projectile-vomit, and repairs needed on damaged hull plates, submerging the Hammerhead was not an option. Neither was rushing the escapee; while the large-caliber boarding pistol fired only single-shots, Toadleo could fire and reload three times before they could get to him, and as most of the crew were still immobilized with food poisoning, the task would have to be accomplished with just the small group gathered at the hatch.

Holding up a pink envelope Calderoni quipped, “I could always disguise myself as a letter-carrier and jump him when I deliver this!” A faint trace of perfume followed the packet as he handed it to the doctor. Somehow Nick had gotten ahold of the letter and brought it to the Master-at-arms, and as Trevor scratched the terrier’s ears with a mid-hand he held the envelope in an upper and read the writing on the cover. The doctor’s eyes widened imperceptibly at the address, then he briefly knelt down, whispered something to the dog, and abruptly stepped out of the hatch into full view of the escapee.

“Are you daft doc? He’s a desperate man! He’ll shoot you down just like he killed Boothroyd!”

“No he won’t – because he’s not a murderer!”

Trevor slowly walked toward the gig, stumbling slightly when the big boarding pistol roared and clipped a neat hole into the air intake he just passed. He paused to think, “If they ever develop a metal that can hold up as a repeater for a caliber that big my job will get much busier.” He then walked a few more steps before halting a dozen yards from the crouching escapee.

“Not one step closer Doc. I’ll put an ‘ole in you in a ‘eartbeat.”

“No you won’t Toadleo. You may be a brigand but you’re not a murderer.”

The seaman’s laugh was more like a bark. “Ha! Duhn’t matter. Theys think I am. Remember? I’m a South-Coaster. We carry knives! We steal sweets from toddlers and fart in airlocks, so ‘course I’da killed ‘im.”

Trevor’s reply was equally terse as he imperceptibly eased closer, “…and I’m a four-armed freak. A natural pickpocket that no proper lady should be seen with. We both know those stereotypes aren’t true, just as we both know that you didn’t kill Boothroyd. But if you try to fight your way out you’ll just reinforce every lie that’s been told about you, me, and every other person who looks a little bit different.”

“How do you know I didn’t kill Boothroyd? I’m a pirate remember? Uh…Arrgh…Rawor! I’m a mean one I am!”

“Nick is a more convincing brigand that you are.” The doctor held up the pink envelope. “This is why I know you didn’t kill Boothroyd.”

From their vantage point Calderoni and his party flinched as the doctor walked closer to the escapee, only to be amazed when Toadleo stood up from his cover and handed him the boarding pistol before walking with the doctor back to the open hatch. Trevor then made a most contradictory announcement that a) Toadleo would return to the brig without any more trouble and b) Toadleo would shortly be absolved of all charges. The announcement came with a most nerve-wracking silence – the doctor had never seen the massive petty officer so keyed up, and for a moment Trevor feared the tension built up during the stand-off would explode into violence, but after repeating the promise that Toadleo would be compliant the tension quickly dissipated. As his two assistants led the escapee aft to the brig, Calderoni followed the doctor to the sick-bay where two shots of medicinal brandy relaxed him enough to sit still for the doctor’s explanation.

“I had my suspicions when I checked the two cargo spaces. The only thing out-of-the-ordinary in the port space was the one torn mealie-corn sack, and the bags in the starboard space were stacked far too neatly – anyone climbing up to the emergency hatch would have made a shambles of the uniform stacking.”

“Toadleo coulda restacked ‘em!”

Trevor held up his hand, “There wasn’t enough time between the sacks falling and apprehending Toadleo”. He then stood up and reached for Boothroyd’s knife while holding the torn mealy-corn sack in his mid-hands. “Neatly stacked cargo isn’t the only factor to consider. This greasy cloth tells the rest of the story.”

“Like all the other crewmembers who avoided food poisoning Boothroyd was issued cheese and sausage from the emergency rations. Both items were issued in bulk form and had to be cut into manageable lengths. Again – like most crewmen, Boothroyd carried a knife. A rather handsome one to be honest, and one that he took great pride in maintaining. As I discovered during my own dinner, cutting the sausage would have left a lot of grease on that blade, and Boothroyd would have lost no time in cleaning his knife…”

Trevor held up the torn sack. “…using the only cloth available. It appears that in order to clean the knife he wiped the blade along the side of the sack, accidentally cutting into the fabric as he did so. Sitting under the not-inconsiderable weight of all the other sacks it was only a matter of time before the cut-bag burst and toppled the entire stack.”

“…and crushed poor Boothroyd in the process”, finished the Master-at-arms. “But there’s still the brawl in the tavern. Couldn’t he…”

Trevor raised both upper hands again. “If you still have doubts, take a look at the pink envelope. It’s from the young lady in question and it’s addressed to Toadleo. Judging by the copious amount of cologne it’s been bathed in I am forced to conclude he had already won that earlier battle for her affections.”

“Why fight a battle you could lose when you’ve already won the war?”

______________________________________________________

Midnight came fairly quickly and Trevor was still completing his log when the eight bells signaling the change in watch-keeping rang. Judging by the reduction in retching and frantic trips to the head it appeared that the food poisoning had run its course, so it seemed safe enough retire. He closed his journal, locked the supply cabinet, and started to head for the corridor and his own cramped quarters.

As he turned to the hatch he stopped short when he spied a small furry head leaning in over the threshold. Trevor knelt down and once again scratched the terrier between his ears, then asked, “Does everyone know you can talk? I thought I was the only one.”

“Dere’s a couple more.”

“When did you get that envelope? How did you get that envelope?”

“Not so many sick now.” Nick neatly sidestepped the question. He continued, “But Rudy wiw stiw bwame ‘is farts on me!”

and they’ll still call me a four-armed freak, but we can let the mid-watch handle it!”

KCHS Class of 1971: 50-year Reunion

(I’ve never been able to attend any of my high school class reunions. It wasn’t a deliberate choice – it just always seemed work or teaching issues got in the way. I thought that we’d make it this year for sure but then a late-breaking medical situation ruled the trip out and all I could do was give thanks that we hadn’t bought our airline tickets yet.

