Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Pike

Anyone who believes that human behavior patterns develop early would conclude that Brock Banning was destined to be a creep. Banning, the major villain in "The Leather Man," is a sensualist, a bully and an egotist wrapped up in an athlete good enough that Canyon State College, which he hopes will be his steppingstone to the NFL, can't afford to bench him. As the middle linebacker in coach Ben Steinbrecher's defense, Banning plays just well enough to hold onto his starting role while wearing on everyone's nerves like a pebble in a running shoe.

Referred to earlier in the book, he gets the stage to himself in Chapter 15, turning up back in his hometown of Long Beach, Calif., after completing his junior year at Canyon State. True to the instincts of many predators, he visits one of his favorite hook-up spots _ the Cinnamon Cinder dance hall, which flourished on a traffic circle near the intersection of the Pacific Coast Highway and Lakewood Boulevard during the Vietnam Era, the time setting of the novel.

Finding nothing promising in the Cinder, he drives to The Pike amusement park. As many of his Canyon State teammates would put it, even Banning had a childhood, and he spent a lot of his at The Pike, riding there on the Pacific Electric Red Car line fondly remembered by long-time residents of Southern California. He recalls that it had seemed special then:
The Pike was a perpetual, seaside county fair, with weight guessers, barkers, bumper cars, arcades, fast-food places and peepshows where prepubescent boys tried to sneak a look before the proprietor shooed them away. It had carousels, sideshows and a huge roller coaster that formed a Figure Eight over the ocean.
Banning recalls the charm of the Cyclone Racer, which seemed in his youth to be "a wooden toy from Mount Olympus, an archetype of coasters, hiding a world of speed, excitement and pelagic mystery behind its mass of support beams."  Now, however:
It was the last double-track wooden coaster left in the United States, a dinosaur on the verge of extinction _ not from an asteroid impact but from wet rot in the pilings and competition from real-estate developers on the prowl for oceanfront property.
Although he's getting impatient at the lack of prospects for an amorous evening, Banning reminds himself that being on the beach is still better than life back in Canyon City, Idaho. He doesn't spend long beating up on the college town, though. Instead, he remembers his chance encounter with the wives of two Canyon State coaches, including pretty Gloria Steinbrecher. Banning, who transferred to Canyon State after two years of junior-college ball at Long Beach City, has already wounded Ben Steinbrecher once without Steinbrecher knowing it. It was Banning, the new arrival, who came up with the sarcastic sobriquet "Leather Man" for Ben, his defensive coordinator. It quickly gained currency among players and other students because of the coach's melanin-saturated skin and powerful build.

Banning flirts with Gloria and Sandy Wilson in late March, buying them gimlets in a bar close to the campus before he finds out they are coaches' wives. A few months later on the beach he is still considering whether to push his luck even further when he returns to Canyon City for training camp. He quickly dumps the thought when he decides to visit a former Long Beach Polytechnic teammate, now a fraternity member at nearby Long Beach State. He finds his former buddy, Paul Nash, at the frat house, and they discuss Banning's experiences at Canyon State (3-7 the previous season), ways to beat the Selective Service draft, the Vietnam War, and entertainment options in the area and nearby Orange County.

Nash finally proposes hitting the Red Witch, a Los Angeles Harbor bar which usually has something exciting going on:
Their eyes met, and both grinned. The Red Witch was a dive in the Harbor area, a haunt for longshoremen, bikers and other habitues of bare-knuckle excitement.
"Far out," Banning said. "Do you want to take my car? I'm parked out front."

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Sweet Spot

The character of Joseph X. Talty, known throughout "The Leather Man" as Uncle Joe, is fully developed in Chapter 14. The chapter also adds details about David Talty, Uncle Joe's nephew, introduced at the end of Chapter 9 and fleshed out in Chapter 10. David surmises in Chapter 10 that he is going to be named one of Canyon State's four football captains once training camp begins, and his character takes on importance as the novel progresses.

Chapter 14 explains how David was orphaned _ his parents died in a car crash on the twisting stretch of Highway 93 between Challis and Salmon, Idaho towns which grew up along the Salmon River. David's two sisters were old enough to get by on their own, but Uncle Joe took his nephew in and raised him.

