Free Kindle Nation Shorts -- February 16, 2012
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In This Issue
About the Author: Steve Silkin
KINDLE FIRE Giveaway Sweepstakes!
Four More for Kindle by Steve Silkin
An Excerpt from THE TELESCOPE BUILDER by Steve Silkin

About the Author: Steve SilkinSteve Silkin

Steve Silkin was born in New York, grew up in Los Angeles, then traveled across Europe. He once escaped arrest for trespassing at a skyscraper under construction by fleeing from the LAPD on his bicycle.  

 

 

 

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The Telescope Builder

A Free Excerpt from

 

 The Telescope Builder and Other Stories

 

bySteve Silkin

Today's 6,700-word Free Kindle Nation Short offers 5 of the 15 stories in the complete book, which is a coming of age collection.

 

"We are treated to a candid look at school days in California in the 1970s ... drugs, sex, family break-up, teen suicide ... all told in a minimalistic style that in all reality belongs to the teenage male." - Joanne David.

  

   

by Steve Silkin

3.6  Stars  -  5 Reviews

 

 
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled

 

Click here to begin reading the free excerpt

 

Here's the set-up:  

 

"I had just moved to a new neighborhood freshly carved out of a hillside on the western edge of the San Fernando Valley. My junior high was named after George Ellery Hale, the man who built the telescope that unveiled the secrets of the universe.

 

 

"I've thought about Hale over the years, the man, his telescope, the school named after him and the students and teachers I knew there. It was in those days that a body was dumped up the street from my house. Then there was the kid who went home from school one day and shot himself in the head. And then there was the classmate I admired who later got addicted to crack and died of exposure sleeping on a downtown street. I've thought about it all a lot. It must mean something. It must." 

 

From the reviewers: 

 

Jonathan Penton, editor of Unlikely Stories, says: "He sets up his characters, reveals the situation and then tears through your consciousness like a bullet. His stories tell tales of lessons learned in the most agonizing possible ways, traumas that leave scars on the flesh and minds of their victims ... Chilling and direct." 

 

At once a celebration of young adulthood and list of regrets over misspent youth, these tales depict rites of passage, from young love to misadventure, and other universal moments of adolescent angst and euphoria that help forge who we become as adults. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 60s and 70s, the setting for this book, I was drawn in by the sense of time and place and subsequently discovered crisply written prose, well-drawn characters and the recounting of everything from the ridiculous to the sublime. - "Book Guy"

There is something about a youthful narrative that always ropes me in. It could be my early exposure to the genius of Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger, or more directly (and more likely), the honest optimism I find in such a voice. A gallery of high school recollections, 'Telescope Builder' focuses on not one particular event or even any life-changing moments. It is simpler than that.

Our twelve year old narrator is the new kid at George Ellery Hale Junior High, going through the obligatory adjusting and social shuffling of evey new high school student the world over. In the subsequent chapters we are treated to a candid look at school days in California in the 1970s ... drugs, sex, family break-up, teen suicide ... all told in a minimalistic style that in all reality belongs to the teenage male. - Joanne David 

 

 

By Steve Silkin

            

  

 

  
 

 

  

Visit Amazon's Steve Silkin Page

  

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Four More For Kindle
By Steve Silkin
 
Excerpt    

Free Kindle Nation Shorts - February 16, 2012

 

An Excerpt from

The Telescope Builder and Other Stories

By

Steve Silkin

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Silkin  and published here with his permission


 

 

 

Five short stories selected from the 15 stories in

The Telescope Builder

 

 No Forwarding Address

 

CARY LEVINE had black greasy hair, he walked with a bounce, had bright silver braces on his teeth and laughed with a weird wheeze. He wore shirts with collars, straight leg pants and shiny leather shoes. We were classmates at junior high and in Hebrew school. I couldn't stand him. I had thin greasy hair, but mine was brown. I had braces, too. The other kids made fun of me because I didn't wear jeans and T-shirts like them. Cary Levine was just like me, only a little dorkier. I didn't have a weird geek laugh. At least I don't think I did. Anyway, I know I didn't walk with a bounce.

