Monthly Archives: January 2013

Try a Little Kindness or the Kindness of strangers

I was not going to do a post today. I have been doing on average two a day for a while now and thought, ‘what the heck, I can take a break now and then, can’t I?’ The obvious answer being yes as I don’t have to sing for my supper to any man or woman where my blog is concerned and I was a bit busy today trying to get my financial affairs in order.

I set aside an entire day to call the folks I owe money to and explain that the old solution was no longer viable and that I was having to re-do the whole thing. I found myself giving the “Reader’s Digest” version of my last year over and over. The amazing thing was that not only did it get easier each time but I found I was still able to laugh at my “overabundance” of bad luck last year.

I think the thing that made it that little bit easier to chuckle at my current dilemma was the kindness shown by each and every one of the people I talked to on the phone today. One young man took severe umbrage at the fact that my pension was going to be so tiny.

He was so upset that he began to search the internet for help for me and find numbers of people to call. I assured him that I was doing all that already, but he still felt the need to help. Now here’s the amazing bit; this young man works for a collection agency that took over my debt problem from couple of major credit card companies. The company responsible for making sure I pay the money I owe.

I was flabbergasted and touched. This fellows show of empathy and humanity really helped me; more than I can say or even try to explain. I thanked him for his concern and his help and offers of further help. I hung up the phone at the end of our business in a much better mood. I actually felt chipper (an old-fashioned word I know, but damn-it it fits) and gave thanks once more to a young man named Stuart who cared.

But that’s not all. Everyone I spoke to today reacted the same way. Each and every company I spoke to responded to me and my situation with a wealth of empathy and understanding and well wishes. I was complemented repeatedly on my ability to laugh at my bad luck and I had one or two other folks who also wanted to help by making sure I was speaking to the right people.

I had made these same phone calls in the beginning of December with the news that everything should be sorted out by now via an agreement written by a financial company. Unfortunately, before the middle of December everything changed when I found out that I no longer worked for the Ministry of Justice and was being medically retired. Once I received my paperwork verifying the result of my meeting with my number one governor, I decided I needed to call the debt charity folks and see what I could do.

These charity people were also very helpful and assured me that bankruptcy was not an option just yet. They explained that my circumstances were way too up in the air and that it would take the court at least a year to make a decision. They gave me great guidelines on what to do and a timeline to do it in. The helpful chap also gave me his personal phone number to contact him on.

Needless to say, I’ve had an uplifting of spirits in the last 48 hours and it is thanks to the charity folks and their positive attitudes and the brilliantly helpful and kind customer service representatives I spoke to today.

I sat here waiting for tea and I realised that the kindness shown to me today did not just surprise me, it shocked me. I thought of an old Glen Campbell song called Try a Little Kindness and it began a sort of loop in my head (it’s still playing now) and I then thought of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire and her “relying on the kindness of strangers.”

I then decided I had to post about my day and the unexpected delight of it. The kindness of these total strangers; people who did not know me and really only knew what I had told them. People that get these sort of phone calls all too often in these financially stressful times; probably so many times that they must tire of it. Yet the folks all offered help, well wishes, and most importantly a final message of intent.

The intent to provide further assistance if I need it.

I had a lot of calls to make today and I really dreaded doing it. But the positive and caring response I got from each company’s representative made the chore less difficult and a lot less embarrassing.

I’ll leave on a positive note and a thankful one. Thanks again Stuart and all you other folks who made an old man very proud to be part of the human race once again.

R-Point (2004): Ghosts & Ghoulies Vietnamese style

This 2004 South Korean horror “war” film was the first horror film I’d seen set during a war. More importantly it was the first horror film set during the  Vietnamese war. This highly unpopular war (protested vehemently in the US on university campuses across the country and more draft dodgers than all the wars ever fought) has not featured a lot in the horror department. Except for the superior 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder.

Of course filmmakers might have been a bit leery about trying to compete with the brilliant Jacob’s Ladder; which to be fair was a great film based around the backdrop of the Vietnamese war and not during it. I know it scared the ever-loving crap out of me when I saw it and I don’t think I was the only person to be totally “creeped out” by the film.

But South Korean writer/director Su-chang Kong rose to the challenge and came up with a film that had all the creep factor of Jacob’s Ladder combined with the chills and uneasiness of the unknown and dead people who don’t look or act dead at all.

Set in 1972, R-Point is about a radio message from a patrol that went missing six months ago on a Vietnamese island and the men are all assumed to be dead. The commander of the base decides to send out another patrol to find the missing men.  Lieutenant Choi Tae-in (Woo-seong Kam) is a highly decorated war hero who is also in a lot of trouble for going to an off-limits part of town to visit a prostitute and while he’s there, the soldier who accompanied him is murdered by a VC insurgent. Choi kills the woman responsible, but the soldier is still dead.

After being told that this mission is his chance to redeem himself, he and eight other soldiers are to find the missing soldiers and bring their dog-tags home. The men who have “volunteered” are from the local base’s “Clap clinic” and men who are near their rotation date. They have all been told that if they are successful that they’ll take the jet back home to a heroes welcome.

Posing on the beach.

When the squad reach the island they take a picture of themselves on the beach and begin heading towards the location of the radio signals. While going through a forest, they get ambushed by an old man and a woman. When the ambushers are taken care of, the old man dead and the woman dying, the men come up to a Chinese message on a stone.

One of the men, who can read Chinese, reads the message that says years ago, Chinese troops killed Vietnamese villagers and put their body in a lake; later the Vietnamese filled the lake in and built a shrine over the mass grave. It is now a sacred place. As the men leave one of the men urinates on the stone revealing the rest of the message; it says that anyone who has blood on their hands will never leave the place.

