Selected Writings

A selection of my published pieces…

Fiction:

Creekboys (The J.J. Outré Review) forthcoming

Chicago Rides For Michael Jackson (here)

Bad Babysitter (Cease, Cows) Nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2018

The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care (Drunk Monkeys)

Nonfiction:

Maintaining Self-Esteem and Motivation in a Year of Rejection (Brevity blog)

The Unbeautiful Ones (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Ancestral Hunger Pangs (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Modern-Day Mike Finks (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Writing Anxiety and the Wisdom of Improvisation (The Masters Review blog)

Lady Folk (Tiny Donkey: Brief Essays from Fairyland) 2nd-place winner in “Once Upon a  Cartographer” contest

Dad’s Honor Flight: A Father’s Second Homecoming from the Korean War (Medium)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet (Literary Orphans)

New Mexico: Freedom on the Ground (We Said Go Travel)

Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Women of Ireland (Encyclopaedia Britannica) More of my Britannica blog articles are available at this link.

Louise Erdrich “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project)

Frank O’Hara “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project) My other Booma contribs can be found here.

Walking to the Well (AranIsland.info)

Island Luck (AranIsland.info)

Writing and Wayfaring (personal blog-now defunct)

Poetry:

The Buffalo Return to Illinois (Rose Red Review)

Periphery (Thank You For Swallowing) Based on Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie

The Subject and the Stranger (Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing)

Bioluminescent Bay, Aisling, and Coconut  (The Writing Disorder)

Transference (Middle West) (Eunoia Review)

Golden Day (Literary Orphans)

The Fading of the Heart and Australia (Wilderness House Literary Review)

Interviews:

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, poet (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Kelly Vivanco, artist (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Ram Devineni, filmmaker and comic book creator (Priya’s Shakti) (Tiny Donkey)

Other:

Editor at Tiny Donkey, October 2016-October 2017

Volunteer fiction/nonfiction submission reader for The Masters Review, January 2016-September 2016

Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot “The Artists

Photo: Coumeenole Beach, Ireland (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Photo: Untitled (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Chicago Rides For Michael Jackson

The day Michael Jackson died, I broke a window in an apartment that wasn’t mine. It was midsummer and the hottest day in Chicago that year. The apartment belonged to my friend Beth, who was away in rural France for a yoga retreat. It seemed to me a long way to go for exercise, especially since there was a yoga studio on the first floor of her apartment building, and I said as much when she first asked if I wanted to stay at her apartment to look after her gerbil while she was gone.

“You don’t get it, Kathy,” she said. “I’m getting out of the country. Off the continent completely.” It was a phone conversation but I knew she was rolling her eyes at me. We’d known each other 7 or 8 years by then, long enough to know each other’s quirks blind. “It’s the only way I can really get away from Julian and all that…awfulness.”

Julian was an ex-fling of hers, though I’d never define him in that way to Beth’s face. She wouldn’t have minded the ex part. It was classifying him, and by extension her and what happened between them, as a fling that would have hurt her. But I’d never met Julian, and from what I did know about him—a 38-year-old computer programmer with highlighted hair according to his Facebook profile, a gaslighter and worse going by a couple emails Beth had forwarded to me—I didn’t think he deserved a more romantic or generous designation.

But Beth was putting something together. “Remember Yellowstone?” she said.

“Yeah, I remember Yellowstone,” I said, though I’d forgotten about it until now. Yellowstone was her last attempt at a vacation in the States and the last vacation she took post another disastrous relationship. Two and a half days into it, that year’s ex had managed to track her down by text out in the wilderness, spotty cell phone coverage and all, and pester her into a Skype call. He sent some texts alluding to regrets, said he needed to set things right with her. “Immediate as possible,” he wrote. Beth said he even used the word “vulnerable.” It was all a bit much for her, for probably any woman, to resist. She decamped that day and drove all the way to Jackson Hole to check into a lodge, only for Mr. Vulnerable to tell her he’d just gotten engaged to a woman who was opening him up to the redemptive potential of cleaning up his karma, former flings and all. He even tried to introduce his fiancée to Beth through Skype, but Beth slammed her laptop shut before she got more than a glance of this woman hovering at the edge of her screen.

“I can’t let something like that happen again,” she said now. “This yoga retreat is totally off-grid. No possible tech interruptions. So I need to know Zowie’s in good hands cuz I won’t be able to check in much while I’m gone. Hopefully not at all.”

I nodded. She couldn’t see me doing it of course, but it seemed like the right thing to do. “I love Zowie,” I said.

She was quiet then for longer than I expected. When she spoke again her voice was a little distant. “I’m hoping the week away will bring me some clarity about the whole thing. I’m just tired of things always ending badly like this with guys. Having no power, no say so where things stand. Over and over I pick guys who let me down. Just like my dad.”

I didn’t have an answer for her. This was becoming more than I’d bargained for. She’d called, after all, just to ask me to watch her gerbil, told me I could stay at her place in the city for the week, something she knew I’d appreciate since I’d been marooned out in the suburbs for some time. My life had turned to deadweight out there to be honest. So much so that even watching someone’s pet rodent for a week in a cramped, barely one bedroom, stale-aired city apartment seemed like a sudden windfall, an opportunity as maybe-golden for me as off-grid France was for Beth.

Beth spoke again. “You’re lucky you had the parents you did, Kathy,” she said. “Do you know that?”

I blinked. “How can you ask me that, Beth? Especially now.”

She sighed. “I’m sorry, Kathy, I didn’t mean it that way. But you know…it’s been a year. I know you still miss her but you need to move on.” She was quiet and I knew she was waiting for me to say something. But I couldn’t. All I could do was sit and let the silence stretch between us. Finally she said, “I know, I’m in the same boat as you, Kathy. We both need to move on. I’m sorry but it’s true. It’s time.”

I used to live only a few blocks from Beth, in a cramped, barely one bedroom of my own, on the third floor of a red-brick building with a park right across the street. No yoga studio below me, but there was a library nearby, a supermercado, and an old candy factory that sold its goofs out the back door on discount. From one window I had a view of the park, from another a low rooftop where a nest of city cats slept the days away. I worked as a barista and took classes to get my degree in baking and pastry. I dated sometimes, went to music and improv shows when I could afford it, rode the el to school and work in the winter and my bike in the summer. I was independent, a little lonely, and close to the happiest I’d ever been.

I left all that because the year before Michael Jackson died, my mother died too. She was diagnosed with cancer of the spine shortly after Christmas in ‘07. She died the opposite of my father, who was there one day, gone the next from a heart attack when my sister and I were still in our teens. Mom died agonizingly slow, then heartbreakingly fast, in 4 months, 28 days, 9 hours, and 11 minutes. It was Sheri, my sister, who figured that out, who actually took a calendar and counted out every day and minute from diagnosis to death and wrote the final tally down on a small slip of paper that she put away in her wedding album. “Why would you record something like that?” I’d wanted to ask her. But I didn’t because, truthfully, I admired her ability to concentrate hard enough to count anything at all, even in the depths of grief.

“I feel relieved more than sad, Kathy, don’t you?” she kept saying for days after the funeral, her eyes welling up all the same.

I never answered the question but for the record, no, I didn’t feel relief when Mom died. If only I had. Those days of her dying were too vague…I can’t quite explain it. Like they were too boundaryless for any sense of ending or release when she was finally gone and out of our lives and constant care, out of pain. The only structure was a sloggy foundation of forced hope and positivity, of last-ditch chemo treatments and buckets of pills and casseroles and coffee cakes from neighbors and cheap, multicolored ribbons (we could never figure out which was the color for spinal cancer so we decked the house with a rainbow of them, one color good as another, after all, when a case is terminal). When May came, Mom’s death month, it was as if someone spun a dial to the 10 notch and left it there. Mom drifted in and out of consciousness for two weeks, giving Sheri and I, who barely left her side, nothing more of her to cling to but the bare, final spendings of her pain. And then it was just Sheri and me, and Sheri’s family, her husband and 8-year-old daughter, and the leftovers of my former single city girl life.

I left the city to move back with Mom when she got sick. Then I moved in with Sheri after Mom died, on her request, in her suburban townhouse in a neighborhood where the trees were still too young to give shade and there were no paths for walking, but instead a golf course that rolled all the way up to Sheri’s backyard. It was supposed to be temporary. It should’ve been temporary. But as of the summer of 2009, I was still staying there.

