Snow, Snow, Snow!

Every time I watch either A Christmas Story or Prancer on television, I am a kid again in the Mid-West, knee-deep in Christmas snow. And, as everyone knows, a Christmas snow is magic. The stars seem brighter, the possibilities endless, and joy abounds.

In the Mid-West, every hill is a possible sledding hill. The best ones have a stream at the bottom meant to be dodged or jumped. We glided through orchards, through woods, down steep hills fast enough to launch ourselves over that stream and around a corner, laughing the while. We each had your standard flexible flyer, and someone always trailed a toboggan. The type of sled used depended on whether the snow was wet, dry, or icy. The worst part of sledding was dragging your flyer uphill for the next run. And, of course, the occasional crashes.

A certified sledding hill!

Toboggan crashes were the worst, especially when the driver yelled right. Always. Trust me, always, half of the riders leaned right and the other half left.  The toboggan hit the tree dead-center every time, skyrocketing the riders up, out, and head first in the snow. When we were tired beyond standing, bedraggled, and frozen, we lumbered home, sleds and toboggans in our wake.  If we were lucky, a cup of hot chocolate loaded with marshmallows was bubbling on the kitchen stove. If we weren’t, we heated milk and spooned in chocolate powder from a can. It worked.

Back then, we walked to school, the girls in skirts, half-socks, boots (sometimes leggings), coats over the whole, hats and earmuffs and mittens and… The camaraderie of walking, picking up friends at each street corner, teasing, and throwing the odd snowball took our minds off our blue lips and pink legs all the way to our two-story brick school building. Yes, with a flagpole just out front. Cloakrooms were invented for winter. It took us an extra ten minutes to hang up our heavy coats and get our feet out of our dripping boots. Once in class, we spent the day mooning out the classroom window, hoping the snow would stay until the weekend so we could romp and stomp in it until dark, about 4:30 in the afternoon.

A weekend snow was the best. Waking to a sparkling, uninterrupted field of white ripe for snow angels, or a game of fox and goose stomped intricately on the lawn (complete with the berry patch) was heaven on earth. The rules of fox and goose were as loose as the design, sort of a Sorry gameboard but trickier. It was a Dr. Suess version of tag gone mad with safe zones and castle keeps.

I grew up in snow country then joined the Navy and ended up in California. In the second book of the Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet, Head First, Lieutenant Robin Haas, from Michigan, stationed in Monterey, CA, sings my lament.

After five years in California, it still seemed ridiculous…to buy a Christmas tree when it was sixty degrees outside. At least there was some hint of seasons for those on the Monterey Peninsula, though you had to be astute to detect it. Winter was more a chilling down and brightening up than anything. Summers were cold, foggy, and filled with increasing numbers of tourists…  

Robin picked out a six-and-a-half-foot Jackpine from the Christmas trees leaning against the Base Exchange wall. She shook it out to check its shape, ignoring the disapproving Monterey pines that shadowed her in the setting winter sun.

Towhee bathing in a new snow!

A fresh snow still thrills me. Each one holds the promise of fun. I suppose that is why I love to be in our cabin in the Sierras when the flurries begin to fly. The dream of a bright morning sun shining on a field of unbroken snow, waiting for that first footstep, first sled ride, or the first ski run. And is why I dream of buying a little Cape Cod house on a horseshoe-shaped street with the wild toboggan hill (stream at the bottom) just off the next road up but one.

Happy Holidays and Snows to all!

D. Z. Church

Head First is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Head-First-Cooper-Vietnam-Quartet-ebook/dp/B07QG4M97T

Thanks Giving

D. Z. Church

How lucky am I to have my blog appear on Thanksgiving Day! This year. In the middle of a pandemic. When no one can travel or sit at a table with all those they love. Okay, it’s been on my mind.

A lot.

Thanksgiving has always been my holiday. Back in the days when we had nuclear families, as in grandparents living with us or nearby, aunts and uncles and cousins just up the road, Thanksgiving was it! Just a great big, whack-a-doodle party from beginning to end. Especially since as kids our entire responsibility was to stay out of the way while the feast was prepared. My older sister and I and an aunt and uncle our ages made Christmas chains out of all the left-over aluminum foil at a big old card table in the front parlor. If we were really good, we got to pour water into the water glasses and set up the kids’ tables. Remember those?

