Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Night Diamond REO Burned

1979 Lansing, Michigan

Lansing Journal October 31, 1979 photo
(Sent by  Lansing Library archivist).
My family and I were downstairs in the basement rec room watching TV and working on trick or treating costumes. It was nearing 7:30 and bedtime bath-and-story was nearing. Tomorrow was Halloween. My seven-year-old daughter had gone upstairs to retrieve something, and as she came downstairs she wore a puzzled and worried expression. Looking at me with doubt-filled eyes, she asked, "Should the sun be rising?"

Considering her manner I didn't question its absurdity but quick-stepped up the staircase. Looking through the north-facing dining room window, I saw a huge arc of sun-bright light on the horizon. It's cliche, I know, but my heart seemed to stop. Tree limbs and houses on the other side of Mt. Hope Avenue seemed like diminutive silhouettes against a colossal rising sun. Screaming down the staircase at Bill, I heard his feet thudding quickly upstairs to join me. Observing the scene outside the window, he told me to pack clothes while he gathered some irreplaceable family items. Within a half-hour we had the car packed and had also warned the neighbors. Outside the smell of smoke filled the air, but as the fire hadn't come nearer, we decided to go see what was ablaze.

We lived on the south side of Mt. Hope Avenue a block west of the Cedar Street intersection. Our three-story 1920 Dutch colonial house was the second structure on the west side of the street, next to Tom's Grocery Store on the corner. Our house blocked the view of all the other houses further down the block. On the northern side of Mt. Hope two blocks of houses stood before the remains of the Diamond Reo Plant, up until about three years previous, manufacturer of well-known truck brands, and much earlier cars like the REO Flying Cloud and REO Royal.

We crossed Mt. Hope and slowly walked through residential streets with our daughter and five-year-old son towards the huge bonfire north of us. It became obvious what was burning — the Diamond Reo plant. The closer we approached the more the night air held a rancid burning scent. We saw some residents removing their belongings from their houses, and others keeping a north-looking watch. Later we would learn sides of some of the houses nearest the blaze steamed from the heat, and windows became hot to the touch. Firemen had advised those owners to hose down their houses.

Diamond REO semi (Wikimedia Commons)

Known for producing one of the toughest trucks on the road, Diamond REO made semi-trailer trucks, fire engines, buses, heavy-duty trucks, and from 1915 to 1953, the REO Speed Wagon. (Yes, the band R E O Speedwagon-"Keep on Loving You" and "Can't Fight This Feeling" — was named after the truck.) Ranson Eli Olds, the founder of Oldsmobile, began the company in 1914 and used his initials for the company's name. Olds was an early automotive innovator, and this plant became one of the earliest car (and lawnmower) factories in the United States. White Motor Corporation bought REO in the 50s and merged it with Diamond T to form the Diamond REO Company. They were labeled the "World's Toughest Truck." Diamond REO fell on hard times in the seventies and had filed bankruptcy a few years ago which closed the plant. Parts of the thirty-eight-acre site were condemned. When traveling I loved to see the very identifiable front end of a Diamond REO truck on the road. I took great pleasure knowing they were made close to where I lived. This was probably not true, as I now believe some were made at another out-of-state site, but I thought them the best truck on the road. At this time, though, controversy stirred between historic preservationists and the city's leaders about the site's future.

It was a strange walk since the northern sky was so bright, but where we walked seemed extra dark. A few gawkers like us walked in the same direction, but not too many, others were busy emptying houses.

It was obvious the fire was way ahead of saving the buildings, but the numerous fire trucks and firemen worked to contain the fire from spreading to the residential neighborhoods surrounding the southern side of the area. The four lanes of Cedar Street contained the eastern side of the site, while a rail line and the Red Cedar River held the northern boundaries of Diamond REO. On Washington Avenue to the west of the plant's grounds were the headquarters and other buildings, which were not ablaze. We walked down Baker Street which formed Diamond REO's southern boundary and linked Washington Avenue to Cedar Street. Here the flashing lights of fire trucks and police cars lined the road all the way to Cedar and then north on Cedar. In the shadows created by the bright light of the fire, we saw the tall spire of one fire truck shooting water on the blaze, later identified as the new 'Firebird,' a high-pressure rig capable of shooting thousands of gallons of water. We gazed in amazement at the huge embers of burning materials flying into the night sky and stayed on Baker Street's southern side so as not to impede fire workers. Reaching Cedar, we walked back home certain we would not have to evacuate our house.

