The missiles of October (Flash Fiction)

(A short – very experimental –  flash fiction piece I wrote a while ago.)
8:52 p.m. Strange day. But at least I’m headed home for the weekend. College has been way harder than I thought it’d be. And I’ve got to watch my speed in this crazy car my dad got me for having made it out of high school.
Thanks, dad.
I’m driving home from my first semester at college in my 1973 Plymouth Gold-Duster and although I just met her about a month ago, I’m also really missing my girlfriend.
And home.
I’ve never been away from home so long before. Right now, I just want to get home.
Funny how homesickness grows the closer I get there.
So I started my trip back home the same way I got here; taking Highway 21 south through Talladega and Montgomery. I prefer it to going through Birmingham and the interstate.
It’s just a nicer drive. And if you look, you can almost see the speedway and sometimes, on a clear day, even Mount Cheaha to the left.
Something happened to the Lynyrd Skynyrd tape on the 8-track in Montgomery so I turned on Larry King Overnight. Of course, I spent the next 30 minutes yelling at him, but it kept me awake.
A few minutes ago I saw a shooting star. It was the biggest and brightest falling star I’d ever seen.
At least, I thought it was a star.
I’d made it just about to Georgiana when the thing lit up half the southern sky.
Half the sky!
Who doesn’t love shooting stars?
But then the second one hits and I get a little exercised.
Not scared or frightened, just alerted.
Aware of my surroundings.
But when I can see the pine trees lining Interstate 65, which are normally in total darkness, I realize that it isn’t a run-of-the-mill shooting star.
Nope.
From what my political science professor has been teaching us, I’m thinking Soviets.
Ruskies!
Finally.
After years of practicing the head-between-the-knees position in elementary school, and sometimes hiding under school desks that were obviously designed to protect from the debilitating effects of nuclear radiation and blasts, they’ve finally done it.
That’s got to be it!
OK. Ok. Got to calm down and think clear.
I’m gonna get back on the road and try and make it to a gas station and call home to check on everyone.
I’m a sitting duck here on this big interstate. I’m gonna try and make it to Evergreen and call home.
9:37 p.m.
I make it to an Amoco station at the first Evergreen exit. My heart is racing. I think one of Ruskies see me so, just to be careful, I drive without the headlights on for ten miles.
I think I hit a small deer, maybe two.
Can’t worry about that now though.
The sky is full of lights streaking everywhere. I don’t know what to do. They start at one end of the horizon and in a split second, they’re at the other end.
I ain’t never seen anything like it. My hands are sweating.
10:16 p.m.
I’m at Barnett Crossroads, the middle of nowhere. There is nothing here, not even a gas station. But at least I am a little closer to home.
Not that it matters now. I think that we’ll all be dead by midnight.
I wonder if it is really the Ruskies? I’m still alive.
And, I got hold of my mom on the phone when I was in Evergreen. She didn’t see anything on the news about an impending regional military takeover.
She is alarmed by the thought though.
She says that it is probably Eglin Air Force Base doing some night training and not to worry.
Maybe.
I ain’t so sure.
Here’s what I am thinking now:
Jesus!
No, really. Physically. The Second return!
I mean, look at the lights.
I ain’t never been so scared in all my short life.
I suppose now is a good time to say that I’m really sorry for all those times I smacked my cousins, even if they did deserve it. And I wish I hadn’t stolen that Snickers from K-Mart.
Although it was satisfying.
Oh, good grief; what’s it matter now? This is it, it’s all over. No more second chances. No more do-overs.
I better try to get through to mom again.
10:49 p.m.
I make it to the Brewton exit and call home again. No answer. I leave a message explaining that I hope they are all prepared for eternity. I also apologize for not warning them earlier, explaining that, at first, I thought it was the Russians.
I tell them I love them and get back on the road.
But, what’s the point if Jesus is here?
Maybe I should stay right here and wait.
The lights are driving me crazy. They are everywhere.
I make one more call to make sure they got my message earlier.
My granddad answers, which is strange because I hadn’t expected to hear his voice again, especially since, well, the funeral.
Which was four years ago.
What’s going on?
I can’t think straight.
And those insane lights are getting closer.
My granddad’s voice reassures me, “Drive safe son. I’ll see when you get here.”
“Ok, granddad. I will. I sure do miss you.”
I begin snaking my way down Highway 225. When are they gonna finish that stupid bridge?
For some reason, I feel calm after talking with him. I sure do miss him.
Another bright light, this time right in front of my car.
This has got to be the end. I had expected to live a lot longer, maybe see the Braves go to the series, the Saints win two games, and see this crazy interstate bridge finished.
But I suppose not.
I’m ready Jesus!