The values Uncle Joe instilled in David were as colorful and varied as Uncle Joe's experiences in heavy-equipment operation for one of the world's biggest construction companies, not to mention his expertise in philosophy, Irish history, mechanics and sports. The chapter begins with his attempt to talk David out of the blues after breaking up with his girlfriend during the previous semester in college. He asks:
"What could be worse than breaking up with her?"
David tries to humor Uncle Joe out of the questioning mode by mentioning the death of musician Buddy Holly several years previous, but all that does is get his relative started. He quickly cites the assassination of President Kennedy, every U.S.-involving war between 1914 and Vietnam, and the 105-day siege of Derry in 1689 by Jacobite forces seeking to restore James II to the English throne:
"You can't talk about real misery until there's bloodshed and broken families. You losing a two-timing woman? I had a worse experience last summer when I hooked a steelhead the size of a railroad tie and lost him after his belly scraped the bank. Even if she was your life, boy, grief is the road to dementia."
David is home for a few weeks before he returns to the campus in Canyon City, in Idaho's Magic Valley, to prepare for camp. An outside linebacker, he hopes to maximize his contribution at the position by packing on muscle without losing any speed or endurance. In pursuit of that goal, he does a 10-mile training run daily, heading uphill (south) along the Lemhi River, a tributary of the Salmon, to the halfway turnaround point. Because of the absence of formal weights at Uncle Joe's small ranch, he's also been told by team trainer Wayne Shipwright to do pushups and chop firewood to build up his arms and shoulders. To strengthen his legs, the trainer suggests pushing a pickup truck, which Joe finds hilarious:
"Make sure you don't shove it into the river," Joe said, still smiling hugely. "Put it in first gear if you want a real workout."
The exchange gives David a chance to muse about Uncle Joe's apparently endless store of knowledge about how things work _ electrical systems, nutrition, human nature, and the physics of matters as apparently diverse as mechanics and sports. As the evening winds down, Uncle Joe tells his nephew once again about the Clout of Clouts, a home run he hit during a pickup baseball game while on a construction job in South America. From that story Joe mentions the Sweet Spot, an always changing place where an athlete is able to exert the maximum force of one moving object _ bat, foot or fist _ against another moving object without experiencing any resistance:
"When you square up a round ball on a round piece of wood, you don't feel anything. No wonder they call it the Sweet Spot."
From that Uncle Joe extrapolates one more piece of wisdom, explaining that sports are important because, "It's as close to immortality as humans can get." The chapter ends with David and the world-wise old man who brought him up seeing eye to eye.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Never having met one, I find it easy to picture the average literary agent as Jabba the Hutt. In my mind's eye, he (or she) downs a fine steak au poivre, wipes away a droplet of heavy cream stippled with cognac (or is that grease?), emits a refined burp and demands, "Bring me a Wookiee cookie."

If that picture is unflattering, consider how Jabba-agents treat query letters from unknown authors: If only moderately successful, they handle the query themselves, opening the envelope with a pair of bronzed tongs to avoid contamination from the masses, unfolding it with the same, enjoying a good laugh and then slipping a printed rejection notice into the previously enclosed, self-addressed, stamped envelope before sealing it and tossing it into the outgoing mail. A Jabba-agent who's been feeding at the fifteen-percent trough for a longer time might have a secretary to perform the same function.

The one-page query letter is a stupid idea. It requires an author to summarize a 100,000-word novel, for example, on a single, letter-size page. That's ONE PAGE. In other words, it has to be written in code, and if you aren't able to crack the code that will trigger some spark of interest in the agent's mind, or if you haven't just escaped from an Iranian prison or had an affair with an A-list Hollywood star who doesn't want to see that information get out, the letter is wasted, along with two envelopes and postage. Even if it's the best query in the world, it might be doomed if the agent has enough clients generating revenue from their books to support him in his fat-cat world.

Why does the situation exist?

