Monday, July 12, 2010

Magic Among the Pages

I'm a firm believer that like people, certain books come into your life when you need them the most. A few months back, during one of Ron Dickie'svisits to the States, we went to the amazing book store in York known as the York Emporium.It's filled with aisle after aisle of used books and odd trinkets of every imaginable flavor. I used to live a couple of blocks from the place and I've spent many hours among the bookshelves, getting lost.

During Dickie's visit, we were talking about what we've read or hadn't, and I told him I'd never read Robert McCammon's Boys Life. I'd read McCammon before and enjoy the hell out of his work. But somehow, Boy's Life slipped through the cracks for me.

Dickie dove into the stacks and bought me a copy and I finished reading it yesterday.

Monday's blogs are supposed to be an open ended question to you but I hope you'll forgive today's slight indiscretion. Today's Coroner's Report is an open letter to Robert McCammon.


Dear Mr. McCammon,

Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Although I've read and thoroughly enjoyed quite a few of your books, somehow things never quite lined up for me to read Boy's Life until now.

To say the past couple of years of my life has been troublesome would be an understatement. Life has hills and valleys and I suppose it was just my turn to experience some low lying ground for a while.

It's been a long time since I've read something that pulled me in so wholly and completely that the experiences of the character spill over in such a way to truly touch my heart. While reading Boy's Life, I laughed out loud. I wept. I kept turning the pages to see how things were going to work out.

But most of all, I felt magic.

Thank you for reminding me of my childhood in so many ways.

Thank you for reminding me of the adventures I had growing up on a farm as a young boy; that I used to imagine sea serpents in our pond and creatures in the woods and was king of a castle in my barn. I once rode a wild stallion of a bicycle and had the world's best friend in the form of a dog and can recall the bittersweet moments that made me laugh while he was alive and be heartbroken at his loss.

Thank you for making me consider the magic all around us; for reminding me it still exists if we open our eyes. You've made me consider the gifts that storytellers have and the power they wield.

You've made me fall in love with being a writer all over again.

Yes, Mr. McCammon, magic does have a strong, strong heart.

May it never stop beating.

Bob Ford

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Moving Polaroids: Post Time

My grandfather worked at the Maryland State Fairgrounds.

So did my father and a handful of my uncles and so it was a natural that I would work there when I turned sixteen.

But first I had to go to the track itself and experience it in all its glory. My dad first took me to the track when I was about eight. This wasn't your run of the mill small county fair with corn dog stands and a rusty Tilt-a-Whirl. Oh no. This was the State Fair; the Metropolis of junk food and kiddy rides and jellies and jams and pies made by little old ladies. Towering bulls and bright white sheep and livestock of all variety scrubbed up and glistening to see if they'd win a ribbon.

But that wasn't the reason we were there.

We walked in and went straight to the horse track. The fair runs at the end of summer, so it's always blistering hot. The grand stands offer cool comfort among its concrete walls and hidden coves with vendor stands offering the usual fair food and tall brown paper cups of draft beer. My dad let me sip from his cup - the beer icy cold and bitter against my tongue, but all in all I liked the lemonade he'd bought me better. He bought a racing form and we found what would become our usual spot near the show circle, where we crouched down along the cement stairs. My father grew quiet for a bit and started jotting down notes in the margins of the paper.

I studied the crowd around me. Quite a mix. Old men with short filtered cigars puffed away as they studied the forms like ancient religious tomes. Frail looking women with bright red lipstick, too much perfume and wide brimmed hats heatedly discussed numbers and funny sounding names.

Over the loudspeaker a man spoke: "Ten minutes til Post Time." I didn't know who that man was but he sounded important. He must've been because everyone glanced up at the lit board showing all the horse numbers and went back to furiously writing on their racing forms.

Then they started to line up at the window booths, money in their hands, most with a drink in the other. My dad stood up from his crouch, gave me a friendly swat on the top of the head with the rolled up racing form, and we walked over to stand in line.

He placed his bet in vernacular I didn't understand and tucked the piece of paper he got back into his shirt pocket. We walked out of the cool recesses of the Grand Stands out into the September sun and toward the show paddock.

The horses were being led around the circle and out onto the track.

I'd never seen such a thing as a thoroughbred. The ponies we occasionally had on our farm were wiry bristly things that were full of spunk and rolled in the dirt sometimes. They were more like bratty little children than anything else.

But these creatures... these were gods.

Long legged lean animals, towering up over me, muscles rippling beneath their well-brushed hides. Their bodies were shimmering obsidian come to life. Their manes were slicked back, their eyes sharp and watchful. When they walked, they pranced with an heir of pride. They were walking beings of enormous power, just waiting to be unleashed.

The horses were all led out to the racetrack. The jockeys took their saddles and they were trotted over to the starting gate.

"Five minutes til Post Time." I heard the man say and watched some of the crowd scurry back to the Grand Stand to place their bets.

My dad gave me another sip of his beer and grinned as he looked out over the infield. He stuffed the rolled racing form into his back pocket.

