Seeing It a New Way

In my teen writing class at the Mount Horeb Public Library last week, we segued into discussing Catcher in the Rye, and one of my students made the following observation (which I'm paraphrasing): Some of my friends have said that, since the characters in the book were rich, Holden's problems weren't that significant. But in so many other books I've read, Read more

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You're Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank). When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind Read more

For Halloween, Try EXORCISMUS

Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn't find anything. Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus. No, I can't explain the title, either. Yes, it's an exorcism movie, Read more

The Great Rock and Roll Secret

Suppose the great rock single had flickered over the airways just once, on the night you had passed out in the back seat?  Probably not, but still...rock and roll has always had this sense of possibility.  --Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, page 93 I originally read the above quote in the 1980s, when the first edition of Read more

Review: The Making of Day of the Dead

When I heard there would be a book entirely about the making of George A. Romero's third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, I was surprised. The movie had not been a financial or critical success at the time, and while its reputation has risen since its 1985 release, it's still nowhere near as well-known as its predecessors, Night Read more

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

Posted on by Alex in alcohol, biography, children, family, fatherhood, home, memoir, Parenting, tennessee, Uncategorized, west Tennessee | 4 Comments

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You’re Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank).

When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind me. We never hunted anything epic, like deer or bear; we went after squirrels, rabbits, and the occasional quail.  And, in the hot summer months, we went frog gigging.

This sport (and I used the term loosely) is how you acquire frog legs. You carry a long, six-to-eight-foot pole with a barbed trident on the end. You also use a flashlight, or ideally a miner’s light worn on your head, and creep around the edges of ponds, lakes or swamps in the dark.  The goal is to spot eye shine from bullfrogs.  When you do, you hold the light on it, to make it stay still. Then you stab it with the gig.

Frog Gig on Stick

The business end of a typical frog gig.

I was one of those weird kids who liked to catch frogs rather than kill them, and had no real taste for their meat.  It was fun, in a macabre way, to watch the disembodied legs jump around in the pan as they fried, but not so much fun that I wanted to go get those legs myself.

The other issue was that my father had to be the worst person in the world to try to teach you anything.  He had no patience, no concept of cause and effect, and no idea why once he’d explained something, it might need to be explained again.  And he was a drunk.  Not an overt one, but one of those sneaky drunks who hid his drinking from everyone.

So on those few instances when he’d insist that I go frog gigging with him, I was a nervous wreck.  His disappointment in me was never violent, but it was always withering, and heavy with the sadness that I, his only son, was such a failure.

My dad (far left) and me (second from right) at about the time of this story.

My dad (far right) and me (second from left) at about the time of this story.

I was twelve years old the night we went to a pond that seemed to be miles from where we left his old station wagon. We crawled through weeds, under fences, and across fields before finally reaching the tiny round pool, which was no more than forty feet across and perhaps six or seven feet deep. The deep thrump-thrump of bullfrogs told us we’d come to the right place.

We fired up our head-mounted lamps and split up, each of us taking a different direction around the pond. We had to walk right at the edge of the water, and shine the light ten or fifteen feet ahead, watching for the distinctive eye shine.  I heard the snick-THUNK! of my dad’s gig right away, while all I managed to do was startle every frog within range.  They leaped from the shallows and dove gracefully into the safer, deeper water.

Finally, though, I spotted one that was big enough, and transfixed by my light.  I crept through the weeds until I emerged onto a flat patch of mud, almost in range.

Then something moved in the corner of my eye, by my feet.  I tried to look down without moving the light off my quarry.  It wasn’t a frog, and it was the wrong shape for a turtle. My brain classified it at the same instant my head involuntarily turned and shone my light on it.

It was a snake. A fat, poisonous water moccasin.

A water moccasin, also known as a cottonmouth, for obvious reasons.

A water moccasin, also known as a cottonmouth, for obvious reasons.

I had no time to react, because it was already reacting.  It struck out and sank its fangs into my foot, right through my rubber wading boots.

I’m not a courageous person by nature, and I certainly wasn’t brave then.  My recently-descended testicles shot back up to their original spot, and my voice grew high and shrill as I screamed, “Daddy!  Daddy!  Daddy!”  I jumped in the air and tried to kick the snake away, but it was well and truly determined not to let go.

My dad ran over to me as fast as he could, saw the snake and quickly stomped on it.  Then he pushed me down on the bank, tore away my wading boot and ripped off my sock, exposing my foot.