Sheri loved it. She’s the need-to-be-needed type. You’d think a husband, kid, and house would be enough to absorb the need, and it did until we buried our second parent. When Dad died, Sheri had just graduated from high school. She spent the summer angry, wild, and blaming the world for her loss and grief, then went away to college in the fall, met Dave her second week and never let him go, never raged or floundered or sprung so loose again. In time, we became so different. She called me every day now—yes, even as I was living in her house. Whenever I broke away to a Starbucks or the mall or the other end of the golf course for no reason but to be on the other end of something, I could count on her call to break the moment of freedom. She didn’t need a reason but she’d act as if she did, pretend like she needed me to pick up something for her or had lost something at home and wondered if I had seen it. I’d always answer, despite the transparency and annoyance of her need, despite my desire for a little time alone. She’s my sister, after all. She was all I had now.

In suburbia my motivation took a death dive, my brain became mush, and I spent my days in mush-brain death dive ways. Riding my bike in circles around the cul-de-sacs, looking for the damn outlets. Running errands for Sheri and Dave while they were at work. Babysitting Hannah. Tidying up the messes left behind every morning after everyone else left for their jobs or school. Missing Mom, missing Dad like I was 13 again. Some days I was pretty sure I’d regressed to 13, to my own sister’s second child, older and bigger than her other in superficial ways only.

No one was more concerned about the health of all this than Dave. One night while I was washing dishes with Hannah, the grownups were watching a reality show in the living room. In a brief break between the shouts of advice and criticism from the reality show judges, I overheard Dave say, “She needs to get back out there. On her own, Sher.” With all the noise from the TV, all the reality and the faucet going on and off, the dishes being racked, I wondered if Dave thought his words would be drowned out or if he’d chosen the moment well and wanted me to hear. If Sheri said anything, she was keeping it down low.

I handed the last plate to Hannah to dry and went into the living room, sitting on the far end of the couch from Dave. It was the worst seat for watching TV because the side-view angle made the screen look like a funhouse mirror. And it was always available, always empty except for the implication that this was the space in the room reserved for me, the lingering aunt, the lost adult child, the side-car side-angle sister-in-law. In the Lazy-Boy Sheri sat with the same guilty, owl-eyed expression Mom used to make whenever Sheri and I embarrassed her in public by whining too loud. I wanted to tell her it was OK, that Dave was right and I was all right with what he’d said. But it would mean admitting to eavesdropping, to crossing a line of privacy we were still pretending hadn’t been crossed and completely erased.

The next day Beth made the offer to stay at her apartment. I waited until the morning I was leaving to tell Sheri and Dave, appearing before my sister in the kitchen with a backpack and the keys to my bike lock. “Why didn’t you tell us before?” she said, following me into the garage.

“I thought I did,” I lied. I swiped at some cobwebs around my bike handlebars. Spiders in the suburbs worked so fast and I didn’t ride my bike as much as I used to.

“You’re riding all the way into the city?” Sheri said. I pressed the button on the wall to open the garage door.

“Of course not. Just to the train station. I’m locking it up there. It’s the suburbs, it’ll be fine. Or maybe I’ll bring it on.” The truth was I was afraid if I told Sheri sooner she’d get Dave to drive me into the city, and even more afraid I’d accept. It was better this way. Harder, but better.

When I arrived in Beth’s neighborhood I went around her block once before going to her building. It’d only been a few months since I was last around, but things had changed. A taqueria where I once went for Beth’s birthday was now a baby boutique, and a Swedish bakery famous for its limpa had been turned into a place called Mmmm that made their own Pop-Tarts and Little Debbies. There was a help wanted sign in the window, beside a fold-out poster of Irene Cara like the kind in the teen magazines Sheri and I collected in the 80s. Through the window I could see a genuine Easy-Bake oven on a shelf near the door and posters of Pinky Tuscadero and the cast of Good Times. Beth hadn’t told me about this place, though she did say I should bring my resume and try to score some interviews while I was here.

I went on to her building and she buzzed me up before I even rung her bell. “Am I late?” I said as I walked in the door. “I thought you said 11.”

“No, just so ready to be away from here. I was looking out.” She hugged me then shut the door. I backed up and felt my backpack knock into something solid but unsteady. Beside the door was a human torso, the seamstress’ kind, wearing a lacy kitchen apron and a pattern of red handprints all over it.

“Oh don’t mind that,” Beth said, steadying the torso then patting it like it needed comfort. She left me to gape at it and went into her bedroom. I dropped my bag on the couch in her living room and spotted another torso, in a corner beside her bookshelf, spotted with more handprints, vintage medals, and cut-out hearts from beauty magazines.

Beth came out of her room pulling her suitcase, a yoga mat tucked under one arm. She had a carry-on already by the door, and she reached down to shove a journal and a French-English dictionary into it. “Beth?” She stopped and looked up. I tried to keep my eyes from wandering over to a torso. I remembered Beth mentioning something on Facebook awhile ago about considering art therapy. Was this the time to ask? I had no evidence, but I saw Julian and Mr. Vulnerable and Beth’s father all over these torsos. Every handprint or torn-out magazine heart might as well have been the name of some guy who’d hurt or disappointed her. It suddenly struck me how little attention I’d been paying attention to her, to my friends this past year, in favor of paying attention to my own grief.

She was waiting for me to say something. “So…what do I need to know about Zowie?”

His cage was in the living room. We looked in at him—small, fat, two years old, black and white and cute all over, sucking on his water tube. “I cleaned his cage and changed his bedding yesterday. So you don’t need to worry about that. Just feed him and change his water every day. And scoop out his droppings and messes. Here…” She opened her hallway closet. A cloud of plastic bags tumbled out. “Use one of these to put his dirty bedding in.”

She led me through the rest of the place explaining the instructions and rules regarding all appliances—stereo, TV, microwave, oven, air conditioner, as if I never operated anything more complicated than a doorknob before. How much had the smell of regression been stamped on me that she’d think I didn’t know how to work an air conditioner? “It’s gonna get hot next week you know,” Beth said when we went into her bedroom where the unit was installed. “You can sleep in here if it’s more comfortable. If you’d rather sleep on the couch, I have a fan you can use in there. Just don’t keep the fan or air on while you’re out and don’t turn the dial on the air conditioner past 7. It makes the walls shake and you might fry the motor. Plus Shaundra will complain about the noise.”

Shaundra ran a yoga studio on the first floor. “Even at night?” I said. “She doesn’t hold yoga classes in the middle of the night.”

“No, but…just be considerate. I don’t wanna jeopardize the free classes.” She checked the time. She was taking a bus to the blue line to O’Hare, and with weekend traffic she really needed to get going. I helped her with her bags down to the street. When we saw the bus coming I had to ask her, “Are you really going off-grid?” I realized I was gripping the handle of her carry-on like it was someone’s hand. Suddenly I didn’t want to be alone here in the city, even though Beth was still standing beside me. “What if there’s an emergency with Zowie?”

She turned to face me. “There won’t be any emergencies, Kathy. Zowie’s easy.” The bus pulled up to the stop and I surrendered Beth’s bag. She came in close to hug me. “Wish me a better time than Yellowstone,” she said as she pulled away. Then she was on the bus, and I was free.

That was Saturday. Michael Jackson died on Thursday. That morning, before the news hit, I lay in Beth’s bed well past 9, the air conditioner blasting, obliterating all sounds from the street. Since moving back to the suburbs I’d gotten unused to the city noise at night, and Dave wanted the air conditioning on nearly all the time. He said he liked the feel of cool carpeting under his feet. I liked the white noise of Beth’s window unit myself and had braved only half a night on her couch with the floor fan blowing hot air on me, circulating the staleness of the apartment and the chippy smell emanating from Zowie’s cage. Shaundra had yet to complain about any noise, and while part of me was relieved, another part was miffed she hadn’t even noticed.

I hadn’t done a thing with myself since staying here. Hadn’t looked for jobs, hadn’t gone for a ride or looked up other friends and old haunts. Hadn’t done much other than go out for an iced coffee and food now and again and look after Zowie. Beth, meanwhile, really had gone off-grid. Every day I checked my email, expecting something from her, even a note to say she’d arrived safely or was just checking in on her pet. But nothing. Lke the sum of my accomplishments this week. I ended every day feeling I’d failed in my side of a bargain. Thursday morning I lay in Beth’s bed promising myself to finally do something.

My phone rang then. I knew it was Sheri, even though it was early for her usual call. She told me she was taking the day off for a dentist appointment. I got up from the bed, turned the air off, and walked with the phone to Zowie’s cage.

“Hey,” I said, as much to my sister as to Zowie, lifting him out of his cage.

“So what’s on the agenda for today?” Sheri asked. Since Saturday I’d been making up various activities so Sheri would think I’d been keeping busy. I didn’t want her to know how uninspired and lost I was feeling, even here, back in the setting I’d missed so much. There was no longer the excuse of suburbia, of no sidewalks and too many chain stores, to blame for my apathy.

