Saturday, December 27, 2014

Mistaken Identity, a #MG Short Story

Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

“Dad, can I go with Tommy and his dad to Lake O.?”

If you lived in the Williams’s town, you knew what the “O.” stood for. If you were a visitor, you would try to pronounce the actual name…usually wrongly. Lake Osiris was a twenty-acre lake a couple of miles from “downtown.”

“It’s too cold for swimming,” Mr. Williams replied.

“We’re going to look for tadpoles.”

“Well, fine. It’s spring. I don’t know if tadpoles have hatched from the frogs’ eggs yet, but you’ll find out. Come back before dinner.”


No definite tadpoles were found, but tiny swimmers from a small pond near Lake O. were scooped up into a couple of jars. Were they very young tadpoles? Tommy’s father, an accountant, had no idea. His idea of camping out was eating his Big Mac at a picnic bench outside of the fast-food establishment instead of in his car.

Returning home, the explorers shared their catch, each boy getting one jar of what‘s-its.

Mrs. Williams looked at Tim’s and said, “I’ve never seen tadpoles that small before.”

Mr. Williams said, ”Are you sure these are tadpoles?”

Eldest brother Rick was more sure, “Those aren’t tadpoles.”

Elder sister Tess said, “Yucky!”

The next day, Rick borrowed the jar of what’s-its and showed them to his biology teacher, Dr. Ross.

“Rick, you're correct: these aren’t tadpoles,” Dr. Ross said right away, “they are mosquito larvae. They will become adult mosquitoes this summer. Where did you get them?”

“My brother, Tim, and his friend found them in a pond by Lake O.”

“I’ll alert the New York State Department of Environmental Affairs and send them a sample. These needed to be tested. They could be carriers of the West Nile Virus.”

“Really, Dr. Ross?”

“Probably they are not, but that virus can make people very sick, and insect bites often do cause illnesses.”

Although testing showed that these larvae did not carry the West Nile Virus, the town decided to rid the pond of the mosquitoes with an insecticide. They also drained and dried up several small nearby ponds.

The local weekly newspaper took a picture of Tim and Tom back out at the pond. It printed a news article praising the two Scouts for their discovery, which might have have prevented serious illnesses.

Mrs. Williams told Tim that this was a good example of “serendipity.”

“What’s that?” Tim asked.

“When you go looking for one thing you want, like tadpoles, and find something even more important,” she explained.

Rick added, “My biology teacher was impressed with what you did. You boys were alert. He quoted to me the great French biologist, Louis Pasteur, who said that ‘chance only favors the prepared mind,’ that discoveries that seem lucky would not come if those who were there were not looking carefully for something.”

“Our Scout motto is ‘be prepared,’” said Tim.

“And you were, son,” said his mom, giving him a hug, a BIG hug.

One of our 50 mildly instructive short stories for young readers.

You are invited to visit my writing, editing, coaching site,

Friday, December 26, 2014

"The Pinball Machine," Ch. 11, Axtell Memoir, BUT...AT WHAT COST

With each chapter I write, I ask myself, “Who cares?” It all seems so ordinary and unimportant, but ultimately, I think that’s the point I’m trying to make. Most lives are ordinary. Most people don’t go to the moon or make the history books. Most people’s lives are filled with mundane events that will dictate an automatic, but temporary emotion, and hopefully add a bit of knowledge to incorporate into our world views.

I expect the pinball machine analogy has been made many times before, but it’s helpful in explaining why people act the way they do. As stated in my “Home Again” chapter, trying to explain the differences between people has been my life-long avocation, and the nature/nurture debates of the seventies and the birth of neuropsychology as an accepted discipline brought a whole lot more evidence for my consideration.

Ironically, the results of my investigation did not end up explaining differences as much as showing me how utterly pointless it is to try!

Drum roll please. Life is like a pinball machine. Let us suppose that little silver ball is a human brain. Researchers in neuroscience and most psychiatric and socio-psychological disciplines have finally agreed our genes – the way our brains are wired – prescribe roughly fifty percent of how each of us turns out.

So, when that blob of neurons leaves the womb it is hard-wired, not a blank slate as was supposed by all the early experts who blamed every unwanted result (homosexuality, autism, criminality, depression, etc.) on Mommy’s child-rearing choices. Seems sort of silly now that we know better, but that was the conventional wisdom when my kids were born. Environment trumped heredity.

Anyway, many subsequent advice-sellers, despite all evidence to the contrary, have continued to nit-pick every choice Mommy makes. Most no longer blame her for illnesses, but many are still hung-up on blaming someone else for any behavior they deem unacceptable. Few look at the big picture.

Life presents way too many exposures to ever assume one person (or one event) will dictate a predictable outcome. Imagine that little ball (your brain) smacking into each bumper (all the people and events in your life) along its path to the grave… and each bump leaving a piece of itself on the ball. Further imagine that the ball is already half-filled with hard-wiring that will dictate how it perceives each person and event as he is exposed to it. Only identical twins are hard-wired the same, so from day one, most people’s perceptions will be inherently different from every other person’s. From their responses, I’d say Randy perceived cuddling as being trapped, and Beth perceived cuddling as being loved.

How anyone perceives any event depends on how he is hard-wired. His innate emotional and behavioral tendencies, his intelligence, his talents, and everything he has learned along the way will affect his perceptions of any future event. I happen to think who a person is with at any given moment, will likely most influence his choice in behavior.

Few young men, for example, will use the same language they use in the locker room when they’re talking to Grandma or a priest. Most people automatically adapt their speech and behaviors to “fit in” with the people they’re with. When in Rome most will do as the Romans.

Keeping this theory in mind, I’ll continue my story.

The eighties began with my mother’s third mitral valve replacement. She was in Albert Einstein Hospital in Bronx, New York, for three months in critical condition. Gram was in an assisted-living nursing home by then, because hers and my mother’s declining health issues were overwhelming my dad and to a lesser extent me.

The worst part for me, both before and after Mom’s surgery, was accepting the very apparent reversal in our roles. Instead of my being their little girl, I was Gram’s and Mom’s mother. Both relied on me for emotional and practical support.

The first time I bathed my grandmother, I nearly lost it. My concerns for her dignity overshadowed my concerns for her hygiene. She wasn’t very clean when we finished. It took me a while to become a good nurse. And my guilt for not moving Gram in with us was ever-present. “Ashley, the logical,” prevailed on that issue. It would have been an unworkable situation considering my mother’s impending surgery. Fortunately, Gram saw the writing on the wall and was completely accepting of going to a nursing home.

The ninety minute trip to NYC every day, and later every-other-day when Dad and I took turns, was bad. I couldn’t wait to get there, and I couldn’t wait to get home. I couldn’t wait to get to the nursing home to see Gram, and I couldn’t wait to get home from there either. Ash and the kids? I don’t even remember any specific interactions with them during that time frame. I assume I went through the motions. Guilt reigned. No matter who I was with, I felt I was failing someone else. And, God was I tired!

