15 April 2021

Historical Bastards Revisited: Aristagoras-Tyrant of Miletus


[Today's entry is the latest in my on-going, on-again-off-again miniseries cataloging infamous bastards throughout history. For previous entries, click here, here, here, and here.]

While the cities were thus being taken, Aristagoras the Milesian, being, as he proved in this instance, not of very distinguished courage, since after having disturbed Ionia and made preparation of great matters he counseled running away when he saw these things (moreover it had become clear to him that it was impossible to overcome King Darius)...                                                                                                                        

                                                                            — Herodotus, The History

How’s this for cynical: yesterday’s tyrants becoming today’s liberty-loving embracers of democracy?  We’ve seen a lot of this during the modern era; Boris Yeltsin in Russia for example, rejecting communism out of convenience rather than out of conviction, and being catapulted to power as a result.

But it’s hardly a new story.

Take Aristagoras, Persian-appointed tyrant of the semi-independent Ionian Greek city-state of Miletus, the guy whose push for home-grown democracy touched off the so-called “Ionian Revolt” of the Greek city-states along the coast of western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in 499 B.C.; a conflict that led to the loss of thousands of lives, and served as the precipitating event in a wider conflict between the Greeks and the Persians over the two centuries that followed.


Bastard-in-Law

Aristagoras owed his position as tyrant to his father-in-law, Histiaeus.  Histiaeus had been tyrant before him, and had done his job so well that the Persian great king Darius appointed him to his own governing council.  When Histiaeus went east to the royal court at Persepolis, he recommended Aristagoras succeeded him.  Later, when Aristagoras was attempting to foment revolt among the Greek cities of Asia, Histiaeus secretly helped him, hoping that a rebellion led  by his son-in-law would lead to his own being appointed to re-take the city and re-establish himself as Miletus’ tyrant.

The modern-day ruins of the ancient Ionian Greek city of Miletus

Hardly a born-and-bred defender of personal liberty, Aristagoras’ opportunism was born of the most instinctive of human impulses; self-preservation.  Here’s how it happened.

Naxos, with the ruins of the temple of Athena in the foreground
The Proposal & The Vig

Shortly after he’d become tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras had been tapped to help the empire pick up some new real estate in the form of the Greek island of Naxos, a strategically placed island in the middle of the Aegean Sea.  In exchange for helping with this, Aristagoras was to receive a large portion of the anticipated loot to be taken when the island fell.

In anticipation of this, Aristagoras took out a large cash loan from the local Persian satrap (governor) in western Asia, in the city of Sardis.  With this money he hired mercenary soldiers and ships to help with the conquest.

The Crash

The only problem was that Aristagoras got into a major personal feud with the Persian admiral set to lead the expedition which became so ugly that the guy scotched the whole deal by secretly warning the Naxians of an invasion on the way.  Not surprisingly, the whole venture failed.

But, in a set-up that 20th century mafia bosses would admire, Aristagoras was still on the hook to the Persians for the money he’d borrowed, regardless of the success or failure of the invasion.  Desperate to save his own skin, Aristagoras set about quietly stirring a rebellion in Miletus and the neighboring cities, inviting such mainland Greek cities as Sparta and Athens to help their cousins across the Aegean Sea.

The Results

The Spartans not surprisingly refused (it was too far from home for these xenophobes).  But the Persian king had just succeeded in really pissing off the Athenians by baldly interfering in their internal politics and insisting that they take back the tyrant (Hippias) they had given the boot (with Spartan help) a decade previously.  So they agreed to send a fleet of ships to help.

And with that the Ionian Revolt was born.  The immediate result?  Sardis, the western-most provincial capital in the Persian Empire (and home-base of the satrap who had strong-armed Aristagoras in the first place) was sacked and burned by the Greek rebels.  The Athenians, horrified by the wanton destruction of the ancient city (and the Persians' western capital), withdrew their forces and went home.

The longer-term results: After a five-year-long campaign and the investment of much, time, effort, blood and money, the Persians crushed the Ionian rebels at the battle of Lade. Then they spent the next year picking off the Ionian cities one by one. By 494 BC, all of the Greek cities of the Ionian coast were back under the Persian yoke.

And then the Persians turned their attention toward the interlopers from across the western (Aegean) sea. As it turned out, just because the Athenians were finished supporting the Ionians, that didn't mean the Persians were finished with the Athenians.


The resulting conflict would rock the ancient world. All of the Greek cities on the Greek mainland, on the islands, and even along the Ionian coast, were drawn in. On both sides of the Greco-Persian struggle. And by the time it was over, in 479 BC, the unthinkable had happened: Persia had lost, thousands of her soldiers slaughtered, hundreds of ships sunk or captured, millions in treasure spent. All to upstart barbarians clinging to the western edge of the known world.

