Damn, Damn, Damn…

I worked yesterday morning at the bookstore, and it wasn’t until I was there, and well into the workday, that I remembered that I had signed up for “Mark My Words,” a true crime-writing workshop at the Old Worthington Library.  The workshop was to begin at 2 p.m., and I debated leaving at noon, but my supervisor was not in, and didn’t feel right about just disappearing at 12 noon and leaving a note on his desk.

Diana Britt Franklin led the workshop.  She is the author of The Goodbye Door, the story of Anna Marie Hahn, “the blonde Borgia,” who is famous for being the first female serial killer executed in America.  (She was electrocuted at the Ohio Penitentiary in 1938, after killing many elderly people in Over-the-Rhine, the neighborhood just north of downtown Cincinnati.)  Franklin also wrote Gold Medal Killer.  I have read neither of these books, but just reserved them online from the library.

One of the reasons I forgot about the workshop was because I changed cell phones.  The Net10 cell phone I have carried for over a year is finally dying on me, and on Friday night I began using the Verizon phone a co-worker gave me.  I had not entered my calendar events into the new phone, so I forgot about the event until I had a “Wow, I coulda had a V-8!” moment while re-shelving the buyback books.  Meanwhile, on my dresser at home, the old cell phone had beeped to remind me to head Worthington-way.

I think my interest in true crime began in 1974 or so, unless you count my endless research on the Lincoln assassination.  When Charles Lindbergh died, the news programs ran small biographies, including the 1927 New York-to-Paris flight, his isolationism in the pre-World War II days, his environmental activism, and his writing.  Until I heard these, I had not known about the kidnapping and murder of his first son in 1932.  (For those of you who don’t know about this, Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son Charles Augustus, Jr. was kidnapped from his crib in New Jersey in 1932.  The kidnapper left a note demanding $50 thousand ransom, and mailed several other notes afterwards, including one attached to the boy’s pajamas.  Lindbergh paid the ransom, but no one found the child at the Massachusetts location the kidnapper had mentioned.  Six weeks after the ransom payment, the boy’s body was found in the woods by the Lindbergh home.)

Lindbergh had been a hero of mine, after I read about his flight to Paris, and before I knew about his flirtation with eugenics and Nazism.  I knew remarkably little about his life other than the flight, and knew nothing about the kidnapping.  (I wrote him a fan letter, which I never mailed, and its P.S. was “I was wondering–are you related to Anne Morrow Lindbergh?”)  I went to the library and borrowed the best book at the time on the case: George Waller’s Kidnap: The Story of the Lindbergh Case.  It’s a very thick book, with small type and no index, but I read it over a three-day period in the summer of 1975, and immediately went on to The Hand of Hauptmann, by J. Vreeland Haring.  Reading these books opened the door to my interest in true crime, and I began haunting the 364 (Criminology) section of the library.

In the last 10 or 15 years, I have become a bit more snobbish about my tastes in true crime.  I have bought true crime books by writers such as Aphrodite Jones and Ann Rule, but I usually relegate them to the less visible bookshelves in my house, like a teenager hiding pornographic magazines, or the same way I would hide Harlequin Romance novels… if I owned any.  To me, the three best true crime books written were Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field, and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.  (In Cold Blood is a “non-fiction novel,” and later research bears out the thought that it’s more novel than non-fiction.)  The Executioner’s Song is a novel, but it is much more thoroughly and meticulously researched than many true crime books I have read, including the hastily produced ones that hit the newsstands days after a horrendous crime.  (I remember two books on the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide appearing less than a week after it happened.)

First edition of In Cold Blood.

Currently, I’m immersed in Stephen King’s newest novel, 11/22/63, about a Maine high school teacher who turns time traveler in order to prevent John Kennedy’s assassination.  I have yet to reach the part of the story where he meets Lee Harvey Oswald, but I am currently quite fascinated by his sojourn to Derry, Maine not long after the 1958 events in It.  (Derry reminds me in many ways of my hometown, Marietta, Ohio.)

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, a holiday for State workers, and Susie has the day off from school as well, so we’re going to mark the event with eye examinations.  Long overdue, but quite necessary for both of us.

Note-Passing is Alive and Well

Your humble blogger has been away from Blogspot these past few days because of pressing business elsewhere.  Susie arrived home from Florida early Wednesday evening, and I feted her at our beloved Blue Danube Restaurant.  Both of us stayed up way too late.  She had a great time in Florida, and regaled me with stories of her visits to the Salvador Dali Museum and Weeki Wachee Preserve.

Then, I was a delegate to the 29th Biennial Convention of OCSEA (the Ohio Civil Service Employees’ Association) and AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees).  This took up my attention from Thursday morning until mid-Saturday afternoon.  I won’t bore my readers with gavel-to-gavel accounts of the general sessions, or the elections.  There is nothing to report on the travel front, since the convention was at the Hyatt Regency Hotel downtown, a mere block and a half from the William Green Building.  Representatives came from all over Ohio, from almost every agency.

