Sunday, September 18, 2016

"T" - a creative writing exercise

The following is a writing exercise/project resulting from two "found objects" sent to me by the writer's group proctor. The exercise requires you to use the objects as inspirational pieces and to write the piece in one sitting. Minimal editing is allowed, but no worrying over the work is permitted. Reference the objects, write the piece, send it on.

Since I am really trying to be a more betterer writer, the only way I will ever do that is to just write. It's been a while so I was a bit rusty, though it felt good to put fingers to keyboard and just write.

Please note: There are many familiar names to people in my life. The names are only used as a convenience. The narrative is a complete fiction from beginning to end.

The objects given to me included a photo of an old house and a metal T-strap, used in building cabinets and structures.

Thanks for reading.

 “T”

I heard the trucks before I saw the flames on the horizon. As I stood on the sidewalk in front of the motel the local chief, the only paid employee of the town’s fire response team, stopped his red pickup in front of me.

“It’s your dad’s place, completely engulfed. Hop in.”

Keeping my eyes on the distant glow I thanked him but said nothing else for a long while. The old farm was a good thirty minutes from town on the two-lane.

“How’s the old man doing, Terry?” he asked. “Taking your mom’s passing pretty hard we hear.”

“Frank, I’m not sure how you’re supposed to take the death of the only woman you’ve ever loved,” I said, never taking my eyes off of the fire, now detectable with each breath, its light becoming brighter with each mile.

“Hell, didn’t mean it like that. Yeah, it’s gotta be damned hard. Wife and I been together for 35 years and It’d kill me if I lost her. They were married for what, fifty-something?”

“Sixty-something. Sixty-seven years last October.”

“That’s a lifetime for most folks. Can’t imagine.” He found dad’s mailbox at the end of the long dirt drive and made the turn. “I reckon that her service tomorrow will be a fine affair. She was a special lady. We all loved her.”

The Window Rock, North Carolina Volunteer Fire Department arrived just a few minutes after us. The engine company and snorkel truck’s crews piled off, scattering in a well-rehearsed dance of pulling hose, hooking up to the farm’s hydrant and spraying water onto the crumbling structure within minutes. Volunteers or not, the chief and the crew seemed to know what they were doing.

Chief Frank barked commands into his radio, “Hey, let the thing burn, just keep the fire on the south side from engaging those oaks. Martha, watch that east side so it doesn’t spread to the hardwoods. It’s drier than a popcorn fart back there and we don’t want to call those state boys to help us. We got this.”

As the crews hurried about in choreographed chaos, I walked to the north end of the big place, looking to see if I could find dad. I suspected he had much to do with this, keeping a promise to her made years ago and oft repeated “Mary, built this house for you. Only woman who will ever live it.”

When the farm began to fail because of hostile market conditions and suspected price fixing orchestrated by the larger, newer commercial farms gobbling up the family-owned businesses throughout the flats and foothills, he vowed to keep body, family and home together by any means available. After I left Window Rock for college, practically running, my visits became less frequent and shorter. The house that Harley built, built for Mary his long suffering wife, was now becoming the promise fulfilled, two days after Mary left this world.

I spied dad as I rounded the northern edge of the house. He seemed to be standing too close to the fire as he watched flames lick the early evening sky, first black and now grey smoke rising up alongside. “Dad! DAD!” I yelled over the crackling and groaning of the house. “Here, dad, come back here with me, you’ll lose your arm hair with this heat,” I said, pulling him away.

The fire continued for many more hours. Neighbors stopped and brought lawn chairs for me and dad as we all watched and listened to the house die.  Sandwiches and sweet tea appeared as more folks arrived. Many of them stood behind dad, hands gripping or patting his shoulders, his forehead kissed by the widow June who lived three farms down as June’s great-granddaughter leaned on his lap, all of them mesmerized by the sights and sounds. Not much was said between all in attendance except the occasional complements to the fire fighters who contained the destruction to just the structure. Trees, dry grasses and an out shed remained untouched.

