Christopher Thornton teaches in the writing program at Zayed University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Many of his essays focus on International cultural and historical topics shaped around travel experiences. His book about contemporary Iran--Descendants of Cyrus: Travels Through Everyday Iran--will be published this fall by Potomac Books.
When Death Comes from the Skies
The first plane appeared in the eastern sky at approximately 4:30 in the afternoon. It was a member of the Condor Legion, a Nazi unit that had been placed under the authority of the Spain’s Nationalist forces because the fascist government ruled by General Francisco Franco lacked an effective air force. It dropped its payload—a dozen 100-pound bombs—within minutes, and successive attacks by the Italian Aviazione Legionaria targeted bridges and roads leading out of Guernica, Gernika in the Basque spelling, which could have provided escape routes for fleeing civilians. By 6:00 P.M. the attack was over, and three-fourths of Gernika had been destroyed. It was a Monday, market day, when Gernika usually doubled in size. An estimated 10,000 civilians were in town that day, as farmers and villagers from the countryside came to the city to do what sellers and buyers do on market day. At first the facts were obscured and debated, as they are with most unconscionable acts of war. The Republicans claimed that as many as 1,600 civilians died that day, while the Nazi forces denied any participation whatsoever. Eventually some of Franco’s Nationalists acknowledged the destruction of the town, but asserted that the Republicans had dynamited it in order to place the blame on Nationalists. Franco’s general Quiepo de Llomo asserted that Republican planes, not German, had destroyed Gernika in order to pin blame on the Spanish government. In the 80 years since the bombing a few facts have become settled history. First of all, the death toll was greatly reduced, to at most 300. But this is meaningless. Contrary to common belief, numbers matters in warfare little and are insignificant when calculating moral cost. It is actions that matter, the number of casualties only a question of the effectiveness of the strategy employed. As for strategy, the technique of “carpet bombing” became the first time the technique had been used in warfare. Carpet bombing, or “terror bombing,” had become an ongoing Condor Legion strategy—massive bombardment of civilian areas with the aim of pummeling Republican loyalists into submission. As the Spanish Civil War unfolded it became standard practice by the German Luftwaffe. The attack on Gernika was just another exercise in its refinement. The circumstances that led to the attack are also settled history. The Basque region had long been a thorn in the side of Franco and his fascist government. Before the civil war erupted, a well coordinated separatist movement had been hankering for independence. Gernika was the spiritual heart of the region, with all the historic and cultural symbolism that implied. As the war progressed, the Basques threw their allegiance behind the Republican government in Madrid, and Gernika became a vital communication center for the Republicans. Strategically, for the Nationalists, Gernika was all that separated them from the Basque capital of Bilbao. To “eliminate” Gernika could enable them to seize Bilbao and put an end to the resistance in the north. The bombing of Gernika was not an isolated incident. Air strikes by the Condor Legion and Aviazione Legionaria would rain down on other cities in Spain, but without reducing them to rubble. In response, the Republicans employed the counterstrategy of “passive defense”—digging into the mountains and hills surrounding strategic cities to create refugios, or air raid shelters, where civilians could seek protection from the attacks. Cartagena, a vital Republican-held port, had at least 11 refugios that provided a haven for thousands. In Cartagena and other cities, “Refugio” signs became a part of the urban landscape, appearing in public squares anywhere close to “passive defense” shelters, where sirens would sound and lights would flash whenever German or Italian planes could be sighted. Later the Republicans would deploy anti-aircraft batteries to enforce the new strategy of “active defense.” But the civilian toll continued to rise. The Germans and Italians continued the practice of terror bombing, expecting Republican areas to wear down and eventually yield to the Nationalists. It never happened. Gernika, like Cartagena and other Republican strongholds, only became more emboldened in their fight against the fascists With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the Republican struggle was a lost cause. General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces prevailed, ushering in a right-wing dictatorship that colluded with powerful forces in Spain’s religious and business communities to hold power for 36 years. During those years tens of thousands of resistance members would be rounded up, imprisoned, and executed in a campaign of “political cleansing” that sought to eliminate all anti-fascist, socialist antagonists. In 1975, Franco’s death through Spain into a tailspin, as the country descended into several years of self-indulgence and reckless hedonism to compensate for decades of government-imposed conservative values. All that is now Spanish history. Today, Gernika would seem to have played no role in the war whatsoever. Today, Gernika is a prim, well-kept town tucked within the rolling hills of the Basque countryside. The road from Bilbao dips and twists through a series of vineyards, fields of wheat, grapes, and olives, breeding farms for pigs and sheep as it passes through other Basque towns smaller in size and historical distinction—Bekea and Guzmuzio, Amorebieta-Exthano, Zugastieta-Auzoa, and Muxita. On highway signs the Basque language takes precedence over Spanish. Gernika’s main street, the Iparragirre Kalea, reflects the banality one would find on any main street anywhere in Spain. There is a pharmacy and an insurance agency, a fruit and vegetable market, a Chinese restaurant, an outfitter for hiking and camping gear for adventures heading up into the nearby Pyrenees, a outlet for cosmetics products, and of course a dealer in mobile phones. Gernika’s history has no place on its main street. There is no monolithic memorial to serve as a living reminder that cannot be avoided, suggesting that some events are better left to the back drawers of memory. Two blocks away, in the Peace Museum of Gernika, exhibitions recount the event from 1937 and include a recreation of one of the bombing raids. Nearby, a smaller reproduction of Picasso’s painting, in mosaic form, is the centerpiece of a modest outdoor shrine. Apart from these indications of a darker past, Gernika is once again just another regional town in the Spanish countryside. For now we can leave Gernika and fast-forward to another time and place. Shortly before the Syrian Civil War I had the chance to visit the country when there was still a country to visit. I spent about two weeks traveling from the Alewite port of Latakia to Damascus, on the way passing through Hama, Homs, and Palmyra, or Tadmoor, as it is locally known. In Homs I stopped at a church where a fragment of the belt allegedly worn by Mary, the mother of Christ, was displayed in a glass case in a room. In Hama, the giant waterwheels that had been guiding the flow of the Orontes River since the fifth or sixth century (the date is uncertain) were churning in the sharp sunlight of a summer morning. In Palmyra the vertical tombs that date from the third-century Nabataean era had yet to be blown up by Islamists, and the Gate of the Sun and the Roman-style amphitheater had yet to be pockmarked by artillery shells and other hostile fire. My Syrian route included a four-day stop in Aleppo, which would later suffer a siege that was one of the longest in the history of modern warfare. At the time there wasn’t the least hint of what was to come. Recalling those memories is like watching the opening of Titanic or any other disaster film, knowing the mayhem that will come while cringing at the blissful gaiety of characters who have no clue of what awaits. The three-hour ride from Latakia took me through most of northwest Syria. The train rose and dipped through the An-Nussaynyah Mountains before bypassing then-placid Idlib, cutting across farmland that produced many of the staples of the Syrian countryside—cotton and wheat, olives and fruit, almonds, figs, and dates, grapes and tomatoes. I spent about half of the trip in the café car chatting with Salman, a businessman from Aleppo who imported cars from Iraq, Toyotas and Hyundais mostly. Those he didn’t sell in Syria he shipped from Latakia to overseas buyers. We talked about everything and anything but the possibility of war—my impressions of Syria, the relationship between Syria and the U.S., the best ingredients to make a proper tabouleh. He got off somewhere in Aleppo’s suburbs, a few stops before the central train station, but not without making the obligatory offer of unrestrained Syrian hospitality. “You come to my home, stay with me. We make you good Syrian food,” he said two times, maybe three, before he finally left the train. The last was just before the doors closed behind him. Foolishly, I declined, because I had already booked a room at the Baron Hotel, a landmark of regional history, local conversation piece, and still functioning hotel. It had been established by two Armenian brothers in the latter part of the 19th century, and when the expansion of the railroad into the Middle East saw Aleppo become a