And Aristagoras?  Still fearing for his own skin, he relocated to Thrace, where he tried to establish a colony from which to continue the war against Persia, and was killed trying to strong-arm the locals (see how this sort of thing just keeps running downhill?).



14 April 2021

The Busted Flush


Penguin/Random House has reissued John D. MacDonald’s twenty-one Travis McGee novels in nicely-packaged trade paper, with tasteful cover art and a preface by Lee Child.

I might prefer some of the more lurid original jackets, not quite so restrained, but I admire the enterprise. Some of MacDonald’s books, Slam the Big Door, or One Monday We Killed Them All, even The Last One Left, have been in and out of print, over the years; McGee has never fallen out of favor.

I don’t think it’s any secret that MacDonald was reluctant to do a series character. It was Knox Burger, at Fawcett Gold Medal, who convinced him. MacDonald was getting along just fine, by all accounts, knocking out a couple or even three novels a year, and then McGee moved the goalposts. It took half a dozen books, but Travis McGee turned John D. MacDonald into a brand name.

This is a phenomenon that I’m guessing is particular to the time. Gold Medal was a paperback original imprint, like Ace, which put out SF titles in a double-novel format, two books back-to-back. It was the Republic Pictures of the publishing business. Paperbacks had come in big during the war, cheap editions for GI’s. Pocket Books was an early entry, and postwar, publishers realized they could expand the market to drugstores and newsstands, railroad stations and airports and hotel lobbies, and avail themselves of the impulse buyer. The books cost a quarter, in the 1950’s, and in ‘64, The Deep Blue Goodbye, MacDonald’s first McGee title, sold for forty cents. They were below the salt, mind you. The New York Times Book Review didn’t deign to acknowledge paperback originals; they were pulp, they were Poverty Row. And they were mostly generic, hardboiled noir and science fiction, women in prison or youth led astray.

Readers gobbled them up. Granted, our tastes might not have been that discriminating. I ran across The Deep Blue Goodbye at a PX newsstand when I was in the military – dating myself – and I grabbed every single book afterwards as soon as they came out.

The visceral appeal, for sure. The laid-back life, the long sunsets, ice clicking against a tall glass, the careless, carefree women. It was an adolescent fantasy. There was something darker, and more subversive. MacDonald was one of the first guys, along with Frank Herbert in Dune, to talk about the environment.

One of the constants in the McGee books (and in MacDonald’s later stand-alones, A Flash of Green and Condominium) is the greed and waste of accelerated development. No wonder that Carl Hiassen counts MacDonald as an influence.

And the deeper, yawning, reptilian darkness. The sexism was backward and Neanderthal; the environmentalism was forward-looking; the bad guys are psychopaths. McGee, by his own admission, is a throwback. If he weren’t, he wouldn’t be able to handle the bottom-feeders and predators that lurk, not on the periphery, but in plain sight.

Bad guys, in a McGee novel, aren’t ambiguous. They may be sly, or slippery, or possessed of a certain charm. Nor are they, necessarily, guys.

But there’s a clear line MacDonald draws: the luckless, the gullible, the innocent, don’t deserve to be shorn simply because they’re sheep. We protect the weakest, by reason of their very weakness.

Reading the books again, and not in order - the first one I picked up was The Scarlet Ruse. I’m struck by their economy. There’s no wasted motion.

Dutch Leonard says you should leave out the stuff the reader’s going to skip, and you don’t care about, either. You can see Leonard do it, and Hiassen, or Lee Child.

Stay with the essentials, spend your energy on the parts that matter.

In other words, if it holds your interest, it’ll show. If you’re going through the motions, you’ll bore yourself, and the reader.

The set-up for The Scarlet Ruse is relaxed but brisk. First, the rare stamps. We’re perhaps reminded of the Brasher Doubloon. “The only known vertical pair of the famous error in blue… The top stamp has one pulled perf and a slight gum disturbance.”

Then, the switcheroo. Who had access to the safe deposit box? Next, the whys and wherefores of the investor, who turns out to be mobbed up, a money launderer who’s skimming, and the stolen stamps, in demand and fungible, represent his getaway money.

For a hook, so far, so good. But this is just the bottom crust, not the filling. It isn’t the story MacDonald is interested in telling. The real story, once the broad brushstrokes are laid in, is about trusting the wrong people, and each relationship, McGee and Meyer, McGee and the damsel in distress, McGee and the heavy, for that matter, is dependent on good faith or bad.

The final trap, the ruse of the title, is in effect a pigeon drop.

The moral, as in every McGee story, is about ownership, and personal responsibility, whether the results work to your advantage or not. Once you set events in motion, you have to live with the consequences, and those consequences can be severe. McGee’s world isn’t Manichean, or absolute, and black and white are often blurred, but the choices tend to narrow toward the violent and final. You can argue this is characteristic of the genre – when you run out of ideas, Hammett tells us, have a guy come through the door with a gun - but here the violence isn’t lazy, it’s exhausting and inevitable.

