Saturday, April 30, 2011

Son of Daermon N'a'shezbaernon

          I have, with that title, sorted my readers into two categories.  Some of you know exactly what that means, who this post is going to be about, and are rubbing your hands in anticipation of another opinion on this very fascinating subject.  The rest of you are scratching your heads and thinking, "What the..."
          Allow me to enlighten you with a tale of another man's tale.  In 1988, a visionary gentleman by the name of Robert Salvatore published a book based on the Forgotten Realms world of the Dungeons and Dragons universe.  A character he intended to be a sidekick for the hero quickly took over the tale, and the rest of Mr. Salvatore's life to date.  That character, of course, was Drizzt Do'Urden.
          Drizzt is a Drow, a Dark Elf.  In the D&D universe, the Dark Elves are an offshoot race of the elves we all know from Lord of the Rings.  Their look is a bit different, being ebony-skinned and white haired, and they live in the unforgiving underdark, a realm of caverns and tunnels honeycombing the earth far below any recorded cave system known here in the real world.  The legend is that the Drow used to live under the sun and stars alongside their cousins, the Moon Elves.  Following some long-forgotten falling out, they took to the underdark, where they brood, and plot, and nurture their carefully tended paranoia.  They are only seen on the surface during raids they make to murder, pillage, and plunder in the name of revenge, and their chosen deity, the chaos-loving spider queen, Lolth.  Not surprisingly, any surface dweller who sees one, man, elf, dwarf, or orc, has the same response: Raise the alarm, and kill it!
          Into House Do'Urden is born a son, Drizzt by name.  A quick look at the circumstances of his birth will be instructive.  His mother, matron of House Do'Urden, is using the pain of childbirth to focus a spell of destruction that she is launching against a rival house.  As the third son of the house, Drizzt is to be sacrificed, at the moment of his birth, to Lolth, who it is hoped will, in gratitude, strengthen the spell even further.  Simultaneously with the spell, her personal army is making a physical attack.  The other two sons, both adults, are officers of the assault force, and the younger, deciding that he's overdue for promotion, puts his blade in the back of the elder, rendering Drizzt the second son with the stroke of a blade, as it were.  Their sisters, high priestesses all, are mentally linked to the brothers for the attack, instantly know what has happened, and stop the sacrifice.
          Drizzt then grows up a noble in the great Drow city of Menzoberranzan, a city and culture based on deceit, intimidation, and vengeance for perceived or imagined slights.  As a male, he is trained to combat.  As an elf, he can expect to realize a lifespan of several hundred years.  After a decades-long boot camp, he gets pretty proficient.  As his training progresses, he is taken on patrols into the underdark.  This initially involves killing monsters with no redeeming qualities, and that's fine.  Then they encounter a party of Deep Gnomes trying to mine some ore, and wipe them out for no particular reason other than they can.  This is troubling to Drizzt, who seems, unlike other Drow, to have a soul, but the case can be made that the Gnomes knew where Menzoberranzan was, and chose to wander too close; their tough luck.  But when he is included on a raiding party that goes to the surface and slaughters a clan of Moon Elves whose only crime is dancing on a warm summer evening, he has had enough.  He leaves Menzoberranzan, after leaving them some deeds to remember him by, and moves out into the underdark.  After living there virtually alone for ten years, honing his skills on a collection of adventures that would power most epic fantasy series from start to finish, he moves up to the surface to take his chances.
          As you might imagine, his chances aren't good.  Every city, town, village, or farmhouse he approaches has the same response: Drow!  KILL HIM!  But as he travels, he hears things, and he begins to hear of a place called Ten Towns, a collection of hamlets far to the north on the frozen tundra, where anyone, thief, murderer, swindler, anyone, can go to make a fresh start, and prove himself by his deeds.  He goes there, but even there, he is a Drow.  He is offered a sheltered cave on the side of the only hill in the area, and given the chance to prove himself by protecting the towns from the many considerable dangers of the unforgiving realm.  This he does, and he gradually earns the respect and affection of a small group of close friends who have powered his epic tale through twenty-one novels and eight spin offs that continue to this day; the first book of the latest trilogy was released late last year.
          I stumbled across the first set, The Icewind Dale Trilogy, about six years ago if memory serves.  Since then, I have painstakingly tracked down and obtained copies of every book, and devoured them twice over.  I have fervently recommended them to friends and family alike, and no one will read them.  Their loss, believe me!  Their lives are the poorer for their choice.  I come to this post to offer everyone who stops here that same chance for enrichment.
          Now, Robert Salvatore is neither the style of author, nor does he write in a field, that is going to put him in future literature textbooks alongside Dickens, Tolstoy, or even Tolkien.  I suggest that if you want to study the mechanics of writing, or the nuances of timeless literature, take a class.  The appeal of the Drizzt stories is that of an outsider, shunned and reviled for no worthwhile reason, who perseveres and grows in the face of all of it.  It's a story of loyalty, and the meaning of true friendship (a concept that seems almost forgotten in the modern world), and the lengths and risks that friends will go to for one another; it is about the strength one gains by being and having such friends.  It is filled with philosophy, mainly in the form of the outlook and occasional ruminations of a being raised from birth to be pure evil, but who finds the path of good to be so much more attractive.  There are even current events tucked into the story of a world whose machinations often closely mirror our own.
          I guess the summary to all this is that, while Drizzt will probably never be regarded as anything but fluff by the I'm smarter than you are bullies we call mainstream critics, there is a lot more here than the sometimes lurid cover art would suggest.  As someone once said, "I always feel sorry for those who refuse to read; they only get to live one life."
          If you think you might like to spend years immersed in a series that will stir your spirit with selfless acts of courage and sacrifice, that will wound your heart with stories of love, fulfilled and not, that will make you laugh out loud or burst into tears in public places without shame, then these books are what you have been looking for.
          The first three novels have been bound together in an impressive tome called The Icewind Dale Trilogy.  I think it's in print, but whether it is or not, carries it, and it's probably available from whatever retailer you favor as well.  The older sets are bound the same way, and then, as they become more recent, you'll be buying individual books.  Consider the (very reasonable) cost of these works your ticket to an alternate world that you'll ache to escape to every chance you get.  Now, quit wasting time on this measly little blog, and begin your quest to find them!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