popular destination on the Orient Express, the Baron hosted luminaries such as T. E. Lawrence, the swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, Charles Lindbergh, and Theodore Roosevelt. Agatha Christie wrote the beginning of her cloak-and-dagger novel Murder on the Orient Express in room 203. The opening scene takes place in Aleppo’s train station. In November 2014 the siege that had weighed on Aleppo for two years would force the Baron Hotel to shut down, after over a century in operation, but for the four days of my stay it still breathed its wonderfully faded luxury, like an aging, elegant dowager who refuses to be put to rest. The massive, thickly carpeted staircase rose to the upper floors from the atrium entrance, where Charles Lindbergh’s still unpaid bar bill was framed on a wall in the lounge. The door to my room was at least a meter wide, to accommodate the oversize trunks and other hefty luggage that the globetrotter set of a century ago would lug along on their tours of the “Orient.” A waiter in an immaculately clean white shirt with black bow tie tended the breakfast room, a wood-paneled salon with a ceiling that reached the second floor and near floor-to-ceiling windows that were propped open to allow the morning breeze to stir the long white curtains before it drifted through the room. I spent the early evening hours on the outdoor patio facing Baron Street, drinking Turkish Efes beer with locals who had long used the same patio for their happy hour. My first day in Aleppo was a Friday, a day for the Muslims, Sunni and Shiite, to attend Friday prayers; a day for the Christians—Armenian and Syriac, Maronite, Melkite, and Eastern Catholics—to sleep late and then prepare elaborate mid-afternoon meals; a day for foreign visitors to stroll the quiet, sun-splashed streets on a summer morning. My first stop was the Grand Mosque, where preparations for the midday prayer were just beginning. Scrub women with hoses and mops were washing down the central courtyard. To the left of the entrance a group of mullahs were seated in plastic chairs, reading Qurans splayed on their laps. To the right an attendant manning a card-table reception desk took my shoes and asked my nationality to record in the visiting registry. I replied, and he began chatting about his cousin in Philadelphia. Aleppo’s Grand Mosque was built on the site of a Greek agora. During the late-Roman era it served as the garden of the Cathedral of St. Helen. It became a mosque at the beginning of the seventh century, when Muslim rule spread over Syria. Its signature minaret, 45 meters high, was added in 1090 by Abdul Hassan Mohammed, the primary judge of Aleppo. But the Grand Mosque’s claim to fame, for Muslims and Christians, is that it is the final resting place of the prophet Zachariah, father of John the Baptist. At the center of the prayer hall a small shrine holds the prophet’s remains. On this Friday morning a few supplicants were gathered around it. But I couldn’t stay. One of the mosque employees approached and informed me, with a few gentle hand gestures, that the crowd for Friday prayers would soon be arriving. I retrieved my shoes from the Philadelphia-tied attendant, who directed me to another attendant, who led me to a passage that connected the mosque to Aleppo’s renowned souk. It was dark and quiet, a strange thing for any market. Any other day it would have been teeming, with the scents of perfume and spices, colored dyes and olive soap, floating from the stalls that filled the 10 miles of corridors that comprised the largest covered market in the world. Silk from Iran, Pakistan, and India, and backgammon boards inlaid with mother-of-pearl would compete for shoppers’ attention. Now that it was summer, vendors at the entrances would be selling fresh cherry and blackberry juice, strained through hand-worked presses. But today roll-down metal doors covered the stalls, which meant they would not open until after the midday prayer, if at all. Only bare light bulbs lit the way. A stray cat picked at a plastic bag. I had little choice but to wander, bypassing the khans, or caravansaries, where in a bygone time traders detouring from the caravan routes would feed their camels and horses as they put up for the night. One stall was open for business, selling coffee, tea, and dried fruit to the morning faithful on their way to the Grand Mosque. I left the souk, emerging onto a small square where a dozen vendors had gathered to smoke while waiting for the midday prayer to end, when they would open for the afternoon. I didn’t get far before a voice called out, “Where are you from?” It was Basem, owner of a carpet and knickknack shop whose family had lived in the United States for three or four generations, he told me proudly. He wasn’t sure of the exact number, and it didn’t matter. He had two outlets for his goods in the U.S., he told me, again proudly, run by his cousins. If there was any doubt he produced a business card printed with their addresses in New York and Washington, D.C. Would I like to see his goods? This was not a question but an invitation, and in Syria one cannot refuse an invitation. We wandered through the darkened lanes, and a few vendors were beginning to open their stalls. Basem lifted the door to his, propped a couple of plastic chairs in the middle of the room, heated water for tea, and unfurled his goods while giving me a short course on the design of each of his carpets. This was the way business in Aleppo had been conducted for over a thousand years—establish the relationship with the customer and the goods will sell themselves. But Basem wasn’t trying to sell me anything. He knew I wasn’t going to buy anything. He was merely showing off his wares, proudly, to a visitor with whom he felt he shared a common bond. As Basem and I parted he told me to be sure to visit his cousins the next time I was back in New York or Washington, D.C., and of course I told him I would. Then I headed to Aleppo’s Citadel. The massive stone entrance block is the visual signature of Aleppo. The series of zigzag ramps leading from the bridge into the compound was designed to slow down intruders so that vats of boiling oil could be poured down on them from above. On this summer Friday the only intruders were a few tourists, the only guard a lone ticket seller in a glass-enclosed concession booth. The Aleppo Citadel has defied time. It may date to the third millennium B.C., or it may be older. Abraham is believed to have tended his sheep on its hillside. In more “recent’ times the site was claimed by the Greeks, then the Byzantines, followed by the rising Ayubbid dynasty, centered in Cairo, and later the Mamluks. It succeeded in resisting the attacks of Crusaders in the 12th century, but in 1260 the Mongol invasion left it battered and scarred, and in 1400 the Uzbek warrior Tamerlane wrecked it completely. Centuries later it would be brought back to life, when soldiers under the banner of the Ottoman Turks would make it their barracks. Once inside it was impossible to get lost because the lanes of the fortress still showed signs of the grid street plan favored by the ancient Greeks and later the Romans. The Citadel is a textbook of Syrian history recounting, in toppled stone, the many civilizations that have spread across the land. Amidst the ruins were the remains of Byzantine churches and some of Islam’s earliest mosques. There were also hints that as far back as 2,400 B.C. the hill had served as a temple to honor Hadad, the Sumerian god of tempests. Over the centuries soldiers representing armies from across the Levant and Asia Minor had stood at the ramparts to peer out over the surrounding plains with an eye for approaching armies. On this day the view was just as expansive, though it extended no further than the city itself, for over the centuries Aleppo had grown from a strategic outpost to become Syria’s largest metropolis. The baking afternoon heat was beginning to ebb. Midday prayers had ended, the souvenir shops across from the Citadel had opened, and the café tables under the shade of the palm trees had begun to fill with Aleppians sipping neon-colored fruit juices. It was also play time. In the back streets a group of boys banged a football against an empty brick wall. Little girls wearing pink dresses and bows in their hair jumped rope with a string of rubber bands. At night the city awoke from its Friday slumber. The cafes were now crowded with coffee drinkers and shisha smokers. I had dinner at an eatery that catered to Aleppo’s professional class a short walk from the Baron— a fattoush salad, side dips of hummus and tahina, vine leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables, a piece of eggplant moussaka—“good Syrian food,” as Salman would have recommended. Many of Aleppo’s families, out for a night on the town, picked through the offerings set up on a buffet table on one side of the room. After dinner I took a stroll to a nearby park where half the city seemed to have gathered, not to protest or shout revolutionary slogans but bathe in the cool of the summer night. Vendors sold cotton candy and ears of roasted corn from pushcarts, banging their sides with a metal spoon to draw customers. Kids scooted across the pavement on skateboards and roller-blades. A man jostled five ice cream cones as he inched his way toward his wife and children, camped out on the grass. I plunked myself down on a bench to reflect on this 21st-century city that had as much as 7,000 years of history behind it. Aleppo, or ancient Kafle, was known as Boroea to the Greeks and Romans. The name Alep would take hold in the Crusader era, but before then, and afterward, many others would pass