Because over the decades agents have convinced all of the nation's major publishers not to allow unrepresented authors to submit manuscripts directly to them. If you doubt that, simply choose any number of major publishers, check their Websites and read their submission instructions.

Why am I venting like this? And why now, after self-publishing a very good, exceptionally literate novel ("The Leather Man") after failing to find an agent in the conventional way? Because of what happened at my alma mater last week: I drove south to Pocatello to set up a book signing and to see if the Idaho State University Bookstore would like to put my book on its shelves. It seemed like a reasonable question _ the book revolves around athletes and coaches at a fictional Idaho college that bears a strong resemblance to ISU during the Vietnam Era, when the action in "The Leather Man" takes place. Also, it was written by an Idaho native and ISU alumnus, and it has an attractive cover that features a shot of Shoshone Falls, one of the state's most amazing natural wonders _ eye-catching to the max.

I was told in no uncertain terms that the bookstore would not touch a self-published book. I asked why and was told that those were the orders from Follett, a corporation in Illinois. I wondered why there was no local control over the items sold in the bookstore, and what passed as ISU management told me Follett gave them no discretion to consider a local author's self-published book, no matter how appealing or meritorious.

Follett Corp. grew out of a family-owned bookstore provider that got started in 1873. It's still privately held, but with outside directors. It has grown nearly as many arms as an octopus and generates $2.7 billion in annual sales by managing more than 930 campus bookstores and providing course materials and other support services to 1,600 independently managed campus stores.

I had to admit the edict to avoid all vanity-published items seemed to make sense at first _ my personal observation is that many self-published authors don't have the talent to be commercially successful and should expend their creative energies in a different direction. But it still stuck in my craw that the one-size-fits-all approach denies local bookstore officials the freedom to use their judgment in weighing whether a work of fiction would be of interest to their students. And that was before I found out about the Follett-IMG partnership.

IMG came into being as International Management Group in 1960. It grew rapidly into the world's biggest collection of _ you guessed it! _ sports agents. I got to deal with many of them during my 14 years as The AP's sports editor for Arizona. Some were easy to work with, some were not, and the rest were in between. So far I haven't seen any sign that IMG has literary agents among its 3,000 employees and in its 130 offices, but the fact that Follett's Higher Education Group announced an affiliation with IMG five years ago has me wondering: Are the agents of IMG influencing the corporate giant's bias against unrepresented authors in the selection of books offered in campus bookstores? That would not be kosher.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014


After five chapters that broaden the character of Quintus LeClaire and _ to a lesser degree _ Canyon City police chief Sam Moody and three that focus on other characters, the spotlight of "The Leather Man" shifts entirely onto Ben Steinbrecher, the title character, and his family.

Chapters 12 and 13 reveal a surprise: The nickname "Ben" is the shortened form of Benaiah, not Benjamin. Benaiah was the royal bodyguard of Old Testament kings David and Solomon. The newborn Steinbrecher receives the unusual name because his birth dimensions _ 12 pounds and 24 inches long _ remind his father of the importance of the number twelve in Christian theology. They set the Rev. Frederick Steinbrecher thinking:
Were there not twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles of the Lamb, twelve gates of solid pearl in the walls of the holy city envisioned by St. John and twelve angels standing sentry there? It seemed obvious to the minister that his son was born to some special purpose which would require equal portions of earthly fortitude and spiritual guidance.
Benaiah was a good role model. The son of the high priest Jehoiada, his unswerving loyalty to the Israelite monarchs was notable even by Bible standards, and his lack of fear was astonishing: Chapter 12 begins with the story about Benaiah chasing a lion into a pit and killing it there, apparently unbothered by the tricky footing created by a rare snowy day. The elder Steinbrecher hoped to inculcate the qualities of courage and steadfastness in his firstborn son and frequently referred to Benaiah and other Hebrew warriors in his bedtime stories.

In a short span of Chapter 12, Benaiah grows into a gifted athlete whose favorite sport is football. His talent as a tight end earns him a scholarship to North Dakota, his state university, and he stars for the Fighting Sioux, apparently destined for NFL stardom until he tears a knee ligament during his senior season. The career-ending injury comes on the heels of his marriage to Gloria Wise. It isn't long before Gloria's selfishness appears as a thread that runs throughout the rest of the book, and the marriage that should strengthen Ben becomes part of his life challenges.