Cary lived across the street from my friend Mike. Mike's parents were out of town for that weekend, so he invited me to stay over Saturday night. We had bought some pot from a guy at school, and we wanted to try something new with it. We had smoked pot a couple of times before, in thin badly rolled joints. But we had heard that there was a way to get a better high without smoking it. What you were supposed to do was heat a frying pan, lightly sauté the dried marijuana leaves, then add a cup of honey. Then you could spread the herb-dotted cooked honey on a piece of bread and eat it. So that's what we did. 

I didn't think we would get high. We listened to an Eric Clapton record. 

"This isn't working," I said. "I'm not feeling anything."

Mike agreed. We walked around the block, and we both said we still didn't feel anything. 

"Boy, that was stupid," Mike said. "That didn't work at all. We should've smoked it." 

"Yeah," I said. 

When we got back to his house, I noticed there were no lights on across the street at Cary's. I remembered I hadn't seen Cary for a while. But I didn't ask Mike about Cary. I didn't think about him much at all. 

We went into Mike's living room and turned on the TV to watch "Fright Night," the Saturday night horror movie, which was hosted by an odd old man named Seymour, who wore a big black hat and told jokes about the movie before the commercial breaks. While we were watching Seymour, I realized I didn't understand what he was saying. Then I realized he was talking about the movie we had been watching. Then I realized I didn't remember what movie we were watching. Then I remembered it was "The Man with the X-Ray Eyes." Then I asked myself why we were watching it. Then I remembered that was our plan, to eat pot cooked in honey and watch "Fright Night." Then I thought to myself: What a stupid plan. Then I thought the living room seemed bigger than it usually did. Or maybe smaller.

"I'm starting to feel it, I think," Mike said. 

"Yeah, I think I am, too."  I wanted to say more. I wanted to ask Mike if he thought anything was wrong with his living room. But I couldn't talk. 

"You know what?" Mike asked. 

"What?" 

"I've wanted to look at the light in my room when I was stoned."

"Let's go upstairs." 

"No," I said. I couldn't move. I was sprawled on a beanbag chair. 

"OK," he said. "I'll bring it down." 

So he went upstairs and got his light, which was a large glass ball with about a dozen tiny red and blue bulbs set into it. He shut off all the other lights downstairs and plugged it in. First a red bulb flashed, then two red bulbs, then a blue bulb, then two different red bulbs, then another blue bulb, at about the pace of a pulse. 

It was terrifying. I tried not to look at it. 

"Look," Mike said. "Isn't it cool?" 

"It's buggin' me," I said. 

"Really?"  

"Yeah, really. Shut it off."

"Really?" he said. He thought it was funny. 

"Yeah, really. Please, man, shut it off." 

He shut if off. Mike was a nice guy. I had other friends who would've left it on just because they knew it was getting to me. I probably would've run out the door, down the street and up the hill back to my house, up my stairs and into my bedroom where I would've jumped into my bed and pulled the covers over my head and tried to forget about that light. That light was creeping me out that much. 

But once it was turned off and Mike turned the living room lights back on again, I was OK. I went back to watching "The Man with the X-Ray Eyes." I couldn't follow the story, but I didn't care. At least that light wasn't flashing anymore. 

Then the doorbell rang. It was midnight. Mike seemed worried, but I wasn't. Nothing worried me once that light wasn't flashing. Everything was OK. Even though it was midnight and somebody was ringing the front door bell. I didn't even think about who it could be. I was immobile in the beanbag chair. Mike went to answer the door. 

"Who is it?" he asked. 

"FBI."  Mike looked through the peephole. I guess he saw two men who looked like FBI agents. In any case, he opened the door and I saw the two men, and they looked like FBI agents to me. 

"Are your parents home?" one of them asked.

"No," Mike said. "They're away for the weekend. They went to our cabin in Big Bear."

"Could we come in and ask you some questions?" the agent asked. He held up his badge. 

"Could I see your badge first?" Mike asked. 

The agent let Mike look at his badge. Mike held it up close to his face for a long time. Then he handed it back to the agent, apparently satisfied that it was genuine. 

"Did you know the Levines, across the street?" the agent asked. 

"Yes," Mike said. "No. Not them. Their son. We go to school with him." 

"Do you know where they went?" 

"No." 

"Did you see the moving van?" 