Today, we, along with others living in the nearby neighborhoods, would have been evacuated because of all the asbestos, petrol chemicals, and other toxic substances carried into the night sky on embers and in the billowing smoke. The cloud of smoke lingered into Halloween, and we would learn from the city's newspaper, The Lansing Journal (from which some of this information has been taken from library archives), that arson probably started the fire sometime around 6:30 PM and caused its fast spread. Demolition workers had been inside the five-story production plant they were demolishing as late as 5:20 PM the night of the fire.

Because of the condition of the building that stretched nearly three blocks, once the blaze was under control, and it was ascertained no one was within the structure, the sixty-plus firemen pulled back and let the fire burn itself out. The company was already dead, this was a funeral pyre of the earthly remains, and there was no use in endangering anyone's life. The deathwatch would continue for another twenty-four hours, but Diamond REO was gone.

1919 REO ad from Wikimedia Commons.

Click here more for more on REO:

Note 1: I have heard rumors of a WWII tunnel from the Diamond REO site to the Capital building, which worried many people with knowledge of the tunnel; and that helicopters flew over the city to watch where the embers might land. Another rumor was of the presence of fire departments from as far away as Grand Rapids, Jackson, and Ann Arbor. I have found no evidence to support any of this information, but if a reader does, please contact me.

Note 2: I originally planned to post this much earlier on the date of the fire, but I wanted permission from the Lansing Journal to use one of their photos of the night of the fire. After three phone calls to answering devices and two emails, I've heard nothing so I gave up. The Lansing Public Library provided the photos.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Beyond Biology

I garden, but somehow the science — scifi/fantasy aspect is always bubbling on a back burner. Just how do you mix plants and gardening with fantasy and science fiction? Perhaps considering plants gives me insight into not only basic survival but also the universe beyond mere biology.

For survival read any of my posts on plant intelligence: Corn Clicks, More Signs of Intelligence, and Considering Aliens... Like Trees.

For other survival traits, consider plant chemistry. While many of our medicines come from plant compounds, so do many of our most dangerous toxins. Even some edible fruits like tomatoes can be toxic if eaten green, although cooking destroys the toxicity. Early man had to learn the hard way how to distinguish the good plant from the bad. Doesn't that generate science fiction ideas about man's survival on a foreign planet? Or perhaps a fantasy about sorcerers who know the inner workings of strange plant abilities, or because they can commune with plants thousands of years old, have greater insight into the world? Or how about this: a change occurs in Earth's plants and they gain sentience (If they don't already have it)? Oh! Oh! Or how about a plant that if eaten can confer a sixth sense or some other paranormal ability? Or perhaps human scientists transfer plant genes for longevity and self-healing into humans?

How about mathematics and the fractal nature shown by many plants? Now I can't explain the actual mathematics behind fractals, even after reading Wikipedia. If you are unfamiliar with fractals, Google plant fractals. These beautiful designs are often replicas of designs found in geographic features of the world, too, and this makes me speculate on the quantum theory and the universe's struggle between order and chaos.

Perhaps the Earth is the center of the universe, despite our 'scientific' discoveries and theories, and maybe the Earth, or Gaia, the great mother, is a plant eons old. Maybe an 'intelligent' plant can move from one continent to another by sending rootlets through the Earth's crust, and can also move throughout space? I know, I know, far-fetched. Still… seeds floating the ocean's currents have been known to move plants to new lands.

Other ideas come to mind. How about if a lotus-type seed, already known to stay viable for centuries, is somehow lifted into the atmosphere and is then flung into space? The seed travels on solar winds and ends up germinating on a foreign planet capable of sustaining life. What if the seed had been genetically altered to carry a copy of the human genotype? If it grows, will humans have successfully established themselves on another world?

Plants are miraculous life forms. In some ways they control the atmosphere and climate, so control our lives. Don't believe me? Consider drought's effects on grain crops in the West and Mid-west, and get prepared to pay much more for food. Is this partially due to the rainforest's destruction and their atmosphere cleaning capabilities? Maybe. Plants can grow in the harshest locations and have many unique characteristics. Maybe the first aliens will be plants.

