Author: Random Handyman

With our Lord Jesus as the Savior Carpenter, then I am merely a random handyman, following along after Him; learning to use a small set of tools He's given me; helping Him build His Kingdom on Earth.

Witch’s Brew

A pot of Witch's Brew brand coffee

Piping hot!

Tell Time: 5 minutes
Scare Rating: 2 of 5 Frights
“Witch!”
Brenda’s scowl dropped from her countenance at the label. For a very brief moment, she looked pained by the remark. But that emotion was quickly supplanted by a new one, represented via an icy blank stare at her husband.
“How can you be so mean-spirited and vicious?” Marc continued. “How can you escalate a disagreement over whose turn it is to do the dishes into such a monstrosity of an argument? You don’t always have to play for keeps!”
Brenda slowly strode toward Mark, gently took his hands into her own and looked into his eyes. She grabbed his attention by the throat so that she wouldn’t be misunderstood.
“Don’t you ever call me a witch again,” she said, quietly but also firmly and clearly. She then dropped his hands, turned and silently walked away.
“What a … witch!” Marc uttered under his breath as she went into their bedroom and shut and locked the door behind her.
~
He had a lot of time to think about their heated exchange that night, as he tossed and turned on their couch in the living room.
“I was right!” he thought to himself. “I’ve done the dishes for the last five nights straight! She should’ve offered to do them, instead of making me bring it up to her. She’s the one who made it a fight in the first place, and once we were fighting she is the one who took it to a whole other level. Calling her a witch wasn’t nearly as bad as the things she said about me.
“I don’t know why that word gets her so heated, anyway. But it does, and I knew that when I said it. I said it to get back at her. I knew it would hurt her just as badly — worse — than she had hurt me. And this time, I wanted to hurt her.
“I probably shouldn’t have done it. We should be able to disagree without being disagreeable. And if I have to be the only one in our marriage who does this, as a way of modeling good behavior, then I suppose that’s my role in our relationship.”
Marc picked up his phone and sent a text.
“I was wrong to call you a witch. I apologize. Please forgive me.”
~
Marc fell asleep, exhausted, fairly quickly after sending the note. But it was a fitful sleep, and he broke out of it quickly when he felt the cool, firm hand on his shoulder.
“I brought you some coffee,” Brenda said. She was kneeling beside the couch-bed, holding a steaming mug of rich-smelling java.
“Thanks,” Marc replied, letting a half smile. He sat up, stiffly, and stretched, before eagerly taking the mug from his wife and taking a sip.
“That’s delicious,” he said, after he took his first drink of the warm brew. “What is it, Sumatran?”
“A little bit of that, with some of your favorite spices,” she replied. “And some of my favorites, too, like eye of newt and bat wing and wolfsbane and witch hazel. It’s my special brew.”
“Hey,” Marc said, picking up her sarcasm. “I said I was sorry about calling you a witch. And I told you I wouldn’t do it ever again. Can we just get past last night?”
Brenda took his hands in hers again, and raised his cup up to his mouth to help him take another swallow of the warm liquid. As he did, he felt a burning sensation run down into his chest and into his stomach.
This wasn’t from the hot temperature of the coffee, it was something else entirely. He became certain of that as he felt his throat constrict. Panicking, he struggled to breath, and finding he couldn’t, he tried to scream. But no air would pass in either direction.
Certain that she had his full attention, Brenda spoke.
“Of course I’m a witch, darling,” Brenda said, using the same calculating blank expressiveness from the night before. “But you can’t call me that name. You are not one of us, so you have no right.
“For centuries, your kind used that label to persecute us, to reveal us, and to try to obliterate us. Witch hunts and witch trials and applying the name with scorn to any woman that had moxie enough to stand up for herself or to stand up to you.
“I won’t stand for it. Because I don’t have to stand for it. I have the power to do something about it — you know that now. And I have the evil hatred burning inside of me. You know that too, don’t you?”
Marc’s hands trembled, then started to shake violently. He looked at them, and at the cup they held, large boils had spread across the surface of his skin, which was shifting from angry red to bruised purple to a necrotic brown. As he looked on, he could see his body dying and rotting.
He dropped the cup, which shattered on the floor. Amidst the ceramic shards were indeed tiny eyeballs, and what looked to be matted hair from some feral creature.
“Of course I forgive you,” Brenda said.
“But I cannot forget.”
THE END
This is a rough-cut draft of a brand-new Fear Naught Tale. To read more spooky short stories like this one, check out Fear Naught Tales: Spooky Stories to Read and Tell!

S.O.S.: Save Our Stories!

My father in law Jack Shannon, a Korean War Rakkasan

My father in law Jack Shannon, a Korean War Rakkasan

A call to action in honor of Veterans Day 2018: Save Our Stories!

Lt. Olin “Short Round” Hardy was beloved by the men he served with, not just because he was a great forward observer, but because he managed to bridge the infinite divide between Artillery – his trade – and the Infantry of Company L. His misadventures bringing scavenged creature comforts to the foxholes at the front, or in bringing extra fire to bear on enemy positions, made him legendary, even 60 years after the Korean War. Today, his remaining brothers in arms toast his memory and the deeds that drove them to advocate that he earn the Combat Infantry Badge, an honor normally exclusive only to Infantrymen.