The Window Rock Fire Department declared the old, two-story wood structure completely out well after dark. Neighbors, their children and a few folks I did not recognize began to return to their cars, many of them giving dad a farewell handshake or hug as the chief walked up to us. “Harley, did you set this fire?” he asked without ceremony or hesitation.

“You know I did, Frank. You probably should have known I would before another day or two passed.  The place didn’t have insurance, so you can’t charge me with arson for profit.”

Looking back at the heaped black ash, “Harley, I gotta charge you for the cost of us coming out here. No arson here, and we might work for free but these trucks don’t.”

I stood up and said, “Chief, just let me know the costs involved, I’ll take care of it.”

Dad rose quickly, “The hell you will! Boy, this was my doing and there’s a few thousand in the bank and this property is worth something after you sell it when I’m gone.” Turning to the chief, “You hear me, Frank, don’t let him pay a single penny of those bills. I pay my debts and keep my promises.”

Martha, the Window Rock High School P.E. teacher and engine company captain walked up to our small gathering, cigarette dangling from her lips, “Chief, what do you want me to put down for the cause of fire? We got accelerant here and there.” 

She looked at me, brushed away a wisp of hair protruding beneath her helmet, and squared her strong shoulders as she offered me a truly gentle smile. “Good to see you again, Terry. Let’s catch up after your mom’s service tomorrow.”

I nodded as Frank looked over the scene and then looking at us. “Lightning strike, Martha. Act of nature.”

“Lightning strike? There wasn’t a cloud in the sky! This fire was set on…”

Interrupting her, “Goddammit, Martha. I’m the chief of this fire department and if I say it’s a fucking lightning strike, it’s a fucking lightning strike. Tell the guys I’ll meet them at the tavern. Start a tab. Beer and pulled pork on me.”

Shaking her head and walking away, she called out to the crews to finish mopping up and for everyone to get the hell out of here.

As the fire truck’s rotating yellow and red lights began to fade, the fullness of night enveloped dad, me and Frank. “Harley, you go into town with Terry and get yourself a room. We’ll catch up in a day or two.”

Taking two large flashlights from his yellow turnout jacket, “Here, take these Terry. It’s black as pitch out here. Don’t bust your ass tripping over those oak roots and all this debris.”

The chief’s truck was almost to the highway when dad grabbed one of the flashlights. Switching it on, the bright LED bulbs cast a grey blue light over a wide swath. “Son, I need to find some things. I set this fire before I remembered to grab them.”

There was nothing much left of the place. The smell of wet, smoldering ash filled the air with a finality of purpose that was impossible to escape. “Dad, there’s nothing here. It’s all gone. What in the world are you looking for?”

“Boy, do this one last thing for me. Just look for anything that would survive this. You’ll know it when you see it.” Without further explanation, he walked unsteadily into the soggy, mess. Small wisps of smoke seemed to appear as his flashlight swept across the blackened remains with each of his uncertain steps.

Following, without a clue as to what the hell I was supposed to look for, I kicked at the ashes and partially burned beams finding only an occasional reflection of a brass door knob or hinge. As my pants and sneakers took on more black, conversations and shouts were dredged up from a time I hardly acknowledged. The arguments were not frequent, but they were loud and when I was younger, terrifying.

The sounds of mom crying, sobbing almost uncontrollably it seemed, accompanied with a lamp, mirror of water glass smashing to the floor or against a wall were heard at the end of the hallway, just two doors down from my small bed room.  Months and even years would pass between these fights and though I never knew their reason, I had always blamed Harley. The ways of my parents had always been mysterious; smiles, embraces and stolen kisses by day, anguished screams and broken furniture at night. Resolutions to remain single were taken early in life, and so far, it was one of the few resolutions I kept.

Dad had always worked hard and mom did most of the home chores when she wasn’t sick in bed. Her illnesses of unknown origins were not only met with me feeling bad for her, I hated her to be sick, but it also meant dad would be cooking dinner that night and would be attempting and generally failing at making me a lunch that wouldn’t embarrass me at school.

