The Making of Dickens “A Christmas Carol”

Author at Santa Claus Lane in Carpenteria, CA. 2001

We owe alot about the evolution of our present Christmas Day to a novelist.

In fact a novelist has kept his bestseller on the shelves, on stage,  and on the big screen — turned into no less than six different movie versions — for 174 years because he was able to take quintessential values about love and attach them to a largely uncelebrated date.

This holiday season a delightful family film, The Man Who Invented Christmas  presents the story of Charles Dickens writing of A Christmas Carol.  It offers insight on how Christmas became the sacred and family fun filled holiday that it now is.

Christmas has become so beloved since 1843’s arrival of Dickens A Christmas Carol that fun park villages and lanes across America have been dedicated to the annual event.  One such lane is shown in the photo above. It was near my hometown in Ventura County off the 101 Highway on the California coast in Carpenteria, California. The famous “Date Shakes” — among other novelties — called many travelers to tap the brakes on their north and south bound drives and indulge their inner child for a few moments.

The American celebration of Christmas combined imported traditions from our cousins in Europe.  My Dutch immigrant grandparents brought theirs, and our English, German, Danish, Swiss, Norwegian cousins (among many others) also imported theirs to make the American holiday a unique mix of Christ, Santa, Christmas trees, sleighs, parades, lights, candies, music, carols, gift and a card giving event.

As an author continually in search of the next inspiration for a novel, I find the story of Charles Dickens 1843 inspiration for the perennial classic “A Christmas Carol” compelling and worthy of every reader’s time.

Written in just a six weeks, Dickens’ self-published novel has given us the Ebeneezer Scrooge character which informs us of the cost that a cold heart really is. But it is more than that. It is a story of love lost and refound in a “it’s-never-too-late” plot that is timeless.

Writes Kate Samuelson of Time.com:

When Dickens pitched a Christmas book to his publishers, they couldn’t understand why anyone would be interested in the idea. But the author had predicted a turn in the yuletide. Queen Victoria had recently married the German Prince Albert, who brought the Christmas tree over from Germany, and the idea of the festival being a time for family and celebration was gradually seeping back into public consciousness…

I have included a link to the full background article and review of the movie celebrating Dickens creation — The Man Who Invented Christmas  — here:

http://time.com/5017067/a-christmas-carol-charles-dickens-movie/

BTW:  I give the movie a “10 Star” out of 5 rating;  a must see for every lover of the Dickens tale.

CHARACTER MATTERS — A societal crisis is solved this simply

Assume a virtue though you have it not.”  — Shakespeare

Some time ago I had the privilege of doing a book signing for one of my titles along with Golf legend Johnny Miller who was breaking out his book Called It the same day and at the same store.

We discussed life, issues with the swing, and even mental preparation before taking any swing.  I remember talking about how things “come back” to you and how important every swing we take really becomes.

If life is a game, and people are players, then some also become perfect with practice and others become users. What achievers actually do is pre-thought, and pre-practice in their minds. The outcome of those actions, when built upon thoughts played out before hand,  are winning consequences, and the difference between how good or conversely how bad those outcomes can be, is only a matter of time.

Because the power of media is deeply ingrained in a fast paced soundbite society, we find we are living in times where allegations and accusations of unlawful, inappropriate, hurtful, unwanted, and even violent behavior against others becomes instant fact before an investigation or jury is even called in to question.

“CBS fires…” and “NBC fires…”  and “NPR fires…” and “Fox New fires…” and “Hollywood mogul loses company…”  “More accusers come forward…” and “Senator embarrassed by allegations…”  and so on.

Virtue is a planned behavior. Character is forged over time by choices between virtue and vice. When changes of life are made, so personal character is also changed. As we watch the mighty in society fall each day, remember it did not happen in a day. It began with a simple thought…some time ago.

A crisis in society where character is constantly challenged through allegations of sexual and other misconduct, can be solved very simply. The cause of allegations — which if they turn out to be true — means the perpetrator practiced mentally before any physical action against another person took place.

James Allen (1864-1912) had tremendous impact upon my mind and my course in life, when in my 19th year my mother wisely handed his most famous book to me — As a Man Thinketh — and said, “Jim, I want you to read this.” What stood out to me as I read was this:

 

We become what we think about.

That premise of pre-thinking our life, our actions, who and what we want to become, is a simple formula for success, and conversely to disobey it is to ultimately fail and face disastrous consequences.

LIFE HACK and simple formula for building good character…

If you want to be well thought of as a gentleman or a lady–

Deliberately plant seeds of thought with good outcomes.

Redeem the past through giving and seeking forgiveness and…

Ensure the future by living well today.

LIFE 101: Dark vs Light, Pain vs Joy

This much is true.

When it comes to darkness, light follows.

It may be a sunrise that soon yields a brightness of the sun at its zenith, or a light switch that chases away a darkened room, but one does not know the difference and the joy of light without the coldness of the dark night.

Pain, Confusion, Darkness, Disappointment, Tears, Illness of all kinds, offer the flip side:

Pleasure, Clarity, Light, Serendipitous JOY, Laughter, and Wellness.

You never get one without the other — so hold on!

As a Man Thinketh…In His Heart” (revised edition coming to Kindle 2018)

 

Music Inspires Stories

 

This Guy’s in Love with You

Music often inspires elements and characters for my stories. This song is one from my youth. It seemed to play at every school and church dance, and listening to it now returns me to a certain innocence that the world seems to have lost.

Music for “Vivian’s Book of Love” could not get much better than from Burt Bacharach — Vivian’s story is also “his” story; one of a broken heart and lessons for a life well lived. Revealed in an unforgettable slow dance but fast-paced 110 page journey with the most powerful ending I could imagine.

