No Glory in War

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On Memorial Day night, I sat down to watch the 1949 movie, “12 O’clock High,” on the Turner Classic Movies channel. I had seen it before and liked it. A reasonably authentic movie about World War II featuring my favorite actor, Gregory Peck, and lots of B-17s in flight. I like the old movies, filmed with real airplanes instead of today’s often-cartoonish images generated by artists and computers. In 1949 they still had plenty of World War II planes like the B-17 to work with.

Not all that far into the film, I had to turn it off. Truth is, I couldn’t take it. See, while they still had lots of planes to work with, in an admirable decision to make the movie realistic they worked in actual aerial combat scenes of American bombers getting shot down during daytime raids over Germany. I knew this, of course, and should have been expecting it. But it struck me suddenly that those were real bombers filled with real crews of American airmen. Most of them would die.  

I know the history of bomber crews in World War II. This was terribly hazardous duty. Every time they flew a mission they knew the odds were good that it would be their last.

I know this because I read a lot of military history. I also write some. My book, Patton’s Oracle: Gen. Oscar Koch, as I Knew Him, is a biographical memoir about one of the most important figures of World War II. Oscar Koch truly was an unsung hero. He deserves great acclaim. Oscar Koch had been in war, and he knew there is no glory in it. My book does not glorify war. Nothing I write ever will. In fact, in my book I quote from Dalton Trumbo’s timeless anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, to effectively represent that view. This, from Patton’s Oracle:

Trumbo writes about the suffering of a wounded soldier in World War I, describing his injury as a hole that “began at the base of his throat just below where his jaw should be” and extended upward in a widening circle. “He could feel his skin creeping around the rim of the circle. The hole was getting bigger and bigger. It widened out almost to the base of his ears if he had any and then narrowed again. It ended somewhere above what used to be his nose.”

And I conclude this chapter (my words now): Battles still lead to the deaths of those who do battle as well as innocents, and battles still are indiscriminate. Oscar Koch once told me, “War is ugly. The only good war is the one you don’t fight.” Oscar Koch knew war.  

 

 

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MY BABY ANGEL AND THE HUNGRY CHILDREN

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It is tragic to me that 1.8 million people in my state (one of the more wealthy in the nation) don’t know where their next meal is coming from. It is unacceptable that the number of needy served in its 14-county area by a dedicated local food bank has grown by about 2,500 a month this year over last. Many of those served are employed full time, but don’t make enough to keep up with the rising cost of food. It breaks my heart that one in three of those hungry people are children. But these are the hard facts reported in my local newspaper by reporter Debra Pressey. 

Perhaps it’s only a token, and I wish I could help more, but here’s my offer: Every cent of royalties I receive on sales of my novel, “The Baby River Angel,” from now to the end of June will go to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. This is one of the most responsible service agencies I know of, run by dedicated people whose sole purpose is to help the needy. They manage to get far more out of a single food dollar than you or I ever could.

“Baby Angel” is a positive story about well-intentioned people who come together to do a good thing. So far as I know, there’s nothing in it that has been found offensive to any reader. Here’s a link: http://tinyurl.com/n4ked6z 

I hope you will check it out, but I do NOT want you to buy a book that you don’t find of interest. Just share this bit with all your FB friends. Together, maybe we can be of a little help. 

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The Baby River Angel
 
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Baby in a basket

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The decision has been made. (Naw, that’s a passive sentence. A no, no. Let’s try again.) I have made my decision! (Yes, much better.) For the two or three of you who have been eagerly awaiting the choice, the suspense is over. (No, that’s self-deprecating. Let’s make it more positive. Exaggerate, if necessary.) For all those followers eagerly awaiting an answer, the suspense is over! (Yes!)

It took me a bit longer than expected to get back to this. (No, don’t stretch it out. Get to the point.) And the answer is: The Baby River Angel. (OK, maybe that’s too direct. Will readers know what the question is? Not likely, unless they’re reminded. Better remind them.)

