Monthly Archives: February 2014

Third World Service Comes To America

I was born in 1956, and have lived in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area all my life. About twenty years ago, I began noticing a disturbing trend. The services we used to take for granted, that reflected our status as one of the wealthiest areas in the richest country on earth, have changed dramatically for the worst.

When I was a kid, in the 1960s, it never occurred to me that we might lose power for any extended period of time. That only happened during thunderstorms, and it was kind of exciting to light candles and play Monopoly or Scrabble for a few hours. The idea that the electricity would go out during a snowstorm would have been incomprehensible. Ice never worried us, and never caused any power outages, even though all the power lines were above ground back then. My much older sisters-who grew up in the 1940s-have told me things were much the same in that era.

Now, before any of the way too frequent “big” storm watches, snow, ice or otherwise, the mainstream media dutifully passes on the statements from local utility companies, that we must expect massive power outages, possibly lasting for days. With our advances in technology, and the fact many power lines now are below ground, how can we possibly accept a much lower quality of service than we were receiving as long as seventy years ago? A few years ago, during that violent thunderstorm that was subsequently termed a “derecho” (a word I’d never heard before), we lost power for four days. All our power lines are underground. This was a completely ridiculous, inexcusable situation, but I appear to be the only one complaining, or even noticing.

Even more inexplicable is the present tendency of large trees to come crashing down, on power wires or too often into homes, during thunderstorms, or even snow falls. I lived, until the age of nineteen, in a house that had 250 acres of thick woods behind it. There were numerous tall trees in our backyard. Never once, during those nineteen years, did I witness a single tree going down, due to lightning, heavy ice or snow, or wind. Was my experience out of the norm; just a fluky anomaly? Are modern day trees wimpier than they used to be? What is going on?

Then you have the snow removal services. In our area, this is VDOT (Virginia Department of Transportation). I have been ranting and raving about their woeful “performance” for years, but when I was young, and even well into the 1980s, someone cleared the streets much more quickly, thoroughly and efficiently. I’ve grown exasperated watching VDOT plow trucks sitting on the side of the road- often in groups of six or more-while motorists try to cope with that particular un-plowed road. And I’d be a millionaire if I had a dime for every time I’ve seen one of these vehicles driving along with their plows proudly up in the air, plowing nothing. Often these same non-plowing plow trucks are going well below the speed limit, so they are backing traffic up.

I’ve called VDOT, and sent them emails, but they don’t respond. Clearly, it is either their policy to tell their drivers to spend more time with their plows up, instead of actually plowing, or these drivers are sociopaths that enjoy irritating and inconveniencing the public. Either way, we’re not getting First World service any more, from the state agency our tax dollars finance for the purpose of clearing the roads in inclement weather, or the public utility companies we pay ever increasing rates to. And then there are the median strips, and other common areas that local governments are responsible for maintaining. They simply aren’t mowing the grass in those areas, or clearing out the weeds and brush, at anywhere near the level they used to. Thus, we are starting to take on the look of a Third World nation.

As is the case with all our tax dollars, we are paying more and more for less and less. We have more money than any country in the world; there is no excuse for this kind of woeful waste of resources. The question is; why do we accept this reduction of services? I understand that our power grids are pitifully out of date and in dire need of upgrading (and, of course, why weren’t they upgraded long ago?), but even so, we have a right to expect much, much better.

My Childhood Literary Influences

I always wanted to be a writer. I was a voracious reader, from the moment I first picked up a book. I still remember going to the old Annandale Library, before they built the shiny new George Mason Regional Library. Some of my fondest memories are of going there every few weeks, often with my best friend Jeff Amann, and replacing one pile of books with new ones. Unlike a lot of kids, I eagerly awaited the end of school year summer reading list, and tried to read the recommended books.

Some of my earliest favorites were the Henry Huggins series by Beverly Cleary. Like most children I adored the classic fairy tales by the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, and still enjoy them. I read a lot of biographies written for children, for historical characters like Abraham Lincoln, Babe Ruth, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. I recall having a great debate with myself over who really was the last to die at the Alamo, Bowie or Crockett. Starting a lifelong fascination with Alfred Hitchcock, I gobbled up the short stories in his anthologies for young readers, like Monster Museum, Ghostly Gallery and Spellbinders in Suspense. A few years later, I would devour his detective series of Three Investigators books; the early ones were written by Robert Arthur, one of my favorite short story writers and someone who deserves more acclaim, in my view.

