The Actuals: Book Seven of the Oz Chronicles is back on!

Fire and Forget Soldier is spinning its way through the publishing machine, and it is out of my hands, so The Actuals: Book Seven of the Oz Chronicles is now back in the creative cross hairs.  I’ve reacquainted myself with Sunshine Carter, and I am back in Oz’s world, not to emerge until I reach the end.

Fire and Forget Soldier update

The aftermath of an ambush

The aftermath of an ambush – Lee “Sonny” Deckelman on the left, Baggs (the driver) on the right

Fire and Forget Soldier, the nonfiction book I’ve been working on with my friend Lee Deckelman, has been sent up the chain to the legal-types for inspection.  In other words, we are in a holding pattern for awhile.  While we wait, I thought I’d share another excerpt with you.  This one is a little different because it has video and photographic support material to go along with it.  For those of you who don’t know, Lee worked personal security detail (PSD) in the Global War on Terrorism.  His first job in-country was with Team Miami, a solid group of guys, all former Special Forces. They are Lee’s brothers in combat which probably make them closer than most biological brothers.  The following comes from the chapter about Team Miami titled Best Guys, Best Pay, and Best Equipment. Following the excerpt, you’ll find a video of the actual ambush.

On August 10th, an interpreter embedded with the team became panicked when he learned that insurgents were lining the streets to take out Team Miami’s motorcade.  It was not unusual news by any means, and in most cases such threats didn’t materialize, or if they did, the threat was greatly exaggerated.  However, this time the interpreter was more alarmed than usual.  The team heeded his warning and proceeded with caution, but they didn’t expect anything of consequence to happen.

The normal route back to base was cut off by a traffic jam similar to one you’d find on the highways leading in and out of Los Angeles or Atlanta. The motorcade adjusted on the fly and took an alternate route. A mile into the new course, they discovered that a road was blocked off by a line of large boulders.  Pig Pen ordered the motorcade to reverse out and head back to the original route. As soon as the call went out, two RPG gunmen popped out from each side of the road, and men with AK-47s appeared in all directions.  The team members in the lead vehicle quickly cracked their doors open and laid down fire to give the limo (the vehicle with the Godfather) enough time to turn around.  An RPG was fired at the limo, but missed, landing on the ground next to the follow vehicle Lee was in, blasting out his window.  A chaotic torrent of fire from the insurgents also hit the vehicle.  A combination of quick thinking by the drivers, armor on the vehicles, and the ability to run on flat tires got everyone out of the ambush alive.  When they got back to the base, a thorough examination of the vehicles revealed a round from an AK-47 in Lee’s headrest.

Protection work means you go against your military training to stay and fight. Their primary objective was to make sure the Godfather was safe.  The next time they had a patrol scheduled without their Principle to protect, they went back to the spot of the firefight to see if the insurgents had held the position.  They would find out that the military had come in and cleared the area.

Noble Hill – an excerpt from Fire and Forget Soldier

Lee "Sonny" Deckelman

Lee “Sonny” Deckelman

Today is the birthday of one Lee “Sonny” Deckelman, our one and only Fire and Forget Soldier – Actually, he’s one of many.  That’s the point of the book.  These guys are all forgotten.  Anyway, in honor of Lee’s birthday, I give you Noble Hill, an excerpt from the book.  It’s actually the story that first drew me to the project.  It’s perfectly illustrative of the kind of guy Lee is. Happy birthday, Lee!

Noble Hill

This was why he’d joined the army. To become a Ranger. He stood on top of Noble Hill, spent but on his feet. He had been picked out of his company to run the steep hill made of hard dirt and loose baseball sized rocks six times, while the rest of the company only ran it once. He wasn’t being punished. He was being tested, and he knew it. He loved it. This is where he would get to prove himself worthy of a transfer to the 2nd Ranger Battalion.

He had already gone through a morning of physical training: push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, squat thrusts, etc.  Then he had been chosen to call out the cadence on the following four mile run. Now, sapped and invigorated all at once, he sprinted down Noble Hill after the final climb and joined his First Sergeant at the Ranger’s barracks and assumed parade rest, hands held in the small of his back. First Sergeant Luckett had come from 2nd Ranger Battalion.  Having just destroyed his ankle on an airborne operation, he was reassigned to Lee’s 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry unit.  The first sergeant still had friends in the battalion, and he was anxious to teach the pesky kid a hard lesson about what it meant to become a Ranger.  Luckett announced to three Rangers dressed in standard Ranger PT uniforms that the kid standing before them wanted to be an Army Ranger. He wanted it so badly he had put in five 4187 transfer requests, all denied. . In short, he was making a pest of himself all in an effort to join their ranks.