As you will recall, the discussion has been about my four novels, Circles in the Water, The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris, The Baby River Angel, and Blood on the Roses, and which of them I would prefer to be the first chosen to be made into a movie. (Well, that’s clear enough. Some won’t recall, but they have just been brought up to speed. Now elaborate.)

My tenth book, Patton’s Oracle, and the others not mentioned here are non-fiction and therefore not a part of this dialog. (What? Who cares? Stick to the subject!)

Why The Baby River Angel? Probably because it has received such happy feedback from readers. The first of my friends who read it said something like, “I read it straight through and felt so good when I finished I took it straight to a friend in the hospital who I knew could use some cheering up!” Well, a report like that makes me feel good, too.

See, here’s the thing. The Baby River Angel probably is not the best of my four novels, and I don’t think it is the most important. Both of those accolades most likely would go to Blood on the Roses. The latter is a work of historical fiction that deals with racial and other prejudices, set in east Tennessee in 1955. An important topic, very timely just now.

Closest to my own heart would be my second novel, The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris. Why? Because it is about the loss of a long-time mate—something most of us probably are not prepared for, but eventually will face. It also features as hero a World War II veteran who still bears the emotional scars of combat, another topic important to me.

Then of course there’s Circles in the Water. I think it’s a wonderful novel and it will always be special because it was the first full-length work of fiction I had published. After decades of writing non-fiction, that was something very nice.

What it comes down to in the end is, I like to make people happy. I believe that all four of these books are good literature. But I enjoy the thought of a crowd leaving a theatre after watching The Baby River Angel, big smiles on their faces, feeling good about themselves and the world around them.

Oh, and there’s one other reason. Among the four novels, The Baby River Angel is the favorite of my most important fan: my wife, Mary, my soulmate of more than five decades and the one whose opinion counts beyond all others. She and I seldom disagree on anything.      

Sound and fury of “Blood on the Roses”

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“Blood on the Roses” was my fourth novel, and following my scheme of considering each one separately as a candidate for moviedom it is last in the queue. But here’s the more immediate question: Is it some sort of omen that an Audible Audio edition has just been released by my publisher, Vanilla Heart?

Gary Gerard’s narration is well nuanced and captures the spirit of the story and the characters very well. As I listen, I can virtually see in my mind’s eye the parallel action on a movie screen. But I’m determined not to be biased by this.

 “Blood on the Roses” is plot-driven, and an early reader labeled it the perfect book for a made-for-TV movie. Heck, why limit it to TV? I think it would play great in all the new digital-projection theatres. You know, big screen, stunning visuals and all that.

Like books, movies can be either plot-driven or character-driven or, as often happens, both. The “Blood” story line—missing person, crafty and sensitive woman reporter, FBI agents, mystery that endures to the end, and deeper issues like racism and other prejudices—certainly would sustain a plot-driven production. Throw in the beautiful east Tennessee scenery and you’ve got a strong candidate.

Don’t rule out the strength of the characters, though. Both the “good guys” and the “villains” are worthy of fine actors. Rachel Feigen, the young Jewish reporter; her editor, Bill Skyles; Agents Anton Schuler and Charlie Monroe, each has a strong role. But wouldn’t a good male actor just as soon play Bishop Collins, Barney Vidone or Harlan MacElroy, the three local racists who imperil Feigen as she struggles to find some thread of evidence about what happened to Guy Saillot, the missing young man from Baltimore?

And then there are the two young black men taken prisoner and held in Barney’s Tennessee Bend Motel, Sgt. Willie Jamison, U.S. Army, and Quint Loman, the Urban League lawyer from Philadelphia. In the end, these two are the real heroes—except perhaps for George, the deaf-mute Tennessee Bend caretaker who knows more than anyone else realizes. But I don’t want to give away too much.

I’ve been a journalist most of my adult life and I always wanted to write a novel with a reporter as hero. OK, not a new idea, but heroic reporters make me proud.