The men telling Hardy’s stories are in their 80s, and the size of the once-large group has dwindled to only a handful. The memories – the stories – pass away with the infirmities of time and age, and eventually, death. For Veterans of “The Forgotten War” in particular, the opportunity to capture their stories for forever is quickly passing by. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In the same war, Sgt. Jack Shannon jumped out of airplanes, then waged combat at close quarters with both North Koreans and Chinese regulars. I only know this by inference, though, because my father-in-law never talked to me about any of the details of war, though I could see those things haunted him to the end. Instead, I heard about him helping loosen the airplane cargo pallet carrying a Jeep over its drop zone – only to have the pallet break loose and take the Jeep – and Jack – with it. A few heart-stopping “ass-over-elbows” moments later, he managed to get hold of the Jeep mid-air, climb in and hold tight for a hard – but survivable – landing. Or there’s the story of a fellow soldier who was afraid that a Chinese regular might creep into camp at night to slit his throat as he slept, so he set booby traps all around his quarters – and almost blew himself up, along with everyone in a 10-foot radius.

Then there’s my own Dad, Airman Third Class George Bishop, who enlisted for the noblest of reasons: to get away from home as young as legally possible. He was also in Korea, and served as an electrical technician on some of the world’s first computers. In his free time, he dealt blackjack in the Officer’s Club, and infamously came up with a number of schemes for getting ahead in the world the fast way – which invariably is the wrong way. This led him to get busted down in rank at least twice. He certainly also had adventures and close calls, though of a graft-and-greed nature, far from the front – experiences that reflect a different man than who I knew and loved as my father – a man still in his youth and still learning, albeit the hard way.

Besides Korea, the one thing in common among these three heroes – and to too many others – is that no one captured their stories firsthand. While I’ve told some of them here, what I’ve recounted is hearsay – subject to my own frame of experience and to my shabby memory. Sadly, then, what’s retold in sparse detail is pretty much the extent of which I know about any of these situations – and thus, what anyone knows about them. Details about the experiences – the smells, what they were thinking, what they were feeling, what they learned from what happened and so much more – are lost forever, because each of these men – and so many more of our Veterans each day – has passed away.

These stories, then, are a gift; I am proud that the ones I have, as few and limited in detail as they are, were entrusted to me. I’m trying to save them for my children and for their children. But I didn’t get much detail, and I didn’t get many stories. And now it’s too late to get any more of them.

When they were alive – and elderly – I thought it might be unseemly to ask to hear them, and especially, to record them. That’s my greatest regret now. My then-16-year-old son saw this through me, and he immediately understood it. For his Eagle Scout service project, then, he led a group of young men to capture video histories of other Veterans for their families, for historians and for the public alike, through the Missouri Veterans History Project, a part of the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project. He didn’t get his grandfathers’ stories, but he will get others’ grandfathers’ stories.

Each of us can do so, too, whether as a volunteer for one of these programs, or less formally with our immediate circle of family members, friends or neighbors. From my own experience, I’d pass along the following and encourage everyone who knows a Veteran to:

  • Ask to hear their stories
  • Ask to see pictures or other “artifacts” from their service – patches, uniforms, souvenirs, etc. – and ask them to tell you about them
  • Ask to record their stories – audio or video – for exact capture of their words, but also for non-verbal information like body language or voice tone
  • Realize they may not appreciate what a big deal their stories are to you or to anyone; they did not grow up with social media and its associated narcissism
  • Be OK if they decline your request
  • If they won’t let you record them, or if you don’t want to ask to record them, then jot down as much as you can recall hearing, as soon after you hear it, as possible
  • Recognize that there may be some things they never want to talk about
  • Accept that there may be some things that they won’t talk to you or a loved one about, but they might talk to a total stranger about
  • Realize that many of these stories are connected to wounds seen and unseen; be prepared for reactions that may surprise you – and them
  • Go Barbara Walters: engage your best conversation skills to elicit information and details with insightful questions and good follow-ups that take the conversation deeper
  • Listen … truly listen to what’s being shared with you
  • Don’t judge what you hear
  • Let them know that you appreciate them sharing their stories with you

To learn more about capturing Veterans’ stories, visit the Missouri Veterans History Project or the Library of Congress Veterans History Project website.

Do you have any Veteran stories that you’d like to share? What advice do you have for someone who wants to ask a Veteran to hear his or her story?

Copyright 2015

###

This post previously ran on the 131st Bomb Wing website May 4, 2015. You can find that story here. It was subsequently posted to my LinkedIn page, here, May 13, 2015.

Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays from PR, business, and life — which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!

A Corny Story

Bowl of candy corn and peanuts

Fall Mix: Like it, love it, or hate it?

Tell Time: 4 minutes
Scare Rating: 1 of 5 Frights

“Fetch me my biggest cauldron, Dearie.”

Jessica had no clue what the cauldron would be for, but she was spending a fall afternoon with her grandma. What she did know, then, is that they were going to have a magical time together.

The black bowl was right where Gramma said it was, in the basement next to the water heater. Easy enough to find, and she giggled to see a few small house spiders scurry away to find a new dark corner, as she dragged their home away from them. But getting the cast-iron pot up the stairs was a challenge.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Pulling it by its dirty, thick-braided wire handle, which had once been used to suspend the ancient pot over an open cooking fire, Jessica dragged the heavy cast-iron body of the vessel slowly up the stairs, pausing to rest after each step was conquered. At the top, Gramma grasped the handle and finished the chore. Seeming to rely on supernatural strength, she easily carried the pot the rest of the way, to the stone-faced kitchen table.

“The harvest moon will be rising soon. It’s fall, the deepening season, when the thin veil that separates the Otherworld from ours strains to the point of breaking,” Gramma intoned. “And you know what that means, don’t you?” she asked.

“That it’s election season?” Jessica replied, remembering all of the commercials she’d seen over the recent few weeks.

Grandma shrieked with laughter at her granddaughter’s unintentionally impertinent remark.

“So innocent, yet so clever!” she cackled. “No, my dear. Though you were right to be fearful of the ghouls and goblins that emerge from their dark places during that very haunted season. All in their quest to grab up earthly powers and spread terror across the lands!

