after the ancient gingko
has been kissed
by the sun
first cold rain comes,
yellow tears will
© 2008 Jeffrey Alan Miller
after the ancient gingko
has been kissed
by the sun
first cold rain comes,
yellow tears will
© 2008 Jeffrey Alan Miller
Other than having a fan letter published in Archie Comics in the summer of 1969 and winning the top prize of $5.00, I think when I really knew that I wanted to be a writer, or at least entertained the notion of becoming a writer was in Mrs. Gandolfi’s eighth grade English class.
I also believe, when I look back now it was when the seed was first planted to pursue a degree in English and to either teach or write.
However in the fall of 1971, that was the last thing on my mind. I was an eighth grader at Washington Grade School and as a big a man on campus as I could be after having survived a year of bullying from last year’s eighth graders (and a few of the seventh graders). For one year, there would be no one to pick on me, at least I hoped there wouldn’t be anyone to pick on me.
Good thing, because I had plans. After having survived the Wrath of Mom following that ill-fated sleepover at Jim Black’s house, I was ready to take eighth grade on. I had places to go and someone to meet. I had a paper route and I had a crush on Glenda Glynn, the daughter of one of my mom’s friends. And now that I had passed through puberty with flying colors that prepubescent angst I felt the year before with Debbie Hansen towering over me at the annual Halloween Dance, this puppy love thing I had for Glenda was going to get hotter, or so I thought.
And then Mars attacked.
It was a cool autumn afternoon and school had let out early for a teacher’s conference. Up and down Walnut Street, the main street through downtown Oglesby, traffic was light, just the occasional Schwermann’s semi leaving with a load of cement from the Marquette Cement Mill or one returning from a delivery.
A group of kids were hanging out at Balconie’s Tap catty corner from the grade school. Halloween was three weeks away and most kids were talking about Washington Grade School’s Halloween dance and what costume they were going to wear.
A few boys were playing basketball in the playground. Ray Lance, one of the boys thought he had seen a bright light in the sky as he went in for a lay up, but it must have been the sun reflecting off the metal backboard. He missed that lay up, too.
The first spaceship was spotted a little after three landing behind the deserted Lehigh Cement storage silos. At first, when Mary West and Debbie Porter—who were riding their new pink Schwinn bikes down Walnut Street—saw the spaceship they thought it was some new military aircraft. After all, Chanute Air Force Base was only 100 miles south of Oglesby.
But this was not like any airplane she had ever seen even on TV or the movies. No, this one was circular and had no wings. It was spinning, too.
“Did you see that?” Mary asked Debbie.
Debbie put a hand on her forehead to block out some of the afternoon sun and squinted.
“What do you think it is?” asked Debbie.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” said Mary. “Come on, let’s ride a little bit closer.”
Just then, Sam Mertes and Mark Weiden, who had been riding their Triumph motorcycles in a large field across the street from the abandoned cement mill, spotted the two girls and intercepted them before they reached the entrance to the mill.
“Hey girls, like the new bikes,” said Sam pushing up the visor on his helmet. He jabbed Paul in the ribs. Paul had a crush on Mary and the jab in the ribs was Sam’s way of letting Paul know that he knew about that crush.
“Did you see that Sam?” Mary asked.
“See what?” Sam asked, leaning forward on the handlebars.
“In the sky. It looked like some strange new aircraft,” replied Mary. “Debbie and I were going to take a closer look because it landed behind the cement mill.”
Sam and Paul laughed.
“A strange aircraft? Don’t you know that Brent Smith lives near here? He has a lot of model airplanes that he flies,” said Sam. “It’s his hobby. Don’t you remember that show and tell last year?”
“He’s right Mary,” said Debbie. “Maybe that’s what….”
Before Debbie could finish, a thunderous sound arose from behind the cement mill that sounded a like a rocket taking off. This was followed by a high-pitched whirring sound that pierced the cool air. The sound got louder and louder, more metallic in its high-pitched whirring. It was so loud Sam, Paul, Mary, and Debbie had to put their hands over their ears.
Then it stopped.
They all stood there quietly for a few seconds, too shocked and scared to speak and then they saw it slowly rising up from behind the cement, higher and higher until it stood over them.
“Oh my God,” said Sam. “It’s a….”