The quality I admire most in myself is that I was and am a willing caregiver when circumstances demand. Yet, my most fervent hope is that my children will never feel forced to be my caregiver. Go figure. These are diametrically opposing views living in the same brain, and I never know which view will take precedence.

Is relieving my kids from caretaking responsibilities a gift or a deprivation? I don’t know; that would depend on their perceptions, I guess. They might feel duty-bound to help, yet resent every moment; or they might actually want to help... and feel good about themselves for doing so.

I don’t think naked altruism exists. Ultimately, folks will choose to do what makes them feel good, so there is always a partly selfish reason for any choice. Yet some priorities are definitely seen as more noble than others. What we value is a large part of who we are.

I could not have lived with myself had I not done everything I could to help my parents and grandmother. Helping them made me feel good. But that’s me; I don’t know how either of my kids and their spouses will feel if I need them. The totality of their circumstances and priorities will dictate their choices, choices I hope they never have to make.

There’s no doubt my experiences as a caregiver greatly influence my current beliefs and behavioral choices, but not in any predictable way. I hate to ask for help from my kids and grandkids (and Ash), because I hate being seen as needy, and don’t want to be a burden. However, when push comes to shove, like the lawn needs mowing and my knees hurt, I will ask and remember how good I felt when I mowed the lawn for my parents. I never know which part of the caregiving experience will win the moment – or if I might be rationalizing my choice to maintain my self-esteem, something we all do regularly.

These are very ordinary (though troubling) life choices that probably needn’t be explained and/or judged by outsiders. It’s fun, so we do it; but, bottom line: it is what it is. Pardon the cliché.


We are serializing the memoir written by Judy Axtell and edited by me, BUT...AT WHAT COST: A Skeptics Memoir, available from and other on-line book sellers. You are invited to visit my writing, coaching, editing site

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"The Perfect Storm," Ch. 10 of Axtell Memoir, BUT...AT WHAT COST

I greatly regret having poured out my fears and my craziness on my 12-year-old daughter the morning after Ash’s confession. Beth was there at the table eating her breakfast when I came in from spending most of the night in the car. In my mind, my life was crashing down. My parents were dying. My husband was leaving. A good friend had betrayed me. I had no money of my own, and feminists on television shows and in all the women’s magazines had been telling me I had low self-esteem caused by that chauvinist pig I was married to. I had no idea which way to turn. There you go, Beth! God, I can’t believe I did that to her. I don’t remember all I said, but that is definitely how I felt. I assume I edited some.

The only thing I actually remember saying is that M. (the other woman) was a very nice person and not to worry about her being her stepmother. Obviously, I had this cart way before the horse – nothing had been discussed, let alone decided, yet there I was turning this child’s world up-side-down. I’d call that crazy!

Before that last straw was added to my load, I was worn, but still in one piece. I was trying to keep too many balls in the air by myself. This was not an unusual problem at the time. Many women were working outside the home, and many men had not yet been “trained” to take up the slack. I didn’t work outside the home, but it amounted to the same thing. I was at my parents’ house or a doctor’s office or a hospital a lot of the time.

Until the mid-sixties, this wouldn’t have been a serious problem; but then, in 1979, it was perceived to be, by some. The “some” were the feminist advice-mongers inhabiting our magazines and our airwaves. Previously valued behaviors, such as taking care of one’s husband, children and parents, were no longer valued priorities. I and thousands of other women were castigated, nearly every day, for being “too nice.” We were said to be “people pleasers” – a result of having low self-esteem… caused by our evil husbands. What were once seen as positive traits in both men and women were now viewed as character flaws.

Had these self-appointed “experts” stopped at their original “equal pay for equal work” agenda, it would have been fine, but they didn’t stop there. They used their rhetoric to condemn men and the “enabling” women who were married to them.

I can remember greeting Ashley with fire in my heart after listening to Betty Friedan (or someone) on the Phil Donahue TV talk show. All Ash had done was come home from work, and I was ready to scratch his eyes out. Yes, he fit their profile, and I was buying into their conclusions about both him and me.

I was angry with him most of the time and second-guessed my every move. When my father got sick, and I was left to juggle all the duties by myself, I got even angrier. When Ash had the affair, it was the last straw. I strongly considered divorce.

Between 1960 and 1979 the divorce rates doubled. Coincidence?

There’s no doubt Ashley’s straying was a huge blow to my pride, and very difficult to get over. However, I don’t think it was a main cause of my considering a divorce. People have affairs. I think my need to leave was largely due to the subtle peer pressure I was feeling; I thought that my friends thought I should get a divorce. Being the “good girl” I was (i.e., an inveterate rule follower) I was very tempted to conform to the new ideal.

“Low self-esteem” was the end-all explanation for everything back then. Later, upon closer examination, I rejected all its presumed importance and all popular explanations of its engenderment… but that was later.

Thankfully, while all this was happening, I studied my options and chose the practical, common-sense (or maybe, the easiest) solution. I stayed with Ashley because: I loved, respected, and admired him (despite his faults and his having an affair); he worked hard and supported us; he planned to send the kids to college and had already saved enough money to do so; and I wouldn’t have the time to help my parents and grandmother if I had to work full-time to support myself.

There was a less practical reason too: A hell of a lot of my “self-esteem” was derived from Ashley’s choosing me, and my being able to put up with him. That probably sounds strange, and a little deranged, but every time someone said, “Judy, you must be a saint,” when Ash was being particularly obstinate, I reveled in it. When Ashley had confessed his affair, I’d said, “You’re out of your mind, if you think she’d put up with you for more than a week!” It was true; he knew it, and said he knew it. I think I saw my acceptance of his eccentricities as somewhat heroic… sort of like Hillary Clinton or any wife who has to put up with “special” circumstances must feel. I chose to make allowances, so I could share his spotlight. Boy, that sounds really bad, but that was part of it – that’s how much I admire his intellectual prowess, work ethic, and honesty.

If I was a “victim” of anything, I was a victim of circumstances and my own priorities. It was our marriage that allowed me the economic freedom to raise my kids, help my family, play ball, sing and feel good about myself. This was the ordinary stuff from which I and many, many other women of my generation derived our self-worth… by thinking of our families first and ourselves last. We were not part of “the me generation” and the new rules confused the Hell out of us.

We are serializing Judy Axtell's book, But...At What Cost: A Skeptic's Memoir, available from on-line retailers, such as Amazon, and from its publisher Outskirts Press.

About Author Sharon Lane

From the back cover material of her book, The Tears From My Soul:

After suffering years of neglect, rape, abuse, pain, and betrayal from those who were entrusted to support and protect her, Sharon turns to a life of stripping and prostitution. Without an education or means to support herself and her two children, Sharon falls prey to many unscrupulous people who take advantage of her. She struggles to change her life and move out of the shadows of the underworld of stripping in Seattle, Chicago, and Milwaukee.

In the end, it is God, her incredible commitment to a better life, and the love and support she finds in the Christian community that help her turn her life around. In her memoir, The Tears from My Soul, Sharon is a true heroine of her life story – overcoming all odds to become a high school graduate, successful author and film director and producer.