The convention, and Susie’s month in Florida, made me realize how much instant communications have come to dominate us, and how we didn’t even miss them as recently as 25 years ago.  During the convention, many people had their cell phones out, texting to people not on the floor in Battelle Hall.  I sent several messages to an alternate delegate, keeping him abreast of the election and the floor fights.  When someone proposed rewording an article in the constitution, lo and behold, it was up on the big screen within a minute or so.  Delegates and others with loved ones on the East Coast kept news and weather Websites handy on their iPads to track Hurricane Irene as it roars northward.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden that “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”  Instant communication, beginning with the telephone, created a false sense of urgency that we will never overcome.  Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, and before then, you had to wait for news from relatives worldwide until the mail arrived.  I will grieve the death of the letter if it ever happens.  The voluminous post-Presidential correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson is invaluable and excellent reading–I’m surprised no one has made it into a two-character play.  What would have been lost if they had telephones?

Henry David Thoreau

I realized during the convention that note-passing, which many teachers saw as a grave sin, never really went away.  Instead of the surreptitiously folded piece of paper moving discreetly from hand to hand below the teacher’s line of vision, we’re now texting back and forth.  At the convention, we were seated by districts, so someone in District 6 (my district) could easily communicate with a friend across Battelle Hall by touching a few buttons on a cell phone and hitting SEND.

Earlier in this blog, I described the 1925 crash of the naval airship Shenandoah, and how my grandfather ran home to get his camera when he saw the ship was in imminent danger.  A co-worker mentioned that some kids today would ask, “Well, why didn’t he use the camera on his phone?”

I grudgingly use cell phones.  I am not sure I would if I didn’t have a daughter living with me.  My cell phones are usually a pretty sorry lot.  I buy pre-paid ones at Family Dollar and use them until they break.  My current one has no back.  The back of the phone disappeared at the party after the World Naked Bike Ride, and I’m sure it was stepped on within minutes.  So, I’m holding in the battery with a wide strip of Scotch tape, which I know is a Band-Aid measure.  (I was amused by Stephen King’s brief bio on his novel Cell: “Stephen King lives in Maine with his wife, the novelist Tabitha King.  He does not own a cell phone.”)

Susie is grateful, I think, to live in this era.  Near the last day of school in June, she was going on a field trip, and realized, after she arrived at school, that she had forgotten the permission slip that I signed and gave to her.  When I was in middle school, I would have just been shit out of luck.  No permission slip, no field trip.  But there was no problem, no crisis.  She called me at work, and the school secretary faxed me the permission slip, I signed it and filled in all the appropriate information, faxed it back, and she was able to go on the trip.

Heading Into One of My Stephen King Bacchanalias

I can go for years without reading anything by or about Stephen King, and then, for no reason whatsoever, I’ll start immersing myself in his works–mostly the older stuff (1970s-1980s).  I think the newest of his novels I’ve read is Under the Dome, but I love to read and reread the novels and short stories I discovered in high school.  (Anyone who knows me at all will not be surprised to know that I am eagerly awaiting November 8, when his science fiction novel 11/22/63 appears.  Two of my interests–the John F. Kennedy assassination and Stephen King–will intersect in that book.)

Thunder crackles lightly outside right now, which is appropriate for the subject matter of this post.  I’m offsetting it with The Beach Boys, my two-record vinyl copy of Endless Summer.  (Right now, I’m typing with “Surfin’ USA” blasting from my turntable.)

Boredom at work was the impetus that launched my latest Stephen King binge.  When I have no doctors’ reports to transcribe, and have completed the stack of ex parte orders, I spend the rest of the day re-indexing the medical documents that both Injured Workers and employers submit.

How do I approach this task?  George Orwell described it eloquently in Chapter IV of 1984:

With the deep, unconscious sigh which not even the nearness of the telescreen could prevent him from uttering when his day’s work started, Winston pulled the speakwrite toward him, blew the dust from its mouthpiece, and put on his spectacles.  Then he unrolled and clipped together four small cylinders of paper which had already flopped out of the pneumatic tube on the right-hand side of his desk.

To alleviate the boredom, I looked through the extensive disk collection of a co-worker, a woman in Indexing.  (I have plenty of music disks, but wasn’t in the mood to listen to any music that day.)  To my delight, she had the Books on Tape edition of The Stand.  She had managed to put the complete reading on three MP3 disks.

I need to qualify my use of the word “complete” above.  When King first published The Stand in 1978, entire sections went by the wayside.  The editor was quite brutal with the blue pencil.  (As a character once said on Lou Grant about an editor: “With him, War and Peace becomes War and you don’t even bleed!”)  The original hardcover was 823 pages.  I read the book during high school, over most of an Easter weekend.  I thought initially that it was a run-of-the-mill science fiction novel, since the first section described an artificial influenza virus made by–who else?–the military.  The virus has a 99.4% mortality rate, and I followed the main characters, part of the 0.6% immune to the virus, trying to bury their dead and reestablish their lives with fellow survivors.  I followed intently as the survivors gravitated toward the Stand described in the title, as some follow the shadowy and faceless Antichrist figure Randall Flagg as he establishes a cruel law-and-order technology-efficient society in Las Vegas, punishing disobedience with (literal) crucifixion.  Some follow a centenarian African-American woman from Nebraska named Mother Abigail, and attempt to establish a democratic society in Boulder, and struggle with waste disposal, getting the electricity going again, etc.