through, some friendly, some not. Ruling this plot of ground would be Assyrians and Babylonians, and then Persians, before Alexander the Great arrived in 333 B.C. After a brief stint as a Roman province Muslim forces took control, though Byzantine armies would loot Aleppo in 962. Crusaders unsuccessfully tried to wrest it from the Iraqi warrior Saladin. The Mongols would wreak havoc on Aleppo when they conquered it in 1260, only to be outdone by Tamerlane, who took the heads of 20,000 slaughtered inhabitants to construct a pyramid on the outskirts of the city. Aleppo had been so vibrant a cultural crossroads for so many centuries that buildings representing architectural styles from around the world covering many time periods could be found in the back streets across the city. For a look into the Islamic golden age one could wander through the Old City with an eye for mosques, hammams, and madrassas. Houses of the 16th- and 17th-century merchant class could be found in the Al-Jdayde district. Shabaa is a study in architecture from the Norman and neoclassic periods, along with buildings representing the Far East, while Al-Aziziyah offered the 19th- and 20th-century baroque. All that was Aleppo in its prewar days. The city survived largely untouched by the conflict for over a year, but in July 2012 its luck ran out. Rebel forces entered the city, soon to be followed by government forces. Pockets of the city where rebels had taken up positions were bombarded with missile strikes, but soon the Syrian army would resort to a strategy that would prove deadly throughout the course of the war and would have come in handy to ward off previous invaders—barrel bombs. They were first used in the war in August 2012 in an attack on the Hamidiya neighborhood of Homs, but the assault proved to be merely a trial run. The following month saw barrel bombs fall on residential areas of Aleppo. The strategy of barrel bombing was as deadly as it was easy to implement. A helicopter flying over its target would unload metal barrels packed with an explosive mixture, glass, nails, and any other material capable of ripping human bodies to pieces. When it explodes the barrel itself becomes a deadly missile, spraying shrapnel in all directions. Barrel bombs are notoriously inaccurate, but they are an effective means of attack nonetheless, because even if the intended target is missed it succeeds in terrorizing its victims. Hospitals saw men, women, and children with their internal organs ripped out and arms and legs blown off. Once the technique proved its effectiveness the Syrians army refined the practice of the “double tap,” waiting 20 or 30 minutes after the delivery of one bomb before dropping a second, to kill or maim those who had fled to the scene to aid the victims of the first. After the bombardment of Guernica, the Nationalist forces denied the attack altogether. Almost in lockstep, at the beginning of the siege of Aleppo the Syrian regime denied the use of barrel bombs. President Bashar Al-Assad called the reports “childish.” “There are no barrel bombs,” he added. Then a video emerged showing barrels being dropped from a government helicopter. As the cost of the Syrian Civil War rose in human terms, it also began to take a toll on Syria’s cultural history. Aleppo’s Grand Mosque suffered severe damage, and in August 2013 the thousand-year-old minaret was blown apart. Again there were denials and mutual exchanges of recrimination. SANA, the Syrian government news agency, claimed that Islamist forces had stuffed it with explosives. The rebel side blamed its destruction on fire from government tanks. In November 2014 the Baron Hotel, which had remained open through the first few years of the war, finally closes. In its last days street battles raged within earshot of its front door. In early 2013 the war entered a new phase. The siege would see the introduction of even deadlier weapons—chlorine, sarin, mustard gas, and other chemical agents long banned under international law. On March 19 a rocket loaded with sarin gas struck Khan Al-Assal, an agricultural region outside the city. A northeast wind carried the gas into the residential neighborhood of Haret Al-Mazar. The attack killed 20 and injured over 100. The survivors suffered the expected symptoms—blurred vision, loss of consciousness, convulsions, foaming at the mouth. Five days later phosphorus bombs would hit the village of Adra, killing two and injuring two dozen. As deadly as the attacks were, they proved to be mere warm-up sessions for a more full-scale assault not only on Aleppo but other parts of Syria. Throughout 2013 the weapon of choice was sarin, but once the mysterious ailments raised the suspicions of international observers the more dubiously legal chlorine would be used, for the next two years, with an occasional diversion to mustard gas. Aleppo would be struck in July 2014, February and August 2015, four times in 2016, and twice in 2018. Idlib, northwest of Aleppo, would fare much worse, suffering approximately 20 chemical attacks between 2013 and 2018. Images emerged of children laid out on hospital gurneys breathing through respirators, gazing bleary-eyed at television cameras both broadcasting and documenting the scenes. Hama, Homs, and the suburbs of Damascus were not spared. Douma and Daraa would both be hit. Human Rights Watch would claim that chemical attacks had killed over 200 throughout the country. Investigations by the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations Human Rights Council determined that the Syrian regime was responsible for the majority of the chemical attacks. The origin of a few was inconclusive. In every conflict that reaches a depth of barbarity that no one had predicted there comes a time where many outside observers will claim that the situation can’t get any worse. But it can, it always can, and in Aleppo it did. In September 2013 the Russian air force entered the fray, to aid the Syrian army with air strikes that in time would leave wide swathes of Aleppo largely in ruins. The targets of many of the attacks were schools and hospitals, two places that had come to serve as a refugios for many of the residents of rebel-held areas whose homes had been destroyed. By year’s end most of the population had fled. In eastern Aleppo only about 120,000 residents remained, with one functioning bakery. As the months passed doctors and other health care workers abandoned the city. Following each air strike, volunteer responders pulled bodies and survivors out of the rubble of collapsed buildings. By the end of 2016 Aleppo was no longer a war zone. It was passed that point. Aleppo had become an apocalyptic panorama, a subject suitable for Hieronymus Bosch. In rebel-controlled parts of the city all of the hospitals had been destroyed. Hundreds more civilians were killed by chlorine bombs. No signs appeared designating parts of the city as refugios because nowhere in Aleppo could offer refugio. On the rebel side, extra-judicial killings of captured soldiers and officials of the government, as well as members of rival rebel groups, were carried out. Much of the city had been reduced to skeletal towers of broken concrete, looming like giant tombstones over an urban wasteland, divided by cratered dirt paths that had once been the city’s streets. Through it all, in the talking shops of parliaments and international forums little action was taken to alter the course of the descending spiral, only ritual condemnations from members of the U.N. Security Council and other global heavyweights. “All we wanted was freedom,” said a bemused English teacher in a rare on-camera interview. “I guess the world doesn’t want freedom.” In 1937, British journalist George Steer was the first to report on the bombardment of Gernika. He had been covering the Spanish Civil War for The Times of London and arrived in Gernika days after the bombs had been dropped. While the Nationalists blamed the destruction of the town on the Republicans, Steer was able to prove the culpability of the Nazi Luftwaffe through the symbol of the German eagle inscribed on the bomb shells. He also confirmed the use of highly volatile thermite to set the destroyed wooden buildings alight after they had been struck with extra powerful munitions. But time was not on his side. After the bombardment the Nationalist forces were able to sweep across the Basque region unimpeded. Steer returned to Bilbao and was able to flee Spain, one of the last journalists to do so. In Syria, American journalist Marie Colvin was not so lucky. She was the last foreign journalist to report from Homs, which had served as the launching pad for demonstrations around the country in the early days of the war. In February 2012 Colvin was killed by an air strike on a makeshift media station that had been set up in a besieged part of the city. As in the case of Gernika, the facts were disputed. The Syrian government stated that the cause of her death was a crude bomb laid by terrorists, but Colvin’s personal photographer rebutted the account, claiming that the building where they had taken shelter was bombed just as they were trying to flee. Early in the 18th century the Spanish artist Francisco Goya created the work for which he is best known--The Third of May 1808. The painting portrays the impromptu execution of a group of rebels who tried to repel the invasion of the French army after Napoleon’s troops stormed into the city with the aim of seizing control of the Iberian Peninsula. A companion work is The Second of May 1808, which depicts a chaotic battle in which scene a mob of local partisans swarm a mounted regiment of French soldiers. Both paintings are landmark representations