Dad’s shouts intruded on my uneasy venture on this memory path, “Son! Terry! Over here. Help me. Bring your light, boy,”

Hurrying as best I could without falling face first into the black muck, I found him with flashlight in hand squatting over a small mound of rubble. “Shine it here, son. No, here!” he directed.

Poking with his always present pen knife, he picked away bits with its open blade at what may have been a small jewelry or keepsake box, evidenced by a portion of fine inlay work on what was once its lid. I recognized his handiwork immediately. Always the craftsman with wood, he not only built a house using dovetail and wood pin joints but he was known as a skilled furniture maker as well. Surely, I thought, this box was a gift to Mary, perhaps when they were young.

“I was a fool. I should’ve taken this from the house before…before it burned.”

Probing deeper, his blade made the sound of striking metal. Reaching in, he pulled a small, flat T-shaped bit of weathered steel, its shine lost to time.

“Found ‘em, by God. This was our room, knew I’d find ‘em,” he said as he gave me the thing.

Turing it over in my hand, I asked, “What’s this T-strap, dad? You never used T-straps to hold anything together…”

Shaking his head, “No, it’s not a T-strap, it’s a ‘T’…it stands for ‘Terry”…it’s your letter.”

Returning to his task, he pulled other letters from the ash. “Yes! They’re all here, S, R, J, L and Q. I found Q!”

He handed me each letter in turn. Each of them about three inches in height, their hand wrought and forged nature evident as I brushed them clean.

As he painfully rose, his 85 year old knees almost locking up, “These are our babies, Terry. Sally, Roger, Jane, Lorraine and Quincy. Quincy was the first and we thought it a fine name. Oh, and of course you, Terry.”

Knowing full well that I was an only child I asked, “Your babies?”

“The babies we lost. The babies who died before you were born. You were our miracle baby. Didn’t think we could have any and had given up hope of any children when you happened. It was the happiest time.”

Taking my well appreciated hand, we headed to his old truck, “Time you knew. Time you knew it all. Let’s go to that motel of yours. I need a rest.”

Driving back into town, dad talked as I ground the gears in the truck’s standard transmission.

“When I married your momma, we planned on a big family. Five or more, she wanted a houseful. But the good Lord seemed to have other plans for us.

“We lost Quincy when he was just two days old. He was sickly and the doctor was surprised he lasted that long. Sally came next, stillborn. Roger stayed with us for a week, Jane and Lorraine just one day. Buried each one beneath those oaks where they shaded the house you grew up in.

“I made each of those letters to go above the headboards of the beds I would build. Your momma’s sewing room was going to be a bedroom and the winter storage room next to your bedroom was also planned for our big family that never came to be.

“Your momma, my sweet Mary, didn’t handle it very well. She’d think on them babies, resting just outside under those oaks and have her own brand of fits. She’d cry for hours, curse the world and the Lord and me all at once.  I’d do my best, Terry, to calm her but sometimes she just couldn’t face the morning.

“It always happened at night and when she came out of it all, you’d never know how terrible she felt the night or two before.”

As we neared the front of the motel, he fell silent for a while. “There are things that happen between a husband and a wife that you just don’t share. Nobody’s business. Not yours either, but now you know.”

“I’m dead tired, son. Let’s get me a room and get me out of these wet clothes. Got a bag in the back with some extras and my suit’s at the cleaners for Mary’s service. Get that for me in the morning and help me get out of this old truck.”

Grabbing the duffle he always kept behind the seat, I walked around to his door and helped him into my room. I’d get another for myself in a bit, I just needed to get dad into bed.

The next morning dad got into his clean suit and attended his beloved and troubled wife’s funeral. Kind words were spoken by many in the small community of her amazing pies, cookies and church work. Hymns were sung and prayers prayed and tears shed by all, including dad.

Before her casket was closed, I placed a number of small metal letters under her folded hands, the hard, cold flesh holding onto cold steel. It was a life that didn’t turn out as planned, but was crafted with love and warmth, sufficient and full.
 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Music Man

An exercise in speculative fiction, "steampunk" that was fun to write but proved that I really, really need to practice with fiction. All necessary caveats have been given. Thanks.