I became a huge fan of the Hardy Boys mystery books, written by a variety of authors, under the Franklin W. Dixon pen name. I loved the Chip Hilton series of sports books even more. They were written by Clair Bee, a former college coach. Back in the late 1990s, I exchanged a few emails with Bee’s daughter, Cindy Farley, in which she gave me a bit of background information about the characters and story lines.

My favorite childhood author was Edward Eager. I read and re-read all seven of his books, especially the ones I consider his essential four (Half Magic, Magic by the Lake, Knight’s Castle, The Time Garden). I loved the fact Eager wove the characters from his first two books (which were set in the 1920s) into the other books, with the children in the first books being the parents of the kids in the later books. The illustrations, by N.M. Bodecker, were outstanding and complemented Eager’s writing perfectly. I also emailed the son of Bodecker, in the hope he had some information about the elusive Eager, of which very little is known, but he really had nothing to offer. I’ve had a notion to write a biography about Edward Eager for quite some time, but it seems impossible to find any information about him, which is strange considering he died in 1964 and was a fairly renowned literary figure.

Any story about magic appealed to me. Thus, Edward Eager begat the works of E. Nesbit, written at the beginning of the twentieth century, which had deeply influenced him. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet were more detailed, and longer, and evoked an era that I found exotic and exciting. Other favorite books along this line were Steel Magic by Andre Norton, The Peculiar Miss Pickett by Nancy R. Julian, and in a slightly different vein, the wonderful Mary Poppins series by P.L. Travers. Walt Disney’s version, with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, is in my all-time top ten list of films, but nothing could compare to the books.

Another enduring theme that still intrigues me is time travel. I read several of the Danny Dunn books, written by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams, but my clear favorite was 1963’s Danny Dunn, Time Traveler. I still think the best time travel story I ever read was Danger: Dinosaurs, by Richard Marsten, whose real name was Salvatore Lombino. He had quite an interesting career as a screenwriter, using the better known pseudonym Evan Hunter, contributing the screenplay to the movie The Blackboard Jungle and, more impressively from my point of view, the original script for Hitchcock’s classic The Birds. The short story that movie was based on, written by Daphne Du Maurier, was far different from the movie Hitchcock directed, reminding me of how Pierre Boulle’s novelette Planet of the Apes was nothing like any of the movies later released under that name.

I found the Moffats series of books, by Eleanor Estes, strangely fascinating. They were illustrated by the distinctive drawings of Louis Slobodkin. I think Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking character was one of the most original in all of children’s literature. I was awed by her independent, highly unconventional lifestyle. As a huge sports fan, I read all the baseball fiction produced by authors like Matt Christopher and Robert Bowen. I really enjoyed Keith Robertson’s Henry Reed books, especially Henry Reed’s Journey, since I only had one family vacation as a youth. They were illustrated by the wonderful Robert McCloskey, who also wrote books like the charming Homer Price and Centerburg Tales. 

I supplemented my reading with regular doses of comic books. I was a DC guy- loved Superman and Batman, and whenever I had an extra 12 cents, I bought the latest World’s Finest or Jimmy Olsen, or better yet, some Superman-themed 80 page Giant, an incredible deal for only a quarter. I went through many of the Classics Illustrated comics, which were exceptionally well done and nurtured a love of the real classics, at least for me. David Copperfield was my favorite Classics Illustrated, and after I read the actual novel by Dickens, I instantly considered it the most impressive piece of literature ever written.

My favorite book of all during childhood was Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. The first chapter, from the opening line, was gripping and still the best ever written, in my opinion. It was one of several books that clearly inspired my own later fiction, especially my 2007 novel The Unreals.  Like Lewis Carroll’s timeless Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, it has an enduring appeal to adults as well as children. I feel fortunate to have established a cyber relationship with Lena Roy, Madeline L’Engle’s granddaughter. She is an accomplished author herself; her acclaimed young adult novel Edges was published in 2010.

 I think one has to love reading to become a writer. I even liked the smell of books. As a child, I would bury my nose in them and inhale deeply. I learned the differences between the way a paperback and a hardback smelled, to recognize the musty scent of an older book, versus the fresh ink of a recently published one. One of the greatest thrills of my life was holding a copy of my novel The Unreals in my hand, and looking at the cover intently, with my name printed there, then turning it over and looking at the back, placing it on a shelf and staring at the spine. I’m sure that’s a surreal experience for every writer.

Ironically, while I read as much fiction as I possibly could as a child and as a teenager, my adult reading has gravitated almost exclusively to nonfiction. Once I started writing seriously, I found it hard to read fiction written by someone else, unless it was Charles Dickens or some other legendary figure. But I can still pick up some of my old childhood favorites, and recognize the brilliance, and be captivated once more by the same characters and the same stories, a child again in a more interesting world.