Reading With Dad

My father was a farmer.

Farming was at his core; it was who he was.  There are many things that he did in his life but only one thing held fast.  He was an infantryman during World War II.  Wartime, however, never defined him.  He served and when the war was done, he returned home and rarely, if ever, spoke of it again.  Whenever I asked him about those times, he told me that he could not remember.  Perhaps, he really couldn’t.  Maybe those conflicts were isolated events which only temporarily interrupted his natural order. When the war was over, he came back to the farm and resumed his life.

He traveled, and he worked in several states.  Although life carried him away from the half section near Sherman, South Dakota, he never really left.  I spent my youth, it seemed, stuck to the vinyl back seat of a Dodge Polara driving slowly down gravel roads, surveying more farmland than I care to remember.  This was a time before the DVD player or the hand-held video game.  It is, incidentally, futile to play the license plate game on a country road in South Dakota.  Such trips, however, are what one does when the driver is a misplaced farmer. It was a good time to bring a book.

JubalWhen life demanded it, he left the farm and took a job in the meat packing plant in Sioux Falls. I’m glad he did. That’s where he met my mom. He was able to stay in that job, he told me once, because he didn’t have to stand on a conveyor line. Instead, he built the conveyors and the chutes and the slides to move meat products around the building for processing. Building things to bring food to table, my father, I think, always viewed his job as farming with an electric motor.

Johnny Tremain

At night, he’d settle into his chair. He’d moved and climbed and welded and built enough for one day. Most nights he’d read. He liked Louis L’amour’s books, stories of individuals carving a life outside and standing up to bad guys. He cared about the welfare of the Sacketts.

He picked up my copy of Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes when I had to read it for a school assignment. It became a competition to see who could finish it first, each of us sneaking the book away from the other when the paperback would get set down. While he liked playing a game with his son, I know that he also fell into the story of Johnny maturing from prideful boy silversmith to young man patriot.

He liked books with imagery to which he could relate.  In the Center of the Nation, a book set in South Dakota, contains a scene with a good-old-boy who likes to throw his empty beer cans into the back of his pickup while speeding down the highway. The driver, Tuffy, had to battle through intoxication to account for wind and vehicle speed. Success required a combination of luck, applied math and finesse. I never knew my dad to try, but I know he relished the word picture Dan O’Brien drew of the character Tuffy’s efforts. It read real to him.

CenterAs the years in the noisy plant took their toll on his hearing, he cared less for the television. My wife, Betty, and I bought him books frequently. He liked reading mysteries–enjoyed good dialogue and a clever puzzle. I thought he’d like Ken Follett’s book, The Pillars of the Earth. The detailed description of medieval cathedral building would, I thought, appeal to him. I was wrong. His disdain at the violence against women overwhelmed his interest in the architecture. I don’t think he finished it.

I’ve studied and read some about writing fiction. Many of the lessons had academic titles, but the core lessons: write a character your reader cares about, have the characters grow, give them entertaining dialogue and a story a reader wants to continue, be mindful of what readers like and, what they don’t. These lessons I learned reading with my father.

In L’Amour’s memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, he writes about his life as an autodidact, “If I were asked what education should give, I would say it should offer breadth of view, ease of understanding, tolerance of others, and a background from which the mind can explore in any direction.” I know I’m biased, but that sounds like my dad.

I don’t have to wear a suit and tie to work. I spend my day down in the basement of the jail doling out rights and setting bonds to the recently arrested of my county. They come before me in a rainbow of jumpsuits, most faded green, some striped, some red, others yellow.  Each color signifies something to the detention officers and each wears poorly on everyone. Every suit, the short, tall, fat, thin, frayed or new comes paired with bright orange, plastic sliders. I don’t have to wear a suit and tie to work. It isn’t that hard to dress better or to look judicial in front of this crowd.

I wear a suit for my father. Dad knew how lawyers dressed, he’d read about them in books. My father the farmer spent a lifetime in a meat packing plant so that I could wear a tie to work. A Windsor knot is a small act of thanks I’m honored to perform.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.