Hope you enjoy THIS GUY’S IN LOVE WITH YOU — from the 1960’s that actually had songs of pure innocent love…

When the Last Leaf Falls — Chapter 2

A Sneak Peek continued…

Previously I posted the Prologue and part of Chapter 1 from the novel now under development. Below is the rest of Chapter 1 and all of Chapter 2 as a follow up”Sneak Peek.”

I recommend clicking the link below and reading the “set up” in Post #1  (Prologue and first half of Chapter 1) then coming back and following it up with the rest of Chapter 1 and this new  entire Chapter 2.

Happy reading!

Continued from Post #1  Sneak Peek — When the Last Leaf Falls 

 

Where was I? he pondered. “Fitch…” he said.

     “Radio…” Fitch said with teeth chattering, “…is as dead as that new guy—the replacement—Hawkins. We can’t send a runner—so here we are.”

“We fight it out?” Howie stammered through a sudden and frozen wind, slapping his face like an unseen hand showing no mercy.

“Yeah. We fight it out.” Fitch shivered against the icy chill as he brought his binoculars up. His entirely freezing and fatigued attention was on the German patrol and the single tank entering the open ground. “Now let’s line up to meet this SOB,” he whispered.

They were ill-prepared for winter fighting when the 9th Infantry was thrown suddenly into the surprise German counter-attack. The men of the 9th Recon Troop wore white bed sheets they’d liberated from a bombed-out Belgian hotel, draped over olive green combat uniforms and GI pot helmets, in hopes the camouflage effect made them invisible to the enemy.

Fitch and Howie rolled twenty feet in the snow to their right until they had the tank lined up directly in their path and just under a slight rise in the terrain which enabled a shot at the underside. Sergeant Fitch would give Howie the required tap on his helmet; a signal for him to rise to one knee, fire, and for the other men of the patrol to run for the relative safety of cover they had left behind.

Everyone knew they had to wait for Howie’s single bazooka round to fire and then they would sprint against German tank machine gun fire, along with individual enemy troops firing at them in an open field of knee deep snow. The proverbial “fifty-yard dash,” held particular meaning today to every man caught out in the open field.

To Corporal Howie Anderson, with the single tool of the trade to stop a tank, it meant saving them—buying time for his friends—but not for himself.

“You get one shot, and only one,” Fitch reminded him. “After that, we are dead or they are.”

Howie pulled off his helmet and looked intently at the photo of his new bride; a photo wedged inside the interior lining of his steel pot. “I won’t die, Collette,” he said as he kissed the photo and replaced the helmet.

Sergeant Fitch loaded the single bazooka round into the back end of the long tube—it too wrapped in white rags. “Wait… Steady… Hold it… Hold it…” he commanded.

The approaching Panther V was less like a tank to Howie and more a lumbering monster churning through the whiteness of the frozen field where the two Americans, among a dozen others, lay making themselves invisible.

The enemy tank spit out brown icy earth from its back as heavy metal tracks chewed toward them—and behind it was other men with guns. Someone is going to die, Howie’s mind screamed as his nervous breath sucked in ice cold pre-dawn air.

Realizing the moment his life would most likely end was mere seconds away, Howie mentally focused upon one thing he must do if destined to die: Don’t miss

“Wait. Not yet. Hold…” Sergeant Fitch continued in shallow breath.

Everything was too slow now. His sergeant’s orders were killing Howie as much as the approaching tank would. He couldn’t run, hide, say, “time out.”

“Hold it… Just a bit more… Wait until he hits that rise. Got to get a shot underneath him… Hold it…” Fitch’s voice chattered in the biting coldness of the moment.

The tank was less than one hundred feet away and would soon crush him. Where’s the order to fire? Howie’s brain shouted.

“Now!” Sergeant Fitch yelled as he tapped Howie’s helmet. “Go! Go! Go!” he ordered to the others as Howie carefully aimed at the exposed underside of the tank’s belly that was almost entirely upon him now.

He pulled the trigger, becoming oblivious to anything but the swoosh of the shell projecting forward out the long tube and into the under-carriage of the enemy tank to his front.

Men scrambled and the small arms firing began. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his friends begin to fall. He dropped the bazooka and without thinking of retreat rushed forward to take the fire meant for his friends.

He’d gotten off a proverbial “lucky strike”—a hit with the bazooka round that the odds makers in Chicago gang run back rooms wouldn’t have favored. He unconsciously screamed and fired wildly while the German tank belched smoke and began to burn. Stunned enemy soldiers returned fire. Several dropped just feet from him. He was a crazy man now; firing a Thompson sub-machinegun he had slung over his shoulder, reloading, spraying the field, and reloading again. He expected death to come any second, but the bullet with his name on it kept eluding him.

He stopped and fought from his standing position at the rear of the smoking tank as a dozen Germans now retreated. He yelled and screamed, firing, attacking as only the insane can without regard for consequences as the enemy fell before him.

He took one quick look back to see if his friends had made it to the safety of the ditch near the tree line. As he did he heard the distinctive sound of a half-dozen American M-1 Garand rifles with their pop, pop, pop… metallic clinking sounds as eight round clips emptied into the enemy now in full retreat.

“Yeah!” he screamed, gazing up just as one lone enemy soldier emerged from the turret of the disabled tank with pistol drawn. He instinctively fired a burst into him. He watched as the young man flailed forward with eyes wide open in the surprise of death.