He was very much of his time, let’s be honest. MacDonald and McGee flourished during the Cold War, but unlike the nihilism of Spillane and Mike Hammer, actual events don’t much impinge on McGee’s world.

There’s a sidelong look at the Markov assassination in The Green Ripper, ricin being the instrument of choice, but generally, what’s going on in the larger political atmosphere isn’t pertinent. What is, is a sense of growing malaise.

McGee seems lonelier as time passes, more isolated (excepting Meyer). The Green Ripper, actually, finds him completely out on a limb, with no support system whatsoever. Not that he isn’t the archetypal loner, in many ways, but he’s also embedded in a personal ecology, the marina, the houseboat, the culture of south Florida and the offshore islands.

This context is vital and specific. Taken without it, McGee is himself less specific. So, although contemporary events may not affect the characters directly, the place, the weather and the water, the color of the sky, the heat in the air, the pull of the tides, provides a canvas. Not as backdrop, but as a constant, the horizon line, the curve of the earth.

Do the books age well, does McGee have legs? I’m not the guy to ask. He’s a sentimental favorite. There are things that are awkward and squirmy – truth to tell, they were awkward and squirmy back when – and there are things that make you pump your fist and go, Pow! John MacDonald is as rock-solid a writer as they come. Is it pulp? Depends. It’s vigorous, and brassy, and hot to the touch. You don’t get much better.


13 April 2021

Jumping In


     Today marks my inaugural blog with the SleuthSayers. I'm honored to have been asked to pen a periodic contribution to the blog. I know a few of my fellow SleuthSayers, maintain an epistolary relationship with a few more (a fancy way, I'm told, to say that we email on occasion), and read the works of many others. I've enjoyed the thoughtful content of the blog for years. I hope that I may, now and again, contribute something of value to this page.

     My name is Mark Thielman. I work as a criminal magistrate in Fort Worth, Texas. When I tell people that I am a magistrate, they usually give me an earnest nod of the head as a sign of understanding.

    "Magistrate" sounds familiar. Yet like "comptroller" or "aide-de-camp", it is a government job whose definition hangs just past the periphery of people's knowledge. Most don't really know exactly what I do. What the heck is a magistrate? 

    A fair question. In Texas, the duties of a magistrate are defined in the Code of Criminal Procedure:

It is the duty of a magistrate to preserve the peace within his jurisdiction by the use of all lawful means; to issue all process intended to aid in preventing and suppressing crime; to cause the arrest of offenders by the use of lawful means in order that they may be brought to punishment. 

     Reading that as I type, it makes my job sound TV worthy: preserving peace, suppressing crime, bringing offenders to punishment. Maybe I don't need a robe, but rather a cape.

    The truth of course is a little more mundane. Texas magistrates are a creation of statute. What a magistrate can do in my county varies from those in Dallas or Houston. Putting aside the details, I think of myself as a substitute teacher for the criminal judges of my county. We cover the routine responsibilities of the elected judges, giving them more time for the Solomonic duties the voters expect.

    Most of my day is spent meeting the most recently arrested individuals in Tarrant County. When someone in jail turns on the crime spigot, my work begins. A steady line of individuals parade before me. I review arrests, inform defendants of their rights, determine whether they need a court-appointed attorney, and set bail. I work out of a cinderblock room in the basement of the jail; it bears more resemblance to a tornado shelter than the oak-paneled, flag-bedecked courtrooms of television. (Or I did. Since the start of the pandemic I've met my defendants through a closed-circuit television system.)

    I encounter a great many interesting people in a day. A few are frequent fliers; we know each other by name. Many are big-eyed newcomers, terrified about their circumstances. Some cry. Many are hungover. I try to speak more slowly to them, since their brains obviously take an extra beat to catch up. Many believe, despite the admonishments about their right to remain silent, that if they just explain themselves one more time, the misunderstanding in which they find themselves will just go away. (Practice tip: Generally it won't.)

    Occasionally someone gets angry about the news I'm dispensing. They are, however, the exception. I'm continually surprised at the number of defendants who are polite and respectful. If only you'd acted this way on the streets, I often think, you wouldn't be standing here talking to me now. Of course, they are mostly sober when I see them and that likely helps their impulse control. I afford them as much courtesy as I can. I always try to remember that all of them, even the guy who gave a fake name hoping to beat his parole warrant, are having a bad day. The detention officer and I are the only people in the room who awoke planning to go to jail that day. And we both get to leave at will.

    I like to think of myself as a writer with a magistration hobby. I write mostly short stories. The next one will be out in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I've written historicals and contemporaries, humorous and serious stories, puzzle mysteries and, occasionally a poignant tale of someone for whom life hasn't quite worked out like they planned.

