Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Thank You, Joyce Kilmer

                                                    THE REST OF THE BOOK

When I was asked to categorize "The Leather Man" prior to publication I listed it under General Fiction _ not Sports _ even though it is set in a college athletic department to which most of the characters relate and is endorsed by former Dallas Cowboys coach Dave Campo as "(a) story that encapsulates college football in the '60s." The reason is simple: "The Leather Man" is a complex book that not only weaves together the lives of the characters but reflects their interests, passions and hobbies. As the narrative unfolds, the progress of the Canyon State College football team becomes not the theme of novel, but a backdrop to the way the title character and a subordinate hero handle their life challenges and grow through them.

I majored in English Literature in college, intending all along to become a novelist, and four decades as a journalist never altered what I learned to be the first rule of any writing: Write about what you know. That's why sub-themes like trees and military history turn up in the pages of a book completed post-retirement. I touched on the military history part in my first blog yesterday, June 17, and today I'd like to explain the frequent tree references.

I was indifferent about trees until my wife and I moved to the aptly-named city of Boise (the French word "bois" means "wood" or "woodland") and bought our first house. The only part of Boise that looked like a forest when the fur trappers saw it was the dense bunching of cottonwoods lining the Boise River, but the settlers who followed them found fertile soil spreading to the hills on both sides of the river and a mild climate that encouraged experimentation planting anything up to and including magnolias. My conversion to tree-lover occurred that fall, when I got my first glimpse of a sweetgum with star-shaped leaves in autumn colors ranging from gold to purple on a single tree.

I planted a tulip tree in the backyard of that small Cape Cod, and a career move from Boise to Ogden, Utah, to work for the Standard-Examiner did nothing to dampen my increasing interest in everything arboreal. In fact, it increased when I learned that the University of Utah campus had been designated a state arboretum. Gasoline was about 25 cents a gallon back then, and we nearly wore out my car driving into Salt Lake City on summer weekends to follow the free arboretum guide to specimens like Ohio buckeyes, which thrived there, and individuals like a Zelkova serrata; a giant sequoia; a Paulownia; a bald cypress, and a European ash, recommended on the metal tag as one of Europe's most handsome trees. Somewhere along the line I had begun memorizing the Latin names, and the ash's name (Fraxinus excelsior) seem to bear out the fact that almost everyone agreed about its good looks.

While in Ogden I got so interested in trees that I considered becoming a botanist. I enrolled in a beginning Botany course at Weber State University and earned an A in what turned out to be a meaningless boost to my undergraduate GPA years after graduation.

Since "The Leather Man" is still largely unknown, I'm going to use this space to give readers excerpts from time to time. This one is taken from a conversation between Sam Moody, Canyon City's new police chief, and Quintus LeClaire, the Vietnam veteran whose flashback lands him in Moody's custody for interrogation (the swamp cypress referred to is known as a bald cypress in much of the country):
Tell you the truth, I thought where I grew up was the most beautiful place on Earth, but something changed while I was overseas. Home wasn't home any more, and the bayous were different. Swamp cypress was my favorite tree _ it's a deciduous conifer, you know?" Moody had no clue, but nodded anyway. "The kind of tree that has needles like a pine, only it drops them in the fall, Very picturesque! But, after I got back, all I could see was VC hiding behind the trunk. When I'm on dark water now, I wonder what's underneath the bateau.

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