The outbuildings at the farm, the house was to the left of the tall trees.

The entire family, including great aunts and uncles from Chicago, all converged on the family farm, a Century farm in northwestern Illinois with a big old Victorian farmhouse. The local aunts, uncles, and cousins arrived by late morning. But, since we lived only twenty minutes away, we strolled in for breakfast, which always included Grandma Mid’s thumbprint cakes. These things were to die for, and you might actually die from them. They involved large dollops of heavy cream hand-churned from milk from our cows by a second cousin a few miles away. OMG!

Cooking for the big day, started the previous weekend with pies. Grandma Mid and her daughters were glorious pie makers. The inscription on one aunt’s tombstone ends with: And the best damn pie maker. No kidding. For reference, imagine one of those ads you used to see with a huge family around an enormous table covered in food and double it. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting gone wild.

As soon as we were released from our eating obligations, we kids would roar out into the farmyard or across the lane to the timber and romp and stomp. Back then, there were only six grandkids and our youngest aunt and uncle, but the eight of us could make a world out of the woodland, the ditch, and the farmyard. Sooner or later, a ball game would erupt on the front lawn with the walnut trees standing in for bases. When darkness descended, the Hearts game started. My uncles played hardcore unforgiving Hearts with raised voices, accusations of cheating, and peals of laughter.

I once drew a picture for my second grade class of Thanksgiving at our farm. I was meticulous about it, putting every single one of the thirty-one participants in the picture. The assignment had been to draw a true picture of the holiday, suspicious my teacher questioned my accuracy. She even showed it to my mother, who forever gained my adoration by systematically naming all thirty-one persons in the picture. Though I think she fudged on more than a few.

Is it any wonder that this farmhouse stood in for the one in my Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet? Becoming a character in the newest and third book, Pay Back.

The farmhouse

Redolent with years of yeasty bread and the gossip of farm families, the farmhouse kitchen took up a full quarter of the ground floor and was the aorta of the home. Everything and everyone flowed through it whether to climb the stairs, enter the front parlors, or go to the bathroom. An oak table, ten feet long without leaves, surrounded by ladder-backed oak chairs with a captain’s chair at each end, took a full third of the room. A built-in corner hutch gleamed with a new multi-paned glass door.

Ash planking adorned the restored floor. The cabinets were white, the countertop butcher block, and the appliances stainless steel and time-tested. Rag rugs made by the Plainwell Woman’s Club from strips of used clothing were sprinkled around the room, one in front of the six-burner gas stove, one in front of the sink, and one under the oak table.

That kitchen stove had a bun warmer to one side. Every now and then, I would have the joy of tumbling downstairs for breakfast to tiny cheeps emanating from behind the warmer door. I remember Grandmother frying eggs at the stove, then casually leaning over to open the bun warmer as the cheeps crescendoed. Tiny little yellow chicks bobbled out on to the floor, trying their untried wings, and wobbling along. Grandma’s calico cat, the only working cat allowed in the kitchen, rested her paws on the edge of her water dish. She watched them take their first drink, her little cat lips pursed.

Sigh.

We may not have this Thanksgiving with family, but we have all that came before and all those to come. So, get out the albums, cook up your turkey, and snuggle in front of a fire (be it on Netflix, electric, gas, or wood), and spend time with your family on Zoom, Hangouts, or a video conference of choice. And enjoy!

Three books of the Cooper Era Vietnam Quartet: Dead Legend, Head First, and Pay Back are available on Amazon in paperback and ebook. Pay Back at https://www.amazon.com/Pay-Back-Cooper-Vietnam-Quartet-ebook/dp/B08CJDHP92

The Art of Watching and Listening

Early on, two things shaped me and, I suspect, destined me to write. One was my birth, and the second the mumps.

Where I learned to watch!

Watching and remembering. So—birth. It was a dark, stormy day from all accounts—lightning everywhere on the Illinois plain. I was breach and blue. The doctors told my parents to watch my early development, concerned about brain damage. For sixteen months, I proceeded to scare my parents witless. Until one day, bored and thirsty, I stood up, walked into the kitchen, and asked for a drink of water, as in spoke in a sentence—all firsts. My mother dropped the glass in her hand. I watched it fall and shatter.