The excitement started to build all around us. The tension was palpable.

"They're all in line."

The crowd scurried out from the Grand Stands to line the chain link fence around the track. I stood in front of my father against the fence, looking in at the furrowed dirt track. Across the infield the view shimmered with the heat.

"It's Post Time."

My dad, along with the rest of the crowd, turned toward the starting gate.

"Annnnnnnnd they're off!"

A bell rang and metal gates flew open. A line of horses shot out of the gates like lightning and the crowd around us exploded. All around us I could hear people yelling "Go baby! C'mon baby!" Others were cussing as the horses rounded the first turn.

My father was smiling to himself and nervously took the racing form out of his back pocket. He was tapping it against his leg as he watched the horses circle around.

The announcer was reeling off the horse's names, letting us all know what order they were in. The screaming around us grew even louder, building to a crescendo. The people all seemed to be leaning toward the track, on the edge of their seats.

And then the race was over and the screaming crowd died down.

My dad kept grinning and pulled the ticket from his pocket with a nod and a wink at me.

Around us, I saw a large portion of the crowd crumbling up their tickets and tossing them to the pavement. Some shook their heads. A few gave low whistles and mumbled to themselves. Most all of them flipped open their racing forms and started looking forward to the next race to start again.

My dad and I walked down to the ticket booths and he collected his winnings. We spent the next hour or so much like that. Each race we'd sit down and plot out the race and then check out the horses as they were led onto the track.

Each race I felt the crowd surge up above and beyond themselves as a group...trying to edge their horse to the beginning of the line up through belief alone.

Some races my dad won, others he didn't. But at the end of the day, we walked away tired and smiling, with a bit of sunburn on our faces and a few extra dollars in his pocket. My father always knew what he could bet and what he could stand to lose and the two never met on the course of a horse track in his life.

I'd been through the initiation of the track. It was an odd sort of rite of passage of manhood in my family. It was a great day to experience.

A great day to remember.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The lure of Passion

Today's blog question started out as something a lot darker. Because the mind of a writer is a twisted thing, jumping from breadcrumb to breadcrumb like a sparrow, my mind leapt from the 4th of July to defending our country to questioning human nature and the limits of our psyche. Yeah, I know. A little heavy for today.

Instead, I gave some other thought to conversations over the weekend and the celebration of freedom.

I won't name names, but one of my friends mentioned something along the lines of "I wish I could just up and go do that with my life."

I considered that for a bit over the course of the weekend. What is it that you want to do with your life? Passion is one of the things I've written about often enough on this blog. Responsibility is something to be considered of course. If you're passionate about making houses out of Lincoln Logs you may have a tough time making a living doing so.

Then again, I don't know about that. Perhaps, deep in the Ozarks, there's a master Lincoln Log home builder who owns a mansion based on one of his models.

At what point after realizing your passion in life do you find the bravery to take the leap to go after it? At what point do you consider the possibility that you could make a living if you just went after the thing that makes you smile and breathe in magic as you're doing it?

If you could do anything in life... if money was no longer an object...what would you do?

You all know my answer...I'd write full time. Until I reach a level of sales that I can make the jump, I weigh the risk and look at the successes of fellow writers and know the odds are stacked against me right now. But I keep on headed in the direction I know I'm supposed to be going...the one that draws me nearer each time I put new words on the page.

So that's my question to you all today... if you could do anything in life, what would you do?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Moving Polaroids: The In Between is Mine

"They may look grown up," she continued, "but it's just a disguise. It's just the clay of time. Men and women are still children deep in their hearts. They still would like to jump and play, but that heavy clay won't let them. They'd like to shake off every chain the world's put on them, take off their watches and neckties and Sunday shoes and return naked to the swimming hole, if just for a day. They'd like to feel free, and know that there's a momma and daddy at home who'll take care of things and love them no matter what. Even behind the face of the meanest man in the world is a scared little boy trying to wedge himself into a corner where he can't be hurt." She put aside her papers and folded her hands on her desk. "I have seen plenty of boys grow into men, Cory, and I want to say one word to you. Remember."

"Remember? Remember what?"
"Everything," she said.

excerpt, Robert R. McCammon's Boy's Life

In January of 2009 I started a series of blogs titled "Moving Polaroids". The idea began because, at heart, I'm a nostalgic bastard beyond belief. I hold onto little things - an origami swan made by a friend. A river pebble from a lake. The ticket stubs of a movie.

I don't live in the past, but I relish great memories. I remember.

Right now I'm reading McCammon's Boy's Life. I'd read a bunch of McCammon years ago, but somehow I'd missed this one. That was rectified when one of my good friends, Ron Dickie purchased it for me during one of his frequent visits to the States.

It's one of the most poignant and beautifully written books I've ever read. It captures - perfectly - the mindset of a young boy growing up and seeing drama and mystery and adventure in his hometown. And magic. So much magic.