You Can Take it With You

          Today I'm going to talk about things irrevocably lost, and what a tragedy that is for those who have lost them.  I'm talking here of family secrets, those little things that don't seem to amount to much on the face of it, but when the sole custodian of said lore passes from this life to whatever comes next, those left behind suddenly find that they mean a lot more than anybody thought.
          I have written on this site, and The Tyler Gang, of the fact that I was raised by older women.  The oldest of them was my great-grandmother, Louise Willis Holt.  She was born near Asheville, NC in 1888.  Those who raised her had been children in slave-owning families.  When fried chicken was on the menu, she went out to the yard, selected a chicken, wrung its neck, plucked it, cleaned it; it was an all day job, and that was for one course of one meal.  When she said she made something from scratch, what she meant was that she planted the seed, tended the crop, harvested the product, and milled it on a flat stone.  She considered a store-bought bag of flour to be a pre-packaged meal; I can only imagine with what level of suspicion she viewed the arrival of the TV Dinner.  Being a woman at the turn of the 20th century wasn't work for sissies!
          And what did I gain from this?  An illustration will suffice:  In the mid-1980s, my wife was the admin coordinator for the portion of a shipyard that did dockside repairs on aircraft carriers.  They had an overhaul in hand, which, as they always did, carried an undercurrent of urgency as part of its usual baggage.  Bonnie received permission to bring a pertinent computer home to attempt to complete the specification package over the weekend.  She enlisted the aid of her sister, who had done closely related work, and I remember the two of them, heads together, at the kitchen table engaged in the work of defending America while I kept our four (between us) preteens safe, entertained, and out of their hair.  Around noon on Sunday, Bonnie suddenly said, "Oh my God, it's Easter!  I have to get dinner ready!"  I told her not to sweat it, that I'd whip up something, and I proceeded to bring a nine course supper to the table with every dish done to perfection and ready simultaneously.  Thanks, grandma!
          These are the skills my upbringing provided me.  Things I had to teach myself were everything a boy learns from the men in his life.  Another man might have stood like a deer in the headlights and said, "Well, Dear, do what you can.  I'll just stay out of your way."  Of course, that same man, if his wife's car threw a piston, would just as likely say, "No sweat.  I'll have it running by bedtime."  We learn what we learn.  But grandma taught generalities, and she taught without teaching.  My knowledge is of how and why things work, from pressure cookers to convection ovens, but specific recipes are mere guidelines, and not to be memorized.
          Anyone who follows any sort of technical trade or hobby knows that you can work wonders with that sort of background, a spur of the moment Easter dinner, for example, but it is also the means by which two of the most magnificent confections that ever passed my lips were lost.  Grandma made a yellow cake with chocolate frosting that was to die for.  She would buy a box of yellow cake mix and make two layers (the photo is from; if any photos of my great-grandma's cake exist, I'm not aware of them).  While those were baking, she would shave unsweetened chocolate from a bar, mix it with confectioner's sugar, sticks of real butter, vanilla, and a few other ingredients, boil it on the stove, and when the layers came out of the oven, she would slather this stuff on, and there was an agonizing wait while it set up (She used to say, "Me and Betty Crocker made a cake.").  When it was ready to serve, the knife would crack this frosting, and when I got my piece, I would flake the icing off, eat the cake first, then savor what amounted to two firm, grainy, wedge-shaped chocolate bars that Hershey would have killed to be able to duplicate.  A similar tragic loss was her lemon-meringue pie.  Understand that I was no fan of lemons, pies, or beaten egg whites, but this was second only to that cake in my hierarchy of treats.  She never wrote them down, she never taught them, and when she died, they died with her.  Thanks again, grandma... 