The last part of the chapter is touching. Frederick gives Ben enough money to pay for a still-experimental knee reconstruction in an attempt to revive his career. It helps steady the joint, but not enough to allow Ben to ever try his luck in the NFL. Tearfully he promises to repay the money, but his father cuts him short:
"It doesn't seem to me that you remember the text of our first conversation about your operation," Frederick said. "I did not loan you the money. Don't you remember the Parable of Talents? The Lord wanted to see some gain on what he imparted to each servant. The varying amounts were inconsequential _ it was how the money was handled that was important. You took a chance on something that had the potential to enrich your life and your family's. It doesn't matter that the operation failed; your decision was correct."
Chapter 13 uses a playful, Bible guessing game between Ben and Sam Moody to reveal the meaning of Ziklag, first mentioned in Chapter 8.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Mrs. Sullivan

Sherry Sullivan makes her appearance in Chapter 11 of "The Leather Man." It's love at first sight, although neither she nor Ben Steinbrecher is willing to admit it. She is introduced as the curriculum manger of the institution which young Teddy Steinbrecher calls home, because his mother won't allow him in her house, but it's revealed later in the chapter that she doubles as a teacher of Teddy and other learning-challenged children. The school has a shortage of qualified instructors, assistant administrator James Allen explains to Ben, whose schedule as a coach at Canyon State College in another part of Idaho only allows him one visit to Teddy per week.

The electricity between Ben and Sherry is evident from the start. Ben, usually slow to reveal details about himself, feels befuddled after trying to clarify Allen's mistake in identifying him as the head coach of the Canyon State Wranglers. Sherry shows some advance knowledge of Ben's past by asking if he doesn't coach wrestling as well.
"Yes, as a matter of fact." Ben was taken aback. He felt mesmerized, as if he had gone for a stroll and awakened in a crosswalk wearing his boxers. How did this diverting stranger know that much about his career? He plowed ahead: "I coach football, assist with the wrestling program and run the weight room. It's just that, well, football is in season now, and that makes it difficult to focus on anything else. If you're a coach, I mean. I don't really coach the Canyon State team _ I'm an assistant to Buck McKinnon." Ben stopped, feeling oafish. No one had asked for a resume, and he was not in the habit of volunteering one.
Sherry rescues Ben by telling him that participation in sports (in an era before the Special Olympics movement got off the ground) seems to help the development of the mentally handicapped. Allen suggests that Ben begin his visit with Teddy, since he arrived later than usual and is running up against the time when the students need to be in their dormitories. Ben finds Teddy and carries the eight-year-old in is arms because Teddy wants to be held, finally putting him down near the playground. That's where Teddy finds and picks a mature dandelion, causing Ben to ponder:
What keeps a mind from ripening?
At that moment that Sherry reappears, and Ben takes his first honest look at her, seeing beauty that takes his breath away. Ben, who is six-feet-six, is attracted by the fact Sherry is five-ten, athletic and beautiful, with long legs, "a generous mouth, strong but delicate nose, prominent cheekbones and eyes the color of nutmeg." She also continues to exhibit the ability to get him to talk about feelings he isn't used to sharing:
"What do you think about when you're with Teddy?" 
"Sad things mostly." Ben was grateful she didn't smile, and he wondered again how she'd extracted the information. Men in his profession were not often afforded the luxury of sadness, and he rarely used the word. "I think about the way things are versus how they might have been. Maybe some artist could visualize 'Might Have Been' as a subject _ you know, take it out of the abstract."
The discussion gets deeper before Teddy finally saves his father, wandering back while Ben is trying to figure out how to avoid discussing his difficult marriage to Gloria. He is determined to honor his wedding vows, starting with controlling his thoughts, and the drive home becomes a wrestle with himself to stop replaying his conversation with the ravishing educator.



Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Beer Bust

I got my first glimpse of the Salmon River Canyon 50 years ago. It was a mind-altering experience _ the sheer volume of emptiness within the chasm, and its freedom from signs of humanity. From that day in June 1964 forth, I always intended to write something that used the canyon as a setting. I just didn't know what until I began work on "The Leather Man" after my retirement from journalism.

My first attempt to write about the relatively unpublicized gash in the earth's crust was an unpublished short story, "The Wind in the Canyon," which I wrote during my school's Christmas break that same year. I couldn't decide what to do with it and eventually submitted it as a paper in a creative-writing class at Brigham Young University the following spring. But, given the size of the canyon, which constricts the river for better than 200 miles of its 425-mile length between mountains that soar 7,000 to 8,000 feet above the water, I deemed anything "short" to be inadequate. The second-deepest defile in North America deserved more, I felt, something sublime ... "Moby Dick" with the crazed pilot of a jet boat chasing a white steelhead, perhaps. Or, "War and Peace" involving combat between budding entomologists and the pesky larvae of the Douglas-fir tussock moth. Or, an epic beer bust?

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I didn't exactly grow up in a metropolis. The closest version of one would have been Ogden, Utah, about 100 miles south of the roadside general store my parents ran in Virginia, Idaho. But between childhood and the two months I spent living in a tent deep in the Salmon River Canyon, I had lived and worked in San Francisco; spent nearly five months visiting 22 countries in Europe (including Yugoslavia, which since then has been split into seven nations); and then returned to do missionary work for my church in Austria and Bavaria. That allowed me to familiarize myself with elegant avenues and narrow side streets in amazing places like Vienna, Munich, Nuremberg and the resort cities on the southeast shore of Lake Constance.

So I felt world-wise by the time I resumed my education, and I didn't mind getting back to nature. It was with excitement that I noticed a job opening on a BYU bulletin board _ the U.S. Department of Agriculture was looking for insect collectors in Salmon, Idaho. I applied, was told when to report and went home to Marsh Valley for a few days before the trip into country I'd never seen before to exterminate some kind of bug that was killing off beautiful Douglas firs.

The work sounded simple: Climb hillsides, stopping every 500 feet of elevation to collect moth larvae from the branches of infected trees and kill them in test tubes half-filled with formaldehyde. The reason for the increments: The larvae can be sprayed effectively only in the fifth of seven growth stages, and they grow faster at lower, warmer altitudes. Back to the schedule: Eat lunch at noon, being careful not to sit on the tubes, and bring the samples back to the unit entomologist before sunset.

We were told to wait at pickup points along the Salmon River Road for a ride to the campsite at Corn Creek, about 50 miles downriver from the gravel road's starting point at North Fork. Reality turned out to be not quite so simple: None of us was in shape, and no amount of training could have prepared anyone for pre-OSHA work conditions, even in a government agency.

Looking back, it all seems fun, but I realize now I had a few near-death experiences. Once, I ran out of climbing room and had to grab a rocky overhang, let my feet dangle over a drop of perhaps 20 feet onto a slanted rockslide that could easily have conveyed me back to a lower collection point _ and pull myself up blindly onto the shelf, praying all the while that it wasn't some rattler's warming spot. Another time I climbed a steep wall of granite, peered over the knife-edged ridge and looked straight down into a bend of the river 2,000 feet below. The rock held, obviously, or I wouldn't be writing this.

Temporary workers have no union, but we finally complained enough that the USDA began airlifting us in small helicopters to mountaintops from which we could collect bugs in reverse order, top to bottom. Once summer arrived and the larvae hatch began in earnest, the air show started. It was spectacular: We got to watch a variety of World War II surplus aircraft _ thick-bodied P-47 Thunderbolts that used to strafe German railroad lines and factories, B-17 bombers, and sleek, nimble F-51 Mustangs outfitted with tanks full of insecticide. The fighter planes were used because they could knife down a mountainside just above the treetops, hit exactly the grove they wanted to hit and then pull up, missing the opposite side of the canyon by what looked like inches.

