Small wonder, then, that thirty years later, far from home, I would find myself trying to recapture all that in my second book, Devil Storm. Or that books would be so essential to me, in the first place. They were magic, in my mother's hands; she could make them live and breathe. "READ!" I'd say, if she paused even for a second--never mind that there were ten other children vying for her attention. "READ!"
I just couldn't stand to have the story interrupted, was the thing; the pain of not knowing what would happen next was--still is--an actual physical ache. Even now it's all I can do not to groan when someone jolts me from the spell of a really good book. It's as if I'm being thrown from a speeding car or dashed in the face with ice water, or wrenched bodily out of some wonderful, never-to-be-recaptured dream.
Dreaming, reading, imagining--they've always been almost interchangeable in my head, all so vivid that sometimes I can't tell one from the other. My very first memory is, in fact, a dream, though I didn't realize it for years. It would become Elvira Trumbull's first memory, too, in my first book, The 25 Cent Miracle:
"She had awakened early, before her parents were up, and walked outside . . . And there, scattered all around in the dirt and gravel and occasional clumps of grass, were the bodies of maybe a hundred little snakes, all of them with their throats cut wide open. She had stood there, staring, not really frightened--they were dead after all--but puzzled. And then she had walked back into the trailer; her mother was just getting out of bed. 'Mama,' she had asked, 'what's all them dead snakes doin' outside?'
"Her mother had smiled serenely. 'Why, darlin', your daddy killed those snakes in the night. They were tryin' to get us, but he wouldn't let them. Now, hush--don't wake him; he's tired out from all that hard work. . . .'"
We didn't live in a trailer, but otherwise--in real life--I remembered the scene pretty much exactly as I would eventually write it. And like Elvira, I was sure that it had actually happened, and "would think about that morning sometimes and feel glad that my daddy wouldn't ever let anything get me." It wasn't until long after, when I was nine or ten, that I mentioned it to him, and he shook his head and said that he had never killed a hundred snakes in our back yard; I must have dreamed it. "But it makes a good story," he added.
Which meant it was okay, after all. Better than okay. Because by then I was already obsessed with stories and planning to be a writer, just like my two favorite heroines: Jo March in Little Women and Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. I didn't have a garret for my scribbling, like Jo, and the drainage ditch was just a SHADE less romantic than Prince Edward Island, but that didn't stop me from churning out stories and dramatic poems by the bushel. Just recently I found a crumbling box full of them, with titles like "The Quest of Emerald", "The Witch in the Orchard," "The Rescue of the Princess Winsome" (did I borrow that from The Little Colonel?) Not to mention "King Kang" (which had nothing at all to do with giant apes) and "A Fairy Folk Fantasy"--I've always been a sucker for alliteration.
It didn't keep me from sneaking into my brother David's room, either, so that I could type my latest play on his marvelous new Tom Thumb typewriter. He caught me, of course, but decided against killing me after I explained that I had written the lead especially for him. From that day forth, he always played the king, while Frances--we called her Mother Superior--was the beautiful princess. Hunter fought the dragon with the magic sword, Mary Pat and Carroll were the fairy godmothers, and my littler brothers and sisters and cousins and obliging neighbor children were assorted elves and gnomes and leprechauns or whatever the current script called for. "As the giant, just wear a cape and mean make-up," I wrote in my costume notes for my sister Jane's future husband, Joe Bob Kinsel. . . .
But I was always the witch. The wizened, withered, wicked old witch. Which passed for unselfishness on my part, but wasn't that bad, really, since the witch invariably got all the best lines.
AND MOVING RIGHT ALONG . . .(Don't worry; the next forty-seven years didn't take nearly as long as the first twelve):
In seventh grade I decided it was REALLY time to get serious and start my first novel. "The Friends," I called it--a stirring domestic mystery/adventure about a lost dog. Unfortunately, this effort coincided with what was also my first experience with writer's block--a particularly lethal case to which I succumbed after only three chapters.
Writing, it turned out, was going to be harder than I thought.
SO . . .
I decided to become a movie star, instead. Or at least the toast of Broadway. Both, preferably. Or whichever came first.
And with that in mind . . .