    Although I suppose that I will someday, I've never written a story set in magistration court. Magistration is what I do to fill the time between sessions crafting fiction. There is, however, some overlap. Both my writing job and my magistrate hobby require me to sit in my chair and keep typing, even on days when I don't want to.

    My crack staff helps me to look smarter at both my jobs. My writing editorial assistant is pictured here.

    She taught me the important rules for writing, the two commands: "Sit" and, "Stay".  Together we keep trying.

    Until next time.

12 April 2021

Anthologies, Pro and Con


When I started taking writing seriously, I aimed to produce a novel every year or so, along with three or four short stories. When I published my first novel, I had five more in my files and I revised them and built off those early ideas for the next decade. In late 2019, I finally exhausted that back inventory, and in the interim, I published 15 novels, but seldom more than two or three short stories a year.

For reasons I've discussed before, that changed in 2020. I haven't even considered writing another novel, but I wrote about fifteen short stories in the last half-year and sold five of them, more than usual. Right now, I have a dozen stories under submission at some market or another, and I owe that to anthologies.

Looking over my records, I see that over half my sales have been to anthologies, which I never realized before. In fact, five of the submissions currently out there are either at anthology markets or were inspired by an anthology call.

What happened?

Well, sometimes I write a story and it turns out to be a perfect match for an anthologoy that appears later. That happened with "Ugly Fat." I wrote the story years ago and many markets turned it down, but I knew it would find a home eventually. Sure enough, Heartbreaks and Half-Truths sought stories about love gone wrong, and "Ugly Fat" was perfect. When I sent it, I was sure it would sell.

I like anthologies more and more now because the guidelines serve as a writing prompt. The general premise and a context generate enough of an idea to get me started. If I get an idea right away, it tells me it's too obvious and other people will think of it, too. If that happens, I usually write a couple of pages and put the story in a file until I find a better idea or a new twist that will make it stand out. Having that basic plan gives me a more specific understanding of where to look for that difference.

For example, Michael Bracken is editing an anthology that will appear next year. "Groovy Gumshoes" showcases PI stories set in the 1960s, and the guidelines encouraged authors to use an historical event from the period. I thought of Woodstock; Vietnam; civil rights; the British music invasion; and the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Medger Evers and Malcolm X. Two other events spoke to me more personally, though. The Detroit riot erupted less than 30 miles south of where I was in a summer session at Oakland University. The following year, the Detroit Tigers became the first team to come back from a 3-1 game deficit and win the World Series. The riot suggested urban grit, and I used that setting. The story sold.

I have submitted stories to seven Mystery Writer of America antholgies because their themes are concrete enough to generate an idea but open enough to provide wiggle room. So far, only one story I wrote made the anthology in question, but all the others eventually sold somewhere else. I can live with that.

Yes, many anthologies pay a royalty share instead of a flat rate, and that share may be tiny, but anthologies have a longer shelf life than a magazine. Last December, I received (another) royalty payment for an MWA anthology published in 2012.That means the book and my name are still out there, and the exposure builds cred for the next story I submit somewhere else. 

As anthologies proliferate, there are more potential markets...and more potential ideas.

It's all about keeping the keyboard warm.

11 April 2021

Anti-Asian hate crimes


If I told you that there’s a crime spree going on and you can stop it, would you? 

The rise of anti-Asian hate crimes in Canada - yes, Canada, the land of the multiculturally smug – are crimes we can all stop. The first step is always understanding it.

Many have blamed the former U.S. President Trump for the rise of anti-Asian racism because of his racist rhetoric, but he was simply repeating a long historic tradition of targeting Asians. Kim Yi Dionne, a professor of political science at the University of California-Riverside, explained that “America has a long history of immigrant exclusion on the basis of disease.”

Trump was feeding into the biases that some people already had and doing it to restrict immigration certainly, but also to deflect blame for any illness or death of Americans. As those deaths increased, so did his rhetoric.

Canada also has a long history of restricting Asian immigration and using anti-Asian rhetoric to do it.

In 1885, Canada imposed a head tax on Chinese migrants before admission into Canada, the purpose of which was to discourage more Chinese coming to Canada. The anti-Asian sentiment was in full force in the 1902 Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration that stated that the Asians were "unfit for full citizenship … obnoxious to a free community and dangerous to the state.”

Despite the drop in Chinese and other Asians entering Canada, there were many violent anti-Asian riots on several occasions to protest Asians in Canada.

During the 1918 pandemic, Asian Canadians were once again targeted as disease ridden and were even excluded from treatment at “white” hospitals.

During World War II, the federal government put Japanese Canadians in internment camps and sold all their property.

It was only in the 1960s that Canadian immigration legislation and regulations were changed to allow Asians to immigrate to Canada on equal footing with whites.