The men find what they think is the  “temple” and use that as their base of operations. While they are there, they meet a squad of American soldiers who aren’t what they seem and they find out about a French garrison that was wiped out years ago. As the men begin searching the island, the radio operator starts getting messages from a French radio operator who tells him that he and his brother will come over to visit. When he tells the Lieutenant, the first thing the lieutenant asks is how the operator knows what the Frenchman is saying as he does not speak French.

So when did you learn to speak French?

This film is atmospheric, scary, uneasy, and will have you jumping at any loud noise. It is a “look behind you” movie. It will seriously “creep” you out and the many plot twists will have you second-guessing throughout the entire film. The film actually starts entering the land of “creepy happenings” from the moment the squad reaches the island. When the film ended, Meg and I went back to the beginning and found a lot of things that we had missed the first time, this not only showed the film makers cleverness but it  seriously added to the effect  of the film

All the actors are top-notch and really sell their characters and you can connect with them quickly. The film looks great considering it was shot on a shoe-string budget. All the scenes were filmed in Cambodia around Bokor Hill Station which is an actual French ghost town.

I have watched this film repeatedly and it never fails to give me goose bumps. I will leave you with one bit of advice: if you watch this film, do not watch it in the dark or watch it alone. It’s that scary. From the first scene where the radio picks up the static ridden signal of the “missing men” to the last frame, it is war horror gold.

The “missing” patrol.

Ernest Borgnine: Keeping his Nuts Warm


The full title of this autobiography by Ernest Borgnine is: Ernest Borgnine: I Don’t Want To Set the World on Fire, I Just Want to Keep My Nuts Warm. The title came from a sign that Mr Borgnine had seen in his younger days that was advertising hot chestnuts, the sign stuck with him and became the title of his autobiography.

This 2009 book helped his fans learn so much about him. It was a brilliant look at a man who seemingly did not have a bad word to say about anyone. I stumbled across this hardcover copy of his book last year. Sadly, I had barely finished reading it when the news of his death was broadcast; a truly sad day for fans over the world and a loss to his friends and family.

Like most folks my age, I grew up watching episodes of McHale’s Navy (which also had the brilliant Tim Conway among the cast) and chuckled along with everyone else at his and his men’s antics. I saw his award-winning performance as the lovelorn and lonely butcher Marty and watched him die a slow motion death in The Wild Bunch.

Borgnine was one of the few actors who worked constantly. He bounced from television to film and back again. He played every type roll imaginable and towards the end of his career he even voiced a popular character on the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon enabling him to reach an entire new generation of fans.

If you are looking for a “kiss and tell” type of book that dredges up all the old skeleton’s from the closet, don’t bother picking this book up. If you want to read a book that leaves you with a warm glow and an overall feeling of Bonhomme then this is the book for you.

Borgnine recounts his early years from when he joined the Navy right out of high school, his time as a “mature” student of 28 and his start in the theatre world doing repertory theatre. All of his memories of working in the entertainment business have an aura of excitement and joy in doing something he was good at and loved doing.

He writes about his experience in Marty and From Here to Eternity; He also tells about his experiences with some of the most powerful actors in the business.

He also talks about his marriages and he recounts his horrible lapse in judgement that caused him to marry Ethel Merman only to have the marriage dissolved 32 days later.

Mr Borgnine was among the few actors formally recognised as being the oldest in their profession who had not retired. He was proud of that and he was just as excited doing the voice of Mermaid Man and working with his old pal Tim Conway (who voiced Mermaid Man’s sidekick Barnacle Boy) and being heard by a new young generation of fans.

Ernest Borgnine was an actor who filled his roles. He did the same with his life. Nothing was too hard or too difficult to attempt and he was game for everything. There are not too many left like Mr Borgnine. Luckily for us he told us a lot about himself before he exited from the wings of life.

A great sentimental and feel good book about a great actor in his words; what could be wrong with that.

And just for fun: did you know that Ernest Borgnine was the only actor to be in all the Dirty Dozen films?

If you haven’t read this, do so immediately; it’s worth the time and effort and it is not too long at 245 pages with a bunch of great pictures to divert yourself with.

5 stars.

Uzumaki (2000): The Spirals in the town go round, round, round

Uzumaki original poster.

Uzumaki originally began life as a three-volume horror manga by Junji Ito. The theme (according to Wikipedia) is as follows: The story concerns the inhabitants of the small Japanese town of Kurôzu-cho that seems to be cursed by supernatural events surrounding spirals. Many people become obsessed or paranoid about spiral shapes, which starts resulting in several gruesome deaths. Eventually people start transforming into something other than human, such as snails and twisted forms. In the end the town is cut off from the rest of the world, which leads to apocalyptic events and a revelation about the secret hidden under the lake in the middle of the town. [sic]

The film follows the manga to a great degree focusing on some aspects and leaving others out. The ending is different as the manga had not finished when the film was made.

Directed by Higuchinsky Uzumaki was his second foray into the world of film the first being a TV movie (Long Dream which also dealt with supernatural theme and was based on a comic) before doing films Higuchinsky directed music videos. Being a fan of manga he decided to make the feature film based on Junji Ito’s story.

Ito is well-known for doing “horror” comics. He also did Tomie. Tomie is another manga that has been made into feature films as well. Takashi Shimzu even made a version of it. Including Uzumaki and Tomie, 21 of Ito’s manga’s have been made into films.

Uzumaki tells of a small village that is “cursed” by spirals and it centres on schoolgirl Kirie Goshima, her boyfriend Shuichi Saito and his family; and some of Kirie’s classmates. A reporter comes to the town to investigate the odd events and he winds up being afflicted by the curse as well.