The official seal at the top of the letter was familiar as was the bold, flowing script and confident signature. He had received a number of short letters from the author of the one he now held, but none so brief. Throughout the war, assignments had come directly from the great man, but more often from a Department secretary or agent. But there was always a bit more detail of what was being asked. This one was different.

Thomas, I need your help again.

Looking up at the courier that delivered the strange letter, he asked, “What is this about?”

The blue uniformed soldier said, “I do not know, Mr. Klay. All I was instructed to do was to deliver this note and deliver you to him right away.”

Folding the paper, he  stuck it into his top pocket. “When do we leave?’

“Sir, we are to leave immediately after you pack a few tools, instruments and clothes. I am told it is quite urgent. I am also to advise you that your workshop hasn’t been disturbed since you left last year.”

Thomas Jefferson Klay nodded in understanding. Each previous request, though simple and direct in tone, had contained welcomed personal asides or greetings. This one was fraught with urgency that belied its briefness. Thomas grabbed his bag, always ready for such an event and followed the soldier to the waiting puffer parked in front of his Falls Church, Virginia farm.

Climbing in, he reread the note, placing his fingers upon the signature as if to discern what was troubling the great man by touch alone.

Thomas, I need your help again.

Abraham Lincoln

As the steam carriage rumbled past green-budded trees and over rough cobblestones leading towards the federal district, Thomas reflected on the months and years that brought him to know and appreciate the President.

The grandson of a freed slave and son of a Swiss immigrant, Thomas’ propensity and inventiveness with things mechanical had garnered much attention from both sides of the Civil War. Confederate soldiers noticed the Klay family farm’s rich green fields and abundance that his father, Noah, could produce despite a shortage of labor. While other nearby farms lay fallow or provided only enough sustenance for a farmer’s family, theirs prospered providing a variety of crops and livestock enough to share with their neighbors and even sell to local markets.

Noah Klay, a skilled watchmaker and inquisitive tinkerer, solved the problem of the lack of field hands with machines. Self-propelled clanking plows fitted with gleaming tubes that held seed or fertilizers in the spring would be replaced with delicate articulated metallic hands to pick beans, shave tobacco stalks or even pluck apples from swaying branches in the fall made the need for human backs and hands moot. As far as anyone knew, no farm existed with such complex and clever devices.

As wondrous as these machines were to behold, many people had almost grown accustomed to seeing self-propelled devices. In this time, carriages ran as trains without tracks, puffing smoke and steam as they moved across the land.  Hot air and hydrogen-filled balloons swept across skies. Telegraphic pictures could be sent in mere seconds across thousands of miles. Indeed, this was a modern age.

But it was the Union Army that took notice of something very special about the Klay farm. They noticed that farm hands did indeed work the land, but these laborers were not men. Working together, Noah Klay and his son, Thomas had created mechanical brass men that walked on two sturdy legs, employed up to three stout, powerful arms to pull entire trees from the ground, carry bales of hay to waiting carts and a myriad other chores.

Their movements were carefully calculated, each action controlled by the placement of pins on a series of clockwork rotating cylinders that plucked tiny levers in a determined sequence. Like a music box, the mechanical laborer’s movements could be orchestrated to carry out a variety of chores. Thomas’ mother, Elizabeth, had been delighted when Noah created a cylinder that directed the laborers to dance a short jig every day at noon for her benefit. It was Elizabeth who called them, “Music Men” and the name stuck to this day.

A cold, early March breeze blew into the puffer carriage as it crossed the Potomac, breaking Thomas’ reverie. Those early days in the war, now more than four years ago, had brought changes into his life that no one could have anticipated or God forbid, desired.