The memories were still alive decades later, and Chapter 10 of "The Leather Man" employs them in several ways _ giving tidbits of the history of the magnificent chasm that defeated the Lewis and Clark expedition, introducing several elements of the novel, including new characters, and the first suggestion of the kind of organic racism that can exist when members of the predominant race are unfamiliar with people of a different color.

In the person of Blaine "Froggy" Lund, that kind of xenophobia is a misnomer: A powerful left tackle on the Canyon State College football team, he doesn't fear much of anything, but he subscribes to a fallacy widely held in the Vietnam Era _ that black athletes, despite their superb athleticism, could not be good quarterbacks. Froggy, whose mistrust of strangers applies equally to anyone, has consumed more beer than the other three football players in David Talty's car combined, and he provides comic relief by trying to complete the sentence, "Ever' numb-nuts between here and Texas wants to move to Idaho." The other occupants of the vehicle continually interrupt him, and he has to start over again and again.

The four are staying at Uncle Joe Talty's cabin south of Salmon, but they decide to drive into the canyon north of the city to consume the beer they avoided during spring practice, which just ended. Preston "Taters" Jones, one of two occupants of the back seat, interrupts Froggy to ask if he wants to exclude everyone, including Danny Malahewa, a heralded linebacker who should strengthen the Canyon State defense:
"You know Danny's good, man," Froggy cranked his head around, an impressive accomplishment for someone with a neck as thick as a Doric column. "You're good, Danny. You're welcome."
But Malahewa is of Hawaiian extraction, and he takes umbrage a few minutes later when Froggy suggests that Edison Green, a black player and the team's new quarterback, won't be able to win close games. David tries to defuse the situation by pointing out that Froggy is inebriated and by asking Malahewa about his experiences against black players at high school in Los Angeles. The new arrival from a junior college in Utah is glad to oblige:
"We're, what's the word? ... conditioned to think only white guys play the position. You think about it: Almost every kid in Pop Warner starts out playing for white coaches, and half the coaches volunteer so their sons get to be quarterback. If a black kid gets ahead of that game, you better respect it."
The malty tour doesn't get quite as deep into the canyon as Corn Creek, which is where the all land-based transportation ends, and David turns around after a rest stop to head back toward Salmon. It is slow going, though, and at another stop of necessity I shared, through him, my feeling about the place:
Before they reached North Fork, it was time for another rest stop. The canyon had widened and the road was away from the river. The clouds had scattered, and the moon was up, throwing an argentic light across the knobby foothills and glinting off the water like varnish. The view affirmed what Talty had grown up thinking: If there's a more beautiful place on Earth, I'd like to see it.