The deaths of those touched by the “curse of the spiral” all centre around spirals. One girl’s hair starts turning into intricate spiral shapes and traps her, starving her to death. Another lad gets wound around the tyre of a car that runs him down. Spirals have taken the village over and separated them from the world outside (except for the reporter).

Higuchinsky has taken great care to set the film up in the style of the manga. He uses green shading throughout, just like the manga does. He also sets the death scenes up “manga style;” copying  set pieces from the book itself. Of course like the manga, spirals appear everywhere, often in places where you would not think to look.

The ultimate bad hair day.

There is quite a lot that did not make it into the film. The episode with the pregnant ladies from the village and their new babies is just one example. Other scenes; like the school boy turning into a snail-like creature is in the film and it’s done brilliantly, looking again just like a “live” manga.

The film also changed some of the character’s interaction. The girl with the spiral hair is originally competing with Kirie in a sort of spiral hair contest. In the manga Shuichi saves Kirie by cutting her curly locks off. In the film Kirie does not have a single curl on her head.

Most of the cast are first time actors with the exception of Beat Takeshi regular Ren Ohsugi and Keiko Takahashi. But this wealth of “new” talent does not hurt the film. This is a brilliant little film and it is fun to watch. Oddly enough, despite the excellent job that Higuchinsky does on this film, he has not worked on any further projects since 2003. Google his name and nothing comes up past that point.

If anyone out there knows what Higuchinsky is doing now, please let me know. I hate to think of all that talent going to waste. As I’ve said before he got his start doing music videos; and  this was his first foray into feature films (his first being a TV film and not a proper feature length film) and he actually filmed Uzumaki in less than 2 weeks with a budget of under a million dollars. This type of ingenuity is hard to find.

Some critics have said that the film is hard to follow and confusing. As Higuchinsky himself said, “What’s so confusing? It’s a film about spirals.” I could not have put it any better myself.

Uzumaki is a definite 5 star film. It is also a film that should top any list of “films to see” before you shuffle off this mortal coil.

Twisted love.

The Chief, British Rail, and My End

the chief

I had mentioned doing an episode of The Chief in a previous post Name Dropping Pt 6 Stanley Kubrick, that was the last of my “extra” jobs for my duo of agents in Norwich. It was actually a great morning out.

It paid over £125 for just a half days work and I was “upgraded” from background artiste to getting a bit of business to do in front of the camera. The episode was going to be the opener for season 3 and the plot centred round a bomber. I played an Inspector from the CID who showed a picture of the suspect to an informer and then passed him a few pounds for his trouble.

The Chief was actor Martin Shaw‘s next long running TV series. Shaw, who had made a name for himself in the long running 1970’s television show The Professionals, played the second fiddle in the show until season 3 where he was promoted to the Chief position of the title.

Typically, I did not get a chance to meet him or any of the other “names” in the show. I did get to work with a Shakespearean actor who was appearing in Norwich at the time. He was a lovely chap and we rehearsed our “bit of business” over and over until we could do it without dropping either the photograph that he was meant to look at or the money which I was meant to give him. The director was very pleased that we’d rehearsed on our own and the shot was done in two takes, the second in case the angle was wrong.

I then shook hands with my co-worker and they moved a bit further down and did the second scene without yours truly. I was done. I’d had a glut of bacon sarnies, met A.J. Quinn the director and both of the assistant directors and spent a very pleasant summer morning in a riverside pub in Norwich. Most importantly my ranking as an extra had gone up the scale.

I don’t know where the paperwork is, in a file somewhere I’m sure as I always saved these types of things, but you got a sheet with your pay packet that explained what you did for the production. There were three different “ranks” of extra. It numbered from one to three. A one had nothing to do but be there, either standing about or sitting, you were used to “fill” the scene. A two had something to actually do and you got props to play with, in my case a 50 pound note and a photograph. A three had a line or two. Each rank paid a bit more than the others with the “one” paying best.

*I may have the “rank” backward (it was a long time ago) but the breakdown is correct regardless of the order*

After the job, I’d managed to acquire a London agent and I wrote both agents to let them know I did not require their services any longer. There was no wailing and rending of clothes at my departure, they had a long line of folks who were eager to work as a supporting artiste. The only thing my absence from their books really meant was that I was out of work for a very long time.

My new agent helped to get my mush into Spotlight which was (and still is as far as I know) the UK casting director’s bible. We splashed for a ½ page ad and I waited for the offers to come flooding in.

Part of my half-page ad in Spotlight…a million years ago.

I did get a few offers, but the business was going through a slump. I got a call out for one of those “cinema” adverts with no luck. I’ve already written about my close call with Stanley Kubrick; and I won’t even mention the “vocal coaching tape” I did for what I later found out was to be a porn film.

I did get to meet a few folks and my agent was doing his best. I got a call out of the blue from him. He has a client that had shortlisted me for a role in a Japanese company’s training film. I would go to a hotel conference room in South Kensington and walk around the room carrying a briefcase and delivering my lines in my “native” tongue. According to my agent, it was dead certain that they would pick me.

I was over the moon. I grabbed my one suit and got it cleaned. I checked on the train times to London. I could either go the night before and crash at my agent’s house or I could take a train in the morning. Morning was more convenient and it was decided that night that my daughter would accompany me.

I am pretty sure that I have written about this day before, but I’ll be damned if I can find it. So I’ll trot the abysmal mess out one more time.