From her "About The Author" portion of the book:

Sharon Lane is one of God's special daughters, and she is proud to say that she has a lot of insight that comes directly from him.

She was born with a respectable and humble spirit.

For someone with only a high school diploma, she has done many things. But it is only through God's grace that she has been able to do all that she has done.

In 2012, Sharon wrote her first article on education, and it was published in Waukesha News Stands. She was then went on to write her autobiography, with no knowledge of how to write a book.

She is the producer of the documentary, “Why We Do What We Do,” which was shown at the 2010 Langston Hughes Film Festival.

In spite of it all, she was able to turn her life around from being a stripper to becoming a responsible citizen in her church and her community. God showed her the right way.

She believes in giving a second chance in life. Sharon lives in Seattle with her two kids, grandkids, and her mother

Friday, December 19, 2014

Barely Back, A Short Story

Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

“Dad, can we take the Ford to Bear Mountain?” Rick asked.

“Who is ‘we’?” his father asked.

“Joan and I.” Joan Black was Rick’s current girlfriend.

“What did you have in mind?”

“Picnic. It’s a beautiful day for a picnic.”

Mr. Williams gave it a minute’s thought. Did he want his old car and his son twenty miles away, alone with a seventeen-year-old girl? What could happen on a picnic? Mr. W. had been seventeen once himself…he had an idea or two about that.

“You can go, if Tess goes with you.”


“Yes, Tess…your sister.”

“I’ll ask her.”

Tess liked the idea, if Eddie Gomez could go with them. Eddie liked the idea. Joan liked the idea. The youngest Williams, Tim, did not want to go. Fortunately, he was not essential.

The picnic got organized. Rick, Joan, Tess, and Eddie drove off to Bear Mountain...beautiful, remote Bear Mountain State Park.

Having arrived, they unpacked the car and marched off on one of the trails. One of the trekkers, we won’t say who it was, forgot to close the rear passenger car door fully. The little lights inside the car stayed on, but no one noticed them, as it was a bright day.

The foursome picnicked pleasantly, returning when it was getting dark. Almost all the cars that had been parked near them had gone.

Rick and crew put their stuff back in the car, and Rick tried to start it up. “Click, click, click….” That sound meant that the battery was nearly dead.

“Now what?” Tess asked. Sharp, she knew something was wrong.

Rick replied, “We could call a garage and have them send someone out here to start our car, but that will take a long time and cost money, and Mom and Dad will not like it. Let’s try to get some help from someone here.”

A woman and her two young children were in a nearby car, just starting to go.

“Excuse me, but would you help us start our car?” Rick asked her.

“What do you want me to do?”

“We would like to use our cables and connect to your battery to jump start our car.”

“Will that hurt my car?”

“No. You’ll keep it running, so we don’t run down your battery.”

“Well, OK, if it doesn’t take long.”

Rick and Eddie got the jumper cables out of the back of their car, but Rick was not exactly sure how to make the connections. They discussed this quietly.

“Eddie, do you know how to do this? I’m not sure.”

“Yes. Put the black connectors on the negative terminal of her battery and yours. Put the red connector on her positive terminal, then put the other red one on your positive terminal. Next, start your car.”

Rick and Eddie made these connections, and Rick tried to get his car to start. “Click, click, click” became “urrr, urr, urr,” but the car wasn’t starting.

“”Give it more gas!” Eddie told the woman, and her car engine started to roar…and Rick’s car started.

“Enough!” Eddie told the lady. “Keep it running, Rick.”

All four of the kids thanked the woman again and again, and she drove off with a smile.

When the foursome got home, Mr. and Mrs. Williams asked if they had a good time and whether they had any trouble.

“Everything went just fine,” Rick responded.

It is said that “bad times make good stories.” The Bear Mountain picnic was not exactly a bad time, but Tess’s diary got a highly dramatic story about the picnic. Eddie starred as the hero, and surely he did deserve some credit. He would have liked to read it, but it was a secret diary.

Tess ended her write-up with, “We barely made it back from Bear Mountain.” They were not really in danger, but diaries are not always accurate, especially when special friends are being described.

One of our series of 50 somewhat instructive stories for young readers.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ghostwriting Ghastliness


Douglas Winslow Cooper
I almost got paid to write some books. For nearly a day this prospect had me feeling high.

A representative from “Fake Publishing” (not its actual name) contacted me on Twitter, where I am active in writing about politics, science, and writing. He had liked what he had read of mine, went to my site,, and liked that, too. He asked whether I would be interested in getting paid to write books for his company.

I responded that, depending on the topic, this would suit me just fine, and I offered to do so for a few cents per word. He continued to be interested, and we scheduled a phone conversation for the following morning. Excited, I went through my 300-odd blog entries and my monthly articles for and my memoir, Ting and I, and came up with dozens of possible topics I could write up for them. I assumed we would be discussing his needs and my suggestions and come to a “meeting of the minds” on a topic. Money was not my paramount consideration, although it is the sincerest form of flattery.

When we spoke the next day, it became clear that what he wanted was ghostwriting. He said he was impressed with my credentials and my writing and that Fake Publishing has orders for books that professionals, like doctors, pay to have others write for them. The real author is to be a “ghost,“ not to be credited in any way, but rather the “professional” is to be the person associated with the book.

I said I would not do this for two reasons: First, some credit (even in the acknowledgments) is part of the reward for writing the book. Second, and more important to me, participating in what I see as fraud is distasteful. Claiming credit for a book you did not write is a form a plagiarism, big time, despite its being quite common---for politician’s books, for example.

Years ago I helped a very successful writer who had gotten wealthy partly through ghostwriting books. He paid me for the bulk of my contributions, which he used for part of the book he was writing for a doctor, but he stiffed me for the last 20% of what I wrote. I was helping him ghostwrite a book. Perhaps I was aiding and abetting fraud. I should not have been surprised that, to a degree, he cheated me, too. The adage goes, “You can’t cheat an honest man.”

If you are dealing with a professional who claims to have written a book, beware. Check his publishing company out, if you can. I’d give you this advice: don’t trust a plagiarist or his enablers.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

"Oma and Pop," Ch. 9 of Axtell Memoir BUT...AT WHAT COST

The kids were outside playing when I got the first of twenty-years’-worth of emergency phone calls from my father. At forty-nine, my mother had been diagnosed with rheumatic heart disease. This day, in the summer of 1971, Dad called to say he was taking her to the hospital. She was in heart failure. We all knew what to expect; we just didn’t know when to expect it.

I called Carolyn to see if she could baby-sit, and started calling around to find Ashley – or someone who could find Ashley and give him the message. He never told me where he was going, but this time I needed him to be a father – something that was seldom a priority in his busy life.
Until now (at thirty), I hadn’t needed him to be a father. My parents were the kids’ father… and I liked it that way. Ash had neither the temperament nor the desire to be a hands-on Dad. My fault? Could I have forced the issue? Would it have changed anything? I don’t know. I do know, however, I took the easier path.