The three Rangers conferred and concluded the only way to decide if the kid was Ranger material was to give him the Ranger PT test. Without hesitation, he dropped down in push-up position and waited for the command. Begin! He finished with seventy-eight. Twenty off his usual mark. Next came the sit-ups. Sixty-seven. Again, not his best, but he was nearly worn away by the morning activity. Then the two- mile run on legs that burned and cramped from the day’s hyper-exertion. In less than fifteen minutes he was back at the barracks doing pull-ups and then off to do the Ranger swim test in full gear.

When all was said and done, he sat on his bunk exhausted, aching, and quietly exuberant. He had done it. He had shown them he was born to be an Army Ranger. He was confident his next transfer would be accepted, and he’d soon be moving a couple of blocks to the Ranger barracks.  Unfortunately, when the sixth 4187 transfer request came back, it was identical to the first five, a denial of transfer.

He would come to find out that his Army recruiter was the main reason he was denied a transfer. The man had lied to the young recruit. He told him that you could not make a direct request to be assigned to serve in a Ranger battalion. The best way to become a Ranger, he explained, was to sign up for a unit that shared a base with the highly trained infantry unit. Fort Lewis was one such base. Once the recruit was there, he could request the transfer. It was a simple formality. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The recruiter placed the young man in a Cohesion Operational Readiness and Training (COHORT) infantry unit. It was an experiment that the Army was running to see if a unit that trained together and worked together throughout the entirety of their service performed better.  Transferring out was nearly impossible because it defeated the purpose of the experiment.

Anyone else would have packed it in. Given up and accepted that there was nothing else to be done. He had been given a shot, and he didn’t make it. Not only that, the game was rigged. He would never be granted a transfer because the rules wouldn’t allow it. But, Lee Alan Deckelman wasn’t like anyone else. He had been through hell and back for most of his life. He had survived tough times and overcome real tragedies. This was how he expected it to be. Deep down, this is how he thought it should be. If you really want to be a true Army Ranger, you have to earn it.

And, Lee would do just that.

Rocks in your pocket – A lesson in resilience

Coach Mullins is the adult between numbers 35 and 25, and Lee is number 45.

Coach Mullins is the adult between numbers 35 and 25, and Lee is number 45.

This is an excerpt from a chapter in Fire and Forget Soldier.  The theme of Lee’s life is resilience.  He was put into a foster care system before he was two-years-old because his mother suffered from debilitating depression, and his father didn’t have the money to pay for childcare.  He was reunited with his family at age six, and then at the age of nine, Lee lost his father to a heart attack. And, his father passed literally just hours after moving the family from Baltimore to Tullahoma, TN. Lee’s mother wasn’t emotionally equipped to handle the loss, and the kids (Lee and his two sisters) were left to raise themselves. Over the next year, Lee attended four different schools. He was small for his age and had freckles and red hair.  In essence, he was the perfect target for bullies.  He learned to be a brawler in order to survive.  His future was looking bleak, but then he met Coach Frank Mullins.

Lee was becoming a throwaway kid. He had no parental guidance, no interest in playing by the rules, no one to even tell him what the rules were. He was slipping through the cracks, and if not for his love of football, he may have ended up on a much different path altogether.

When Lee was ten, he walked from his house to D.W. Wilson community center where they were holding registration for tryouts for Pop Warner football. He was the only kid without a parent, and he was the smallest gridiron hopeful by far, so small no team wanted to take a chance on adding him to their roster. Lee was despondent. He wanted to be like his dad, a football star, but it didn’t seem like he’d get the chance to prove himself.

Just as the too-small kid from Baltimore was about to give up, he was approached by a man who asked, “What team are you with, big ‘un?”  Lee explained that no one picked him because he was too small. The man leaned down and said, “Tell you what. You head across the street there, fill your pockets with rocks, and come back here and weigh in. Then you’ll be big enough to be a Rebel.”  The man, Coach Frank Mullins, would go onto become a legend in Tullahoma. The Pop Warner league would eventually become the Frank Mullins league. He would spend decades in youth football teaching young boys the game of football and giving them the gift of brotherhood outside of family. He would show them that win or lose the true value of a team was a belief in one another and the goal wasn’t to win a game, but to give your best for your teammates.

The gesture wouldn’t have an immediate effect on Lee, but what Coach Mullins did for the little guy no one wanted to take a chance on that day was show him the value of hope while at the same time planting a seed in the young boy’s mind that there is always a way to achieve your goals. It may not be the same way everyone else does it, but if you think outside the box, you can make your destination, no matter the obstacles in front of you. Putting those rocks in his pockets to be big enough to be a Rebel was no different than when, years later after receiving his fifth rejection for a transfer to a Ranger battalion, he would get a fresh haircut, put on a well-starched uniform and polished boots, and walk into the 2nd Ranger Battalion barracks and tell the company commander that he wanted to apply for a job as if he were applying for a job in the civilian world. Ultimately, the tactic didn’t work, but it left an impression with everyone on the base, and it wouldn’t be his last attempt to become a Ranger. The lesson that Coach Mullins had taught him was that there is always a way.