By the time I’d argued with my then wife, gotten my daughter ready and took the bus down to the train, we had only one train we could get to London and still meet the audition time. We broke all speed records purchasing the tickets and we were the first people on the train. As we settled ourselves the train started powering up to draw away; then it stopped. It powered up again and it stopped. This went on for ten minutes.

Finally the train stopped making any noise at all and a member of British Rail’s staff came down the aisles and told everyone that as the dining car was broken, this particular train would not be going to London; everyone would have to take the next train. Sorry for the inconvenience, blah blah, blah didi blah.

I was horrified. The next train was not due for another twenty minutes. Add that to the train journey and the time spent crossing London through the underground to Kensington and there was no way that I was going to make the audition in time. Panic stricken, I grabbed my daughter Meg up and ran with her to the nearest pay phone.

I rang my agent and explained the situation. The other end of the phone was silent. I could feel his anger (well rage really) and disappoint me all the way through the phone. “There’s nothing for it,” he said, “I can’t ring them as they’ve started the auditions already. If you show up late they won’t see you. We’ll have to give this one a miss.” He then rang off without saying goodbye.

I then got my ticket refunded and Meg and I slunk home. I was more depressed than words could describe and I was in the blackest of moods. A shot time later, my agent’s wife died and I went to see him and express my deepest sympathy, she’d been a lovely lady and had been in the original cast of the radio show The Archers.

My agent treated me to tea and we had a long chat. He was amazed that my then wife did not support my forays into the business and I believe that the wheels started turning in his head even then. Not long after he sent me a short note to ask about new pictures for Spotlight. My missus insisted that we could not afford any new photos and that was that.

I spun some yarn about it being too pricey my end and said that the next time I was in London I’d find a cheaper photographer. My agent wasn’t having any of it. He sent me a letter two weeks to the day after my porky pie (lie) about the photos. He dropped me. I was not surprised. The lovely man had paid for my advert to run for another two years after I’d place the initial advert. With me earning absolute bugger all, he’d gambled that I would find work and give him a return on his investment.

To say that I was suicidal is not an understatement nor is it an exaggeration. After I received his letter, I sat down and put all my back pain medication out in front of me. I opened every packet and put them in little piles; one for the diazepam; one for the codeine; one for the Tramadol; and two more for the muscle relaxants and the anti depressants.

Before I could take too many, my then wife asked me what she was supposed to tell our daughter. That stopped me. I knew that what I was doing was wrong and unfair, not to mention pretty damned stupid. So I stopped and we rang the hospital to get my stomach pumped.

I had not taken many so the pump was unnecessary. The shrink who talked to me asked was it a cry for help and I said yes and left it at that. It was more than a cry for help though; it was a wail of anguish at a dream ended; a scream of anger and disappointment so deep that I never really recovered from it. I did not die that day, be it was the end of me. I was never the same nor could I even try to be.

When I hear the phrase “the living dead” I smile. I know exactly what they mean, I lived it. But time heals all wounds and eventually I rediscovered my need to be creative and my first love, writing. I am no longer a living dead person and the journey of rediscovery is long and slow but, hopefully, worth the trip.

Down but not out…yet.


Tom‘s grandpa called him from outside his grandparent’s house. “Tom, come on out here. I want to show you something.”

Tom reluctantly tore his eyes off of the roller derby he’d been watching and stood up. It must be something interesting, Grandpa wouldn’t have called him otherwise. “Okay.” Tom shouted back. He switched the television off and glanced guiltily at his Grandma. She was sleeping setting up on the couch, but she had not even blinked when he’d shouted.

Grabbing his straw cowboy hat, Tom ran out the closer front door and crossed the porch with its covering of yellow grains of fly poison and dead flies. He knew that later Grandpa would sweep all the bodies and poison up and throw it in the ditch; he’d then spread new poison and remind Tom needlessly about not touching it.

Even though Tom was 12, he knew that Grandpa wasn’t treating him like a baby, he was just being careful. Something that Grandpa was very good at. Years before when Tom was about 5 or 6 Grandpa had worked at a lumber mill two towns away. He worked the big band saw that made planks out of trees.

“I was just standing there feeding the tree through the saw. It was stupid what happened. That damned old place was noisy as hell,” Grandpa paused and looked around cautiously for Grandma, she did not like it when he swore, she went to church every Sunday and would get really cross when he used foul language as she put it. “I heard a horn honk outside the factory on the main road. I glanced out the window and when I looked back, four of my fingers were laying in the sawdust on the floor. I don’t remember anything after that because I passed out.”

He stopped and pulled a machine-made cigarette out of his shirt pocket; put one end in his mouth and struck a match on the seat of his jeans. “They said it was damned lucky that I fell backwards when I passed out. If I’d fallen forward, I would have lost a lot more than my fingers.”

He always chuckled when he got to that bit while his eyes kept looking for Grandma. He never tired of telling that story, Tom knew because he’d asked him a least a hundred times how he’d lost his fingers. Grandpa always used to say that he learned all about being careful after his accident.

When Tom rounded the corner of his grandparents stone house, he saw his Grandpa standing in between the garden plot and the two rows of grapes in front of the barn. He held his .410/.22 over and under shotgun in his left hand. His right hand with a thumb, one half of a middle finger and all of his little finger rubbed his mouth; he alternated this gesture with licking his lips.

Tom found out years after his Grandpa had died that he had a drinking problem and that the rubbing and licking was a dead give-a-way that he wanted a drink. He went around the back of the house, skirting the ivy that grew on the corner of the house because it had a tendency to sway in the breeze and sometimes it would tap you as you walked near it. He glanced quickly at the stuff that was full of big black spiders and the odd tarantula; just looking at it made goose bumps dart up and down his back.

