Wednesday, February 08, 2017

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: The Day the World Ended

by Walter Giersbach

My world had no endings when I was 13 in that Oregon farming and logging town.  Only beginnings.  Fields and groves were endlessly green, streams flowed forever and asphalt roads led to new sights.  Life was a page of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. 

Mornings began at 6:00 when I pedaled my Schwinn down to the Shell station for my pile of newspapers.  But first, I dropped quarters in the machines to extract a Milky Way and a Coke.  Now fortified, I gave each copy of the Portland Oregonian two practiced folds and dropped it in the canvas bag draped over the handlebars.  For the next hour I’d pedal miles to stuff them in paper boxes for my 50 customers.  I was getting rich, at $20 a month, in spite of having to hector customers who wouldn’t answer their doors when I went to collect.

Life was good, and eighth grade was a cinch with a really funny teacher who regaled us about his drinking episodes in the Navy and a strange food called pizza.

But one April morning a headline caught my eye as I folded papers.  My Dad’s name leaped from the front page.  It was a story about Pacific University that I couldn’t understand, a complicated story about the faculty in rebellion.  Accusations.  Hatred exposed.

Something had happened.  The faculty had given my Dad, the college president, a vote of no confidence.  He explained it to my two brothers and me over dinner as we sat in dumb silence.  Mom was trying to hold back her tears. “I’m resigning,” he told us.  “We’ll have to think about moving.

 Forest Grove, Ore., my world in the 1950s

Moving?  But I was at the point of telling Judy Bristow I loved her.  Soon, I’d find the courage to kiss my 11-year-old girlfriend.  Moving meant I’d never again see my pal, Frank Dunham, who double-dated at the movies with his girlfriend and had actually kissed (he said).

Our house was emptied that summer as boxes and furniture went into the Allied Moving Van.  Accumulations of papers and magazines were thrown from the attic window to the driveway.  Dad’s library and Mom’s manuscript of Oregon history were carefully boxed.  But my Red Ryder BB gun, Schwinn Black Phantom and Erector Set disappeared. 

Too soon our family and the cat were piled into our used ’48 Cadillac sedan and we headed south.  Too soon to properly say goodbye to Judy and Frank or copy their addresses with promises to write.
*  *  *
Finding myself in South Pasadena was a shock.  I was a year behind academically.  There were curious classmates — Mexican-Americans — who wore pegged pants and called themselves Pachucos.  And the girls in our church youth group were all blonde and unapproachably sophisticated.

My two new friends were geeks who read L. Ron Hubbard and J.R.R. Tolkien and wore clothes from J.C. Penney.  My only achievement was writing my autobiography by hand, pasting in Kodaks, then binding the single copy.  I got an A from my 9th grade teacher.

My brothers and I, Mom and the cat, lived in our rented bungalow and took each day as it came.  For some aberrant reason, I ate only lunchtime sandwiches of Wonderbread and Kraft Sandwich Spread.  But I didn’t die.  Dad soon found work as a fund-raiser with the Volunteers of America before landing a position with the headquarters of the Congregational Church in New York City.

I didn’t write except for that handwritten autobiography.  I read.  Science fiction, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, the Hardy Boys and other mysteries.  But two things became clear.  One, I was Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  Like Valentine Michael Smith, newly sent to Earth after being raised on  Mars.  Among different people for the first time, I struggled to understand the social practices and prejudices of human nature that often still seem alien.

Second, an internal universe of words appeared.  Writing, absorbing new vocabulary and explaining things articulately were easy.  Numbers came harder.  This default writing ability made me an English-Journalism major at Grinnell College in Iowa.  A career epiphany occurred the summer of my junior year.  I was invited to be a staff reporter for a Chicago suburban weekly.  I covered fires, the police blotter, sports, rewrites, even weddings, taking my own photos with a Speed Graphic.  At last, it seemed there was an escape into the real world.
*  *  *
My first job after graduation was writing copy for new Mobil Travel Guides.  Sure, it was a humdrum task — until I got an unsolicited letter from a woman who said she was home-bound.  She read the Guides to escape into a world that was out of her reach.  At last I had an audience, and every piece I wrote was directed to my secret spectator. 

Three years of serving as an Army Security Agency analyst took me to Korea and Taiwan.  Taiwan brought me a wife and some great source material I filed away for 30 years.

For the next three decades I soldiered on in corporate communications, creating, writing and editing employee publications; writing press releases; managing exhibits; crafting senior management’s speeches.  I embraced it all.  Each day was different.  No one knew my job description, which allowed me to define my position and interact with everyone from the CEO to the clerk or bench worker.  They were my audience that I worked to reach on some level of understanding. 

