Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Skymaster

Skymaster
From the series Uncle Oz Explains Things
By Rick Just

I was maybe ten when I took my first helicopter ride. It was memorable mostly because the helicopter was made out of a Buick.
Ralph Higgins was handy that way with just about anything that had a bolt. He’d found the Buick—practically new—in a junkyard over in Blackfoot. Ralph loved junkyards, because he could see the possibilities. There would be a Thunderbird that had flipped end-to-end through the lava rocks and he would hardly notice that the body looked like metal cats had clawed it. What he would notice was how perfect that one bucket seat was. New, practically. Perfect to replace the seat with on his D-9 Caterpiller.
So, Ralph was naturally drawn to this 1956 Buick Roadmaster hardtop. It was the kind with the chrome swoop on the side that would make the folks at Nike jealous, and four—FOUR!—portholes in the front fenders. It had also had fender fins. Pretty good ones, though not as good as Cadillacs about that time were sporting.
Now, you probably think I made a mistake when I said it “had also had.” That’s awkward grammar, to be sure, but it is accurate awkward grammar. The Roadmaster once had finned fenders in the rear, but that was before it, let’s say, backed into a telephone pole going about 75 miles an hour. Hit the thing square on like it was aiming to kiss wood with the trunk emblem. This had turned the back of the Buick into a U-shape that was nearly an O-shape, with the fenders about to touch tips.
Ralph saw none of that. Through his eyes this was a shiny new Roadmaster with 536 miles on the odometer, drastically reduced in price. He haggled that price down a bit, getting the guy at the yard to throw in a used rear axle that would fit the Buick, since the one it had was compromised in that the differential was full of wood splinters and dirt.  
But it wasn’t just the Buick that caught Ralph’s eye that day. He also took a shine to an army helicopter that had taken what they call in the military a “hard landing.” Ralph bought the whole thing, though he had his heart set mostly on the blades and the gears and shafts that made them turn.
Now, this is all just backstory to help you understand how it came to pass that I took my first helicopter ride with Ralph.
I was in the habit of visiting the man on dull summer days because he always had something going on and it usually involved noise and sparks. Occasionally, explosions. Ralph let me putter around in his shop making useful things like a go cart that could, in a pinch, cut grass.
When I skidded to a stop on my Schwinn that morning I was most impressed with the gleam coming off the fenders that were sticking out of the front of Ralph’s shop. It was unusual for anything to gleam in that building, which itself was constructed from tarpaper and warped planks that Ralph had scavenged from rotting sheds and barns that were peacefully returning to nature before he came along.
The Buick, bright red except for the roof and the area below the aforementioned swoop on the side, the color of rich cream, was the newest machine that had ever graced the shop. This was in 1956 and the car was a 1956! I thought my heart would about stop. I thought Ralph had won the lottery, or I would have thought that, had there been one back then. This was so uncharacteristic of the man that I wondered if maybe he’d had a stroke and couldn’t keep himself from spending money on a new thing. Ralph spent a lot of money on old things and broken things and wrecked things, hoping to turn them into something better than new through the alchemy of an acetylene torch and liberally applied bailing wire, but to buy a thing when it was already new would, in Ralph’s mind, bring down the wrath of the duct tape gods.
I confess my jaw was hanging down like the tailgate of the 1937 through 1940 cut-down and pasted together almost-a-Ford that Ralph called his pickup. Then I saw Ralph, working his way forward along the driver’s door with a clean rag—an item as rare in that place as a badger in the Safeway—polishing the paint until he could see himself, which was also amazing because upon glimpsing his reflection Ralph did not startle and shriek.
I was used to the way Ralph looked, but I suspected he was not himself well acquainted with the countenance he put forward to the world. Ralph had enough of his fingers left to establish a quorum, but just. He was missing the lobe of one ear, from the base of which ran a ragged scar down along his jaw on the right hand side, which did a quick U-turn before it got quite to his chin, then meandered across his cheek to one eye, jumped the socket of same, burrowed under his eyebrow and ran out of gas halfway across his forehead. That eye, the one on the right, was the easiest of the pair to look at. It was perfect glass and sported none of the yellowing and—I swear—throbbing veins of its head mate.
Point of fact it took a fair amount of looking before one could make out these details. Ralph found “mechaniking,” as he called it, easier to do if he were thoroughly greased from his matted locks to the flapping sole on his left shoe. To say that he was dirty was to give grime too little credit. To this day I don’t even know what race Ralph was. The only color associated with his body that I could attest to was the aforementioned eye, which was red, white, and blue, and yellow, and the pink of his tongue, which sometimes appeared between the two nicotine-stained teeth that made themselves known by their jaunty angles.
So, Ralph. He noticed me and gave me his impersonation of a grin.
“’Lo, Ozzie,” he said.
“’Lo,” said I.
“You wanna go for a ride in this baby?”
I nodded that I did, just short of the moment I spotted the helicopter blade. To be fair, I would have agreed to go for a ride if I knew all about the tacked on rotor. Thanks to Ralph I had already experimented with locomotion through three of the four elements, earth, water and fire—the latter on a rocket powered sled—so air seemed like the next logical step.
Ralph slipped behind the wheel of the Buick, started it up, and drove, and drove, and drove it out of the shed. The car had acquired a tail and a tail rotor from the slightly used helicopter. Where once fins flared behind the rear whitewalls there now grew rebar braces and scab welding which indelicately mated the automobile with the stabilizing end of the aircraft. Sprouting from the roof of the Buick was the main rotor, one blade facing forward and the other facing back.
In a laudable attempt at aesthetics, Ralph had used red barn paint to tie the tail in with the color scheme of the car. He had also added a touch that I would have found charming, if I knew then what charming was. He had pried off the “Road” from the Roadmaster nameplate on the side of the car and replaced it with a word in a slightly different font. The word was “Sky,” probably borrowed from a Buick Skylark. Thus, Skymaster.
“Hop in, then,” Ralph called.
Hop I did not. Get in—cautiously, with much trepidation—I did.
Ralph revved the big V-8. It was quite a lot louder than necessary, which met with my immediate approval.
“I re-routed the exhaust pipes through them portholes in the fenders. You like?”
He revved the engine again. It backfired once when he let off the gas, shooting a little ball of flame from the passenger side fender. I liked it very much.
Now, I don’t know where the term “bucket seat” originated, and I won’t make a claim that Ralph had anything to do with it. I will point out, though, that the passenger seat in the Buick was an actual bucket, turned upside down and secured by bailing wire disappearing through holes in the carpet. Ralph’s side had a cut down kitchen chair—one of those chrome things so popular in the 50s—welded to the floorboards. This was necessary because there was little room for anything else because of the mechanism for the rotor that loomed in the center of the passenger compartment.
We rolled out onto the gravel road that ran along in front of Ralph’s place. He had the radio on because, though he didn’t go to a lot of dances, Ralph did enjoy the music of the day. The Platters, at that moment, were singing “My Prayer.”
The car moved along pretty much as any car of Ralph’s would, which is to say quickly, noisily, and with little indication of shock absorbers. We were doing about 70 when we left the gravel and hit the paved surface of the farm to market road which, I am almost certain, had not been engineered as a runway.
The speedometer needle was quivering around 90 when Ralph asked, “Are ya ready?”
I don’t recall answering, and I’m not sure what ready would have looked like. Nevertheless, Ralph reached forward and grabbed a lever I hadn’t noticed. It looked like it had spent its better years as the key feature of a dump rake. He yanked the lever back hard.
The blade that stuck out in front of the car had to that point bounced quietly up and down with the rhythm of the ruts. Now, it shot to the left and came around again before I could turn my head. By the third rotation it was just a blur. At the same time I noticed a draft fluffing up my short sleeve shirt on my left. I turned my head just enough to see that there was a mass of gears, chains, and shafts all in manic motion inches from my 75 pound body, threatening to reach out and claw me into its maw. OHSHA was years away, so there was little hope of rescue.
Ralph gave a cry that was close enough to “Yee-haw!!” for the telling of this story. It was in celebration of the nose of the Skymaster lifting off the ground. I could tell this because the ground was no longer there in front of me. I might have glimpsed it out the side window if my neck weren’t locked in place. I dared not look left because I knew what I’d see. I dared not look right because I did not know what I would see.
So, eyes straight ahead, unblinking, I joined the Platters in prayer.
“Well, dang!” Ralph shouted over the mechanical clatter between us. “I did forget that.”
I might have asked what he had forgotten, but I could see from the corner of my eye that he was spinning the wheel back and forth to no effect. Steering. He had forgotten to include some method of controlling the direction the airborne Skymaster might take.
This was of immediate importance, though from my perch atop the galvanized bucket I was not aware of it. It seems we were coming up on the bridge. It was not a noteworthy bridge in any aspect before that day. It crossed a canal, holding itself up by a grid of steel girders on either side. There was room for two cars to pass coming in opposite directions, though most people tended not to test that when they came to the bridge and another car was approaching from the other side. Depending on the age and/or maturity of the drivers, the cars would either race to see who crossed the bridge first, or slow to let the other guy pass.
We were not slowing. We were, in fact, flying, albeit low. I estimate we were at that moment about a foot off the ground. At our apogee, we might have reached the height of a horse, though Ralph would argue for many hands higher. Still, with no steering and no tires on the ground to facilitate braking, we were somewhat at the mercy of physics.
Clean living—probably my own, since I was the only possible candidate—allowed us to thread that needle. That is, the Skymaster centered on the bridge as we shot across it in the air. All things added up, this was a good thing. Ralph might argue that a few feet in any of three directions, including up, would have improved the outcome.
The whirling blade of the horizontal rotor smacked into the sides of the bridge at something like a zillion miles an hour. The bridge didn’t budge. The rotor of the Skymaster dematerialized in that memorable instant, dropping the Buick to the pavement. So, now we were going 90 miles per hour with a churning conglomeration of gears and metal shards exploding in the interior of the car with us. But, we were on the ground.
The momentum of the Skymaster blades hitting the immovable bridge supports pulled that precision mechanism out of the car like God himself had reached in and plucked it away. With it came the roof of the car, or the better part of it.
Ralph had the presence of mind, or more likely the animal instinct to stand on the brake pedal. He may even have been doing this before we hit the bridge. It was, however, to no avail. The exiting rotor mechanism that was so intimately connected to the car had pulled much of the mechanical niceties away with it, including the brake lines. The engine of the Buick stayed more-or-less in place. As we careened along, Ralph recovering from an endless series of skids by spinning the steering wheel left and right, I heard the V8 sputter to a stop. Eventually, so did we.
In the years that followed I would ride in several helicopters, sometimes hearing ominous pings of ricochet off the fuselage. At those times I would think of Ralph and my introduction to the glorious air in the Buick Skymaster and say a silent prayer of thanks that this flight was so much better.