I took dancing lessons from Miss Judith Sproule and piano lessons from Miss Rachel Kent and kept my eyes open for potential producers, beginning with the Bluebirds, who agreed to let me play the title role in "The Green Lady"--a thrilling piece, involving the liberal use of a bottle of food coloring and my mother's best cold cream. I remember waiting breathlessly in the wings for my big moment, which unfortunately never came, as one of the other actresses was so incapacitated by stage fright that she skipped directly from the scene before my entrance to the end of the show. (After which--much to the mystified audience's further confusion--I took my curtain call, anyway.)
Undaunted, I continued my career at St. Anne's Elementary School--where I adapted a chapter of Anne of Green Gables and modestly gave myself the title role in that, too--then moved on to the Beaumont Little Theater and the drama and glee clubs at Monsignor Kelly High School, where Sister Magdalena and Sister Francis Clare and Sister Emily made us all feel like stars.
And then at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, during second semester of my freshman year, I was cast as Little Mary in the musical, "Little Mary Sunshine." Little Mary, who--in the play--was supposed to be in love with Captain "Big Jim" Warington.
BUT . . .
In real life there was a really cute senior playing Corporal Billy Jester, the comic lead in the show. His name was Kevin Cooney, and he was by far the funniest guy in the whole school. The funniest guy, in fact, I had ever met. He was also the lead singer of a great local band called The Dave Starky V, which also made him the COOLEST guy I had ever met.
SO . . .
I married him--just a little more than a year later--on September 26, 1968. (And twenty is much too young to get married, and it was just sheer luck and God's own grace that it worked out, but when you're really good and ready, if you're looking for a keeper, try to find somebody who makes you laugh.)
ANYWAY . . .
1968 was right in the middle of the Vietnam era, and by the time we got married, Kevin was in the army. He had already graduated from college and been drafted and gone to basic training, and we were waiting for his orders to come through and praying he wouldn't be sent overseas.
But our prospects were pretty bleak. 1968 was a terrible year, even for newlyweds. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had both been killed; there was rioting in the inner cities, peace demonstrations turning violent in Washington D.C. And still the war in Southeast Asia raged on. . . .
Then we had a stroke of luck. Orders came through for Kevin's unit: Everybody whose last name started with a letter in the first half of the alphabet would be sent to Korea, where there was no fighting, at least at that time. Great news for Private First Class Kevin Cooney! Of course it still meant we'd be separated for a year. That was hard; we'd only been married a few months. But at least Kevin would be safe; that was all that mattered.
His best friend from basic training wasn't so lucky. James G. ("Greg") Brown had been on exactly the same track as Kevin, when the two of them reported for duty back in June. Greg had even applied for leave to get married the same weekend Kevin and I did. But he was in a different unit now, and it didn't matter what letter his last name started with. Kevin and he wrote each other for a while, but within a few months after Greg was sent to Vietnam, one of Kevin's letters to him was returned, unopened, with a stamp that said only "Addressee Deceased." That was how we learned that Greg had died--in a fire fight, we heard later, trying to take some hill that ultimately mattered to no one.
I didn't want to believe it. I don't think I DID believe it, deep down. War--even this strange new war that we watched in our family room on the nightly news--had no more substance in my mind than those old John Wayne movies my brothers loved. Just a bunch of trumped-up pictures on the television screen, right? Surely it couldn't be real.
My father knew better. He had the scars to prove it. He'd seen fellow Marines blown up and shot down, had a friend from his old rugby team die in his arms, had hitchhiked across the country after VJ Day, visiting the families of the buddies he'd lost.
But in those days, Daddy's purple heart was still tucked away in his sock drawer. He wouldn't--couldn't--talk about HIS war for years to come.
So I pushed it all away for as long as I could: first the reality, then the memory of those troubled times. I was twenty years old in 1968; what did I know about life and death? It wasn't until another twenty years had passed--when I had sons of my own, and our eldest, Michael, started getting recruiting letters from the armed forces during his senior year--that it all came pouring back. I could hardly bear the thought of my firstborn going off to college, much less the army. How had Greg's family stood it--how had my own grandmother stood it--sending a boy off to a war from which he might never return?
I never answered that question, not really. I don't think there is an answer. But it was then that I began to write my third novel, And One for All.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. . . .
Click here to continue....