Then, during my last semester of teaching at the University of Illinois, I discovered that today’s younger generation knows little about the sordid history of race relations in the United States. Any mention of my own experiences as a young white soldier sent to the fully segregated South in the mid-50s was met with great interest and lots of good questions.

These 20-year-old students, among the best and brightest at a world-class university, were fascinated by the history they had never been taught. They were grateful for the time spent on this in a writing class and thanked me for bringing it into our discussions. I vowed then to do what little I could to help inform those who don’t know what it was like in the South—which I love, and where I feel much at home—for earlier generations.

Come to think of it, having “Blood on the Roses” made into a movie might help accomplish this, as well. Many more people would see the movie than ever will read the book. Just sayin’.   

Come back next week. I’ll give you my decision on which of the four novels I’d rather see made into a movie first. Meanwhile, feel free to speculate.                

 

 

Who would play Birdie Wilson?

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If I were a screenplay writer, I would love to get my hands on The Baby River Angel. If I were a casting director, I would love to seek the perfect actor to play the role of Birdie Wilson—to say nothing of heroic Molly Hearst; the rock-solid deputy, Lynn Swafford; Johnny White, the silky-smooth mayor of Cambria; Granny Vogler, the town sorehead, and Ida Quattlebaum, the reclusive heir to the Quattlebaum Steamboat Company fortune.

And there are others: Father Jacob and Pastor Mike, Sam Gowdy, Sheriff Clarence Higgins, Pudge Gaither, all the memorable Cambria townspeople who take up Baby Angel’s cause. Make no mistake, The Baby River Angel would be pure delight to cast. (OK, I’m a bit prejudiced. They’re my characters and I love them all!)

But let me explain. In case you’re not up to speed on it all, this is the third installment of my discussion on which of my novels would make the best movie. I’ve already dealt with Circles in the Water and The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris.

The story line of The Baby River Angel is deceptively simple. When Birdie Wilson and his two boys find a baby floating in a basket on the Ohio River, they can’t begin to imagine the impact their discovery is to have on the little town of Cambria.

Accepting Birdie’s dictum that the child welfare people will name her “Baby Jane Doe” and lose her in their impersonal system, the townspeople, led by Mayor White, set out to keep the baby a secret from authorities and take care of her themselves until they find out who she is
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Surprising things follow. Cambrians who’ve never agreed on anything come together. Father Jacob and Pastor Mike, always competitive, work in harmony. Granny Vogler and Ida Quattlebaum find common interests. Molly Hearst, who cares for and comes to love Baby Angel like her own, finds love with Lynn Swafford, a deputy sheriff searching for the baby after one of Birdie’s boys inadvertently reveals her existence. Deputy Swafford quickly comes to sympathize with the Cambrians, but he still has to answer to Sheriff Higgins, a lawman who sees his duty and never gives up. But does Sheriff Higgins, even, have a soft heart?

Overriding all the drama is a persistent question: Where did the baby come from?

There’s only one clue. “Magnolia,” barely visible, is stamped on the side of the basket in which Baby Angel was floating when Birdie found her. If only someone could figure out what it means!

But I’ve probably said enough. The Baby River Angel is a feel-good story that leaves readers smiling and obviously should have the same effect on movie-goers. If it were made into a movie, that is.

Would it be my choice? Not sure yet. Next time I’ll take up the cause of my fourth novel, Blood on the Roses. Talk about a different tone!

Please feel welcome to come back and see.

“Lizzie” on the big screen?

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My second novel, The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris, was the one I really wanted to write. I wanted to write a story about a World War II veteran and the lasting emotional pain of having lost friends in combat and I wanted to write a story about the loss of a lifetime mate. Lizzie combines both stories in a single book.

How would the story play out on the big screen? I would hope that a skilled screenplay writer could bring alive Bradley Morris’s torment on both fronts.