of the bloody mayhem of early-19th-century warfare, but neither sufficiently portrays the grotesque reality of war as it has always been fought, in the 19th century, before, or since. That was reserved for a later, lengthy series of etchings that Goya produced and titled, simply but poignantly, The Disasters of War. Goya was living in Madrid in 1808, when the city was overrun by the French army. He frequently traveled around the city and its outskirts to view the conflict firsthand, carrying a sketchbook to record what he had seen. The Disasters of War codified his impressions into a vivid rendering of the artist’s gradual awareness of the moral vacuum that eventually engulfs any act of war. Unsurprisingly, in the beginning of the series the people of the city are portrayed as a heroic resistance force struggling to repel a faceless, far superior military machine. Plate 5 shows civilians, both men and women, attacking French soldiers with rocks and homemade pikes. The Women Are Courageous is the title of plate 4, which shows women of the city battling French soldiers. Other plates show rebels being executed and people of the city dying from starvation due to the famine that ravaged Madrid from 1811–12, when food was prevented from entering the city by both French and Spanish forces. Women were commonly victims of sexual assault by French troops, as shown in plate 10. In plate 34 a priest has his throat is slit for possessing a knife, a crime under the French occupation. As if the horrors the prints portray were not disturbing enough, the series then takes a darker turn. In the latter part the images become even more ghoulish, and by the end the distinction between oppressor and oppressed has almost disappeared. Throughout the conflict both the Spanish and the French committed gruesome atrocities, what today would be called war crimes, or crimes against humanity, but neither of those concepts existed in early-19th-century Spain, or anywhere else in the world. Torture and mutilation of bodies was common. In several scenes body parts are shown dangling from tree limbs, with no indication of whether the victims are French or Spanish, and in the end it really makes no difference. Any suggestion of the heroic ideals that have served as the engine of war have vanished. All that is left are acts of human depravity and the wasteful loss that is the result. In plate 50 a small girl cries near the body of her dead mother. Religion, too, is sucked into this unholy vortex, and soon there is no distinction between the realm of the spirit and the grotesquely macabre. In plate 46 a priest is put to death for robbing a church. In plate 75 a priest wears the head of a parrot while entertaining a group of donkeys and monkeys. It bears the title Troupe of Charlatans. Plate 79, near the end of the series, is named The Truth Has Died. This was two hundred years before Senator Hiram Johnson of California coined the phrase, “The first casualty when war comes is truth,” or, more simply, Truth is the first casualty of war. There was no Francisco Goya to memorialize the three-year siege and bombardment of Aleppo, nor the attack on Gernika. The fate of Gernika was preserved in a few grainy black-and-white photographs taken in the first few days after the attack and individual survivors’ accounts. The horror that unfolded in Aleppo was preserved only in the images recorded by the rare journalist who managed to report from the scenes of destruction and eyewitnesses who became both historians and survivors. No doubt the veracity of these will be disputed, just as the attack on Gernika and use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons in Aleppo was initially denied altogether. But this ignores the greater point—that the term “crimes against humanity” is really redundant, or meaningless, because all acts of war are crimes against humanity, and civilization itself. Goya’s images, and any that emerge from Aleppo, reveal war’s fundamental depravity and moral waste.
Jendi Reiter, vice president of https://winningwriters.com “101 Best Websites for Writers” (Writer's Digest, 2015-2018), oversees the Winning Writers literary contests. The website, founded in 2001 to help poets and writers, is located in Western Massachusetts. Jendi is also an award-winning author with a new book of short stories, An Incomplete List of My Wishes (Sunshot Press/New Millennium Writings, 2018).
Smallwood: How long did it take to organize the help so many poets and writers depend upon in Winning Writers? What was the spark that started it?
Reiter: WW is always evolving and refining our features, which include a monthly e-newsletter, four writing awards, and a database of the Best Free Literary Contests.
Nearly 20 years ago (!) my husband, Adam R. Cohen, and I were working in the publishing industry in NYC, but wanted to start our own business that we could take outside the big city and corporate life. He brought his marketing expertise as the Atlantic Monthly's former circulation director. I had been winning professional awards for my writing since high school, so I was familiar with many contests and could guide writers to find the best ones for their particular style and experience level. It took us half a year to get the business up and running.
More than simply another directory, WW's mission was twofold: to educate emerging writers about contest scams, and to bring writers together to shed light on important social issues. The former objective was accomplished through the Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest. The latter goal has informed all our contests, from the War Poetry Contest we launched after 9/11 to our current North Street Book Prize for self-published books.
Our two-person shop has grown to a staff of about 8 freelancers who help judge our contests, keep the database current, and do marketing research and diversity outreach. We find some of them through our local writing community, and others by approaching writers we admire and asking them to be guest judges. The benefit of an all-online business is that our talent pool isn't limited by geography. Our former next-door neighbor now screens the North Street Book Prize entries from her home computer in Poland, where she is researching her graduate thesis!
Smallwood: Please tell readers about “Hand-Picked Resources for Writers” that you edit:
Reiter: Adam and I read A LOT of books and social media, which we're constantly harvesting for interesting links for our website. By curating these resources pages, we help writers find the best deals for self-publishing packages, book design services, stock photos, and other services for putting their work into the world.
Reading widely is essential to growing as a writer. We review our favorite books on the website, and also link to magazines and online archives of classic literature. In recent years we added a category called "Writing for Social Change", which spotlights journals, contests, and articles that promote minority voices or social justice issues.
Smallwood: the website requires a great deal of work to keep the literary contests current. How do you manage?
We are very grateful to our assistant editor Samantha Grace Dias for maintaining the database. So smooth, it's like it runs itself! Sam thoroughly understands the contest landscape and often alerts me to changes in contest guidelines that merit a ratings upgrade or downgrade. Hire her to edit your book or academic paper (firstname.lastname@example.org), but please don't steal her away from us!
Smallwood: When did your annual humor no-fee contest begin? Please share with readers how they may enter and also about the other contests Winning Writers sponsors:
Reiter: To enter any of our contests, go to the WW homepage, click on "Our Contests" at the top menu bar, and select the one you want. The submission period for each one is listed on the rules page for that contest. We prefer to receive entries through Submittable, but will consider mailed entries if you do not have Internet access.
The humor contest began in 2001 as a fun way to expose vanity contest scams: those "free" contests that accept nearly every entry and expect you to pay for a copy of the winners' anthology. We invited people to write the worst imaginable poem, submit it to a vanity contest, and then send it to us with their "acceptance" letter full of fake praise from the vanity sponsor. I believe we played a role in driving the largest scam contest, Poetry.com, out of business. Now our Wergle Flomp contest is just a free contest for the best humorous or parody poem.
The Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest and the Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest are open-theme contests that we took over from our former affiliate, the Australian novelist John H. Reid. Mr. Reid passed away earlier this year and we are glad to continue these contests in his memory.
In 2015 we launched the North Street Book Prize for self-published books of fiction and memoir; in the 2018 contest (entries currently being judged) we added categories for poetry collections and children's picture books. Self-published and small press books face unwarranted prejudice from review outlets, bookstores, and awards committees. This prize allows us to signal-boost excellent books that are excluded from mainstream distribution channels.
Smallwood: I first enjoyed reading your award-winning poetry chapbook, Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009) and have followed your progress. Please tell us about your most recent book that the Midwest Book Review noted has “Astute windows into society’s secrets, prejudices, double standards, and individual purpose.”