The passage I quoted above struck me when I read it and has hung with me long enough to prompt the relaunch of Moving Polaroids today. It kept pestering me because I wondered about the truth of his words.

As a child, I felt that magic. The farm I grew up on had rock caves and old dump piles and rusted out carcasses of cars hidden in the woods from the previous owners. There were new crops and livestock each year and old ghosts that stayed around to keep watch over things.

I reveled in all of it.

But the clay of time... yeah, about that.

As I've grown older, the clay of time seems to have taken hold. Mortgage payments, car problems, relationships, children, running a business, responsibilities...

Yes. Sad to admit, but I believe McCammon's words may be true.

I've been thinking about this blog for the past few days and as I write this, I'm still not sure what my answer is going to be to my own question. I'm not sure of the last time I felt magic.

Oh, I'm not talking about synchronicity. I witness that all the time. I see things line up the way they're supposed to be... or don't... and I can usually see why the tide flows either way.

I've witnessed magic... been in the presence of it. I see it through my children's eyes. Watched the beauty of it when my children were born. I see it in the imagination of lots of my friends and in that regard, I suppose I have it within myself as well. After all, magic is what kicks the muse in the ass and gets writers to create worlds and weave stories and plant the beans that grow above the clouds for our readers.

I guess one of the reasons I am so nostalgic is that I do remember. If I close my eyes I can recall the smell of fresh cut hay in the barn. I can see the golden beams of dust after corn's been harvested and loaded into the corn crib. I remember how cold the water of our springhouse used to be and the little orange and black salamanders that used to live in it's shallow depths.

Yes, I remember.

But magic as an adult? I don't know. I suppose I could say it was the day I saw orbs playing over a cemetery or the circle where the priest is buried that even I won't walk near after dark.

But I don't know. I suppose as we grow older, it's our definition of magic that changes. The veil of childhood lifts and we have new fears and different responsibilities that alter our perception and change our view. The thing I've been considering though is the clay of time. If that metaphor holds true, then clay is malleable and if it's malleable... we can form it as we see fit. We can get it back. We can catch magic when we want to.

At least, I sure hope so.


I've been considering it for days now, trying to figure it out, and I think the last time I felt magic as a child I was out hunting with my father in the dead of night.

When I was a kid, my father saved up his money and sent away for a Kentucky pedigreed Black and Tan 'coon hunting hound. Times were tight and I guess my father thought a hobby that could result in making money from hides (as well as keeping the raccoons from eating the chickens on the farm) wouldn't be a bad thing at all. A few days later, "Joe" arrived by train and my father went to pick him up. He'd been shipped in a large wooden crate and apparently, hadn't eaten for quite some time as his ribs were showing.

After my father fattened him up a bit, we started going hunting at night. There's something very cool about wandering around in the woods at night with the moon and stars overhead, waiting to hear the staccato barks of a hound tracking a scent. At night, you hear very different sounds than during the day. The creeks look like silver mercury flowing and burbling through the woods. Owls hoot and bats squeal and in the distance you hear branches snap and wonder what's the cause behind it. It's very different than hunting during the day.

On this particular night, my father and I had trekked all over hell and back. Joe had trailed and lost a few times and we were about done for the night due to a vigorous journey through a briar patch. It was time to head back home, grab a bowl of Lucky Charms and watch The Twilight Zone (this came to be a nightly habit for my father and I after our nighttime journeys). We had circled back around from the river and were headed back toward Valley Mill Road when we stepped free of a patch of high weeds and saw up ahead of us, about twenty feet away, a long line of glowing light.

We stopped and stared and the hackles on the back of my neck rose up. The lights weren't as bright as fog lights or anything - they were low to the ground and stretched out in a ragged horizontal line of yellow-green.

"What the hell is that?" My father asked.

I had no answers to offer, but my mind raced with the possibilities. I'd seen Tales from the Dark Side often enough. I'd stayed up late watching Rod Serling preach about stepping into alternate dimensions. I expected this was alien goo left in the woods and the creatures had already marched off to start world domination. Maybe it was a plant that had gained awareness and discovered how to bait humans in before it ate them.

This was great. I grinned to myself and my father and I walked ahead.

The closer we got, the brighter the glow became, until we were right up on it. A fallen tree was stretched out on the ground and all along its length was phosphorescent wood.

"I've never seen shit like this before." My father is a man of brevity. He bent down and turned his head lamp onto it and it looked just like normal wood again until he shut the light off and it was back to martian material. We reached out and touched it. The wood wasn't damp or moist at all. It was dry and crumbly.

I broke off a small handful and stuffed it into my jacket pocket and by that time, Joe had come wandering back to us. My father leashed him and we headed on home for the night.

I kept that wood in my room for a few days and each night the glow got dimmer and dimmer until it finally died out completely.

It wasn't until years later that I understood it was phosphorescent lichen or moss that my father and I had come across. But for a brief moment, I had something from another planet in my grasp.

I had magic in my hands and it felt amazing.

Back in the saddle and scribbling away. Yes, the in between is mine.