“I actually was just about to leave.” I said, from the position of laying on the couch with Zowie on my belly nibbling a button on my pajamas. “There’s a bakery in the neighborhood here and I have an appointment to talk with the owner.”

“Kath, that’s great! Why didn’t you tell me yesterday? What kind of bakery is it?”

“You remember what our room looked like in the 80s?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll tell you later. I really need to get going if I want to get there on time.”

She totally bought it. “Call me right after the interview,” she said, and I knew now, because I said it to my own sister, I had to make it all true.

I got dressed in the most presentable outfit I could put together on a hot day without ironing. The cold air from the air conditioner had already dissipated in Beth’s bedroom. It never had an effect on the air in the rest of her apartment, where the air was relentlessly stale and warm, like the inside of the front pocket on a pair of tight jeans. I sometimes wondered if Zowie noticed the heat. Did he notice a difference whether the air was on or off, the window open or closed? Did he drink more water on a day like today? I stopped at his cage just before leaving. He was curled up in a ball, one eye open, watching me. Was that a look of sleepiness or sluggishness? “Maybe I shouldn’t leave you,” I said. He’d pawed away some of his bedding in one corner, leaving the floor of the cage exposed. Maybe it felt cooler there, and he knew just the right thing to do for himself. I pet the space between his ears with my forefinger. “Wish me luck, Zo. Promise I won’t be long.”

There was a small crowd inside the bakery, huddled around a guy with a laptop sitting at a table. They all looked up as I walked in, then dropped their heads back down to focus again on the laptop. A song I hadn’t heard since the 80s, Human Nature, played on a radio behind the counter and competed with some music coming from the laptop. I looked around the café. Old Pillsbury Dough-Boy ads were interspersed with posters of Mr. T and the cast of WKRP in Cincinnati, and there were a few more shelves with vintage Easy-Bakes.

No one seemed to be working. I looked past the counter to the back of the shop, then back at the laptop crowd, catching a glimpse of Michael Jackson moonwalking to Billie Jean across the laptop’s screen. “Can I help you?” A short woman with straight black bangs and a Wonder Woman tattoo peeking out of the left sleeve of her black tee stepped away from the laptop.

“I saw the ad in the window.” The woman with the bangs looked me up and down. I held my resume out to her. “The baking assistant job. Here.” Immediately I regretted how I was handling this, a basic introduction, how rusty at social skills I’d become. But the woman barely seemed to notice, looking only briefly at my resume, at me.

“Sorry,” she said, looking back at the others. “We’re just…shocked.” She laughed nervously, like she’d been caught writing a crush’s name on a wall.

“What?” I looked at my resume in her hand, at the group, at a dough boy on the wall.

“Haven’t you heard?” a man with black-rimmed glasses and a white apron said. “Michael Jackson died.”

I looked at the woman with the bangs, who nodded and held out her hand, inviting me to join the group around the laptop. That was all it took.

“You must’ve been a big fan,” the laptop guy said, as we all watched Michael Jackson singing, Michael moonwalking, Michael spinning, Michael grabbing his crotch, Michael balancing on his toes. My eyes brimmed with tears. I shook my head at the guy’s comment, said, “No…it’s not that. I mean, it’s just so unexpected.” Truth was, it wasn’t unexpected—people lived and then they died. Why would anyone expect a pop star to be any different from your own mother and father, from anyone else you’d once had in your life for long and not long enough? I just didn’t know what else to say.

“I know, it’s unreal,” the man with the apron said. “It feels like my childhood just died.” He moved away from the group and began dusting the Easy-Bakes, swaying to the music as the woman with the bangs went behind the counter and took out a binder with photos of cakes and pastries. She gestured at another table, where I joined her and looked through the binder with her.

“I’ve been getting a lot of off-the-street resumes and applications since I put the sign up, but yours is the first with some actual pastry experience.” Her name was Michelle and she co-owned Mmmm with Miguel, the guy with the apron.

I flipped through the binder. There were photos of beautiful tiered cakes with fresh flowers and fruits, of Miguel kneading mounds of dough, of Miguel and Michelle slicing loaves of golden-crusted hearth breads. I wanted to ask why they didn’t put these pictures on their walls.

As if reading my mind, Miguel walked past and waved his hand at the wall posters and Easy-Bakes. “What do you think of our décor?”

“Well, I am an 80s child,” I said, trying my best Mary Lou Retton gold-winning smile.

“Kitschy, right?” Michelle said, making that nervous, apologetic laugh again. “But we’re much more than that. It’s just kitsch is what brings people in, what gets ‘em off the sidewalk and past the door. We’d like to do more. More wedding cakes and sweet table, hearth breads. Miguel’s the bread expert.” Miguel smiled and made a beauty queen wave from behind the counter. “We’re adding more menu items for the café and launching Miguel’s artisan breads next month, in time for fall.” She closed the binder, took my resume in hand again, smiled to herself as her eyes skimmed over what I considered a pretty paltry list of accomplishments. I believed her smile though, found something contagious and comforting in her nervous energy, like she and Miguel were maybe my kind of people—fellow pastry nerds, 80s kids, MJ fans, misfits, but with a mission, something I could get behind.

Michelle offered me her hand to shake. “Come in tomorrow at 6 am,” she said, “We can start you off on a two-week trial. See if we have a fit.” We both stood up, and Michelle’s eyes drifted to the window at the front of the shop. She shook her head. “Man, Michael Jackson,” she said. “What a day.”

On the way back to Beth’s, it seemed as if all the city had become a Michael Jackson song, all the neighborhood the opening beats of Billie Jean or the groove of Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. Cars went by with their windows dropped and radios blaring. The King of Pop was dead, gone to the same unreturnable place Mom and Dad had gone, and I had my first job in years. Just like that. Heartbreaking one moment, moonwalking the next.

There was mail in Beth’s box when I got back to her building. I pulled out what looked like a bill and a letter with a handwritten return address but no name. I studied the handwriting on the envelope. I knew it was from Julian.

I flipped it over once and thought about writing return to sender on it and putting it back in the mailbox on the street corner. I could only guess what this letter had in it, waiting for Beth when she returned from her peaceful, off-grid, French yoga vacation. “I think it’s time you went off-grid, Julian,” I said softly, tearing the envelope in half twice and throwing the pieces in the garbage can outside the front door. Then I went up to Beth’s apartment.

I’d forgotten to leave the windows open a crack. Her place was broiling. I went straight to Zowie’s cage. He didn’t look good. I reached in to pick him up, hoping he’d spring to life at my touch. He barely nudged, so I cuddled him in one hand and turned on the fan with the other and held him a few inches away from the wind. The fan’s air was as hot as the apartment, and Zowie felt warm and droopy in my hand.

I held him against my chest and ran to the kitchen, grabbed a small bowl, filled it with cold water from the sink, grabbed an ice tray from Beth’s freezer, and knocked all the cubes out with one blow into the sink. I popped a cube in the bowl, stirred it with my finger, and put Zowie gently on the counter. Was he dying or just sleepy? He barely stirred on the counter, slumped with his head under the lip of the bowl. I dipped my finger in the bowl and dabbed Zowie’s mouth and nose, wetting them over and over until his nose wiggled and he stuck a crumb’s portion of his tongue out, licking the water drops on his face. “Don’t die today, please don’t die,” I kept whispering.

I picked him up with the bowl and fast-walked to the bedroom, setting bowl and gerbil on the bed and turning the air on. It would take a few minutes to feel anything, so I dabbed more water on Zowie’s mouth then went to the window in the other room.

There was no difference even with the window wide open, no air at all. The screen had to come out, but it was stiff and had probably never been taken out before. I hit against its edges with the heel of my palm as a car went by trailing the beat of Billie Jean out its windows. Poor Michael Jackson.

When that song came out, Sheri and I spent days trying to learn the moonwalk. We’d practice in the basement where no one could see us and judge our clumsiness. I’d try, then Sheri would try, taking turns eyeballing each other’s attempts, failing over and over in cracking the code of the movement. “How the fuck does he do it?” Sheri said. She was 14 to my 11 and swore a lot around me then. When Mom walked in on us once, we nearly burned the house down blushing. But she just started moonwalking herself—or trying to, looking more like Chuck Berry duckwalking backwards across sand than MJ backgliding weightless on the moon. Completely oblivious to how bad she looked, she insisted to us that this, girls, is how you do it.

“So when did you become a moonwalk instructor, Mom?” Sheri said. I clapped my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing. Mom said, “Oh girls, I’ve been around longer than your Michael Jackson. I saw Elvis at the International Amphitheatre when I was your age, Sher. I wasn’t supposed to go, but Theresa took me.” Theresa was Mom’s older sister, her Sheri.