Reiter: My debut short story collection, An Incomplete List of My Wishes, was a runner-up for the Sunshot Prose Prize from the literary journal New Millennium Writings. These pieces, which I wrote over the past decade, won contests from journals such as the Iowa Review, Solstice Lit Mag, Passages North, and Bayou Magazine. Some of them began as character sketches for my novel Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, 2016), a coming-of-age story about a NYC fashion photographer during the 1990s AIDS crisis. The short story form allowed me to understand other perspectives apart from the novel's first-person narrator.
Other stories grew out of my journeys through Jewish and Christian spirituality, weighing the comfort of collective belonging versus the danger for those who don't fit in—exiled because of our queerness or our refusal to be silent about abuses of power. Is love ever not conditional, and what price are we willing to pay for attachment?
Over this same period, I was trying to adopt a child, while becoming estranged from my family of origin. So there is a recurring theme in these stories of broken or never-formed bonds between parents and children, though sometimes life on the other side of that loss is better (or wiser) than what was left behind.
Smallwood: your prize winning books include poetry and fiction. Do you find it challenging to switch from one to the other?
Reiter: I always have several projects going simultaneously, because it's very easy for me to get bored or lose my confidence in whatever I focus on for too long. I don't necessarily recommend this as a strategy—it's just how my brain needs to be fed! My history as a poet makes me more attentive to the sound of every word in my prose. And I'm now discovering, upon my return to poetry, that my near-exclusive focus on fiction in the past four years has given me a better grounding in the details of our current cultural moment, and an increased interest in narrative and persona poetry to expand my poetic subject matter beyond my personal feelings.
Smallwood: do you have another book in mind? How much note taking, planning do you do before beginning your books?
Reiter: I am working intermittently on Origin Story, the sequel to Two Natures, as well as a chapbook of politically inspired poetry. Most of these poems aren't "ripped from the headlines" exactly, but are informed and energized by current themes (such as my gender transition, climate change, and the #MeToo movement), in a way that's different from my earlier, more philosophical and inward-looking poetry.
Links to my books:
Bullies in Love (poetry) https://www.amazon.com/Bullies-Love-Jendi-Reiter/dp/1935656368/
Two Natures (novel) https://www.amazon.com/Two-Natures-Jendi-Reiter/dp/0996907424/
An Incomplete List of My Wishes (stories) https://www.amazon.com/dp/1944977201/
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian selected her photo to represent all teens from a specific decade.
The 1980's/90's Computer Links... and now
Listen. “Then” (before gender neutral), you heard of "His" and "Hers" items from deodorants 'made for a woman' to cigarettes for those 'who've come a long way'. America even had a 'hers' silver dollar with Susan B. Anthony's face, although her weight was so insubstantial that she couldn't compete in the man's world. Well, my household's sexual division included a computer. "His" was a loaded powerhouse 486 chip showpiece whose best use was for playing "Links386" golf and other golf games, "Hers" was an 8086 8mhz machine that contained only DOS-3, Word Perfect 5.0, and an undeleted program of Word Perfect 4.2. His medical degree was earned in 1957, and if he was alert enough to once memorize the human body why was he originally so threatened by my pioneer 1981 computer? Ah, it's because there were no golf programs during the infancy of the first personal computer. When I changed, in 1988, to a hard drive and he found "PGA Golf" fit, he tiptoed into the computer age. However, the graphics were too slow, he abhorred my necessary black and white monitor, and couldn't tolerate the tedious round of golf on that machine. Anyway, I heard from his computer station, our oldest's former bedroom, "You have to see these Windows things. My DOS golf games will need replacing again." Okay. I walked from our middle child’s growing-up bedroom, my computer space, and saw his 14" color monitor, then returned to monochrome video display. I liked my word processor for DOS. I knew that everything I did would be complicated. I also knew that my fingers got plenty of exercise with all the keystrokes necessary to activate a command. The only thing I used that didn’t require my glancing at a template anymore was Print, but even that wasn’t just Shift-F7 'cause I had to decide what I wanted to do once the screen was displayed. Windows. I pulled down the shade in "His" computer room after he left for work, then turned on his machine. It took awhile to boot up a 170 hard drive loaded with pre-installed programs and installed games; and I thought my machine was slow! Finally, Windows. I was used to a prompt for date, time, C>; I gazed at a maze of colorful icons. If, I thought, I seemed to like this 'ease', then I'd have to upgrade my machine and word processor to a modern stage. But no games! None. Golf, for me, is an outdoors event. Mouse. I live in a spot where I've moles, voles and chipmunks running under the house foundation, deer at my kitchen window, rabbits eating anything I plant. A mouse is something I give a coumadin-like pellet to help it leave this life peacefully. Yuk. I needed to use, at his computer, a plastic blob called a mouse. One on-screen icon said Main, so I dragged the blob on his desk and went click, click. Main dragged out of sight; nothing happened to the screen. Oops. I killed Main. Feeling frightened about being found out, I turned off the computer, waited a minute, turned it on again. Main was gone! I clicked, and clicked but it didn't reappear. I knew I'd have to confess that I sneaked into that room and accidentally zapped an icon. How could I save face when I've chided him about buying Godzilla when he really could have made-do with a baby chimp? I looked in the manual. An engineer must have written it and one sentence had a double negative and made no sense at all. As a former college writing instructor, I corrected the grammar error. I couldn't find a Restore-Icon-deleted-by-spouse command. Okay. I decided I'd serve dinner with candlelight and music, then break the news. Word Perfect mailed me a brochure about its Windows. "Just push the right buttons" it proclaimed, and "activate them with a click of the mouse." Little pictures of Mirror, Rotate, Enlarge, Fig Pos were above a column called Figure Editor. I'd have to be the figure-editor just to figure out the pictures. I even hate stop signs on the road that don't actually write Stop, or circles on a car's dashboard knob when I don't understand whether it's for lights or air circulation or whatever. Mirror looked like geometry or a hair bow; Enlarge seemed to be a medical symbol for one of the sexes; Fig Pos, at first glance looked like a bicycle. Well, no one ever saw in Psychology 101's Rorschach tests what I saw anyway. Windows, I decided, wouldn’t be anything more to me than glass panes to either clean with smelly ammonia or look out of as daylight streams in. "Who said you had to work hard to do hard work?" said the word processor for Windows advertising pamphlet. Did the text writer ever try to create one of that company's Master Documents? Everything in that program had been hard work; if it became simple it could be harder work for me to learn simple! "Come look at Sawgrass," he said before we made a trip and actually played the TPC course. His computer's monitor gave me a fast aerial view, then zoomed in for a lower angle. The colors were vivid but my attention span for this method of golf was about ten seconds. I shrugged my shoulders, yet was amazed at how quickly he learned so much about computers to self-install more memory, even to add a CD-ROM in December 1993, and it all started because of golf games. So he called me obtuse. Well, I did consider inching up to Word Perfect 5.1 for DOS...but that was only a maybe, 'cause it supported a mouse. Yuk. “Now”: Ah, it’s 2019! My age shows if I ever talk about monochromatic monitors and DOS keystrokes. Internet didn’t exist, nor e-mail, nor folders to store photographs taken from a telephone that sits in one’s pocket, and only the aged know what a 5 1/4" floppy disk once was. And word-counts were done same as by typewriter, and a printer was a 9-point pin dot matrix with perforated paper edges that needed tearing off once a roll came through the machine. “His” machine is still a powerhouse with retina-display monitor and sound so clear you’d think a concert hall system was inside. He needs excessive speed for playing Solitaire cards; listening to golf tips as a pro, onscreen, gives lessons; reading the news that’s already been seen in the daily printed paper dropped on our doorstep each morning. “Hers”. Well, I had to get Windows 10 when a decade-old Vista decided its hard drive had done enough hard work. My Word Processor is still the almost obsolete Word Perfect, but I hadn’t realized, until too late, that it had no ability to download a PDF file as my Home/School Edition lacks that. My 1988 (when a hard-drive came out) keyboard still clacks and I was able to get a coupling to actually hook it up to the modern monitor. The keyboard is the same length as my all-in-one desktop computer and happily I don’t have company visit that room; shocked expressions on faces would not be able to be camouflaged. Soon, ‘his’ and ‘hers’ will blur, like current unisex bathrooms in public places. And a New York law now actually allows a birth certificate to list ‘x’ under gender. But that’s something for another time. He’s got Alexa and Echo Show; I have a paper dictionary by choice. But I can text and with emojis on a smartphone, and he hasn’t learned that yet. Hm.