          Another thing that can be lost is family history.  I have learned to be very skeptical when people say things like, "It's long been known in my family that so-and-so was the personal armorer to King Richard during the crusades."  Maybe.  Have you ever played that children's game where all the kids sit in a circle, the first one whispers some "fact" to the one on his right, it goes around the circle, and by the time it gets back to the first kid, it bears no resemblance to what he said in the first place?  Yeah, family history.  My great-grandmother's son was an Air Force officer.  He fought in three wars, worked in the Pentagon, and retired as a Major General.  Very illustrious career the man had.  Our family history was always that he was the pilot of a B-17 out of either Manston or Maidston, England, and performed missions over Germany and occupied Western Europe.  I only saw him once a year when he visited on leave, and he never talked about what was to him ancient history.  He'd talk about what he was doing right then, but World War II was a distant memory for him.  Sometimes his mother, who had received his mail during the war, would say things about him, but never in the form of a complete story, hence the piecing together of what we could get.  The only thing that stood out in my mind was the name of the plane, the Axis Ass Ache. 
          Fast-forward to a few years ago.  The internet is well established with links to everything that anyone cares to post, including their old pictures.  What you see here is the only known photograph of the Axis Ass Ache, posing for her picture following mission 47.  That is my uncle, 2nd Lt. Bill Holt, crouched in the center, looking like he's been highlighted.  The trim, good-looking young man at his right shoulder is 1st Lt. Tom Kaufman, the pilot and ship commander.  Uncle Bill was the co-pilot, and the plane was in the 99th Bombardment Group, which flew its missions out of Algeria, Tunis, and finally Italy.  Their missions were flown over Italy, the Balkans, and the offshore island bases.  He flew in an era when a crew had to finish fifty missions before they could come home and sell war bonds.  On one of their first missions, they were assigned to bomb an Italian fighter base that I believe was on Sardinia (See, I'm doing it myself.  I don't want to keep cutting back and forth to do research, so I'm relying on memory, with the risk of the waters getting muddied even more.).  They arrived to find the Italian fighters aloft and waiting for them, which should have been a death sentence for the big, unmaneuverable planes locked into their defensive boxes and precision bomb runs.  They responded by decimating the Italian fighters in the air and going on to bomb their base, earning in the process their first Presidential Unit Citation.  On mission 49, shot to pieces by flak and fighters, and facing a long flight back across the Mediterranean, they opted to attempt a landing at an Allied fighter base on Pantellaria.  A forward fighter base's runway is a half-mile too short for a B-17 on its best day.  They came in probably hot, fighting for control, the gear collapsed, they slid off the end of the runway, and when the dust settled, the plane was past any useful function beyond providing a few spare parts.  Her last log entry reads, "Attempted emergency landing.  Gear collapsed.  Crew survived; plane didn't."
          That's all I have, and it isn't much, but I feel like I've really accomplished something, given how little I knew before, and how wrong even that was.  Did they make  him complete that 50th mission with another plane?  Was he excused from it?  Was he excused because of injuries sustained in the crash?  If he had a Purple Heart, I never knew about it.  But with all that said, and all that's still missing, look at how different it is from what we thought we knew before.  And this is with the principal actor alive and available to us in person.  I'm not saying your family legends are wrong.  I have no knowledge of them, and would never presume to question, but you should, for your own peace of mind, and the sheer joy of rediscovering the truth.  You may not be who you thought you were, and wouldn't that be worth knowing?