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City Barber Shop

Saraland, AL, — (2012) The City Barber Shop has been in business for as long as I can remember; it is owned and operated by a guy named Roger. It is the place where I remember getting my first hair cut. I must have been around 4 or 5. My dad took me and Roger put a board on the barber chair so I would sit up high enough. I always asked for a “GI,” which was the easiest haircut possible. I doubt that that was my first haircut, it is just the first memory I have. I am pretty sure that my elderly sister used to cut my hair before then.
This morning I got up early and was at his place at 7:30. Because Roger takes a little longer than others, I knew I had to be first in line to go on to other things I had planned. However, the wait is worth it for a really good haircut.
What I like about visiting Roger’s is that I get to meet people who reconnect me with forgotten memories and sometimes correct faulty memories.
Case in point: I met a guy today who’d graduated from Satsuma 12 years before I did. As we spoke we learned we had some connections; he worked in the A/C business (I once sort-of worked in this business) and we both went to Satsuma High School. But what caught my attention was his last name.
I played baseball for the Shelton Beach Pharmacy Wildcats for three years. This was my first time to play organized baseball; I was 10. Coach Byrd was, well, the coach. I have memories of going over to his house on McKeough Street to try on uniforms, of riding in the back of his green pickup truck to practice, and of his love of coaching.
As I spoke with the guy at Roger’s I learned that he and Coach Byrd were brothers. I had thought about my coach many times in my life. Once, he allowed me to pitch during practice – a mistake that Ernie Carlisle regretted as I threw a wild pitch right into Ernie’s back. Thankfully, he didn’t charge the mound. I also remember the confidence that I gained by playing for Coach Byrd.
Sadly, his brother told me that Coach Byrd had passed away several years ago. Mr. Byrd said that Coach Byrd’s wife sold her house and moved away after that.
I need to make it over to Roger’s more often.
A sad footnote: Last year when we drove down for my brother’s funeral, I saw that Roger’s barbershop was being refurbished. I didn’t think anything of it because it had always needed to have the floor raised because it flooded with just a little rain. Sadly, the shop was being readied for new tenants because Roger had passed away. To my surprise, I learned that he had passed away in 2014. Rest in peace Roger. Best barber – wonderful person.
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Swans and Swanns

We learned about them in 2007 but didn’t go.

Since then, my bride has asked me (occasionally) to drive up to Magness Lake to see the swans. Who knew there were swans in Arkansas.

Actually, there are a couple of swans in Little Rock at a small lake near the Searcy Building (west LR near the ice-skating rink).

But, there are scores of swans on the lakes near Heber Springs.

So, yesterday we drove up to Magness Lake and found one swan.

One swan. (He’s the lonely guy in the pictures above)

Sadly, the little guy was injured, which accounts for him being the sole swan on the lake. Everyone else has fled.

We found more swans down the road here.

I hope the injured swan’s leg will heal and he can escape, before the heat of summer arrives. He is, after all, from the Arctic Circle and he will not welcome the brutal Arkansas heat.

Bonus: Can you spot the other Swann from the arctic region in the photos below?

 

 

 

 

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Learning to Read and to Love

When they got married, in 1903 in Alabama, my paternal grandfather (Ollie Manning) couldn’t read. I am sure this was common in this area of Alabama in the early twentieth century. He was a carpenter, so he could work to some degree. My grandmother (Mary Jones) decided that she’d teach him to read. And she did. When they married, she was about 15 years old and he was about 26. The first picture shows them on their wedding day. She was a little over 5 feet tall and he was not much taller. I don’t know why he is sitting while she is standing.
The next photo shows them years later. They are probably both well in their sixties and maybe seventies. I am really not sure, but I do know that one is 11 years older than the other. So, there is my grandfather, whom I never knew, reading to my grandmother, whom I also never knew. He’s reading his bible to his sweet wife after her eyesight had gotten so bad that she could read no longer. I wish I could have spent time with them.
Grandpa reading to my Grandmother
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My “Kennedy” Connection

Another sun sets in my review mirror. (I knew that picture would come in handy one day.)

And I’ve managed to keep breathing for another year.
Which doesn’t really seem to me like an accomplishment.