“But no; I merely speaking of Halloween. In the fullness of this time, it ripe for my very special seasonal concoction.”

Jessica peered over the edge of the counter to see the recipe. She half expected to see eye if newt, or owl’s blood, on a long list of mystical ingredients to be added to the pot. Instead, there were just two items printed there, in Gramma’s shaky-handed scrawl. Jessica went to the pantry to retrieve them, while Gramma continued her chore of washing a year’s worth of basement dust off the big pot.

“Good, good!” Gramma crowed as Jessica pushed a double armload of sundries onto the counter. “Now, be a Dearie and grab my big wooden spoon – it’s perfect for mixing deep into this big pot.”

“What are we making?” the girl asked, contemplating the ingredients.

“This mixture is known to men and mystics alike for its power to divide and separate otherwise good and well-intentioned people — to separate goats from sheep, I’d say! Those who have tasted it can’t agree whether it is like manna from heaven, or is an accursed affliction that should be damned to Hades for eternity.”

“Like provel cheese?” Jessica asked. She didn’t like provel, but her friend Sadie loved it.

Gramma once again erupted in a spontaneous fit of laughter at the unintentional joke. Her high-pitched cackle always reminded Jessica of a witch’s laugh — though if she was one, Jessica only knew her to be a good witch.

“Yes, Dearie, exactly like provel cheese. Now you just go ahead and add in those ingredients, while grandma starts to stir the mix.”

Jessica cracked open three tall glass jars and poured their earthy contents into the bowl. She then unsealed three large bags of the most important — some would say sacred — ingredient.

Grandma mixed fervently, happily humming an ancient melody that only she would have known; probably from the old country, Jessica mused. As she mixed, the girl watched closely, to ensure that the salty peanuts from the jars were evenly distributed amongst the sweet, waxy golden triangles of the bagged candy corn.

“It’s done! Now, let us enjoy our creation!” said grandma, using her long spoon to dish up two smaller bowls of the treat, for herself and her young apprentice.

“And to Hades with anyone who doesn’t agree that fall mix is a most devilishly divine treat of the season!”

THE END

The Insecurity Blanket

A possessed blanket dispossesses its owner.

A possessed blanket dispossesses its owner.

When it comes to breaking a habit, possession is nine tenths of the law …

Tell Time: 12 minutes
Scare Rating: 3 of 5

Robbie sat quietly on the far end of the soft couch, as far away from his mother as he could get, his backpack across his lap like a shield. His fingers instinctively sought out and found the tail of cloth sticking out from the bag’s zippered mouth, and he tugged and twisted it as he listened intently to everything said about him, only a few feet away.

“Until this year – until last week – this hasn’t been an issue for him. It hasn’t been an issue for his father and I, either, I want you to know,” Mom said, with some defensiveness. “Sure, he’s probably a little too old to still be carrying a security blanket around with him, especially to school where he could get teased for it.”

Robbie studied the tiny specks of dust drifting silently through beams of sunlight from the nearby windows. Staring at them intently, he tried to be somewhere else. His eyes traveled from the dust to their destination: rows of dark wooden shelves that lined the walls.

On one, a diploma propped on a small stand read, “Brian Binder, Doctor of Psychiatry.” Every shelf was filled; most with textbooks and reference manuals, some of them ancient-looking. The shelves also stored a number of bizarre tribal artifacts from around the world. He’d overheard his dad suggest that his mom take him to see a “head shrink,” but had she really brought him to a witch doctor?

“We all knew that Robbie would figure out on his own when he was ready to get rid of his security blanket. But with the teasing and bullying …” His mom reached across the long couch and stroked Robbie’s hair back from his face.

“He’s ready, but we think he needs some help.”

“I completely understand,” Dr. Binder said, addressing Robbie instead of his mother. “Can you show me your blanket?”

Robbie looked at his mom for permission, then slowly threaded the thin, small cloth through the small mouth of the still-mostly-closed backpack. The soft, blue fleece was smooth and shiny with age and wear. One end had blue satin trim, and the other end probably had had it, too, at one time. His mom kept it as clean as she could, when she could get it away from him to launder it. Robbie clutched the blanket on his lap, rubbing the thin, worn fabric between his thumb and fingers.

“In most cases, a lovable item like a favorite doll or a blanket like yours is our first friend, and we stick close to our friends for company and feelings of affection, don’t we, Robbie?” The question was a rhetorical one, and Dr. Binder didn’t wait for a response. “Usually – about the time we start school – human friends are there for us, and our need for our pretend friends passes away. Like that wonderful invention of ‘self-melting snow;’ this if often a situation that resolves itself on its own and in its own due time.

“When it doesn’t – or when we want to speed up the process – people like to ask doctors like me to help. Your mom probably told you that I’m a psychiatrist, which I am,” said Dr. Binder. “But I prefer to be called a ‘Mental Magician.’ The psychiatric help that I provide works like magic – and that title looks a lot cooler on a business card!”

Robbie let a small smile show, and looked up from his blanket at the doctor.

“I use what’s known as aversion therapy. I can bore you with the scientific details, but here’s the bottom line: through a bit of trickery – the magic that I mentioned – we’re going to make it so that all of your experiences with your beloved blanket become … well, not good. Maybe you‘ll experience discomfort, maybe mild nausea, maybe a sense of danger – what you might experience is different for everyone. After a handful of these episodes, over a few days, you’ll no longer want your blanket with you. At all. Ever again.  “

“This will all be in his imagination, though, right?” Mom asked.

“It will be very real to him,” Dr. Binder replied matter-of-factly, but without answering her question.

“Let me show you both something I’m quite proud of.”

