A Season of Death

‘The summer is over/ the fall is here/ the wind is growing cold/ the rustling leaves/ that fall from the trees/ are turning from green to gold…’ – Unknown

It’s been one hell of a year…

The news – ever since last January – has only come in two varieties: Bad, and Worse. All the fun summer events were canceled. (Even my Guns n’ Roses concert… dammit!)

But guess what? Now it’s AUTUMN!!!

Nothing makes me happy all over like fall. The air turns crisp, and the wind carries the sound of rustling leaves hither and yon as the smell of wood-smoke permeates one’s every breath. The sun sets sooner, bringing the soothing calm of nightfall and casting a shroud of peace over everything.

Spring is a ‘looking forward’, a bright anticipation of another summer. Autumn is a ‘looking back’, a cheerful remembrance of a summer well spent. Autumn is also a ‘winding down’, an en masse sabbatical after a long ‘busy season’. Fall gives one a chance to reflect upon one’s life and accomplishments, before hunkering down for winter.

There’s a sense of utter, eternal timelessness about fall. Summers, in my mind, are individual entities. Upon this summer I went camping in the mountains, and upon that one I saw Metallica play at an outdoor amphitheater. Each summer is unique, and remembered as such. Fall, on the other hand, is Everywhere and Everywhen, a timeless season that gives us a glimpse of itself each year. Autumns tend to run together, their experiences ever linked to form one endless memory.

Then there’s Halloween… Not so much the actual holiday, but the season.

Some of us are ‘Halloween People’ all the year ‘round. Thus it’s very gratifying when – for just a little while – the rest of the world joins us in our pleasant morbidity. Suddenly everyone’s wearing dark clothes, and reading stories and watching films that give us the pleasant willies. Halloween is, I think, a celebration of Death – and also Hope. We celebrate the death of nature, and wistfully anticipate next spring’s rebirth. We celebrate the death of people, and thus perversely re-discover the fierce joy of being gloriously alive.

Autumn is a strange time, a season and a frame of mind that is oddly off-kilter; it exists in between all the usual human pursuits and social norms. If you’re an ‘Autumn Person’, enjoy this time while you can… because it won’t last.

And that’s what makes it so very, very beautiful…

Nothing, after all, inspires appreciation like impermanence.

The Wonderful World of Alice Renaud

‘The melody soared, beautiful and strange in the ordinary human surroundings, as if shimmering waves were cascading over Ikea furniture and washing over the beige carpet. It was a lover’s song, a mating song…’Line from ‘Music for a Merman’, by Alice Renaud

I haven’t read an entire fantasy series in a while. (Granted, this one was short. But it still counts, right?)

Then I discovered Alice Renaud’s work, and I couldn’t help myself. Mermaids, warlocks, hags… Piers Anthony, eat your heart out! Alice’s narratives are so vivid that you can almost hear the ocean breeze, and feel the cold darkness of the sea as her characters plunge into it.

Alice’s trilogy – A Merman’s Choice, Music for a Merman, and Mermaids Marry in Green – is marketed as ‘fantasy romance’. And I suppose it is, in a sense, because all three tales do kind of revolve around budding relationships. (Mermaids Marry in Green does have a distinct suspense/thriller note to it, though.)

But I think of romance as a genre that targets a primarily female audience. Alice Renaud’s work, at least in my mind, has a much more unisex appeal. Heroine and Hero are equally well developed, and she is very ‘equal opportunity’ in her approach to character descriptions. For every sentence pointing out Yann’s rock-hard abs, there’s another praising Caltha’s luscious, voluptuous derriere.  And that’s as it should be, I think; these stories are far too good to be limited to a narrow audience!

Alice’s characters are often contradictory, but always in ways that feel very real. Caltha is a feisty one, for sure… but she melts when she finally finds someone to love, and her story feels very genuine. Rhys Regor seems like a right bastard, and perhaps he is… but he still turns to mush around his beloved grandchild.