Mrs. Gandolfi stopped reading and set the manuscript on her desk, she took off her reading classes, stood up, and walked to the blackboard. She wrote some words from the story—whirring, pierced, intercepted, and jabbed—on the blackboard
Most of the kids in class sat at their desks quietly after Mrs. Gandolfi had finished reading. A few moaned when they saw the words on the board knowing that they would have to learn them. Glenn Brown snickered and slapped Sam on the back for having been mentioned in the story. Mary and Debbie giggled softly. Brent gleamed after hearing about his model airplanes. Ray had fallen asleep.
About a week before, in our English books there was a science fiction story we had to read. At the end of the story we had to answer some comprehensive questions for homework. There were some additional questions and suggestions, including one on writing a science fiction short story.
And that’s what I had done and what I would continue to do for the next few weeks until the story was finished and read by Mrs. Gandolfi. All of my classmates were curious to see what I was going to write about and what I would write about them. For the first time at Washington Grade School everyone, I mean everyone was nice to me. No one wanted to get on my bad side fearing that I would write something bad about them; well not bad, but maybe something unfavorable like having someone pick their nose, cry or in the case of Linda Ferenchek or Glenda Hocking, have them kiss someone them didn’t have a crush on or liked in class.
Yes, as I had found out, the pen was mightier than the sword.
I had some of my classmates chasing after Martians on their motorcycles and jumping through the air that would have made Evel Knievel proud. I had some of the “jocks” single handedly taking out Martians in hand-to-hand combat. The girls in class fared just as well, if not better: they were 13-year-old Lara Crofts fighting along side of the boys and leading the attack.
Of course, if I had treated someone unfairly or unfavorably, they could always be waiting for me after class for a good pounding; however, I played it safe and made everyone look good. Even Steve Stachowiak who had been looking for an excuse to beat me up after school ever since I hit him in the head during dodge ball in gym class back in the seventh grade had a good part, albeit a small one. I had him distract one of the Martians so some younger students could escape.
On the other hand, Mrs. Gandolfi sensing my classmate sellout by even making the bullies and class clowns look good, took matters into her own hands and had weekly quizzes on the story. Suffice to say I got 100% on all those quizzes and on my way to my first A+ in English class. At the same time, Mrs. Gandolfi was encouraging me to write more. She sensed something that I hadn’t yet.
Martians attacked Oglesby and my classmates and I took matters in our own hands and soundly defeated them and saved Oglesby, the United States, and the rest of the world from this Martian invasion.
And in the end I got the girl. We didn’t ride off into the sun exactly and live happily ever after, but we fought some of the Martians together. Near the end of the story, with a Martian bearing down on us, she turned to me, the same way Princess Leia would turn to Luke Skywalker years later in Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope when they had to swing across a deep chasm in the Death Star and said, “good luck.” She didn’t kiss me the way that Leia would kiss Luke, but “good luck” was good enough for me. Especially when that girl was Janie Arkins.
Chris called it plinking. That’s what he called heading down to the Little Vermillion near Oglesby, Illinois with our .22’s to blast alligator gar that surfaced for a gulp of fresh air.
I am not sure if it was Chris who came up with this idea, or if it was cooked up by one of our friends Devon Rogers or Jimmy Considine, but one day he talked me into joining him and I was hooked.
It was something he did when he had nothing else to do. It was away of killing a few hours, pun intended, while waiting for something else to happen.
Now according to Chris, who was by no means an expert on the life aquatic, but got most of his knowledge from a steady diet of television and in this case, the Discovery Channel, the alligator gar can breathe up to two hour’s worth of air on the surface. Of course what wasn’t mentioned was those two hours on the surface made them easy pickings for some target practice from some longhaired punks with .22’s.
“Like shooting fish in a barrel,” Chris laughed, on that early August summer afternoon—the last time Chris and I had gone “plinking” —as he caught another gar in its side, just below the dorsal fin as it surfaced for a gulp of that fresh, humid air.
The gar, which for a moment seemed suspended in mid-air, eyes bulging and mouth wide open in shock, spun around pirouette-style and then splashed into the water.
Well, maybe it was like shooting fish in barrel because during that particular summer the Vermillion had become overrun with gar. After having migrated up from the Mississippi then up the Illinois, the gar had pretty much taken over a section of the Vermillion chasing away bass, bluegill, and crappie.
Humane or inhumane was never a topic for discussion when one blasted gar back to Kingdom Come. On the contrary, Chris saw it as chance to help out local fishermen who still fished this tributary of the Illinois.
“Aren’t you worried about the cops busting us for discharging firearms within the city limits?” I asked Chris the first time he invited me along.