Grandpa was wearing his old grey work trousers and a snappy blue striped long sleeve shirt that he’d rolled the sleeves up to his elbows to ease off the explosive heat of the day. He also wore his grey hat, its brim was round and the crown had been fixed into a flat Arizona style that was pinched in the front from him taking it off and putting it on. He never used the brim to remove the hat, because as he put it, “It would make the brim droop so I couldn’t see very well.”

Grandpa smiled that perfect false teeth smile that Tom had grown up seeing, the one that made years drop off his face and had the curious effect of making him seem both kind and contrary. Thinking about it, that pretty much explained grandpa’s personality in a nutshell, kind enough and good-humoured, but, he did bite if you got him riled.

Tom had no idea how old his grandfather really was. His age changed from year to year. His birth records and the family Bible had been destroyed in a fire and he claimed to have no real idea when his birthday was. Mom said she thought he knew perfectly well how old he was but that it was his idea of a joke to keep changing it each year. Tom had to admit, he found it pretty funny. Grandma never said one way or the other how she felt about it.

“Come on up with me to the barn Tom,” Grandpa said. “There’s something I need you to check on for me.” He turned and started walking up to the gate that led to the barn. The chickens, which were fenced in by the barn along with their henhouse, started clucking and chasing each other around at the sound of the gate being opened.

Tom liked looking at the ground when the weather was this hot and dry; each time your foot touched the ground a puff of pale dust would drift lazily up, just like in a western where the horse’s hooves would make little dust geysers when they trotted across the ground. Tom wished he had spurs on his boots so they make that ca-ching noise while he walked through across the dusty ground. That would have been so cool.

“Stupid damn things think they’re going to get fed,” Grandpa said. He chuckled and closed the gate behind Tom. As they approached the barn the air seemed to get very still and a lot hotter. Grandpa took off his hat and pulled a bandanna out of his pocket to wipe his forehead. “The top of that barn is blasting out heat like a furnace, ain’t it?” Tom nodded and the old man finished wiping his brow and put his hat back on while the damp bandanna wound up back in his pants pocket.

“I need you to go up into the loft of the barn for me. You don’t need to stay up there it’s too damned hot to spend too long up there.”

“What do you want me to do, Grandpa?”

“I need you to tell me if you see a possum’s nest up there. Something has been stealing eggs and I’m pretty damn sure it’s not a weasel. A weasel would kill the chickens or at least worry the hell out of them. They’d be all bloodied up and spooked.”

They both arrived at the ladder leading to the barn’s loft at the same time. Grandpa was right, Tom thought. It was like a furnace in the barn and not just in the loft either. The heat made shimmery waves in the air as you looked up at the barn roof. Tom hoped grandpa had meant what he said about not being up there too long.

“Climb on up there boy and look for that nest. Tell me if you see anything.” Grandpa sat on a stump and pulled out one of his cigarettes and lit it. “Like I said, don’t take too long. It’s too hot.”

Tom went slowly up the ladder. He didn’t like heights and had a fear of falling. He gritted his teeth and went up; he wasn’t going to chicken out in front of his grandpa. He’d just concentrate on the barn wall in front of him and not look down.

As he went up he could hear the cicadas buzzing, the noise sounded angry and loud. The first time Tom had heard the sound he was scared. He’d never heard anything like it before. His dad had just laughed and said, “Don’t be scared of that. It’s just a jar-fly.” Dad had looked on the ground and found a dead one to show him. “It’s their wings that make that noise, I reckon. They’re pretty big so that must be why they’re so loud.”

Tom got to the top of the ladder and took a cautious step or two into the barn’s stifling loft. The buzzing seemed to be louder in here and sweat ran down his face and body. The hay in the loft made his skin sticky and itchy in seconds and you could see hay motes swirling in the air, despite the lack of breeze in the barn.

Suddenly Tom caught the whiff of something rotten. It smelt like the sulphur water at his friend Hank’s house only worse. Putting his hand over his nose and mouth he headed towards the smell. Looking down at the floor he saw a lot of eggs scattered around one corner of the loft. He picked one up with the idea that he would show it to grandpa, he then noticed that the smell seemed to be coming from the eggs.

He dropped the one he had been holding and it exploded on the floor by his feet. Instantly the smell got ten times worse and he started to gag. He whirled around and headed toward the ladder to get down. His eyes were watering so badly he couldn’t see properly and he almost walked right off the edge of the loft. He waved his arms for balance and then backed blindly down the ladder.

He was in such a hurry to get away from the smell that he actually fell off the ladder just before the bottom and he landed in a huge puff of dust.

Grandpa stood up with his mouth gapped open for a minute and then started laughing. “What the hell was that all about? Are you okay?” He stepped forward and stretched out his almost fingerless hand for Tom to pull himself up.

Getting to his feet, Tom used his hat to dust himself off. “There’s lot of rotten eggs up there Grandpa; all in one corner of the loft.”

“Did you catch any sign of that damned possum?”

“No, sir just lots of rotten eggs.”

“That’s where he’s taken em alright. I’ll have to come back tonight after dark and grease his skids.”

“What does that mean, Grandpa?”

The old man shook the gun gently, “I’m gonna turn him into a possum angel, boy.”

Grandpa walked off toward the house chuckling to himself and Tom followed after him. When they got near the ivy corner of the house, he suddenly veered off to the right and went behind his work shop.

There was another small fence behind the shop that didn’t have a gate, it was too low. Up against the back wall of the building were a bunch of strawberry plants; the smaller fence was meant to keep rabbits away.

Grandpa stood just outside the fence staring hard at the plants. He stepped carefully over the small fence and moved slowly towards the plants. Tom started to say something, but the old man held his hand up and he shut his mouth. It was almost like grandpa had eyes in the back of his head.