This history explains why anti-Asian racism has risen so rapidly: the narratives and attitudes fed into prejudices some people already had and, although Canadian politicians have largely avoided xenophobic blaming of Asian Canadians, we are not immune to these narratives. The pandemic has given rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories and the internet knows no borders. Canadians so inclined have been drinking in anti-Asian rhetoric and spewing it out against Asian Canadians.

Of the 1,150 instances of anti-Asian racism reported between March 10, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021, it was, “found that elderly people, young people and those in low-income jobs or who did not speak English were more vulnerable to attacks. According to the data, most incidents occurred in public spaces such as parks, streets or sidewalks. Restaurants, grocery stores and other food-sector locations were the site of nearly one-fifth of the incidents. Nearly ten per cent of the reported cases took place on public transit.”

This is crucial: these incidents occur in public spaces. In plain sight.

The worst message we can send is that verbal or physical harassment of Asian Canadians is OK. This is why the Government of Canada “offers bystander intervention training on their website, with safe and positive options to prevent harm when there is a risk of violence.

The goal of this training is to send a message that hate, including racism and xenophobia, is unacceptable in all of its forms.”


Since this problem started with the Government of Canada and the citizens of Canada condoning and augmenting anti-Asian rhetoric, it is fitting that together we end it.

It is also fitting that the internet – used to promote anti-Asian rhetoric – can also be used to fight it. The same principle applies, don’t let Asians be harassed. If this happens, report the account and say something too.

Ultimately, like hate against any group, the only way to stop it is to learn about the history, understand what to do if we see it and support organizations that are helping.

Canada should not be a country in which Asian Canadians feel unsafe and unwelcome. Multiculturalism requires the actions of each generation to protect it.

10 April 2021

How It Happened In Tennessee: The 19th Amendment


This one has it all: feuds, sudden victories, shock defeats, smoke-filled rooms, betrayal, transcriptionists. And we open to 1920 and a young Jewish woman scouring the East Tennessee mountains.

Anita Pollitzer was a Charleston-born photographer and force of nature with a drawl. In her twenty-five years, Pollitzer had already turned the New York art world onto her pal Georgia O’Keefe. Pollitzer's second famous act was unfolding over a country tour rounding up legislator assurance for women's suffrage. She'd had leapt through the National Woman’s Party ranks as a crack organizer, and winning the vote anytime soon had come down to the Tennessee Legislature. Yes, Tennessee. The Woman’s Party, forever cash-strapped, sent Pollitzer to secure the eastern delegation. All of them.

Niota, Tennessee sits in the ridgelines between Knoxville and Chattanooga. In 1920, Niota was the home of Representative Harry Burn, a rising Republican star and relationship banker. Try as she might, Pollitzer couldn't be everywhere. A stop in remote Niota ate through precious time and scarce funds. Fair enough. Pollitzer cornered Burn on the telephone, and when Pollitzer had someone cornered, they knew it. Burn pledged his vote for the Suffs. Pollitzer moved to corner the next guy.

Cut to Nashville and one Edward Bushrod Stahlman, an ex-L&N Railroad exec turned newspaper publisher. Stahlman had forged the afternoon Nashville Banner into a regional conservative powerhouse. In non-unrelated business, he remained the railroads’ go-to lobbyist around these parts. As prickly personalities and successful businessmen will do, he’d made enemies.

Such as Luke Lea, publisher of the rival Tennessean. In 1913, Lea had gone from U.S. Senator to ex-U.S. Senator thanks to Stahlman backing an ouster. Lea had gotten it in his head to investigate the railroads' political influence and possible local corruption. Lea seemed to loathe Stahlman so much that many a morning The Tennessean portrayed Stahlman as a disloyal German, Lea being just back from distinguished service in WWI. Lea held such a grudge against things German that he’d tried– actually tried– and failed a caper to kidnap the exiled Kaiser. Lea ran The Tennessean as a progressive voice that strongly backed– wait for it--popular election of U.S. senators. Also Prohibition and now women’s suffrage. Pretty much whatever Lea was for, Stahlman and The Banner were inclined to be against.

Edward Stahlman
(Nashville Library Special Collection)

Mind you, Stahlman had backed Tennessee's 1919 partial suffrage bill passed while Lea was off chasing the Kaiser. And Stahlman professed support even for making suffrage universal--until he was against it. A states rights guy, what bothered Stahlman wasn’t women voting per se but Washington mandating that women could vote. It was the principle of thing, see?

Also, there was money to be made. Big Railroad wanted their, ahem, investment in the Legislature protected. Big Liquor feared pro-temperance Suffs who’d already slapped Prohibition on everyone. Big Manufacturing thought women voters would push through dangerous and radical ideas like child labor laws. Well-funded lobbyists organized a fierce--and whiskey-soaked--persuasion campaign, with The Banner as their afternoon voice.