Monday, June 16, 2014

Word Count

A fellow writer asked a question yesterday in the Idaho Writers Guild (IWG) forum regarding how long a novel should be. The snarky answer, and maybe the best one, is: As long as it needs to be.
However, there’s the market to consider. At recent a IWG writers conference a panel of agents addressed this question. They said the market is looking for books in the range of 40,000 to 60,000 words. Books over 100,000 words are strongly discouraged. The three books in my YA series The Wizards Trilogy ranged from 100,000 to 125,000, so I broke that rule. Gone With the Wind has more than 425,000 words, so Margaret Mitchell broke it, too. Rules change.
Cruise the internet for a minute and you’ll get all kind of answers and quibbling on this subject. Well, any subject. It does seem that the big five publishers are looking for shorter books these days. My latest book, Anjel, has just short of 70,000 words. The one I’m working on right now will have about 45,000 words.
As with most things in life, the slimming down of novels has aspects both good and bad. Clearly, it’s good for publishers to keep the page count down, especially for books sold online where you don’t get to heft them. It’s bad for readers who want to wallow in the next Game of Thrones, or who are listening to a book on a 10-hour trip.
Overall, the trend is probably positive. The best advice a new writer can get is to cut their manuscript mercilessly. If shorter books mean writing is sparer, that’s usually a good thing. It worked for Hemmingway. I hope it doesn’t discourage the next Dickens. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Squirm

Here’s how it usually goes:

Interviewer asks a pointed question, often one that can be answered with yes or no.

Interviewee does a rumba that is, perhaps, within a light year of answering the question, but does not answer the question at all.

Interviewer moves on to the next question.

Yesterday, NPR’s Terry Gross strayed from that time honored script and kept asking Hillary Clinton a question until Clinton actually answered it. It took some persistence on the interviewer’s part, and it ultimately irritated Clinton.

Why Clinton didn’t just answer the question in the first place is a mystery. Gross, essentially asked, Did you personally support gay marriage when you served in Congress, but feel you had to publicly oppose it because your constituents did not support it?

Clinton has always supported gay rights in general, and today supports the right for gays to marry. Admitting that she changed her mind over time would have been simply admitting that she was human. Prevaricating did nothing for her politically except to brand her as yet another dissembling politician.

I’m disappointed in Clinton. But there is someone here to celebrate: Terry Gross.

If more interviewers would emulate the persistence of the Fresh Air host, we would have a much clearer understanding of what our politicians believe. Don’t just give them a pass when they fail to answer a question. It is not rude to rephrase the question and go after them again.

In Idaho, we want to know where politicians stand on adding the four words, sexual orientation and gender identity, to the Idaho Human Rights Act. They refuse to tell us, going so far as to keep the amendment from coming before committee for eight years. You see, if they let the amendment be heard, then they will have to vote on it. They will have to take a stand. This will upset some of their constituents, no matter which way they vote.

Boo hoo.

It is in our best interest if we know where our elected leaders stand. Making a decision about important issues is what we elect them for.


I encourage all politicians to be honest and open with their constituents about this and every other issue. Yes, I actually wrote that. Assuming that sentence will not have the power to move mountains, I’ll try another. I challenge all those in the media to emulate Terry Gross and stop letting politicians squirm away from answering. Further, I challenge constituents to ask the questions themselves during this political season, and keep asking them until you get an answer. If they answer honestly, thank them for that, even if it isn’t the answer you hoped for.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Countdown Deals

I’m doing a couple of countdown promotions on Amazon for Kindle books, both beginning June 8 and running for five days. Anjel will sell for 99 cents starting June 8, and the price will go up a bit each day until it is back to its regular price of $5.99. The deal for the Wizards Trilogy runs for the same period, but only in the UK. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Physics of Firth

I'm a bit between books, right now. With one out to beta readers I'm reluctant to start a new, long project. So, I've been entertaining myself by writing short pieces. Here's one I hope you'll enjoy.