I had sixteen whole months to loll around and observe. Sixteen months to make sure when I stood, I was ready to speak up for myself. Yes, I sat wherever I was set. But I had fun, kept my own counsel, didn’t look stupid crawling around on the floor making silly slurpy, meaningless sounds. As a result, my memories begin well before my first birthday. When I was six months old, I watched my sister run away from home, her belongings strapped to the back of her tricycle. Frankly, I was glad to see her go. She teased me—a lot.

Since then, I have never stopped studying people, animals, trees, the sky, and….

Listening and hearing. The mumps. I lost the hearing in one ear. It never bothered me. I think because I was so young. It’s a U-shaped loss, so I can hear dog-whistles and stealthy sounds in that ear, just not anything anyone says. It’s handy when you’re in a house full of snorers. Trust me.

Hearing in a crowded room is easy for other people because they don’t have to sift a voice from the background jabber. They can look around the room, check to see if any other conversations are as lively. But they may miss the raised eyebrows, pursed lips, quick smiles, or rolled eyes that are the reveal. To hear, I cock my good ear towards the speaker and lean into a conversation. I listen to cadence, tone, emotion, hesitations. Sound is precious to me.

Employing them. So, the ability to sit quietly, listen, and watch undistracted has to be an asset for a writer. At least, I keep telling myself that. For instance, I’m sure we’ve all imagined something sinister afloat while relaxing at a favorite place. If not, I highly recommend it.

You’re at the beach. A man scrunching through the squeaky sand catches your eye. He is rushing toward a flight of stairs, his pant legs flapping against his shins, his hair ruffling in the onshore breeze. Overhead, clouds bunch, dark in their bellies, readying to rain. Water thunders against rocks, spuming into the air. A kestrel screeches as it rides the thermals. Its beady-eyes locked on the rocks below. Floating in kelp, an otter wonders—just wonders, like they do, and watches a body rocking, cradled in a tidal pool.

You’re in the mountains.My book Saving Calypso takes place in the High Sierra, a place I adore:

A redwood, a hundred and fifty feet of emotion, tossed its head. A hawk flew. A rabbit beat-feet across the pasture toward the newly turned dirt for this year’s vegetable garden. A shadow cruised at the edge of the timber then cut across the open field. Rafe Bolt slapped a brace of rabbits on the porch boards at Jessie’s feet. She put her hands behind her head and sighed at life’s perfection.

Words as motion, sound, feeling, life

Next time something unusual catches your eye, stop, watch, and listen as though you’re half-deaf and were a bit slow to stand, walk, and talk. It will be time well spent.

Comfort in These Trying Times

I don’t know about you, but I’m edgy most of the time and worried the rest of it. The Creek Fire is burning a scant few miles away, and we’ve been living under an evacuation warning for weeks now. Of course, there is Covid-19, and now, RBG. Sigh!

At times like this, I find comfort in books. Not any books, but those books, the ones that mark your passages, the ones you’ve never forgotten because at that moment in your life they were perfect.

My mother’s copy, published in 1932

Lately, I’ve been thinking about three books that I liberated as a pre-teen from a dusty shelf above the stairs in our house in Michigan. The books were thin volumes, simply bound, in varying colors, with black titles embossed on the cloth bindings—Madge Sterling Mysteries, by Ann Wirt. I remember the feeling of anticipation as I lifted The Missing Formula from the shelf. Next thing I knew, I’d been swept away. I consumed all three of the slight books, one a day for three days, perched on a stair, reading in the stairwell light. They were mysteries—not Nancy Drew, or Hardy Boys—but mysteries with an engaging female alone in the world, armed only with her lively mind.

First Edition- not mine, alas!

I never forgot Madge, even after I discovered Mary Stewart, who transported me first to the Isle of Skye, then to the South of France, to Crete, to Corfu to the world. And she brought romantic suspense gently into my reading. I have never fully recovered from Richard Byron in Madam, Will You Talk? or Simon Lester in My Brother Michael. Oh, there have been other men, but Richard is waiting for me in a courtyard in Avignon and Simon to drive me to Delphi. I know they are!

Reading Mary Stewart was the first time I experienced world-building, though I never would have used those exact words. Nothing is as soothing as crawling into a carefully constructed world that teaches you, woos you, and entices you to belong. A place you want to stay for a while or maybe forever.