Though not always the loudest voice. The Anti's logic went that, if you’re going to convince women not to push for voting rights, you have to make it appear like most women don’t want voting rights. Enter Josephine Pearson of Monteagle, an Anti writer of scathing editorials and a former college dean installed as President of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Well-regarded and accomplished, she was the sort of successful career woman her speeches warned America about.

Here came the broadsides. The rough-and-tumble of politics would corrupt womanly virtue. Politics would overtax the female brain and thus shrink the womb. Thus, suffrage doomed motherhood itself and by implication America, hot dogs, apple pie.

The Hermitage Hotel, 100 years on
Both sides threw everything they had into the War of the Roses. Suffs pinned yellow roses to pledge lapels. The Anti pinned (paper) red ones on their supporters. The swank Hermitage Hotel, a mere plaza away from the Capitol, became ground zero for charm offensives, pay-offs, sex traps, fist fights, death threats, fake telegrams about dying children, and Big Liquor's 24/7 Jack Daniels speakeasy on the eighth floor. It became impossible to find a legislator sober enough to lobby.

The Anti strategy was working, despite a quick loss in the Senate. The doomed womb and states rights arguments provided cover for House members worried that women voting also included black women. Bribes didn’t hurt, either. Suff support collapsed in the House, and Rep. Burn of Niota was among the defectors.

They thought they had it won, Pearson and old Stahlman. By a narrow margin, sure, but they didn't need a blowout. Stahlman himself delivered a seal-the-deal address on the House floor condemning undue influences meddling in Tennessee's business. The Antis had underestimated a few things, though.

One was Anita Pollitzer.

Pollitzer took no for an answer poorly, especially after she’d been promised a yes. Pollitzer and the Anti leaders stalked Capitol Hill and the Hermitage Hotel and anywhere a legislator might try to hide. Lost pledges were blistered with appeals to better natures and epic guilt trips. Rep. Burn got a full dose of Pollitzer's drawled fire and was left stammering in her wake.

Febb Burn
Here, famously, motherhood actually did step in. A conflicted Burn was on the House floor during the make-or-break session when he received the most mom-like letter ever written from his mother Febb back in Niota. Febb, a diehard Suff, softened her boy up for a few paragraphs and then sank the maternal dagger over his Anti pledge. In dramatic style, Burn re-switched sides on the spot. Boom, Suffs cheered from the gallery, Antis shouted for blood or at least recounts.

Well, Burn had to beat it quick out a Capitol window. Later that night, the Antis tracked Burn down at the Hermitage Hotel. Top Anti strategists had mapped out a double-secret plan to torpedo the Amendment by legislative maneuvering. There would be the usual rallies and propaganda and intimidation, but the showpiece of the brainstorm went like this: Blackmail the snot out of Burn. Once he re-re-switched his vote, the Antis would yet win the day.

And the Antis had proof. Proof!

Witness affidavits claimed that shortly before the dastardly vote switch, Burn had been hauled off into a cloakroom and given ten grand to go Suff. Recant, the Antis warned Burn, or tomorrow afternoon Stahlman and The Banner run this nugget and end that promising career. Never mind that Burn hadn't been hauled anywhere. He’d been in full view agonizing over Febb's letter. That wasn't the Anti's biggest problem.

No, they'd picked the wrong affidavit stenographer.

Pollitzer and Burn shaking hands,
1920 (top center)

The stenographer knew dirty pool when she heard it. She recorded not only their statements but also how operatives coached the sort-of-witnesses into framing Burn. And the stenographer turned the whole thing over to Luke Lea at The Tennessean. Stahlman would’ve been prepping for his crushing afternoon edition when someone drew the short straw and slid over The Tennessean’s morning scoop blowing up the blackmail scheme.

That, friends, was how Tennessee came around to seal the Nineteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Like I said, this one had it all, including– in the end– a win for justice.

09 April 2021

A Sense of Place


 I've probably made it clear - perhaps too clear - I'm a big fan of setting. A lot of times, many of the stories I've written came from traveling. In a former life, I made the trip from Cincinnati to Hilton Head. There were two routes, one I considered the scenic route. It went through Virginia and West Virginia, using US 52 (the source of a few Wile E. Coyote memes for the rock slides over by Portsmouth, Ohio) to return home. The bulk of this route is on I-77, which begins in Cleveland. Because of its proximity to Hilton Head, the trip down often included side trips to Savannah, Georgia. And Savannah fascinated me.

It resulted in Road Rules, a road trip caper that follows two high school friends as they attempt to deliver a collectible Cadillac to Miami. The final third of the novel takes place in Savannah, which makes a beautiful place for everything to go to hell.

All this from a handful of trips south and back.