He put the gun up to his shoulder and clicked the safety off. Leaning forward he put the barrel of the shotgun down into the strawberry plants. Tom leaned forward and saw that at the end of the gun barrel was a possum. It was playing dead.

Grandpa shot it and a fountain of blood shot up in the air. He leaned down and grabbed it by the tail and slung it over the fence by the garage’s back door. He broke the gun open ejecting the spent .410 shell and quickly put another one in. With a quick flicking motion the he closed the gun back up and it was ready to fire again.

He stepped over the fence and poked the possum with the gun barrel. The animal whipped its head around and bit the barrel. The second the possum’s mouth closed down on the barrel, grandpa pulled the trigger again.

There was an explosion of blood, teeth and brain matter that flew over everything and everyone. To Tom the whole thing seemed to be in slow motion and the shotgun sounded ten times louder than when grandpa had initially shot the possum.

The old man stood with his chest heaving as he panted and reloaded the shotgun again. This time when he nudged the now headless animal it did not move. He leaned down and grabbed the tail again, this time slinging it into the field behind his workshop. He took out his bandanna and wiped the bloody mess off of Tom’s face and then his own.

“No more free eggs for that little bastard.”


Both Tom and grandpa jumped like they’d been shot. It was grandma and she was furious. “What have I told you about shooting so close to the house?” She was wiping her hands on her ubiquitous apron and moving quickly towards the two of them.

Grandpa just gestured to the spray of gore that was spread across the once white door of his workshop. “Varmint.” He broke the gun open and handed it to Tom. “Boy put that in the house while I go get the hose to wash this mess off.”

Grandma didn’t say another word and went back into the house shaking her head. Grandpa disappeared into the workshop and was moving things around looking for the hose. Tom stood staring at the mess and then he turned to look and see if he could see the animal’s dead body from where he was standing.

Nope, it was completely out of sight.

Grandpa came back with the hose and hooked it up to the faucet at the back of the house. He began spraying down the door with the water. The water ran red along the side of the shop and Tom could see the animal’s teeth moving along with the stream.

Years later when he’d killed his first man and the man’s teeth had exploded out of his mouth like shrapnel, Tom thought of his grandpa and the possum teeth that had floated down the rushing water like white and red rafts floating out to sea.

Shoving the gun back in his coat pocket he murmured, “There you go you little bastard, no more free eggs for you.”

Michael E. Smith copyright 28/01/2013


Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth by Trevor Norton: Eccentric Experimentation

The title of this vastly informative and entertaining book comes from a “self” experiment towards the end of the book. The experimenter in question was testing decompression rates and a rapid ascension caused “one of his filled teeth to emit a high-pitched scream and explode because of air pockets that couldn’t vent fast enough.” The first part of the title; smoking ears also comes from this experiment and the end result was a pin hole in each ear enabling the recipient to blow smoke rings through his ears.

Author Trevor Norton takes us through an amusing and incredible journey through the trials and tribulations of the inventors, experimenters, scientists, doctors and (perhaps) the mentally unstable in their quest for knowledge and a cure for most of mankind’s ailments or a solution to what seemed to be insurmountable problems. Written with a sort of wry humour, these antidotes (pun intended) are a testament to the men and women who put their own safety last while searching for answers.

Norton even includes a couple of chapters that do not deal with medicine, health or science. He has dedicated several chapters to advances in warfare, deep sea diving, discovery of predatory animals of the sea, air travel and breaking the sound barrier.

Some of the names you encounter in this book, while not exactly household names, are fairly well-known to most people. The Curie’s, Chuck Yeager, and Louis Pasteur to name but a few; but the book concentrates mainly on those unknown and “unsung” heroes who have helped their fellow-man by unselfishly (and quite often fatally) experimenting on themselves to advance the knowledge of science and medicine; even researching dietary requirements and what non-domestic animals were good to eat.

These pioneers and rebels thought nothing of exposing themselves to various diseases via means that were nauseating at best and dangerous at worst. The fact that a lot of these self-experimenters came close to death and a good portion of these heroes did; but they also paid the ultimate price for their discoveries. Some like the Curie’s who, pretty much everyone knows, died because of their research into radiation; these “high-profile” visionaries are fairly well-known for their ultimate sacrifice for humanity. Others died unknown and forgotten by but a few of their colleagues and families.

The vast majority of the book details the men and women (but mostly men) who worked their entire lives to advance medicine and surgery. Norton’s use of humour helps to tone down some of the more unsavoury aspects of the lengths that these people were prepared to take. On more than one occasion I felt myself gagging only to have that reflex effortlessly segue into chuckling laughter.

Most importantly, the book sets the stage not just for the participants and their eccentricities but the politics, egos, jealousies and competition for recognition in their peer groups.

Trevor Norton deserves every ounce of praise he’s received in reference to his story telling skills. Not only is he erudite and entertaining but he obviously spends a great deal of time and care on his research. At the end of the book he has a bibliography for each and every chapter in the book.

Even if you have no real interest in the people who risked everything to find out answers, the intelligent and humorous way that Norton describes their individual stories is worth the price of admission alone.

Since I am interested in these types of stories, I’m giving the book a full 5 stars out of 5. And after discovering Mr Trevor Norton, I’ll be checking his other books out as well.

Author Trevor Norton.

Sidney Sheldon: the other side of me

If you didn’t grow up through the 60’s and 70’s you can be excused for not knowing who Sidney Sheldon is. I mention those two decades because it was through that time period when he had not one, not two, but three hit television programs that he wrote and in some cases produced. In case you’re interested the programs were: The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hart to Hart. He also wrote and produced Nancy but the network cancelled it before it really got a chance to get started.