Life is complex. People are complex. Alice Renaud skillfully uses the complexities of human interactions to breathe Believability into world that would otherwise be completely unbelievable; she brings the Implausible to very, very plausible life.

And that… Is the very definition of magic!

Cheers! – Virginia

(P.S. Alice’s next Mermaid story, The Holiday Mermaid, will appear in the upcoming anthology Desire Me Again… alongside a story by yours truly entitled Renewing Forever. I am deeply honored!)

ORDER ALICE’S BOOKS FROM AMAZON HERE: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=alice+renaud&ref=nb_sb_noss

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‘Patrick’, by Callie Carmen: A Review

This may sound funny coming from a romance author…

But contemporary romances are not usually my thing.

Now, mind you, that doesn’t mean I completely avoid them; after all, I did write one. (Should be out sometime this winter.)  It’s just that, given a choice, I prefer literature that has a more surreal (or even bizarre) feel to it. However, I have read a number of contemporary romances over the years that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and I always try to keep an open mind in regards to them.

At the end of the day, I know that I am just as likely to enjoy a contemporary romance as I am any other book. The trick, however, lies in getting me to pick it up in the first place! There’s gotta be some kind of hook, some interesting angle that makes the book grab my attention.

Callie Carmen (of Black Velvet Seductions Publishing) managed to pull it off…

Her novel Patrick features a serial killer. (To me, that’s like waving a bag of crack in front of a junkie. Seriously…) Now, I would’ve thought that this would make the book a ‘thriller’, but it doesn’t; Patrick is a rock-solid romance, with the emphasis ever remaining upon the characters and their interactions with one another.

The killer is pretty twisted, and even helps narrate the story (which is rather unnerving). Callie did a phenomenal job of balancing the dark side of her tale with the budding romance between the heroine Jaq and her love-interest, Patrick. It was obviously a fine line to walk, too. Had Callie ‘gone for broke’ on the morbid side, romance publishers would have told her to go kick rocks and horror publishers would have told her that the story was too sappy. (I’d have ROYALLY flubbed that one! My manuscript would’ve been as disturbing as all hell.) Patrick required a certain amount of finesse to write, and even more so to market; a ‘horror chick’ could never have pulled it off.

Callie did.

I loved the nuances of the characters. Frankly, I frowned upon Jaq’s dating four guys at once before she met Patrick. That just seemed kinda… well, mean. On the other hand, Jaq was also a fairly innocent woman, certainly not someone who could be labeled ‘cheap’ or ‘easy’. Her father, while described as an alcoholic and an embarrassment to his family, is also portrayed as a kind man who was a decent person when he was sober.

Then there’s Patrick. I strongly suspect that culture comes into play when evaluating Patrick’s character. I would imagine that many readers from ‘progressive’ regions (such as the American Northeast and West Coast) might describe Patrick as ‘possessive’, or even ‘controlling’. I, however, was born and raised in the American South, where the ‘alpha male’ is the norm and not the exception. (Even our ladies often refer to passive or overly-solicitous men as ‘weenies’.) So how you view Patrick’s character depends on where you come from, I think, and what social expectations you’ve been bred to hold.

Notice I didn’t really say anything about the serial killer, other than there is one. And I ain’t gonna, either…

Don’t wanna spoil it for you, ya know?

Patrick, by Callie Carmen. Go read it! You’ll be glad you did.

Cheers! – Virginia

(P.S – Callie’s next novel, Joseph, will be available soon. She will also be appearing in a cowboy-themed anthology later this winter, alongside yours truly. I’m deeply honored!)

TO ORDER CALLIE’S NOVEL FROM AMAZON, CLICK HERE: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=callie+carmen+risking+love&ref=nb_sb_noss

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‘The King’s Blade’, by L.J. Dare: A Review

‘Ice ran through (Megan’s) veins at the thought. She slipped her hand over the hilt of her hidden dirk and hardened her jaw. If circumstance came down to protecting Rosie, then she would do what she had to do to keep her safe…’ – Passage from L.J. Dare’s The King’s Blade

I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was reading a historical romance set in Scotland, entitled The King’s Blade.