Mom and Dad, “Oma” and “Pop” to my kids, were always available to baby-sit and had looked after them, at least one day a week, since we had moved to Port Jervis. While we supplied all the necessities, they supplied all the extras – the nice clothes, the baseball gloves, the bikes and the games. It was under Pop’s tutelage they learned how to play baseball, basketball, football, and ride bikes. I was a jock too, so they had reinforcement at home, but Pop was the man!

Each time the kids went to a circus, or a game farm, or a ballgame, it was with Oma and Pop. We (I usually went too) spent a lot of time together on day trips or just hanging out being a family at their house.

On overnights (which I didn’t attend) Oma and Nanny (my Gram) spoiled them… played games with them, fed them anything they wanted, and generally answered their every whim.

I was one lucky mother and the kids were two lucky grandchildren. These extended family relationships gave Ash and, to a lesser degree, me the freedom to pursue our other interests. Again, I don’t know if I was right or wrong or if it was good or bad for my kids, but that’s the way it was. Ashley played a mostly passive role in his kids’ lives – except for what they considered the bad stuff.

That last was, by far, the worst result of the way it was. I didn’t expect Ashley to be a father, so he wasn’t. He never learned how to be. He hadn’t learned how to be a husband yet either – at least not the kind of husband the culture would soon demand.

In a sense, we were an extended family living between two homes both before and after Mom’s diagnosis. I was her daughter, but also her best friend. We did a lot together – both with and without Pop or Gram or the kids. We all had dinner together at least twice a week (once here, once there), and while the kids were in Little League and I was playing ball, saw each other at every game.

Mom’s illness threw a big wrench into the day-to-day workings of our lives, not all the time, of course, but fairly frequently during the next two decades. Between 1971 and 1981, she had three mitral valve replacements, a pacemaker installed, a stroke, numerous bleeding incidents, transfusions, and hospital stays. She was the most courageous person I’ve ever known. She was often debilitated and lived with fear, but never let on to the kids that she was anything but the strong, active lady she’d always been. She pushed her limits whenever the children were around… and my father helped her do that. He was a real “mensch.” She couldn’t have had a better caregiver in the bad times, which allowed me to keep the kids’ lives as normal as possible.

Only people who have lived with serious illness can fully appreciate how crazy it can make you. There were many times I felt crazy, anyway. Six years after my mother’s second valve surgery and that valve was beginning to fail, also, my father was diagnosed with oral cancer. I was almost completely consumed with their care and my grandmother’s care for about three months. Ashley ignored the changed circumstances, and still expected his dinner on the table, his laundry to be done, and the kids to be hauled from activity to activity on time. He seemed oblivious to my extra duties, and the emotional turmoil I was experiencing. And because this was typical of our relationship, I didn’t tell him I needed his help.

The funny thing is: he’d have helped if I’d asked, but he always had to be asked… which infuriated me to no end! I could never understand why in hell he just didn’t jump in and do what needed to be done. Once the dynamics of a couple are set, it’s hard to reset them, especially if one or the other or both gain some amount of pleasure from their own hardheadedness. But that’s how we were – at that time. He, I think, was waiting to be included, and I was waiting for him to do the right thing without being asked.

I don’t know why I was so reluctant to ask Ash for help. I asked my friends for help, so I suppose it had something to do with appearing strong and competent to him.

Ashley felt rejected, so decided to have an affair with a friend of ours… and tell me about it as soon as he came home from being in her bed. Honesty is not always the best policy! I went crazy. And Beth bore the brunt of it.


Judy Axtell's memoir is being serialized here. It is available from online book-sellers like

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Almost Kiss, A Short Story

Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

The score was tied in the last half of the last inning for Eddie Gomez’s baseball team. Bases were loaded, Eddie at bat. The pitcher’s fastball came toward Eddie, who tried to get out of the way but was hit smack in the middle of his chest. Down he went.

The umpire signaled for Eddie to go to first base, because he was hit by the pitch, and the runners all advanced a base, forcing home the winning run. The fans, few in number, went wild or at least showed substantial enthusiasm. Eddie stayed on the ground, moving but silent.

Tess ran over to Eddie, asking, “Are you OK?”

No answer. Little movement. Tess looked closely at his face and saw that his lips were turning blue. She yelled, “Call 911! Call 911! He’s not breathing!”

A fireman’s daughter, at least this particular fireman’s daughter, knows CPR. Tess rolled Eddie onto his back, put one of her hands behind the other, and pumped on his chest two times per second for 30 pumps.

He was still not breathing. Tess bent over him, pinched closed his nose, covered his open mouth with hers and breathed strongly into him. His chest rose, then fell. She did this a second time, and then did another 30 chest pumps. The third time she started to breathe into Eddie’s mouth, he coughed and started breathing on this own!

Tess started crying, and Eddie took her hand. “I’m OK. I’m OK. Thank you. Thank you. You saved my life!” And so she had.

The Emergency Medical Services ambulance arrived a few minutes later, with Tess’s father and his EMT partner. When they heard what had happened, they talked with Eddie and checked Eddie’s vital signs, then congratulated Tess on her swift and skilled CPR.

That evening, Eddie’s mother and father, Sergeant and Mrs. Gomez, came to visit Tess and her family, thanking her over and over again for saving Eddie’s life. They complimented her parents on what a fine young woman Tess had shown herself to be.

Mrs. Williams replied that Eddie had proved himself worthy of their daughter’s friendship the time he walked her home when she was being bothered by some teenagers along Highland Avenue. She said that she and Mr. Williams were pleased that Tess and Eddie were good friends.

A reporter for the home-town weekly paper came to the Williams home and asked Tess about that day’s event. When the paper came out on Wednesday, there were pictures of both Tess and Eddie and a headline calling her a “local heroine.” She was not sure about that, but she was certain she was happy to have been where Eddie needed her and happy she had known what to do.

In the evening after that game, Tess wrote at length in her diary about what had happened: she told it she was glad she knew CPR and could save Eddie’s life and…she was pleased she had gotten from him, during the mouth-to-mouth part of CPR, her “almost kiss.”


One of our 50 somewhat instructive short stories for young readers.

My Review for Amazon of Sharon Lane's THE TEARS FROM MY SOUL

This inspiring memoir takes the author from near earthly hell on a path toward heaven.

Sharon Lane grew up poor, black, ill-educated, verbally and sexually and physically abused,yet she has turned her life around, primarily through her faith in God. Her book is testimony to the power of such faith, even as it shows that often those who profess to believe in Christ violate the basic tenets of Christianity.

As depressing as the story of her early life is, her success in getting an education, a high school diploma in her 40s, shedding her “career” as a stripper, and re-uniting elements of her family is encouraging.

Ms. Lane’s book is not politically correct. The tragedies she and her family members experienced in her first thirty years had little to do with racial discrimination, and were mostly caused by an underclass African-American culture that devalued women, but accepted promiscuity and infidelity and irresponsibility.