Mom started morphing through various other moves. She favored the twist, I noticed that, getting down real low for a woman who, in 1982, would’ve been nearly 40, not much older than Sheri was now. Sheri stood with her arms crossed, studying Mom, not smiling but not laughing either. Within a year, she’d be throwing Michael and the moonwalk over for Prince, then Robert Smith and The Cure. Mom grabbed my hands and had me twist with her, me and Sheri’s moonwalk moment completely out the window. Sheri’d say later how she hated when Mom did stuff like that, how she always had to bring all her sixties boomer shit into everything, to bring her time into ours.

Mom said, “I saw Chubby Checker too, at the Arena in Milwaukee. Theresa drove us, me and our cousin Sarah and our dates. Mine was a boy Sarah knew and he was as dull as dishwater for conversation. But we all danced the whole show long and had the best time!”

I never liked the twist. It’s too easy and repetitive, like the dance floor version of a suburban lifestyle. But Mom was good at it, loved doing it, love dancing no matter the style, no matter the types of moves, regardless of whether she could pull them off well or not at all. She loved the way dancing made her feel. Then she got cancer and died, and now Michael Jackson was dead too, no matter all the things he could do with a pair of dancing shoes and two seconds of backbeat. I thought of all this as I struck against the window screen, the videos they were playing on the laptop in Mmmm, all the energy, all the anger and grace, and I thought of those awful last months and weeks of Mom’s life, her death. I pounded and pounded at the damn screen.

When it gave, it almost fell all the way out, angling towards the sidewalk by Shaundra’s doorway. I caught it last-second after knocking it out of the frame, then heard my phone ringing. I yanked at the frame, turning it every angle until it bent where it wasn’t supposed to and I could pull it inside the window.

The phone was Sheri. “How’d the interview go?”

“I got the job, or a two-week trial at least.” I said. I propped the screen against the couch and went into the bedroom to get Zowie. There was so much happiness for me in my sister’s voice. It was something I needed, like a cooling cloth or the softness of Zowie’s fur on my arm as I sat on the bed and cuddled him. With the air on, there were no more Michael Jackson songs coming from outside.

Sheri started talking about him. “I just can’t believe he’s dead. I feel like crying, but it would confuse Hannah. She’d ask me who I was crying about and what would I tell her? For someone I didn’t even know?”

“You have Man in the Mirror as your ring tone. You could tell her it’s that guy.”

“Thanks but I think that would just confuse her even more.” I heard noises that sounded like TV news reports in the background. “Everyone’s crying,” she said. “I get it, but it’s so strange. Even my dentist was crying.”

I looked at Zowie. Zowie wasn’t crying. He seemed OK now.

Sheri was quiet a moment. I sensed she was distracted by her TV. Then she said, “How do you feel about it, Kath? You loved him when you were a kid. You had pictures of him all over your bedroom wall. Remember? You played his music all the time. You drove us crazy.”

“I didn’t play it all the time.”

She started laughing. “You even went to the Victory tour concert. With that little redheaded friend of yours. It was your first concert.” It was true. Dad took me and Jenny, my best friend in those days, and we made homemade sparkly gloves to wear on one hand and screamed our voices out and pretended like my dad wasn’t with us the whole show.

I felt tears coming at the memory of my dad and how I’d treated him that night. I got up from Beth’s bed and carried Zowie into the living room. Why couldn’t I have been a more thoughtful kid? Or a better adult, more like the kind my parents had been?

I heard the volume on Sheri’s TV get lower. Her voice was distant when she spoke again anyway, as if she was still watching the TV if not listening. “People on the news keep saying the same thing, how they feel like their childhood just died. That makes me mad, you know? They’re our age, these people. Their childhood has been over for decades but it takes the death of a celebrity to force them to grow up? I wish we could’ve had that luxury, Kathy. Childhood ended for me when Dad died right after my graduation. And you…you were only 13!”

I was sitting down on the couch now, one of Beth’s torsos in my line of vision. The torsos seemed so less strange to me than they did a few days ago, so more explainable in light of the day it’d been, between Michael Jackson dying and the bakery full of Easy-Bake ovens and Julian’s letter and Zowie and the window. Instead it was my sister who seemed strange to me, so different in life experience and outlook. I focused on the handprints on Beth’s torso, the vintage rock buttons. The problems Beth had. Her lousy boyfriends and father. They say Michael Jackson had a bad father too. I’d had a good one, but he’d been taken too soon. And I felt no less messed up, no more together than Beth or Michael Jackson or anyone else. “I don’t know, Sher,” I said. “I kind of think a person’s childhood is the one thing that never dies.”

“What are you talking about, Kathy?”

“Sheri.” I took a deep breath. It wasn’t that this was difficult, this conversation. Just long overdue. We were sisters, with both our parents gone now, but we should’ve started talking like this long ago. I needed a breath because there was so much catching up to do. “Sheri, do you really think I’m anywhere near to being grown-up? Seriously. You really don’t notice how much I’ve regressed since Mom got sick?” I immediately regretted speaking in questions, like I was asking my big sister’s permission. Even if that was the point.

She was quiet for too long a beat. When she finally spoke, her voice was like the breakable but determined one she’d used to get through Mom’s wake and funeral, the voice she forced out of herself in answer to all the “I’m sorrys” and “My condolences” and “Our thoughts and prayers are with you girls.”

“Kathy, this bakery job is good news,” she said, hitting those last two words hard. “You’ve got to start thinking positive, start looking forward. The same goes for me. Dave has talked to me about this.”

“He has? When?” I began stroking Zowie a little too hard than before.

“It doesn’t matter, Kathy. It’s between us. I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d think it had something to do with you staying with us, and it doesn’t really. It’s a marriage thing. Believe me. Kathy, there are so many good changes headed your way now. I know it. This was just life. I mean, it wasn’t. It was death, Mom’s death. But that’s life. We learned that a long time ago, the hard way. Didn’t we, Kathy? You took care of Mom. You did what life and love demanded of you. And now it’s time to move on.”

When one person tells you something, you can take it to heart or you can ignore it. But when two tell you the same thing, you only have one response really. My sister and friend were both right. Not that what they were telling me was easy to take. Just necessary. There were a lot of changes headed my way. Or at least, a lot of things I needed to get doing. Beginning with fixing the broken window.

I ended my sister’s call, telling her I loved her and her saying it back to me, and rooted around in the apartment for tools for the window screen. It was mostly a tape job, layers and layers over the little cracks where the bugs might get in. I was thinking about Beth’s reaction and how much this would cost to get fixed, and the relief of a paycheck finally to fix things, when I saw Shaundra on the street below with a group of cyclists. About 10 of them were stopped in front of her studio and wheeling short spurts up and down the street, pestering the traffic. Someone had a radio attached to the back of their bike playing Thriller.

I watched Shaundra take a bike out of her front door, her right hand sporting a bike glove studded with sequins. I called down to her, and as she looked up, so did half the bike crew, a couple other sparkly gloved hands going up in the air to wave at me.

“What happened to Beth’s window?” Shaundra said.

“I got a little impatient with it earlier,” I said, trying to shrug so she’d see it. “You know the building manager’s number?”

Shaundra nodded and then the cyclist with the radio leaned close to her. He had no sparkly glove but a red leather jacket with zippers all over it. I noted some of the other fashion choices among the crowd. Sparkly socks, zombie makeup, a t-shirt like the one I bought with my babysitting money at the Victory Tour concert, all the Jackson brothers in bright-colored shredded clothes emblazoned across the front like a prairie fire, Michael’s sparkly glove at the center the fire’s brightest flame.

“What’s going on?” I called to Shaundra.

The radio guy held his hands up. “It’s Chi Rides night. You got a bike? Come out and join us.”

Shaundra said, “We’re doing a ride for Michael Jackson tonight. We’re riding to Lincoln Park first and meeting with all the north side riders there then heading downtown. A group is getting together to do the Thriller dance around Buckingham Fountain tonight. At sundown.”

“Come down and ride with us!” Radio guy said, so excited, so animated and fresh, even in a leather jacket on the hottest day of the year. He looked no more than 20, like someone who wasn’t even born yet when Bad or Dangerous much less Thriller came out. “Got anything glittery?” he said.

“Join us, Kathy!” Shaundra said. I thought of my bike, locked at a suburban train station. Though Beth did have one hanging on her wall.

“I didn’t know you were such a fan, Shaundra.”

She brought her ungloved hand up to her face, nodded. “I’m devastated. I studied dance. Before yoga.” She gestured at the studio door. “I know every move in every video he ever made.”

Suddenly radio guy gripped the handles of his bike and raised the front wheel in the air. “Rhythm is revolution,” he shouted, everyone else in the group watching him now, readying to ride. “Tonight, Chicago rides for Michael Jackson, King of Pop!”