Humans have to have plants to survive. Playing with the concepts about what everyone thinks they know is what creates fantasy and science fiction. Got any ideas? Have fun imagining!

Update 7/13/13 posting here due to Night Writers hiatus

Friday, July 27, 2012

Ottillie from Magic Aegis

One of my favorite characters from my first book, Magic Aegis, is Ottilie.  One of the secondary plotlines concerned her and her hero's journey, so she was important to the story even as a secondary character. Hope you enjoy her excerpt. Magic Aegis won that year's Dream Realm Award for a fantasy novel.

Cold infiltrated the austere interior of Queen’s Library at Queen’s University. Unthinking of her surroundings and unrepentant, she muttered a few words recently learned from her father’s new under-groom after her horse not only bit the lad but also stepped on his foot. Perhaps the gentle clerics held a desire to keep more earth-bound types at bay, she mused, as the drafts cut through any normal mortal’s clothing with absurd ease. Carefully she adjusted the folds of her floor-length brocade surgown for the hundredth time.

Looking between the stacks of books on her table she found one cleric still watched her with benign aversion. With measured movements she pulled the cuffs of her foresleeves down over her hands, covering her cold, stiff fingers. It helped little, other than to look pretty.

She admired her clothing with pleasure. The backsides of her cuffs were quilted in an apple green silk that matched the embroidered silk leaves adorning the gold stems that swirled up the sleeves. Pearls formed petals around topaz-centered flowers in a precise geometric pattern. The sleeves were tied with gold ribbons to her brown velvet surgown with puffs of a fine linen chemise showing through the ties. The edge of the gown also hung heavy with gemstones, pearls, and peridot, and on this cloth, orange and amber silk embroidery embellished the whole. All in all, she knew, with the peridot winking from the fillet encasing her red hair, she presented an extraordinary visage in the somber, book-lined gallery. If they insisted she wear what they considered proper ‘women’s wear’ to enter their sanctified grounds, then she would dress to scream ‘Aristo Woman’ back.

Obviously, the misogynic clerics had missed their mark. A bastard, true, but a rich one capable of facing down the haughtiest Aristo in court. These clerics offered little challenge; especially at an institution where money spoke, if not more clearly than the Holy One’s word, certainly louder.

She held a history of Kennetsure, but had found little about the Aegis. Once expelled from court, history ignored them, but land records might trace ownership. Except the Vere family became enmeshed within clan territory, so the family could not be identified. The families that had owned the ‘Aegis’ land in Wessure and Easure were gone, dead and forgotten.

Only the lands remained, and those had reverted to the crown. Those on the western ocean coast in Wessure remained in crown hands. In Easure, Ottillie learned, Aristo Yonger had claimed the land by direct heir forfeiture. His claim on one of his distaff relatives from the Guthase family went uncontested and he took the land from the crown.

Ottillie sighed to quell a thrill of anticipation that tickled just beneath her heart. Egan. One would think a supposed living talisman easier to track down as either fact or fiction.

She turned her focus to her father’s problem. His men, the Kennetsurean brothers Corbin and Galen Napier had unearthed no further clues. Questioning guards and prisoners took time. No one remembered seeing anyone spend many candlemarks in the library other than herself, who nearly dwelled here. Neither of the Kennetsurean men knew anything about the existence of the Kennetsurean Aegis, which caused Ottillie some doubt of the pair.

Egan, like a litany, it ran through her mind, disrupting concentration. The answers might be there. True, the Aegis powers might be a myth, but the library at Egan was reputed the greatest in all Kaereya, perhaps the best in all the remaining world. Ottillie wanted to know all the past, even the forbidden secrets of before the Cataclysmic Centuries, to learn the truth of the Protector.

She rose to roam the stacks once more, smiling at the cleric. At long last, she’d found books of interest and returned to her seat to read well into the afternoon. When no lamp was offered as the room’s light faded, she rose and picked up the books.

“No books allowed out of the library,” the cleric said as she passed his desk.

“I am on the King’s business.”

“You have papers for this business?”

“Do you ask all the courtiers for the King’s papers?”

“I am asking you.”