2009 Clear Mountain
Flashes of memory. Long ago. Is getting old what’s causing it? Doubtful, as my brain has not declared me as aged as my skin looks. Might it be because my parents are not living? Perhaps. But these instances of surfacing-recall aren’t happening when lying in the dark on a sleepless night...they just seem to ‘happen’. "Lois?" My mother shouted from downstairs. "Lois, can you hear me?" "Sure, Mom." I continued ripping tissue paper, knowing a book was beneath the wrapping. I bent forward from a crosslegged position, slid my bedroom's door wider and called out "What's up?" "Come to the top of the stairs, please. I don't want to keep shouting." I got up and went to the staircase. Leaning over the polished oak bannister railing, with weight on my elbows, I looked down and saw the top of my mother's head. Soft hair was caught in a mesh snood. I knew my mother would first call 'be careful'; I liked this tenderness but kept that to myself. "Oh, be careful, honey," My mother uttered. "Don't lean like that. You might fall." A metal hairpin slid as she tilted her head to talk. "Julie phoned and said she'd be over soon." "I didn't hear the phone," I smiled enjoying the predictable dialogue. "I picked it up on the first ring." My mother pushed the hairpin back grabbing some elastic of the hairnet. "Thanks, Mom." I pulled myself erect, returned to my room and moved the door nearly closed; tacked on the back was a poem 'Bless this house Oh Lord I pray, Keep it safe both night and day...' I picked up and squeezed the wrapping paper, then dropped it in a tiny wastebasket next to my red maple desk. I bent back the book's firm jacket to loosen the binding, then read inside the front cover. "To Princess, whose love-of-poetry-secret she's shared with me. Love, Dad." I was glad it was, to me, so old, printed in '41, that it didn't carry the 1944 notice 'a wartime book' as “The Secret Spring” novel and so many of my new books. Poems and wars shouldn't go together, I thought, then stared at the single in-color photo on its front page: a young-looking man seemed to have a fast-paced step yet carried a cane. I wondered why he carried a walking stick; those were for old people. "'Healthy, free, the world before me,'" I recited words below the photo and resumed sitting crosslegged on the linoleum floor. I balanced Louis Untermeyer's book, “Stars to Steer By”, on my thighs and tucked a stray clump of wrinkled, white, tissue paper gift-wrap under one knee. "So, Mr. Whitman, The Open Road made the frontspiece." I looked up, scanned my personal bedroom, then fingered the printed text. "Yes I am 'Healthy, free, the world before me, The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.'" Brass chimes sounded. I quickly turned to page 14, and whispered from Whitman, "'Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first.'" I snapped shut the book, shoved it into a slot on the maple bookcase shelf, and shifted personalities. "Up, here, Julie.” “Stars to Steer By.” I gave that copy to my own daughter many years ago. Eventually her daughter read it. And the late-1940's of my early childhood is, literally, from another century. I can’t process time, and, obviously, neither can my mind. I can ‘see’ my mother, so young yet so old to my then-thinking, and her hairnets securing strands the way the snoods were fashionable for her age and time. I thought snoods were ugly and looked like grocery sacks on women’s heads; I never told my mother that, however. My appendix scar was thick. Funny impressions from the clamps used made the incision look like a series of the letter 't'. The doctor had given me those metal clamps to save; stitches were old-fashioned, he'd said, and surgeons were using these new devices to secure skin. Victory in Japan Day was a celebration but, for me, surgery. Alone, in my room, I pulled up my skirt and slip, pushed down the elastic on my underwear, then ran my slim finger over the vertical incision line. I dropped all back in place and walked to my dressing table. "Ten days in the hospital," I spoke to my reflection, "it's good to be home.” I sat in front of the triple mirror and practiced smiles. Like a segment from "The Three Bears", I commented, 'this is too wide, this one's too phony, this looks stuck up, this is wholesome and just right'. I didn't notice my younger sister, Joy, whose head only peered around the door jam. I ran fingers through my silky long hair and pulled it to the top of my head. "I'm pretty," I said matter-of-factly. "Good thing appendixes aren't in places that show scars." The kidney shaped dressing table was made of unpainted wood and I, alone, had painted the surface. My mother hand-sewed white organdy with green felt-like polka dots into a gathered dressing table skirt. The beveled edge triple mirror rested on top with its largest part touching the wall behind it. Few items were on the table and most sat on a small oval gold-toned metal tray. Letters to answer were clipped with a wooden clothespin and sat behind one wing of the mirror. "Lift, eyebrow, lift," I commanded one blonde brow. "Oh, I'll never use that. What a stuck-up, put-down look that is." I adjusted the movable mirror sides to examine my profile. "Well, nose, you could be better. Ears, I like you with your attached lobes. Dracula would love my long neck; the easier to suck your blood," I said in a fake accent. I turned sideways, caught a flash of the large blue-green eyes at the same time I spotted Joy, who then scooted away. Joy ran into the bathroom. No one could chase her in here. I could hear her brushing her teeth with the toothpowder, and knew she’d poured it directly on the bristles rather than dabbing it into her palm. I tucked both pinkies inside soft corners of my mouth, smiled and stretched skin at the same time. I couldn't see my expression very well as the pulling caused my eyes to close into tiny slits. I released lips, stuck my tongue out and stared in the mirror. "So this is what the doctor sees." I ran one finger over the tiny pink bumps on my tongue's surface. Bumps felt like the skin of a fresh peach; my finger tickled the tongue. Tucking the tip behind my upper teeth, I tried to look at the underside. I had to raise my head high to peek. I pulled the corners of my eyes towards my ears but couldn't see a reflection in the mirror because my eyes wouldn't focus. I took a deep breath but held it from coming out. My cheeks became balloons; with both hands, I popped them. I recalled being Joy’s age, four years ago, and doing that; a giggle escaped with the air and I splattered the mirror. I wiped it with my right sleeve. I swelled my face again and tried not to giggle. The mirror was blurred where I'd wiped it. My third finger found the space between nostrils and I pushed up. Again, I couldn't easily see how it looked because I saw an outline of my finger close to my eyes. No matter how I moved my head, that finger found my eyes first. I drew down the soft flesh below my eyes and saw the moist red skin. I tried to smile; I couldn't and also hold my lower lids open. My cheeks rose and got in the way. My face hurt a little from all the pulling and strange expressions. “See, stupid appendix that’s gone. Now I’m really looking at myself, and,” I giggled at my slightly reddened face from all the maneuvers, “mirror, mirror not on the wall, I like myself!” Did my children pull at their faces, examining the soft pink flesh beneath eyelids? Did they puff out their cheeks and pop them with their own palms? Why was I too busy to stop and notice, if they did? The responsibility of domestic chores, caring for mate and offspring, helping with homework, sewing, chauffeuring without carpools because of my silly notion that no one would drive as carefully as I did, playing duets with them on my mother’s 1939 Baby Grand piano, making snowmen, soothing fevers. Suddenly the children were adults and I never asked if they played with their faces, practiced expressions, decided about mannerisms that were offensive (as I’d felt with one eyebrow raising). I looked into my older sister Carole's bedroom after I walked up the flight of stairs heading for my own room. I liked this room only when the sun was ready to go down and the western red glow came through the double windows. Twin beds had a lamp table between them. All the furniture was red maple, like mine. Above each bed was a picture of a ballerina housed in a lighting fixture that had a triple switch: switch-one caused indirect lighting and the ballerina took on a soft glow; switch-two caused direct lighting from the bottom of the metal frame and the ballerina appeared more defined; switch-three lit both above and below parts of the frame and forced a vitality in the ballerina as well as better illumination. I liked the Lightolier fixtures, couldn't understand why Carole had ballerinas as she was the only one who didn't take dance lessons. The ceiling had been wallpapered for a dramatic look, popular in the late 1940's; I didn't like the effect. A triple dresser had pull handles not knobs. It had a tatted doily on top, and a mirror on the wall over