I nodded, like I understood any of it. You mourn in your way and I mourn in mine, I thought. The radio switched to ABC and the kid in the red leather jacket took off, Shaundra smiling up at me and following the crowd up the street, 12-year-old Michael’s voice leading and trailing, all the way.

I would’ve loved to join them. But I couldn’t leave Zowie just now, and I had a job to wake up early for in the morning. It felt like something in me went with them though, like an invisible string or rope was unwinding from inside me, getting pulled along to the center of the city with the cyclists and the song. It felt so good and so painful. Necessary is the only word I can come up with to describe it, even today. I wondered if somewhere in France, Beth had felt the same thing when I tore up that letter from Julian. I wondered if she’d heard about Michael Jackson. I bet she had. There was no chance otherwise, no matter how hard she tried. A person can only get away so much, can only go so far off-grid.

1683-slides

Two Girls in 80s Gear: One With Michael Jackson Shirt, One With Police Buttons and Jellies. Somewhere in the 1980s.

MJ Playlist:
Billie Jean (Motown 25th Anniversary performance)
Billie Jean (Madison Square Garden, featuring audience cameos by Liz Taylor, Macauly Culkin, and Liza Minnelli!)
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
Human Nature
Man in the Mirror
I Want You Back (Jackson 5 Ed Sullivan appearance)
Rock With You
They Don’t Care About Us
Thriller (When I was in the 7th grade, my school had a special after-school assembly just so we could all watch this. When the video started, a bunch of macho bullies started making fun of MJ, using homophobic slurs, etc, annoying those of us who were really excited about seeing the video — by the middle though those boys were as rapt as everyone else.)
Beat It
Michael Jackson does the robot
Upside Down (MJ crashes Diana Ross at her concert in 1980)
Prince and MJ crash a James Brown show…Prince embarrasses himself
I’ll Be There
Carrie Brownstein (Sleater Kinney) eulogy to MJ on NPR
?uestlove Remembers the Times: 132 Michael Jackson Memories

Selected Writings

A selection of my published pieces…

Fiction:

Creekboys (The J.J. Outré Review) forthcoming

Chicago Rides For Michael Jackson (here)

Bad Babysitter (Cease, Cows)

The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care (Drunk Monkeys)

Nonfiction:

Maintaining Self-Esteem and Motivation in a Year of Rejection (Brevity blog)

The Unbeautiful Ones (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Ancestral Hunger Pangs (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Modern-Day Mike Finks (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Writing Anxiety and the Wisdom of Improvisation (The Masters Review blog)

Lady Folk (Tiny Donkey: Brief Essays from Fairyland) 2nd-place winner in “Once Upon a  Cartographer” contest

Dad’s Honor Flight: A Father’s Second Homecoming from the Korean War (Medium)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet (Literary Orphans)

New Mexico: Freedom on the Ground (We Said Go Travel)

Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Women of Ireland (Encyclopaedia Britannica) More Britannica blog articles of mine are available at this link.

Louise Erdrich “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project)

Frank O’Hara “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project) My other Booma contribs may be found here.

Walking to the Well (AranIsland.info)

Island Luck (AranIsland.info)

Writing and Wayfaring (personal blog-now defunct)

Poetry:

The Buffalo Return to Illinois (Rose Red Review)

Periphery (Thank You For Swallowing) Based on Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie

The Subject and the Stranger (Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing)

Bioluminescent Bay, Aisling, and Coconut  (The Writing Disorder)

Transference (Middle West) (Eunoia Review)

Golden Day (Literary Orphans)

The Fading of the Heart and Australia (Wilderness House Literary Review)

Interviews:

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, poet (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Kelly Vivanco, artist (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Ram Devineni, filmmaker and comic book creator (Priya’s Shakti) (Tiny Donkey)

Other:

Editor at Tiny Donkey, October 2016-October 2017

Volunteer fiction/nonfiction submission reader for The Masters Review, January 2016-September 2016

Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot “The Artists

Photo: Coumeenole Beach, Ireland (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Photo: Untitled (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Dad’s Honor Flight: A Father’s Second Homecoming From The Korean War

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Dad’s first homecoming as a war veteran was in March 1953, two years to the month after he was drafted into the army for the Korean War. He arrived home to the U.S. at Seattle, to a port with a small crowd of civilians and a sign reading “Welcome Home Defenders of Freedom.” He’d been overseas since September 1951, entirely in Korea except for two weeks extra training at a naval academy at Etajima, Japan.

From Seattle, Dad traveled with other returning soldiers by Pullman train to Camp Carson in Colorado Springs. The Pullman was a step up from the slow-moving, no-sleeper troop train he’d rode when he was inducted in Chicago and sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in 1951—a step up in comfort, at least, if not in service. Soldiers were entitled to a free dinner on Pullmans, which didn’t please the porters working for tips. “If you want your dessert, put some money on the table,” the porters told the soldiers. “If we don’t see any money, you don’t see any dessert.”

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Port of Seattle, March 1953.

After nine days at Camp Carson, Dad finally made it back to Chicago. He wanted to get home soon as he arrived, but my grandmother had other ideas. Proud of her only son and happy to have him back healthy and whole, she and my grandfather and my aunt June (my dad’s only sibling) headed to the lakefront to take pictures with my dad still in his uniform. My grandparents and aunt were in winter coats (March in Chicago demands them), but my dad had only the lightweight Eisenhower jacket he’d been given by the army. When my dad sees those pictures today, what he remembers most is the wind and cold coming off Lake Michigan that day.

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My father, Jack Ostberg, with his parents, Irene and Trygve, in Chicago, March 1953.

Perhaps the cold winter welcome home was only fitting—the war in Korea was one of the first major conflicts of the Cold War, after all, and a cold war was what soldiers in Korea found themselves literally engaged in, battling through an especially harsh and deadly winter in 1950-51. My dad’s service was in the second and third winters of the war, and he was farther south in the fighting zone, in lower mountainous areas than the first winter’s troops. Still, he spent his first winter sleeping in a Quonset hut, the second sleeping on a cot on the floor of an abandoned schoolhouse. Of the two, he preferred the Quonset hut. It was drafty, but it kept in the body heat better and made the freezing nights a little more tolerable.

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My father in Korea, Quonset huts in background.

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My father (center) just arrived in Korea, at a replacement depot.

Thankfully, Dad’s second homecoming as a war veteran was in warmer days—in August 2015. He had a bigger crowd too—including his wife, six children, and several grandchildren—and a full motorized escort in the form of a bikers club all the way back to Chicago from Milwaukee Airport. This time around, the homecoming was from Washington, D.C., where my dad went with 45 other veterans on an Honor Flight organized by the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois. Dad was part of a group representing veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War and from all four branches of military service—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, as well as the Women’s Army Corps. There were three women veterans, including a former “Rosie the Riveter” bomber aircraft worker, and one father-and-son duo, a man who’d served in WWII making the trip with his Vietnam veteran son. The veterans ranged in age from 65 to 96. Their Honor Flight trip lasted three days, and less than three weeks after their return, one of the group would pass away. This is the story of their Honor Flight and homecoming.

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Dad first heard about the Honor Flight program in 2011, when a friend and former co-worker of his signed up in Chicago. Harold, my father’s friend, was 92 and a WWII vet who spent the last months of the war as a P.O.W. in a German stalag. More than 60 years later, Harold still carried bullets from enemy machine-gun fire in his back, a “souvenir” of his service that had caused a lifetime of health problems. His Honor Flight was a one-day trip, the standard length of most Honor Flights. He was accompanied by his daughter, who served as his guardian (usually a family member or friend assigned to the traveling veteran to help him or her during the trip). After the trip, Harold didn’t live long enough to tell much about it—he died the day after his return. His story, though, was covered by a few local news outlets, and my dad was impressed by what the experience had meant to Harold’s family.

In 2013, Dad finally applied for his Honor Flight with the same hub Harold had gone through. But Dad did not serve in WWII, and despite his age (he was born in 1928) he was waitlisted. The hub he’d applied with has made WWII vets their first priority, and until all vets from that war have gotten their chance for an Honor Flight, Korea and Vietnam vets remain on a waitlist, with the exception of any who are terminally ill.

This is standard policy with many of the 130-plus Honor Flights throughout the U.S. Indeed, the network’s founding mission was to transport aging WWII vets to D.C. to see the National World War II Memorial, which opened to the public in 2004. The first Honor Flights were made in May the following year, when Earl Morse, an Ohio-based veterans’ physician and former Air Force captain, offered to personally escort a number of his patients to see their new memorial before failing health made it impossible. Then in 2006, Jeff Miller, a North Carolina dry-cleaning businessman whose father and uncle had served in WWII, began an organization called Honor Air that borrowed from Morse’s idea but figured out how to use commercial airlines to escort the veterans and fund their trips. By 2007 Morse and Miller had merged their programs to form the Honor Flight Network.