“Oh, awesome!” she gushed. “You mean like Outlander?”

No, NOT like Outlander! Outlander is to historical romance what Twilight is to paranormal romance. (If you see that as a positive comparison, go sit in the corner. And don’t come out until you’ve had plenty of time to think about what you’ve done wrong. Seriously…)

The King’s Blade, however, is EXCELLENT!  I finished it over a single long, lazy day ‘cuz I couldn’t make myself put it down. Set in the fifteenth century, the characters completely bring the story to vivid life: Self-reliant Megan, jealous Bridget, sweet Rosie, and of the course John the Square-Jawed Hero. The story is extremely suspenseful, and actually opens with a scene of mass murder that sets a tense tone for the rest of the tale.

While The King’s Blade is dubbed ‘historical romance’, I’m not sure it quite fits the description. It’s not nearly as sappy (and certainly not as lewd) as most tales labeled as ‘romance’ these days. I kinda place it alongside such stories as The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Johnny Tremain, and The Red Badge of Courage. It’s just a gripping tale set within a designated time period and setting; I suspect that simple ‘historical fiction’ is a far more accurate description.

‘Romance’ or not, though…The King’s Blade is just plain GREAT reading!

To Order The King’s Blade from Amazon, click here: https://www.amazon.com/Kings-Blade-L-J-Dare-ebook/dp/B06XHSYH5B/ref=sr_1_4?dchild=1&keywords=L.J.+Dare&qid=1601674128&sr=8-4

To Order from Barnes and Noble, click here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-kings-blade-lj-dare/1125935807?ean=9781936556229

‘Dragon Lord’s Mate’, by Eileen Troemel (A Review)

The gods rage tonight. Evil rises from the shadows. The gods rage tonight. See the swords of the noble defend the innocent…’

I just finished one of the strangest – and most interesting – novels I’ve ever read: Dragon Lord’s Mate, by Eileen Troemel.

The story centers around two women, Pena and Indirez. Pena is kind, and a powerful healer; Indirez is cruel, and a supernaturally talented manipulator. As one’s power grows so does the other’s; as Pena ascends to ever-greater feats of medicine, Indirez descends into ever-lower depths of depravity. The story reminded me a bit of one of my favorite films, Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, in which twin sorcerers with opposing gifts vie for control of their world.

Where Dragon Lord’s Mate differs from Wizards is that it’s set almost entirely within the social realm of women. Whereas Bakshi’s Black Wolf sought power by brute force, Troemel’s Indirez seizes it through the use of seduction. Whereas Bakshi’s Avatar was known as a battlefield physician, Troemel’s Pena serves often as a midwife. While a casual participant in the story’s conflict might have viewed the war as a contest between the Raider Lord Davin and the Dragon Lord Arius, lurking behind the scenes – ever pulling the strings – stand Pena and Indirez, and Arius’ kingdom will stand or fall based on their actions.

Now, this story has a lot of sex. An awful lot of sex. If it’s ever made into a movie, Dragon Lord’s Mate should have a ‘70’s style, funky, slap-bass soundtrack. (You know, boom-chicka-wow-wow…) Also, much of the sexual content is violent and/or sadistic. But as one of my favorite journalists once pointed out, it’s not necessarily the content of a story that matters, so much as what aspersions the story casts upon the content. I liked that most of the sex scenes are within what I believe to be a healthy context: A permanent marital covenant, with sensuality being a by-product of the same. The violent/sadistic sex scenes are labeled as exactly what they are: Disgusting, and unconscionable. The sexual content is not so much an entity unto itself, as it is a natural extension of the characters and their relationships with one another – which is the distinction that separates fiction from pornography.

Now, this story does have a few quirks, as do all stories. Most notably, virtually all the babies born in the story are girls. Which means if there isn’t a sequel with lots of boys born, well… in a generation or so, the Dragon Clan will find itself being defended by an army of ladies and toothless old geezers. But that’s what sequels are for, right? Maybe there was some spell over the town the whole time, or the town’s magical patron dragon has a soft spot for little girls…

A writer could make something interesting out of that.