During that split second euphoria of surviving a one-on-one shoot-out, Howie noticed a change come over his enemy. The man looked warm and limber in sudden death. Howie envied the warmth of the dead man, as his 20-year-old body felt stiff and frozen in place; legs unable to move him forward or back.

The entire scene rolled before him in surreal film-style slow motion as if this violence were not real, and he was not really here, and Sergeant Fitch who waved his arm for him to retreat to their position was, in reality, Humphrey Bogart, and it was not him standing alone against the Krauts, but someone he was watching from the theater seats that merely looked like Howie Anderson and the…

“Anderson! Get out of there!” he heard Lange scream.

He found himself stiffly turning to obey. His entire squad—all his friends including the Preacher—Powell—were waving their arms for him to join them in the ditch. Their firing gave him cover.

Finally turning to make the dash to friendly lines, he felt a sudden jolt. His helmet flew off, his knees buckled, and a warm sensation of blood trickled down his face. He tasted the salty red moisture as it met his lips.

“Good,” he said as he collapsed into the snow. “I feel so good,” he sighed as face-first he struggled with the blood-reddened snow against his warming and flushed face.

Don’t die, my love,” she had pled as they last kissed three months ago in Paris.

In dying, he knew he had saved his comrades. And in dying there was really only one regret… Collette.

 

2

The French Women

 

“Only a French bakery can claim to make a woman skinnier when she walks out with a baguette than when she walked in,” Carlos laughed as he ended his call to a private party in London. “Here she comes. I have to go. See you tomorrow… Ciou,” he said, clicking off the phone as he waved from the car to the two women leaving the café.

Jeannette nodded to him and then kissed her mother on the cheek. “I will call when I return from London. We will spend more time next visit. Je promets, Mère.”

Marie understood the pressure on her youngest and most successful child. She returned her daughter’s kiss whispering, “I have something special to share with you on your return.”

“Oh! A mystery!” Jeannette replied smiling. She stroked her mother’s face with the back of her hand. “You are so beautiful, Mère. How is it you never age?”

“Ingredients from the bread of life keeps us young,” Marie chuckled. “Now go. The train for Paris leaves on time, even in Normandy.”

Jeannette smiled and knew her mother’s riddles involved profoundly religious motives. “Someday I hope to understand,” she replied.

“A hint, mon petit chou. Avec le bon homme, et Dieu,” Marie answered.

With the right man and God, Jeannette translated.

Mother and daughter had now stepped outside the Alderette Boulangerie and Café, which served as a gathering place for the citizens of their small off-the-main-road Norman village, Mont Anglais. Her beau waited in the rental car at the curbside.

“And Carlos?” Jeannette returned in a whisper, as she simultaneously signaled to the man behind the wheel that she was aware of the time.

Marie forced a smile to the Spaniard, and then softly whispered, “In matters of the heart God will never lie. I will pray for you.”

“I know you will. Adieu, Mère.”

Carlos hit the horn.

Marie frowned and Jeannette winked in reply, taking the baguette and marmalade from her mother’s hand; something sweet to remind her of a mother’s care.

Carlos wasted no time as he hit the accelerator, whizzing past Mathieu in the town square. The town’s gardener waved to Jeannette and then looked sadly back toward Marie.

With his beloved Claire now gone, and time not his friend, the secret and a promise he had kept since World War Two was about to be shared—whether he liked it or not.

 

 

VIVIAN’S BOOK OF LOVE, a Novel

                               Praying Chief at Sundance, Utah

For my next fiction I have chosen settings close to home. The praying Ute Chief at Sundance Resort, Utah is set in pleasant repose of rushing waters, pools native trout call home, and where I have gone to refine every manuscript ever written, including The Last Valentine–a novel adapted by Hallmark Hall of Fame to produce the 2011 hit release with Betty White and Jennifer Love Hewitt; The Lost Valentine.

Tranquil, it is often passed over by visitors to the state. Not a large resort, its natural peace and beauty lends to a slow pace, thoughtfulness, and introspection.

Within a range of a couple of miles are the locations where the plot for Vivian’s Book of Love takes place. That would be on the Provo River, a rafting and fly fishing spot just below Robert Redford’s Sundance.

I hope you may enjoy this “set up” to the proposed novel. Here is the opener to Vivian’s Book of Love.

 

PROLOGUE

At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet… Plato

Like the Swiss clock handed down from generation to generation, it relentlessly ticks away. An equal amount of the tick-tock stuff is given to all, but those precious seconds of lingering hand-holding, pleasant conversations, and admiration which the eyes lock into memory–become like a leaf caught on a breeze.

What you fill one minute with passes on—even as you contemplate how to spend more if it. There are precious snap shots–those moments frozen in a day from long ago–but you can only memorialize them, fill photo albums with them, or write of them as I do now.

Vivian was not only the girl of my dreams, but still captures them, so it is here where I come to bury the dead. Not with remorse, but great longing and a sense of awe for the surroundings which inspire my dreams.

Snow capped peaks loom over the village park that carries her name. Simple charms attract a certain kind of visitor to this often passed-by connection from the valleys above to those below. Natural beauty alone and modest cabins greet the fly fisherman to the trout stocked river, lined with its willows, pine, and the cottonwoods which shed like snow falling in June.

The scene of the white fluff wandering in a summer breeze, and Vivian chasing it with girl-like glee along the river path, still stops my heart, making our wonderland feel like an eternal replay of a favorite ballad; the one played when, once upon a time, you first fell in love.