It didn't stop there. I published three short stories about an ex-convict adopting a false identity and trying to make a new life as a restaurateur. His own past and the past of his mentor and former cellmate come back to violently upend his new life. But the prison take wasn't the inspiration. No, in 2007, I took two business trips to San Francisco and fell in love with the city. I stayed out in Walnut Creek (not far, I learned, from the home of one member of Metallica) and traveled into the city over weekends and on the day before I left. It was amazing, and I needed a way to put the city into a story. Eventually, I hit on the owner of a biker-themed bar looking to turn it into a chain only to have violent men from his or his cellmate's past come after him. Walnut Creek is not the most spectacular suburb in the Bay Area, but I managed not only to tie in a nearby park, but reference Altamont Speedway, the sight of the disastrous 1969 music festival shown in the movie Gimme Shelter

Has it stopped?

Oh, no.In 2019, my family went out west. My wife and stepson did the Route 66 trip they always wanted. I flew out to San Fran to meet them, then rented a car to drive back to Cincy. I wanted to drive across the country myself, with a detour south to Vegas.  The trip took me into worlds I did not know existed. The Sierras of California are not the Bay Area. It reminded me of some parts of West Virginia with much taller mountains. And peacocks. The town we stopped in for lunch swarmed with peacocks. Nevada, once you get past Reno, is almost an alien landscape: Scrub desert with old mining towns, some of which should have become ghost towns. A miscalculation had us driving 9 hours from Reno to Vegas instead of the six I thought it was. However, at night, Nevada becomes even stranger. I nearly hit a wild ass - I'm used to deer in Ohio - and saw the big empty that is the edge of Area 51. Vegas makes New York City at night look sleepy. Plus, as my stepson pointed out, we saw, um, workers in the intimate arts coming off a hard day's night.

Utah is the most gorgeous state I've ever been to. Wyoming is all ranches and oil fields, and we ended up so high into the Rockies that, on June 3, we drove past six foot snow packs. And life is different in these areas. Nevada is as close to the old frontier as you can get. Salt Lake City is monumentally chill. Wyoming offered us roughnecks, ranches, trains that stretched into the distance, and majestic mountains. 

And it became clear to us as we drove into Denver that the real dividing line between east and west is not the Mississippi. It's the Continental Divide. Denver, despite being a mile up and framed by peaks that are part of the sky, more resembles the cities of the east than it does places like Vegas or Salt Lake or Laramie. And there are a wealth of stories to be told from that trip alone.

Nor is this the end. Our first post-pandemic vacation this summer will be a drive through New England. The main stops, after a night in Niagara Falls, will be Lake Champlain and two nights in Bar Harbor, Maine. Along the way, the countryside will more resemble Stephen King's fictional western Maine than the industrial Midwest where I live. The accents, the food, and the layouts of towns will all change as we head east, then slowly back west from Hartford, CT to home. Will there be story fodder there?

Boy howdy!

08 April 2021

So You Want to Live Free


My latest story, "The Sweet Life" will be published in the July/August edition of AHMM.  It has some relationship to this blog.  

Back – God help us! – 52 years ago, I left home in the middle of the night after one of the most frighteningly violent days of my short life.  I'm not going into the details.  But I truly believed that if I didn't leave that night I wasn't going to be alive much longer.  

I remember that night, but not much of the next couple of weeks.  But eventually I found myself on the road, looking for a haven.  I went to Coronado, then I went up to San Francisco - to join the hippie ranks, of course.  But by then the hippies were all gone (most to Northern California or Oregon, where a lot of them started communes).  Haight Ashbury was still there, but it was mostly hard-core druggies by the time I got there.  I went south, to L.A., and ended up in Hollywood, where I disappeared into street culture for the next couple of years.  

First of all, we need to remember that people have been / gone homeless for millenia.  Back in the Middle Ages, when the wealthy lords figured out that raising sheep on huge acreages was less trouble and more profitable than dealing with farming and farmers, they got rid of their tenants, who mostly fled to the cities or the forests. Every famine, people fled to wherever they thought they might find food. (Joseph's brothers to Egypt.) After every war, from the Crusades to Afghanistan / Iraq, some soldiers have returned damaged and hopeless and drifted, again, to the wilderness, whether cities or forest or desert.

What's changed is that today it's harder to be left alone than it was even 50 years ago.  You used to be  able to sleep in certain parks, under overpasses, derelict buildings, vacant lots, and the occasional free church.  You could even find a cheap place to rent every once in a while, and set up a makeshift commune.  But today… much harder.  The cities don't want the homeless, and they now have sufficient laws and police to harass, evict, move on, and/or jail people who live on the streets, in tents, on the ground, or in RVs.  See my 2014 blog, The Surplus Population.  Still frighteningly accurate.  And as for affordable housing anywhere?  Ha!  And good luck on finding a wilderness to disappear into.  