I’m still trying to stay involved by working on the preparations to include composing the text  below which will be used for the main invitation. They’re going to set up an online presence so at least I’ll be able to see everyone, but for now I’m just hoping the horse will sing and we can make the trip in August)

1971

  • The Rolling Stones were playing sold-out concerts.
  • Star Trek re-runs were playing on TV.
  • The nation was involved in controversial conflict in Asia.
  • I was looking forward to the future and my own jetpack.

 2021

  • The Rolling Stones are still playing sold-out concerts.
  • Star Trek re-runs are still playing on TV.
  • The nation is involved in controversial conflict in Asia.
  • …and I’m still waiting on that jetpack.

Fifty years went by in a flash leaving us all with the feeling that there is an eighteen year-old trapped inside our sixty-eight year-old bodies screaming “WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED”. Fortunately you will have the opportunity to compare notes with other “trapped eighteen year-olds” by attending the 50-year reunion of the KCHS graduating class of 1971.

  • When is it happening?   Saturday August 7th 2021 from noon until dark
  • Where is it happening?  Jeff & Carey Matranga’s place on Forest Lane, Soldotna
  • Who’s invited?               You and your families
  • What’s going on?          Potluck dinner, yard games, water games and socializing

Plans are brewing for a ZOOM/on-line presence and more information about food will follow. We also need help in getting the word out. In those fifty flashing years we’ve scattered all over the country and right now we’ve only reached about one-fourth of the class. Feel free to forward this notice or reply with the information and we’ll handle it here from reunion central.

Please RSVP to careylfoster@outlook.com or (907)252-4640

2021: Generation Gap

As a kid I thought God was a schizophrenic being who toggled between New Testament (Friendly) and Old Testament (Scary) versions. With all His talk about love and forgiveness I really liked New Testament God but Old Testament God literally scared the hell out of me, as in Deuteronomy 5:9 when he says “(I) am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation…” That sounded nothing like the heaven I aspired to and uncomfortably close to life at home with a mom that remembered every real or imagined transgression with crystal clarity…for several decades as it turned out. However, that memory for error wasn’t the only aspect of my family’s genetic heritage that seemed never-ending: personality traits and practices have been repeating through 3rd and 4th generations, no more so than in the case of “mailing off for stuff”

The First Generation: Entertainment for my dad centered on the occasional movie and (more often) radio programs. In a case of life imitating art my dad’s childhood existence centered on a ring much like the decoder ring featured in the classic holiday film A Christmas Story. Dad’s Depression childhood was spent on a ranch in Southeast Idaho which meant money was so tight that Ovaltine was considered a rare luxury so he had to wait much longer than Ralphie did in the aforementioned film.

I think it arrived just as he was leaving for boot camp.

Second Generation: I had a similar experience with plastic army men advertised on the back of comic books, specifically a set comprised of competing yellow and blue armies from the Roman Empire.  Unlike Dad, I had to contend with a visual hook rather than an aural one and the stunning illustration penned by comic stalwart Russ Heath was like crack for a fifth grader. I did a little better than dad as far as fulfillment goes – delivery was promised in “six to eight weeks” but when you tacked on the extra time required for any parcel or letter heading to Alaska I was fortunate indeed that the fratricidal legionnaires got to me before high-school graduation.

My son Conrad had the typical Third Generation experience in that his Holy Grail was not doomed to a lengthy post-office delivery but was offered as a prize in a school fund raising project to be delivered when the campaign was concluded and all the money turned in. The object in question was a wind-up flying bird featured prominently in the prize catalog and annotated with the warning that it was “Not sold in any stores” which made the situation that much more desperate. Unfortunately the threshold for awards in that catalog was so inflated that the sales required for the award for one of those birds could equip Sterling Elementary with its own aircraft carrier so that particular wind-up flying bird never came in for a landing at our house.

…and now we’re at the Fourth Generation and my grandson Jayden. Like most seven-year-olds he is fascinated by cars, with an eclectic taste that runs from Lamborghini to Tesla. He plays with them often, conducting road rallies on every flat surface in the house, so it was inevitable that one of his cars would get trod on and broken. The Bauling Lane axiom “Papa can fix anything!” was immediately put to the test but for once it didn’t hold so like everyone else in COVID-beset America I ordered a replacement on-line. I didn’t think much of the action until I found Jayden sitting on the front porch ten minutes later waiting for the Amazon delivery man and his new “Lammorgeenie!”

…which leads me to wonder what the next development will be. No doubt Jayden’s son will be frustrated that it takes more than three minutes for the replicator to make that decoder ring he just ordered.

1965: Wildwood Air Force Station

The Present

Even on the sunniest days the place remains shrouded in the miasma that surrounds every prison, dungeon, or jail ever made, but even without the “hoosegow funk” Wildwood Correctional Complex is not one of the more picturesque sites in Alaska. It sits surrounded by the stunted spruce, marsh and moss of the muskeg that makes up a large part of the Kenai Peninsula and only the odd fence placement and discolored patches on the ground marking foundations of former structures hint at quite different times and a vastly different function for the facility

1965

It was no accident that Wildwood Air Force Station seemed as if part of the more civilized part of the Lower 48 at been sliced off and transplanted to a few miles north of the small town of Kenai. American Cold War strategy called for the construction of military bases all over the world, and the installations were all built with a common layout and architecture that mimicked the look and feel of middle class Eisenhower-era suburbs “back home”.  The uniform familiarity in the design fostered effective training and good troop morale while easing homesickness and the psychological shock of frequent relocation. All I knew was the place gave me a little bit of normal to hang onto as it felt so much like other installations I’d previously visited that whenever we went on board base I felt like I’d gone home.

Comprised of 4300 acres and 65 buildings (including 18 family units), Wildwood Station was established in 1953 as an Army Signal installation charged with the reception and monitoring of Soviet radio traffic, but when we moved to the peninsula the base was being transferred to Air Force control. Even though we lived thirty miles away in Sterling we managed to visit the base at least twice a month. As a retired service member, my father was entitled to the use of the facilities, which ranged from a movie theater, medical clinic, commissary, and Base Exchange, and as dependents my sisters and I could do likewise.

…but it wasn’t better prices and newer movies that had me psyched early one evening in June of 1965 as we passed by the sentry at the gate. I had been surprised at the end of the school year to learn that my best friend from Anchorage would be spending the summer in North Kenai and this was the first chance we’d had to meet up.  Mark and I sat side-by-side during fifth grade, refighting World War II during every recess and the loss of that companionship had made the move difficult for me.  His dad was working on summer-long project upgrading North Kenai road and he brought his family with him, and while there was still a forty-mile road trip separating Mark and I the chances of doing something together became much better.