Technically, where we would eventually end up for this aquatic target practice was just outside the city limits, but it was also private property once owned by a cement mill. Leave it to me to have to mention the law. Chris was never above the law; close but never above.
“Don’t be a pussy,” he said. “Just get your damn rifle and get over here quick.”
It wasn’t my rifle that I would get but my grandfather’s. He had kept it in the bedroom closet for as long as I could recall, at least for as long as I had known about it ever since I discovered it one day while snooping around the house. He had bought it incase a prowler broke in but as far as I knew he hadn’t fired it in years and when I told him that Chris and I were going to do some target practice, he gladly lent it to me. Had he known what targets, that rifle would still be in the corner of that closet.
Although I wasn’t too keen on blasting away gars at first (they never hurt me) not to mention breaking the law, like Chris I had nothing else better to do. And as Chris made sure to point out—as a seasoned veteran of this twisted sports fishing—it was a lot of “freakin’ fun.”
Well, it might have been “freakin’ fun” for Chris, Devon and Jimmy when they had gone before, for me it was also a little bittersweet. It was that summer, the one before I went off to college again, when Chris and I had been hanging out a lot—just like we had few years earlier. That was before I started dating Kimberly and eventually moving in with her. Then Chris and I just stopped hanging out. You know how that goes.
After Kimberly dumped me for an ex-boyfriend while I was away at college (Chris told me later that he had seen it coming, “did you really think she’d sit tight and let you run around college and not want someone in her cookie jar?”) I had come back home with my tail between my legs (I had dropped out again so I could be with her). Chris and I hung out again, but I don’t think we were as tight as we once had been.
We were older, not so much wiser, but more worried about finding better jobs, or in my case getting back to college. We were not going to end up like some dudes we knew at the Ninth Street Pub who only talked about their glory days of growing up in the Illinois Valley; the ones who had never left—and probably never would.
It was the first summer in almost five years that he was not in a band—but not for long knowing Chris. He would be in another band and playing out again soon. We did a lot that summer—a couple of ballgames and concerts in Chicago, boating on the Illinois River, some cookouts with friends. We financed our summer by spinning records at The Right Place, as close as you could get to a yuppie bar in this blue-collar community.
In two weeks I would be heading down to Eureka College a small liberal arts college not far from Peoria. It had been five years since I first started college and all I had to show for it was an Associate of Arts Degree from a local community college. Not exactly what I had in mind when I started college right after I had gotten out of the military, but then again, that’s what you get for dropping out two times, working for a rock and roll band, and “finding yourself.” Now I was going to be attending Ronald Reagan’s alma mater which was all right by me because I was a die hard Democrat.
I guess “plinking” in the larger scheme of things was just a part of finding myself by spending time with the best friend that I would ever have. I just didn’t know that at the time.
By the time I would come home for Christmas a few months later the Chicago Bears would be in the playoffs and one of our best friends and former guitar players in a band would be dead.
I wrote this poem back in the late 90’s and I just recently took another look at it, changing a few things, tweaking it here and there. It’s a poem that reminds me of cold Seoul mornings on my way to teach at ELS when I first arrived in Korea in 1990.
Somewhere in a Seoul morning
Squatting by a rust-red tub,
she works blood-red paste—
made from ground red pepper,
garlic and fish sauce—
with short, arthritic fingers
in the bitter cold
of an empty November morning
beneath the bluish haze
of a shivering city.
In your gardens of meditation—
framed by bamboo
and autumal hues
beneath a cobalt sky;
with the quiet coolness
of your breath
on our skin
in swirls and whorls
That’s right, it was Archie Comics and an Archie Fan Club letter that got me started down the literary path.
It probably wasn’t how I first became interested in writing because I had already been writing little stories about one thing or another (it just sounds cool—or in the vernacular of the time, groovy—to say that it was a comic book that got me started) but it definitely was my first publishing credit and a paid one at that.
I hadn’t thought about that fan club letter I had written back in 1969 for many years until 1998 when I had gone back home to visit my Mom who had moved back to Illinois from Texas the previous year. One day she asked me to go through some of my personal mementos of mine like photos, postcards, letters and other stuff that she had been holding onto for me in a small trunk ever since we lived in Oglesby, Illinois back in the 60’s and 70’s.
That day one of the things I came across was this letter from Archie Comics, dated August 19, 1969 and informing me that I had won first prize in their fan club contest. I thought that was pretty cool of Mom to hold onto that letter for all those years and I decided to take it with me back to Korea.