All in all, Dragon Lord’s Mate is a GREAT read! When I think a book is so-so, I eventually stop reading and skim to the end. I didn’t with Dragon Lord’s Mate, though. I read it carefully chapter-by-chapter, bookmarking my stopping point carefully whenever something rudely interrupted my reading time. (You know, the usual nuisances. Having to eat or sleep, having to get up for work… those kinds of annoyances.)

Something that really stood out to me, though, was this: The writing style was eerily similar to my own. Off-kilter and dream-like, kinda like a literary version of Pink Floyd: The Wall. I don’t often run into writing quite that surreal. (Although Alice Renaud’s novellas come pretty close. Highly recommended, by the way.)

It all made sense, though, when I read Eileen’s note at the end of the story: ‘During a period of extreme insomnia, Pena and Arius met, clashed, fell in love and faced all the adventures in this book. They helped me get through not being able to sleep. I hope you enjoy their adventures.’

Hell, that’s every story I’ve ever written! Insomnia leaves its indelible hand-print upon every story that it inspires. While that reality might be painful for the author (and it is), it’s a blessing to the reader. There are some thoughts that tease our minds only in dreams.  Because insomniacs are never really asleep and never really awake, they have access to facets of the human consciousness that escape most people. As Edgar Allan Poe so eloquently put it, ‘Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night’.

Dragon Lord’s Mate was a wonderful read; I should think that a bout of insomnia was a small price to pay in exchange for such inspiration. That having been said…

If you’re reading this, Eileen, I do hope you’re sleeping better now!

And thank you for the tale.

To Order Dragon Lord’s Mate from Amazon, click here: https://www.amazon.com/Dragon-Lords-Mate-Eileen-Troemel-ebook/dp/B00Q0PITP2/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=dragon+lord%27s+mate&qid=1601674416&sr=8-1

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Regarding the Universal Singularity of Viewpoint

‘Most’ of us peg the ‘others’ of us as ‘selfish’, or ‘self-centered’. And we say it (or maybe just think it) with the slightest hint of smugness, as though sticking that label on someone else somehow absolves us of eligibility.

But no matter how quickly we slap that label on someone else, we find it firmly pinned to our own chest the very moment we turn around. We become predators of a sort, forcing the world to make sense as defined by our selves, by our own standards. We simply cannot let be, moving along and admitting that something befuddles us but trusting that it probably makes sense to someone else. We are so unable to shift our minds from their own tunnels, that we inevitably sacrifice the lives that we could have to the lives that we envision – because anything that we can’t understand can’t possibly be good, can it? Life itself falls prey to our own inability to see with eyes unfettered by own views, beliefs, opinions and ideas. And we can’t help it, not one of us, and probably never will. To quote Selene from the iconic film Underworld: ‘You will kill, and you will feed. It’s unavoidable.’

What we destroy and consume is often something beautiful, because we just couldn’t make ourselves see the value in it.

Why is that? Why must the world shrink itself to fit our consciousness? I am always surprised when someone I once knew pops up again, doing well, or perhaps not so well. Maybe they’ve married, or maybe they’ve divorced. Maybe they’ve been in jail, or maybe they’ve just returned from Timbuktu. Maybe my relationship with them – whether it was platonic, or romantic – ended amicably, or maybe its end was bitter. In any case, I am always shocked by the changes they’ve made to their lives. How could their life have gone on when it was out of my sight? They were, to my mind, nothing more than a part of ‘my’ world. So why then these changes, these adjustments to the person I once knew? A part of me, I believe, honestly expects that people cease existing when they move out of my knowledge.

I can’t grasp that life – anyone’s life – could possibly go on independently of me. I may say that I can, but I can’t because I am always surprised when they do.