Not everyone gets the chance to see another birthday…

But like my mom used to say, “It’s just another day Paul…”

When I was younger, I’d buy my mother a present for my birthday and explain that she was the one who’d done all the heavy lifting, not I.

She liked this little tradition.

When I was in elementary school, I would tell classmates that I was born a year and one day after President Kennedy was assassinated.

“Wow” they’d say. Which of course (as an ignorant kid), is what I was going for.

As if that was something I had any control over or that the terrible event was something that I wanted to be associated with. I think I was probably in the 7th grade before I stopped telling people about my “association” with Kennedy.

I am, however, just happy to be here and to maybe see another sunset.

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War Storm (Flash Fiction)

The winds picked up outside of the barracks at Fort Louis.
Captain Roger Greenwood, a Tennessee Army Guardsman, reclined on a worn leather sofa in the day room in the dilapidated Vietnam Era barracks.
His soldiers sat around; some on the phone with their girlfriends or mothers.
Most of the men played games on their smartphones. They’d just returned from a deployment assignment in Afghanistan and were happy to be almost home.
  Roger looked up for a moment as the wind whistled through the eaves of the barracks. For a few minutes he dreamed he was back home in Tennessee; the East Tennessee mountains– at his daughter’s school…
***
As he dozed, he found himself glaring through the dirty truck window of his 2001 Chevy Silverado trying to recognize the flags in front of his daughter’s school. His truck radio blared something about a tornado warning. But he was in a hurry and usually ignored what he called “panic warnings.”
Man, I hope the guys are all OK in this mess, he thought.
He was at school to have lunch with his 10-year-old daughter, Rochelle. The snap of the flags was louder, and he turned to stare and shook his head at the insane world he left behind in Kabul.
The school flags waved as the wind picked up more.
The crooked smile of Ms. Wrangler, the school secretary, met him as he entered the front office. He wondered how such a sour person had landed a job working with children.
“Here to see Rochelle for lunch.”
She ignored him and went back to bidding on a cherry-red Chevy Tahoe on eBay.
 Roger scribbled his name on a puke-green visitor’s tag and stuck it to his shirt pocket. He started down the hall. It should have taken less than two minutes. He felt dizzy and slammed into the wall next to a Crayon rendition of George Washington, steadying himself until he could walk straight.
“Good grief, Roger! Are you drunk?” he whispered to himself.
There was only silence where instead a cacophony of children’s voices should have drowned out his footsteps.
Where is everyone? Roger wondered.
The only sound was that of Moonlight Sonata being played over a boom box in the lunchroom.
He walked back toward the front office. But Ms. Wrangler was gone. And where was Rochelle?
Roger headed for the exit. The sunlight steadied his confusion. He sat on a concrete bench just outside the front door. As he looked over the lawn, he saw the school flag waving in the still air.
A moment later, the sound of automatic gunfire rattled him. A live round grazed his head as he retreated to the closest piece of earth he could find. Thoughts of his daughter’s elementary school faded. It was the Afghanistan he had left weeks earlier.
Yards away, the earth exploded, sending a horizontal shower of crystallized molten metal and dirt. Roger prayed that the shrapnel wouldn’t find its way to his legs. His prayer wasn’t answered favorable.
He saw a cinder-block building to the north, checked for more approaching fire, mentally calculated the distance, and he sprinted to the closest building and dove through an open window.
The floor was carpeted with shattered glass. Blood seeped from his wounds. When the shelling stopped, he heard cries. He searched for a radio to call for a medic.
He heard another whispered whimper. A moan. And a sharp cry of pain.
Atop the pole, the flag stopped moving.
And then there was silence. He combed his right hand through his hair, bent over, and rested his head in his hands. He wanted to go back to the school’s front door. But no one was there. The screams reminded him of a train engine. Pain shot through his legs, and he inched closer to the cries.
He awoke as a large tornado ripped through the base.
In the day room, all of his soldiers were relaxed, sprayed out on the floor, and dying to get out of Fort Louis and back home.
The intensity of the storm picked up outside the remodeled Vietnam-era barrack. The holes in the walls whistled. And then the winds stopped; the flag clung to the side of the pole, lifeless. The TV was silent and in several pieces.
***
A Fort Louis fireman reached Roger first. His body was a bloody mess “Over here. Got a live one.”
The broken bodies of most of the soldiers were scattered to the four corners of the post. Some would be going back home in a box.
“Hold tight, Captain. We’re gonna get you out of here.”
Before retreating back into the gray Mississippi sky that spring afternoon, the twister plowed through most of the adjacent counties leaving a scene reminiscent of a distant and brutal war.
 