My entirely bite-free foot.

We both stared at it, pasty white in the combined illumination of our lights.  I wiggled my toes.

Then my dad picked up my boot.  The snake hung from it, smashed and dead, fangs still caught harmlessly in the rubber seam where the sole attached.

We went home after that.  Dad had gotten enough frogs anyway, and I waited for my testicles to decide it was safe to come out again.  I’d like to say this marked some sort of change in our relationship, but it didn’t.  Since I don’t know how drunk he was that night, I have no real idea if he actually remembered it the next day.  And I’d like to think there was some sort of symbolic aspect to it, mirroring our relationship.  But truthfully, it was just one more instance of a man with too many problems and a son with no appreciable life skills failing, as always, to meaningfully connect.

Dad's Cross

This cross was put up in honor of my dad’s service to his church.

Announcing Firefly Witch Volume 3: Back Atcha

Posted on by Alex in fantasy literature, fiction, Firefly Witch, Pagan, short stories, tennessee, west Tennessee, witchcraft | 3 Comments

Available on Kindle as of right now, the third collection of Firefly Witch tales, Back Atcha.

In these three new short stories, the darkest adventures yet for the Firefly Witch, Tanna and Ry encounter their most vicious, diabolical and dangerous foes. One is a redneck who intends to sell his girlfriend to the devil, another is a serial killer with unexpected psychic powers, and the third is the hatred that leads people to barbarous acts of murder. Tanna must rely on her wits as well as her Wiccan beliefs, and Ry has to be stronger and smarter than he’s ever been, if they are to survive.

Buy it here for only $2.99!

AND DON’T MISS OUT: The second Firefly Witch collection, Croaked, is available FREE for the Kindle from Sept. 13-17.

Firefly Witch news (includes a freebie!)

Posted on by Alex in eBook sale, Firefly Witch, Free Download, giveaway, Pagan, release date, short stories, west Tennessee | Leave a comment

The new Firefly Witch e-book chapbook collection, Croaked: More Tales of the Firefly Witch, is now available for only $2.99.

 

Also, from now through Monday, July 2, 2012, the first Firefly Witch collection is available for FREE on Amazon.  So if you’re curious about this new character and her world, there’s no better way or time to check it out.

 

The "Don’t Say Gay" bill and being "tender-hearted" in TN

Posted on by Alex in don't say gay bill, tennessee, west Tennessee | 4 Comments


So Tennessee, my home state and the setting of many of my stories and novels, has again made the national news. The State Senate passed a law dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill which outlaws even mentioning the existence of gay people in elementary and middle school. I doubt this also includes not mentioning the various slurs and code words Tennesseans have always used for gay folks; in fact, I’m sure the sponsors of the bill often employed those terms in closed-door meetings prior to presenting the bill, right after the opening prayer.

As a child with little aptitude in sports and an interest in literature, science fiction and movies, my schoolmates often teased me with those same slurs. A cousin, in fact, once taunted me with some of them for reading Star Trek: Log Five, just before he beat me up. The fact that I wasn’t gay didn’t particularly matter, as it never does in such situations. But it was, and remains, the way kids often are, and while I disapprove of it I also comprehend the reasons for it, especially in the South.

Still, it was nothing compared to the contempt adults showed for kids they deemed “different,” “odd” or “weird,” and that included a term of such surpassing brilliance that I still marvel at it: tender-hearted. It sounds almost like a compliment, much as does “Bless your heart,” which is now generally known to be Southern code for, “You’re so stupid.” In the same way, “tender-hearted” is code for “gay.” Or more precisely, it’s synonymous with one of the pithier terms used to derisively describe gay males.

The first time I cursed (we called it “cussed”) in front of other people got the term “tender-hearted” applied to me. When I was about ten or eleven, some older good ol’ boys dragged a turtle from a pond and cut off its head in their driveway for no reason other than to do it. I told them I found it ignorant and cruel, and when they laughed at me for that, I let fly with every curse word I knew. I was also so mad I started crying. Between the tears and the general knowledge that I liked to read books, I was quickly pegged as “tender-hearted,” and to this day (nearly forty years later) the people in my home town still think of me that way.

So the “Don’t Say Gay” bill disappoints and saddens me, but it doesn’t surprise me. Good ol’ Tennesseans have a long tradition of not saying “gay.” Instead, depending on the situation, they either use slurs or euphemisms, as they do for everything else. Bless their hearts.