For most others the charm found here is a ride on creosote treated railroad ties and aging iron track still carrying an original 1905 Baldwin Steam Locomotive. With turn-of-the-century passenger cars in tow, and the quintessential caboose guarding the tail end of the train, the locomotive winds its way through the river gorge in the shadow of soaring pined ridges where the eagles nest. Slowness takes over as smart phones are put away and God’s handiwork is admired.

Tourists come to the one whistle stop at Vivian’s Park each Saturday with the Ghost Train chugging up the canyon for Halloween, and the Polar Express breaking through snow drifts during the Christmas season.  With passenger cars resembling the old west era, a magic lost to our modern world of fast everything comes alive.

Constant, Bridal Veil Falls reminds visitors of power and timelessness. From deep within aquifers of the Rocky Mountains above us there is the unfailing year-round source of spring water falling from two sedimentary formations created over one million years of passing time.

Someone one hundred years ago would have witnessed with their natural eyes the exact same dramatic vista–cascading sprays of water forming a wide veil when the unending stream of droplets finally reach their destination from the heights above. The romanticized waterfall speaks to the human senses this truth; that everything of value and beauty takes time. 

Time is a thief. It doesn’t sleep, slow, stop, or rewind. It simply goes on in a ticking of give and take, allowing for memories alone. Memory is a good and wicked thing at the same time. When love falls upon the soul like the Bridal Veil does–narrow in the beginning and wide at the end–it carries you away to the pleasant places of romance and dreams where words like eternal, and forever, and never-ending come to life.

With Vivian I learned the things of love that her presence cemented into my heart. Those wonderful, terrible, haunting, and dream-like phantoms are encased safely where I can go and visit; and for a moment I feel her lips against mine, and her hand teasing me as she waves for me to come and follow her down the now silent tracks.

I awaken angrily at times, frustrated at others, from those day dreams which seem more frequent. Within the same cursing of breath that my pleasant visions have vanished so suddenly–there is also some sense of gratitude for having been with her, ever so briefly. Time gave those gifts to me, and I mustn’t curse it.

I seek now to share the hard truths and the idealized romance of it all, but not with moralistic rhetoric; well except, perhaps, in my opener to “The Western Philosophers 101” class each I teach each Fall and Winter semester at the U.

They can take it or leave it, but the sooner a person seeks what I lay out–well, I’ll let you decide…

I welcome that first freshman class each September and then it begins:

“Goethe said, ‘We are shaped and fashioned by those we love.’ Have you ever been in love?” he asked.

He looked out over the classroom of fresh-faced freshmen and watched some suddenly sit up from their slouch, others nervously shift in their seats, and a few offer the cocky assurance that they are about to waste an hour of time.

“If you have not, then I will tell you how it feels. Everyone keeps a book of love,” he began.

This sneak peek is the set up to Vivian’s Book of Love. Twists, turns, and secrets kept follow as we learn a young man’s background, his name, and the surprise that Vivian becomes to him.

 

 

DADS Who Make a Difference

When I wrote, “DAD, The Man Who Lied to Save the Planet” in 2003 the world already was in desperate need of role models for fatherhood in general; examples centered on traditional moral values, showing a living road map for successful male parenting.

While an edited revised edition — to include more material — will be available in 2018 in print-on-demand, Audio, and eBook, the principles found in the first 12 chapters remain the same.

I offer my reading of CHAPTER 12 — his final words — for listening at my website homepage: www.jamesmichaelpratt.com.

BE ATTITUDES from revised “As a Man Thinketh…In His Heart”

A revised edition for 2018, of “AS A MAN THINKETH… In His Heart,” takes the 2008 self-published edition and the present realities of a fast-paced digital steroid world, and re-introduces the characters of the personal growth category novel.

The time tested morals are based upon the slower heart approach to thinking — which a 19th century literary ghost and host of the cottage on the hill in Ilfracombe, England prescribes to his present day author guest. Told by Pratt in an Og Mandino first person style, (where the main protagonist is also the actual author taking the reader into the story’s world) action is interspersed with unexpected revelations and discoveries.

The truths are delivered by an ethereal writer who actually lived in Ilfracombe and became famous for a bestseller still selling well today — As a Man Thinketh,  James Allen, 1904.  The following “be attitudes” are new to those too busy to give time to ponder them. Delivered in an entertaining style with other truths wrapped in a paradigm termed “power-thinking,” they arrive in a day and time where they seem to be in short supply.

A bestselling thinker from the turn of the 20th century, James Allen was a philosopher who still blesses readers today, and whom author Pratt discovered in his 19th year. Now Pratt delivers “the rest of the story” in hopes that a path to personal peace and a more joy-filled living may be adopted in our time of hyper-distractions, addiction to mental stimulation, and a speed driven culture in constant need of a quick fix of “more…”  Whatever that may be.

BE ATTITUDES from As a Man Thinketh…In His Heart (2018 edition)

  1. Be kind to others
  2. Be valuable to all
  3. Be modest in speech and habits
  4. Be a servant to the least
  5. Be joyful though in pain
  6. Be honest for honors sake
  7. Be frugal and patient
  8. Be heart-filled and thought full
  9. Be forgiving
  10. Be a creator
  11. Be heroic
  12. Be for love above all

Mind is the master power that molds and makes, and man is mind and forever more he take the tool of thought; and shaping what he will, brings forth a thousand joys, a thousand ills. He thinks in secret and it comes to pass. environment is but his looking glass.” James Allen, 1904

SNEAK PEEK — When the Last Leaf Falls

 

 

When the Last Leaf Falls

by

James Michael Pratt

Copyright 2017

 

“Cupid in these latter times has probably laid aside his bow and arrow and uses fire arms…”  Hawthorne

 

Prologue

The Story Teller

     Visits to another world happen when you are transported to extra-ordinariness by stealth; because an author is forgotten, and characters become real, and because when the story ends you want more.