The Physics of Firth
A triptych of Wasted Youth
By Rick Just
There are more than 31 million seconds in a year. Using that math, I estimate the caution light in Firth, Idaho had blinked about 1.6 trillion times before Chuck and I noticed it. We were not oblivious to the light, but when was the first time you noticed your heartbeat?
We sat on Main Street inside my 1963 Galaxy XL with the top down, backed up against the curb in front of the lumber yard. It was long after midnight in the summer of 1968. We were out of high school, finally, experiencing freedom and boredom in equal parts. Semis went through town about every 15 or 20 minutes, marking the major events of the evening. The only other thing moving was the caution light. Okay, not moving. Blinking.
The Twilight Zone was a part of the childhood from which we had so recently extricated ourselves, so when we noticed the light we began to wonder what would happen if it ever quit blinking. Would Firth disappear? Would the convergence of astronomical forces dictate that two cars would, finally, enter that intersection at the same time, incautiously, causing a major bending of fenders?
This was by far the most intriguing thought we’d had all night, a night spent contemplating our destinies in college and radio. In honor of the latter we were listening to KOMA in Oklahoma City, the big boomer that pointlessly told us about dances coming up in Kansas and Colorado, and kept us current on the top forty. We aspired to be Robert W. Morgan.
But the light. Chuck got out of the car to go examine the pole from which the wire hung in a gentle arc with the four-lens light dragging it down in the middle. There was a switch bolted to the pole. You could just reach up and pull a lever to turn off the light. So convenient.
At Chuck’s moment of contemplation a pair of headlights appeared at the south end of town. Fearing prison, or worse, the disappointed look on his mother’s face, Chuck made a run for the car, the electrical box untouched.
The lights were on a Greyhound bus. This was nearly exotic.
Chuck slid into the bucket seat next to me and pretended he hadn’t moved all night, which wasn’t a real stretch of his acting talents. The bus rolled by in front of us at a sensible 35 miles per hour, pinning the night in our memories forever.
I don’t know why I flashed my headlights. Maybe we were just being friendly. To our surprise the brake lights of the hound flashed on. The bus came to a stop about a block away. We looked at each other wide-eyed. We had affected something! Our lives were not meaningless.
The bus waited a few seconds, marked only by the orange light still counting them off in the center of town. It waited some more. It dawned on us that the driver was waiting for a passenger. He was waiting for us. We became unnerved with the responsibility of what we had done, so decided to get the hell out of there. I turned on my headlights just as the bus started to pull away. The driver stopped the bus, again, when he saw my headlights. I realized what had happened, so I turned my headlights off. We waited. The bus waited. We got nervous, again, and turned on our headlights to drive away, just as the driver gave up and started the bus rolling again. He saw the lights of the Ford. He stopped. I turned off my lights, again.
This happened three or four times. We realized that not only had we caught a bus, we now owned it. We had to do the responsible thing and set it free.
I started the car, turned on the headlights, and drove toward the bus. Like a good public servant the drive watched us come up from behind him. He waited, eager to help out. We drove by and headed out of town.
The movie Duel was a few years away. That was a good thing. It was scary enough seeing those brights coming up behind us at speed without having that particular cultural reference to amplify our fear. The Greyhound was catching us. Never mind we had a 390 V8 under the hood, the bus was bearing down.
Our hearts beat twice for each blink of the light, now a couple of miles behind us. The chase lasted only until I found a side road and did a hard right, vaulting up over the railroad tracks as the bus jetted by.
***
It had just rained for the first time in weeks and the highway was treacherous with pools of water glittering with a sheen of motor oil. I was going 110 coming into town.
The motorcycle I rode was borrowed. It was a Honda Superhawk owned by my friend, Monty. I was going a 110 because it would not go faster. My rule at that time was to move from place to place as fast as the vehicle I was piloting would go. Always. This was possible because the population of Firth was 245, and all roads that led to or from it were usually safe to sunbathe on if you didn’t mind ambling out of the way of traffic every 20 minutes.
On this post-rainy day I had the good sense to ease off the throttle coming into town. The speedometer read 90 when I noticed that about a block ahead of me, at the flashing light, some farmer was easing out onto the highway.
One thing about borrowed motorcycles: You should really check the brakes before going far. I gripped and stepped to engage the front and back brakes to nearly no effect. They worked pretty well when the weather was dry, but lost interest in their job when wet.
I had just enough time to tip the bike left a fraction and slide by the pickup which, thankfully, did not have extended mirrors.
I stopped at the far edge of town and looked back. The pickup had stopped, too, in the middle of the road. I barely registered it. The orange light that had blinked faithfully at that intersection since the beginning of time was now black. Then it was orange again. Then black. Then orange. But that first black was a long, leisurely blink that felt very personal.  
***
It is probably long past time in this tome to describe the way Main Street in Firth worked. To this point, you have probably imagined a street lined with businesses on both sides, with that one flashing light marking the single intersection.
Not so.
US Highway 91 ran through town for the single mile of the Village of Firth. Not content with that stretch of pavement as the town’s Main Street, another, wider stretch of pavement paralleled it. This created something like a parking lot. It also created much confusion for those unfamiliar with the arrangement. If you were traveling on the highway, you were expected to keep on the right side of the dotted white line. If you travelled on Main Street, you were expected to not hit other cars. There was no helpful demarcation to let you know where you were supposed to be.
Oh, and businesses—the dozen or so that existed—lined only one side of the street, the west side. The east side was mostly an extended borrow pit between the highway and the adjacent railroad tracks. In the center of town on the east side, you could find a parking lot. It was meant to service the needs of patrons of the train depot. In fact, it more often serviced the needs of teenagers who parked there in the evenings to watch traffic and practice baseball inside their cars, since there hadn’t been any patrons of the train depot after the demise of passenger service in the 1950s.
This large expanse of highway/Main Street/parking lot was the scene of fist fights, early experiments with crude skateboards, and spontaneous bicycle rodeos. In so much as this story has a point, the point here is that it was widely viewed by teenage locals as their personal playground. I was both local and teenaged.
When winter came, the asphalt turned into ice courtesy of the packing capabilities of just the right number of tires to mimic a Zamboni. To those of us with wheels, this presented the perfect opportunity to cut cookies.
This particular night I was driving my ’65 Mustang and Monty was riding shotgun. We would get up a little head of steam on Main Street—carefully avoiding the actual highway stuck up against it—and crank the wheel to the right, sending the car into a skid, then a spin.
I had perfected this move until it was a thing of beauty worthy of an E ticket. Of course, I wanted to share the experience.
Three of my cousins were in town that night, fresh from the farm. I had Paul and Ted and Rich piled into the back seat to experience the thrill of their lives. With five of us now on board I revved the engine and took off, building up speed. As I had done a dozen times that night I cut the steering wheel at the perfect point to execute the ballet.
I had not considered the physics of the thing. Monty and I were renowned as the shortest kids in high school. My cousins were among the tallest. Some of that height expressed itself in weight. The mathematics of adding 450 pounds to the maneuver occurred to me only as I saw the Texaco station looming in my rearview mirror as the Mustang careened toward it backwards.
We kissed the corner of the cinderblock building with the back bumper of the car, coming to a rather abrupt stop. We all got out to look at the damage. Even in the dark we could see fresh cracks in the mortar. There was a little gouge in the concrete at the same height as my bumper.
The first order of business was to be somewhere else, quickly, so we jumped back into the car and drove it up Main Street and across the highway to the parking lot. There, we got out again to examine the damage to the Mustang. Clearly, it would need a new bumper, a little sheet metal and a couple of pounds of body putty.
We concocted a plausible story about backing into a post at the Frostop in Idaho Falls. That stupid post was famous for eating cars, and I had actually backed into it before acquiring damage so slight it was beneath mention to my mother. This would require some mentioning.
The commiseration took place under the throbbing orange illumination of the nearby caution light. It looked on, beating the seconds away as it always will.

-0-

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

YA Beta Readers

What are your kids going to read this summer? May I make a suggestion? I’m looking for beta readers for my next book tentatively called Diary. This young adult novel is about a 14-year-old girl who wants an iPhone for her birthday, but gets an old diary, instead. She hates the diary, until she discovers someone from 100 years ago is writing in it. She finds out the past was a dangerous place that we cannot ignore.

Beta readers, adults and young adults, will take a short, online survey when they finish the book. They will get an autographed copy of the novel when it is published.


The book is available in printed manuscript form (in the Boise area) and as a PDF. Please let me know if you or someone who eats your cereal would be interested. Message me on Facebook, or find my email address at www.rickjust.com

Friday, May 23, 2014

Sunbeam Summer

This a short story, in the sense that it is relatively short and one might call it a story. One might also call it a memoir, as most non-fiction seems to be these days, but it probably falls short of the French root of that word. It is appallingly lacking in romance.

We wonder what part of our bodies will go first as age looms. Will it be a fatal failure, such as a heart that simply quits, or merely an irritation like that persistent map of liver spots growing ever closer to each other as they change the hue of our arms? Since I told you there is no romance in this tale, your mind might go there. You know, there.

For me, the first failure of age started when I was 13. There is a lot we don’t know at 13, and this precursor was one of those things.

I might digress—hell, this is my memoir, I will digress. The male members of my family seem to have a penchant for losing digits. They are not merely misplaced, but removed by force. I have several cousins in the ranching side of my family who can count backwards on their hand and tell you the number of times they failed to move quickly enough when wrapping a rope around a saddle horn before that horn took the weight of an 800 pound steer.

My immediate family, of which I often claim to be a member, was more likely to opt for mechanical dismemberment. My older brother played one day next to the well pump, an electric motor with an open pulley and belt system. Mom caught him kicking at the whirring mechanism with his foot and warned him strongly not to do that anymore if he didn’t want to lose a toe. At the same time he heeded her warning, he decided to test it. With his finger. It turned out Mom was right. Kent has since made the I-was-just-stirring-my-coffee-with-my-finger-and-look-what-happened joke a part of his regular routine.