Hardcover dust jacket of The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition (1990).

The version I listened to at work was the 1978 edition of The Stand.  Only Stephen King would have the chutzpah to take a book that many reviewers said was already too long, and in 1990 reissue it.  This time it was The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition, with 329 additional pages.  I was living in Cincinnati when it came out, and decided to forego buying groceries to go down to B. Dalton downtown and buy it the week it appeared.  The added tonnage turned out to be quite valuable.  It filled in a lot of backstory, clarified questions that arose as a result of careless editing, and I enjoyed the book a lot more.

My apartment building manager, the myopic George Wagner, who would introduce me to the world of pulp conventions and the Old-Time Radio and Nostalgia Convention, went a step further.  This epitomizes the person with way too much free time.  He sat down with the 1978 edition of The Stand and the hardcover edition, ballpoint pen in hand, and marked what had changed, and how.  (He later gave me this book as a birthday present, and it sits on my shelf between Signet paperbacks of the 1978 and 1990 editions, as a transition volume.)  “All new,” “mostly new,” “about 35 words missing here” dot the pages, along with brackets and parentheses representing where the text changed one edition to the next.

I ordered a DVD of The Stand miniseries from Amazon.com recently, and it came in the mail on Saturday, waiting for me when I came home from work at the bookstore.  This finally caused me to get off my ass and buy the appropriate cord to hook up my VCR/DVD to the TV.  I stayed up late Saturday night and watched the first two parts, “The Plague” and “The Dreams.”

I was quite happy when Recorded Books issued an unabridged reading of It, which is my all-time favorite Stephen King novel.  It is the story of a shape-shifting, child-killing monster that lives in the sewers and tunnels underneath a city in Maine.  The monster goes on a killing spree every 30 or 40 years and then goes dormant.  Seven outcast teenagers (a girl emotionally and physically–and possibly sexually–abused by her stepfather, a bookish Jewish boy, a stuttering aspiring writer whose brother was killed by this monster, and the only African-American kid in town are among the seven) come close to killing It in 1958, and make a pact to return to their city should It ever return.  In 1985, murders and disappearances happen again, and they come back to do battle.

It was another huge book (1142 pages), but I read it over the course of almost one day–“a day” being a 24-hour period.  I remember that it was the summer of 1987, and I was living in a furnished room above the Dairy Barn in Carthage (in the Mill Creek Valley, about six miles north of downtown Cincinnati) while working as a typesetter at Feicke Web.  I started reading about midnight one Friday night, propped up in bed with the fan and the radio going full blast, and by morning being unable to put the book down.

Here is just how much the book drew me in.  In mid-morning, I decided to escape the confines of my room (and the Carthage neighborhood–go to Google Maps and type in “6901 Vine St., Cincinnati, OH 45216” and you’ll completely understand!), so I took the 78 bus downtown and had an early lunch at the Frisch’s Big Boy on E. 6th St. downtown.  My nose remained buried in It as I worked my way through a few glasses of Diet Coke, some fries and a cheeseburger.

One of the forms the monster possessing the city of Derry, Maine assumes is the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, making him more attractive to naive children who love the circus.  After paying the bill and tipping the waitress, I made my way outside the restaurant–

–and damn near had a heart attack!  Standing on the sidewalk was a street person who dressed head to toe in a one-piece clown suit, a white hard hat, and basketball sneakers.  He carried a plastic Igloo in one hand.  Despite this gala attire, he never spoke or smiled.  (I asked the Westin Hotel’s barmaid about him once.  She said she had no problem with him.  He would come in, order a Coke, and sit by himself quietly drinking it, and then leave, and always left her a decent tip.)

Susie claims that the brief glimpse she saw of Stephen King’s It, the 1990 two-part miniseries, has given her an unshakable case of coulrophobia, an abnormal fear of clowns.  I was afraid this would poison her enjoyment of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, since Tim Curry portrayed Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror and Pennywise in It.  But when I took her to Studio 35 to see Rocky Horror, she loved every minute of it.

Susie and I plan to watch The Stand once she returns from Florida.  I was a teenager when I first discovered Stephen King, and picked up an abandoned copy of Carrie at the free book giveaway shelf at the Washington County Public Library.  I gloried in this Revenge of the Nerds on steroids, and rooted for the oppressed as she brought down the school building, and eventually the whole city, on her tormentors’ heads.  Several friends have told me it is not a good idea to show The Stand or Carrie to Susie when she’s 13.  I have never censored her reading, and never will.  These works of Stephen King’s qualify as literature–my grandchildren will be studying them.  University libraries include doctoral theses about King’s works.

My job is to keep Susie safe from the real horrors–of which there are many.  I won’t waste my energy shielding her from the ones that reside on paper and ink, and which will vanish with the STOP button or by returning the book to the shelf (which never happens in our house anyway!).