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Bud and Dad

To successfully navigate the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, one must have a sponsor to keep them on the right path and stay sober.
My dad’s sponsor is the guy in this photo.
Many times I’ve listened to my dad, through smoke-filled rooms, give testimony to his life with and without alcohol.
I preferred without.
I am convinced that all alcoholics really just trade the alcohol for coffee and cigarettes. For those familiar with the area, the house on Bayou Sara Ave, near Cedar Street, was where I heard him talk and where I learned to drink copious amounts of coffee.
Good times!
Now, to the photo: you might be forgiven for thinking that the guy standing to the right of my dad was actually, COL Sanders. It sure looks like him. I half-way expect him to reach out holding a bucket of fried chicken – original recipe!
It’s actually a man named Bud Rose.
He lived in Memphis and I remember him talking to my dad in our house in Saraland about getting sober. He had a Big Book and spoke about admitting that he was “powerless over alcohol … and that his life … “had become unmanageable.”
Yes. It was.
Dad often drove to Memphis to speak or to listen to Bud speak.
But Bud had a secret (sort of). And I’m hoping that this doesn’t constitute some old FBI state secret.
Regardless, Bud would tell us that his claim to fame was being a body guard for the American gangster from Memphis, George Francis Barnes Jr., better known as Machine Gun Kelly. Then he’d lift his shirt and display a large and gruesome scar on his stomach that was produced, allegedly, by a machine-gun. For a good visual, see Lyndon Johnson showing off his surgical scar to reporters.
Sometimes I get the chance to talk about terrorism and its history in the U.S. And this old story makes for a nice way to introduce the topic.
First two are dad. Last one is Bud Rose
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Waving

I was driving through downtown Taylorsville, Mississippi (which is fairly small) and a guy in a blue Chevrolet pick-up truck drives past me, extends one hand, and waves like he knows me.
I don’t know him, but I wave back.
I am pretty sure that if I tried that in New York I’d be assaulted and or arrested.
This little hand-waving thing reminds me of my dad and riding in his truck.
My dad had a habit of always waving at approaching vehicles – one hand on the wheel, another hand holding a Pall Mall cigarette (ashes on the seat and floorboard).  If a hand was empty, it’d would be holding a cup of sugar and milk – with a touch of coffee.
My dad grew up in a little town in Alabama. I’m guessing they waved a lot there.
I grew up with the smell of these aromatic (not) cigarettes and, although I don’t mind the smell of some pipe tobacco and most cigars, cigarettes just kill me.
My dad was a real life red-headed step-child.
At the age of 17, he lied to join the Army. He made it just in time for the end of World War II. This gave him a chance to see some more of the world than Choctaw County.
Once he told me, during commercial breaks of Black Sheep Squadron, that he’d been, in no particular order, a driver for an Army general, a mechanic, and a drill instructor. At Camp Campbell the Army even taught him to jump out of perfectly good airplanes.
He didn’t stay in the Army long.
And in the big picture, he didn’t stay here for a long time either.
He died when he was 55.
That was a lifetime ago.
I can’t imagine how he’d react to knowing that I married a Russian or that smartphones exist, or even what Bluetooth is.
I wish he knew.
Sometimes I can still imagine him driving that blue and white 1974 Chevrolet Pick-up truck with white toolboxes on each side. He’s holding a cigarette and a large cup of coffee is precariously situated in front of him – sloshing occasionally all over the dashboard.
He takes a puff and stretches back against the seat.
And waves at an upcoming driver.
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Baldwin Square