Mark Thielman

Music as a Time Machine

by Roger Johns

I’m taking another time trip this month, just like last month, only this time I’ll be going much further back. A couple of weekends ago my wife and I went to see the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. Those are musical acts, for those of you two young to remember. They played a huge covered amphitheater in Alpharetta (one of the many communities engulfed by the endlessly voracious Atlanta Metro area). The house was packed, and the bands were superb. I’ve been a lifelong fan of Steely Dan, but had never seeSteelyDan(20May2018).pngn them in concert. During their salad days, they rarely toured and never played anywhere near me. I’ve also been a lifelong Doobie Brothers fan, and I might have seen them in concert before. As the old saying goes: “I’ve been a lot of places and I’ve done a lot of things” . . . but, I just can’t remember them all, anymore. One of the things I do remember, though, from the many rock concerts I’ve been to is that, in the old days the musicians came out on stage whenever they damn well pleased, and they were always late. The start time on the ticket wasn’t even close. Things have changed, from the good ol’ days, and in this case, the change is good. At the event in Alpharetta, the bands strode onto the stage at the exact time specified on the ticket and they played like there was no tomorrow. For an old man like me, punctuality is a welcome development.

But I digress. Back to the music. A long time ago, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter was, at different times, the lead guitarist for the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. Given that one is a straight-up rock band and the other is a jazz band that sometimes rocks, I’ve always found it amazing that one person could so thoroughly master two such different styles, and play both with such intensity and inventiveness. Baxter was not listed among the players touring with either band, this time out, but I kept hoping he would make a surprise appearance. He didn’t. But, my disappointment was very short-lived. These folks were tight and hot, and the (mostly grey-headed) crowd was on its feet for much of the show. Both SD and the DB were significant parts of the soundtrack of my high school and college years, and as the songs unfolded the other night, I was transported back to those days that I somehow survived, and the memories came in big rushes. During the concert, I sent several emails to parties who shall remain nameleDoobieBrothers(19May2018).pngss, letting them know where I was and reminding them of the shenanigans we were up to, to the tune of whatever was playing at the moment. Their responses were enlightening. They remembered me having more fun (and causing more trouble) than I remembered having (causing), and vice-versa. Memory is a funny thing, that way: I remember myself as the angel among demons. Others remember it differently. Hmmm!

This was the first rock concert I’ve been to since the mind-blowing ZZ Top/Lynyrd Skynyrd double-header I went to in the Cajun Dome back in 2000. At my age, I probably need to pick up the pace if I want to get to the end of my bucket list.

Roger Johns is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books. River of Secrets, the newest installment in his series, wiRiver of Secretsll be out on August 28,2018. Please visit him at

Memorial Day

BRIAN THIEM writes: To many people, Memorial Day means a 3-day weekend, the beginning of summer, picnics with family, and plenty of beer, hotdogs, and ice cream. Last year, I was the featured speaker at a community Memorial Day event, where I shared my experiences from more than three decades of wearing an Army uniform. opd-memorial-wall-2

I teared up when I spoke about a fellow military police lieutenant colonel who died in combat not far from where I was located in Iraq in 2003. I had to dry my eyes again when I spoke of the thousands of fellow service members who served our nation knowing they, too, might give their lives.

Dying for one’s country is not part of a soldier’s job description any more than getting shot or killed in the line of duty is part of a police officer’s job. My blood boils when I hear talking heads on TV or social media activists proclaim police officers should never shoot first—they should only fire their guns when the “citizen” indicates his intent to kill the officer by shooting first—that getting shot, stabbed, or beaten is part of the job.

Nevertheless, even though being injured or killed is not part of the job, soldiers and police officers understanding their jobs include the risk of injury or death. In the 25 years I served with the Oakland Police Department, 11 officers were killed in the line of duty. For a department of 700 sworn, that’s a lot.

I knew all of them. They all came to work every day understanding the risk. None planned to give their lives. None planned to leave spouses and children behind. But all knew it was a possibility. Yet they still performed their duties.

On Memorial Day, the Oakland Police Department honors those officers who gave their lives by sending motorcycle squads to the cemeteries where the dead officers lay. They meet with the families of the fallen officers and lay a wreath at their graves. We honor our dead but pray we don’t have to join them.

To me, that’s what Memorial Day is about. It’s a time of sadness, as I remember those soldiers and police officers who gave their lives for their country and communities. But it’s also a time of celebration where we honor those men and women who selflessly stepped up and took an oath, knowing the risk.


Never Quit by Bruce Robert Coffin

During the past few months I have had the privilege of addressing students and teachers at several local colleges and high schools. The field of study for students attending these events ranged from English and writing to law enforcement. The audiences were a bit of a departure from my usual library and bookstore crowds in that they were less interested in my mystery series than in my police experiences and the path that led me to publication.