We gauge the importance of everything by our own experience. We can’t help that, either, I think. James Joyce is a classic author, oft-quoted, widely-read, and generally beloved by aficionados of fine literature. Yet no matter how hard I try, I can’t help but lump him in with inconsequential, dime-store hacks. Why?

Well, because I’ve never read him. That’s why! End of story.

Every once in a while, I’ll run across some band or another, playing out in a local bar. Sometimes I’m tempted to run screaming from said bar, clutching my ears in pain, finding their music unbearable. Yet those bands bring fans along, fans who like them and follow them and sing along to their songs. Are their fans tone-deaf? Can they not hear the sonic agony lingering in the very air?

Of course they can’t – because they are them, and not me. Yet somehow, I can’t wrap my little mind around this concept. They must simply be stupid. I like to hope that I’m charitable enough not to actually think that, but it’s floating in the back of my head.

On the flip side of the coin, my stepfather rolled up on me one day as I was writing, and listening to Avril Lavigne’s debut CD Let Go. ‘Wow’, he says. ‘She really can’t sing, can she?’

Phooey on him! How dare he?!

Now, my stepfather has been playing guitar for fifty years. He may have been a dud as a parent, but he does have a ‘perfect-pitch’ ear, and he always knows what he’s talking about when it comes to music. If he says ol’ Avril wasn’t such a great singer, then he’s probably right.

But I was indignant anyway, despite the fact that he was most certainly ‘right’, or at least more ‘right’ than I. Why was I annoyed?

Well, because I’m me, that’s why!

Years ago I was sitting in Emerson’s Tobacco Shop with a friend of mine, drinking the free coffee while he smoked a stogie with some old fart. (BTW, you meet the most interesting people in tobacco shops, and they always have a moment to chat.) He, my friend, and some other (slightly obnoxious) dude got into a debate about who made the best cigar. My friend was touting the merits of Puerto Rican black-leaf with a dark Connecticut wrapper. Old Fart was all about the Candela leaf, while Obnoxious was fervently preaching about Cuban seed product.

This went on for a while, as these sort of things often do.

And then Old Fart said something that I have never forgotten, and won’t as long as I live. He looked at everyone and smiled, and he said “You know what the best cigar in the whole world is, better than anything else you’ll ever smoke?”

And I asked, “What?” (I’m thinking he’s gonna point at the hundred-dollar stogie, the one they won’t even let me go into the humidor and sniff lest I get boogers upon its nicotine-laced goodness.)

He takes a big ol’ puff, and he says, “The best cigar… is your favorite. The one you like best. Ain’t nothin’ better than that.”

What a graceful, clever way of putting it. Such a candid acknowledgment that, for better or worse, our self-focused viewpoint is the only viewpoint that we’ll ever see. What a succinct way of saying that one should be always aware of one’s own never-ending failure to truly adopt another’s take on something, try as one might.

It is to the credit of both our specie and our culture that we have invented such social niceties as apologies, tactful conversation, and patience in order overcome this otherwise-crippling handicap.

I hate the rock band U2. Can’t stand the sound of ’em. And if you like ’em, well, you must be a dummy. After all, you don’t even exist if I’m not aware of your actions. That’s why I’ll be surprised when I see you again in two years, and you’ve started a business and your kid grew six inches.

And all of you – I said ALL OF YOU – are regarding me in a similar manner. But underneath our undying inability to truly see through the eyes of another, there lies an empathy that is our saving grace. Somehow we learn to keep silent, when we are tempted to be overtly disagreeable. It’s why we express remorse when we wound someone; granted, we’ll probably repeat the offense but not showing remorse would be even more unforgivable, wouldn’t it?

Despite the fact that all we have is our narrow, ultimately unchangeable thought processes, most of us learn to behave as though we can stand in the shoes of another. It is this trait that redeems the human being, an animal that would otherwise be damned. Yet we must be ever aware of our inescapable narrow-mindedness, lest it lead us to lay even bigger pieces of our lives upon the altar of Broken Dreams and Shattered Relationships… For then we would become the predator once more, and Selene’s grim prediction will come true (at least in the figurative sense).