          One last thing, and a great gift to leave your family should you depart unexpectedly.  Not pleasant to think about, but it happens.  Should you die or become comatose, your family is going to be in a highly stressed condition, and dealing with a world of urgent issues that they never foresaw, no matter how prepared they think they are.  How much harder will all that become if your financial records, your insurance policies, your deeds and trusts, even contact with your friends and acquaintances, are locked up behind passwords and PINs?  I know that in my own case, I have worked for the military all my life, and by habit, all my passwords are military grade, so nobody is going to put in my mother's maiden name, or my daughter's birthday, and voila, everything is laid out before them.  You don't want to carry these things around, or make them easily accessible, but here's my suggestion.  Write them in indelible ink on heavy cardstock (like an index card).  Hide them somewhere, between two specific pages of an old book, or the bottom of your toolbox, you know a good spot.  Then write down where they are, and carry that instruction in your wallet, and put another copy with your important papers, and anywhere else you think people will look if the worst happens.  Believe me, you'll make the lives of your loved ones a lot easier!
          Okay, I have you mad at your ancestors, questioning your peers, and worried about dropping dead without warning; my work here is done!  Now, get out there and live life like you mean it!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Jolly Mon Sing

          Anybody in this audience a Parrothead?  Is there anyone in this audience who isn't a Parrothead?  There's something about that music.  You might not hear your first Jimmy Buffett song until you're 55, but once you do, you're an instant fan.  Whether it's the all-in party lyrics of Cheeseburger in Paradise, the Latin rhythms of Desperation Samba, or the haunting strains of A Pirate looks at 40, you hear the song once, and it owns you.  Do you wonder what to call it?  I do sometimes.  It isn't rock, it isn't folk, it isn't country, it isn't strictly jazz, although radio stations specializing in all of those formats will claim him as their own, and play his music like they invented it.  You can hear the calypso, especially in the steel drum work, and a fine edge of reggae will tickle your ear if you listen for it, but it isn't any of those things.

          After listening for a good long time, what I think I hear is the siren call of leaving the rat race behind, and heading for the islands for a permanent vacation.  Heck yeah, leave your demanding boss, your freeloading brother-in-law (he's figured out how to do it, hasn't he?), your eternally complaining landlord, heck, even your nagging wife, if your luck's really out!  Like the man says,
     "Pack your bag and hit the trail,
      hoist your sail and wind up
      on some moonlit bay."
Oh yeah, ease out the back door, and head for the nearest tropical island paradise.