Union generals quickly understood that the Music Men, sometimes referred to as “mumen,” “mute men” or even “mum,” could replace not only farm hands but soldiers as well. Capitalizing on the northern states reserves of metal ores, factories, coal and kerosene, entire battalions of fearless and bloodless fighting metal soldiers could be built to lay waste the human soldiers in the south. As the war drew to a close, Music Men became ever increasing in size and numbers.

In a narrative that Thomas rarely revisited, the war had also brought the death of his father and beloved mother. Confederate forces sought to end the progress of Noah’s contribution to the northern war efforts many times by sending unsuccessful raiding parties to Falls Church with the intention of capturing the erstwhile scientist-watchmaker-farmer. Just two years ago near Thomas’ nineteenth birthday, a small band of specialized, yellow-hooded raiders had been sent with the order to change their tactics from “capture” to “kill.” With this, they were successful even more than they would ever understand.  

There was much ado when Noah married Elizabeth, the daughter of a freeman. Perhaps in Europe, the sight of a handsome young man arm in arm with an articulate, stunning chocolate skinned woman would have only caused a few tongues to wag. But in America, where the country was divided over the question of slaves, the idea that a black woman, regardless of her beauty and intellect, could legally marry a white man was even controversial in the “forward thinking” north. Noah would often tell his young son that once he heard her speak as they passed in a train station in New York and he set eyes upon hers, there was nothing else for him to do but seek a way to make a life with her.

It was known by only a very few that much of the success of the farm, as well as the design and nuances of Noah’s inventions were a result of Elizabeth’s imaginative approach to both endeavors. Without Elizabeth, the farm’s crops would not have flourished as they did, Music Men, mechanical plows or not. Without Elizabeth, the Music Men may have never moved at all.

But the story of their marriage and the difficulty they encountered leading them to move to the farm in Virginia was nothing compared to the recounting of Elizabeth’s experiments with plants, soils and even algae. Her discoveries had become secrets when she was killed. Those secrets were now held within her journals and notes that Thomas closely guarded.

The puffer slowed to a stop behind the White House, buffeted by winds that refused to give up winter.  As he hurried with bag in hand and gripping tightly his collar in the other, he hunched towards a door used only on rare occasions such as this one. Looking just below the rim of his hat, he saw the smiling, familiar face of an old friend.

“Get in here, Thomas!” said a burly man with a moustache the size of an alley cat spread across his upper lip. “The only person I usually hold a door open for is the man who saved this union and not some farm plow inventor!” William H. Crook may have been President Lincoln’s personal bodyguard willing to lay down his life for the great man, but didn’t relish having to serve also as doorman for a young man with wild ideas.

“William, it’s good to see you as well,” Thomas replied as he stepped inside a dark anteroom behind the First Family’s private residence. “I see that the end of the war hasn’t lightened your mood any.”

Crook continued to smile a bit sardonically now. “The damned war may be over, but there’s nearly half the nation not pleased with its outcome or how it came to pass. There’s been another series of threats against his life.”

“Oh, no. I thought the Pinkertons rounded up the conspirators?”

“Rounded up three groups. We’re keeping eyes and ears on a fourth in Baltimore. ‘Knights of the Golden Circle’ is what they call themselves. Word is, some local celebrities and such are members. And there’s talk that they’re planning something big in the next few weeks.”

From the back of the darkened room a tall figure emerged. “And young Mr. Klay, I made the dreadful mistake of telling my worrisome bride about it and about some dreams I’ve had of me not seeing summer.”

Thomas removed his hat. “Mr. President, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were here!”

Abraham Lincoln extended his hand. “And I imagine that there are members of Congress who wish I weren’t. Good to see you, Thomas. I appreciate you coming all the way over the river to this city filled with desperados, confidence men, ladies of ill repute and neglected children. Of course, I am speaking of Congress again and have included their families in my assessment of the residents of this District.”

Thomas shook the tall man’s hand. “I came at once, sir.”

“How are things on the farm?” the President asked.

“Things are going well, sir. As soon as we get a solid patch of warm temperatures, I’ll be able to plant this year’s crop. I spent all winter clearing away the debris in father’s workshop and I’ve restored all of the functions in mother’s laboratory.  It wasn’t easy to get things going again, especially in the lab.”