(Please visit and support It’s Okay to be Takei, George “Mr. Sulu” Takei’s brilliant response to the Tennessee law.)

Solving the Murder at the Cheatin’ Heart Motel

Posted on by Alex in Art Bourgeau, west Tennessee, writers, writing | Leave a comment

Longtime readers of this blog will know I have a somewhat unresolved relationship with my home region of West Tennessee. It’s not the most scenic area: the state of Tennessee slopes downhill from Appalachia in the east, so the western end is the lowest, muddiest and flattest part. Except for Memphis, there are no notable cities (I suppose you could count Jackson, but it’s always felt like a city consumed by its own worst interests). And the people? Well, let’s just say that when I lived there, they thought nothing of beating up a kid for reading a book. Because reading was weird.

So the last thing I expected to do was to find that this dull area had inspired hard-boiled genre literature. But damned if it didn’t.

I ran across Art Bourgeau’s Murder at the Cheatin’ Heart Motel in the late Eighties, when I lived in Huntsville, AL. It was written in 1985, and concerned Claude “Snake” Kirlin, a freelance reporter for Ultra Suave magazine, and his buddy F.T. Zervich, trying to solve the murder of Snake’s aunt, proprietor of the titular motel. The establishment is located on Chocktaw Lake, which Bourgeau describes thus:

“Anyway, in the winter of 1811 three earthquakes hit right where you’re sitting. Each one was several times worse than the famous San Francisco earthquake. It was so bad that a land area of about a hundred miles simply fell into the earth. The banks of the Mississippi broke down, and the water rushed in to fill it. That’s how Chocktaw Lake was formed.”
(p. 13)

Wow, I thought. That sounds familiar. It sounds, in fact, like Reelfoot Lake. According to this entry on the ever-reliable Wikipedia:

“Popular history says that the lake was formed when the region subsided after the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811–1812, and that the Mississippi River flowed backward for 10–24 hours to fill it.”

Someone wrote a mystery set on a fictionalized version of Reelfoot Lake, a place I’d gone fishing and on picnics and visited my whole life! It was, for me, a world-shifting realization. And it got better.

Bougreau introduced the book’s villain, Sheriff Casper Denny, with this:

“I’d heard of him before. Everyone had heard of him. He was a genuine, bona fide legend. A twentieth-century Wyatt Earp who had single-handedly taken on the west Tennessee mob, a group whose roots went all the way back to Jean Boquin. They had tried to move into his county, and in the process, the sheriff had been shot, had his house bombed, and his wife and son had been killed.”
(pp. 17-18)

The resemblance to Sheriff Buford Pusser seemed unmistakable.

Recently I spoke to Art Bourgeau about his book, and to my surprise he said, “The sheriff character wasn’t modeled on Buford Pusser. Sheriff Pusser was a heroic figure, my character wasn’t. The two things that could make you think it was Sheriff Pusser was his haircut and him fighting the mob. I used the Glen Campbell haircut which he and many other sheriffs of the time wore as a metaphor to show he was a very uptight, stressed-out, anal type of person. The job didn’t make my character this way, it was his nature. You can tell a lot about a man by his haircut…As to the nastiness of the personality of Sheriff Casper Denny, that was not a reflection on Sheriff Pusser. Quite the contrary, I never met the man. As far as I know, he was a saint. The character of Sheriff Casper Denny was an extension of my own life. My father was a Tennessee Deputy Sheriff and he was a shit.”

So for twenty years, I’d had that wrong. But by the time I found out, I’d learned to look at the world of my youth with a writer’s detachment instead of a ex-pat’s ambivalence. Hints of that world have shown up throughout my work, and will probably always do so.

And at least I was right about Reelfoot Lake. Bourgeau told me, “The idea of the lake comes from reading about Reelfoot Lake and thinking it must be one of the neatest places on earth, but I’ve never seen it. However, I have seen the bayou of Louisiana and the wetlands of New Jersey, so I am familiar with how it might look. Still, it is darn fascinating. The New Madrid Fault and all that. It is larger than history. It belongs in fantasy.”

Fantasy, huh? Hey, I write fantasy. Hmm….

Giants of West Tennessee: Buford Pusser

Posted on by Alex in Buford Pusser, Giants of West Tennessee, Walking Tall, west Tennessee | 1 Comment

NOTE: This is the first in an occasional series about notable figures from my home region. These are personal reminiscences and opinions; where available, I’ll include links so interested readers can find out more.