          Ah, but wait.  I once lived on a tropical island for seventeen of the longest months of my life, and I'm not entirely convinced that it's the right call for a city boy like myself.  See, I was born in Balboa Park.  To a San Diegan, that is the equivalent of a New Yorker saying that he was born in Central Park; you don't get any more San Diegan than that.  Consequently, I have spent the bulk of my adult life with every service, every product, every form of recreation and productive employment virtually within walking distance, and it was misery to give it up.
          So, what's the modern drill?  You buy your thousand dollar plane ticket, pack enough clothes and sundries to sustain an expedition up the Amazon, and head out for paradise, which in the current cultural climate, generally means Hawaii.  You're met at the airport by bored hula dancers who throw a lei (that was probably made in China) around your neck, and an air-conditioned cab whisks you off to your $500-a-night luxury hotel, whereupon you lie on the beach sipping pina coladas for two weeks, before you have to head back home to your slavin' job way before you're ready.  Of course everyone wants to call the boss from Waikiki and tell him to "kiss this!"  The problem is that two weeks isn't quite enough time to do everything...

          I was sentenced stationed on Guam from early 1967 to mid 1968.  I am given to understand that Guam is much like Hawaii these days, and the photos certainly bear that out.  In the mid 1960s, it was the home of the Chamorro natives, a proud and noble people, that had been taken over by the U. S. military during the course of World War II.  Here's a little-noted fact about the U. S. military: Once they go somewhere, they never leave!  There was very little there in the way of modern amenities, even for the military, who had taken over half of the island, the desirable half, leaving the Chamorros to divide up what was left.  The whole place looked much as it did the day after the last Japanese soldier had given up the fight; roads were paved with crushed coral, many businesses were still in Quonset huts, the native islanders had very little use for us, it was just unpleasant.  Like the unofficial anthem said around verse 46:
     "Guam is good, Guam is good,
      that's what the natives say,
      and we're mighty glad that they told us,
      'cause we'd never find out any other way!"

          I think the thing is that people go to a tropical tourist mecca, and everything is polished, and packaged, and put on display; there are shows to go to, outrigger canoe rides, frozen daiquiris served from a bamboo bar you can swim up to and order.  Everyone is bending over to cater to the vacationer's every whim, and it seems like this is the way that God meant his children to live.  Ah, but go to an island where the people just live, and things are a little different.  Guam had beautiful beaches, stimulating jungle hikes, breathtaking vistas, and yet living there wasn't for sissies.  Talk to me about mailing in your resignation about three months in, when you've memorized the positions of individual rocks on your favorite beach, and given names to the hermit crabs that swarm for a handout every time you sit down there.  Once you've made a few hikes, you'll become a big fan of reading (if you can find any current books in the local library)!

          Now, it is certainly not my intention to disparage any Chamorros here.  I came to love the islanders, and have great respect for their stoic strength in the face of what had been done to their home, but island life isn't for me.  It's fine, I guess, if you have a big bank account to draw from, and never have to turn a hand to get anything you want, but it's a tough place to make a living.  You're a fisherman, or a tiny-scale farmer, or a craftsman who can make something someone else needs.  And the latest gadget, the latest fad, the latest fashion, music, movies and TV, all seem to get there last.  My advice: if you think island life is in your blood, book three months at a non-tourist destination, and see how it goes.  As for me, I'll sit on my patio with my lemon-ice tea, listen to Jimmy Buffett sing songs about a life that doesn't exist, and hop in my dinged-up pickup for a short trip to Wal-Mart for anything that strikes my fancy!

          Meet Me in Margaritaville (pictured above); it's a great album if you haven't met the maestro yet.  38 quintessential songs on two CDs.  You'll look back in a year and say it was the best music you ever bought.

Til next time, live well, and be safe!
- Jack

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