My father—we called him Pop—was a cowboy, so might have been expected to de-digit in that time honored way mentioned earlier. He was a careful cowboy, though. Not so much when it came to mowing the lawn. The sidewalk between two sections of lawn was raised up about three inches above the grassy surface. There were probably a dozen ways to move the lawnmower across the sidewalk that did not involve picking it up while it was running, but none of them occurred to him at that moment. Somehow in lifting it, Pop turned the mower upside down. As he turned it back over it occurred to him how foolish it was and that it he could have lost a finger. When he looked down to count them, he found them all there, but one of his favorite thumbs was missing. More accurately, the first joint of his right thumb was now being carried off by ants. Or something. We never found it.

By the way, Pop traded the rotary in on a self-propelled reel mower about the time he got the stitches out.

My oldest brother, Kim, has so far avoided the family curse, though he was once hit by lightning in about the same spot where Pop lost his thumb. Don’t call him an underachiever.

Which brings the story, inevitably, around to me. When I was 13 lawn mowing technology had advanced considerably. I was now the chief operator of a snazzy little blue mower made by the optimistically named Sunbeam Corporation. The powder blue machine was probably 20 inches across and sounded more like a vacuum cleaner than an appliance for cutting grass. It was electric. I received an ample ration of ribbing from my best friend about operating such a wimpy little mower. I remember turning it over while he was there one day to clean out the build-up of caked grass beneath the deck, revealing  the two tiny sets of blades beneath. They were pitted and dulled from hitting rocks. This inspired Monty to ridicule the little machine, and by extension me, for its petite little choppers. He speculated that one could just reach in and stop the blades with one’s hand, if one had donned a heavy set of leather gloves. I disagreed. If he had taken the opposite tact, claiming the blades would tear off one’s fingers without even slowing down, I would have disagreed with that. Our relationship was, and still is, based on arguing. We never agreed about anything. I would probably have challenged him on the spot if we’d had a pair of heavy leather gloves handy. We did not. Which is why people still call him Monty instead of Lefty.

In a way, my looming misfortune was Monty’s fortune, because it happened shortly after the development of his reach-in-and-stop-the-blades hypothesis. He was still searching for appropriate gloves.

When mowing with an electric mower of that vintage, one mowed a little differently than with a gas powered mower. Rather than going round and round until the last plot of grass in the middle of the lawn was shorn, you went back and forth. You started up close the house, mowed straight ahead until you came to the end of the lawn and, with a practiced flip of the handle release, you pulled the handle over the mower to push the machine back the other direction. This complicated ballet was necessary so you didn’t mow across the cord which grew out of the end of the handle. It worked well, reducing the number of times you ran across the cord to maybe three or four a season.

As with all things rote one tends to pay less and less attention to the mechanics of the movement. In my case I was probably singing “Help Me Rhonda” enthusiastically inside my skull while pushing and flipping and pushing the mower. Which is why I didn’t notice the cinderblock.

We had moved into town from the ranch that summer after Pop died. The little house where Mom and I lived was perched on a two-foot hill. That is, the lawn was built up all around it and sloped down to our neighbor’s lawn on one side. I had an ongoing disagreement with the neighbor kid about where the property line was. He insisted that it was at the top of the hill because the previous owners had planted some bushes at the top of the hill, clearly—to him—indicating the property line. I was of the opinion that the bottom of the little hill was the property line, reasoning that if it were otherwise we would have a little cliff between the houses, not a little hill. It mattered not at all except when it came to mowing the grass. A smarter kid might have just acquiesced to the dim-witted neighbor kid and let him mow the grass on the side of the hill. I chose to claim the property by attacking that strip of grass every week.

I’m pretty sure the cinderblock wasn’t a trap set by the amateur surveyor next door, but I can’t say what its reason for being there on the neighbor’s lawn was.

Given the nature of electric lawn mowing I would push the mower down the little hill, flip the handle, jigger the mower to the right, and push it back up the hill. Much of this little dance would actually take place on the neighbor’s lawn. That is, my feet would be on the lawn though the mower never crossed that magic line to “their” grass.

I was mowing along expertly, imploring Rhonda to get her out of my heart, when I made that handle flip/dance step and encountered the cinderblock. I started to stumble over it backwards. To catch myself I pulled back on the mower handle, which brought the deck of the little grass whacker up over my foot.

I don’t remember if I actually fell down. I do remember calmly turning the mower off by the little red switch on the handle. I walked calmly to the side door, avoiding the nearer front door because I didn’t want to get blood on the carpet. I was inadvertently trying a new fashion, the open-toed cowboy boot. With geyser.

Mom rushed me to the hospital, which was about 10 miles away. I remember making a comment about a passing car from the back seat where I rested with my foot in the air wrapped in dish towels. For some reason it made Mom feel better that I could identify the make, model and year of the car, even as the dish towels were soaking red.

Emergencies weren’t as popular back then, so that didn't have an actual room devoted to them. We just went in the front door of the hospital. Some lingering toe flesh was inexpertly cut away and the whole thing was wrapped in a cartoon bandage, which I would wear for the remainder of the summer.

Technically, I did not quite follow the family tradition, because I did not lose a digit. I lost a nail and associated structural support of same. Eventually the nail grew back and you would be hard pressed to find any evidence of the old injury today.

You would be hard-pressed. I would not. As you’ll recall, if you haven’t drifted off somewhere between here and the beginning of the story, this is about finding out which part fails first as one ages. That’s my part. I frequently get an echo of that summer of the Sunbeam as it shoots up from my toe in the form of persistent arthritis. It doesn’t always hurt, but I am excruciatingly aware of it when it does.

When that old ache is jabbing at me I think back to those days and can’t help wondering if Monty has found that glove, yet.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Boys and Books

At a writers conference this past week we learned that 80 percent of book buyers are women. My guess is that more than 80 percent of food buyers are also women. Men still eat. But, do they read books? Sure, some do. Most in the publishing business lament the lack of male readers, though.
Another statistic is that after high school, only about half the population ever picks up a book. Then, it’s only to dust around it. Wait, no. About half do read for pleasure. So, using statistics loosely, which is the most common way they are used, that means there are about 150 million readers in the US. Discounting the existence of libraries and the fact that men may receive gift books (I said this was loose), only about 30 million men in the United States reads.

From a publishing standpoint, 30 million men is a pretty big market. So, quit whining, publishers. From a literacy and a we’re-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket standpoint, it’s pathetic.
Why don’t men read? They like stories. They go to movies and watch TV. Do books simply weigh too much? Okay, that was snotty. I prefer to read on my Kindle for exactly that reason. Big, clunky books are hard for my delicate self to deal with when I’m relaxing on the couch. I could fall asleep and break a rib.

Women out-watch men when it comes to movies, though not by much. According to a Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) study 52 percent of those watching movies are women. Women make up 50.8 percent of the population, so that’s not a startling statistic. What is startling, according to the MPAA study, 85 percent of the movies are about men. Does this mean women are going to movies because they just can’t get enough of the hunky-hunks on screen? For some women it probably means exactly that. Most, though, just enjoy movies. And guess who makes movies? Mostly men.

But this is about books. Why aren’t men reading books? They’re writing them. A recent study found that 83 percent of the books reviewed by the New York Times were by men.
So, the men are telling most of the stories and the women are listening. And reading. The entertainment industry, like so many industries, is still dominated by men. It takes generations to turn something like that around, though women are making great strides. I applaud and admire them for doing so.

The question, which concerns me as a writer and citizen, still remains. Why aren’t more men reading for pleasure?

To me, reading is the best thing in life. I have to wonder if there is something about our educational system that discourages other men from reading. Are we making it chore rather than a joy?
I don’t have the answers. I may even be part of the problem. Of the five young adult novels I’ve written (one is not yet published), four of them feature girls as the lead characters. Boys don’t even exist in one of them. Hummm. I hesitate to take the blame, though. I’m writing for the larger market, yes, but I’m also writing simply because I find girls and women more complex, particularly as young adults.

I expect a few boys read Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and The Hunger Games, so it’s not as though they boycott a good story about a girl. Do we need more fiction about boys? The Harry Potter series had a few male readers, so it’s not as if there’s nothing out there. My friend C.J. Box writes adult novels that also attract a lot of male young adult readers.


Explosions. We need more explosions in books. Okay, that might be creeping up to the edge of simplistic. But, do you have a better answer? I’m stumped. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Mapping the Past

Every writer puts some of their own life in their books. This might seem challenging if your book happens to take place on Mars, but it turns out not to be the case. Writers depend much on research, but they can’t help drawing from their own experiences.