I asked other folks from Tullahoma to share Coach Mullins stories, and I’ve gotten a couple of great responses. Interestingly, Lee Brown (A classmate and good friend to both Lee Deckelman and me) has a similar Coach Mullins story, the difference being that Coach M suggested Lee B wear a large, heavy chain under his shirt when he weighed in.  I moved to Tullahoma in high school, so I never had the opportunity to play for Coach Mullins, but he was a presence at all our high school games, and my friends always greeted him coming on and off the field, treating him with great reverence.

The point I take away from this story is that the smallest thing you do for someone can make the biggest difference.  May we all have someone who will take the time to tell us to put rocks in our pocket.

The Closeout Kings may not be as fictional as I thought

When fiction looks like fact

When fiction looks like fact

This is a tough blog post to write without giving away spoilers in The Closeout Kings, so if you haven’t read the book, you may want to stop reading now.  I’m going to vamp a little here with an unnecessary sentence or two to give you time to turn back and save your virginal eyes from the spoilers that are to follow.  Still here? Okay, I’ll assume you’ve either read the book, or spoilers don’t ruin your enjoyment of a story.  Whatever the case, the spoilers start now.

I faced a lot of self-doubt as I was writing The Closeout Kings.  My main issue was the human trafficking aspect of the story.  I know globally that it is a horrific reality, but naively I thought the problem isn’t that pervasive in the United States. Still I carried on, and I wrote a story about a human trafficking ring in rural America that involved the police and politicians, both local and federal.  It was, I thought, pure twisted fantasy.  As it turns out, it is closer to reality than I thought.

My friend Jean recently brought the Franklin child prostitution ring to my attention. Now, it’s a long and complicated tale of alleged sexual abuse of children in the foster care system in Nebraska, and the federal courts actually found the allegations to be false, and they tossed some of the people making the allegations into jail.  There are a significant number of people who think there is a cover up going on since the allegations involved prominent politicians with ties that go all the way to the top of the federal government,  At this point, I know very little about the case, but it is hard to not see the similarities between my fictional tale and this true story.  It’s almost eerily similar.

Part of my job as a writer is to come up with conspiracies.  They make for great tools of conflict that drive both plot and character development.  Conspiracies are easy to invent, but I’m of the belief they are almost impossible to pull off. The story of The Closeout Kings came to me “out of the blue.” I had no prior knowledge of the Franklin case, but you can bet I’m going to be obsessively looking into it over the next weeks and months.  In fact, I found this documentary on YouTube that I plan to watch.

Lazy criticism

Lazy writing or lazy criticism?

Lazy writing or lazy criticism?

I’m not going to win many friends with this post because I am about to stick up for the use of profanity in writing.  My alter ego, C. Hoyt Caldwell, is sometimes penalized by readers and reviewers because of the use of vulgar language and situations.  I don’t fault them for their opinions.  They like what they like.  My beef isn’t with them.  It’s with writers telling other writers that the use of vulgarity is lazy writing. That’s bullshit.

This subject came up in a discussion on Facebook with a group of playwrights.  A question about the use of profanity was posted by a member, and a myriad of responses came in.  Most of them were of the “Do what you think is right as the artist” variety.  But a few playwrights condemned the use of foul language as a sign that a writer lacks the creative talent to convey an emotion without using profanity as a “crutch.” To which I say, fuck off.

Writers that condemn profanity as lazy writing are being either intentionally dishonest or unwittingly didactic. In other words, they aren’t judging the creative merit of such words, they are judging the moral value of such words.  They are uncomfortable with foul language and vulgarity, so they’ve convinced themselves that it takes true talent to write without the use of the profane.  They are wrong.  As writers, we record moments that exist on an ethereal plane. This realm is imaginary, but it is a self-directed imagination. Characters make choices free of the writer’s moral compass.  It’s hard to comprehend if you’ve never gotten lost in the creative process, but writing fiction, in its most profound form, is undeniably otherworldly.  And, that other world is outside of the writer’s influence.

Understand, I’m not condemning writers who don’t use profanity.  These realms we visit tend to be ones where we will feel welcome.  Some writers just won’t find themselves recording obscenities of any type because their imagination doesn’t go there.  If the story doesn’t call for vulgarity on any level, don’t wedge it in artificially.  But, as a writer if the story calls for it and you avoid it because you’re afraid of how it will be perceived or it is outside of your comfort zone, that is running from the creative process. It’s a cowardly move, and the story should die the milquetoast death it deserves.

Writers, stop asking for permission to use profanity.  Be true to the story as it is revealed to you.  This doesn’t mean I think rewrites are unnecessary.  On the contrary, I think they are essential to tapping into the deepest parts of these otherworldly realms.  The more you visit this ethereal plane, the more you understand it, and the better you make the story through rewrites.

Writers who abhor profanity, stop denying vulgarity has a place in literature or the theater or in film.  Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not valid. It’s not your place to tell other writers they are being lazy because they use profanity.  To be perfectly honest, that’s just lazy criticism.