You will kill. You will feed….

It’s unavoidable.

‘Autumn Allergies’, by Daniel Evans Jost

Pine needles swallowed

Rock slides for days

Pollen when inhaled like sucking in a blaze

Blurry Video

Tremors galore

Salt water spills like a baptized whore

Chilled winds by day

Humid hangovers by night

Visions so solid they pierce retinas like light

Esophagus collisions

 Skull pressure resumed

Best remedy is electrolytes consumed

Isolated by mandate

Yet introversion seduces

For autumn allergies produce the best creative juices

‘Happy Dance’ Time!!!

Didja ever have one of those days that just made you wanna jump up and do your ‘happy dance’?

Today… is THAT day! My return to the publishing world is now available for pre-order at this link: https://amzn.to/34NstC7 (And it ain’t just me, mind you. Check out the lengthy list of talented authors also featured on the cover!)

It’s been fourteen years. Fourteen long years of writing for no other reason than compulsion. Amusing myself and my loyal (and much appreciated) handful of online readers, sure, but utterly lacking the drive to attack the mainstream scene head-on.

The break wasn’t all bad, of course. I got married, and settled into a rewarding career… but something was missing. It took me years to come to this realization: For a writer without a tangible market, something will ALWAYS be missing!

So I started writing a little less so I could begin cracking the pavement looking for something I didn’t have, an author’s best friend: A publisher.

It’s too bad my rejection slips always came by email, because if they arrived in hard copy… Well, let’s just say I’d never have to worry about another toilet-paper shortage. But God rewards perseverance, and one day He finally blessed me with that magical message: ‘I’d be happy to offer you a contract!’

‘Course, God prefers to work through people. (I think He just likes involving us in what He’s doing.) That glorious email came from Richard Savage, the publisher of Black Velvet Seductions.

That was ANOTHER ‘happy dance’ day!

‘Desire Me Again’ will ship on October 1st, and my solo novel ‘When the White Knight Falls’ will likely arrive sometime this winter. (I’ll keep you posted on that one.)

So enjoy! God bless you all, and as always…

THANK y’all for reading! (Especially those of you who continued to read my obscure scribblings during those ‘missing years’; you have no idea how much all of you mean to me.)

Cheers! – Virginia

 

 

 

‘Garden of Eyes’, by Daniel Evans Jost

For the tender souls to whom this applies

Show courage in the leer of the garden of eyes

Their sight has been trained for millennia now

To see contempt for those who won’t bow

Their irises lost to eons of learning

From an entity who preys on the innocent and yearning

Their knowledge contains an unspeakable terror

That ingrains the notion that a husk is fairer

Those who dare tread through this swamp full of sludge

Are pierced by views that insidiously judge

And when the weak dry out from the heat of their gaze

They crumble into mulch providing food for the maze

There are those who have weathered their venomous stare

Whose lights are worn proudly devoid of care

To those lost in the vines heavily blinded

You must flip the switch to leave them all blinded

‘Eating Bugs and Drinking Lava,’ by Gerry Souter

This article was graciously loaned to virginiawallace.com by my friend and fellow author Gerry Souter. Gerry is a renowned photojournalist, with over fifty non-fiction books under his belt. He is also an author of fiction, having penned the pulse-pounding novel ‘A Thread of Sand’.  If you would like to follow Gerry’s work (or order his books), click on the links at the end of this post. As always, THANK y’all for reading!!!

Freelance photojournalism opens doors to many opportunities. I’d been at it for five years after spending two years documenting President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” attempt at relieving poverty called the “Chicago Committee on Urban Opportunity.” My photo essays for that organization won me assignments for the Chicago Sun Time’s Midwest Magazine—stories that I photographed and wrote. My relationship with the magazine’s editor, Dick Takeuchi was cemented by his generous reveal of my blue-pencil-edited copy before it went to press—a crash course in feature writing. That friendship also bought me a trip to Africa.