Poverty and discrimination were not the causes of such failure. At the same time in America, families in poor Jewish and Asian communities encouraged upward mobility, responsibility, respect for others, and produced subsequent generations that were above-average in their levels of accomplishment. Middle-class values help poor people attain middle-class results, at least.

It does not “take a village” to rear children well. It takes parents in an intact marriage, a work ethic, the valuing of achievement and education, and…in some cases…the guidance and solace offered by religion.

Her writing is clear, generally grammatically correct, its minor deficiencies overwhelmed by the value of her messages. This is a message memoir, written to raise our understanding of the causes of underclass failure and to inspire the readers, especially those now in trouble, to get help in pulling themselves up. In Ms. Lane’s case, that help was primarily through religion.

From rags to redemption, from stripper to memoirist, Sharon Lane has taken a journey few others have or could, and now she has illuminated the path for others needing help.

The memoir was published using Smashwords and was free for the #kindle when I obtained it. What a bargain!


Now it is available in paperback, also, from Amazon:

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Personal Successes," Ch. 8 of BUT...AT WHAT COST

The sixties and seventies were said to be the decades of drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. Ash and I missed many of the influencing factors of the sixties by about five years, so we didn’t become a part of it. However, many of our younger friends did, and we were somewhat influenced by them.

Folks tend to discount or ignore peer and cultural influences on beliefs and behaviors, but I think they are crucial to developing one’s world view. There are very clear differences in perceptions of right and wrong between the generations, for example. Because our exposures were different, our beliefs will likely be different. Five years can make a big difference because cultural rules and expectations can change a lot in five years. I believe the younger you are, the more likely you are to accept new culturally imposed standards. I also think one’s teen years and early twenties are most often the years those tendencies in belief are set in clay, if not in stone.

Think about which kind of music you prefer. Not all, but most of us are firmly fixed in our preferences, and they usually reach back to our “formative” years. I still love doo-wop and Sarah Vaughn. My social values didn’t change much after that time either.

Ash and I were either out-of-country or too consumed with more pressing matters to be drawn very far into the drugs, sex, and rock and roll culture. I think that era was primarily instigated by the coming of “the pill.”

The “pill” was approved in 1960, but didn’t gain popularity until a little later. When it did, it allowed many (especially the youth who think about little else besides sex) to abandon caution and make new rules to explain their promiscuity. Think flower children and communal living. Hippies (or flower children) rejected traditional marriage and preached “free love” and peace. Theirs was a simplistic, idealistic, and socially liberal point of view – a live-and-let-live, anything-goes philosophy. A far cry from Grandma’s moral teachings!

Also think feminism. Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Before the pill, contraception was not assured. Post-pill, women could fool around with much less concern for their futures. They could plan a career and still have fun. Among other things, that’s what feminists proposed. Changes in technology beget changes in philosophy. Let’s face it – biologically speaking, people have always been driven by sex. It was only moral teachings and practicality that sometimes kept our drives in line. When the primary practical consideration (pregnancy) was eliminated by assured contraception, many more people than ever had before followed their urges. Only those with firm moral convictions adhered to the old rules.

For many of us who were caught in an era of changing beliefs, cognitive dissonance raised its ugly head. When anyone’s beliefs clash with their behaviors, they usually change one or the other, and most often it’s their beliefs. It’s impossible to believe you’re a “good girl” when you’ve done something you believe is “bad.” Therefore, you change your beliefs as to what is “bad.” Betty Friedan and the flower children offered that out-of-wedlock sex was not bad. They provided new philosophies and new rules to excuse or defend what others called promiscuity.

Cultural expectations change all the time; some folks go with the new, some stay with the old, and others create some blend of the opposing views. Certainly, where and when you grew up can make a big difference in how those changes will be perceived. Ash and I stayed “old school,” but did not reject those who were not.

The drugs part? We were a little squishy on that. We didn’t indulge in the sixties, but with the seventies came new friends.

We bought an old fixer-upper house in 1970, outside Montgomery, New York. My grandmother gave us the $5000 for the down-payment (she had inherited a fair amount of money from a great-aunt she hardly knew), and we got a ten-year mortgage on the rest of the $17,000 property. Ash’s yearly salary as a chemist at the time was about $18,000.

The house needed new plumbing, new wiring, a new kitchen and insulation in all the outside walls. We didn’t hire anyone. As noted before, Ashley knew how to do everything, and I was his somewhat willing peon. I did all the dirty, unskilled jobs.

Knocking down plaster ceilings was particularly bad. Besides being dirty, it was somewhat dangerous. I ended up tying a colander to my head as a helmet to defend against the falling debris. As I recall, I also fashioned a face mask out of a scarf so I wouldn’t breathe in so much plaster dust. Pretty.

It took us many years to finish. Well, you never finish, but we got it more livable in five years or so. It took that long because we didn’t work on any project full time. It would be months and months between the tear-downs and the put-ups. Ash tends to do only that which is absolutely necessary… and then stops. Once the insulation was in, the sheet rock installation might wait for another year. And the taping might resume six months after that. I got somewhat proficient at fixing some things myself. I was not really proficient, but proficient enough to start anyway. This led to a happy discovery. He would be so frustrated at my incompetence he’d usually finish what I started. I learned this trick accidentally, but I employed it time after time when I just couldn’t wait any longer. I did teach myself how to paint, wall-paper, upholster, and make curtains, though. It was a case of going without or learning how to do it.

Meanwhile, life was rolling along. Randy and Beth’s activities led me to new friends in the PTA and Little League, and Ashley’s activities led him to a group of new friends who lived near his hay fields – yes, hay fields. Ash made extra money baling and selling hay. He bought old farm equipment, fixed it, and found land-owners who wanted their acreage mowed in exchange for the hay. I spent many an afternoon putting hay in barns, and so did Randy and Beth as soon as they were big enough to be helpful.

Woodcutting and stacking was another chore Ash created for us. In lieu of fixing the boiler, Ash had installed two wood burning stoves – our sole sources of heat. He built a wood-splitter out of found items, so he wouldn’t have to hand-split the bigger pieces with an ax (which only he was strong enough to do), and also attached a woodshed to the barn. Now, I like to save money as much as the next guy, but the shed had a bright white sheet-steel roof. Free, but not in keeping with House Beautiful. Aesthetics mattered to Ashley, but only on other people’s properties, not on ours.

Whoopee! Now, all of us could split and stack wood. It was a more efficient process, but the kids and I HATED it. But, we hated being cold all winter too.

We never lacked for wood, but there was seldom enough heat to be comfortable, because the stoves were too small. The whole wood-burning scene was horrible. We whined, but Ashley thought it was “good for us.” That’s when oil prices were relatively high, so we did save a lot of money. A little later he built a bigger wood burning stove aptly named “the goose” because it had an eighteen-inch pointed beak protruding into the middle of the dining room. We were warmer, but damn, was it ugly!