Dr. Binder stepped out from behind his desk and opened a door to a small closet in his office. Inside were more shelves, but these were painted a bright, antiseptic white. Each shelf was stuffed with ragged and well-loved artifacts of childhood: toys and dolls, stuffed animals, blankets, teethers, video game controllers, and more.

“Here’s the proof of my technique,” Dr. Binder said with pride. “Hundreds of playthings that their previous owners finally decided to move beyond. I’d suggest that with my method, your blanket can be added to my collection, soon, if you’d like.”

Mom looked over at Robbie. A small smile pulled up one side of his face. He was ready.

~

Robbie sat on a stool in the center of the room, clutching his blanket in his lap. His mom remained on the couch, watching nervously. As Dr. Binder approached, he withdrew a twig-like object from his sleeve.

“My wand. I find it adds a bit of theater,” he whispered to Mom over his shoulder, adding a wink as well for a bit of theater for her benefit.

“Robbie, with my help, you’re about to undergo a bit of mild hypnotherapy,” Dr. Binder explained. “I’ll put you into a deep trance. While you sleep, I’ll place some suggestions into your subconscious. Then, I will remove you from the trance. Over the coming days, you will find that your desire to seek comfort in your fleece friend will grow less by less each day.

The doctor raised his arms as a music conductor might, wand twitching in his left hand as if animated by an inner power. “Are you ready?”

Robbie nodded. Dr. Binder glanced over his shoulder, and when Mom nodded, he began.

“Sleep, young Robbie,” he intoned. “Find a moment’s rest from this island of light and life! When you awaken, you’ll take on a profound fear and hatred for your favorite blanket, never before experienced!” He was instantly entranced; the boy’s head dropped into his chest, and his grip on his blanket relaxed.

With an additional flourish, Dr. Binder stretched his arm straight out, pointing the wand at the blanket itself.

Witandunon … valthyrial … impositian … Plyantium!” the bizarre chant started quiet and low, but was almost a shout by the last word. As he chanted, a crackle sound buzzed from the wand, and he leaned in slightly, touching the blanket at the exact moment that he spoke the last syllable of the mantra. When he did, a spark of static electricity popped loudly. Mom jumped, startled.

“Wake up, Robbie!” Dr. Binder said with authority, “Wake, go home, and find your new peace!”

~

Mom let Robbie sit in silence on the car ride home, but that didn’t stop her from stealing glances at him in the rearview mirror. Clearly exhausted from the afternoon’s events, she saw him pull his security blanket from his backpack and curl up with it against his chest. She frowned that no improvement had been achieved yet.

Robbie was momentarily comforted by his familiar blanket, and doubted that anything that witch doctor had done to him would work. He held the blanket out in front of him to examine it; it looked the same as it had before. He pulled it back in close, then nearly gagged on what was a sudden, sour, sulfurous smell.

A small cloud of green dust puffed out from the blanket, along with an audible “pffft!” sound. Did his blanket just … fart? He pinched his nose and looked away, holding his blanket as far away from him as possible as he shook it out.

Had the smell passed? He looked at the blanket suspiciously, then put it back up to his nose to sniff it. “Eghew!”He snapped his head back in reaction, his nose wrinkled and his eyes pinched shut from the stinging stink. The blanket still smelled disgusting! He tossed it to the car floor, just as his mom peeked back at him in the mirror. She smiled; she would wash it for him before bedtime, but it was possible that the mental magic was already starting to work!

~

Robbie packed the blanket into his backpack the next day, just as he had all year. He definitely wasn’t ready to give it up, even though he thought he’d imagined some weird “behaviors” from the blanket the night before. Had it really growled at him when he went to pick it up?  This morning’s itchy rash across his body was also bizarre, but Mom blamed it on the new dryer sheets she’d used, gave him some allergy medicine, and put him on the school bus.

In class, Robbie reached into his backpack for his notebook. His blanket seemed to be peeking out, as if curious to see what classroom life was all about. Robbie looked around to make sure no one had seen – he definitely did not want to be teased again – and pushed the blanket back deep into the pouch from which it had risen. Oddly, when he did so, the blanket seemed to push back against him – with some force. Robbie quickly zipped the bag shut, then flipped his notebook open to take notes.

As Mr. Culver droned on about the rebels in the Revolutionary War, giggles and laughter suddenly broke out, first behind him, then all around him as everyone looked and saw what was happening. Wanting to be in on the joke, Robbie looked around, then was mortified when he discovered he was the joke. He found his blanket hanging from the corner of his seat back. Somehow, it was folded into the shape of a tricorne hat of the type popular in Colonial America.

~

Robbie coughed in his sleep once, then again. He turned, his sleep fitful, then roused after another bout of coughs. Awake now, he found that he was dizzy and confused. By the dim night light, saw that he was in his bed at home, and place where he should feel safe, especially with his security blanket around him. Then why was he scared? He coughed again, reflexively, and with it, pulled in a dose of fresh air – and in doing so, realized that he’d not been breathing before; had not been able to breath before.

Another reflexive cough drew a small amount of air into his lungs, but the growing panic quickly consumed it all. His brain desperately needed oxygen, and without it, he was getting more and more confused.

His hands moved to his throat, clawing at whatever was obstructing his airway. His fingers felt the soft folds of his blanket, and with it, he felt a moment of peace and relief … until he realized that his blanket was tight around his neck, choking and suffocating him. Robbie kicked and panicked, trying to free himself, but as he did so, he could feel the blanket’s death grip around his throat draw tighter and tighter. He tried to scream, but only silence came out.

He needed help. He tried to climb out of bed, but fell onto the floor instead. He crawled out his door into the hallway, steadily making his way to his parent’s bedroom. Hot tears streamed down his cheeks as he feared for his life. In the darkness, he could see stars dancing in front of his eyes. Would he make it to their room in time?