SAS Airlines offered a free press junket to the Times for their inaugural Chicago-Copenhagen-Madrid-Tunis-Monrovia flight. Journalistic ethics forbade the Sun Times staff from accepting, but I, as a camera-typewriter-for-hire could accept the deal. Not having a passport was remedied by a frantic rush propelled by the Times though passport photos—my sweaty dash left my photo image looking like a captured Cuban gun runner—speedy form filling and a rush to the airport to have my camera equipment list sealed so what I took out of the U.S.A. I also brought back. Then came the injections for everything from dengue fever and malaria to a general-purpose cocktail, which would require booster shots in Copenhagen. In a week, I dropped into a comfy SAS business-class transcontinental airliner seat encapsulated in Swedish hospitality.

During those preceding days while I was converted from corn-fed local to international jet-setter, I had managed to piggy-back some paying assignments. For my client, Motorola, I would document their Liberian two-way-radio service center. For the Sun Times, my job was the story of a Chicago ex-patriot who owned a Copenhagen coffee shop. So far, the jet-setter life for this greenhorn was just swell.

I had also grabbed a handful of Dutch cigars from the airport hospitality suite. Later when I could light up in the aircraft’s smoking section, I reached into my inside jacket packet and withdrew a handful of… loose tobacco. Dutch cigars are incredibly dry. I smelled like a humidor for the rest of the flight.

Madrid slid past in a blur of airport gates. Two hours were spent in Tunis, sitting cross-legged outside an airport building in the blazing sun, noshing on mystery meat squashed between halves of challah bread. My lunch partners were three camels. One of them spit at me. Inshalla –Arabic for “In God’s hands”

Our plane finally touched down at Liberia’s Roberts Field late at night. Descending the steps to the tarmac was like being wrapped in a hot, wet towel. By the time I passed down a familial row of passport and entry form stampers, I was drenched in sweat and now smelled like I had slept with one those camels. The mayor of Monrovia—Liberia’s capitol city—was waiting for me. This large lady beneath a wide-brimmed sun hat barged me past the baggage examiners who were gleefully vandalizing the possessions of my equally tragic fellow travelers. I spent the next half-hour wedged into the back seat of a smallish French Peugeot taxi as my host extolled the virtues of her city. As I didn’t have the expense account for the only America-style hotel, I was dropped off at a “First Class Liberian Hotel.”

The rest of my first night in Monrovia was spent in a dark saloon knocking back bottles of Monrovia Club beer while two patrons—a Pakistani and a Jew—tried to beat the crap out of each other. I finished my third beer, paid the tab and left as two Monrovian policemen entered, holding what looked like cattle prods. After a stroll down a street where I was most likely the only white face for miles and the few acid-blue fluorescent lights made for deep, dark shadows, I cut short my curiosity and returned to my room. A half-hour was spent crushing cockroaches in the shower with my dog-eared Playboy Magazine. Another twenty minutes passed waiting for the shower water to turn from rusty brown to relatively clear. By then, I could have slept on a plank of nails so the mattress was no surprise.

Morning found me in telephone booth calling up my ace in the Monrovian hole. While studying at the School of the Chicago Art Institute, I made the acquaintance of Vanja Richards, a sculptor in my class. He had gone back to his native Monrovia and was now regarded as the National Sculptor of Liberia. This exalted title was aided by his wife being connected to the government of the newly elected president, William Tolbert. I’d sprung for a long-distance call to Vanja before I left Chicago, so he was ready for me.

Vanja lived in a charming bungalow in the outskirts of Monrovia and had delegated a leather couch on his screened porch as my crash pad. I mean pad in every sense of the word. His and his wife’s hospitality made me feel at home and meals of mashed cassava root (“fu-fu”) and rice mixed with meat or fish and chopped peppers washed down with cool-ish Club beer were excellent if a tiny bit churlish with my internal organs.

Over dinner, he asked me if I could shoot some photos of an artist friend’s fashion designs so she could build a portfolio. I thought they might make another story for the Sun Times and agreed. Vanja had found some beautiful locations including inside the Executive Mansion (equivalent to our White House).