"Uh, no," Mike said. "I don't think so." 

"When was the last time you saw the son?" 

"Maybe a week ago. Maybe more. Maybe a couple of days ago. Yeah, I think a couple of days ago. The beginning of the week, maybe." 

"Did he tell you they were moving?" 

"No." 

"Do you know where he might have family? Did he take trips that he told you about, maybe to visit family in other states, or another country?" 

"No," Mike said. "I didn't really know him that well." 

"Anything else you can tell us about Cary?" 

Mike looked at me. I was still sitting in the beanbag chair, not moving. 

"No," Mike said to the agent. "He was just a kid like us." 

"OK," the agent said. "Well, thanks a lot." 

The agents left and Mike shut the door. 

"Cary Levine was a dork," I said. 

"Wasn't that smart, that I looked at the badge to make sure they were really FBI agents?" Mike asked. 

"Yeah. I didn't know Cary moved." 

"Neither did I.  But wasn't that smart that I looked at the badge?" 

"Yeah," I said. "Really smart." Never mind that he had already opened the door to them and if they'd been robbers posing as FBI agents and they wanted to tie us up and steal the jewelry they could've easily done it before he'd even had a chance to ask to see the badge. 

Why was the FBI looking for Cary and his family? I'll never know. At first I thought maybe the dad had pulled some kind of scam, bilking investors by selling Florida swampland or stock in fake oil wells. But then I decided that wouldn't have brought the FBI out to Mike's house at midnight on a Saturday night.

There were a lot of defense contractors around here back then. There was a company that built laser-guided rockets that were supposed to shoot down nuclear missiles as they screamed across the sky from over the ocean to annihilate us. There was another company that built the first planes that were supposed to be invisible to radar. Maybe Cary's dad worked at one of those companies and stole secrets from them. Maybe it took his bosses a couple of days to realize he wasn't coming in to work anymore, and on Friday they checked his desk and saw that a bunch of top secret files were gone. Maybe those were the files that would've helped an enemy army build new radar to shoot down our planes, or make new missiles that couldn't be blocked by our anti-missile defense. Maybe those missiles would fly across the ocean and destroy an American city, killing thousands, maybe millions. Maybe the two FBI men were trying to pick up the trail, hoping they could save the free world from a rain of death and destruction. Instead, they found me and Mike, stoned senseless.

After a while, I managed to stand up from the beanbag chair. I walked out Mike's front door to get some fresh air. Across the street, Cary's house was barely visible in the shadow of night, dark and silent behind two tall trees thick with leaves in the front yard.

 

  

It Feels Like This 

 

RICK AND HIS step-brother Howard wanted to run away from home. Their plan was to pack their sleeping bags and hitchhike to Palm Springs, where they said people would let them sleep on their front yards because the hotels were booked for spring break. They cornered me in a hallway of our junior high school as I was leaving math class. "You comin' with us?" Howard asked. "Or are you a kissie?" He puckered up his lips and squinted his eyes. So I had to say yes. I was supposed to sneak out of my house at 3 in the morning and meet them at the freeway on-ramp at 3:30. But that night, their parents heard them planning the trip and their dad called my dad to tell him. My dad asked me if I were really going to do it, and I told him no, of course not, my friends had pressured me to say yes and if they'd asked me about it later I would've said I got caught by my parents. My dad walked away without saying anything, but I like to think his non-response was a show of respect for my strategy. Truth is, the whole concept of running away was unthinkable to me. I had no need to undertake the type of adventure Rick and Howard were after, and I had nothing bad to run away from.

But there were other kids who did. I was in gym class with Neal Lovely. He had a round face, short black curly hair and heavy eyelids, and he wore a permanent, thick-lipped lazy smile. He'd been absent for a couple of days. The gym teacher called his name every morning when we had lined up for roll call, but got no answer. Then one day he caught himself.

"Oh yes, the Lovely boy," the gym teacher said. "He'll be away for a while."

"Yeah," a kid named Corey blurted from a couple of rows away from me. "He got shot."