One of those “somethings” was a plan to meet at the base theater to see In Harm’s Way, a war film starring John Wayne that was based on the James Bassett novel of the same title. Interest in the military was not something my current Sterling classmates favored, but it had been a major factor in my friendship with Mark, so a big-budget epic about World War II in the Pacific was an ideal choice for our boy’s night out.

Between bouncing on the seat and talking nonstop I must have driven my mom almost but not quite crazy during the hour it had taken us to get to the base. It had been a hard winter and I hadn’t been able to fit in with the Sterling kids very well. As mentioned in Anchorage we’d been  refighting World War II at a fever pitch, battling over vacant lots with cap-firing Mattel Tommy-bursts® and Marx Monkey Division bazookas lobbing foam rubber rockets, but the closest my new classmates came to a military organization was a club called the “FBI” which I thought it was kind of cool until I was dismissed with the curt explanation that in this situation the initials stood for “Female Body Inspectors”. It had stung to be simultaneously mocked and ostracized but for the moment I was excited at the prospect of some good sessions of mock combat with Mark over the summer.

My first hint that things had changed was when he got out of his mom’s car sporting a new haircut. Up to this point neither one of us maintained any sort of recognizable hair style, opting instead for an unruly thatch of hair that would scare a comb to death. As Mark was getting out of the car that evening he was sporting a pompadour with slicked back sides that looked less like SGT Saunders and more like Elvis Presley. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just his hair that had changed: In times past meeting up with Mark involved equal parts yelling, arm-punching and cupped-hand-in-the-arm-pit faux flatulence, but  this time he was very cool and standoffish. The vague disconnect continued through the film – when I’d get excited during a battle scene he’d roll his eyes, a move he repeated when Barbara Bouchet slipped her dress off during her beach romp with Hugh O’Brian and I wasn’t quick enough with a wolf whistle.

He seemed more like the old Mark when we hit the snack bar after the show was over.  Maybe it was the sugar rush from milkshakes, but we slipped into the obligatory arm-slug and armpit-fart routine from years past, but on the ride home that night I came to the realization that a fundamental change had come about in our friendship and my life. Prior to our eventual landing in Sterling my family had moved constantly – by seventh grade I’d attended seven different schools and the visit with Mark was the first time I’d ever had a chance to go back and see a friend post-move. It was also the first time that I dealt with an important principle thrown over the fence by Wilson in the Tim Allen sitcom Home Improvement:

 “He hasn’t been your best friend for twenty years. He was your best friend twenty years ago.”

The chaos and indifference of my growing up had left me reluctant to leave the trappings of childhood for adolescence, which put  me in a difficult situation complicated by my tendency to hang on to friendships a bit too long.  The change I saw in Mark showed me that it wasn’t just the move from Anchorage had changed my world – my age and the changing landscape of the 1960’s had also played a part in the chaos and I’d have to survive the turmoil of adolescence on my own. I could still fight battles with my plastic soldiers and keep a Mattel Tommyburst at home, from now on it had to be all sports and girls when I was at school.

What didn’t change was our periodic trips unchanged to Wildwood for shopping, medical care and entertainment. Social visits were added to that list two years later when I discovered in high school that I got along much better with other mobile military brats than my other classmates.  Activities on base like a date with Cassie or an illicit beer with Mike so firmly stitched Wildwood Air Force Station into the embroidery of my life that it was a real shock when I returned home from my first year of college to find the base closing as part of the post-Vietnam realignment. Various plans for the installation were in the making when it was transferred to the Kenai Native Association in early 1973, but after consideration as a support facility for boarding students from Bush communities, and a brief tenure as rental apartments it was converted into a correctional facility in 1983 and the family housing units razed.

Seeing the place now is like looking at photos of actors from the same period.  Robert Conrad was the star of the TV series The Wild Wild West which debuted soon after the time of this story, and as such he embodied the strength, wit, and charisma that my “Female Body Inspector” classmates could only aspire to. Sadly the photo of the hollow-eyed white-haired old man in his Wikipedia entry bore little resemblance to the action hero of my youth just as the faint traces of demolished family quarters and the copious strands of barbed wire gave no clue to the vibrant community and vital military installation that Wildwood once was…

… but even those days are gone I can still watch my DVDs of Conrad at his best and I can remember when Wildwood Air Force station was just as important to the emotional stability of a young boy as it was to the security of the United States.

(The book Military Brat by Mary Wertsch (Ballantine 1991) provides insight to the unique life and worldview of military dependents during the Cold War)

2021: Storm Warning

Clarksville is located in the No Parking /Tow Zone of Tornado Alley so warning sirens and verbal warnings echoing from downtown loudspeakers are no surprise on a stormy April evening. It’s an unnerving sound much like the albino plague victims in The Omega Man chanting “Nevvillle” as they ring around Charlton Heston’s apartment building and as it drifts with the wind it puts all of us on edge.It bothered my grandson Jayden more than anyone else last night: he will be eight in June and he’s starting to notice details in life that up to this point in life he had been oblivious to. He was also just coming off the medication he takes to combat the severe attention deficit/hyperactivity he battles daily so his reaction was even more pronounced.

He bounced around our bedroom, stopping by the open window screen at each lap to listen to those spectral voices warn everyone to “seek shelter now”. At first he would only stop for clarification or explanation of terms used in the warnings, but on the third stop he decided to take a more proactive stance. He has a marginally-functional smart-phone handed down to him after an upgrade and while it doesn’t work as a phone he can use it for games and camera work. He loves taking pictures and making videos but this time he put his phone to a more altruistic use.

He decided to broadcast his own warning announcements:

  • “Dere’s a reawwy bad storm coming everybody!”
  • “Everybody better get a good pwace to hide!”
  • “It’s reawwy scary so be careful of any tornadoes next to your house”

He’d  record his messages in as loud a voice as he could muster, then hold the phone up to the screen and play them back with the volume turned up as high as it could go. His expression was stern as a only a second grader can achieve but at the same time I couldn’t help but smile at the speech impediment that is endearing even as it fades.