Upon early retirement I ruminated on why I was drawn to write two anthologies, short stories and articles.  It was simple:  Somewhere there was a person who would read my words and say, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.  I’ve felt the same way but wasn’t able to put it into words.”  I could help that person leave his or her couch or bed and enter another world. 

In the process, I would discover meaning in the world that had turned me upside down.  That’s why I write.

by Walter Giersbach

Burt Forsyth was ready to rip out the fingernails of the girl sitting in the pew in front of him.  That is, after he smashed her iPhone and shoved the plastic down her throat.  While the rest of the congregation stood to sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the girl sat in her stylishly ripped jeans and scrolled her manicured nails over the phone.
“Sitting!” he whinnied hoarsely to his wife.  “Sitting during the hymn.  Texting through the prayers.  Eating her damned M&Ms during the sermon.  I could kill her.”  His heartbeat rose and he could feel his body shaking uncontrollably.
“Perhaps it’s her parents’ fault,” Beth whispered.  “Not everyone has the upbringing of you and I.”
“Or two hundred other members of our church,” he steamed.
Rev. Abernathy was praying something about “O God, we seek the transformation of the world, but we fear the change it could bring to our own lives,” and Beth shushed him from going on.
Burt had an obligation to the parish as one of its deacons.  A duty to maintain tradition.  Church was a sanctuary to restore reason out of chaos, to sew up the raveled edges of behavior among the easily confused.  He was a rational man trained in a rational profession to act in a rational world.  If there was no control of the forces that shaped your life, he would often tell Beth, then what point was there to life itself?  As a lawyer, he prided himself that the legal profession was the only thread of tradition that prevented Western civilization’s entropy.  And the Presbyterian Church.  That too.  God and the Law.
Beth had volunteered to serve coffee after the service, so Burt stood in the hall off the kitchen nodding to parishioners.  He joshed an old timer about his golf handicap, knowing the man would never play again.  The pastor button-holed him about the Thanksgiving service coming up before being pulled away by an extremely small lady wearing a fur stole.  Burt stared at the lady’s dead animals — 50-year-old, moth-eaten minks, he believed — draped over her shoulders on a 65-degree day.  The animals’ glass eyes glared balefully back at Burt.
He turned, bumping into the girl with the iPhone and almost spilling his coffee.
“A guy there told me you help run this place.”
Burt managed to choke out a “Yes?”
“I wanted to say I had a good time.  I never been to church, but my friend kinda dragged me.  So,” she shrugged, “I didn’t understand a lot, but I texted myself about what I thought was important.  So I’d remember later.”
Burt stood a head taller than the girl, looking down at her unruly hair and the piece of metal piercing her eyebrow.  The sound that came out his mouth could be taken for an affirmative gargle.
“This Matthew,” she said, screwing up her face as though its parts — nose, eyes, cheekbones — had been bought at a discount store and hastily assembled.  “He was a saint, right?  One of Jesus’ whattyacallits.”
“Disciples,” Burt muttered.
“I’m going to Google him.  If it’s okay, I’ll come back next time.  Okay?  My name’s Tara.  Who’re you?”
“Burt Forsyth.  We’d love to have you, Tara.”  The words came out as a choke. 
“Hey, Burt, thanks..”  She smiled once, pirouetted scarecrow-like, and walked out the door.
There was a vacuum in the room after she’d left, as though a hole had opened in an airliner that left him gasping at the change in air pressure.  The smell of coffee and cinnamon rolls weren’t sufficient to replace the sensations that had left the room with the girl.
“Why are you so silent?” Beth asked in the car, giving him a curious look.

“Just thinking.  Maybe we need some more young people to season the gentry.  Sort of balance the demographics.”

(originally published at Every Day Fiction.)


Walt Giersbach’s fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Big Pulp, CommuterLit, Connotation Press, Corner Club Press, Every Day Fiction, Gumshoe Review, InfectiveINkLiquid Imagination, OG Short Fiction, Over My Dead Body, Pif Magazine, Pulp Modern, Pure Slush, r.kv.r.y, the Story Shack, Short-Story.Me,and a dozen other publications.  He also writes on military history and social phenomena.  Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, were available until his publisher ceased operation.  He directed communications for Fortune 500 companies, publicized the Connecticut Film Festival, and managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library. He blogs at while maintaining Web sites devoted to the children’s book author Holling Clancy Holling and the Manchester (NJ) Writers’ Circle.

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