This worried him. After all, his life had not been that extraordinary. The simple story he’d share tonight was one of those tales where mystery shrouds the ordinary people from sight, but also makes an improbable romantic adventure come to life.

He was one of the main protagonists in a tale he certainly could not have invented—yet he wondered, and doubted, how the storyteller might become necessarily undetectable.

And there was the fear—very normal for every author’s first book reading—about boring the audience. He didn’t suppose he would be compared to Ernest Hemingway or Harper Lee, especially since first-time author Steven Anderson had a personal stake in the sentimental tale.

He took a deep breath and tried to bury his concerns with a ready smile as he entered the warm cabin filled with local folk. Greetings were exchanged with the hosts and guests as the crackle of a blazing fire of pine warned of the rapidly falling temperatures just outside the southwestern Virginia community near The Meadows of Dan. Steven cleared his throat, took a sip of water and began:

“This is a simple story,” he started, as he searched the faces of those book club attendees gathered in the cozy great room. “It isn’t made of cliff hangers, or twists and turns only to resolve themselves in surprise endings,” he added, followed by a pause to gather his thoughts.

“Rather, this is an uncomplicated account of a man and the two women he loved—in both war and peace—which continues to touch other lives in unexpected ways today.

“My father had spoken of a sacred symbol many times since World War Two ended, and yet my late mother had kept the knowledge of that from him. Love does strange things to a man, and some tokens of remembrance carry heavier meanings than others; even in dreams.

“It might not make sense to the reader, but if you knew how many nights my father had fought the war in his sleep since coming home, and then how mysteriously promises made by two lovers in a world at war came to such a startling conclusion, you would nod your head, smile, and understand.

“See, romantic love, the kind everyone longs for, doesn’t always come to the seeker even once in a lifetime. For most of us, we find that a special someone grows into our hearts over time. If we are among the lucky, love is sweeter in the end than it was in the beginning.

“I was one of those lucky ones, but my story could not have even begun without his…” The author paused to gather his emotions, which filled with memories, had suddenly caught him off guard.

“And…” he began again, “…although it only takes one domino to start the motion for all things to fall in or out of place in our lives, I suspect more is at play. So I ask you to be open to the possibilities found in this story.

“The miracle I witnessed one week in June while on a trip of closure to nearly seven-decade old war wounds, I now share with you. You may determine whether I am delusional, or if this has been a heaven blessed fantasy only a few are given to enjoy during their journeys upon the earth.

“Mathieu, from our story called it, The Book of Life. As you meet him in these pages you will find that while we each plot our own dramas, sometimes it is other lives, who in passing, engrave the poetic verse which connects one unexpected event to another.

“In the end, you may come to know the truth of a saying my mother Alice shared many times over the years, but only now makes sense. It is this: ‘Love, like the mighty oak from a tiny acorn grows…’

The author flipped open to chapter one and began to read…

One year ago

“The need to be with Dad was greater than any other time in the previous twelve months, now that this was an anniversary weekend of not only World War Two’s famous D-Day landings at Normandy but of a double tragedy for both my father and me. It was June two years ago when Yvonne left me, and just last June that my father and I lost Mom.

“I wanted to press ahead and arrive at Anderson Mills before nightfall. I hadn’t gotten much sleep yesterday, and certainly hoped I would make it home and find my room welcoming and warm; a sanctuary from the madness of the past year.

“It is dangerous enough when darkness falls on the Blue Ridge Mountains…” he read to the room filled with fellow Virginians.

 

Chapter 1

Darkness Falling on the Blue Ridge

Darkness had fallen on the one horse and buggy town where Howie had lived his entire life. Lonely, he gazed out from the parlor through the oversized picture-frame window as if he were expecting it to come alive, just as a television screen does with the flick of the remote.

He had done this more and more lately in hopes someone, anyone, would come driving up the long entrance to the farmhouse to spend some time with him.

Behind the yawning grayness of forming thunderheads, an azure canopy, darkened by the setting sun, now started to fill with one million lights. Each starlit orb fought to break free from the cloud-dressed curtain; here and there peeking out to remind Howie that God’s heavens, beyond wind and rain, never really slept. The downpour would start as soon as the light show fell behind the violent rolling wall of storm clouds growing over the Blue Ridge. This would make it a dangerous night for Steven, or any driver on these narrow mountain passes.

From his easy-chair by the fire, he had alternately read the material his son sent days before, and then setting it aside, he looked for car lights from Route 6 three miles down the hill.

The car has to turn up Bluebird Lane to Turkey Creek by the grist mill. Can’t be Steven, he decided each time a vehicle passed that landmark heading north.

He had waited for his son to arrive and spend the night with him before retiring. As a recent widower, a status his son and he both now had in common, the loneliness was getting old.

“You don’t understand being lonely, do ya boy? Always been someone there for you,” he said as he reached out a hand to stroke the head of his constant canine companion. “If it weren’t for you, being so alone would be unbearable,” he added.

It was a quiet night, except for the growing sound of cannons from above echoing across the valley. Unusual low temperatures for early June, accompanied by a light summer drizzle, caused him to put logs in the open hearth.

But then a frigid night, even in early summer, was never that unexpected at Anderson’s Mill. Here in the valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains the weather could change on a dime, and the normal quiet evening could also turn into Mother Nature’s symphony; like a kettle drum beating out booming rhythms backed by percussion downpours.

“Would rather have it like this now,” he determined as the thunder over Anderson’s Mill intensified. Howie Anderson welcomed distraction, some noise, anything to take his mind off the coming trip, which had filled him with considerable anxiety.