“Send to the Bishop. He will give approval.”

“The Bishop is conducting high service and cannot be disturbed. You must leave the books here until he can be reached.”

How convenient. “I will return tomorrow.” Ottillie said in the genteel voice her governess had ground into her comportment with the delicacy of a millstone. “Please hold the books until I return.” She smiled a brittle non-smile and nodded with no response from the cleric. Once she placed the books on the desk, the cleric returned to his studies, ignoring her as she walked away.

She strolled in sedate steps from the library and headed toward her own apartment one floor below her father’s rooms, a quarter mark away. Halfway there, Theodulf Gilchrist, Duke of Hearthron, stopped her. Tall, black haired, handsome and exquisite, Aristo Gilchrist, as King Frederick’s brother-in-law, exerted a powerful influence within the court. His courtier toads and hired men trailed him.

He demanded the fullest respect, for even with the death of his royal wife, his two sons, blood princes Emory and Tate, insured his position at court and the royal family held him in high regard. His expression mocked his gracious greeting, as did the smirks on his men.

Ottillie assumed her ingrained poise, and gave the curtsey Gilchrist’s position demanded. His lazy eyes sharpened as she raised her head. He took her hand and raised it to his lips as he pulled her from her sunken position. “You look, as always, brilliantly attractive, Ottillie.” One of his retainers coughed to cover his snigger, and with disciplined aplomb Ottillie ignored it. The duke lowered her hand but kept it in his grasp, his thumb running over its smooth skin, it finally came to rest over the darker circle of skin as if to hide the blemish.

“Thank you, Duke Hearthron. Your well-known discernment in matters of beauty and fashion does me credit.”

“Not at all. Perhaps if all... daughters... at court were as attractive, the court would be a far more elegant place.”

Ottillie missed no nuance, but gave him her best simpering smile, and thanked him.

“Will I see you at Handfasting?” he asked.

Keeping her thoughts tightly guarded, Ottillie answered. “No, I’m beyond that now. Hopefully I will be traveling.”

“Traveling? This close to winter? The Earl of Rikon has given his permission?”

“Not yet, but he will. It’s not bad if you head south.”

“And where will your southern travels take you?”

“To the Zankiri coast. I am tired of the drafts in the Queen’s Library and wish to spend the winter reading in warmth.”

“Zankiri?” Gilchrist laughed. “Ottillie! You needn’t go so far to stay warm. If you were in my care, you wouldn’t spend so much time among the books and dust. There is more to life, you know.”

Ottillie gave a silvery laugh. “I know that as well, Duke Hearthron.” She gave him a sly look. “But I must confess I find myself lucky to remain in my father’s care. I am thus assured of everything I want.” With a subtle tug she pulled her hand free.

“What, no desire to be a wife? That sounds premeditated, Ottillie, and I congratulate you on your machinations if they bring you all you desire. Just remember there is surely one other man who wishes to give you everything a woman could desire.”

“The trick is finding him,” Ottillie laughed. “I must not keep you any longer Duke Hearthron.” She sank into another deep curtsy. “You are dressed for riding and I would not wish to keep you from your horses. I know how you men are about such matters.” She stepped back, allowing the duke and his retinue to pass. She kept the smile pasted to her face as she watched them walk down the hall. Turning, she made her way back to her room, all emotion firmly bridled.

~ * ~
The Duke of Hearthron stopped and turned to watch Aristo Rikon’s daughter depart. Her gown swayed with her elegant movements. One of his companions made a humorous, foul remark about the lady. Others laughed.

“You are all very short-sighted,” he said with a smile. “Lady Ottillie is the only child of the land rich, powerful and wealthy Earl of Rikon. A prize that overcomes the few flaws his daughter possesses.”

“If you can put up with the mouth.”

“You don’t let your dog bite you, do you?”

“Do you have plans for the lady?”

“I always have plans.” Hearthron’s smile deepened. Only he knew how much he planned.

Monday, June 11, 2012

New Book This Month

Okay, it's my first story with adult content, provocative title. I would not class it as erotica, but it has sexual encounters. 