I relish each and every opportunity to share my experiences with those preparing to make their way in the world. Hopefully, I can provide some small measure of inspiration for their journey. It wasn’t so long ago that I was sitting where they sat, with big dreams for the future, asking the same questions.

After a quick summary of the high points of my police career, I confessed to the students that my initial aspirations had nothing to do with law enforcement. In fact, I wanted nothing more than to be a published novelist. I dreamt of becoming the next Stephen King. Enamored was I at the thought of Stephen banging away on an old typewriter until late into the evening, pounding out the words which would eventually become the manuscript for his first published novel, Carrie. I, too, wanted to create characters and spin yarns that people couldn’t get enough of. I longed for the day when I might hear: “When’s the next book coming out?”

My dreams were shattered during my freshman year of college when my creative writing professor and I had a difference of opinion regarding my ability. I thought I was a pretty fair writer. He didn’t. I never returned to collect any of the short stories I had penned during the semester-long class. Too discouraged to face him, I walked away.

Forced to reconsider my future, I chose the field of law enforcement, due mainly to the influence of my Uncle Wayne who had a distinguished thirty-six year career as a cop in the nearby town of Gorham. In 1985 was was hired by the Portland police department. It was the start of a long and wonderful career, and the end of a dream. I thought the creative writing portion of my life was over. And for a long time it was. It would be nearly three decades before I would attempt to write another short story. That story, ‘Fool Proof’, was published in November 2015 by Level Best Books as part of the anthology Red Dawn, Best New England Crime Stories. The following year ‘Fool Proof’ was named one of the twenty best short mystery stories published in North America during 2015 and was reprinted in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2016. Since then I’ve written a bestselling mystery series and many short stories.

My message to the aspiring cops and novelists was simple. Never let anything or anyone stand in the way of your dreams. Keep pushing, keep working, and keep believing in yourself. It can happen if you want it bad enough.

At one of these events, following my remarks, I asked the audience if anyone had a question. I pointed at a student whose hand was raised.

“When’s the next book coming out?” they asked.

Until next time, write on!

The Story Arc

The France of 1429 lay in tatters. From the middle of the 14th Century, France had battled England in what came to be known as the Hundred Years’ War. A peace treaty signed in 1420 had disinherited the crown prince of France, Charles Valois. By 1429, the English and their allies, the Burgundians, held much of northern France.

_Jeanne_d'Arc         At age 13, Jeanne d’Arc, the daughter of a tenant farmer from occupied France, began to hear voices which persuaded her that she had been ordained by God to save her nation, expel the English and to set Charles upon the throne as the King of France. In 1429, at age 16, she cropped her hair and put on men’s clothes. Disguised, she led a small group of followers across enemy territory to the crown prince’s castle in Chinon.

Jeanne d’Arc, Joan of Arc in English, promised Charles that she would free Reims, the traditional site for French kings to be crowned. Reportedly, she initially won credibility by identifying him mingling incognito among the courtiers while a stand-in sat upon the throne. She further persuaded him by allegedly revealing information that could only have come from God. Against the advice of his military advisors, Charles agreed to support her. Dressed in white armor and riding a white horse, she led forces to Orleans as part of a relief mission. The French broke the English siege of Orleans. Then, she escorted Charles to Reims, capturing towns that resisted the French. In July 1429, Charles of Valois was crowned King Charles VII of France.

In the Spring of 1430, the newly crowned French king ordered her to repulse a Burgundian assault on Compiegne. In the battle, she was thrown from her horse and left outside the gates of the city. The Burgundians captured her and delivered her to the English commander in Rouen.

In early 1431, the English commander and his priests brought their accusations against Joan. Among the charges, they said she had violated divine law by dressing as a man and bearing arms. She, furthermore, had deceived simple people by making them believe that God had sent her. Finally, she had committed “divine offense,” heresy. Some days later, when the trial opened, the Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, added the charge of witchcraft. She had, he argued, cast spells and invoked demons. The best pettifogging theologians among the English were brought to put questions to this uneducated farm girl.

Question: Do you know whether or not you are in God’s grace?

Joan: If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.”

A “yes” or “no” answer would likely have condemned her for violations of church doctrine of the day. This answer avoiding the theological trap, left the judge “stupefied” in the words of the court reporter.