There aren’t many heroic figures to come out of flat, muddy west Tennessee. Elvis is one, obviously, but he’s a special case. Tina Turner, born Annie Mae Bullock in diminutive Nutbush, is certainly heroic, but she’s not really associated with the region. But we do have one genuine, larger-than-life hero to our credit: Buford Pusser.

The legend goes like this: former pro wrestler and ex-Marine Buford Pusser returns to McNairy County, Tennessee and is appalled at the rampant injustice. When he’s beaten and robbed at a local gambling joint run by the well-connected State Line Gang, he goes back for revenge. At his trial for this assault, his righteousness convinces the jury to take a stand against the gangsters, and he’s acquitted. Emboldened, he runs for county sheriff and wins.

As sheriff, Buford doesn’t carry a gun. Instead he wields a big stick, literally: four feet long, made of concrete-solid hickory wood. He pursues the criminals and bootleggers that formally had a free ride in the country. He’s shot and stabbed, but nothing stops him, until the morning of August 12, 1967. In an ambush, his wife is killed and he’s shot in the face. But he survives to continue fighting the good fight, until he’s killed in a 1974 one-car wreck that had “suspicious” written all over it.

This is the story you’ll find in the trilogy of movies based on his life: Walking Tall (1973, with Joe Don Baker as Pusser), Walking Tall Part 2 (1975, with Bo Svenson taking over) and Walking Tall: the Final Chapter (1977, again with Svenson). The truth, as you can imagine, was quite a bit less black-and-white and can be found in detail in the books The State Line Mob: A True Story of Murder and Intrigue and The Twelfth of August, both by W.R. Morris. As with all real people, Pusser was neither all good nor all bad, and nothing changes the fact that he took a lot of punishment in his capacity as sheriff, not least of which was losing his wife.

If my memory is right, when I was 11 I shook Pusser’s hand at the Humboldt, Tennessee Strawberry Festival in the spring of 1974. He was part of the annual parade, along with the governor and various strawberry-related dignitaries. I remember mainly his size, and the off-kilter aspect of his reconstructed face. I was also disappointed he didn’t look like Joe Don Baker.

But the public figure of Pusser–an indestructible man with a huge stick, ready to dispense justice–has more reality than the man himself. Elvis may have worn the cape, but Buford Pusser is West Tennessee’s superhero.

You can’t go home again (and really, who’d want to?)

Posted on by Alex in home, Milan, violence, west Tennessee | 2 Comments

Recently a family emergency required me to return to my tiny West Tennessee home town. How tiny? The population is roughly 300, and around 250 of them are related to me at some level.

Later, doing research for a novel set in the region, I came across this vintage (1970) description written by Donn (sic) Munson in SAGA magazine:

West Tennessee is a blue-bib-overall and bootleg-booze-from-a-Mason-jar country. On the surface, it’s a land of cotton and hogs, soybeans and sorghum, grits and gravy. It’s also a land of barn burnings and bushwhackings, where dogs are poisoned and anonymous phone calls threaten children’s lives.

It’s a land of neat churches and prohibition, a land where ramshackle motels have housed everything from moonshine to disease-riddled whores who cater to every known human desire.

There are parts of West Tennessee that make Port Said or Tijuana look like Disneyland.

When I think of home, this sort of thing comes to mind:

The irony here is that Milan (pronounced MY-lan, unlike the Italian city) is also home to the Milan Arsenal, making it one of the few places whose citizens could answer that rhetorical question of the far left, “Who Would Jesus Bomb?”

On the other hand, without west Tennessee (specifically dangerous, glorious, historic Memphis), I wouldn’t have witnessed this moment:

The C-in-C froze in his tracks and remained utterly immobile for a minute and twenty seconds, transfixed by Elvis singing “Teddy Bear.”

***Addendum added February 19, 2009***

I received the following from my mother, who still lives in west Tennessee:

Saint Peter was manning the Pearly Gates when forty people from Memphis showed up.

Never having seen anyone from Memphis at heaven’s door, Saint Peter said he would have to check with God.

After hearing the news, God instructed him to admit them if they were virtuous.

A few minutes later, Saint Peter returned to God breathless and said, “They’re gone!”

“What?” asked God. “All of the Memphians are gone?”

“No!” replied Saint Peter. “The Pearly Gates!”