Trixie's Hot Box
Adjusting to being a witch and symbiont to an ancient creature is disturbing enough for Kate without suddenly inheriting Trixie’s Hot Box, the best jazz joint in St. Louis. Trixie’s requires responsibility and work but turns to danger when an evil want-to-be warlock thinks he should have inherited. When police find his body on the property, Kate knows the determined detective investigating the case suspects someone at Trixie’s, and that spells trouble.
Update 2019: Unavailable at this time. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Why Read Fiction?

From TV to film, video games to cartoons, with so many story-telling entertainment media venues available… why read a book, why waste your time? Isn't it easier to wait for the movie of some blockbuster story? Are the novel and short story passé, a doomed media?

We've all heard the benefits of reading fiction for years, probably since the first novels were marketed: escapism, mind travel, relaxation, stress relief, and engagement of the imagination. Don't these other venues do the same? Probably. So why read a book? Because reading words does something better than any of the other image-based story-telling media do. Reading strengthens the brain circuitry through exercise. Reading gives the brain a hi-powered workout. It also helps the reader become more socially adjusted, and might even offer a cure for obesity.

New research has provided evidence reading does much more than just entertain the reader. It seems reading stimulates more than the language regions of the brain. According to Anne Murphy Paul in an article for the New York Times (Your Brain on Fiction), scientific studies conducted in Spain and published in NeuroImage show our sensory and motor skill centers, indeed the whole brain, become involved in conceptualizing words, which is what makes submersion in fictional possible. Words feel so real. Another study shows how metaphoric language excites the brain: "Researchers have found that textural metaphors-phrases such as "soft-hearted"-turn on a part of the brain that's important to the sense of touch. The result may help resolve a long-standing controversy over how the brain understands metaphors and may offer scientists a new way to study how different brain regions communicate" (Metaphors Make Brains Touchy Feely). Fiction, it seems, produces powerful brain chemistry.

Reading also enables a person to learn social skills, empathy, and exercise their imagination. Again in "Your Brain on Fiction," writer Annie Murphy Paul cites evidence from psychological studies by a Doctor Mar showed reading fiction uses many of the same process regions of the brain used in social interactions. The conclusion relates to how reading helps individuals become better with their social interactions with other people in reality. Fiction readers, more so than non-fiction readers, seem to be more empathetic and more socially adjusted. Dr. Mar found this also true in pre-school children. The more stories read to this age group, the better their coping skills (Your Brain on Fiction).

Lastly, reading appropriate literature can help us develop good habits. A recent study of obese girls already in weight-control programs at Duke Children's Hospital indicated those who read a specifically recommended novel, Lake Rescue (Beacon Street Press), had a greater reduction in their body mass index numbers than the non-reading group (Reading helps obese children lose weight ).

This is strong proof reading is more than just entertainment, stress relief, and escapism, all though those are strong motivators. We knew the outward benefits of reading, now we are beginning to understand the inner benefits, those unseen, mind-expanding, brain exercising changes. More research into the brain-social-physical-reading connection will probably show other benefits to fiction. In the meantime, aren't you glad you read?


Monday, February 20, 2012

Excerpt from Stone House Farm

At the end of the business day, Amanda walked to her car. A sense of uneasiness assailed her as Grant emerged from the car parked next to hers.

“I don’t want to talk with you,” Amanda said, unlocking her car, her movements jerky and uncoordinated with her agitation. She opened the door, but Grant was next to her. He must have run around the back of her car.

“Please, Amanda, just listen.”

“You can’t say anything I want to hear.”

“I know, but your situation has changed, and as hard as you might find it to believe, I want to help you.” His hand grabbed the edge of her car door, blocking her entry.

“You’re right, I don’t believe you. Get out of the way, Grant.”

“Come on, Amanda. I only want to help.”

“How? Can you build me a new house? Get away from my car and stop causing a scene.” She tried to return to the office, but he caught her wrist.

“There is no scene, Amanda unless you make one. There is no one else in the parking lot, and no one on the road will notice anything unusual. I only want to talk to you, and you’ve refused to answer the messages I’ve left. And yes, I can help you find the wherewithal to have a new house. I heard Preston rescinded his offer to buy your farm.”

She jerked her arm free of his grasp, angered by his persistence. “What? How did you learn that?”

“That’s not important,” he said. “What is important is that I can offer you good money for it.”

She gasped in disbelief, her jaw dropping for a moment before she regained her composure. “You want to purchase my acreage? Over my dead body, Grant!”