In the forthcoming book, The Crappy Used Diary, an important component of the book is an old family house located in a fictional river valley. In my real life there is a similar house in a similar valley, and this week marks a big event in that house.

My great grandparents, Nels and Emma Just came to Idaho as teenagers with their parents in 1863. They would not have thought of themselves as that, because the word “teenager” wasn’t invented until the 1920s. They married in 1870.

In 1887 they built a brick home near the banks of the Blackfoot River in eastern Idaho. To celebrate the completion of the home, Nels hung a brand new map of the United States in the hallway. It has hung there ever since, admired by generations of Justs, Reids and visitors to the house that was the life-long home of regional writer Agnes Just Reid, my great aunt.

Tomorrow, the map comes down. I cannot stress enough the consternation this causes for family members, none of whom have ever seen that bare hallway wall. The map is a touchstone across the years to Nels and Emma.

We will be taking the map down with reverence and the help of a textiles expert. Over the years, the 4’ x 6’ map has been damaged by hands that wanted only to touch it, learn from it and feel the past. The varnish, commonly applied to maps of that vintage, has yellowed and the map is flaking in places. It is in need of restoration.


We’ll be shipping this treasure off to New York City for the specialized work of bringing it back to life. When we get the restored map back, it will be professionally mounted behind conservation glass in a solid display case. After a little tour to selected places in Idaho, it will find its way home where it will once again hang in the hallway for generations to come. 


Saturday, April 26, 2014

Chewing up the Jawfish

I’ve never been much of an athlete or participant in any sport. Bowling hardly counts. Maybe motorcycle racing does, but I got over that fairly quickly and only limp once in a while nowadays.

I like games, though. I’ve played a jillion rounds of pinochle, rummy and hearts. I’ve become briefly addicted to a couple of videogames, i.e., that Laura Crofts series and a car racing game. I play Words With Friends. I’m pretty good at that, but I get beat plenty.

I wasn’t a star at anything until Jawfish Words came along. It was like Boggle, except there were randomly selected challenges, such as being the first to get a full blackout or double blackout, the first to find a word, the most diagonal words, etc. Reaching higher game levels was logarithmic. It was easy to get to level 2 or 7 or 12, but became increasingly difficult with each level. Most players hovered around 20. I’d reached level 61. I never saw any player higher than 70.

It was great fun for me to enter a tournament with 15 other players and get 25% of the total points made in the game. I won about 95% of the time. I was an elite player.

So, of course, Jawfish went out of business. If I lived in a cave and held mystical beliefs I might think that I caused that. The way the company intended to make money was by charging players 8 coins every time you played. The problem, for them, was that some of us made enough coins every time we played that we never had to buy any. I had more than 22,000 when the company went bust.

I recall putting several magazine publishers out of business in the 80s. I would send them an article, which they would accept. Then they would promptly go out of business, often before the article even appeared. Goodbye Broadcast Programming and Production, National Retired Teachers Journal, and Vortex. You were apparently cursed by the pen of Just.


I know it wasn’t about me. The demise of Jawfish wasn’t about me, either, but I regret that they have gone away. It is a real rush to be one of the best in the world at something. I guess I’ll move on to a similar game that doesn’t have some of the elements I so excelled at. Watch for Word Hero to go down in flames any day now. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Another Range War

When I wrote KeepingPrivate Idaho in the mid-90s, I focused on xenophobia. Idahoans then seemed bent on keeping non-natives out of the state.

Now, an issue in Nevada seems ripe for parody. The standoff over the Bundy cattle and years of unpaid grazing fees has all the elements of political theater. Bundy claims he’s a patriot while refusing to acknowledge the authority of the United States Government. Meanwhile, his supporters say they are willing to lay down their lives for a fuzzy principle, which boils down to “government bad.”

It does not seem to occur to the “patriots” that they are proposing anarchy.

Mostly unasked in the reporting is whether grazing should be taking place there at all. That’s a complicated subject. At one time, the answer probably should have been no. Had we known in the 19th century what we know now, the federal government would have been wise to prohibit it. Those who grazed cattle back then assumed the grass would always be there and their cattle would have little or no impact on the ecosystem—a word they would not recognize.

We’ve been grazing those public lands for about 150 years. The land has changed because of it, and usually not in a good way. Counterintuitively, removing cattle from public land would not necessarily improve it. Modern grazing, which includes critically timed movement of animals, is now one of the better tools in the management toolbox for public lands. Correctly done, cattle grazing can help beat back invasives, encourage native species, and assist in fire management.

Once you start messing with an ecosystem, you’re stuck with managing it forever. If we walked away from public lands now that they are over-run with invasive species, those species would quickly dominate. If you think sagebrush is boring, how do you think you’d like a desert ecology based on cheatgrass, tumbleweeds and fire?

The BLM, which moves slow as a snail to recognize innovation, is poorly equipped to manage grazing. Local managers are hamstrung by bureaucracy and lawsuits. Meanwhile ranchers, who are often well educated in range stewardship, experience deep frustration year after year when they advocate for innovation with little effect.


There’s a lot for ranchers to complain about. Claiming some imaginary birthright and refusing to pay reasonable grazing fees doesn’t help their cause. Most of them realize this and will keep themselves far away from this particular scuffle.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Jumper

With more than 4,500 books published every day, I suppose it’s not surprise that I’ve missed one or two. I recently took a chance on one from about 1990, because Audible had it on sale.

I’d not heard of the book or, as it turns out, the movie. I didn’t know there were sequels. I feel a little foolish for all that, but check that number-of-books-published figure again, before you think me hopelessly out of touch.

I expect Jumper, by Steven Gould, is often shelved as science fiction. This, despite the fact there is no hint whatsoever that science is in any way involved in the hero’s new-found ability to teleport at will. Genre labels drive me crazy, mostly because my own books, which often straddle the fuzzy lines between science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy, are so hard for people to categorize. I pegged this as science fiction from the first incident of teleportation, not because technology was involved, but because it was so reminiscent of the trigger for teleportation in Alfred Bester’s classic, The Stars My Destination. In jumper, David Rice “jumps” to safety when his life is in danger. In the Bester book, Gully Foyle puts himself in imminent danger of death with no way out in order to trigger teleportation.

Gould does give a nod to the earlier book that people who had not read it would miss, but I appreciated his acknowledgment.


And, I’ve said so little about the book itself, to this point. Okay, it’s mostly plausible and very well researched. The reader can easily empathize with the protagonist and it’s a fun adventure. It’s also a YA book, defined as such because the protagonist is 17 when the book starts. Don’t let that scare you away from this or any other YA book. You were 17 once, too, and you haven’t forgotten how that feels.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What a deal, deux.

Recently I admitted my vast store of ignorance about a tiny area of book publishing, i.e., used and collector books available on Amazon. Today, I continue exploring that realm.

I “unpublished” my book Blood Anjels a couple of days ago, meaning that new copies of it are no longer available. Before you reach for your hankie, this was simply a marketing decision. I decided the title and original cover weren’t working, so, new title, new cover. The book is now called Anjel and is readily available on Amazon.

I only printed a handful of these with the original cover and title—maybe a couple. Some were sold through Amazon’s print-on-demand service. Maybe there are 100 of them in existence. I still have three. That means there might be 97 copies floating around out there. If you’re a collector and you have one, this is probably cause for minor celebration. Don’t buy the spendy bubbly, though.

Amazon likes to keep titles up on their site even when they don’t have any to sell. It gives used book dealers the opportunity to sell copies they may have, from which Amazon makes a commission. There are six copies of Blood Anjels being offered, all by the same dealer, ranging in price from $42.38 to $42.54.
The physical descriptions of the books vary a bit. Two mention light water damage. One mentions a bit of shelf wear. One says it is brand new and unread. Another claims it is in good condition, including the dust jacket.

I suspect that this company might have a single copy of the book. It probably doesn’t have any shelf wear, because how much shelf wear could it have after a month of existence? I doubt it has water damage, but who will complain if it shows up in better shape than advertised? Also, I’m pretty sure the description of the dust jacket being in good condition is bogus. This is a trade paperback and doesn’t have a dust jacket.

It’s tempting to purchase all six copies to see what happens. I’m guessing I would receive one copy, in good condition, along with five emails telling me they’re sorry but they’re temporarily out of stock. Tempting, but I think I’ll go another route. I’ll put my three copies up for $39.95 each, undercutting the dealer. Will their asking price go down? Will it go up? Will they suddenly discover another 200 non-existent copies and offer those for sale?