In May 1431, after a year in custody, and under death threats, with the instruments of torture on full display, Joan signed a confession denying that she had ever received divine guidance. As a sign of submission, she agreed to wear women’s clothes.  Almost immediately, she renounced her confession and resumed her practice of wearing men’s clothing. The voices had returned, she explained to the judges and chastised her for weakness. She was, nonetheless, found guilty of heresy and sentenced to death. On the morning of May 30th, Joan of Arc was taken to the market square of Rouen and burned at the stake.   489px-François_Chifflart_Jeanne_d'Arc

The tide of the war, however, had shifted. English holdings in France were reduced until they possessed only the port of Calais. More than 20 years after Joan’s death, her sentence was overturned following an inquiry ordered by Charles VII. Centuries later, in 1920, Joan of Arc was declared a saint.

At a time when gender roles were fixed, a cross-dressing, sword wielding teenage girl who led French armies to victory while hearing the voices of saints got noticed. She still does. ShakespeareColectjoan portrayed her in Henry VI, Part 1. Mark Twain declared his book, Recollections of Joan of Arc to be his favorite and his best. Her life is remarkably well documented for the era, particularly for peasant woman. These resources exist because of the records kept during her trials: the posthumous retrial in which she was acquitted, and the original trial in May of 1431.

A historical figure whose story unfolds like a character in a video game, the case of Joan of Arc, whose trial culminated in May 1431, presents my trial of the month.

Mark Thielman




fork roads

I was frustrated, road weary, and bone tired.  The last thing I wanted to do was get out of my car.

But let me start my story twelve days earlier.  I was a Private Investigator in southern Louisiana.  I’d had a normal day planned, but I decided to start my morning by doing a quick drive-by at the last known residence of the subject of one of my investigations.  I hadn’t been able to find him, and I’d expected this to be a quick spot-check before I went about my day.

However, when I arrived, I saw a moving truck parked in front.  I saw the subject loading boxes into the truck.  For reasons I won’t go into here, it was extremely important that I find the current residence for this man.  My conclusion was that he would lead me right to his new residence if I could successfully follow this moving truck to its destination.  I was hoping his new home was nearby.

It was not.  He got on Interstate 10 and drove west.  And west.  And even more west.  Past the Louisiana border, into Texas.  Past Houston.  When all was said and done, my quick morning spot-check had turned into a thousand-mile impromptu road trip to El Paso, TX.  Complications ensued when he made a detour into Fort Bliss, the Army base near El Paso, but I ultimately was able to learn the information I needed.  I won’t say exactly how until I research the statute of limitations for unauthorized access to a military installation.

In time, I finished all I needed to do and began the long drive home.  On the last leg of my journey, about twenty miles west of my exit, I was stuck in traffic.  The cars on the interstate were alternating between a slow crawl and a complete standstill.  I was strung out, in a daze.  Any good PI is familiar with the unexpected and I was grateful it had been my habit to always have toiletries and a change of clothes.  But I had planned for an unexpected night away, not an unexpected week away.  I was ready for a shower and a night in my own bed.

It wasn’t just the fatigue.  I had a very important meeting the next morning.  I’d been courting a new client for months, a high-powered attorney who could be a significant new client for my young business.  He was notoriously tough on private investigators, and I needed to be at my best the next morning, not in this mental fog.

So the last thing I wanted to do was prolong this trip even further, but that’s when I saw it.  Pulled over off the side of the highway was a massive RV.  One of the driver’s side tires had blown out, and the driver was struggling with the oversized jack.  The light rain falling apparently made the jack handle slippery, and he was having great difficulty.  He had a silver head of hair and beard, wearing Bermuda shorts under a guayabera shirt and of course, black socks with sandals.

The man clearly needed help.  Of the dozens of cars around me, nobody was stopping.  I for sure didn’t want to either.  But sometimes that little voice inside of us is just impossible to ignore.  With more than a little reluctance, I pulled over and walked out into the rain.

The man and his wife were recently retired, and they had recently begun their dream of touring the USA.  The blown tire they viewed as only a minor setback.   Despite my sour mood, they were charming and gracious.  In relatively short order, we put on their spare, located an RV service center, and they were on their way.  Within another hour after that, I was showered and in my bed.

The next day, I arose and began mentally preparing for my big meeting.  I put on my best suit, and went over the materials I had prepared.  I had put together examples of my work and what I thought was an impressive presentation. (I had some skill as an investigator then, but I had a lot to learn about business savvy.)

When I finally met with the attorney, he endured my presentation with a Sphinx-like silence.  I couldn’t read him at all, and I had no clue if he had any interest in my firm.  About ten minutes in, he stopped me abruptly.  “I don’t need to hear any more, Keller.”