Whiskey, his German Sheppard companion of twelve years, snorted in occasional fits of restlessness on a nearby cushion Alice made for their now feeble hound when he was just a pup.

“He still thinks she’ll walk in and give him love. It must confuse the old boy,” the seventy-nine-year-old said aloud. Howie fidgeted with the pages of the map book Steven had sent. It was a book of city and country routes, towns, and an accompanying itinerary of their trip to Europe.

He had gone over the map and always came to the same two spots. One, an American Military Cemetery in Belgium outside Neuville-en-Condroz, twelve miles southwest of Liege, and the other was a small village near St. Lo, France where he met his first love… and also first experienced real heartbreak.

He sipped on his cup of chamomile, a tea Alice always had prepared just before retiring each evening. “It doesn’t taste as good as hers,” he said putting it aside on the lamp stand.

He returned his attention to the long gravel driveway now barely visible from where he sat. The thunderheads had finally closed together. Completely dark outside now, the driving rain intensified as the temperature dropped. The living room window, through which he gazed, seemed a hypnotizing movie screen. It filled with an occasional flash of light to offer another vision; a mental image from memory of a place near Liege, Belgium, and a night and day much colder than this one.

The Ardennes, Belgium December 20, 1944

“Quiet.” The sergeant held up his hand and went down on one knee. It was early morning, the fourth day of the German counter-offensive. The 9th Recon Troop had patrols of ill-equipped Americans inching through the dense forest growth for one hour and it was nearing sunrise.

Still dark, they had gone fifty yards from the tree line, where they had left the M-8 armored car and 50 caliber mounted Willys jeep. The patrol scouted into a clearing of over two hundred meters wide and one-half mile long. They knew the enemy was out there, and it was their thankless job to determine where exactly, the front line began. In this game of hide and seek, the consequences were always deadly.

Immediately the signal passed along the line and the men found themselves frozen stiff in place—a feature of combat easily achieved on this sub-zero temperature day. Suddenly the roar of heavy armor engines and clanking of tank treads echoed across the open field. The beasts appeared from the trees two hundred meters before them.

“Tanks! Down! Everybody down!”

“Geez, Sarge. We got to get back to the M-8,” Anderson called. Corporal Howard Anderson had the point, and along with a Thompson submachine gun slung over his shoulder, carried the platoon’s only bazooka.

Sergeant Fitch eased up alongside him. He pulled out his field glasses. The sunrise was upon them, but still the cloud cover and foggy mists dimmed a breaking daylight on the horizon. But there was no mistaking the monstrous iron form, the steel against steel sounds of tank treads coming at them through the early morning haze, and the roar of the diesel driven killing machines—until the unmistakable form of one of the German Panther V medium tanks appeared breaking through the tree line into the open field.

“We’re dead men if he gets off a shot. You know that don’t you, Howie?”

“You think they have us spotted?”

“Doesn’t matter. They’ve got to be as tired and cold as we are. We hold fire unless they fire first. Panthers have some weak spots but don’t go down with a bazooka shot unless we hit the underbelly or a solid side shot.”

“Well Sarge, as I see it we got one good shot with that little rise on the field, and then that ditch near the trees fifty yards back is all we can hope for. Maybe we should beat it back to the vehicles…”

“We’d be cut down and you know it,” he answered. “Okay… This… is… what we do,” the sergeant answered, teeth chattering. “You shoot. We scoot. Everyone goes, ‘cept you Anderson,” he said. Bone-numbing coldness running through each deliberate word he spoke, Sergeant Fitch tried to shake it off. “So damn cold,” he muttered as he took another look through his field glasses. “You got to make it into the soft underside or we are all dead men.”

Even if Howie got a direct hit, both men knew the score. The chances of a lone soldier winning a shoot-out with the finest all around tank the Germans produced was somewhere near zero.

“Sarge. We got artillery?” Howie nervously asked.

Howie jerked up from his easy chair as the thunder boomed and lightning clapped directly overhead now. Whiskey growled, equally roused from his slumber by the jarring noise.

This cinematic night vision played as real as that day in the Ardennes. His heart racing, he sat in stunned semi-awareness that it had been the same frequent nightmare he had endured since that December day in 1944. He had been the last man, caught out in the open and alone. It had been cold; so very cold. The thought of being the last man standing had always terrified him then, as it continued to do to him now.

He rubbed his hands against his head. Howie’s tired mind was calculating how he could dismiss the ancient memories, as if in massaging his head long or hard enough, he might erase the visions of killing that terrorized him in his sleeping hours.

Enough to give a grown man a heart attack, he grumbled, becoming aware of the hypnotic powers his memory possessed. You’d think I would have buried the war by now, he considered as he allowed himself to relax back into the cushioned comfort of the recliner. As he did, the telephone rang. He reached for the cordless phone sitting next to him on the lamp table and fumbled until he found the connect button.

“Dad? This is Steve,” he heard. “My flight was late. I’m not able to make it tonight. The weather has turned for the worse here in Atlanta. I’ll be up in the morning.”

“Oh… Okay, son,” Howie huffed.

“Dad! You okay?”

“Yes. Okay. Some lightening, thunder… I was dreaming, and I thought…” He couldn’t seem to connect the dots; what he was thinking about, with what he wanted to say. “I’m confused,” he finally offered.

“Dad, listen to me. Relax. Take something to help you sleep. Are you in bed?”

“No. I was… I was… waiting for you and fell asleep in the living room. I wanted to be awake when you arrived but couldn’t seem…”

“Dad, it’ll be okay. I’ll be there around noon tomorrow. And dad?”