Since that first Honor Flight in 2005, the network has brought over 145,000 veterans to their national war memorials. James McLaughlin, current chairman of the network, says in 2014 alone over 21,000 vets and over 18,000 guardians visited D.C. With an estimated 514 WWII vets dying each day according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the focus remains on bringing veterans from that war to their memorial. But with Korean War vets reaching their 80s and even 90s, some hubs have begun opening up applications from veterans of Korea and Vietnam. A few hubs have even sprung up that are reaching out exclusively to Korean or Vietnam War vets (as well as hubs exclusively for women veterans). On my father’s Honor Flight, there were 23 Korean War vets—the largest group out of the three wars represented. Meanwhile, three of the eight Vietnam veterans on the trip were already in their 70s.

This wasn’t the first time the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois, the hub my father finally went through, took Korean and Vietnam War veterans on its Honor Flight. An official Honor Flight hub since 2010, the Veterans Network Committee (VNC) opened up its trips to post-WWII vets in 2014. One of the vets on that trip was a terminally ill Vietnam vet, but the committee’s founder and president, Randy Granath, reckoned it was time to open up to Korean and Vietnam War vets anyway. After this year’s VNC Honor Flight, when I asked Granath about the limitations some hubs still impose, he brought up the fact of people getting cancer in their 50s or dying of a heart attack in their 40s. “Who are we to say who can’t go?” he says, adding that he hopes to keep doing this long enough to include Gulf War vets on the VNC Honor Flights.

Granath is a Vietnam vet who’d been active in veterans groups in the 1980s. He wasn’t planning on becoming involved with a veterans organization again in more recent years, until his son, Kyle, entered the military. Kyle had been in the ROTC at Ball State University in Indiana when 9/11 happened. He was called to active duty in 2002, ultimately serving nine years in the military and completing five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Kyle was in the service, Randy and his wife, Pattie, became frustrated with the lack of support and resources for current service members and their families and with what they felt was a gap between the civilian community and veterans. Eventually the Granaths decided to build a new local veterans group, and the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois was born, with five initial members, in March 2010.

Headquartered in Cary, a town about 45 miles northwest of Chicago, today the VNC is a full veterans organization with 140 members and 13 programs offering assistance to veterans and their families, one of which just happens to be the Honor Flights. Its other programs include support groups for veterans, food deliveries and assistance to homeless or disabled vets, care packages for overseas military, and a Memorial Day “Field of Honor” display in which more than 325 U.S. flags are planted in public sites around Cary to commemorate the Illinois soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a vets’ organization, the VNC is unique in that non-veterans are welcomed as charter members. It’s a way to create awareness and promote community involvement by including people who may not have served in the military themselves but who still have “skin in the game,” as Randy calls it—such as the parents or spouses of soldiers on active duty or the children of war veterans. Granath describes the VNC’s structure as like an accordion, gesturing as if he’s holding one in his hands. “We have the Honor Flights for the older vets on the one end and the Field of Honor for the younger generation on the other end, and they function like bookends and bring in all the rest of the programs together.”

The Honor Flight, however, is definitely the VNC’s most time-consuming program, requiring at least six months’ preparation, from the fundraising that begins in March to the actual trip in August. The VNC’s Honor Flight is a 3-day trip, rather than the standard 1-day event of most other hubs. While this limits the VNC to only one Honor Flight a year, Granath points out there’s more time for the veterans to get to know each other on their trip and bond over shared experiences. Granath doesn’t come out and say it, but there’s a clear therapeutic element to the VNC’s version of an Honor Flight. Not just a way for old veterans to see their war memorials or for civilian Americans to say thank you to veterans, the VNC’s Honor Flight allows for whatever emotional needs the veterans may be seeking to be met—whether that’s bonding or respect, validation or closure. And it’s an element that becomes even more apparent during the homecoming portion of the VNC’s Honor Flight.

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What Dad wanted from his Honor Flight was a chance to see some of the memorials in D.C. He had donated to the fund for the Korean War Veterans Memorial back before it was built but had yet to see it since it opened in 1995. He was in his 60s when the memorial was being built—he’s in his 80s now and suffered a heart attack in the time between. Until he got accepted for the VNC’s 2015 Honor Flight, he was still being waitlisted at the original hub he applied with back in 2013, and he only heard about the VNC Northern Illinois hub through a chance conversation with the VNC Honor Flight co-chair at the local American Legion.

One of his first actions after getting accepted was picking a guardian. He chose his eldest son, Dan. There are six children in our family, and of course any one of us would’ve loved to have gone with him. But Dan happened to be there when Dad got word of his acceptance, so he got the job of guardian. Dan has no military experience, nor have the rest of us in the family. Dan grew up during the Vietnam War, but the draft ended shortly before he turned 16 and mandatory Selective Service registration ended nine days after he turned 18 in March 1975. (The war ended another month later, on April 30th.)

No one in our family since has come as close to military service, mandatory or voluntary. But for a few generations we had a run of warriors in our lineage, a family tradition of “skin in the game” that we know goes as far back as the Civil War, when a great-grandfather of my mother’s served on the Union side. A 40-something emigrant from Ireland, he likely signed up for the cash bounty that enlistees were offered during that war. In World War I my maternal grandmother’s cousin was killed in France only 11 days before the Armistice. My paternal grandfather, who’d emigrated to the U.S. from Norway as a child, also fought in World War I. He was drafted, yet as a foreign-born citizen he was also required to sign a loyalty pledge to the U.S. In World War II one of my uncles was drafted into the Navy and another uncle enlisted in the Army at age 17 at the end of the war. The latter uncle, Daryl, was still in the service and stationed in Germany when the U.S. entered the Korean War. He was sent immediately to the front lines in Korea where he served as a rifleman and endured that first brutal winter of the war, a winter so cold that dead soldiers were routinely stripped of their cold-weather gear by opposing forces.

This uncle never spoke of his war experiences—until 9/11 and the run-up to the war in Iraq, when all the talk of war and terror in the news must have finally brought up some long-buried memories and emotions. As the U.S. was gearing up for war, he had a rare conversation about Korea with my father one night, where he admitted, in the understated way of Midwesterners and men of the Greatest Generation, that he’d been terrified when he got to Korea (“At first I was afraid I’d turn chicken…but I guess I made it through alright.”). The conversation turned to Iraq and my usually conservative uncle surprised my liberal father by strongly objecting (as my father did) to President Bush’s call to war. It wasn’t right to be sending our young people there. It wasn’t going to do anything but put them in harm’s way.

After the conversation, my aunt and mother—both of whom had been listening quietly—were a bit mystified as to what made my uncle start speaking so much about Korea so suddenly. In 50 years of marriage this was the most my aunt (who’d met my uncle at a USO right after his return from Korea) had ever heard him talk about the war. Later that night he had a nightmare of some sort that awakened and physically distressed him to the point of breaking out in a heavy sweat and requiring a trip to the hospital and made him momentarily confused about what year it was and even who and where he was. This was also a first.

Despite the Honor Flight Network’s original mission of getting all WWII vets to their D.C. memorial, neither of my uncles, though still alive, is able to go on an Honor Flight. Lloyd, my Navy uncle, is literally bent over in half by Parkinson’s, and Daryl currently undergoes kidney dialysis three times a week. I don’t know if they’d want to go even if they could. Perhaps they would, perhaps not. As I’ve learned from my dad as he’s mentioned other veteran friends of his, some veterans simply aren’t interested. Maybe they don’t want to revisit the past, or maybe they don’t like to travel. Or maybe they don’t want to deal with another lengthy application. To go on an Honor Flight, both veterans and their chosen guardians are required to fill out extensive paperwork, covering everything from medical history and needs to travel identification clearance. The VNC’s application arranges for the veterans to get TSA clearance ahead of the trip to save time and help things run more smoothly at the airport, which Granath says often results in some comical misunderstandings. Instead of supplying an official photo ID for TSA purposes (as explicitly requested in the application), the vets will turn in sentimental shots of themselves from their last vacation or their grandkid’s wedding.

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As the date of the Honor Flight nears, there are orientations for the vets and their guardians, and family members are asked to write letters and cards for their veteran, which is unbeknownst to the veterans themselves. As the family, all we’re told is that at some point on the trip the veterans will be presented with our letters and cards, something like in their service days when the mail arrived with cherished letters from home. For some reason the idea of a veteran with no family not getting any mail worries my mother. (I chalk this up to her own childhood wartime memories. She had a sister who spent World War II writing to soldiers overseas and collecting their photos, something like the Marty Maraschino character in “Grease.”)