… but something else added to my grin: even while totally terrified he was doing his best to protect his family, friends and neighbors, showing a level of transpersonal commitment rare in someone so young. I was also thankful that  he had a support system in depth, that in his time of fear he had parents and grandparents to reassure him.

It made the stormy night not so scary, even with the sirens and loudspeakers.

Gun Kingdoms: Dog Watch

(As I’ve written earlier the third Gun Kingdoms book is slowly gaining momentum and we’re looking forward to a KickStarter campaign later in the year. In past projects my contribution has been purely visual but this time around Scott has challenged/goaded/double-dog-dared me to do some writing as well. What follows is a story set on the Hammerhead, a submersible boat that figures prominently in the third book.

The color art above will appear on the book’s cover. The sketch at the end of the story is a annotated diagram of the area in where the story takes place.)

DOG WATCH

(In naval terminology: a shorter than usual (2 hour) period of duty scheduled between the hours of 1600 and 2000 that staggers the watch schedule so the same personnel are not forced to stand mid-watch every night.)

(Time is signaled throughout the vessel by a system of bells: one stroke of the bell indicates the first half hour of a watch, with an additional bell for each succeeding half hour. Eight bells indicate the end of a four-hour watch, and then the bell cycle starts over and repeats itself for the next watch.)

BONG

Why didn’t he say anything about the smell?

In the months before embarkation all Uncle Beetlemeyer could talk about was the overwhelming advantage Alyver Gilgamesh would gain by starting his shipboard career as a cadet under the command of his old academy roommate, Dusker Trinidad. So far the only overwhelming aspect of his career was the combined stench of oil, mold, fish and sweat that came into being the minute the hatches clanked shut, and grew in funkiness until the Hammerhead once again broke the surface. Never mind cannon fire or drowning – the real hazard to life in a submersible boat was the ever-present stink that wouldn’t wash out of his clothes, ruined the taste of every meal, and made life more tedious than need be.

Not that life afloat was all that great – Alyver’s first clue that Uncle Beetlemeyer had once again embroidered the truth was the “ix-nay on the oommate-ray” hissed to him when reporting dockside to meet the legendary captain for the first time. It turned out that Beetlemeyer hadn’t actually been Trinidad’s roommate, but rather an upperclassman who’d unmercifully hazed the now-famous privateer during his first year at the academy.

The second clue came when Alyver was given his watch assignment: by title he was assistant to the petty-officer-in-charge of the portside secondary propulsion pod, but in real life he was referred to as Chief Petty Officer Tho’s dog robber, and assigned the dullest and dirtiest tasks, with an occasional respite from drudgery in the form of feeding the department’s canine mascot Nick, or running errands to other parts of the boat. He also seemed to be designated target for the incredibly short temper of the power-pod’s second-in-command, Petty Officer Rudy. The ever-squinting and sporadically articulate Rudy mocked Alyver for his spectacles and denied even the questionable dignity of the title “dog robber” and instead referred to the cadet in third person as “the pimply little snot” with a social standing just below the dog.

Alyver thought “At least he isn’t constantly trying to kick me” then smiled when he remembered that for all his kicking, Rudy had yet to connect with the dog Nick. He smiled even broader when he contemplated the bliss of the next couple of hours free of the customary drudgery while Chief Tho and the others were attending some sort of event with the Capitan Trinidad somewhere astern in the main hull. Alyver wasn’t too sure if it was a dinner, lunch or breakfast – since leaving safe waters, the Hammerhead had surfaced under the cover of darkness only, and that lack of visual reference combined with the as-yet baffling time-keeping system of bells had robbed Alyver of any internal sense of time.

With the others gone he would have to catch up with his cruise-book. In addition to the smell, upended time sense, and taunts from his crew mates, Alyver was dismayed to find that during his first cruise he was expected to learn about the vessel rather than just ride around in it. Every spare moment was to be familiarizing himself about the structure, systems, and operation of the boat, and documenting that knowledge by filling a blank book with carefully annotated notes and diagrams. At first he’d approached the task with indifference, but when Tho shared his own youthful misfortune at confusing a sewage life with a water line (“they’re painted brown for a reason!”) Alyver resumed his study with an increased sense of urgency.

The deck abruptly tilted down towards the bow, startling Alyver until his ears popped and he realized that the boat had just dived a little deeper. He wondered if the dive was a matter of evading patrol boats, and when a loud scraping sound echoed from the port side of the pod he wondered if they’d encountered a minefield or anti-submersible net as well, but when the deck leveled out and the boat kept moving he relaxed and started reading the instructions for the port pod department order book.

At least twice during each period between bells he was to make one complete round of all the watertight compartments in the pod, starting at the main access hatch to the passage leading to the main hull, then:

  • Aft to the upper level of the engine room,
  • Down to the ladder in the lower engine room,
  • Forward to the torpedo room,
  • Up the ladder to the observation bay,                              
  • And aft to where he began at the main access.

In addition, there were special areas such as hull sections with recent repairs and boarding pistols clipped to strategic points on the pod bulkheads required additional scrutiny, but it seemed that in making his rounds, updating the departmental log, and reporting by speaking tube to the watch officer there wasn’t anything particularly overwhelming in the standard orders, so he leafed ahead to the special orders section to check for any unpleasant surprises listed there.

.

Despite being written in Petty Officer Rudy’s near-indecipherable scrawl, the first special notice was clear enough: “All check-valves made by the Gold Turtle Guild is folti fawldi broke and gots 2 be checkt at evry bell”. What wasn’t made clear was the fact that in the interest of job security the Gold Turtle Guild had designed the check valves so that they could only be tightened or loosened by use of the rather unwieldly Golden Turtle Guild Hydro-spanner…which was longer and heavier than any other implement the pod’s toolkit. The balance of the special orders section – made up of two inch’s worth of stale-dated maintenance notices suggested skimming rather than study, and upon closing the cover, Alyver replaced the book on the shelf next to the speaking tube, then turned aft and started on his first inspection tour through the pod.