Halfway down the hall, the blanket’s grip suddenly relaxed. Robbie wheezed and took in large gulps of fresh air. His body shuddered as if new life had entered it, and his raspy gasps of air turned into cries for help. Mom and Dad rushed into the hallway to find their son sobbing and gasping for air. His neck was red and raw. At his feet laid his blanket, still in a tight tangle as it had fallen from the boy’s neck. The near-accident was over.

~

Robbie’s stride into Dr. Binder’s office was determined; his mother hustled to catch up.

“Welcome back.” The psychiatrist greeted Robbie with a knowing smile – or was it a smirk? “Am I to guess that we’ve had some success with our experiment with your security blanket?”

“I’d say so,” Robbie replied firmly. He slid his pack from his back and dropped it at his feet, opened it up, and pulled the blanket out. Only Robbie seemed able to hear a low hiss emanating from deep within the cloth folds. Instead of holding the blanket close for comfort, he held it in his outstretched arms, while turning his face to the side to protect it. He looked as though he was holding a skunk out in front of his body.

Dr. Binder chuckled. “Well Robbie, I’m happy to hear of your success. Would you like to keep your old friend, or would you like to add him – er, I mean, ‘it’ – to my collection?”

“It’s all yours, Doctor,” Robbie replied, carrying the blanket toward the closet. His mom watched the bittersweet moment from across the room, proud of her son’s resolve, but sad at the passing milestone.

Dr. Binder led Robbie to the closet and pointed out a spot for his blanket. As he stepped forward, the blanket started to buzz and shake – as if it was wrapped around an angry hornet’s nest. Although he wasn’t surprised by this at this point, Robbie was in an even bigger hurry to be rid of the blanket as a result. He tossed it onto the shelf as directed, then took a large step back.

Robbie took a final look at his old friend, and noticed all the other toys and blankets had started to shake and bounce about, as if to welcome a new member to their clan. As he scanned from shelf to shelf, Robbie saw that each one was alive in its own way, seemingly possessed by some dark inner spirit designed to haunt their former owners. He glanced up at Dr. Binder, who smiled back knowingly. As the door closed on the scene, he looked over his shoulder at his mom, to see that she had not noticed anything.

Though the hypnosis was a sham, the magic had worked. Only by this haunting could Dr. Binder compel his patients – so many children who had stood in that very spot in the weeks and months and years before – to give their favorite objects this twisted form of freedom. By dark magic, they had been wrested away from the dependency as familiars to their human hosts, and were now forever a part of the dark collection of one highly effective and successful mental magician.

THE END

The Devil’s Scribe

With the devil of existential angst on one shoulder, what choice will our man make?

Tell Time: 11 minutes
Scare Rating: 4 of 5 Frights

Pat opened the left-hand drawer of his writing desk and gazed into its deep cavity. It was the drawer where he kept his near-final manuscripts. His Very-good-writing-but-not-yet-ready-for-publication stories. At least, according to the pink rejection slip an editor had stapled to one of them. Another said, Tight market for this kind of fiction, but you have a great talent and voice – keep trying! There were more where he had kept trying; too many more. Each message was meant to be encouraging, but the number of them, accumulated in so many years that had passed since he’d started, comprised of hours wasted for nothing, sent a different message.

On top of the pile was his latest manuscript; it didn’t have a pink slip.

“Yet,” Pat muttered.

He thumbed through it absent-mindedly, its pages illuminated by an antique desk lamp and the flickering yellow flames from the wood stove in the corner. In the light, he caught glimpses of words that instantly conveyed scenes from the story into his mind. He chuckled at one, remembering a gaffe that his least-favorite character had made – while also knowing that a key plot twist later in the story would hinge on that unfortunate utterance. A new scene furrowed his brow – the main character’s rival in the story had deceived their mutual love interest, and she’d ran into the scoundrel’s arms for comfort and reassurance. Liberal humor throughout and a surprise hook ending – hallmarks of his style – were at their best in his latest attempt.

“Not bad, Patrick B. Johnston,” he told himself with due satisfaction. “Not bad at all …”

But was it good? And if it rated as good, was it good enough. Would his best effort ever be good enough to crack into the publishing world, to validate unrequited years slaving at his keyboard late into the night, spinning words of his own after spending just as many hours crafting clever copy for the account executives at his day job in the advertising department?

His college creative writing courses had set him on a path to be a writer: by his definition, a published, successful, affluent, influential, respected capital-W Writer. It had not prepared him for seemingly endless years of frustration, disappointment, and insecurity, joyfully plying his craft and steadily improving the edge on his talent, sure – but doing so for an audience of one (two, if his mother was counted), for an eternity, as it would seem.

Pat lightly traced his fingertips across the face of the large manila envelope setting on the desktop. It was addressed to Ace Publishing, and the cover letter already slipped inside it assured their editors that his latest effort would be their next best seller. “Or not,” he said. He startled himself with the words; by how loud and how bitterly he’d said them. He swept the envelope off the desk and shoved it into the drawer, before slamming it shut.

It was late, and this self-flagellation wouldn’t help resolve anything. He got up, stirred the red coals before shutting the fire doors on the dwindling flames, and shuffled to bed. He would decide what to do with his manuscript – and his writing ambitions – tomorrow.

~

Pat’s sleep was fitful. His angst followed him into his dreams, where he met the Devil. Yes, THE Devil.

“Pat, it doesn’t have to be as hard as you’re making it,” the Devil chided him. The dreamscape setting was a surprise – it was on a park bench, on a clear, sunny spring day. Families and couples, squirrels and birds frolicked in their own ways, all of them oblivious to the red-suited, sulfur-scented cartoon character from Hell who had strolled down the curving tree-lined sidewalk with purposeful intent to sit beside the writer and make his pitch. Satan may as well have been a dog walker taking a break, as far as this audience was concerned.