When the first day of the Honor Flight finally comes, Dad and Dan head out early to a local school where all the veterans, guardians, and VNC volunteers are gathered to make their way to Milwaukee Airport by coach bus. Milwaukee Airport is about an hour away, but it’s something of a calmer leaving point than the Chicago O’Hare and Midway airports. Considering there are 46 veterans, 46 guardians, plus volunteers and VNC members, as well as a wheelchair for each veteran (for health and insurance reasons, regardless of whether the veteran has mobility difficulties), the smoother the check-in and boarding process can be, the better. The group will be flying into Baltimore and checking into a hotel with a group dinner in the evening. It’s at these airport procedures, both in Milwaukee and Baltimore, where the veterans start to experience their first surprises, their first public gifts of appreciation and honor. At the airports are active military members and glee clubs who applaud and cheer on the veterans as they wait for their flights. (“It was kind of embarrassing,” Dad says later of all the unexpected attention. But my brother laughs and says, “Yeah, Dad was holding his hands out on both sides giving everyone high-fives, the whole time I was pushing him.”)

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My brother Dan and my father, beginning of Honor Flight, August 2015. Photo courtesy of the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois

Their next day is a full one visiting up to 11 memorials in D.C. Along with the memorials dedicated to the veterans of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam are memorials to the Navy and Air Force, the battle at Iwo Jima, and women in the military. They also visit the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery to see the changing of the guard. Each memorial has been included on this trip because each has its own meaning to every veteran. There are three women veterans in this group—a member of the WWII Women’s Army Corps, a woman who worked on aircraft bombers during WWII à la Rosie the Riveter, and a Marine who served in Vietnam. At the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, there’s a chance for the women to register their experiences and draw up their service records on a computer. When one of the women, Rose of the Women’s Army Corps, draws up her record, complete with a photo of her younger self in uniform, a volunteer puts it on a giant screen for everyone in the room to see. In pictures from that day, Rose beams alongside her record of service, looks thoughtfully at the image of her 1940s self, and sits patiently under the giant screen as the other vets and guardians and volunteers take her photo. At the Korean War Veterans Memorial my dad gathers for a group photo with the other Korean War vets around the stainless steel soldiers in the center of the memorial. In the pictures, the pale green statues appear nearly bleached white by the midday sunlight, and it looks nothing like the kind of weather my father and the other vets of Korea remember.

It’s such a full day for the veterans and their guardians, back home we don’t get many updates other than the occasional text or photo from my brother. After their memorial visits, they have another group dinner ahead of them on their second night. Meanwhile, we’re preparing for the homecoming for the next day, making signs and planting little American flags around the house and yard. On the third day of the trip, the group is scheduled to get back to the Chicago area around noon, and the families are to head over late morning to the local school where everyone gathered the first day of the trip.

It’s on this last morning, on the flight back to Milwaukee, when the veterans get mail call. The VNC volunteers walk up and down the aisles of the plane delivering packages to the vets—for each, an envelope filled with letters and cards. My dad’s envelope is stuffed with letters from my mother and all his children and grandchildren, as well as cards from schoolchildren who’d been asked to write the veterans so that every vet has something, everyone gets mail. For my father there are drawings of rainbows and blue houses and even a detailed depiction of one child’s classroom, with messages like “I hope you are having a little fun!” addressed to “Dear Vetaren.” On the plane my brother sits next to my dad as he quietly reads his mail. Afterward Dan will tell us Dad became visibly emotional while going through all his letters, more than at any other time on the trip.

Back home the rest of our family arrives at the school for the homecoming ceremony. The school entrance is lined with flags—national, state, military, P.O.W./M.I.A. There are elderly color guard soldiers gathered near the curb and teenage naval cadets huddled beside the side door, and a few pre-teen scouts weaving through it all. Inside the school the auditorium is set up with a few hundred folding chairs, more flags and bunting, donated food and drinks, and a long table at the back with information about the VNC and the Honor Flight Network. At the front of the auditorium, a big band plays Glenn Miller and other swing-era oldies, with a few recent-ish selections from the Blues Brothers (no, we are not in Chicago city limits, but we’re close enough).

The mood is festive and Fourth of July-ish. My family and I sit on some lower bleachers as updates from Dan come in about their journey from Milwaukee Airport. I recognize a couple faces from the local American Legion and note a number of exceptionally calm, golden-coated dogs wearing camouflage vests and American flag bandannas around their necks. These are comfort dogs, raised and trained by veterans to serve and help other veterans at home or at VFWs, VA hospitals, or trauma care centers and such. Each dog has a veteran owner, and when one of them catches me trying to take a quick photo of his dog, he hands me a little trading card of sorts. I look at the card and see a puppy version of the dog in the arms of the same man talking to me. Underneath is a pet’s name (Blitz) and a human name (Bob). “He’s named after a military dog from Vietnam, one of the K9s. All the dogs are,” says Bob, who also served in Vietnam. One of the other men hands me his card, and before I know it I have four comfort dog trading cards.

We get word from my brother sooner than we expect that the VNC buses are only a few minutes away. He mentions they have an escort, but none of us realize what that means until they arrive. Everyone has gathered outside and lined up along the curb when a rumbling is heard and begins to grow louder. There are sirens too—police escort vehicles—but it’s the rumbling that takes over the neighborhood. Suddenly an army of motorcycles swings around the corner, growling past us for a good few minutes. Some of the bikers have a person on their backseat or riding shotgun, and I’m momentarily confused and worried in thinking these are the elderly Honor Flight veterans. But finally two coach buses come around the corner, to much cheering and applause, before parking in front of the school entrance.

The veterans are let off one by one. Each one gets a walk or wheelchair-escort of honor with his or her guardian up the pathway into the school, passing all the families and cadets and color guard soldiers and the line-up of flags and homemade welcome-home signs. This is the point when it becomes hard not to be affected by this event. For most of us there, this is the first time we get to see all the other veterans besides our own. Some of them are very frail, some cannot sit up straight anymore, a few salute with a visible hand tremor, most smile and wave, and a couple look unexpectedly overcome by the welcome home, their caps pulled low to cover the emotion in their eyes. My dad does not spot us in the crowd as he makes his entrance. He salutes the color guard and the cadets, and my brother smiles big behind him. Dad is wearing a Korean War vet cap and has sunglasses on, so it’s a little hard to see his face and reaction, but we, his family, can see he is fighting back tears. We’ve known his face all our lives, so we just know.

Video of VNC Honor Flight 2015 homecoming by The Arlington Cardinal

Back inside the auditorium, the vets sit up on the stage facing all the audience. It takes a while for everyone to calm down—so many families keep running up to their fathers and mothers and grandparents there on the stage, as if they haven’t seen them in years and can’t stand to be separated from them much longer. I have a memory of a picture I saw in a school textbook when I was a teenager, of a young woman running across a tarmac to greet her father upon his return from Vietnam. It seems a silly comparison to make now, since these war veterans have been gone only three days—but the picture flashes in my brain anyway, for the first time with an emotion I can feel along with it.

The crowd eventually situates itself and settles down, and soon there are songs and speeches by Randy Granath and the other VNC organizers and the mayor. The guardians have joined the rest of us among the folding chairs and bleachers, and as each veteran is introduced on stage, my brother supplies information here and there, pointing out which guys our dad bonded with the most and telling us about the father-and-son veterans on the trip. The oldest of the group is a WWII vet named Walter, his son Ben is a Vietnam veteran. One lives in northern Illinois, the other in Colorado. But the VNC arranged it so they could do the Honor Flight together, each with his own guardian.

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At the homecoming, my father (right) and his eldest grandchild, Shane.

In between the speeches and commentary, the veterans are presented with gifts. This year, for the first time for the VNC, a group of women quilters in Huntley, Illinois, have made a quilt for each veteran. The Quilts of Valor project began in Delaware in 2003 by a former Peace Corps worker and nurse-midwife whose son was deployed to Iraq. The project spread to Huntley in 2011, when the Gazebo Quilters Guild began making quilts for local amputees who’d served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each quilt is unique with an entirely hand-stitched front, taking over 100 hours of individual labor, and the names of the women who worked on the quilt sewed into its bottom corner with a message of gratitude. They’ve even made one for Randy, the founding organizer, a father of a veteran, and a veteran himself. And Randy returns their favor by taking his quilt and wrapping it around his body, modeling the women’s arduous and beautiful work for everyone in the auditorium.