Lovely got shot? I wondered how that happened. I knew he went to Hebrew school at Temple Solael with some of my friends. So I asked around, and Dan told me Neal had run away from home. He had hitchhiked north to San Jose, snuck into a back yard and curled up in the bushes to sleep. The property owner heard him, went out with a gun and ordered him to come out with his hands up. Neal was too scared to move, so the man shot into the bushes. Neal got his spleen blown out. He was in the hospital.

He came back about a month later. I was standing next to him at the gate of the P.E. field, waiting for the bell to signal we could leave. Ted came up to him and asked: "Hey Lovely, what does it feel like, getting shot?" Lovely took his pen, held it out toward Ted and gave him a sharp poke in the gut. "It feels like THIS," he said. Ted doubled over by reflex, winced and giggled.

The next year, in high school, I made friends with a drummer named Rob, whose misshapen legs and arms were frozen stiff after numerous childhood surgeries to correct birth defects. I introduced him to a bass player named Matt and they formed a band. Matt later told me that Rob was not only the best bossa nova drummer he'd ever played with, but the best bossa nova drummer he'd ever heard. I couldn't disagree. But Rob partied more than he played drums. One day during my first year of college, Rob was sitting in Dave's pickup, parked at the top of a canyon overlooking the valley. They were taking bong hits. Dave got out of the truck to pee. But he didn't lock the emergency brake, and the truck rolled over the edge with Rob inside, and crashed into a tree at the bottom. Rob broke all his limbs. It would take him months to recover. He couldn't go anywhere or do much of anything besides smoke a lot of pot, so I tried to visit him when I could.

One day between college classes I ran into Kolby. She'd been friends with Rob and me in high school, and I told her what had happened and asked her if she wanted to come over to his place with me to cheer him up. She said yes, so we went.

So Kolby, Rob and I took bong hit after bong hit that afternoon, with the stereo playing Weather Report's "I Sing the Body Electric" album and the TV turned on with the sound off. Wayne Shorter's saxophone was blurting and squealing over the pops and boings of the bass notes while the TV showed something that looked like a commercial for a carpet store. A man had placed a tool on the floor against the wall and it appeared he was using it to staple the carpet by bashing it with his knee as hard as he could. We watched and agreed it was an incredibly violent commercial. Then we looked at each other realizing that the commercial seemed to be going on and on, longer than any other commercial we'd ever seen.

"Wow," I said. "This is a really long commercial."

And it didn't stop, even after I'd said that. It must have been repeated accidentally, but with the sound off, we couldn't tell. The three of us looked at each other, wondering what was going on.

"This commercial is so long," I said, "I can't even believe it."

I loaded the bong again, passed it to Kolby and fired it up while she smoked another bowlful of weed, the bongwater bubbling as the man on TV continued to smash the carpet stapler with his knee. Then the carpet commercial was interrupted by a news bulletin. The bottom of the TV screen bore the legend "Los Angeles: Breaking News" and an anchor spoke to us, though we couldn't hear him. What we did hear was Ralph Towner's moody acoustic guitar playing on "The Moors." Then the TV screen showed images of people covered with blood being wheeled into waiting ambulances. Then a man with blood running down the side of his head spoke into a microphone, gesturing nervously. Coverage of this carnage continued for a few minutes. Then it stopped, but instead of returning to the carpet commercial, the TV showed what seemed like normal programming, a rerun of a situation comedy. Mary Tyler Moore tossed her hat into the air.

The next morning I picked up the newspaper and read a headline at the top of Page 1 of the Metro section: Student Slain in Gun Attack at Computer School. Oh, that must've been what I saw on TV yesterday, I said to myself. So I read the article:

 

A berserk young honor student with a shotgun killed one classmate and wounded seven other people in a Wilshire District computer school Thursday before being shot and seriously injured by a security guard, police said.

The gunman, Neal Lovely, was sitting at the back of the room while the rest of the class was taking a 10-minute quiz and he calmly loaded a shotgun he had brought to the school hidden in a long box. He then stood up and started shooting without warning.

"I saw his face," said Derek Mayar, one of the students in the class. "There was no expression on his face. Then people starting running to the front of the room and out the door. I looked behind me and saw him shooting."