For me, the best part of the seventies was singing again. My friend Carolyn, who stood up for us when we were married, lived in Montgomery. When I arrived, she immediately introduced me to Alice who was producing the PTA variety show – another serendipitous meeting. I was invited to join Alice, Carolyn, Jean and Ginnie’s barbershop quartet – making it a quintet, but I guess they didn’t care. We practiced a couple of times a week and performed at charities, church groups, and nursing homes. We specialized in captive audiences. We all loved to sing and became fast friends.

Ashley’s haying endeavors led us in another direction, away from the traditional, into the semi-traditional. These friends were about five years younger than we were, not exactly flower children, but not exactly “old school” either. They smoked pot, grew pot, and some in the group seemed to change partners somewhat indiscriminately. Excepting Al, Bill, Sloopy, and later Carol, I felt like a fish out of water with most of these people. It wasn’t only the drugs and sex, or their values, per se; it was something else, something more subtle. They just didn’t seem to be grown-ups yet. I don’t think most people really grow up until they have children or some other important responsibilities, and none of these new friends had kids, yet.

They were not stoned all the time, but there was always enough pot to go around at parties. I have always hated feeling out of control, so didn’t partake. Ash did. I should add here that none that I knew of went on to harder stuff. In my experience, with these friends, pot was NOT a “gateway” drug. For some, it is, but for most it seems to be on a par with alcohol – for social use only.

Ashley grew pot for two or three years and holds the record for growing the biggest plant, but he didn’t smoke it at home. That was one of few areas of disagreement I won. When I deemed that the kids should not be exposed to pot in any form, including standing high in the garden, he finally agreed and stopped growing it.

Not long after our becoming “Montgomeryites,” a jazz club opened. I had dismissed all hopes of singing that genre ever again, but there it was in our dinky, little village – “The Shoestring.”

Good jazz pianists are hard to come by in the burbs. I had been extremely lucky to have had one in my class at school. From ninth grade on, I had had Johnnie Foster, an accompanist who could play in any key and could play any song after hearing it once. He went on to play with Odetta and bassist Charlie Mingus – definitely the big time.

At one of the band’s rehearsals in our basement, my dad played a song from Dave Brubeck’s Time Out album. Never having heard it before, John sat down at the piano and played it. Pure musical genius!

In my wildest dreams, I never expected to have another chance to sing my favorite songs in a style I loved with another great piano player. Ron was not Johnnie, but he was darned good. We went to the Shoestring, I gathered my courage, and asked to sing. Drunks ask to sing all the time, and are generally refused, but I didn’t ask until we were regulars at the club, and I wasn’t a drunk. They let me, and I sang there for drinks most week-ends for years to come. Ron and I practiced and expanded my repertoire to include some Jackie and Roy duets and some newer pop songs. Life couldn’t have been much better – except for having to stand on a stack of newspapers to do the dishes, so my feet wouldn’t freeze.

As one might suppose, Ashley wasn’t entirely happy being a chemist. It was much too sedentary and boring for him. Denny, the band’s drummer, solved that problem. He was a contractor specializing in pre-engineered steel buildings. After he got to know Ash and recognized his many talents, he offered him a partnership. Done! Thus, our free shed roof.

Meanwhile, Randy and Beth were both thriving academically and on the fields – Beth, mostly academically; Randy, mostly on the fields. Once Randy outgrew his hyper-activity, both were “easy” kids to raise. Each had his/her own talents and tendencies – and each filled me with extreme pride and joy. And I’m not just saying that because they will be reading this. Considering the rather extreme lifestyle they had to put up with, they fared very well. I thank my mom and dad for many of their successes.

We are serializing Judy Axtell's memoir BUT...AT WHAT COST, for which I was coach and editor. It is available in paperback from the publisher, Outskirts Press, and from on-line booksellers like  

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Almost Date, A Short Story

Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

“Mom, Eddie wants to take me to the circus. It’s in town at Bradley Field this week. Can we go?”

“Eddie who?”

“Eddie Gomez, the boy who walked me home when those guys in the convertible were bothering me.”

“Sounds like a date. I doubt that your father will agree to it. You are awfully young to be dating.”

“But there’ll be lots of other kids there our age. It’s not exactly a date. Nothing bad will happen. If Dad agrees, is it OK?”

“I’ll have to think about it.”

When Tess asked her father, he said he’d have to talk it over with her mother. After the kids went to bed, Mr. and Mrs. W. discussed it. Tess was changing from a tom-boy to a young woman, in mind and body. An interest in boys was natural, as long as things did not go “too far,” a pair of words that bring panic to a young girl’s parents.

“I hate to say ‘no’ and I hate to say ‘yes,” Mr. W. stated.

“We have to decide.”

“We need some rules, maybe a curfew. It’s been so long since we were her age, I find it hard to remember what it was like.”

Mrs. Williams suggested that they invite Eddie to go with all of them to the circus, making it a family affair rather than a date.

When they told Tess, she was briefly disappointed, but then cheered up, seeing that she had gotten some of what she wanted. When she told Eddie, he thought it was fine. They went, had a good time.

That night, Tess described the outing to her diary: It had been fun. Not exactly romantic, but pleasant, an “almost date.”


One of our series of 50 mildly instructive short stories.  

How to Be Outstanding

Newest of my articles for Link is

Especially clever illustration.

This is discussion of John Shufeldt's fine book,

Monday, December 1, 2014

"Making My Bed...And Lying in It," Ch. 6 of J. Axtell Memoir

Making stupid mistakes (like my getting pregnant while unmarried) can ruin your life, but only if you let it. You can accept your lumps and go on from there. Quitting school was not an entirely bad thing for me. I knew it would limit my future employment choices, but I didn’t expect to work outside the home when I had kids anyway. My mother had, and I felt she missed many of the joys of motherhood and regretted missing them. I knew, if I had a choice, I would choose to stay home. That choice came much earlier than planned, but I had made my bed… at least for the time being.

Our December wedding was hastily planned, and not exactly a fond memory. It was a rushed affair, personally embarrassing and somewhat tacky. We got married in a willing minister’s living room surrounded by his toddlers in various stages of undress. I was not old enough (20) to get married by a JP, so we had to take what we could. Friends of mine, Tom and Carolyn, stood up for us. We were appropriately dressed; we looked nice, but the rest of the setting left a lot to be desired. All I can remember of the ceremony was a diaper-clad baby crawling around us, a harried looking Mom skulking behind him, and a glaring minister.

Then it was off to our basement. A basement! Ours was great – as a rec room, but not as a reception hall. The walls were lined with records and books, a dart board, a ping pong table, piano, hi-fi equipment, and chairs and tables procured for the occasion from everyone we knew. Paper wedding bells hung from the unfinished ceiling. Nice try.

My grandmother’s friend, Elsie, made the food. Sister-in-law, Sue, made the cake – which was the only accoutrement that was remotely elegant. I was smiling in the wedding pictures, but just for show. I know I tried hard to appear happy and grateful for everyone’s efforts, but I was miserable. There I was, almost three months pregnant, not at all sure about this giant step I was taking, and about to drive across the country and leave almost everyone and everything I knew and loved… in two days. Poor Ashley tried very hard to be romantic that night, but I would have none of it.