it. Carole kept a comb, brush, and rubber bands on the doily. Under the bed were romance magazines, but no books or personal trinkets sat out. When forced to study at a table, Carole used the dining room rather than have a desk in her own room. A lime green velvet chair was placed in a corner between the double exposure windows facing both north and west. I turned and crossed the hall. My room was darker now than earlier in the morning as the sun had shifted on its way to the opposite side of the house. I turned on the overhead light and picked up the invitation left on my cluttered desk. On a beige, shiny, penny postcard was an offer to join the Chiclets and meet at 8:30 PM every Tuesday at a Center in the next town. "Chickory chick cha la, cha la," I hummed, walked over to my closet and opened the door. "Hello clothes!" "Do you always talk to your dresses?" Joy came into the room. "Hi, kid, don't you?" I giggled. "Look. I'm going to be a Chicklet." "And I'll be Double-Bubble," My mother walked by the open door and contributed to the conversation. "Oh, Mom!" I pretended exasperation. "Dinner soon." My mother walked to the master bedroom. "Better not be liver again. Yuk." Joy yelled as loudly as she could. Turning to me, "Why is liver necessary?" "Beats me." "Will you go out at night?" Joy asked about the Chicklets. "How'll you get there and home?" "Daddy'll drive me!" "Daddy," Joy moved to the bed and sat there with legs crossed, "is tired at night." "So?" "Well he takes the 7:12 every morning and doesn't get home for at least twelve more hours." Joy had recently realized how long our father was away each day. "Joy," I began with a tone of wisdom, "parents are parents. They don't get tired. Why daddy'll even take all my friends home 'cause their fathers probably are too selfish. Daddy won't mind. He never minds anything for us. Really. You don't know anything about being a parent." "Well I know they stay up all night with us when we're sick." "See? Parents aren't like other people. They don't get tired and don't need much sleep." "I guess so." "Boys meet in one room and girls in another. We'll plan parties, and dances, and some do-gooders fund-raising things. Then, after the meeting every week, we'll turn on the juke box and dance. Neat, huh." I pulled out my favorite green pleated skirt and held it against my hips. "Like this for the first meeting? Really grown-up?" "You're not supposed to look grown-up until high school, Lois." Joy warned. "Just like no lipstick or polished nails." "Oh. Poo. This is different." I replaced the skirt on the wooden hangar bar, closed the closet door, pulled off my shoes and socks and began to stuff Kleenex between my toes. "Are you going to dance barefoot at the Chicklets?" Joy watched with fascination. "No. It's just like one day I'll wear lacy, silky underthings. No one will see them but I'll know I have them on. Bloomers and cotton and woolies are all yucky and I'll never, ever, put on anything heavy and ugly like that once I'm all grown. Well, nails all painted red on my toes are the same thing. My secret like the panties'll be one day, but I know I've polish." The phone rang in the hallway. "Mom's got it. Probably Grandma. 'And where's my kiss, miss?'" I giggled and imitated my grandmother's voice. I don’t make my grandchildren think kissing is an obligation. I hated ‘where’s my kiss, miss’, and the attempt at rhyme was so annoying. But why didn’t my grandmother tell me about her strengths or pass on stories that meant something? Only now, with some research, do I know she was a widow with five small children, no life insurance, yet somehow managed to convey the idea that education was vital as well as pass a set of values to her fatherless brood. Only now do I know that she buried a toddler way-way before she buried my father. Did she have fears even coming alone to America as a teen? How did she marry her friend from the same European village but in New York City? How did he get to America? Why wouldn’t she even give me her special recipe for tall brown cake when I asked for it? But, then, why didn’t I realize that parents are not put on earth to do everything for me, and never complain. And why didn’t I understand that age 45 to have a fatal heart attack was not because my father was an old man. Old. It’s so relative. But my mother, who remained alone for the rest of her life, didn’t share too much more burden than my grandmother; my mother smiled, came whenever I sent for her, left whenever she sensed I needed my personal space back. My children hugged and kissed her, squirted her with water pistols, tossed snowballs in her face; my grandchildren do that with me. But my children probably think their dad and I are going to be around ‘forever’, and agile, and share celebrations that they’ll have with their own children. We won’t, my husband and I have whispered to one another, but allow our own children to think otherwise.
The number on the fat tailfin was barely legible... possibly NC8653S. My camera printed pictures only 2 ½ x 2 ½ and that included a half-inch border all around. Hard to make out the digits as the camera snapped the machine through a chain-link fence. I stared at the tiny snapshot, secured by green corners, once it was licked and pasted on the black felt-like album page. In white ink, to show up against the ebony paper, I hand printed "a plane through a fence at La Guardia Airport Jan. 25, 1947." The shiny tube, with its elevated front end seemingly perched to take on the wind even when resting, was fascinating enough that I used an entire roll of black and white film and several pages in the 15 cent album to capture it. The roadway to the airport and Manhattan showed few autos; the airport had fewer planes. I pulled out the United postcard I'd gotten onboard my very first airplane flight on July 7, 1946. The 'age of flight' seemed to be coming. Schoolchildren were now making field trips to watch the airplanes and look at an expensive means of transportation. Standing on observation decks hoping to see a take-off, I felt privileged to actually have traveled in the wind inside a tube. "It's the fascination of a man-made bird that makes Superman's faster-than-a-speeding-bullet exciting." I talked aloud as I touched the photo corners' package and spilled them out on the table. A newly fixed photo in my maroon album showed persons walking on the field to board a Northeast aircraft. Distorted, only by the angle my girlhood hands held a camera, I actually caught three airplanes in the print's colorless square. In white ink, to show up against the album's black paper, I wrote: I rode into this airport on July 7, 1946. I know what flying is really like. I climbed the airplane's outside stairs, fastened my seat buckle, checked to see if a might-needed vomit bag was reachable in the seat pocket. And a plane doesn't take-off until the stewardess gives everyone onboard two, tiny, white coated, teeth-shaped pieces of chewing gum. I moved to a preceding page, saw the patrol boat photo taken in Bayside, and remembered why I couldn't show my mother that picture. She had told me not to take my bicycle to Long Island Sound as patrol boats were guarding the waters and she thought it was not safe for me; I went anyway. Photos. No black albums anymore with velvet-like paper that leaves lint on fingers. Video and sound. Digital cameras put photos on CD’s ready to slip into a computer slot and e-mail anywhere. I scan photos to send when I have any developed rather than put on CD’s. Computers seem to store everything in special programs designed to even ‘fix’ snapshots that have red-eye or color imperfections. Smartphones with instant messaging have made digital cameras cumbersome and not necessary. And airplanes. Since September 11, 2001, the sight of an airplane fleetingly reminds me of terrorism. Two of my grandsons, standing on the roof of their Brooklyn school, actually witnessed the second terrorist plane intentionally force itself into the second tower of the World Trade Center. They don’t talk about it. Did they see humans leap from shattered windows? Did the ball of flame frighten them? Did the smell of jet fuel, bodies, smashed concrete, and such, permeate the air as far away as their eyes saw? Oh that they might have enjoyed those silly teeth-shaped chicklet pieces of gum given because, in 1946, the cabins were unpressurized. How would they have liked the propellers that revolved, and people at observation points waving to passengers just as if each were going on a ship from a dock? Patrol boats. Perhaps they’re back. Certainly we’ve patrol aircraft since September 11, 2001. It was so ‘innocent’ when I took my green bicycle with those fat rubber tires and bounced the stairs over the parkway in order to get closer to Long Island Sound. Maybe my mother really knew where I was and decided to not scold me but quietly admired my spunk. I’ll never know; I never asked, even years and years later. Oh, I’ve decided my memory is a gift. So the flashes come. Most of the time I like these fragments. Now I’d like some more years to have them drift across my thoughts.