The transition from the brilliantly lit access hatch area to the dark and gloomy upper engine room was abrupt enough to stop Alyver in his tracks…or so he thought. As he looked around to try and orient himself he saw that it was in fact the raised edge of the door he had come through that was holding him back. He mentally corrected his lapse in nautical vocabulary as PO Rudy’s screech echoed in his thoughts “IT’S A HATCH NOT A DOOR YOU PITIFUL SANDCRAB!” as he groped for the ladder, but once in the lower level he found the atmosphere not nearly as fetid, and the engine noise reduced. It was even quieter as he moved through the torpedo room, the stillness disturbed slightly by the soft pat-pat-pat as Nick the dog brushed past his leg and bolted past him and up the ladder to the observation bay where he curled up in the gunner’s seat. Alyver lingered at the viewing ports for a moment, relishing the silence as he watched the moonlight flicker through the underside of the waves overhead when:

WWWWFFFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTT!

Even from a dozen yards away the alert whistle on the speaking tube felt like a razor slicing through the side of his head. Alyver smacked his shin against the raised bottom edge of the door (HATCH!) leading into the main compartment as he bolted back through the pod to the handset to the speaking tube, instantly cursing his haste as he was met with a near-indecipherable torrent of words:

“Ummiffi-wubba-wubba-hurgle-aargle-bargle-murmur-ubba-report-ubba-wubba!”

Alyver quickly countered with a clever retort “Huh?”

“Ummiffi-wubba-wubba-hurgle-aargle-bargle-murmur-ubba-REPORT-ubba-wubba!”

Alyver stared at the handset, which at the moment seemed to be just as effective as putting it to his ear. While Chief Petty Officer Tho was adamant in his belief that the speaking tube was an appropriate means of intra-boat communication, the most Alyver understood from the garbled message was that it concerned his report – that maybe it was late – which he took to be correct when he responded to that effect and receiving in turn a pair of whistle-blasts that the handbook translated as “OVER!”

It was only then that Alyver saw the faint trace of blood seeping through his trousers – those minor collisions with hatch rims hadn’t been so minor so he sat down and tied his handkerchief around his lower leg as a rough bandage. It felt so good to be off his feet that he decided to sit for a few minutes and work on his cruise book, but as he was inking a diagram of the pod’s secondary fuel line, he remembered the special notice in the orders book regarding the check-valves that he’d failed to inspect when he made his rounds. Acting in the calm and professional manner expected of an officer-cadet he panicked and grabbed the special Golden Turtle Guild Hydro-spanner as he bolted through the hatch to the upper engine room. If he worked fast enough he could check all the Golden Turtle Guild check-valves and “revise” the watch-log with a minimum of guilt and maybe even before (Heaven forbid!) a surprise inspection from Chief Petty Officer Tho.

He’d been surprised that Tho had accepted the captain’s invitation; at sea the Chief rarely left the pod, electing to string a hammock up in the observation compartment rather than bunking down in the main hull in the marginally larger space appropriate to his rank. He was rough mannered, profane, and thoroughly imbued with the cynicism expected in a combat veteran, but while he routinely swore that he “ate cadets for breakfast”, every order and correction Tho made came with a bit of instruction hidden amongst the pejoratives, and the Chief always stepped in when PO Rudy’s comments became too acidic. In was only then as Alyver was struggling to maneuver the hydro-spanner around in the cramped and dimly lit compartment that he realized Tho wasn’t the ogre he’d always thought him to be.

In fact,  Alyver was thinking that a surprise visit wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all because it was getting kind of scary. Other than the hopelessly garbled call over the speaking tube there’d been no contact with anyone, not even idlers out in the passageway to the main hull. Other than the dog, it was like there was no one else on board, the smell seemed to be getting even worse and this check-valve problem was turning into a much more serious task than anyone imagined.

 “Golden Turtle Guild?” Alyver thought. “More like Golden Turd Guild if you ask me!”

The sentiment was proved all too true as more than half of the accursed check valves were found to be defective, with those on the pod ballast lines damaged to point beyond the reach of the gentle ministrations of the hydro-spanner. A growing puddle of water on the lower engine room deck indicated that the ballast-line problem was a potential boat-killer requiring notification of the watch officer, but armed with that bullet-proof mindset endemic to adolescent males, Cadet Alyver Gilgamesh decided to handle the problem on his own.

He’d get a bigger wrench.

The hydro-spanner was already the largest wrench available, so he’d have to resort to a “cheat bar” – a long piece of pipe slipped over the spanner’s handle that increased the levering action and tighten the check-valve even more securely than before. Granted, they’d be so cinched up it would take portside with power-tools or an enchantment to remove them, but it seemed to be a reasonable trade-off. He slipped the pipe over the spanner handle and muscled the jaws of the wrench into place, then stepped back, reached up for the pipe, and started pulling, bouncing a bit to add his body weight to the force of the wrench.

“Yes!” he hissed to himself “Yes – these fittings will definitely hold until we get back to port for permanent repairs! What do you say now Petty Officer Rudy? Mr. Hatchet Face? What will you say when the little pimply cadet saves the boat! Maybe Captain Trinidad will–”

The whole world suddenly went black.

BONG-BONG

Utter blackness slowly coalesced into the dim illumination of the engine room as Alyver regained consciousness. Pain radiated from both the crown of his head and his shin and the slightest effort to sit up was met with a wave of nausea. His hand came away bloody as he reached up to lightly check his head and silently debated the risks of walking with a possible skull fracture against the royal ass-chewing he’d get for leaving his post unattended.

“Rmm-blee!

Alyver jackknifed to a sitting position at the shock of an unexpected voice from so close by but as he held a handkerchief to throbbing head he was unable to find the…

“Rmm-blee!! The soft voice was concerned but insistent.

He could see no one else in the compartment or through the hatch into the torpedo room. He briefly considered, then discarded, the speaking tube as a possibility reasoning that the message had been far too articulate to have come through that apparatus. It was only then that Alyver looked down to find Nick the Terrier looking up at him with far more understanding than he thought possible.

“Rmm-blee!!

“You can talk! Why have you never talked to me before?”

“Roo  ne’er ast!”

Alyver had read about familiars – four-footed animals that could think and talk, but he’d ever actually seen one, and the thrill of this new experience was as pleasing as the thought of –

WWWWFFFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTT!

Whatever injury he’d sustained to his head made the high-pitched alert whistle on the speaking tube even more painful to Alyver’s ears, but he raced up the ladder, then once again picked up the handset to deal with the tsunami of gibberish:

“Ummiffi-wubba-wubba-hurgle-aargle-bargle-murmur-ubba-ecure-ubba-wubba!”

Alyver silently mouthed a curse while wondering why he could never understand a message the first time it was given and asked that the message be given again.