I was heartbroken.  I just knew I’d flubbed it and squandered this opportunity.  But then, he reached for a stack of files.  He handed them to me.  “Start with these,” he said.  “We’ll see how you do.”  I was stunned.  He was handing me almost two months of work, easily becoming my biggest client by far.

I’m sure he noticed my surprise and kind of smirked at me.  Lest I thought my lame presentation was at all effective, he explained.  “I was on the interstate yesterday evening, caught in the slow traffic.  I saw you help that old man in the RV when nobody else stopped.  I figured a guy like that deserved a shot.”

That experience became a powerful lesson for me.  We all hear about the importance of doing the right thing when nobody is watching.  Depending on our belief system, we may receive some vague, metaphysical benefit from doing so.  But this was a very real, very tangible consequence to a tough choice that I didn’t entirely want to make.

In the stories that we collectively read and write, our characters often face tough choices.  They are torn between what they want to do and what they feel they should do.  These choices have consequences, both good and bad.  In the best stories, these consequences come in unexpected ways, surprising the reader.  In my life I’ve made both good and bad choices.  Sometimes the outcomes were inconsequential.  Other times, they were life-changing in a variety of ways.  Joyous, like a lucrative new client; sometimes painful. Often, I didn’t know the choice I was making would have the big impact it did.  I guess there’s a lesson in that, too.

What choices have you made in your life that had an unexpectedly big outcome?

–Ben Keller

My (Long Ago) New England Summer

by Roger Johns

My past has been catching up with me, lately. On a recent trip to Baton Rouge, LA, I had a chance to get together with two old friends whom I had not seen in decades – one from high school and college and the other from law school. My friend from high school and college brought pictures from the old days. (Note to Reader: It seems I had a bad hair day that lasted from 1970 to 1978)  All that catching up and reminiscing put me in the mood to page back through some other episodes from my past.

An encounter with another a friend who had lived for a while in the Northeast caused me to focus on my brief sojourn in Boston, where, during the late 80s, I spent a year getting a specialized law degree in preparation for an academic career. It’s a time of life that I often speak of, but rarely examine in any detail. So, I opened the metaphoric “My Year in Boston” file in my head to see what memories were still there.

For this life-long Southerner, my time “up there” was an amazing, eye-opening experience. On two occasions, as a kid, in the early 1960s, I accompanied my father on business trips to New York. But, besides the Big Apple, Tennessee was the farthest north I traveled until I moved to Boston. The Northeast was just an area on the map, or part of a history lesson, or the setting for a TV show – a beautiful place, judging by the pictures, but until I moved up there, it was really just an abstract idea.

When, in the late-80s, I decided that the shine had worn off the ultra-exciting practice of financial institutions law, I set my cap for a college teaching career and the extra law degree was going to be my ticket into the academy. So, up I went to Boston, with no idea what life would be like, except that I was pretty sure it would be cold in the winter. And it was.

Cold took on a completely new meaning for me. After a heavy snow left drifts halfway up to the door handles on my car, there was a brief warm snap – just enough for the snow to get soggy – and then, of course, it refroze, locking my car in the ice for I can’t remember how long. The natives didn’t seem especially undone by this. “Well . . . it’s winter. What did you think was gonna happen?”

After I extracted my car from the glacier, I loaned it to some friends who had a garage and, for the rest of my time in Boston, I took the T or rode the commuter trains. But mostly, I walked.

What at first seemed like an inconvenience turned out to be the very thing that made my time in New England so memorable. You see so much more when you’re moving at pedestrian speed and not frittering away endless hours hunting for a parking spot. Eventually, the mere prospect of getting on the train or heading out on foot became much more interesting than my original reason for being there.

Lucky for me, I was able to spend the entire summer there. School was over by then, so I had nearly three months of relative leisure ahead of me. I spent my time either getting ready for my first teaching job (way out in New Mexico), walking around Boston, or taking the trains into the interior of the state, stopping at random for a meal or a nice long exploratory walk. Back then, there was a pretty good chance of finding an interesting independent bookstore along the way. I hope that’s still the case. And there was always someone interesting to meet.

I wish I’d kept a diary of my travels, but, alas, I did not. And we certainly didn’t have cell phones with cameras back then. So, what remains of my great adventure is what persists in my memory. As the years pass, my memories of that summer feel more impressionistic, and I’m sure my imagination is filling in details that have fallen by the wayside. Be that as it may, it still looms large as an enchanted time.