Before it was a park in the middle of the now heavily populated Satsuma, Alabama, under a canopy of oaks and home to a few squirrels, there stood a small wood framed house with a detached garage, or as I liked to remember it – our horse barn.
We didn’t have horses.
But we did have a few dogs who could pass for horses any day – at least to a four-year-old boy with lots of imagination.
There was no asphalt or cement for the short driveway – only fine granulated Alabama top soil baked in the afternoon sun.
It was ideal for mud pies.
Behind the house sat a little one-room barbershop and beyond that – train tracks.
My dad caught rides on trains from our personal train station. The train took him to Chickasaw or Mobile for work. I’m hoping it slowed to a manageable speed as there was really no depot in Satsuma at the time. I don’t know that there ever was one there.
The post office was across the street. I think that the house is still there today, although the Postal Service relocated the mail office across Highway 43, near what used to be a neighborhood store. I liked the old house better.
Once, as a three or four-year-old, I wandered away from the homestead and into the parking lot of the post office.
I say wandered, but it was about 10 yards away.
I heard galloping. There weren’t many buggies left in circulation, but some still non-conformists chose to travel by horse.
I would call the horse Mr. Ed because he’s what I think of when I remember this scene, but that young rider of the horse now has a son with that name so I’ll call him Speedy.
I starred as the traveler dismounted his horse, looped the rope over a chain-linked fence, and walked inside.

Turns out, Speedy was not interested in checking the mail, or for that matter, waiting for its rider.
Speedy tilted his head a few times, un-looped the rope, backed away from the chain-linked fence and smiled at me.
OK, maybe he just winked. Regardless, one second later he was galloping down 4th Street towards East Orange Ave.
Soon thereafter, the rider exited the post office with his mail, but with no visible horse on which to return home.
For only a brief second, the horseless rider glanced at me.
Did he think that I had freed Speedy?
He didn’t wait around to ask. He took off in a gallop after his horse on 4th street towards the high school.
The only way I know – or am reasonably sure – of the rider’s identity is that years ago, I recounted this story to a friend.
And he told me that he was most likely the rider who failed to properly secure his horse when he went into the post office.
Years later after we’d moved to the only slightly larger city of Saraland, Mr. Baldwin (for whom the park is named) demolished (or moved) that old house. In 1982, the Baldwin family gave the land to the city of Satsuma and it now serves as a public park.
In 1992, I brought a young Russian Princess to this place where I had a kind-of “beginning” (i.e., my parents had moved from Louisiana to Alabama when I was four – so this was my beginning in Alabama. I know it’s a stretch but work with me!)
I kneeled and asked her to begin a new journey with me.
She said yes.
My children don’t care too much for this story – especially after the 100th time.
But I like it.
It reminds me of home.
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Good News Perspective

One person’s good news is another’s bad news.

Sometimes.

My wife and I were in college at the same time.

And one of the benefits of attending said school was free health care.

Of course, it wasn’t really free, but an option for students at a reduced price.

Thank you tax payers!

One of the riders to that health insurance was that pregnancy was covered. For some reason I think this was a popular addition.

We already had an 18 month-old girl when I started law school.

But my wife wanted 2 girls. And she wanted them to be about the same distance apart in age as she was from her sister.

There are a few things that professors will tell you not to do when you are in law school.

Don’t get married.

Don’t have a baby.

Don’t rob Federal Reserve banks.

Crazy, right?

Thankfully, my experience in these is limited.

And the statute of limitations hasn’t run yet, so…

I’ll just stick to my story here.

In other words, law school is stressful enough so don’t complicate it by doing more stressful stuff.

Which is apparently why we decided to have a baby in my second year of law school. I missed my Evidence final exam to welcome our second girl into the world.

Hey, some law school classmates got married.

But that’s still not the point.

We went to the university health clinic for a pregnancy test.

Now, upon your first visit to said clinic you must deal with a life-size Barbie doll staring at the sick students waiting to receive Benadryl or other life saving medicine.

Let me say that again: A life-sized Barbie doll. Well over 6 feet tall.

She was creepy.

I don’t know if it is still there but it was not very appealing, unlike the Russian Barbie I had bought for my bride.

Which was pretty and stayed that way until one of our girls gave her a hair cut years later.

Now, for reasons I can’t go into here, we were pretty sure that the wife was pregnant. But we had to get the official test from the clinic so some insurance official could make a car or house payment that month.

A few minutes later a young woman sits down in front of us with a stern look on her face.

And I could tell that she didn’t want to tell us the results of her findings.

Just tell us the news.

“Well,” she began. She was nervous.

“The results are back and, well… Well, um,  you’re pregnant.”

(Actually only one of us was…)

But we both breathed a sigh of relief and happiness.

The worker, for a nano-second, was confused and also breathed a sigh of relief.

“Oh good.”

She was sincerely relieved.

I suspected that this announcement wasn’t always met with happiness. I wouldn’t want her job.

We said thank you to the nice clinic worker and a hearty goodbye to Barbie and went shopping for diapers and baby clothes.

 

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