“Ummiffi-wubba-wubba-hurgle-aargle-bargle-murmur-ubba-SECURE- -hurgle-bargle-stupid-cadet-ubba-wubba!”

No mistaking that message – there was some sort of hazard to the submersible requiring all watertight hatches to be closed and while Alyver still had the freedom to move around in the pod, the big access hatch to the main hull was to be secured until further notice. As he had no idea what that threat might be it seemed prudent to make another round of checks and inspections with Nick alternately walking ahead and beside him while delivering a mostly understandable commentary. As they walked Alyver learned that ““Rmm-blee!! was Nick’s attempt at reproducing PO Rudy’s “Pimply” which he’d assumed was Alyver’s name just as he assumed his own name to be “Dammutt”. Alyver also learned that Nick’s true canine name was “One Who Stealthily Moves through the Night” which the rest of his pack had shortened to “Sneaker”.

The water was even deeper and the smell even worse when they climbed down to the site of his accident. It took several minutes of groping around in the dark to find both the hydro spanner and cheat bar and it took only a cursory glance at them and the valve they’d been used on to determine the cause of his injury: himself. As CPO Tho so bluntly put it, “Tools are designed for a specific use and any idiot using them another way is flirting with the undertaker.” When Alyver bounced his full weight on the cheat bar the hydro spanner bar slipped off the overly-tightened check valve and the tool and cheat-bar together came down on his head knocking him cold. That explained the headache, but not the wound on his shin which was bleeding much more than expected for a simple bump on a hatch rim.

As Alyver bent down to further examine his injury, a series of sharp yaps drew his attention from the lower engine spaces to the torpedo room, but his way through the hatch was blocked by an extremely agitated Sneaker crouching in full hunting stance, his stare fixed at what looked to be a pile of thicker-than-usual washers clustered around a waste disposal portal recessed into the torpedo room floor. As Alyver pushed himself past the full-arched Sneaker he heard the small dog growl an almost understandable warning, then was startled when one of the washers flipped up to a vertical stance and in three bounces flashed past Alyver’s left arm leaving a long, almost surgical slice in his bicep before slapping into the hull way behind him.

There was inexplicably no pain, but knowing that shock was soon to follow, the cadet scooped up the small dog and bolted back into the engine room space, slamming and securing the hatch behind him. Though shock was starting to set in, he managed to make his way to an aid locker and bandages before the nausea robbed him of his footing and he sat down heaving on the deck chanting the mantras and words of power his Nana had taught him that would hopefully allow his thoughts to blunt the pain that was just now starting to manifest. Then on his third time through the chant he was interrupted by Sneaker dropping a small circular object on the deck in front him and announced “Roo-bee”

In reflex, Alyver reached for the palm-sized disc only to have Sneaker bat his hand way while stridently repeating the warning “ROO-BEE!”. The oversized washer glittered in the dim lighting, and just as it flopped in a disturbingly fish-like manner it dawned on him that with Sneaker’s vocal limitations, “Roo-bee” was the closest he could get to “Loopie” and another wave of nausea crashed over him. As he sat back, he wasn’t sure if the resultant dizziness stemmed from the injury or the realization of the dire situation he was in.

He was in big trouble.

BONG-BONG-BONG

As the bells echoed down from the main cabin Alyver took stock of his situation: The pod was being overrun by “Loopies” –  more properly Petits Loups de la Mer or “little wolves of the sea” Alyver shuddered – he’d heard equally valid arguments declaring them to be mammal, fish, reptile, plants, mechanical device, or thaumaturgical construct, and as he looked at the now-dead example on the deck, he could see aspects of each category, but it was the teeth that commanded his attention. Rather than the dull yellow of most fangs in nature they were a metallic gray like a surgeon’s scalpel or a craftsman’s chisel – and there were so many for such a small creature. Alyver was surprised not by their appearance but by the fact that the wound on his arm was so slight given the razor sharpness of the loopy’s fangs. The similarity of the two wounds led to the conclusion that the scent of blood from the gash on his lower leg must have drawn a loopy to the wound while he’d been unconscious earlier.

The solution to that mystery led to another being solved – the diminutive creature stank with an overpowering stench that seemed to combine the worst aspects of sour milk and rotten fish. Unfortunately he was still faced with a third, as in how had they managed to get on board? It wasn’t like the case with rats –  an infestation of loopies was a threat grave enough to require preventative measures far in excess of those meant to eliminate expected vermin like rodents, but then given their curious bounding/rolling method of locomotion It was doubtful a loopie could have successfully moved across the mooring lines the way rats did. The answer came only when he was able to examine at length the pile of “washers” thorough an inspection port set in the hatch he just closed

They’d gained entrance to the pod through a damaged waste disposal portal. Normally the portal worked like a miniature airlock with one of its two covers closed when the other was open, but it looked like the outer door had been sheared off by whatever had earlier made the loud scraping sound along the port side of the pod. The inner door also seemed damaged which meant only air pressure was keeping the seawater from flooding the pod.

Another wave of nausea swept over Alyver and he sat down and adjusted his bandage while wondering aloud: “A flood of loopies? What is the proper collective term for them? There’s a pod of whales and a murder of crows – what do you call a large group of loopies?”

“zylumm”

He jerked awake at the unexpected voice “WHAT? WHO? WHO’S THERE?”

A brush of bristly fur on his right arm accompanied the soft humming voice as Sneaker elaborated” “Zylumm of roo-bees” but Alyver’s slight smile of amusement at the aptness at “an asylum of loopies”  faded when the feline continued” ‘Rig trumles Rim-bee. Many, many roo-bees. Alpha roo-bee. Roo-bee go in all sip.”

Sneaker was right. When rest of the pod crew returned in a half hour there’d be so many loopies that Tho and the crew would be completely overwhelmed when the main hatch opened. Alyver gulped as he realized that the entire boat would be flooded with the bouncing slashing disc creatures so they had to be contained in the lower pod even if it was just a wounded cadet and a “damn mutt” doing the containing. Fortunately it appeared that the loopies were concentrated in the torpedo room with the aft hatch secured, but the forward hatch leading up into the observation bay was still open.

