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.


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

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.