“I imagine not. As you know, Mary was particularly saddened by the entire course of events. She truly loved Elizabeth and appreciated all she did when Willie took ill. She credits your mother with saving his life.” The president rested a hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “I’m not quite sure what your mother did, but I do know for a fact that those medicines and curative methods she employed worked a far sight better than what Willie’s uncle did. 

“My poor boy was dying and I’m certain that despite what his uncle, DOCTOR William Wallace says, your mother cured him. Named my boy after him and he refused to admit that a person of color, a woman no less, was able to do what he was unable to. If Willie was a girl, I would’ve changed his name to Elizabeth right then and there.’

“Yes, sir,” Thomas said looking down. “She was remarkable in many ways. I miss them both every day.”

W.H. Crook interrupted, “Mr. President, do you believe we should tell him about Seward?”

The President nodded. “Yes, but not in this drafty room. Come in and let’s warm ourselves by the fire. It’s nearly April and here we are wrapped up and shivering like Canadian fur trappers.”

Leading the way into the main part of the residence, the young inventor and bodyguard followed Lincoln as he removed his coat and gave it to one of the staff, waiting in a large, well-lit parlor. “Peter, you remember Thomas Klay? He’s come here to fend off our latest band of rabble rousers who wish to do me personal harm.”

A smile widened across the elderly black man’s face. “Thomas! It is a pleasure. You know we still use that machine your father invented to clean, iron and fold the bed sheets. It’s a bit squeaky these days, but those linens are as clean as if they were woven yesterday.”

Thomas embraced the old man. “Mr. Brown, you should have sent for me sooner. A bit of lubricant is all we’ll need to fix that. I see that your employer has been feeding you well!”

Lincoln interrupted, “Peter, while I am certain that your expanding waistline is of prime importance to you and Mrs. Lincoln’s priorities extend into the linens but I happen to know she is also concerned about my continued good health. Let’s allow our young mechanical savant to focus on the latter at present.”

As Peter Brown left the room, W.H. Crook took a leather bound portfolio from a desk and displayed its contents; a number of handwritten reports and daguerreotypes of what appeared to be of the interior of a house in disarray.

Crook began, “Last week our Secretary of State, William Seward was brutally attacked by an intruder wearing a yellow hood. Seward was in bed, recovering from an illness at the time when the would-be assassin entered the house and shot but only wounded his son, Fredrick. When his pistol jammed he whipped him with it.”

“A yellow hood?” Thomas asked.

“Yes, we believe that is the part of the uniform for the Knights of the Golden Circle,” Crook said. “The attacker climbed the stairs to the Secretary’s room where upon he stabbed Seward’s daughter, Fanny and younger son, Augustus. The hoodlum then forced himself past a nurse and uniformed Army officer and set to repeatedly stab the Secretary on the face and neck.”

Lincoln interjected, “Seward is recovering and God was benevolent enough to spare his family. God obviously has a keen sense of humor to allow him to continue to pester me on a regular basis.”

“My deepest sympathies to his family,” Thomas offered. Turning to Crook, Thomas said, “It was a gang of yellow-hooded men who attacked my father and mother two years ago.”

“I am aware of that, Thomas,” Crook responded. “No doubt, it is the same band. Now that the war is over, these men have evolved from soldiers to criminals. The assassin has been apprehended and we have confirmed he is a member of the Knights. We are close to extracting the names of his fellow conspirators to stop them before they can wreak havoc again.”

Thomas drew a breath to speak but was interrupted by Lincoln, “I asked you here today, my ingenious young man, to help us in ending these crimes against our great nation? Do you have some machine that has more cunning than a brute filled with hatred and bloodlust?”

“No sir, I do not,” Thomas answered quickly. “It is important that we draw each of these men into the light. But such men do not do so without the promise of achieving their plots. Like on the farm, we need bait to lure the rats from their holes, Mr. President.”

“And what bait do you think will do such a thing? I doubt they will surface for just any cheese,” the tall man asked.