“You’ve seen other writers rise to fame and fortune – fame and fortune just as deserved for you as it is for them, of course,” the Devil said. “How’d they do it while you can’t? Good timing? A lucky break? An aunt in the business? Catching a fad on the upswing? Or did they really all just out-work and out-write you? Do you really believe that nonsense?”

Everything that he heard, Pat had already thought at one time or another … and with the same bitter resentment that the Devil slathered on top of his words. It was easy bait to take.

“I can offer you a shortcut … and if you’ll take it, I won’t even need your soul in return – who can claim such a deal from the Devil? Here’s what I’ll do for you: the next manuscript you submit will be published, and will rise to the top of the best-seller charts. You’ll instantly attain fame, fortune, influence, and all that other worldly stuff you’ve been chasing after for all these years.”

“Of course I will,” Pat replied dryly – only in a dream would he dare mouth off to the Devil. “All my hopes and dreams will come true, blah, blah, hot air, etcetera. But what do you want out of the deal? I mean, what do I have to do for you?”

“Very little, really. Just this: the words in the book that you ‘write’ won’t be yours; they will be mine. I’ll dictate every ‘jot and tittle’ of it to you; I simply need human hands to set it to paper. Indeed, had I thought of you sooner, I might sooner have had a bible of my own centuries ago!”

“Beyond vanity – and there are publishers for that sort of writing – what will such a work do for you?” Pat asked. With some hesitation, for fear of what the answer could be, he added, “and what will it do to the world?”

“It’s always been about my vanity, my dear man!” The Devil exclaimed with raucous laughter – and a no-kidding slap to his cartoony knee. “As for the world; it will do with it what it will do with it – what should either of us care about that? Though I’d point out to you that since the world is clearly already on its way to Hell in a handbasket, I don’t see what further harm my little book – I mean, your book – could cause.”

Another voice entered his head. “Don’t seek to get rich quickly; that way leads to ruin!” and “Do the right things in the right ways; you’ll get the right results in the right timing!” Suddenly, that voice wasn’t disembodied in his head, but now was coming from a bluebird that had landed on the top of the park bench behind his shoulder. The Devil was oblivious; that amidst the birdsong came forth still more aphorisms, wisdom, guidance. These were things – lessons – that Pat remembered from his Sunday School classes, that his teachers had shared with him decades earlier. These new words fit the context, certainly – but they were unsolicited … as out of the blue as they were out of a bluebird. Just as out of the blue as the Devil’s sudden appearance, too. It was all so puzzling, but Pat just chuckled – he was able to reconcile the quirkiness to the nature of dreams, and would have been less surprised if God himself stepped down from Heaven to offer his perspective firsthand.

Pat was intellectually interested in the debate, and if he was conscious, would perhaps not admit to being as personally intrigued by the offer at hand. As such, he listened to both sides intently, trying to weigh the two arguments he was now hearing.

“Beyond the immediate fame that will come to you with this first title, it will establish your name, and springboard you to a lifetime of future publishing success,” The Devil was still laying his case on thick, pushing to close the deal. “You’ve always said you just needed a break; that if only people would see your work among the crowded marketplace of literature, you’d be able to break through to the other side. Our first collaboration is a wrecking ball to all the institutions that have held you down for all these years, and every future work that you write will …”

“I’ll do it,” Pat interjected.

“Oh saints-a-falling, thank you! As a writer, you are one of the few that can appreciate what a gift from God that writing truly is – putting down for eternity your thoughts, ideas, and ambitions,” the Devil prattled on. “With your help, I’ll finally be able to capture for an eternal audience my deepest thoughts, my most warped ideas, and my darkest ambitions.”

“I said, ‘I’ll do it,’” Pat said, forcefully … and grimly.

~

“What have I done?” Pat muttered to himself as he slowly crawled back to consciousness. He felt filthy both inside and out – feeling physically as if he was coated with pitch tar and greasy dirt; the kind of soil that a bar of pumice soap couldn’t cut through. And even if it got his skin clean, he’d want to crawl outside of himself and scour every bit of his insides, too.

His eyes were still only open slightly, letting little light in. On the desk, he saw the product of his demonic-inspired efforts: a thick stack of printed pages, neatly collated per the Devil’s instructions. Dark, odd-shaped characters stood in stark relief against the otherwise alabaster-white pages, though the side of the ream of paper bore a yellow-tinged stain, reminiscent of sulfur.

He slowly panned the room; the fire had long since gone out, but his companion remained with him still, a look of pride and mocking smeared across the ruddy hues of his face. That image brought the entire memory of the past few – how long had it been? Hours? Days? He didn’t know how long it’d been, but the memories of every moment rushed back over him in an instant. He was sick, and barely found his wastebasket in time.

“Typical response,” jeered the Devil. “That’ll do. Get some rest; I suppose you’ve earned it,” he added, with some degree of put-on sympathy. After all, he still had need of the man’s services. “Would you do me an additional favor, then? In the morning, put the manuscript in the mail to your publisher, and that will be that!”

The man passed out as the Devil faded away, the sound of laughter fading with it, but not quickly enough.

~

It was launch day, and Pat sat at his table at Caruther’s Books on Fifth Avenue, signing copies of his first published book. Critics had roundly praised the novel for its clever plot meanderings, realistic characters, and insightful observations that applied to humanity and the world. Pre-release publicity had set early demand for the book on fire, and the line of eager readers and immediate fans traced its way almost to the front door of the store.