Books: banking’s cardboard-covered, school’s three-ring composition, blue outside/white ruled inside for exams. Texts, music, reading, even a bag toted to classes but held in the arms had the adjective book before the word bag. Tangible reminders of most everything went into an album called a scrapbook. Paper dolls, coloring pictures, personal diary, telephone numbers, encyclopedias, dictionaries, addresses of friends and relatives, a row of thin matches came in books. People with excellent grades but socially awkward were called bookworms. Removable heavy paper circling bound printed matter was a book jacket. Secret messages went into a black book. Recipes were filed, family births went into a Bible, and commencement volumes called yearbooks also made up pieces of our lives. Online: banking, much schoolwork, e-readers, telephone information, family/ friends/ Yellow Pages done via Internet. Nerd has replaced the studious put-down label. Who needs a scrapbook when photos are instantly taken and sent or stored on a ‘cloud’! A book-bag no longer is toted in arms but is called a back pack with straps around shoulders freeing the hands. Recipes are called up via Artificial Intelligence. Secrets are shared via texting, and piano sheet music is loaded on a tablet holding hundreds of classics through present-day. Generations that handwrote, as quickly as possible, what a professor was speaking, and turned in essays typed on manual machines, bought tiny firm circles to paste on each notebook paper to secure its fragile holes from pulling away from the binder with constant use. Probably few know what those circles are anymore, if any even are manufactured, and wouldn’t understand photograph ‘corners’ bought to secure a snapshot in an album. In 1941, my parents gave me a book of poetry called “Stars to Steer By.” One poem, in this Louis Untermeyer collection, penned by Lewis Carroll, began: "You are old, Father William, the young man said, And your hair has become very white” and I liked the meter as a little girl and had no concept of ‘old’ for anyone. And while the poem appears in Carroll’s “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” (1865), I actually didn’t read that work until my college English-major years and its political implications were easily recognizable once the professor spoke of that. But, to me, Father William’s verse was nonsense, and like the song “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay, My, oh, my, what a wonderful day” by James Baskett, or the silly 1940's tune “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey, A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?” by Al Hoffman / Jerry Livingston / Milton Drake, the silliness appealed to me. Perched on a mahogany shelf in my daughter and son-in-law’s living room, the hardcover’s firmness doesn’t reveal that 1941 book was handled by me for so much of my life, my notes on margins commenting about the poems (penned with liquid ink as ballpoints were ‘future’) resisted fading. Their daughter, who composed poetry that appeared in magazines plus Chicken Soup books all before she was even out of high school, handled the very same pages as I did, giggled a bit over some of my margin musings. Shelves in my house have most of my college required reading. How could I sell anything back to the bookstore? Each was ‘mine’. Even a grad school Descriptive Linguistic softcover workbook had to be saved! Margins continued to hold comments; I argued with Thoreau for his words about society when he abandoned such and lived in a secluded area. I let Whitman know I, too, stood on Brooklyn Bridge. There were no highlighting pens, but I underlined Shakespeare’s prose plus put my feelings in margins. Art books with mostly black and white photos were too important to ever sell back, and by junior year I’d switched minors from Sociology/Anthropology to Art. A grandson took an Art history course at a university, and rather than Google when he asked about a specific work and my thoughts, I opened the 1950's heavy books with pages that hadn’t faded even with time, and shared these. For a report, he cited some sentences and the professor must have wondered who would have old-old-old textbooks, real textbooks, and we spoke about the humor of that. Laptop computers are carried to/from school. Microphones can record lectures. Oral can be made into written as voice recognition programs have gotten more sophisticated. Shelves no longer are burdened with 78rpm record albums, vinyl recordings, CD music, taped cassettes. Shelves are no longer burdened with snapshot albums, VHS tapes, VCR recorders ready to be pulled off to document a family’s get-together with the voice and movement not able on 16mm or 8mm silent film reels. Boxed print-film negatives have vanished. The top drawer in a girl’s nightstand has no diary as Social Media has replaced that. Better? Worse? No, just different. “Stars to Steer By” will go down another generation or two. My comments won’t be able to be read as cursive-handwriting is no longer taught.
Coincidence? Maybe that’s a ‘connection’ of sorts I can’t easily see. I grew up turning a dial on a radio, waited for the fat tubes to heat up, and then magically a broadcast came on. My mind saw whatever it wanted for background, actors, singers, sounds of rain or even hoofbeats. When my parents took me to sit in a studio and watch a broadcast being done live, it was quite awful; the ethereal quality of rain was nothing more than a person shaking a piece of tin, and the hoofbeats that I’d romanticized coming from an Arabian horse galloping with its mane blowing were cup-like things hitting a slab of wood. After that, as sounds streamed through slots in the radio’s box, the romantic visual left with my childhood. I also disliked the growing-up phrase that things happen for a reason. The vague wording seemed more like an attempt to justify misfortune that there’s no control over. When breath abruptly left my 45 year old father, what possibly was the reason? No sermons or philosophy courses could connect the dots for me regarding such. Aging altered some views and, yet, rationalization seemed to linger. Driving to a famous golf course in Virginia, my husband’s pinkie-finger was broken. A friend, also a golfer, should have understood our 10 hour each-way drive was to actually just play a specific Nature-beautiful course, and understand our emotional pain with him no longer being able to do that, but, rather, he offered his Eastern religious philosophy: our driving was delayed to attend to the finger, and it was predetermined that we should pause because an accident might have been ahead and we were spared. Was that just ‘comfort talk’, or might that belief be possible? Last summer, on a trip from our home near Canada’s border, to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, had me thinking of that Eastern belief. My younger son, his wife, and their two daughters, who live near our house, took their van; my husband and I were driven in our sedan, for our personal comfort, by their son. Several days later, we all began our ride home. We three in the sedan left about twenty minutes ahead of the van, and the GPS was effective going so we trusted it with the return. Paper maps, and AAA Triptiks were things of the past. The present, with a computer voice, said ‘right turn ahead’; the path divisions had a right lane but also a road veering to the right at the same spot. We took the road. About a quarter mile up, re-calculations began, and the directions altered. Re-routing done by the system always found the route to our destination, so, of course, we followed the changes. The mountains were steep, and the stretch was narrow as if only horse-drawn carriages should occupy its width, although old-radio’s hoofbeats would sound wrong on pavement, yet it was open for two lane travel. Constant curves made visibility difficult. Our grandson kept a 30 mph speed. Higher we climbed; our ears felt as if we were in an aircraft. Eventually, we began to descend, drove over a one-lane bridge appreciative that the traffic in the other direction was sparse, and assumed we would be miles and miles closer to home and pick up a main road many towns nearer to our final mileage. Not so. We’d gone in a complete circle! Ending up at exactly where the ‘right turn’ took us on a right turn and not merely the right lane, we saw the car in front of us: it was the van my son was driving with the rest of his family! Grandson apologized for the situation, which did not require any apology as the GPS misled us and then its usual re-calculations couldn’t do more than take us twenty minutes out of our way in order to be at the exact point of error. I felt, suddenly, that, maybe, it was ‘meant to be’ so we could ride in tandem with the family, somehow watch out for one another for the long trip. We all stopped at the same rest stops and also had lunch at the same time, and the thruway sign indicating the final exit was seen within minutes of one another. The ‘error’ was responsible. Was that coincidence? Was the GPS misleading us for a reason? Could my generally rational mind accept such a concept? I touched the travel-amulet around my neck, a 14k gold locket given to me by my parents when I turned age 18 and contains photos of them at that point in time, and whispered “thanks”. Since radio waves are invisible, but they exist, maybe the GPS was ‘taken over’ by what I can’t see?