It all came down to a race up the ladder and forward to the hatch in the gunner’s cabin, a task that mysteriously seemed to be extremely difficult until Alyver realized in his third unsuccessful attempt to transit the a hatch that in his panic he was still tightly clutching the hydro spanner horizontally at his waist. As he entered the main cabin a squelching sound drew his attention to the forward end of the pod as an “asylum of loopies” boiled up through the hatch in the observation bay floor. Their collective bouncing was almost hypnotic, and while there was no telling how many of the disc-creatures were pouring into the damaged waste portal, all the motion made them seem much more numerous than could possibly be dealt with, but as he tentatively stepped towards them, the speaking tube alert whistle shrieked:

WWWWFFFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTT!

Alyver grabbed at the speaking tube handset, the hydro spanner clattering to the deck in the process.

“Ummiffi-wubba-wubba-hurgle-aargle-bargle-murmur-ubba-hatch-ubba-wubba!”

The hatch! God bless us all – in a flash he remembered he’d earlier secured the main access hatch on the order of the watch officer so the immediate threat to the rest of the boat was contained – and given the lethal efficiency with which Nick/Sneaker was dispatching the squirming mass of disc creatures slowly squirming toward him it seemed that the integrity of the power pod would be shortly just as secure. He was also able to smash a number of them himself now that he was in full light and could dodge the slashing attacks that came at him in predictable arcs. His heavy work boots made short work of stomping the loopies flat, but when the attacks momentarily slowed he turned to unclip a boarding pistol from its mount as added insurance.

…but when he turned back to face the menace he saw what he could only guess to be the alpha-loopie squeezing up through the hatch. Any doubts as to the thatamurgical origin of the loopies was instantly dispelled by the decidedly unnatural appearance of this newest threat. It was circular in the same manner but much larger – the size of a true wolf and while it was also circular it moved in a horizontal rather than vertical manner. Alyver had never seen anything like it and the lack eyes, ears or mouth made a mystery of its basic existence much less the manner in which the mass of bristles, teeth, tentacles and talons slowly spun towards him.

All doubts of magical influence vanished when the single shot he was able to make with the boarding pistol flattened onto a purplish hemispherical shimmer that appeared at arm’s length from the creature. He frantically fumbled for a second cartridge but then the speaking tube whistle shrieked again.

WWWWFFFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTT!

Alyver instinctively reached for the handset, but just as he picked it up a talon-tipped tentacle flashed past him and added a second slice to the one on his left bicep.

“SOD THIS DAMN THING”

“SCREW THE SPEAKING TUBE! TO HELL WITH THAT DAMN HATCH” he screamed as he threw down the handset and turned towards his attacker, stumbling over the hydro spanner in the process. He’d had enough. In a flash he snatched up the hydro spanner and lunged toward the spinning nightmare, screaming every curse, oath and mantra he’d heard in his fifteen short years as he swung the heavy implement down, expecting it to be deflected by the same purple shimmer that stopped the bullet.

No shimmer.

The spinning disc of tentacles and talons jerked to a stop with that first blow. Whether it was for “insurance” or to work out the tension, Alyver followed up with three more blows that started with a thunk and ended with a squish.

That final thunk was echoed with a corresponding thunk as the main hatch finally opened. Petty Officer Rudy entered the main cabin, loudly condemning the increased stench to “the pimply-faced cadet’s farts”, but as Tho and the rest of the pod crew filed through and saw the smashed remains the chief petty officer waved his second mate to silence.

Tho nudged the carcass of the alpha-loopie with the toe of his boot and said “, looking at them now they don’t seem like much but they can overrun a vessel in a flash. Happened on the first submersible I signed on with as a boy. Only three of us survived” He turned to Alyver and continued: “Sealing the pod off like that saved the whole boat. You might make a decent sub-mariner yet,” then waved in a sick-bay attendant to see to Alyver’s wounds.

Alyver assumed it was just a form of bedside manner when the medic cheerily prattled on as he went about dressing wounds, but it was also obvious he was gathering information for Chief Tho. The mystery of the killing blow with the hydro spanner was solved when he Alyver recalled the string of invectives he screamed as he made the killing blow. It turned out that the sick-bay attendant’s interest into things magical was just as intense as that of the cadet’s grandmother – included in the stream of epithets Alyver had let fly was a verse very similar enough to an incantation of a nullification that weakened the purple shimmer just enough for the hydro spanner to work its own type of magic.

A tot of rum from the sick-bay attendant took the edge off the pain and he sat back against the bulkhead feeling dreamingly warm. Nick/Sneaker was lying next to him on the deck, but when he tilted his head down to speak, the dog shook his head in a disturbingly human manner and the cadet assumed that a talking dog was not common knowledge to the crew. With thoughts of a possible second tot Alyver turned back to the medic, but then a deep rumble not immediately identifiable as someone clearing their throat brought his attention to the front again to see Chief Petty Officer Tho towering before him.

“A cadet that can handle a grave situation as well you did is capable of doing much more than polishing the brass work and looking after the dog. After you’ve spent some time on the mend we’ll see about training you for other more important duties–“

“…such as proper terminology when using the speaking tube.”

BONG-BONG-BONG-BONG

1965: Man from U.N.C.L.E. / Boy From S.T.E.R.L.I.N.G.

My mom was a living contradiction. She would think nothing of leaving me in the car for a lengthy subzero wait while she visited her church friends, but strictly managed bedtimes and television viewing at home, which made my introduction to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. nothing short of a miracle. That first viewing happened in the winter of 1965 and came about only because it was an “underwear night”, one of those rare instances when my dad and I would stay up late and watch TV together while lounging in T-shirts and pajamas.

I was eleven and languishing in the twilight zone that is prepubescence – starting to realize that an action hero didn’t necessarily need a cape, and those icky girls were starting to look interesting, but to be honest I was mostly just concerned with staying up past 9:00 PM, when the sedate academic environment of Mr. Novak was abruptly replaced by trumpets blasting out the opening bars of one of the most totally bitchin’ themes ever I was riveted to the TV set.

Bond films were a year or two in my future, so it took me an episode or two to figure out the whole secret agent thing. Even at age eleven I was fueled with a strong sense of transpersonal commitment and the idea of a benign secret world-wide organization composed of people from all races and nationalities fighting evil was an idea I wished I’d come up with myself. I was struck by the casual but deadly teamwork between veteran enforcement agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuriyakin, and when you factored in the witty banter, cool equipment, and slinky ladies (which were starting to be extremely interesting at that point in my life) I was sold …but unlike previous television favorites I didn’t want to just sit and watch images on a screen.