After years of nightmares and mental stress left by the war, and at the urging of his beloved wife Lizzie, Bradley resolves to return to Sicily and visit the battlefield where his physical and mental scars were inflicted. Facing his painful past head-on brings some relief, and Bradley looks forward to his later years with optimism. But then a sudden illness leaves Lizzie comatose and dying and Bradley’s grief knows no bounds.

We come to see the true Lizzie Morris through Bradley’s beautiful memories.

There are other characters, of course, family and friends. So much life has been lived at the “Big House” in Memphis, the home they loved. Lizzie’s determination that Bradley resolve his differences with their son left from long-past disagreements over the war in Vietnam, the love that flows from her younger sister, her hope that Bradley will one day regain the faith in God he lost in battle—all these must come into play.

The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris is not a simple story. It is a story that deals forthrightly with the human condition. It is the story I always wanted to write.

Is it the most likely candidate, among my four novels, to become a movie?  Would its mature characters be of as much interest to moviegoers as the young adults in Circles in the Water? Clearly it would not have the feel-good effect readers report after finishing The Baby River Angel nor the drama and suspense of Blood on the Roses.

So, would it be my first choice to be made into a movie? It could be. But I’ve not decided for sure yet. Stay tuned.    

 

“Circles in the Water,” the movie?

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So . . . Which of my novels would make the best movie? Naturally, I like them all and truly believe each of them would make a great film. I’ll tell you why.

When you go to a theater to see the movie version of a good work of fiction, you hope it will be true to the book. This means portraying the characters as you recall them and sticking to the plot. Then there’s the setting. If there are supposed to be mountains, you want to see mountains. And all these fleshed out with action.

A movie version of Circles in the Water with a carefully selected cast would have audiences in love with Colletta from the opening scene—a tough little tomboy ready to fight her way into the boys’ gang if that’s what it took. Donnie Shand would exhibit unexpected maturity, Jimmie would be indecisive and ready to follow Donnie’s lead, and Ray-Gene would be gentle and caring and always ready to forgive.

The movie makers might need to be a bit restrained in making the scene in which we first meet Jaybo—it you’ve read the book you’ll understand why—and in portraying the fatal domestic quarrel between Donnie Shand’s parents. But both are elements that buttress the plot and need to be included.

In their adult world, Jimmie’s story must have strong support from the military figures who inhabit his Army life: the all-Airborne Colonel Hewlett, the menacing Captain Oates, and Wilson, the rehab attendant who helps make Jimmie whole again after his near-fatal bad jump and who becomes his rock-solid support as Colletta re-emerges into his life with the child Jimmie hasn’t seen before. 

Surely a good director would love to work with the strong character that is Jimmie’s mother and Colletta’s weak but consistent father, alcoholic and racist. Then there are the two FBI agents and the crusty and crafty Judge Pillory. And although he’s much less important, Mack Brown, the used-car dealer who gives Jimmie his first job, could be a notable personality on the screen if well-played. Mack was my first un-planned character. I had the freedom to make of him anything I chose.

There is a lot of action in Circles. The perilous smuggling activity Jimmie is drawn into by Captain Oates, the flashback period of Colletta’s teenaged addiction and the dangerous lengths to which the boys are willing to go to help support it, Ray-Gene’s shocking fate and Donnie Shand’s downfall, these all are the stuff of good movies.

But Circles in the Water is a love story. Movie-goers might shed a few tears over the trials and tribulations faced by Jimmie and Colletta, who clearly belong together. And in the end . . . but I shouldn’t give that away here, for those who haven’t read the book.

Combine all this with the small-town South Carolina setting, including the dazzling Grand Strand beaches where the young foursome of Jimmie, Colletta, Ray-Gene, and Donnie Shand do things that will come back to haunt them in later life, and you have—well, it seems to me, a very good movie.

So is Circles in the Water, my first novel, my choice to be made into a movie? It would be a good one. But I’ve got a few more books to consider. I’ll post on the subject again next week, taking a look at my second novel, The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris.

Please join me.