“Our bait is you, Mr. President,” Thomas said. “They are out to see your death in plain view of many. This death must be public and attested to by a large number of witnesses.” He smiled. “Mr. President, I believe you need to attend the theater.”

Descending into the White House basement laboratory that had been his and his father’s for much of the war, Thomas lead Crook to a locked cabinet. Unfastening the hasp, he peered inside and smiled. It was still there.

Lincoln followed behind with his trusted servant, Peter at his arm. “Mr. Brown, you’re about to see something that you can’t tell your beloved wife, Bessie about. You might say that this secret is at the top of the list of many secrets.”

As Peter looked at the thing within the wooden box, he gasped. “Mr. President, oh my lord, it’s…it’s you!”

Sitting stoically with a fixed stare was a replica of the tall man, himself. Unmoving and dusty, the appearance was near perfect. Its black boots and suit was covered in cobwebs. Upon its lap sat a black stove pipe hat.

Lincoln laughed. “No Peter, meet my Music Man twin brother. I would wager that there are more photographs, ambrotypes, daguerreotypes and carte de visites of this handsome gentleman standing in the battlefield than of yours truly. If you ever have wondered why I am pictured rarely smiling in those captured images, well, it seems that Thomas couldn’t work that out.”

Thomas shook his head. “Mr. President, I can address that problem, but not with this wax bust. My mother devised a pliant material made from the sap of a tree that grows in the tropics. From the processed material, we can fashion a better, more flexible face. But I’m afraid we won’t have time for that. We’ll need to use this one, perhaps with a bit more gray to its beard.”

“Indeed,” the President said, “I suggest a great deal more.”

Crook instantly understood the gist of the plan. “So we are to place this device in view of the public whenever the President is to appear in public with the hopes that an attempt will be made upon his life?”

Thomas nodded. “Yes. I would caution that it would be best that no one comes too close. It’s a good resemblance, but far from perfect.”

Crook interjected, “But if I recall, this thing creates a good noise when puffing about and it needs regular feedings of kerosene to keep it upright. Even someone with poor eyesight would be able to hear it crossing a street a block away and would wonder why it smelled of coal oil downwind of the thing.”

Thomas stood silent for some time before reaching into his valise. He withdrew a large glass cylinder outfitted with several glass tubes capped with oil cloth. “Mr. President, I believe I’ve solved, or rather, my mother solved that problem some time ago.”

Within the cylinder flowed a viscous liquid, swirling green, red and amber.

Holding it to the light, he continued, “It’s a rare form of algae. My mother was given a small sample of it by her father who brought it from sea caves in the West Indies. She grew it in her lab with little effort for it regenerates much on its own.”

Thomas explained that the algae created marsh gas, also known as methane. The methane was odorless, colorless and highly flammable. “When mixed with the correct about of air, it creates a heat and flame which in turn creates carbon dioxide which feeds the algae to create more gas. More importantly, this particular algae does so in the absence of light,” he explained.

Lincoln stared at the substance with understanding. “So this algae, this plant continues to create fuel again and again without end?”

Shaking his head, Thomas said, “Not exactly. Within a closed loop device, this can continue for a good length of time before the algae dies unless more carbon dioxide or small amounts of nutrients are introduced. This pint can go on for a while on its own, though.”

Crook asked, “For how long?”

Thomas looked again at the swirling liquid, “I’d say this would produce enough fuel to power a lightweight Music Man for about 10 hours.”

The room was silent for a long while until Lincoln spoke first. “Do you realize what you have there, son? I dare say that coal could become a thing of the past very quickly. How much of this have you made?”

Thomas blushed as he said, “I’ve carefully grown quite a bit. I limit the amount of carbon dioxide, mother algae and nutrients that is added to the growing media, but at present I’ve got about five hundred gallons stored underground at the farm.”

Crook ceased the moment by saying, “Mr. President, we should be quite cautious about letting this information reach too many ears. We are a country of coal but more importantly, we have a problem with murderous thugs to manage and ferret out.