 

The rest of the article indicated that Lovely had some problems fitting in with the group and had felt he was being teased. He had carved his initials in the briefcase of a classmate named Paster two weeks before, then threatened him with the knife. When confronted by school administrators, he dismissed the incident as a joke. When he started shooting, though, he called Paster's name, and the name of another student and shot them both. The injured students, covered with blood, staggered out of the school and onto the set of a TV show that was filming outside, which explains the video we saw on TV the day before. A security guard from the show chased Lovely down the hall, they exchanged gunfire, and both were wounded. Paster died.

I wondered what Lovely was thinking while he cracked the shotgun open and slid the two shells inside, sitting there in the back of the classroom as the other students answered questions about computer programming. I wondered what he was thinking while he shot at them, reloaded, and shot again, reloaded and ....

 

OK, you assholes, you all thought you were better than me, huh? You didn't think I could learn computer programming? Well, it doesn't matter now, does it? I heard you talk about how funny looking I was. I heard you joke about how I couldn't get a date to save my life. I tried to be nice. I tried to be friendly. You've treated me like shit from day one. I couldn't win with you. Well, you want to know what it's like to get shot? It feels like THIS.

 

The next week, a bunch of my friends from junior high met at UCLA for a jazz fusion concert featuring Brazilian singer Flora Purim and her husband, percussionist Airto Moreira. He was one of the drummers on that Weather Report album I was listening to with Kolby and Rob while we watched the aftermath of Neal's shooting rampage on TV without knowing what we were seeing. I asked my friends if they'd heard about Neal. They all had.

"Isn't that insane?" Mike said.

I joked with Dan, asking him if he thought that Neal was jealous because other people had spleens and his was shot out so he wanted to even the score. Dan looked at me funny, and said:

"You're sick."

 I felt bad.

A couple of months later, I told the story of Neal to Tony, who was a projectionist at the porno theater where I worked that summer. Tony was older, he'd traveled across Europe and he'd read a lot of books and so he knew a lot about life. I asked him what he thought would happen to Neal. He said they'd send him to the state hospital for the criminally insane, lock him in a room with a mattress on the floor, and they wouldn't let him out for a long, long time.

I remembered what the gym teacher said that day: Oh, the Lovely boy. He'll be away for a while.

 

 

Plenty Worse

 

JOHN AND I got ourselves named as book monitors for Mrs. Zemakis' first period English class. There was actually a lot of book monitoring to do, because Mrs. Zemakis wanted us to read stories that weren't in the ninth grade textbook. So we had to walk down to the book room almost every other morning and ask the book room lady for the books that Mrs. Zemakis wanted. Once we went to get a stack of paperbacks with the play "Sorry, Wrong Number," which Mrs. Zemakis had us act out. I played the role of the killer. I got to plunge a rubber knife repeatedly into the beautiful body of Marla Williams - signing my yearbook, she wrote: "Watch where you're putting that knife!" - so I can honestly say this was one of the high points of my educational experience. In any case, no one knew how long it took to go to the book room to get the books. The book room lady was pretty slow. My friend Bryan told me he went to get books from her once and a moth flew out of her beehive hairdo. So whenever Mrs. Zemakis sent us to the book room, John and I could take a walk around campus before stopping for the books and carrying them back to class.

On one of our morning strolls, John said we should sneak out onto the girls P.E. field so he could say hi to his girlfriend, Debbie Tupper. They had been going together for about a year, and they would walk down the hallways hand in hand, or he would have his arm around her shoulders and she would be snuggled up against him. John had thick, brown, wavy shoulder-length hair and he dressed in jeans and cowboy boots. Debbie was a wan-faced waif with big beautiful eyes. On the way to Debbie's gym class that day, we turned a corner and ran straight into Vice Principal Thurmond. He asked us what we were doing out of class and we told him we were getting books from the book room. He let us go, but as we were walking away he asked us what class we had that period. We told him and he realized we'd walked in the opposite direction from the book room, all the way across campus. So he brought us back to his office and gave us both swats with his wooden paddle. That was the last swat I got from Thurmond because that was the last week of junior high school.