“Yes, son?”

“Sleep peacefully,” Steven voiced from Atlanta.

“I love you son. You just be careful.”

“I love you too. Good night, Pop.”

“Good night, son.”

Howie took a moment to try to figure out how to disconnect but finally got up from his chair and simply put the cordless phone in the cradle.

Darn things! He thought. I think I’ll get the rotary phone out of the closet and ask Steven to attach it when he gets here. At least, that way I’ll know how to hang a phone up.

Howie clapped to get his dog’s attention. Whiskey raised an eye open then followed his master into the bedroom. Howie had readied himself for bed earlier, but now took his dentures out and placed them in the solution on the bathroom counter. Army doctors, he mumbled.

He’d had a complete set of natural teeth when he enlisted in the Army at age eighteen in January 1943. By the time he got home from the war in 1945 he’d had half of them replaced by eager Army dentists practicing on GIs in preparation for their post-war dental careers.

He stopped and looked at the poorly made-up queen size poster bed; the same bed they had slept together in since they married sixty years ago. “I never could straighten a sheet or turn the covers like her,” he grumbled.

Howie was uncertain about being alone and going to sleep on a night where he had already experienced one war nightmare. He lay himself down for the evening on his side of the bed— always on his side and never on Alice’s—and hoped the nightmares of being alone, with the enemy closing in, would cease.

He turned with child-like innocence to find her pillow still fluffed. He patted the empty space anyway and tried to content himself with the feeling that she was watching over him.

Next time we lay together it will be out there, he considered as he focused his tired eyes out to the front acreage now illuminated from sporadic lightning flashes.

Whiskey snorted and went easily to sleep in his spot on his bedroom cushion. “Must be nice being a dog,” Howie lamented as he wrestled with the desire to sleep, weighed against his anxiety.

He needed real rest, but not at the risk of another midnight torture session. He thought of abandoning sleep to a pot of coffee, but no, tomorrow was too important for the artificial alertness. His trip to Europe with Steven required an attentive rested mind, and heart. Steven would want him to be alert, would want to ask questions about his war years. Now the fear of dreaming himself back in time to that cold day in the Ardennes where he stood alone against advancing Germans had stirred him to insomnia.

I don’t have to dream it. I was with Fitch. Caught in the open, he mentally posed to himself as he lay back in the bed and stared at the ceiling. The thunder rolled and the lightning still crackled but had distanced itself from the township of Anderson’s Mill now.

Where was I? he pondered. “Fitch…” he said.

Moms and Oatmeal

Author – 2nd from right front row- and Pratt Family, 1957

 

From: The Woman Who Made Oatmeal Stick To My Ribs

Chapter 2

Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws.”

— Barbara Kingsolver, Novelist

 

Wholesome goodness is what Moms are all about. What Mom hasn’t gotten up before her children to make sure they were nourished and ready for the world?

All Moms know that the heart needs nourishment along with the body. Until it is filled, an empty stomach can hardly endure patiently Mom’s wise and loving counsel. So mothers feed first and teach second. And behind the rib cage, close to that stomach which each morning anticipates breaking the nightly fast, is the heart.

As a child I grew up under the wings of a Great Depression influenced mother. Her attitudes of care, protection, health, and wisdom were highly motivated by the times and the people she grew up with. There are many lessons of life and values I learned from her which I now recall as I watch her slip into old age; a new age of mothering as shocking a realization to me as it is to her.  But she is still here, and still giving guidance, and still reminding me to eat right, take care, say prayers.

It might not sound like it but Mom was one of those women who could better say what she meant by unconsciously using a metaphor. The frequent oatmeal speech was one such attempt by Mom to instill wholesome habits of nutrition thereby fortifying her children for the day ahead.

“Umm, umm, good, umm, umm good, that’s why…” a jingle from the 1950’s and 1960’s starts, as it still rings in my ears after all these years. In fact, if all that was left of America were its kitchen pantries and travelers from a distant planet arrived seeking out signs of life, they may draw a conclusion or two from what they find.

There in the pantry, as they spin the Lazy Susan they will watch several cans of Campbells, a brand of soup that could be called “America’s Official Soup” because it is so ubiquitous. The other item most likely to be discovered is Oatmeal. The most prolifically distributed brand the aliens will find is Quaker Oats.

If I were an alien from deep outer space, knowing that the entire country was devoid of living human beings, my first communication back to my superiors on the mother-ship might be something like this:

“It would seem that the American humans were known for their tastes with two strange foods. One of them contains a liquid mixed with a variety of edible plant and native animal parts. The other is a dry dusty meal that one can only assume would be hard to swallow. In fact, if consumed in large quantities it might be considered one of the killers of this civilization.”

“You are suggesting the American beings were fed this? A dusty meal, given them by their mothers?” the commander would reply.

“Yes, undoubtedly so. And in its present form it is certainly deadly. One would choke and thus die from asphyxiation unless mixed with the soupy liquid found in cans.”

“I see. Are there any clues as to who the maker or culprit causing this kind of death might be?”

“Yes, Commander. Because it is found everywhere, in almost every residence we have investigated, we believe we can identify at least one source for the flaky material.”

“Proceed with a description,” the alien on the ground hears.

“The containers for this meal substance most universally show the likeness of a rosy cheeked but round faced, white haired, and happy male wearing a black cloak and a wide brim head covering of some type. A hat, I believe the former inhabitants called it.”

“This hat would signify leadership of the American tribe?”

“Perhaps. No doubt they respected him greatly for his image is always found on this meal’s containers they call Quaker Oats.”