We packed everything we could fit in a trunk and fastened the trunk to the back of Ashley’s old Triumph convertible sports car. We had my regular clothes and a few maternity outfits, two spoons, two forks, two knives, two plates… you get the picture. We had NOTHING! It was freezing cold and we were about to take off in a car that had no heat and was far from being air-tight. Driving at 60 mph, there was an inch of space between the side curtains and the frame. But not to worry – Ash had a bear skin rug, minus the head, thank God, though that might provide an even funnier image. We had our first flat tire thirty miles from Newburgh, a bad omen for the trip ahead. I’d like to say I was a real trouper, but I wasn’t. I was a scared kid. If I were Ash, I might have thrown me out of the car somewhere in Wyoming… or maybe at the New York/Pennsylvania border.

Ashley was stationed at the U.S. Army Language School in Monterey, CA, studying to be an Army Security Agency Polish linguist. It was a beautiful place to start our lives together… more so, if we’d had some money, but the scenery was free and gas was cheap. Our first apartment was in downtown Pacific Grove, not far from the Bay. The furnished, one-bedroom apartment was nice, and the landlady was determined to keep it that way. She climbed the stairs each morning to tell me what I should clean that day. She also tutored me on how to walk more quietly, “Put your toes down first, dear. Walk like a ballerina.” The proverbial last straw for me was the morning I was scolded for moving a pillow from one chair to another in the living room. This was not going to work, so we went apartment hunting.

The only contact I had with my second landlady was when she brought me a bag of rags as a housewarming gift. True, I hadn’t brought any with me, but really – a bag of rags? Funny, the things you remember.

Our second apartment was in an attic. This was not a problem for me, but Ashley could stand up straight only when he walked in the middle of the rooms. He had to sit down or hunch nearly in half to pee in the toilet, but this apartment had a television, more kitchen wares, and a landlord who didn’t live in the building. Much better.

My library card was my best and, for a while, my only friend. Home computers didn’t exist. We had no phone. Ash had the car all day, but I was within walking distance of the library. I became a voracious reader. It’s all I did. The TV was usually on, but my escapes from reality were more often found in books.

On the days I went for prenatal checkups, I rode to school with Ashley, waited for the bus to Fort Ord, waited at the clinic an hour or so to be seen, waited for the bus back, and waited for Ash to get out of class to go home. But, I finally met someone who lived near me. Ginger was a savior. A little older than I, a nurse, and further along in her pregnancy, she became my “go to” person. We didn’t hang out a lot, but I felt safer and less lonely.

Things were looking up: Ash invited a friend home for a game of Scrabble. John was a Scrabble fanatic. He would bring a quart of beer for him and Ash, and John and I would play. It’s hard to imagine why my Scrabble game seemed important enough to stuff in our trunk, but there it was. John was a Yalie and not above cheating. “Sure, that’s a word,” he’d say while sitting on a triple word space for 200 points. Not an English word, certainly.

“Okay, if you say so,” I’d reply. I was still having a bit of a problem challenging these well-educated types – not sure of myself, at all. He ‘fessed up though, and it became a running joke.

John also joined us on many of our weekend outings. This presented quite a problem as I grew in size. A TR-2 is small – very small, and John was tall – very tall. I was the only one who could fit behind the seats. As my due date approached, Ash and John got some pretty nasty looks while the two were trying to extract me from my prison. One would grab my arms and pull me up while the other lifted or pushed me from behind. If one were to listen closely, I’m sure he would hear a “pop” as I broke free.

I made quite a sight at the tennis courts, too. By the end of June, people were begging me not to play. A Scrabble game and tennis rackets? Guess that demonstrates what my priorities were. We had no cook books or dish towels.

Randy was born July 8th to one of the world’s least experienced and most incompetent mothers of all time. Well, I probably wasn’t the worst, but I sure wasn’t good. I had baby-sat for older kids, but not infants. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got home from the hospital.

Charge nurse, Major Trott, ran the maternity ward at Fort Ord where Randy was born. I was in the army now! Good Lord, the woman was a tyrant! There must have been about fifteen of us lined up in our beds – exercising on command. “Raise right leg… one, two, three, hold. Left leg… one, two, three, hold. KEGEL, KEGEL, KEGEL!” There were no officers’ wives enduring this crap. They had private rooms, but we were cattle, herded from one activity to the next. Hurry up and wait! Sure, it was for our own good, but it was humiliating. I couldn’t wait to get home. I had never held a newborn before, and diapers were icky, but get me outta here!

Mom did come out for a week when Randy was born and we muddled through the worst of it together, but after that I was on my own to sink or swim. I swam. Mom brought lots of baby stuff when she came. Good thing; I wasn’t at all prepared. We had bought a second-hand car bed for him to sleep in at home, some diapers, blankets and a few baby clothes, but….

Well, there was a reason for my lack of preparation. I was uninterested in having this baby. I was not excited; I dreaded his birth. Ginger and the other mothers I’d met at the clinic were filled with happy anticipation. They talked incessantly about their purchases and their plans. But, I felt none of that, and it scared me to death that I didn’t. What was wrong with me? I made excuses: I had no money; I was too far away from the shopping areas; I couldn’t carry everything; Ashley might get mad if I spent too much money. But they were excuses. The real reason I didn’t prepare was because at that time I didn’t want this baby or Ashley or this situation. I told no one. I had made this very lumpy bed and had too much pride to complain about it.

The first words Mom said to me when she walked into our bedroom were, “Oh, Judy, you don’t even have any pillows!” Finally, someone who cared about me. I was struggling. I don’t know if I felt sorrier for Randy or myself. My motherly instincts were starting to kick in, but the more I came to love him, the more inadequate and guilty I felt.

But, Mom got us some pillows before she Left – perhaps the best gift I ever got, because this simple gift led to some extraordinary changes. It was like a virtuous circle story. Her gift made breast feeding a lot easier, which made me feel less inadequate, which made me happier, which made me nicer, which made Ashley nicer, which made me happier. It was probably the result of my hormones calming down, but I’d like to think it was because my mother got me those pillows!

After California, Ash was off to cryptanalyst school, and then on to Germany. Rand and I stayed with my folks until we could join him there. That was probably a mistake; it was entirely too comfortable being home again. Surrounded with the love and support of family and friends, made my life a little too easy. I missed Ashley, but not enough to be anxious to join him – and the unknown.

I was at home almost ten months before boarding the plane to Frankfurt. Do you remember that flying experience when you wished you could somehow throttle the kid on the plane, and his mother too? Well, I bet there wasn’t a person on our flight who didn’t want to kill us or commit suicide – especially the older man who sat in the row with us.