Which brings me to the Amelia Peabody books. Each book should come with a warning that to venture with Amelia into the Valley of the Kings is to slip into a parallel universe from which there is no return. My favorite Amelia Peabody books are the four that take place during World War I. I love them. I read them when I need to return to a time of wry humor, careful history, joyous family, and adventure. Elizabeth Peters, Barbara Mertz to the world, left us real treasures in these books.  Start with Crocodile on the Sandbank, but rush to The Falcon at the Portal.

The legacy of all of these ladies accompanies me when I write, though I know full well I’m not in their league. Sure, I have read the gents, lots and lots of mysteries, thrillers, and suspense by men. I adored Travis McGee and Lew Archer, trust me. But these ladies of mystery taught me everything.

First, have fun! Second, build a world that your readers can wander into and not want to leave. Third, make your heroes “all damn and dark your eyes,” even if they are blonds, and your heroines lively and ready to learn more than they ever wanted to know about themselves. As one reader of my first book, Perfidia wrote, “I really enjoyed this book because you can escape from the real world for a time. I loved the characters and did not want the book to end. Can’t miss with Islands, Ocean, Pirates and History.”

Maybe someday her daughter will grab a book from the stairwell and read: “My father, Del Lassiter, is a handsome man in his early fifties. Dark hair shot through with gray, blue eyes coupled with a nice easy smile that makes him the darling of all his female acquaintances whom he dates prodigiously but never marries. My girlfriends all adore him, especially my best friend, Gail. When he pours his honeyed-peanut voice over them, they swoon.”

And I wrote . . .

This is my first outing for Ladies of Mystery, and it is an honor. I should introduce myself. First and foremost, I consider myself a Mid-Westerner, though I’ve lived in most parts of the country and in Barbados. I come from a long line of Illinois farmers who produced my wanderlust father. When my family moved from the Mid-West to Colorado, my classmates were worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep in contact. I assured them that phones and mailboxes existed out there, too. But what a change! I went from a large multi-racial high school to a wee one with one Hispanic and one Asian in my class. Holy smokes!

I became an officer in the U.S. Navy right out of college, a B.S. in Journalism from the University of Colorado clutched in my fist. When I mustered out, I used my GI Bill to help fund an M.S. from Northwestern University. I clearly have an affinity for working in male-dominated environments. First, the Navy, then years in advertising, think Mad Men.

Along the way, I met this guy. After the yes, I worked in educational assessment for a Fortune 500 company, trained readers to score student writing, worked as a consultant to State Departments of Education, and as Director of the Proposal Development Center responsible for obtaining multi-million dollar contracts.

And I wrote. You’ll find my two standalone thrillers, Perfidia and Saving Calypso, and the first two books of my series, the Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet, on Amazon.

The Cooper Quartet is dear to my heart. I served in the Navy at the bitter, and I mean bitter, end of the Vietnam War. I worked alongside Navy pilots at my command. I had many carrier pilot and rescue pilot friends at Naval Air Station Lemoore. And befriended one special SEAL. And they talked about the War.

For years, I carried around their stories and hurt, enhanced by my travails as a young woman in the Navy. Frankly, the stories gnawed until I started writing Dead Legend, the first book in the Cooper Quartet. I thought Dead Legend would be a standalone, then Head First challenged me to spit it out. Are the stories true? I assure you that in all matters Navy, Ensign Robin Haas speaks for me.

The third book in the series, Pay Back, is available on September 1. It propels the Cooper saga through the Fall of Saigon (April 1975) and the changing world back home. According to BookLife: “This wartime thrill ride turns the waning days of the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam into a pulse-pounding, smart tale of suspense.”  Pay Back is available at : https://www.amazon.com/Pay-Back-Cooper-Vietnam-Quartet-ebook/dp/B08CJDHP92

Over the four books, the Cooper Quartet covers the arc of the War’s impact on Americans, the Vietnamese, the French colonialists, as well as the women who served. It would be wonderful if the Quartet enhanced readers’ understanding of how the Vietnam Era changed our society, and, ultimately, our country. To celebrate the publication of Pay Back, Dead Legend is free on Amazon September 1 – 5 for anyone wanting to begin where the saga began.

For more about my books or me, check out https://dzchurch.com. Leave me a note if you’d like me to blog about a specific topic. I can hardly wait for the next fourth Thursday of the month.  See you then!