But the lifestyle itself hasn't changed.  

(1) Nobody becomes homeless by choice.  There's a story behind every homeless person.  S/he lost their job, their lifestyle, their mind, their health, their home, their family...  Something put them there, and I never met anyone who chose it willingly because it was a fun, free way to live.  What that something was is important to know if you ever want to get them off the streets.  Not everyone wants to go home.  I know I never once thought about going home, no matter how weird things got, because at least when someone did something awful / violent to me, it wasn't someone claiming to love me.  

(2) Over time, you get used to it.  The first requirement of life on the streets is to develop good radar for who dangerous and who isn't.  You will make mistakes.  Second is to find the infrastructure you need to stay alive:  usable restrooms, restaurants, churches, charitable organizations, etc.  Third is to learn the rhythms of the people around you, the police on the beat, the businesses, and how to work with them.

(3) Over time, you get used to it.  Street life is a whole lot of time to kill in between moments of great urgency, and sometimes great danger.  How do you spend that time?  Sleeping, when possible.  Talking constantly.  Looking around for anything that can be sold, spent, or used.  More talking.  Looking for food.  Lot of smoking.  (Smoking used to be cheaper than eating, and in the 60s and 70s even people who would never dream of handing out money would give you a cigarette.)  More talking.  The result of all that talking is some of the most unbelievable plots, plans, schemes, conspiracy theories and stories ever heard - believed.  Sometimes I think QAnon is simply channeling street people.  

(4a) You try to get used to it.  It's a strange mix of people on the streets.  Most of them are perfectly harmless; they're just unsightly.  But there are also the mentally ill - mostly harmless, despite talking to the air, which used to look a lot stranger before cell phones. But you can't ever tell if they would lose it.  Even worse are the predators, who specifically prey on their fellow travelers, often by pretending to be their friend.  Think Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy.  And at least he wasn't violent. 

(4b) There's also a strange mix of people who try to help people on the streets.  Many of them mean well:  those who come with food and water, those who offer rides to church or 12-Step meetings, those who provide medical care (we didn't have that in my day), and those who really are doing everything they can to get people off the street and into a stable life.  But there are also predators - the johns, picking up the young girls for some quick cheap sex; the cult leaders, looking for more recruits; the employers, looking for cheap labor; and the killers. 

(5) Over time, some people get more than used to it.  They turn feral - the life of the streets is the only one they can bear.  A life with a bare minimum of comfort / amenities, but a strange freedom.  If you can stand it.  Your time is your own.  You can say pretty much anything you want.  You can go anywhere your legs can take you.  You are not beholden to anyone.  There is no future, but there is certainly a present.  

I'm not romanticizing it like some people have (read John Steinbeck's Cannery Row for that).  It's hard.  It takes a hell of a lot of energy, just to stay alive every day. The life expectancy of a homeless person is very low.  And, as I said, there is no future, other than the ones cooked up in all those endless hours of talking.  The young street urchins waxing hopeful about being discovered and being the next singing sensation, model, actor, etc. (remember, I was in Hollywood).  The older guys talking about moving to the wilderness - Alaska, Rocky Mountains, wherever.  I never knew anyone who got any of those dreams.  Where they were was where they were.  

Me, all I wanted was to stay alive until I was old enough to go legal, and then come in off the streets and get a job and an apartment of my own.  I was lucky - through the grace of God, I did.  (BTW, doing that presented a whole new set of challenges.)  But - also through the grace of God – I've never forgotten. Everything I learned on the streets has come in handy in the rest of my life.


PS: Update on Allan. March 22nd, I took him to the doctor because he was having trouble breathing; they tested his oxygen levels, which were in the 70s, so it was off to the ER. He stayed in the hospital till 6 PM on Wednesday. Long story short: he has severe emphysema, will be on 24/7 oxygen for the foreseeable future, and has many upcoming doctor's visits, tests, etc., ahead of him. BUT he’s home.

Oh, and we've named his 24/7 oxygen concentrator "George".

07 April 2021

Get Under the Kanopy


 What I am about to tell you will probably delight a few people and annoy a lot more.  That is the risk you take in the hard-hitting world of bloggery.

I recently discovered that I have free access to Kanopy, a web-service that bills itself as "Thoughtful Entertainment."  I had known about it from my days working at the university, but I didn't realize that my public library had purchased access to it.

Hence the delight/annoyance I mentioned in the first sentence.  Some of you have access to a library that offers Kanopy.  Probably more of you don't. Sorry about that.  You can find out by clicking here.  If your library doesn't offer it you can try emailing them the suggestion.  They probably won't fine you for it. 

So what does Kanopy offer?  Movies and documentaries that are not found in the usual places.  And you can watch ten a month for free.  Here are a few crime related ones I found there.