On graduation day I walked to school with Dan. We smoked a big fat joint of Columbian weed. "Prime 'lumbo," we called it. So I was 100 percent stoned when I walked up the stairs to the outdoor stage and the principal handed me my diploma. It was lucky I didn't fall down the stairs on my way back to my seat. Thus ended my three years at George Ellery Hale Junior High School. Except for this:

On my way toward the front gate as I was leaving, I saw John and Debbie sitting on a bench, facing each other, holding hands. I knew John was moving to Simi Valley and this meant they wouldn't see each other every day any more. I wanted to say goodbye and good luck to John so I walked over and extended my hand. But he said: Hey, man, leave us alone. So I walked away without interrupting their sadness any further. But I still remember Debbie's expression, the despondency in those big pretty eyes, the look of devastation on that already mournful face. It was as if the worst thing that could ever happen was happening to her right then.

Fifteen years later I was working as a reporter at the local newspaper in Simi Valley. One day I was looking for something in the morgue - which, if you don't know, was a set of file cabinets filled with newspaper clippings,  although now it's all stored electronically

- and I saw a folder with John's name on it. He had received a congressional appointment to West Point from Barry Goldwater Jr. It was the second appointment he'd been granted. The first was rejected because a medical examination had shown a heart condition. But this time he was accepted because his doctor had provided additional information. The clip said he'd be studying engineering.

Right after I found that folder, I heard Debbie was brutally murdered. I don't remember who told me. Maybe it was Don, or maybe Jenny. I called them both to talk about Mark Sawsky, after I saw his name was in a newspaper article. Mark was a high school classmate of ours who ran an art gallery and was arrested for selling forged Miros and Chagalls. Cutting a deal with the authorities to avoid doing time, he agreed to wear a wire to record his conversations with the forger, who was the real target of the investigation. On the tape, the forger asked Mark if he'd ratted him out. Mark assured him he hadn't and the forger told him that was good, because otherwise the forger would've had to call in his bone-breaker. The forger got off clean because it's not illegal to copy a painting, only to sell it as an original. And there was no way to prove the threat wasn't a joke. But Mark was worried the forger would take revenge anyway, so he went into hiding. That's the last any of us heard of him. Anyway, it was about this time that someone told me Debbie was murdered. But I didn't know if it was true or not.

Then one day I was assigned to cover a story about a man whose pit bulls had escaped several times from his back yard. In the latest incident they ran into a nearby yard and bit a cocker spaniel. As the woman of the house was telling me how she had chased them away with a hose, she also said I should speak with her next-door neighbor, Terry Tupper, who had also had problems with the runaway pit bulls. Hmm, I wondered to myself, any relation to Debbie from junior high?

"Oh, there she is now," the woman told me as a pickup pulled into the driveway next door. I walked over and called out to her.

"Hi," I said. "I'm a reporter from the local paper. I'm doing a story about those pit bulls at that house over there and your neighbor said I should chat with you."

Terry said she was in a hurry just then, but would answer my questions if I called her later.

I changed the subject.

"By the way, would you be any relation to Debbie Tupper?"

This stopped her cold. She turned to look at me. Tears filled her eyes instantly. I thought this confirmed the story I'd heard.

"Yes," she said. "Debbie was my sister-in-law. Do you know her?" Then she corrected herself: "Did you know her?"

"We went to junior high together," I said.

She couldn't believe it.

"How old are you?" she asked.

"I'm 40," I said, "I just turned 40."

"Oh my God," she said, doing some mental calculations. "That's right. Debbie would've been 40 this year, too."

She had frozen Debbie in time. Seeing me unfroze her, and it was painful. She started sobbing.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," I said. "What happened to Debbie?"

She tried to compose herself.

"Oh, you don't know?" she asked. "Look, I've got to go, I can't talk about it now, I'll break down. But call me later."

I said OK. She ran into her house, got something from inside, ran back out, got into her pickup and drove away.

I didn't call her. I didn't need to know the details.

A couple of months later, Dan and I were invited to a dinner party at Cathy's. Dan knew Cathy from junior high, too. We talked about our high school reunion, and the conversation quickly turned to the list of the deceased on the last page of the reunion program. We talked about the girl who'd lived down the street from me who died after an asthma attack. We talked about Pete Keller, the heir to a food fortune who got addicted to crack and then died of exposure on a downtown sidewalk.

"But I guess the worst story is Debbie Tupper," I said. "Wasn't she brutally murdered?"