Before he died aged 89 on 30 January 2007 he wrote 7 Broadway plays, 25 feature films, 4 television shows, 18 novels, and 9 children’s books. 11 of his novels have been adapted into films and television shows (including mini-series’) and he was the producer for 6 projects and directed 2 feature films. Yet this over productive over achiever suffered from manic depression (later changed to the much nicer bipolar disorder) that was only diagnosed after he’d suffered from it for years.

At age 17 he saved up a collection of sleeping pills and “borrowing” a bottle of bourbon from his father, he decided to kill himself. He father Otto, came back into the family apartment just as Sidney was about to start taking the pills. His father talked him into taking a walk and during their stroll; Otto talked him out of killing himself.

Sheldon was a real “Jack-of-all-trades” he moved to New York to become a song writer; he joined the Army Air Corp in the newly formed Training Corp learned to fly. He got his wings and waited for his call-up for advanced flight training. While he waited he started writing Broadway plays with Ben Roberts who he’d worked with in Hollywood. When he finally got his call for advanced training his herniated disc got him kicked out of the Army Air Corp and the Army declared him 4-F (unfit for duty) and he continued on his sometimes rocky rise to fame.

This autobiography was first published in 2005 and it is a very entertaining read and it provides a  brilliant insight on how the entertainment business really works. Sheldon worked with a lot of the greats; Irving Berlin, Dore Schary, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland to name just a few.

This modest unassuming gentleman made a lot of life-long friends in both Hollywood and New York. He gives the reader an insight to all his personality. His faults and foibles are included as well as a straight forward look at the Bipolar disorder that plagued him his entire life. He never, at any point in the book, attempts to gild the lily or to portray himself as anything other than a hard-working Joe who has managed to land the best job in the world and as an added bonus gets to meet and work with the rich and famous.

At the ripe old age of 53 he published his first novel and began a whole new career as a writer of novels and children’s books. This multi-talented hard worker managed to amass a resume that would impress even the harshest of critics.

The book is a fast read. It flows quickly from page to page and I “power read” the book in one setting. With 360 pages of information and a few photo’s stuck in the middle; the achievement of reading the book from front to back in one go is diminished somewhat by the fact that it is written well and ultimately makes the actual task of reading it very easy.

It’s been out a while (like I said, originally published in 2005) but if you haven’t read it, pick it up and give it a go. It is entertaining, insightful and interesting. I know as much as I knew the name of Sidney Sheldon, I had no idea of all the things he’d accomplished in his life, not least of which was dealing with his own personal Bipolar demon.

A definite 5 star read.

The late Sidney Sheldon (February 11, 1917 – January 30, 2007)

Societal Ills: Lack of Parenting

At the bus stop today as I was leaving the Metro after my daily jaunt I shared the waiting area with a young woman and her son. She could not have been any older than 20 or 21 years-old. Her son was around 5 or 6 years-old.

This young fellow could have been a poster child for ADHD (or ADD in the US) he could not stand still. Moving jerkily and quickly, he would zoom from one spot to the next and then return to Mum to address her rudely and aggressively. At one point he picked up some shards of glass and put them in his pocket. Mum reacted (very slowly) and after telling him repeatedly (at least six times, I counted) she finally approached him and forced him to empty his pockets. Which he initially refused to do; Mum then started a new game of wills by repeatedly telling him to empty his pockets.

All during this four-minute wait for the bus, the young woman threatened “We’ll go back home, if I have to tell you off one more time.” She continually raised her voice to just below a shout. The only time her son actually appeared to listen to her was when she dropped the F-bomb. The emergence of this word caused him to return to Mum, sit down and be still; for roughly half a second.

I kept my distance and did my best to ignore this display and kept fervently hoping that the bus would arrive early.

I was a juvenile prison officer for about ten years. I have seen older children at their absolute worst. I have seen parents that apparently share the same parenting skills as the young lady at the bus stop. Whenever I see a situation like this, I used to think the same thing every time; I’ll be seeing you in about ten years little man. Juvenile prisons are full of young men who have “suffered” from poor parenting skills by their guardians. I hasten to add that not all of the older children suffer this fate, but a large amount of them do.

I have had training in Child Protection which includes the psychology of children. I am also a parent.

The episode at the bus stop was not unusual. More and more you see ever younger parents not dealing with their children’s behaviour. It is not a “one-off” it is becoming a trend; a trait of our society that got its start in the 1970’s when younger parents did not want to discipline their children because “if I punish them they won’t like me anymore.”

It has obviously trickled down through the generations until it has become the commonplace rule of parenting. I’ve got news for you folks, your children don’t have to like you, respect and love you yes, but not like you. Not during the “learning years” at any rate, that will come later if it comes at all.

Children need boundaries. They need rules and they need direction; and in that dichotomous nature of parenting, they also need the freedom to develop personality, imagination and opinion. Sure it’s confusing, parenting is. There is no “See Spot Run” type book on parenting, usually we learn from our parents. And as I’ve already stated, this trend of passive parenting began in the 1970’s. So one of the types of modern parents can be classed as the “passive” parent; someone who will not directly influence their child.

Now I will go on record here and say that I am not a firm believer in “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” I do not advocate beating your children. Don’t worry, we’ve all been there, you’re so angry that you are one step away from exploding; but that is not the time to strike your child. The act of hitting a child whilst in the throes of adrenaline will cause bruises that are far deeper than the bruises on their skin.