Grant frowned. “Be sensible and less emotional. The house is gone, but I know people who are only interested in the land.”

“Who? And what’s in it for you Grant?”

He looked uncomfortable for a moment, watching the sparse traffic on Highway 31. “I’ve been offered a percentage of the sale if I can get you to agree to the purchase.”

At her prolonged silence, he finally looked at her with a pleading expression. “Rillema Construction has an offer on my land, but it is contingent on the purchase of yours.”

She gave him a nasty grin, suddenly enjoying herself. “Sorry, I’m not selling.”

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Excerpt from Legend's Cipher, an anthology

Bertok sat across the table from three examiners, his hands clasped on the table in front of him, and wondered why he had been summoned to Vincenne University on Acolyte Island, the home of the head bishop of the Holy One’s church. Three clerics silently stared at him from the other side of the table. One chair remained empty.

This couldn’t be about any immoral activity, could it? Yes, they could find the cause, but my carousing has never led to another’s harm, has it? Is this a tribunal? The thought of burning briefly terrified him, causing him to quickly regard the other men seated in the room. No, those types of illegal inquisitions stopped generations ago, didn’t they? Besides, he knew no secrets, and he tried whenever possible to avoid such awareness.

Bertok compressed his shoulders while he twisted his neck, cracking the bones to relieve his tension. What had he done? A complaint sent to the Bards’ Guild at Queen’s University could result in expulsion from the guild. That notion shook him. He had a dual calling as both storyteller and musician. What would he do? He loved being a bard; the work suited his wanderlust and his talents. He didn’t want to labor in fields or be beholden to some shopkeeper, or worse, some aristo.

A few inescapable reflections exposed situations where his actions had been less than ethical. These situations arose mostly through mischance or miscalculation. He was not as pure in body and soul as the priests demanded, but surely none of his misdeeds rose to punishable offenses? His only other secret he kept twisted tightly shut. How could they possibly know of that?

His short, well-worn leather jack felt buttoned too tight even if only at the waist, and to unbutton it would be far too casual for whoever was coming to talk to him. Besides, the jack hid stains on his shirt he did not wish to expose, even if the shirt’s frayed cuffs escaped the end of his jack’s sleeves.

Unlike many bards, I claim no coat string relation to any aristo, and I look like what I am, a powerless itinerant bard—someone with no influence. Perhaps even a worthless sacrifice for some religious goal? He shivered.

The closely woven texture and slight sheen on the three examiners’ gray robes of common clerical service, while plain, displayed fine quality. Their cowls, arranged in careful folds around the clerks’ necks, probably kept the chill-laden air drafts away while Bertok’s knees knocked with nervousness and the winter drafts chilling the room. The fireplace’s burnt offerings failed to warm the room to more than bearable cold.

His mind returned to his ponderings. Why was I called to the Bishop’s School? He had graduated from Queen’s College, so if he was to be disciplined for any incorrect language or behavior, would not the oral rhetoric professors of his own school handle the matter? Not the prelate’s teaching center? Did they know his secret? With applied effort, he prevented himself from unseemly squirming in his seat, but the clasp of his hands grew tighter.

The leaded panes of the tall, arched windows let drab winter light filter into the paneled chamber and made the ancient walnut paneling appear all the darker. He wondered if the prelates preferred such somber surroundings. The click of the latch of the door drew his attention.

His eyes widened, and his mouth dried as His Eminence the Bishop entered. If he didn’t know the man’s face, he’d have never recognized him. The bishop also wore general clerk’s dress rather than the ornately rich robes of his office. Bishop Hedrick settled his ascetic’s frame in the empty chair across the table. His gaze settled on Bertok. His eyes were the most innocent blue Bertok had ever seen. The bishop smiled, gentleness lining his face.

“Bard Bertok, it was kind of you to travel so far at my request.”

Bertok hesitated, wondering what to reply, but took the safe route. “Your holiness, I am at your service, only curious as to the reason for your request.”

The bishop’s smile changed his austere expression to one of an ordinary man. “That certainly eases my conscience. Before I embark on my reason for calling you hence, I would like to ask you a few questions.”

Bertok nodded his agreement while his stomach boiled in tension.