I had just started to use the Internet back then and one day, a few months after I had returned to Korea, I thought about that letter again and wondered if I would ever be able to find a copy of that issue of Archie Comics with my letter. I searched the Internet for Archie Comics, got the publisher’s email address and sent them an email.
Shortly thereafter I got a reply back from one of the editors thanking me for writing the email and my interest in finding a back copy. However, he informed me that he wouldn’t be able to help me and then went onto say that Archie Comics has gotten many similar requests from people just like me over the years who also had letters published and wanted those issues. He wished me luck in one day finding that particular issue.
I never thought about it again even when I did—a few years later—find some back issues of National Lampoon and Trouser Press through used booksellers on Amazon. I suppose if I really wanted to I could have found a copy—on eBay or some other site—but I forgot all about it.
It was only when I scanned a copy of that letter and posted it on my blog not long ago—musing about writing career—when I thought about it again and wrote how it would be cool if I could get my hands on a copy of that issue.
And that’s exactly what one of my best friends from back home Bob Patelli did when he read that blog posting.
Right around Christmas last year I got this Bubble Mailer from Bob with—you guessed it—a copy of that Archie Comics issue inside. I couldn’t believe. As soon as I saw the cover, my hands started shaking as I turned to the fan club pages inside and saw that letter I had written over 38 years ago.
That was one of the best Christmas presents I had ever received and it couldn’t have come at a better time because last Christmas I was feeling really down and homesick that I couldn’t be home with my family and friends.
At the same time, what made it just a little more special was that Bob and I had been out of touch for a few years and had just started exchanging emails again. And then, out of the blue, he surprises me with this wonderful gift. Thanks a lot Bob.
A work in progress…
Somewhere in a Sunday in Shinch’on
Squatted over the rust-colored hard
she works the blood-red sauce—
made from ground red pepper and
with short, fat, arthritic fingers
through soggy, steaming
in the bitter cold
of an empty November Sunday
beneath the bluish haze
of a shivering city.
I am always flattered when someone tells me that I am a good writer.
Just the other day I got an email from one of my best friends and former FLI colleagues Mike Gibb who mentioned among other things how good a writer I am (thanks Mike!) and not to give up my writing pursuits.
To be honest, I have never fancied myself as a good writer. Sure, I have had some wonderful opportunities to write; unfortunately, I haven’t always seized the moment (or moments) as it were and pursued more lucrative writing projects. Even though I had written for The Korea Times for over six years, sadly—with the paper’s low circulation—some of my better stuff fell on deaf ears or in this case blind eyes.
When people find out that I write a lot and that I have been published they always want to know when it started. Although I didn’t start seeing my stuff published until I came to Korea, my passion for writing (not to mention my first publishing credit) started with Archie Comics back in the 1960s. I suppose that is pretty cool in a way that I can trace my writing career back to Archie, Jughead, Reggie, Veronica, and Betty.
It’s too bad I still don’t have a copy of that issue of Archie Comics with my award-winning letter printed inside. It would be really cool to have.
I had heard of Korea though. Two of my uncles had fought in the Korean War, my high school friend “Lj” (years before his battle with manic depression that would take away his heart and soul) had learned Taekwondo in the 70’s, and I had (until he decided to return home) a Korean roommate when I was at college. I knew a few Koreans in some of my classes, but we never talked much about Korea. Sadly, for most people our knowledge of Korea was limited to what we could glean from the popular TV show M*A*S*H.
On the other hand, the few times that we did hear anything about Korea was when there was some disaster or tragedy like the Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident in 1976, the downing of KAL Flight 007 in 1983, and student demonstrations in the 80’s.
Of course, that would all change in 1988 with the Seoul Olympics which was one massive “coming out party” for the nation and its people.
Two years later, I found myself in Korea to teach English. I had not intended to teach in Korea when I graduated from graduate school in 1989. After a year in Japan and a semester teaching ESL at a community college in my hometown, all I could think about was getting back to Asia. Call it the lure of the Orient or something that I had to get out of my system before I could get on with my life, I applied for teaching positions at various schools in Asia. One day, out of the blue I get a call from a language school recruiter in California asking me if I wanted to teach in Korea.
“There’s a position opening up at a school in Seoul in December right before Christmas,” she said. “Are you interested?”
Before she had a chance to finish, I had already made up my mind.
I was going to Korea.