And, here’s the big question. If they suddenly had 200 orders for this book, would they be able to fill them? Remember, something less than 100 printed. However, it was a print-on-demand book. If additional copies began appearing, someone would have some explaining to do.

Friday, March 21, 2014

What a deal!

If I started blogging about what I don’t know, it would give me an endless supply of topics. So, I’ll keep this post to one little area about the book business that puzzles me. There are many, but this one came to my attention today while updating one of my Pinterest feeds.

I created a board for the books I've written and busily began to pin them. In the process of pinning my first book, the non-fiction Idaho SnapshotsI noticed that there were two listings for the book. There’s the Kindle listing and one for the out-of-print paperback.

Here’s where I nearly knocked over the chair and scampered to my storage area, where I probably have a couple dozen of the books left. On the out-of-print listing, used copies of the book sell for between $25 and $167.96. What?

I expect the listings around the $25 mark are autographed copies being sold by legitimate bookstores. I also expect they are not getting rich from sales of this book. But, what about the listing for $167.96? That company has a five star rating and has sold over 8,000 books on Amazon. I’m guessing none of those was a copy of Idaho Snapshots for $167.96. It is probably listed that way in case someone has contracted rabies and still has the ability to use a credit card.

What would compel anyone to pay that much for a book that is even today available on Amazon Kindle for $2.99? Hell, buy a low end Kindle AND the book and save $45.97. You could use that money to buy every one of my books on Kindle, and still save a few bucks.

So, it’s the autograph, right? Here’s a deal you can’t pass up. I’ll sign a copy of one of the few remaining originals I have left, personalize it for you, ship it to you wherever you live, AND include free samples of the drifting dog hair that permeates my house stuck to the business side of the tape for ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS! Zowie. Line up. No shoving. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A good editor

What a pleasure it is having a good editor. I’ve said that before. It’s worth repeating.

I just received the first edits on my next young adult novel, The Crappy Used Diary. I’m using two editors for this one, Rosemary Hardin, who I used for my Wizards Trilogy books, and Mary McColl, who helped me with the update to Keeping Private Idaho and my latest book, Anjel. This time, I’m using them both, Rosemary for the first read, and Mary for the final edits (usually two reads).

It is such a relief to not agonize over the placement of commas, missed question marks, and grammatical boo-boos. More than that, using a good editor gives you confidence that your story flows correctly, the scenes are in the right sequence, and you don’t have character relationships cockeyed.

Editors are great sounding boards. They tell you when you’re off track, when they don’t get what you’re trying to say, and when you’ve said too much or too little. They are your first, best readers.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have a great editor. If you don’t, I’m willing to share mine. Send me an email, rickjust at rickjust dot com. I’ll put you in touch.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Theme and Mesage

Sweeping totally back to a blog about writing now but—surprise!—still a bit about human rights. 

I wanted to write about message and theme a little today. It once frustrated me when people who seemed to know what they were talking about insisted that every story had to have a message. Why not just tell the story? Sure, I understood that stories were a way of teaching back when we warmed our hands around a fire. But did they have to be? Why not just tell a story, maybe one with lots of adventure?

Slooooowly, it became apparent to me that every story had a message, whether you were shooting for one or not. Every story has an action and an outcome. From that, a reader takes away a message. You can’t stop them from doing so, even if you did not intend the message they received. You cannot not communicate.
The message may not be something grand that is weighing on your mind. But the story originates in that gray matter, so it means something to you.

I have written stories with little thought to what their message was, and I have started with a message and written a story around it.

Here is a list of my novels with themes and subthemes listed for each. Did you see the message in each? Did you get some other message from them?

Keeping Private Idaho
Theme: Xenophobia is a cancer
Subtheme: Share it to save it.

Wizard Chase
Theme: Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. (Thanks, Arthur)
Subtheme: A nerd can save a world.

Wizard Girl
Theme: Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.
Subtheme: A girl can save the world.

Wizards’ End
Theme: Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.
Subtheme: The love of a parent is a conquering force.

Anjel (Free today on Kindle, BTW)
Theme: Question your society’s assumptions
Subtheme: Love is not gender specific

Friday, March 7, 2014

Honor Them

I’ll segue back to blogging about writing over the next couple of days, still keeping in mind the Add The Four Words effort that continues. I’m not at the statehouse today, but may go later. Three members were arrested last night simply for standing in the center of the rotunda, not blocking anything. I understand there’s a hearing today on that.

Yesterday at the statehouse demonstrators told stories of discrimination and abuse. I don’t have one of my own, but I think it might be worthwhile to tell about the emotional impact societal disapproval of gays and transgenders can have by telling one story about my mentor.

If you follow my writing you’ll notice that I recently dedicated the 2014 version of Keeping Private Idaho to Tom Trusky. Tom was a celebrated English professor at Boise State University. I first met him in 1976. I took eight classes from him in poetry and fiction. He was the advisor of the award-winning literary magazine cold-drill (yes, lowercase is correct). I edited that magazine one year and had several poems and short stories published there.

Tom and I became friends and I continued to keep in touch with him after graduation. Being friends with Tom meant you were among the first to hear about his latest secret projects, of which he had many. He brought poetry to the community in several ways, including the poster series Poetry and Public Places at and the “Tranfers” series, that replaced advertising on city buses with student poetry. He took cold-drill to the highest awards, winning the Columbia University gold medal many times. He had a touring series of banned books and taught book making and toured student examples. He became the acknowledged expert on the films of Nell Shipman, who made many of her movies on the shores of Priest Lake in northern Idaho. Her films were nearly all considered lost, before he found them. He found them all over the world, in Russia, England, Canada. And he found them ALL. He became the acknowledged expert on primitive Idaho artist James Castle, and brought his art to the world. Castle is now highly collectible.
He did a thousand other things, any one of which would have been monumental achievements for an average man. He was known internationally and traveled far and wide to lecture.

And he was so troubled about his sexuality that he considered suicide.

When he came out to me in 1990, I was just the second person he told. I was not shocked by the revelation that he was gay, and I hope my support gave him some small measure of encouragement to live the life he wanted. I was shocked that this man I looked up to, my mentor, was so afraid of how society might view his sexual orientation that he had thought about ending his life. He was successful in every way he would consider important, yet he had a nearly fatal fear of what the consequences might be if he revealed his sexual orientation.

Happily, coming out affected his life in few negative ways. He found a wonderful partner in Enver and they enjoyed many years of travel and hijinks together, before Tom’s death in 2009. Please honor Tom by visiting the Wikipedia page.

Please honor him and the countless others who go through the stress society hands them for being who they are. Honor them by, at the very least, leaving them alone. Don’t ridicule them. Don’t bully them. Don’t make them feel like they are something less than perfect. Please, recognize their humanity and celebrate their contribution to our culture; the friendship and joys they bring to us not in spite of their difference, but because of it.


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Correction

As it turns out, I misunderstood a comment one of my “cellmates” made while I was under arrest for civil disobedience on Tuesday. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, the acoustics in the holding cells were awful, making conversation challenging. I came away with the impression that Caleb, one of the young men I was in there with, was gay. He is not.

I believe Caleb shares my belief that there is no shame in being gay, but we both also believe in accuracy in reporting whenever possible. I’ve corrected the previous posts.

My mistake does help spotlight one of the major issues the Add The Words campaign is trying to correct. In Idaho, it is dangerous to be gay or transgender.

Those of us who support human rights and chose to stand with, well, our fellow humans, may be mistakenly assumed to be gay or transgender. There is a risk to that. It is a less dangerous version of the risk our gay and transgender friends face every day of their lives. Their ability to work is often at risk if they let people know who they really are. Their family might abandon them. They may be able to live where they would like. They may be bullied, refused service or assaulted.

Would adding the four words to the Idaho Human Rights Act correct those problems? No, not in itself. It is a step toward the normalization of the lives of gay and transgender people. We have many steps to take, and we must begin.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Add The Words Idaho

Stepping away from the writing life a bit for this post to share with you an experience I had yesterday.

Idahoans are trying to get the Legislature to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human rights act, making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of either. I’ve been participating in various actions for Add The Words Idaho and Add The Four Words Idaho at the statehouse for three or four weeks. I’ve attended a rally, spoken against a bill that would give business people the right to discriminate against gays, and participated in two silent demonstrations, each of which included a couple hundred people. Meanwhile, other supporters were getting arrested. It was time for me to take that plunge.