Within that line, book in hand to be signed, was a family character, though his appearance was much less cartoony than the last time he’d showed his face to Pat.

“Congratulations Pat,” said the Devil suavely. “Can I ask you to inscribe my book? How ‘bout this: ‘Dear Satan, my number 1 fan. I couldn’t have done it without you!’”

“Hey Satan, glad to put down some more words for you,” Pat said. “But it won’t be those. Because I did do it without you.”

The Devil’s face turned dark with confusion; what was this human talking about? More significantly: outside of Dreamsville where they’d made their bargain, why was Pat being cocky, defiant, and frankly, fearlessly smart-alecky – in rebuffing him?

“Whatever are you talking about, dear man?!” the Devil retorted.

“Haven’t you even read the book you’re holding? Or any of the reviews for it? Or have you been too busy making touchdown dances on the one yard line? This isn’t our book, and it certainly isn’t your book. It’s my book.”

The Devil’s jaw dropped ever-lower with every word Pat said. Disbelieving, he flipped open his copy and scanned it, looking for the marks of his demonic ‘brilliance’ to appear on the pages. None could be found. Instead, there was Pat’s best writing effort to date, true to the critic’s praise on the cover, “Possibly THE ‘Great American Novel’ for our century!”

“But … what? … And if not my words, how did you come by this great success?”

“I scribed your novel, just as we’d bargained,” Pat said. “Then I put it in the fire and burned it – to ash and ruin where it was made to stay for eternity.

The Devil’s face darkened; its normal red tinge was nearly black, and a sulfurous smoke rose from the weave of his tailored suit. Outside, the sky darkened with a fast-approaching storm.

“As for my success? I guess that since I decided not to give up on doing the right things, I was still around to gather the right results at the right time.”

Angered to have been played as a fool – bested at his own game – The Devil roared. At the same time, a bolt of lightning struck the asphalt drive immediately in front of the store. The guests in the line screamed and looked outside.

When they calmed down, the strange-smelling man with bad manners had disappeared. Smiling with satisfaction, Pat took the book from the next customer in line, and inscribed it with a personal message to one of his many new, longtime fans.

THE END

 

To read more spooky short stories like this one, check out Fear Naught Tales: Spooky Stories to Read and Tell!

Standing up for Patriotism

Man wearing "I Stand For The National Anthem" shirt sits on a field ... using the American Flag as his blanket.

“‘Merica,” as captured and hurled at us by the interwebs.

On the occasion of Flag Day 2018

I will ALWAYS stand for the American flag and our National Anthem.

As the son of a Veteran who was an immigrant to this nation, raised at the height of the Cold War, in a generation where at least my Kindergarten class recited the Pledge of Allegiance, it’s simply what I was taught to do.

Later, I was lulled to sleep every basic training night by the refrain of Taps. During this time, I got to think critically about whether I indeed was willing to die for the cause of the virtues of my nation, (yes), and whether I was willing to kill for the cause of the virtues of my nation (also yes, though it took a bit longer for me to reconcile myself to this).

My reality has not yet matched my commitment, but not every veteran can say that. With firsthand experience that pales compared to most others, I appreciate the service and sacrifice of our all-volunteer military, whose members go anywhere on this globe and can endure unimaginable horrors on behalf of our nation — a nation that can sometimes be fickle about it all. It is for them that I stand.

As a free-thinking American citizen, also will I always stand. America, imperfect though she may be, has nonetheless striven to perfect itself to the standards of democracy and individual freedom, as a beacon of promise for other nations around the globe (in marketing terms: that is our brand promise)

With that said, we’ve fallen short of these ideals — too much, too often, and too recently to be tolerated. Among our various freedoms for all, then, is that of speech, one of our most powerful and precious among them.

Which makes me ambivalent about the NFL’s recent edict that all must stand. While I will always voluntarily stand, the service of our armed forces allows ALL Americans the right of free expression, to include the right to choose to stand … or to not. To the extent that our union’s expression of our ideal values falls woefully short for too many Americans, I’m grateful that others would seek to convict us of these inadequacies by these actions: their silent, principled protests.

I don’t like it, and I don’t agree with it … but here’s the shocking pivot to my message: I support it. Indeed, I would dare say that expressing this precious right — fully (and intentionally) offensive and alienating as it is — advances the cause of American freedom and democracy here at home, as much or more than does my military service in nations abroad. While military service has inherent risks and dangers for noble causes, political protests like kneeling for the flag, do too. These acts put at risk employment, income, reputation, and perhaps even health and safety. Nonetheless, this risk is voluntarily taken, toward an aim point that would ensure a strong America today and tomorrow, for the broadest swath of the American citizenry, procured at great risk and personal sacrifice. In this, then, is it not also one of the most patriotic things an American can do? And thus, also worth standing up for?

SIDEBAR: Toward a More Patriotic American

To be a true American patriot, you don’t have to suit up in body armor and kneel in a defensive fire position in Iraq; you also don’t have to suit up in pads and a helmet and kneel on the NFL sidelines at the passing of our flag.

While I understand the angst and frustration that my other fellow Americans feel when they see someone take a knee, there are many other things that many of us can — and should — stop doing in order to be more patriotic; because they are simply despicable:

  • At these same ball games, keeping your hat on, talking, and swilling beer in the stands — all while the Anthem plays.
  • Vote-dodging; jury duty-dodging; tax-dodging; bailing on knowing about local, state, national, and global issues; and dodging a responsibility to practice civic engagement are each every bit as despicable as draft dodging.
  • Using the flag as apparel. Old Glory boxers should not be a thing; your body sweat should never stain my flag.
  • Referring to our nation as “‘Merica” in anything but an ironic sense.
  • Giving up on our nation, its people, and our ideals. Good people fought and died for this thing; we just have to keep it running. Let’s do just that, can’t we?