Randy was sixteen months old and was wearing a yellow, fuzzy sleeper for the overnight flight. The toy he brought along was a wind-up music box that played One little, two little, three little Indians. He didn’t talk yet, but he screamed whenever he didn’t get to do what he wanted… which in this case was to run up and down the aisle and visit everyone. Everyone within three rows of us was slightly fuzzy and at some point wound up the music box and sang the counting song for him. My row mate and I looked like we’d been dipped in glue and thrown into a bin of yellow fluff balls. Okay, I’m exaggerating – but not much.

The first thing I did when we got off the plane was to throw away that damn music box. Never, never take a music box (or any toy that makes a noise) on a plane!

So, we’re in the Customs line. I put my bag on the table, picked up Randy… and he barfed on himself, me, and the table. We got waved through. I’ve never been described as “pretty,” but that morning when Ash met us, I must have looked and smelled like an asylum escapee with a stomach virus. He hugged me anyway. Now, that’s love!

Living off-post in Germany in 1964 was like stepping back into the forties in America. None of the amenities we were used to were easily available. There was running hot water, but only if you remembered to turn on the small water heaters over the kitchen and bathroom sinks. Tub water took forever to heat. There was no central heating, only kerosene space heaters. The refrigerator was tiny – very handy for Randy to get into – and there were no electric appliances like toasters or mixers or vacuum cleaners. And our apartment was the best of all the Ammies’ (Americans‘) we knew living off-post. We had the best landlord and landlady, too.

The Kaltenhausers were fantastic. Randy was irrepressible and all they ever said was, “He’s a boy; he’s a boy.” (They had three girls.) Even when he opened the spigot on the kerosene drum and the kerosene ruined half their garden, that’s all they said. They didn’t let us pay for the damage or the kerosene.

Our friends became their friends. We were invited to their wine fests and their sausage fest, too. I’d like to forget that one, but it’s lodged in my memory banks somewhere between the plane ride to Germany and the death of my dog, Hasso. Pig-killing day in Bavaria is a big deal. Friends and neighbors gather to kill the pig, clean the pig, make sausage from the pig, and eat the fresh, raw sausage. The sights and sounds from that day shall be left undescribed.

I equate my time in Germany with being away at college (but with a kid in tow). It was sort of a half-way house between adolescence and adulthood – just like college is. All our basic needs were met, but choices were severely limited by all the rules. Because of Ashley’s MOS, there were lots of very smart (but somewhat immature) guys around. Our apartment soon became a favored hangout spot for many of his fellow specialists. Most had quit school as Ash had, because of the draft, and most liked nothing more than criticizing the Army… and generally questioning all the powers-that-be. Think college BS sessions. I loved it. And they, it seemed, loved me – a piece of home with the girl next door.

Ashley didn’t join in these conversations much. He was usually fixing someone’s car at the motor club’s garage; but even when he was home, he didn’t join in. Somehow, he often seemed “above it all,” except with Connie and Dick.

Ash had become friends with them before I arrived, so I met Connie very early-on. She would become a lifelong, and very influential, friend. I would be a different person today if I hadn’t met her. Serendipity, I think. It was she who told me I was a lot smarter than I thought I was. She was brilliant (solved matrix algebra problems for fun), a biochemist and the most unassuming, non-judgmental “smart” person I’d ever met. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but she provided exactly what I needed at that stage of my life: the confidence to be Ashley’s wife! Ash was tough, and so was Connie’s husband. Con and I were both only children, and now we each had a sister with whom to commiserate.

To this day, Connie is my favorite person to talk to on virtually any topic: religion, politics, science, culture -everything. We are both “big picture” people, so we automatically try to reconcile each discrete belief we have with every other discrete belief we have.

For example, neither of us sees religious dogma as a precursor to morality as most people do. We think an innate (not learned) sense of fairness (demonstrated when a three-year-old whose piece of cake is smaller than his brother’s will scream, “That’s not fair!”) was a precursor to religious dogma. From those beliefs, we can further conclude that religious teachings are not necessary to maintain a moral culture, and that dogma (specific beliefs as to WHAT is accepted as fair at any given time) is imposed by the prevalent culture.

“Big picture” people usually question the prevailing wisdom, examine the consequences of holding false beliefs, and try to resolve the problems politically. But that’s now. Then, we didn’t address political policies at all. Political opinion seemed a separate entity that didn’t connect to our daily lives. Boy, were we wrong about that! (Connie made the political connections before I did.)

Our time in the military is, more or less, responsible for my current political beliefs on socialism. It demonstrated to me how socialism works only in limited situations, for a limited number of people. It’s definitely not for everybody.

At the time though, I didn’t see it that way. I had read a lot about communism – we were in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and a hot war in Viet Nam, and I was not at all sure socialism was inherently bad. The civil rights movement, which still guided the few political opinions I had, was also in the news, and many social-welfare policies seemed quite attractive to me. I remember one gab-fest where a black friend said, “You guys are going to have a lot more trouble finding a job when we get out than I will.” We all agreed and were very happy that the times, they were a changin’. (1965)

It wasn’t until many years later that I looked back critically at my only personal exposure to a socialist system – the Army. I liked it for the most part; our needs were taken care of, not well, but well enough. BUT, the guys couldn’t wait to get out; they all had “short-timers” calendars, counting off the days. Hmmmmm!

I do recognize the necessity of having an authoritarian hierarchy in war-time (or in preparation for war-time). Without a strictly enforced chain of command, chaos would reign and nothing would be accomplished. But…at what cost to personal freedom? One can’t leave, can’t change jobs, can’t fraternize with those above, can’t offer opinions, and can’t do anything without permission. There is an abundance of “can’ts” and “musts” in the Army… and many are pretty darned arbitrary and capricious! In many respects, adults are treated like children, and when they are, most (if they think about it) resent it.

The military is necessarily designed to be a caste system from which one can’t easily escape until one’s time is up. Good for some, not so good for others. Almost to a man, our circle of friends got out, went back to school (if they hadn’t already graduated), and thrived in the outside world. Ash became a chemist and later a builder; Doug, a veterinarian; Lowell, an artist and a teacher. The Army was only a tiny blip in their professional progress – a positive negative, just like working in the bobby pin factory was for me. It showed us where we didn’t want to be and what we didn’t want to do.

Ash and his co-workers were a group of competitive, high achievers stuck in a system that removed merit from rewards. Being good at something didn’t pay off, so they tended to goof off. They did crossword puzzles and flew paper airplanes around ops when they weren’t busy. Hey, it’s real easy to goof off when you have that kind of job security regardless of performance. That’s not to say that response is singular to socialism, but I think any system that ignores merit and hands out attendance trophies certainly contributes to a “why bother?” attitude in some people.

Ash was once reprimanded for wearing a uniform that didn’t pass inspection. He had to do KP or something. There was something about that incident that really rubbed me the wrong way. Such a little thing, but looking back, it rather defines life in a socialist system for me. The worst boss you can imagine in a capitalist system couldn’t (and wouldn’t ) put you on KP duty for a messy uniform… and you could quit if he did. Only a government can have that kind of absolute power. Very dangerous.


We are serializing Judy Axtell's memoir, What Cost, which I edited and which is published by Outskirts Press, available from them, from and other on-line sellers.