Yesterday at about 6:30 am about 30 of us met at a location that shall remain secret to group for an arrest and protest. I had been there a couple times before to get training and hear news about the protests. In the early morning darkness the place was lit only by a couple of decorative neon signs and ambient streetlight as we grabbed the Add The Four Words shirts from a box on the floor. It was really too dark to see sizes, so we just took what we first touched.

I donned my shirt, then rolled it up part way so that the message was hidden. We wanted to remain in stealth mode a little longer. As a group, we made our way over to the capitol building, just a few blocks away from where we met in downtown Boise. When we got to the steps we sprinted up and through the doors on the second floor to the west wing of the building, where the governor’s offices are housed. We quickly assured that the doors to to office were all locked, meaning that it was unlikely anyone had gotten to work before we arrived. To assure that no one would be trapped inside in case of emergency, or that we might be accused of kidnapping or false imprisonment, we taped signs facing inward that said, “Knock and we’ll let you out.” Then, we lined up in front of the four entrances to that side of the wing and took our Add The Words Pose. To demonstrate our frustration with the Legislature not even allowing for a hearing on the bill for the past eight years, we stand silently with one hand over our mouths.

I happened to end up in front of the main double doors to the governor’s office with eight or ten other protesters. We locked arms and stood there as a human barrier. Then we waited, staring slightly up and into the distance, as we were trained to do.

After about ten or fifteen minutes an Idaho State Police officer assigned to the governor’s office arrived. “It’s too early for this,” he said. Then he informed us that he needed to get in. We clenched up to form a stronger barrier. He again said he needed to get through. We were silent. He said, “I’ll be back,” and left.

Over the next hour or so at least two cameras from local television stations showed up, along with Spokesman Review reporter Betsy Russell. There was much taking of photos and shooting of video. Everything we do is meticulously captured on video and in still photos to assure we have a record of what happens at the protests. This will supply admissible evidence, if it is ever needed, and give the movement footage for a documentary.

Nicole  LaFavour, a leading gay rights activist and former Idaho State Senator, walked between the groups at each door giving us encouragement and keeping us informed. Several others in the movement did the same.

About 8 am, four of us were moved from the main door to the governor’s private entrance door. No one had attempted to enter through the main door after the initial visit by the officer. I did not see any of the governor’s staff attempting to gain entrance or even walking by.

Moving was a relief to me, because it gave me the opportunity to lean back against the door and on the side of the entrance a bit. Standing in one position for over an hour is tiring. Holding your hand to your mouth is tiring, though we do occasionally change hands.

My little group—six of us at this point—were told we would need to move to the back door leading off the rotunda, two at a time with very little notice. A couple of minutes later they called for two of us to go. Two young women moved away and went quickly down the hall.

One of the supporters came back and elaborated on what we were to do. We were to go stand in front of the back door, two of us blocking together. I had been in the room the door led to—had been through all the doors at one time or another. The last time I had been there, it was the larger of the governor’s two conference rooms.

When our time came, Caleb—I learned his name later—and I walked quickly down the hall, keeping our hands over our mouths. When we got around the corner all the focus was on the door. There were TV cameras with bright lights aimed on it, police, and spectators. As we arrived, the police were just arresting the two people in front of the door. As they were taken away, Caleb and I stepped in behind them to block the door.

A state police officer informed us that we were blocking a secured entrance and asked us to leave. He then warned us that we would be arrested if we did not leave. Then, after we stood our ground, he placed us under arrest and asked us to follow him.

We knew what to expect because of our training. The police knew what to expect, because they have been informed that all of these demonstrations are peaceful and it was not our intent to resist arrest.

We followed the officer down the stairs. He cautioned us to watch our steps on the marble stairways. He led us to a room in the basement of the statehouse. It was set up auditorium style with about 40 seats facing a projection screen. In front of the screen were five officers at a table with electronic equipment laid out in front of them with which they would begin to process us.

Nicole and about eight others were already in the room, already in handcuffs or zip ties. Most were cuffed behind their backs, but the officers were quick to change that if someone had a medical issue that caused them discomfort in that position.

The zip tie cuffs are unlike what you have in your garage. The straps are about half an inch wide and about an eighth of an inch thick. Maybe thicker. They are cumbersome, very effective restraints.

Caleb and I were not cuffed immediately, nor was anyone else until all 23 arrested protesters were in the room. They seemed not in a hurry to cuff the rest of us. After a few minutes, it became obvious why. They were waiting for waist chain cuffs to arrive from the county. When those came, the officers gave each of us a bag in which we were told to place our possessions.

It was about this time that Caleb, sitting next to me, got a text from his mother in Texas. She asked if that was him she’d seen on the news. This couldn’t have been more than about 10 minutes after our arrest.

The officers began searching and securing the women first. They were searched by female officers and sent back to their chairs. The rest of us were eventually taken two at a time to a little L-shaped part of the room at the front to undergo our search. The officer who searched me was a woman. Once she was satisfied that I didn’t have any dangerous objects on me she asked if I had any drugs and warned me that taking drugs into the jail was a felony. Then she put the waist chain on me. She asked if I preferred to have the cuffs put over my sleeves or under. I chose over, though it wouldn’t have made much difference. She put the manacles around my wrists, making sure not to secure them tightly. She also told me she was “double-locking” them so that they would stay in that position and not tighten up. I was told to go back to my chair.

While they were cuffing up the other demonstrators, the rest of us were asked to come forward five at a time to begin our processing. We handed the officers at the table our drivers licenses.  Idaho licenses have something like a QR code on the back so that they can capture all the data with a wand and transfer it quickly into a specialized Panasonic tablet. The wand didn’t work on mine, so the officer had to enter the data by hand. He groused a little about that, as anyone would, and set about filling in the blanks. Meanwhile, I noticed that he and one other officer were kneeling behind the table, not sitting on chairs. That was uncomfortable for them, which caused a little muttering, but not a word was directed negatively toward us. They were always respectful and professional. All the officers were. Several were even friendly.

We learned that the charges would be somewhat different than for the previous arrests. Unbeknownst to any of us, the “back door” that had once led to the Governor’s conference room, now led to a communication room of some kind used by security. This would lead to an enhanced charge for several, though it wasn’t clear that there was a significant difference. I was charged with “Assembly to disturb peace-refusal to disperse.”

Initial processing in the basement room took about an hour, the result being that everyone’s information was entered into the system, charging papers were filled out, and we were cuffed in various ways, mostly with waist chains and cuffs. We had our belongings in a plastic bag, a copy of our charges and personal information printed out and placed in the bag with our charging papers, with another copy stapled to the outside of the bag. Most of the bags weren’t sealed, but they cautioned us not to get into the bags while we carried them.

A few at a time, they marched us out past the cameras and crime scene tape up the ramp to the circular drive in the front of the capitol where a white, 44-passenger bus awaited us. We were helped into the bus by two officers, making sure we did not stumble or slip as we entered. The door for prisoners is halfway down the side of the bus, allowing entrance to either of two cages inside the bus, one forward and one aft. Each area had sliding expanded metal doors. We were directed to rudimentary plastic seats that had wide bands of non-slip tape mounted on the backs and benches.

We all noted the blue sky through the narrow windows mounted at the top of the walls of the bus. It was a nice day.

When everyone was inside and seated, Ada County deputies closed and latched the cage doors, then locked them with a padlock. The bus backed out of the driveway. It probably wouldn’t have fit beneath the portico of the capital, which in any case has been closed to traffic since 9-11.

We got glimpses of familiar buildings and signs as we traveled through the streets of Boise on our way to the Ada County Jail. Someone thought we should sing. I’m not a singer, but lipped along with “We Shall Overcome,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and a couple of other songs I didn’t recognize.

Nicole was sitting behind me. This was her fourth arrest for this series of demonstrations. She knew that she could use her smartphone through the slightly opaque plastic of the bag. Even with the cumbersome zip tie around her wrists she was able to send text updates to supporters and check on media coverage. I tried the same thing and found a photo on a news app of several of us blocking the governor’s doorway. We had arrived at the jail by this time, but were parked there waiting for whatever would happen next. I tried to show the photo to other demonstrators, but was warned “Cell phones off!” by a Boise police officer who had stepped onto the bus.