Do you agree? What else should we stop doing — or step up to do — to increase our patriotic regard for our America?

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Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays from PR, business, and life — which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!

Fear Naught Tales … It’s Alive! ALIVE!

Collage of all images in the Fear Naught Tales book!

A collection of images to Fear Naught!

Fear Naught Tales: Spooky Stories to Read and Tell is live and available to purchase, as of Friday, April 13! The book features 13 original spooky stories — with illustrations — perfect for middle grade readers. Each story has a “Tell Time” and a “Scare Rating” to guide readers to pick the best story for every creepy moment! The bonus chapter offers “13 Tips for Telling Fear Naught Tales.”

Click the link to order the eBook or PaperbackRead them, leave a comment, and share them with your friends!

Proof of Life!

Today I got to unbox proof copies of the paperback version of “Fear Naught Tales: Spooky Stories to Read and Tell” — watch the video and share in the excitement! Then plan to get your own copy in either eBook or paperback when it launches Friday, April 13!

(Intentionally Spooky) Author Photo Choice

Help me choose my author photo! “Fear Naught Tales” has 13 all-new spooky stories to read and tell … which pic best reps the guy who wrote them?

Visit facebook.com/randomhandyman to vote and track the results!

(Credit to Chris Bishop for the fantastic studio photography!)

Women’s History Month: Air Force Training Helps Collins Command Space Shuttle

Astronaut and Air Force Col. Eileen Collins conducts a press conference prior to her space flight mission as the first woman space shuttle commander, in 1999.

Astronaut and Air Force Col. Eileen Collins conducts a press conference prior to her space flight mission as the first woman space shuttle commander, in 1999.

In honor of Women’s History Month, this #TBT kicks it back to July 13, 1999, and an article from my interview as a military journalist with retired Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, a pioneer in American aviation and space exploration.

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Texas (1999) — This summer, Col. Eileen Collins will become the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. It’s a job she’s worked toward for more than 20 years. Along with Columbia’s payload and crew, Collins is taking Air Force training to space.

The colonel got started at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., in 1978 as one the first women to go through undergraduate pilot training there. As a new lieutenant, she was inspired to become an astronaut after seeing the first shuttle astronauts — including the first female astronaut candidates — go through parachute training at the small Midwestern base.

In 12 months, Collins was a pilot, and in 12 years, she was an astronaut pilot. Since her selection to 1990’s astronaut class, she has piloted two shuttle missions for NASA. She will command shuttle mission STS-93 July 20, to place the X-ray observatory Chandra in orbit.

Commander and pilot preparations include flying NASA T-38 aircraft or a Gulfstream II shuttle simulator, which is a commercial jet modified to perform and fly like the space shuttle. Collins and Navy Capt. Jeff Ashby, STS-93 pilot, practice landing at White Sands, N.M., or Kennedy Space Center, Fla., every week. That training is important because the shuttle has “the glide path of a rock” on re-entry, Collins said.

“It’s a glider, in the sense that it doesn’t have any engines in the landing phase,” she said, but added that the space shuttle drops out of the sky at a much faster descent rate and at a higher glide angle than typical gliders.

“Our lift-to-drag ratio is on the order of 4- or 5-to-1, where, for example, the T-38 is on the order of 9- or 10-to-1, and a true glider could be on the order of 40-to-1 or more.”

Besides the shuttle’s unique approach, there’s also the challenge of a night landing — Collins’ first. And this shuttle will be heavier, and thus faster, than normal, because of the mission’s payload.

Because there is so much at stake, Collins said each shuttle pilot must fly at least 1,000 approaches and landings in the trainer before flying as shuttle mission commander. Collins and Ashby will also be able to practice the landing on orbit, with a special simulator stick connected to a laptop computer called “Pilot.”

In addition to flying more than 1,000 simulated shuttle landings, Collins has logged more than 5,000 flying hours in more than 30 different aircraft — including two flights in the space shuttle — and has knowledge far beyond what she had flying T-37s and T-38s at Vance. Nonetheless, she said she still uses much of what she first learned in undergraduate pilot training and as a first-assignment instructor pilot.

“What a pilot learns in the early stages of his flying training stays with him throughout his career,” she said. “In military pilot training, the intensity and the stress of it — there is stress there — is forcing you to learn. And the repetition is very, very important.”

Collins said the skills learned through that repetition almost become second nature, and stay with a pilot the rest of his or her career.

“When I fly the T-38 here at NASA, I still remember all the little formulas and all the little, neat tricks that my instructors taught me,” she said. “I taught those same things to my students, and I still use them today.”

The former first-assignment instructor pilot added that skills like how to use a checklist and the control-and-performance concept of how to do a cross check even apply to aircraft like the space shuttle.

Being shuttle commander involves much more than piloting the orbiter, however. To train for its mission, the entire crew employs the crew-resource management training Collins first learned working with a crew of up to seven people as a C-141 commander and instructor pilot at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., from 1983 to 1985.

“As a commander, I’m big on crew resource management — the way the crew (members) communicate with each other,” she said. “Every person has a job, they do their job, but they need to be aware of what the other crew members are doing, and they need to communicate well.”

Lt. Col. Catherine Coleman, an Air Force polymer chemist and NASA mission specialist on the flight, said she appreciates Collins’ approach.

“I like the way she works with people, the way she thinks about … what kind of help they need, what kind of help they don’t need,” said Coleman. “I just enjoy the way she manages the flight.”

“You need to learn how to work with people and use people to get the mission done effectively,” Collins said of her time commanding heavy-aircraft. “I think all of that experience has really helped me with this job here.”

###

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Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays — and here, and article — from PR, business and life, which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!