Next the veterans get another gift from the motorcycle crew, and we finally learn who these bikers who brought the veterans all the way non-stop from Milwaukee to Chicago are. The Warriors Watch Riders are a group of motorcycle enthusiasts, many of them also war veterans, with local crews who provide escorts for military events such as homecomings, funerals, and Honor Flights. They look like you’d expect a group of bikers to look—leather-clad, tough and tattooed—so it’s all the more touching to see them approach each of these old veterans with respect and a sense of protectiveness. They present each veteran with a coin with military and motorcycle symbols on it and a striking message: “Never again will an American warrior be scorned or ignored.”

After the homecoming, rather than rumbling off right away, the bikers stick around to shake the hands of the veterans, giving each one personal thanks for their service. All the families mill around the auditorium and the school entrances, taking pictures or thanking the VNC volunteers and meeting the new buddies their veteran made on the trip. In the meantime, the big band has hit it up again and a few folks show off their swing moves at the front of the auditorium. With Dad, my family returns to my parents’ home, with its front yard decorated with flags and welcome-home signs, and we spend the rest of the afternoon hearing about the trip and eating homemade chocolate cupcakes topped with American flag picks.

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VNC 2015 Honor Flight vets onstage with quilts and roses. (My father is 2nd from right.) Photo by The Arlington Cardinal.

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VNC 2015 Honor Flight vets onstage with audience. Phot0 by The Arlington Cardinal.

In the days and weeks to come, there are a lot of memories of the trip to sort through for my dad. So many pictures and videos, cards and letters, and questions and congratulations from those of us who stayed home. I live with my parents and help my dad edit his pictures and order print-outs from the local drugstore. Eventually I meet with Randy Granath to hear more about the VNC and the Honor Flights. The homecoming celebration is what sticks in my mind the most—perhaps because that was the only part of the experience I and the rest of my family were a part of, but also because of all the work that went into it. I was struck most by what incongruous groups the homecoming brought together: therapy dogs, a ladies’ quilting club, a biker gang. Yet undeniably they all share an underlying purpose of not only respect for war veterans but also comfort and protection. Before the homecoming I’d been expecting more jingoism at the event, and though there were American flags all over the place (as well as all over our front yard) and there was a singing of the national anthem of course, there was more attention to the kind of healing this entire event could bring to veterans than I’d anticipated. And cutting through all the celebration and bunting and big band tunes was a clear demonstration of what the community can do to contribute to our veterans’ healing, of how the gap between the civilian community and the military and veteran communities might begin to close itself up.

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Honor Flights began as a response to the unsettling fact that every day our country loses hundreds of World War II veterans, members of the Greatest Generation who helped fight the Allies to victory and usher in an era of prosperity in the United States. But that’s just one of many unsettling facts about our veterans that need addressing.

Episodes like the one my uncle had 50 years after his war service may have been rare for him, but they aren’t rare for war veterans in general. Not now, not ever. Not even for the supposedly stoic Greatest Generation who we’re told simply “got on with it” after the war ended. In his book The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, war reporter and former Marine David Morris notes a 1951 study of 200 World War II vets that found 10 percent of them still suffered “combat neurosis.” Subsequent studies in the 1980s recorded continuing high PTSD rates among WWII veterans, especially among Pacific theater P.O.W.s, 85 percent of whom suffered from PTSD forty years after their service. But few Americans heard or took much notice of these findings. While many soldiers of WWII received a hero’s welcome on their return home, neither the government nor the public were interested in giving much attention to the veterans’ post-war psychological condition.

In Korea, American soldiers endured brutal weather conditions that left many of them with long-lasting health problems caused by extreme cold exposure. After the war they came home to much less fanfare than the World War II veterans had gotten, to national indifference by most accounts. (Dad came home to a port with some bunting and some family picture-taking by Lake Michigan.) The U.S. lost at least 36,000 soldiers in three years of warfare, but down the road the Korean War would become known as “the Forgotten War” by historians, and its warriors’ sacrifices and stories would get shuffled aside by the controversy over another brewing conflict in Asia.

The Vietnam War brought the first wide-scale awareness of PTSD and its prevalence among war veterans to the American public. But many veterans of that war still found themselves coming home from a military battlefield to an emotional one, as public opinions and disagreements about the war itself often took precedence over how to welcome home and honor its soldiers and foster their readjustment to their communities. There are arguments to this day over whether Vietnam veterans were treated with as much disrespect on their return home as national memory claims. (Were returning Vietnam veterans really spit on and called horrible names, or is that just a myth? What emotions and experiences prompted the Warriors Watch Riders, many of whom are of the Vietnam generation, to come up with the motto “Never again will an American warrior be scorned or ignored”?) But these arguments miss an important point, which is whether our nation was ever much effective in figuring out how to reintegrate veterans into American life after their war service, in acknowledging veterans’ ordeals and experiences and providing them with the resources and respect they need (and explicitly ask for) during their readjustment to civilian life.

Statistics from recent years show we’re still failing our veterans. According to the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, at least 22 veterans and at least 1 active duty soldier die by suicide per day. The VA also estimates the rate of PTSD among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ranges from 10% to 20%. Meanwhile, every few years scandals involving VA and military medical centers recycle themselves, exposing the life-threatening delays, neglect, shoddy conditions, and malfeasance at some of our official veterans facilities. Our warriors continue to return from battlefields abroad hurt yet determined to heal, but the society that keeps sending these men and women to war continues to fail at addressing their hurt and helping them to heal.

It’s the veterans themselves who have consistently responded to these failures by organizing, by creating public rituals and building monuments that will force communities to remember and pay proper respects. And many local communities are trying to meet their veterans more than half-way in whatever ways they can. Honor Flights are one such attempt to make up for our long-standing national disregard and ignorance. The Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois is another such attempt, a local grass-roots group of vets and citizens with “skin in the game” that painstakingly plants a flag for every Illinois soldier sacrificed in Iraq and Afghanistan every year, that provides care and assistance in the form of holiday turkey dinners and overseas care packages and support groups to struggling veterans and distant active-duty soldiers, that crafts a three-day adventure to our nation’s capital for our aging warriors, complete with time for bonding and reflection, a bikers’ escort, a big-band serenade, and handmade quilts with over 100 hours of respect and gratitude sewn into them. Not that an Honor Flight for every American veteran is the answer to our country’s bureaucratic problems—in some ways an Honor Flight is just a gesture really. But it’s a gesture that involves a great deal of planning, and of listening and paying attention to veterans, as well as tremendous local and volunteer efforts. The big official veterans organizations might learn from these local efforts, from the grass-roots groups like the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois. So might a few of our politicians—from all points of the political spectrum. Because if local communities and volunteer-run non-profits can organize so well and give so much, what’s keeping the government from doing better?

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Only a few weeks after my dad’s Honor Flight, we got word that one of the other vets on the trip had passed away. Rose of the Women’s Army Corps, the one who’d had her military record put on a big screen at the Women’s Memorial. Randy Granath would tell me when I spoke to him a couple weeks later that this is fairly common with Honor Flights. They almost always lose one or two veterans right after the trip. Sometimes it’s expected, sometimes not. Maybe some of them would’ve died even sooner if they hadn’t had the last few months of preparing for their trip to keep them going a little longer. My dad’s friend Harold, the first friend of his to go on an Honor Flight, died only a day after his return. At the very least, he and Rose and all the other vets who pass on go out with one more item crossed off their bucket list, and their families can say they know their veteran got the local respect and honor they deserved.

Dad, meanwhile, took time writing thank you notes to everyone he could—thanking all the people who thanked him for his service. He sent one to my mother, to my brothers and sisters, to his grandchildren, to me, to Randy and the VNC, even to the quilting ladies. He wanted the quilting club to know how much he appreciated their beautiful handiwork, and how he wished he could have had a quilt just like it in his army days, to protect him against the cold in the warzones of Korea.

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My father with his mother at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, 1951, shortly before his deployment to Korea.

Selected Writings

A selection of my published pieces…

Poetry:

The Subject and the Stranger (Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing)

Bioluminescent Bay, Aisling, and Coconut  (The Writing Disorder)

Transference (Middle West) (Eunoia Review)

Golden Day (Literary Orphans)

The Fading of the Heart and Australia (Wilderness House Literary Review)

Fiction:

The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care (Drunk Monkeys)

Nonfiction:

Lady Folk forthcoming (Tiny Donkey: Brief Essays from Fairyland)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet (Literary Orphans)

New Mexico: Freedom on the Ground (We Said Go Travel)

Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Women of Ireland (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Louise Erdrich “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project)

Frank O’Hara “Daily Spot” entry (Booma: The Bookmapping Project)

Walking to the Well (AranIsland.info)

Other:

Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot “The Artists

A complete list of my credits can be found here. You can also follow me on Facebook.