Roberta Gray was beautiful and modeled her own striking designs: dashikis and elaborately embroidered gowns and pants-suits. The shoot and interview went well and Vanja finished the day with a visit to his open-air studio and atelier where he carved and assembled his sculpture. Many of the pieces were displayed in the Executive Mansion.

A family get-together was scheduled for the Easter week-end deep in the heavily forested wetlands far from the city. I was invited and accepted. After a long drive and at the end of a dirt road, the forest opened out into a cleared area down to a wide river bank and dotted with white, cement block houses and dominated by a white Methodist church. Everyone met our car, all dressed in western go-to-meeting suits and dresses. They made a fuss and hustled us off to the church for Easter services. The day was hot, the church was sweltering as the hymns rose to the rafters in English and Mandé.

After an hour of singing, chanting, praying and general Christian merriment, everyone hustled out and headed for one house where a dinner had been laid on. For another hour, we ate copious quantities of fu-fu, pork, duck, vegetables, hot peppers and rice all washed down with home-made ginger beer. By the end of the meal, I was almost faint from sweating away my salt and the Jesus-fueled energy around that table.

At the end of dinner, everyone made for the exits as if someone had hollered “Fire!”

In a half-hour, the suits, dresses and big sun hats had been shed for dashikis and shorts. The kids stripped to bathing suits and stampeded toward the river bank. I collapsed into one of a circle of lawn chairs around a growing bonfire as the sun disappeared into the tangle of trees. Vanja sat beside me stripped to the waist in khaki shorts.

His handsome dark face set off with a short beard grinned and he asked, “So, how do you like my Africa?”

I was afraid to speak for fear of burping and farting at the same time and setting fire to my clothes. I nodded with a contented smile. He nudged my elbow holding a glass of clear liquid.

“We call it ‘roots.’ It’s made from vodka with roots and herbs added to the bottle and buried in the ground for at least a month.”

I took the glass and he clinked his glass with mine and downed the shot in a gulp. I followed suit. All worries about inflammable farts disappeared, replaced by fear of ignition and blast-off as that lava made its way toward my abused organs. The heat that traveled up my white neck and suffused my white face must have alarmed him. A boy was passing around a basket and Vanja grabbed a handful of brown Cheetos and pushed a few into my unresisting cupped palms. They tasted salty and crunchy like Wheat Thins and I could almost feel the roiled turbidity of my digestive system… calming.

“Want to see where we get them?” he asked, tugging at my sleeve.

Down by the river, the boys were plucking cattails from the tall grass and hurling them like spears as the girls dodged and giggled. The bonfire crackled and the circle of brown faces basked in its glow, radiating community contentment. I followed Vanja to the deeply shadowed hedges behind the circle of gossip, chuckles and weighty conversations. He used a stick to dig into the black earth beneath a hedge. Three-inch long white grubs tumbled out. Another boy standing behind us reached down and scooped up the wiggling pupae into a basket. Satisfied, he ran over to the fire and dumped his bugs into the flames. Each one puffed up. He dug them out of the heat and before they could burn plucked them into his basket.

“Com’on,” Vanja said, “let’s get ‘em while they’re hot!”

As I said at the beginning of this story, “Freelance photojournalism opens doors to many opportunities.” That night, in a West African forest, I had the opportunity to drink lava and eat bugs at the side of an old school friend and be a part of a community who had taken me in. Sip. Crunch.

Epilogue…

On April 13, 1980, President William Richard Tolbert Jr. was attacked and captured by a military coup d’état led by Sargent Samuel Doe. Tolbert was tortured and murdered. Following the coup, Doe ordered Tolbert’s political allies and Liberians sympathetic to his regime arrested, stripped nude and marched through the city. My friend, Vanja Richards was among those seized. He was tied to one of many wooden posts driven into the beach sand just behind the Executive Mansion and executed by rifle fire from drunken soldiers in front of a jeering, cheering crowd for “political reasons.” I don’t know what became of his sculpture.

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