“If I understand correctly, Thomas hopes to make your twin run on this marsh gas, appearing in public as yourself. If an attempt is made on your life, that attempt will be directed towards him,” he said, pointing to the sitting mannequin.  “We must choose when and where our mechanical man is to be shown.”

Pacing now, he continued, “It must be a place where the public cannot get too close but we won’t need to worry about refueling or noxious fumes. What about the puffing? Can that be muffled sufficiently to render him virtually silent?”

Thomas nodded, “If you haven’t been by the farm lately, you’ll notice that I’ve devised mufflers and dampeners on all of the farm equipment. I like hearing the birds in the fields. And before you ask, this Music Man does not squeak or clank.” He lifted the Music Man’s pant leg to reveal lightweight bamboo fashioned limbs and cloth washer hinges at each joint.

Lincoln smiled broadly. “By Jehovah, I like this plan.  Thomas, when you suggested that I attend the theater, I have promised Mary we would do just that. She wanted me to accompany her to see, ‘My American Cousin’ at the Ford in a few weeks. I’m afraid that the flesh and blood Lincoln will disappoint his bride once again. It would appear that Mary and I are going to miss that performance. I do hope she’ll forgive me.”

Thomas smiled as the President grasped his shoulders as one would a friend. There was much to do. There would be announcements of their attendance to the play. The President and his wife would ride together to the theater only to be escorted out a side door as a mannequin of the First Lady was positioned behind a curtain of the Presidential box. Curtains drawn, she would appear to be waiting patiently as her husband stiffly walked to his seat before waving slowly to the crowd below. Security around the box would be reduced to provide the best opportunity for the assassin or assassins to make their move.

There was all that and more. Thomas hoped he had thought of everything. If the mechanical President was not imperiled that evening, Mary would have once again be denied an evening out with her husband and the ongoing threat against his life would remain.

But Thomas had promised the First Lady that if it made it back, he had a special treat in store for her the next day when a jig would be danced by something that looked very much like the President.

Mary got her promised performance on April 15, 1865 as a very alive and very human President danced a jig at noon.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

5 more things at 61

It was one year from yesterday that I posted a few observations of things I've learned in 60 years on this warming rock when I wrote "30 things at 60". Make no mistake that this short piece was attempting to reflect the broad wisdom and insight gained in that time but more of a reflection of how much I did not understand and how much more I wanted to learn.

I reviewed the list and it still applies in most ways, but since then I have a few more that I wish to add. Today I begin my 61st year and I am grateful and surprised by it all. When you're even 40, it's very difficult to imagine what one will feel like at this age. In truth, I feel very much the same though I might tire more readily physically or have more patience for some people (all the while having MUCH less for others) but certainly appreciate minute moments and small but singular events a great deal more.

With that, here's an addendum to the original 30 things.

5 more things at 61

31. Fans of televised professional sports are just as nerdy as comic book, Star Trek or Hogwarts nerds. Professional sports are based on imagined reality just as much as the exploits of Captain Kirk or H. Potter. The passion, nuanced data gathering and loyalty of each type of fan is very similar in depth and dedication. However, I've yet to hear of riots or police cars being overturned and burned because Spock was killed off.

32. We can learn much from nature and being in its presence is more important that we can imagine. Getting to nature and being open and wise enough to listen to its message does take effort, but worth it.

33. Forever seeking and questioning and pondering the presence of God or a higher power without expecting to actually gaining understanding is a noble endeavor. Hopeful belief is not an unreasonable position to take in such matters.

34. Telling those you love that you do is so vital to maintaining relationships and connections it cannot be overstated. One must give love to receive love.

35. Make everyday count. Each day should contain at least one thing that sets it apart from yesterday. We are given such damned few days on this melting rock that to waste even one is unforgivable.

That's all for now. Thank you, my friends for putting up with the waxing didactic of a man who is appreciative of each of you beyond words. I'm not sure what I did to deserve such a blessed life, but perhaps realizing that is part of the answer.