There is another type parent out there, the “oblivious” parent. Unlike the passive parent who at least goes through the motions of controlling their offspring, the oblivious parent ignores them. These are the kids that run riot in the restaurant, grocery store, shop, high street, mall, et al. These are also the children who get hurt or, more sadly, wind up getting snatched or killed. Unlike the “passive” parent, I have no idea how to get it through their self-centred heads that they need to pay attention to their children; not talk to their neighbour, friend, co-worker et al.

Oblivious parents also seem to expect everyone else to look out for their children’s well-being. Neighbours, retail staff and even strangers are considered to be responsible for their little ones.

What is your major malfunction Private?

For the passive parent, you just need to be in charge. You don’t need to be a Drill Sergeant rushing up to your small child screaming, “What is your major malfunction?” In fact you shouldn’t yell or scream at all. When you do that you’ve just lowered your maturity level to the rough equivalent of your child. You’ve lost the battle of who’s in charge already.

You just need to let your kids know what is and is not permissible. If they screw up – and they will, they are human and screwing up is something we are all very good at – don’t lose your rag. Let them know what they’ve done wrong and if they do it again they will be punished. And I do mean punish, not beat. But the most important thing about punishment is to be consistent. If your punishment for your offspring’s infractions means “time out on the naughty step” then make it happen. Don’t threaten and not follow through. Children learn incredibly fast, they will soon figure out that mummy and daddy don’t really mean it. They learn all too quickly that there are no real boundaries.

Shouting at your kids will accomplish nothing apart from possibly making you feel better. Part of our training in the prison officer college was that when two prisoners start to fight you should bellow, “Pack it in or stop it.” I can tell you that out of the many times I’ve bellowed, “Pack it in,” only one pair of lad did (quite possibly because I am very loud). Yelling doesn’t work, trust me.

In a nutshell? Punish bad behaviour and reward good behaviour; and I don’t mean buy your kid a Porsche or its kiddie equivalent, a hug or a well done will suffice. Again consistency is the key. If you don’t differentiate between good and bad behaviour how do you think your children are going to learn the difference.

The one common factor in dealing with the end result of poor parenting is that children respond to boundaries and rules. They don’t like it at first; oh no; no one’s going to tell them what to do. But after a while they grow used to it and then come to expect it and then miss it when it’s no longer there; when they leave. In this country there is a huge  rate. Roughly 70 to 75 % re-offend and wind up back in prison. Why? What are we doing wrong?

The answer is, we are not doing anything wrong. We are offering, though, the first structure that these young people have probably ever encountered. If I had a penny for every kid who came back to prison and told me or other staff that the reason they’ve come back is because, “I couldn’t make it on the out, Guv,” I wouldn’t be rich, but I be a lot better off financially than I am at present. If you question them further, they’ll explain that they could not manage themselves because they had no rules; no boundaries. If there were rules, they failed to obey them because they had no help from their families.

Now I am not saying that all poorly parented children will wind up in a juvenile prison, but they definitely have a head start on their peers.

After I got on the bus with the ADHD lad and his mum, I could hear a load of kids yelling and running on the top level of the bus. When the bus pulled up two stops down, these same kids all haphazardly came down the stairs and then (like they were the ephemeral twins of the other ADHD lad) they began exhibiting the exact same behaviour as the other lad at the bus stop. The main difference was that this mother was an “oblivious” parent and said or did nothing to control her brood.

Twice in one day on the same bus route I was privy to both types of modern-day parents and the image was not comforting. And despite the fact that I am now a retired prison officer I thought the same thing about both sets of children, “I’ll be seeing you in about ten years time.” I’d like to think that things will change, but it has taken a few generations for parenting to reach where it is at right now. Obviously it is going to take a few more to straighten this problem out.

I hope I get to see the difference while I’m still aware enough to care.

Children can be happy behaving, they really can.

Bring me Sunshine

It is amazing how one little thing can change your outlook so much. When I went to bed last night, exhausted from power reading my way through one book and halfway through another, it was raining so much I expected to see Noah at my front door in the morning warning of the impending flood.

Waking up earlier this morning the rain was still present and busily melting the last vestiges of the snow and ice we’ve had on the ground for over a week. Not especially cheerful to look at, but the knowledge that my trips to the Metro would be safer now did fill me with comfort.

I then went back to bed (had a seriously weird dream that I’ll be damned if I can remember anything about except its odd and possibly disturbing nature) and then woke to this glorious sunshine and the odd pile of shovelled snow with a few heaps of disinterred snowmen scattered about. My energy level, as always, shot off the effing chain like it usually does when Sol makes one of his sporadic appearances.

Coincidentally, every time the sun puts in a much appreciated appearance I think of Morecambe and Wise. Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise (Little Erne) a comic duo whose TV show used to delight me when I first came to England; their show’s ending signature tune was Bring Me Sunshine and the lads would sign and cavort to the song. It quickly became a favourite of mine and I can still hear them singing it; although both funny men have passed on to that big stage in the sky.

One tiny seagull celebrates the sun in my neighbourhood.

Nothing charges my batteries more than the sight of a robin-egg blue sky, with or without seagull. I already feel equipped to face world and the many different challenges that face me, head on. I feel like standing tall, pointing my arm in the forward direction and shouting, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed [sic] ahead!” I am not alone in my joy of the sun’s re-emergence, I’ve seen scores of my neighbours who have been, like me, mostly house-bound trundling themselves and their children, babies and dogs sprightly down the path; all smiling and all happy.

If I was in fact completely restored by this “salubrious weather” I’d probably attempt the Morecambe and Wise dance that used to accompany their Bring Me Sunshine song, instead I’ll just hop on YouTube and see if anyone has been kind enough to post it and perhaps just sing along while the boys dance.