I desperately wanted to be an actual U.N.C.L.E. agent.

I figured they had to have some sort of feeder organization, kind of like Boy Scouts, but without the knot-tying and flag-folding. Unfortunately there was no U.N.C.L.E.  number in the phone book and to make matters worse, my parents and school teacher told me no such organization existed (the question alone was enough to trigger one of my mom’s legendary rants about the United Nations). As my dad had briefly worked in intelligence during his naval career I finally concluded that the denial had been implanted in his brain during those years afloat as some sort of protective measure because at the end of each episode ran a credit line:

We wish to thank the United Network Command for Law Enforcement without whose assistance this program would not be possible.

However, I was undeterred by the lack of information or contact. If I couldn’t join the organization I would:

  • Train myself as an agent
  • Acquire and become proficient on the equipment
  • Organize a subunit of U.N.C.L.E. there in Sterling

Taking on the persona of uber spy Napoleon Solo was the logical yet the most unattainable first step. For starters no matter how many tubes of SCORE clear hair gel I worked into my unruly ginger mop there was no way it would be mistaken for his carefully tonsured brunette locks. My single attempt at wearing my dark-colored woolen go-to-church suit to school ended with a disaster involving a faulty milk carton, but to be honest the suit situation wasn’t a deal-breaker for me –I was rapidly outgrowing the suit and when the wool material itched so bad that I had to wear long underwear year-round I ended up looking less and less like a secret agent and more like Ken® dressed in three outfits at the same time. I decided to stick to the everyday plaid flannel shirt, denim trousers and Tuffy® work boots, reasoning that I was working in very deep cover for the time being.

As for training in spy craft there wasn’t much I could do with a foot of snow on the ground and not access to any sort of gym, so I resigned myself to the fact that training would have to wait.

Equipping myself was bit more difficult. In those dark pre-mobile phone days the best I could do for secure communication was a Marx Monkey Division® walkie-talkie set handed down to me from my cousin Gary. Unfortunately it was a sound-powered device just one step up from a pair of tin-cans connected by string and while the olive-drab military design of the handsets fit the mission, the twenty-five feet of copper wire connecting them would be counter-productive to any sort of covert function.

As for the requisite attaché case: while neither Napoleon nor Illya had anything nearly as cool as James Bond, the 1965 Sears Christmas catalog featured a four page color insert of 007 related toy that included a detailed diagram of the aforementioned attaché case that I referred to during my planning. I momentarily considered asking for the 007 set for Christmas but I was sure such a request would trigger a Mom-rant worse than her United Nations tirade so I settled on using a generic book bag until I accumulated enough summer baby-sitting money to buy a for-real attaché case when school started in the fall.

The gun was simultaneously easier/more difficult to get. The single element in the universe more certain that death or taxes was a Christmas gift request to my Grandma Esther. Once she understood that the IDEAL Man from UNCLE Napoleon Solo Gun set was what I wanted I knew that nothing would stop that from happening, but it wouldn’t be happening until December. As a stop-gap measure I created a model using a fountain pen with extra cartridge, a 2 inch binder clip, Bic® pen and a #3 bulldog clip which worked great until Tacky Powell’s white shirt ended up blotched with blue ink during a recess training session.

The organization consisted mostly of compiling lists of names and organizing them into sections in rosters made up of official stationery made by pasting UNCLE logos carefully cut from Gold Key comic adaptations. Of all the aspects of my self-made covert training this lasted the longest with the organization going through several name changes until my freshman year of high school when the rosters morphed into “reliability ” lists of classmates I compiled as I was getting bullied . The list-making was discontinued only upon discovery by my parents and my explanation was met with something very similar to the “have you no shame” comment that helped take down the red-baiting Tail-gunner Senator Joe McCarthy thirteen years earlier.

For years I assumed that longest-lasting benefit from my tenure as a junior U.N.C.L.E. agent was my eventual work as an intelligence officer with both the Army and the Navy Reserve when I took great delight in pinning my triangular U.N.C.L.E. badge inside my jacket during classified exercises. I wasn’t aware that the most beneficial aspect of my interest was the least tangible and one that I didn’t appreciate until I was much, much older.

 My dad spent his entire life running, dragging us from one out-of-the-way spot to another, never staying anywhere for longer than a year or two, even after he retired from the navy. It was a murky situation made even murkier as more and more snippets of “what really happed” came to light after my parents passed away and I’ll probably never know anything other than that Sterling was the end of the road and the running.

The seven of us were crammed into a tiny three bedroom house in the middle of an ocean of burned-out snags from a catastrophic fire seventeen years earlier, ten miles from town with no local radio stations, and spotty radio and a single TV channel from Anchorage, 65 miles to the northeast. Even more distressing was the fact that no plausible explanation was ever given as to why were there. After traveling the entire length of the west coast of the United States, Sterling was end of the road, and an unfriendly end to boot as my classmates there were all “territory babies” and understandably reluctant to accept a chattering mob of Californians into their midst.

 Every night I struggled to find sleep as I worried about what I had done to deserve the exile, but at nine o-clock on Tuesday nights everything changed. Never mind that the back streets of Los Angeles were standing in for New York, London, or Paris. After fifty minutes of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuriyakin using the coolest guns to fight evil THRUSH Agents, restful sleep was no longer a problem. While drifting off to sleep with the strains of the most totally bitching closing theme echoing in my mind, I was no longer stuck in the middle of a burned out wilderness – I was traveling the world.

Fireball XL5 Reboot: Jaqui

Once you get past the Fireball crew and the headquarters personnel there aren’t too many recurring characters. One of the few is the engineer/mechanic Jock. Following the “tweaking” trend I’ve set for myself the dour Scot Jock has been transformed into the purple-tressed Jaqui, the Indian subcontinent’s contribution to the team, equipped with a mechanical prosthetic.

(Sound of incredulous reader tapping their foot)

OK! OK! Her hair isn’t purple (nice nod to the live-action series UFO and the lack of skin color makes her ethnicity hard to determine. I am the victim of a collision between artistic passion and the realities of aging. I got the drawing done but my ever-present fine tremor has not been so fine lately and any attempt with markers or colored pencils looks like a Jackson Pollock painting