No, Cathy said, she got married, had four kids, right away, one after the other, then one day she had them all in her car, driving down the road, and she crashed and they all died, all of them, Debbie and the four kids.

Sometimes I travel back in time and see Debbie on the bench with John that last day of school, after graduation, when she was so sad John was moving away, looking like the worst thing that could ever happen was happening right then.

This ain't so bad, babe, I say to myself. Things get plenty worse.

  

 

Names on the Wall 

 

ONE MORNING on the last week of junior high, I was walking to school, and I was late, so I was the only one on the street. And I knew I was dead.

I was late because I had read the paper that morning. Not that I'd spent any more time than usual reading the paper, but because I'd read an article about the draft and I couldn't move too fast afterward. The article mentioned that Congress had reformed the draft law the year before, which I hadn't known. The reform canceled the student deferment. This meant you couldn't stay away from Vietnam by going to college anymore.

So much for my plan. In a few months I'd be 15, and you were supposed to register for the draft before you were 18. So in three years, I could be drafted. Yeah, I know, there was the lottery, but I hadn't figured out that part yet - I didn't even know whether I had a low number or a high one. So as far as I was concerned that morning, I was dead.

When I was 10, I'd thought that when my time came I'd put on my uniform and serve my country. Then one day when I was at summer camp, one of the other kids asked our counselor what he was going to do in the fall. He said he wasn't sure. Our counselor was a guy named Seth who was about to turn 18. What he wanted to do was take it easy, goof around, get a part-time job, make a little spending money, relax and have fun. But if he got drafted, he said, he was going to Canada. You could stay out of the service if you were in college, he explained, but he was completely uninterested in going to college and he was even less interested in getting shot and killed in Vietnam.

That same week, I read a letter to the editor in a Spider-Man comic book. It said:

 

Dear Editor,

You published a letter from Army Pvt.1st Class Lane MacDowell in your February issue. MacDowell told you how much he enjoyed your comic books. I thought your readers should know that MacDowell died in a firefight defending our position several weeks after his letter was published. Thank you for using his letter. He showed it to us all and was proud of it.

 

Sincerely,

 

Sgt. Charles Wilson,

101st Airborne

U.S. Army

 

I showed the letter to my parents. And then I cried. Lane MacDowell read Spider-Man, like me. Even though I was only 10 and living in Los Angeles, the distance to Vietnam had been erased on the letters page of Spider-Man. I didn't want to get shot and killed, and I didn't want to run away and hide in Canada. The choice seemed clear: College it was.

So walking to school that morning, the morning I found out Congress voted that college wasn't going to keep me out of Vietnam, I wondered: How come I didn't get to vote for Congress? The American Revolution was fought over taxation without representation. But if I got my arm shot off in Vietnam, that would be mutilation without representation. Or if a land mine blew off my balls, that would be castration without representation.

Junior high was over in a couple of days. Nixon ended the United States' role in the Vietnam War six months after that. I heard the news on the radio one night the next January. Then the draft was abolished.

One night a little more than three years later, I was 18 and because I wasn't off getting maimed or killed in Vietnam, I got to drive to Vicki's house, up on a hill off Mulholland Highway, to pick her up for a dinner date. Her next door neighbor was sitting in her living room talking to her dad while I waited for her to finish putting on her makeup upstairs. The neighbor was a retired Air Force major and was working for a major defense contractor. He had been talking with Vicki's dad about the Vietnam War. It was the autumn of 1975 and Saigon had fallen in the spring. Vicki's dad asked me what I thought about Vietnam.

I told Vicki's dad that in hindsight, I didn't think the United States belonged there.

He asked me: But would you have gone if you'd been drafted?

I told him I'd thought about it a lot. And I wouldn't have wanted to go, but I don't think I would've wanted to live as a draft dodger for the rest of my life, so I would've put on my uniform and served my country even though I didn't want to.

The neighbor looked straight at me, and calmly said:

"You know, if you and I were in the jungle together, I'd have to kill you first, because you're more dangerous than the enemy."

Just then Vicki came downstairs.

"Well, it was nice to meet you," I said to the neighbor. "Bye."

Vicki said goodnight to her dad and the neighbor and we went outside and got in my car.