“We shall call it oat meal, for the record,” the commander responds back.

“Yes, oatmeal. Quite unlikely any human could eat this without some sort of modification such as adding the liquid first. In fact, supreme leader, there was a written message, a note found in one habitation next to the carton containing the dry food.”

“A communication?” the commander in the mother ship responds excitedly. “It might contain valuable, even secret information,” he suggests to the explorer on the ground. “Perhaps from the happy male himself – their leader,” he adds.

“Yes, Excellency. Or might I suggest this message comes from the feminine side of the race. Everywhere we find images of these American females preparing foodstuffs.”

“Then a message from a female American to the happy man you described?”

“Perhaps. Shall I send the message to you through our portable translation screen?”

“Please.”

“Scanning.” The alien on the ground passes the note through the hand-held device beaming it up to the command ship.

As the words pop up on the screen before the alien commander seated at the control console of the command ship he reads:

“Jimmy. Don’t forget to eat your oatmeal. It will stick to your ribs. Love, Mom.”

“So the leader’s name, the one on the box, was Jimmy. Stick to his ribs. Must be some sort of primordial code. Hum… Interesting.”

Sometimes taking an idea to the absurd serves in illustrating a point. But my point, more recently than childhood, was made another way.

My younger brother Rex, and the brother I grew up closest to — you know, the one you cheat at board games, take advantage of and ask to test the cold water of the swimming pool first -– was in a hospital a few years back for a major surgery that would take the surgeon through his rib cage.

I had promised that our family would pray for him and I just wanted to call him to let him know I was aware of his needs the hour before the surgery was to take place. I had merely expected to leave a message for him. He was in a well-known Los Angeles hospital. Somewhat sedated from the effects of prep drugs he picked up the phone in his private room. Our conversation went something like this:

“So Rex, you worried?”

“No…not…really…” he stammered.

“I’m praying for you.”

“Oh…well, uh, I’m…kinda…drug…ged…right now.”

“Well, I know everything will go well.”

“Oh…O…kay…” he slurred as the drugs took greater effect. “I’d…bet…ter…go…now,” he added, drifting away from the conversation.

“Can you do something for me?” I asked.

“What?” he demanded, but as kind as he could under the circumstances.

“Ask the doctors a question when you come out of recovery.”

“What?”

“Ask them if they found any oatmeal.”

“What?” he squeaked out. “I got…ta…go… Bye…”

“Bye. Love you brother.”

Click.

The surgery was a success and for some reason I thought Rex was capable of remembering our pre-operation conversation when I called him back the next day.

“So,” I said. “The prayers worked.”

“Yeah. Guess so,” he answered.

“You ask the doctors the question?”

“What question?”

“You know. They cut through your ribs to get to that gland and fixed it right?”

“Yeah…so?”

“So did they find what I asked you to have them look for?”

“Jim, what are you talking about?”

“Oatmeal. Did they find any on your ribs?”

Silence.

Rex was still drug afflicted so I let him off the hook.

“Talk to you later. We are remembering you in our prayers. Ask the Doctors for me will you?”

“Yeah…sure. Bye.”

Click.

See, Mom never lied, unlike Dad who lied to get into World Ward Two so he could save the planet. I’m not sure if she ever mentioned it to any of her other children, but Mom definitely had always told me when I lived at home: “Jimmy, eat your oatmeal, it’ll stick to your ribs…”

Today my kitchen cabinets are full of oatmeal. All flavors, I eat the stuff regularly. But I never quite understood what Mom meant by it “sticking to my ribs.” I have never asked either, just assumed if she said it stuck, then it must.

I recall as a boy feeling around my ribcage after eating my oatmeal and wondering if it took a trip other foods didn’t. Maybe oatmeal really did hang out down there.

“…and it’ll keep you warm,” she would add, an assurance that eating the entire bowl would be good for me.

See, I trust Mom. So I had never in my life, not even to this day in my fifth decade, asked why she thought oatmeal, above all other foods, would linger on the ribs instead of becoming digested.

The idea that I took from Mom, especially when I was thousands of miles away from home in South America, and offered almost daily a soupy gruel of watered down hot oats for breakfast (a drink rather than thick spoonfuls) was that preparation for the day with good sound nutrition will keep you safe. It was never quite like Mom’s but whenever I brought the warm cup of soupy oat drink to my lips Mom was there with me.

As I think on it now, the oatmeal comforted Mom too. She just needed to know that something she did would stick to us from home when the seven boys and two girls ventured out into the cold hard world.

Eating oatmeal might not really stick to ribs, but I never, ever, eat it without hearing Mom’s voice. It isn’t just oatmeal that stuck to this boy though. It was the time-tested values that gave real warmth and protection. Like a shield against the punches, life’s knock-out blows to the rib cage, Mom always meant more than just oatmeal would stick. Obeying Mom on eating the hot cereal was assuring myself that I could succeed.

Mom always got it right, because it was always the best she gave. There are no perfect Moms or Dads, nor children I suppose, but some come pretty close. After all is said and done just knowing your Mom cared made a boy feel safe.

And as for the oatmeal, every time I eat it I smile and think about it sticking to my ribs in a special way, a way that causes me to silently say:

     “Thanks Mom. Your warmth and caring has stuck where it matters most, and it still is protecting my heart!”

Virginia Pratt passed away in 2008. The revised version of the 2005 Regional Bestseller "MOM, The Woman Who Made Oatmeal Stick to My Ribs" is due out in the Fall 2017 on Kindle and iBooks.  For updates please visit my website: www.jamesmichaelpratt.com.