I’m guessing we were on the bus for about an hour, most of that time waiting for processing to begin. Most of the discussion while we waited was about previous arrests and what those of us who were first-timers could expect. One of the women who was in a zip tie restraint complained that it was biting into her wrists. An Ada County deputy examined the tie and did his best to reposition it. Those have to be cut off, so there wasn’t much more he could do. He suggested a way she could sit that would help and promised to take her in with the first group.

I was in the second-to-the-last group to finally get off the bus. We were led into a large garage, similar to what you might see in a service area at a car dealer. There were a couple of patrol cars parked in there, and later I would see the bus we rode on in that same space. We were taken to a room about 15 feet by 20 feet for initial screening. There they removed our restraints and patted us down, again, this time with our foreheads leaned against a big pad on the wall. I didn’t wear a belt, but if we had them, they asked that we take them off. They went in the bag with our other belongings. Then, we were asked individually to remove our shoes and socks, and turn our socks inside out. The deputy would inspect the shoes, and ask each of us to show her the bottoms of our feet.

Once that was done, we were re-shackled and directed to wait on one of the benches in the room. There were usually three deputies in the room with four to six of us during this process. One of them inventoried our belongings, asked occasional questions about them, and wrote down what we were wearing.

The deputies in this room were particularly gregarious. No mention was made of why we were in the room. They talked about restaurants with each other and with us, making a point to include us in the conversation. At the same time, they took no shortcuts that I could tell. We were thoroughly inspected, to the point of asking us to open our mouths and lift our tongues.
Once everyone had gone through all the stages, we were taken out one at a time, walked back through the garage, and through another doorway. I should mention that the doorways were secure and remotely operated.

I entered a room was and told to sit in one of four chairs against one wall. A couple of other protesters were already in chairs. Across from us were two long counters pointing our direction.  There were two chairs against the opposite wall, each occupied by one of our demonstrators. On stools on the other side of the counters, two deputies sat at computers doing intake.

While we waited for our turn in the chairs across from the computers, each of us had to go through another search. This was identical to the last one we went through, heads against a pad while they removed our chains, pat-down, then removal of shoes and showing of tongue. Bonus: That was the last we saw of the chains.

When it was my turn to sit in the special chair down and across from the computer and deputy, I learned that this was where they checked for any previous arrest history and it was where we would sign a sheet stating exactly what possessions were in our plastic bags. Those possessions were then sealed in plastic with a system similar those used for sealing freezer storage bags. I had a twenty dollar bill in my wallet. That went in the bottom of the pouch, and was then sealed off to form its own compartment. My cell phone went into another compartment made on the spot, which was then sealed from my wallet, ID and debit card. Finally, the end of the bag was sealed.

The officer asked a few questions; Where were you born? Blackfoot, Idaho. Who should we contact? Rinda Just. Were you in the military? Yes. What branch? Marine Corps. What kind of discharge? Honorable. How old were you when you were first arrested? Sixty-four.

The officer gave me a little smile about that one.

I was then taken into a fairly large processing area where there was a counter, a fingerprint and photo area, and several rows of fixed chairs. After the deputy escorting me checked with a couple of folks in the room, they put me in a holding cell with another demonstrator.

The room was about the size of a large bathroom and it contained a stainless steel sink/toilet combo neither of us was interested in going near. For one thing, the door to the room had a large glass window that looked out into the processing room where female prisoners and female deputies were walking back and forth. The only other feature of the concrete room was a concrete platform about a foot high and three by six in the other dimensions. It was a combination bench/bed, I suppose. Again, neither of us was interested in napping there. I noticed someone had soaked up several wads of toilet paper and tossed them up to stick on the acoustic tile ceiling. That ceiling did little for the acoustics in the room. It echoed so badly it was difficult to talk, though we persevered in doing so. We could see a clock through the window, and at 12:04 we put one hand over our mouths and stood in silence for a minute. It was the first day of that particular observation. Wherever you were, supporters of Add The Words were supposed to face the capital at 12:04 (4 for the 4 words) and stand that way.

In about a minute, a deputy opened the door and motioned Caleb in to join us. He told us he was being escorted our way when he noticed the clock and asked the deputy if he could observe the moment. The deputy said it was okay, and waited for him to do so.
We were probably in the holding cell for about an hour. Eventually they came to get us for fingerprinting and photos one at a time. I was first.

Standing for a photo is little different than standing for one at the DMV. They take a couple, then ask you to turn sideways. You are not holding a black letter board with your name in white letters along with your inmate number. Any ID associated with the photo, no doubt, is electronically included.

Fingerprinting is also electronic. They had taken the prints from the middle and index fingers from each of my hands in the room where they inventoried my possessions. Here, they took prints of the four fingers of your right hand all at once, then the right thumb, then the left thumb and left four fingers at once. But wait, there’s more! They rolled each finger and thumb, then took prints of my palm, the side of my hand, and the whole hand. Each step along the way took two or three times until the machine was happy with the result.

When fingerprinting was complete, they attached a larger version of the hospital wristband many of us are familiar with to my wrist. It displayed my brand new booking picture, my name and birthdate.

At that point I was taken through another remotely operated door and into another room with a counter. One deputy there confirmed some information and told me I’d have to wait a while for processing to make its way through the system and spit out on the other side of the wall where the Add The Words folks had a bail bondsman ready to get us out.

Another deputy took me to another, much larger, holding cell. Before he locked the door behind me he gave me a card that had a handwritten number that I could use to make a call. There was a phone on one wall of the room, which was about 15 by 20 feet with solid concrete platforms serving as benches on two sides, and a low concrete wall that partially screened another sink/toilet combo. There was no-one else in the room, so I was relieved to have a semi private opportunity to use the toilet.

A few minutes later my companions from the first holding cell joined me. If anything, the acoustics in this room were worse. Still, we chatted. There wasn’t any way to browse Facebook or play Words With Friends.

We exchanged information about what we did for a living, where we’d traveled, and what our politics were like. We were simpatico, for the most part on the latter, not surprisingly. Both of the men were in their late 20s or early 30s. We spent about another hour in there before moving on to the next station.

A deputy came to get us and escort us through a warren of hallways and electronic doors where the three of us were joined by one of the women protesters. As it turned out, we were the last four to be released.

We were taken to another room that had about 30 fixed chairs in front of TV. One orange-clad inmate was watching. Meanwhile, two women at a counter prepared our release papers, then asked us to sign for our possessions. Note that the pens they offered were barely useable and barely pens. Soft, skinny things that would only be a weapon against, perhaps, Jell-O. Oh, and they took electronic fingerprints of the middle and index fingers of both hands, again.

After we got our papers and possessions we were led through another door, where they pointed to the main lobby of the facility. There we found Nicole and a handful of others waiting with a variety of snacks, bottles of water and such. Rides were available to take us back to our cars. Most important, two women were on hand to take our debit card info for our bonds.

It was about 3:30. Outside the sky was blue. It was the end of a long day that had started in the dark before 6:30 am.

It was a stressful, uncomfortable day. I never felt in any danger. But, yes, uncomfortable at just about every turn. The most uncomfortable part, for me at least, was the demonstration itself. Standing for almost two hours on marble floors in one position makes your legs hurt and your feet fall asleep. You shift your weight, of course, to make it better, but it isn’t any fun. That makes me pause when I think about doing this again, then I remember a story one of my gay cellmates told.

He told of the four friends he had lost to suicide. He found his best friend hanging from a tree in his parents’ backyard, his neck broken. The parents listed his death as a skiing accident. My cellmate told of the friend he had lost to suicide by gun, and another who had slit her wrists. Then he told of walking across a bridge with several friends when one of them, a girl, said, “I’m done,” and just jumped over the edge.

Those four people were uncomfortable, too. So uncomfortable, so bullied, so despairing, that they took their own lives.

You hear debates about how much or how little Idaho’s business community might suffer if the Legislature doesn’t amend the Idaho Human Rights Act to include the four words. That seems to be one of the few things the Legislature and the governor have any concern about. Could this hurt business?

This is about hurting people, and bringing a measure of that hurt to an end. It is about recognizing that we all have the same rights to life and the pursuit of happiness. Uncomfortable as that may be, for some.

http://www.adasheriff.org/ArrestsReport/details.asp?pid=100582465