"What was that all about?" Vicki asked.

"Oh, your neighbor just said he wanted to kill me," I said.

"Don't pay any attention to him," she said. "He's an asshole."

Ten years later, I was working as a newspaper reporter and I covered a federal investigation into defense contracting fraud. When I interviewed the key witness in the case, he explained to me the industry works like this: A defense company has just won the bid for the Pentagon contract to build a new type of missile. Smaller companies then bid with the contractor to provide the missile's wiring, or the bolts, or even the packing material. These contracts are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions. So the buyer at the prime contractor can call the owner of the subcontractor and ask for a new Camaro in exchange for awarding the job to his company. And by the way, the car is already at the dealer in his name, waiting for the subcontractor to pay for it, just in case the subcontractor has any questions about the color or the options. And two tickets for a weekend in Cozumel would be nice, too. The key witness told me that most of the big players in the scam were retired military officers who wore their uniforms while lobbying the Pentagon for contracts. 

"I'd have to kill you first, because you're more dangerous than the enemy."

Ever been to the Vietman War Memorial on the mall in Washington D.C.? I went once. It's made of black marble panels and it stretches 250 feet, but that doesn't mean anything until you're standing there in front of it. The panels have about 58,000 names on them, but that doesn't mean anything, either, until you're reading them. You can't read them all, of course, you just walk past them, stopping every now and then to look at some of the names here and there. Dead. For nothing.

When I looked in alphabetical order and didn't see my name where it would've been, I was grateful. Because if the American soldiers had been sent to Vietnam for another five years, there would be a lot more names on that wall, probably mine and a bunch of my friends from George Ellery Hale Junior High, a school named after the man who built the telescope that unveiled the secrets of the universe, the school I was walking to that morning when I thought I'd be sent to Vietnam to be killed.

I once read that the wall lists the names of 10 people who shouldn't be there. They'd been reported killed in action, but even though they later turned up alive, they weren't taken off the list of the dead. The names can't be erased from the memorial now because they were granite-blasted onto the black marble. Some mistakes you can't correct.

That'd be something, to be one of those people and go to the wall and see your name there. Look, you'd say to yourself, I'm supposed to be dead. But I'm not.

 

 

 

 Sparks in the Night 

 

 

RICK AND I walked to Fallbrook Square one Friday night, because there was nothing else to do. We stood in the vast emptiness of the parking lot behind Sears. The only sound was the humming of the light standards.

Off in the distance, I saw Dale Anderson riding his Sting-Ray toward us. We knew Dale from junior high. He was short and he had long black hair.

As he approached us, he stopped, leaned over and picked up a huge metal spring. It looked like something that had fallen off an eighteen-wheeler while it was making a delivery.

Dale started pedaling toward us again, holding the metal spring. When he got close, he threw it in our direction. It shot out golden sparks as it skidded across the pavement.

Dale rode in a circle around us. Rick picked up the spring and threw it back toward Dale. More sparks.

The three of us stayed there for a while, throwing the spring around to see the sparks fly.

 

Two years later, Dale shot himself in the head. He had called me a few days before to see if I could put a band together to play at a party he was setting up at his house for his birthday. I would've loved to, I played keyboards and had an electric organ and was jamming with a few other high school musicians. But I was really ill so I couldn't. I was so disappointed I almost cried.

When I got out of the hospital Dan told me that Dale had gone to Debbie's house and begged her to take him back. When she said no, he showed her his father's handgun and she said "Dale, get out of here," pushed him back and slammed the front door. He walked across the street, sat down on the curb, put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He died instantly, just after his sixteenth birthday.

"Oh, no," I said. "Oh no." That time, I cried.

 

Two years after that, Mr. Raschkes handed out the yearbooks in our instrumental music workshop class; I was learning to play violin. I turned to the back of the book. "Let's see who's on the death page," I said to my friend Greg. I knew there was a memorial page at the back of the yearbook in honor of students who didn't make it to graduation day. I had forgotten about Dale - there he was, smiling up at me. I laughed.

"Why are you laughing?" Mr. Raschkes asked me.

I couldn't answer. It might've been because of those sparks, those sparks, those sparks in the night.

 

  

  ... continued ...

 

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