In Memoriam

I realized this week that I put the cart before the horse when I started providing brief capsules that summarize chapters in "The Leather Man." I forgot the dedication page, possibly because it's not identified as such. It conveys an obscure reference to three young men whose lives touched mine. It reads simply:
To Dana, Morgan and Rayce. Their fire died too soon.
Believe it or not, it took me a long time to find the right combination of those few words, because my feelings run deep about the trio. Although they never met, they are forever linked in my memory because they shared certain things in common: Each was fearless, athletic, ran afoul of the law and died young. The passing of each one influenced the way I looked at life for years.
  • Dana Richardson was a few months older than I was, but he seemed to know so much more about life. He was handsome, quick with a quip and street-tough. In the melting pot of Marsh Valley (Idaho) High School, formed before the 1955-56 school year by consolidating three rural high schools, he represented the factory kids. Inkom had industrialization because of the Ash Grove Cement plant, basically the only non-agricultural industry in Marsh Valley, and that set the kids from Inkom apart. But Dana got along with everyone who didn't cross him. He played fullback on a remarkable Class 3A high school team which _ in the fall of 1957 _ nearly upset Pocatello High School, a nationally ranked 5A institution that had 10 times as many students as Marsh Valley's 305. The Indians scored late to win 7-6, but the mismatch was so unusual it was written up in newspapers as far away as Salt Lake City. That season was a high-water mark for Dana: The day before graduation, some other seniors and I went to visit him at the Bannock County Jail. Speaking through the metal door, we wished him the best. A few years later, despondent over the breakup of his marriage, he took his own life.
  • Morgan Judd lived to be 41, quite a bit longer than the other two. He died in 2003 after an extended bout with Reiter syndrome, a nasty type of arthritis which reacts to bacterial infection in the body. Some believe his arthritis worsened during his years in prison on an armed-robbery conviction; others attribute it to having to spend time in meat lockers because of his work as a meat-cutter. Much as in Dana's case, a woman proved to be Morgan's undoing. He entered a Circle K in Tucson, Ariz., with a butcher knife to get the money his estranged wife demanded in payment for the chance to hold their baby. In happier times Morgan was a standout third baseman and designated hitter for St. David High School, where he also starred as a football lineman.
  • I never met Rayce Rindfleisch, but after his funeral I felt I knew him as well as the other two. A user and dealer of methamphetamines, he was shot to death on Feb. 27, 2008, by a Bonneville (Idaho) County deputy while trying to escape from a home where he commandeered a couple's vehicle. Those facts paint a grim picture, but there was another side to Rayce. He was an exceptional athlete _ an Idaho state wrestling champion at Blackfoot High School, an all-state football player, a promising cage fighter _ and a friend to lesser beings. One of the speakers at his funeral was a former teammate who had the misfortune to wrestle in the same weight division, essentially condemned to be a sparring partner for a more talented athlete who was always going to represent the varsity in meets. The second-stringer was halfway through his eulogy when he acknowledged as much and added, "One thing about Rayce: He never hurt my feelings." I was so impressed I used part of the phrase in my book. Rayce Rindfleisch was 31 when he passed away.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Uncle Joe

After five chapters explaining how a splendid tailback like Quintus LeClaire could drop onto the roster of a small-college football team, I decided it was time to shift gears. Chapter 9 of "The Leather Man" doesn't just move the focus away from the Canyon State College campus, it transports it into another world _ the colorful life of Joseph Xavier Talty. Readers will remember that Talty, known as Uncle Joe throughout the rest of the book, is the only person mentioned by name in the Prologue.

Uncle Joe's gift to the Canyon State football program is his nephew David, an outside linebacker who will be announced as one of the team's four captains when training camp commences in the summer. But Uncle Joe already has given many gifts to humanity as a precursor of the Greatest Generation. A bit too old to fight in World War II, he nevertheless helped in the war effort. Hired as a heavy equipment operator by Idaho-based Morrison-Knudsen Co. in time to work on Hoover Dam, he went on to build airfields on Pacific islands and naval fuel-storage tanks in Hawaii as part of the reconstruction of Pearl Harbor. Uncle Joe kept globe-trotting, mostly on dam projects which made Morrison-Knudsen one of the world's largest construction companies. When he retired, the Montana native picked a spot along Idaho's Lemhi River, a feeder of the spectacular Salmon River, south of the city of Salmon.

As it does with many, retirement gave Uncle Joe a nudge toward environmentalism. Enchanted by the beauty of his seven-acre "pasture of plenty," he lets the lawn go natural to spare the spring flowers. Never one to forget his Irish heritage, he names his dog Flynn, his quarter horse Quinn, and his prize Black Angus bull Mick.

Now that "Davey," the orphaned nephew he raised as a son, is a few hours south playing football in the Magic Valley, Uncle Joe is left to his memories and shares some of them with Flynn. One that he recalls frequently is his worst on-the-job mistake _ allowing his Caterpillar tractor to become part of a landslide down the back of an earth-filled dam under construction in South America. Uncle Joe thinks about jumping but stays in the cab and steers the D8 tractor to a safe landing at the bottom.

At this point I'd like to point out that I had expert advice on whether it would be possible to survive such an experience. It turned out that Cary Holverson, a friend mentioned in the Acknowledgments section, had had a similar experience while driving a different piece of heavy construction equipment. He read the chapter and vetted it for accuracy, contributing greatly to my peace of mind going forward.

His memories make Uncle Joe nostalgic: He knows that the wisdom he's acquired will largely be ignored by the young, but that doesn't alter his belief that his life's work was important. He thinks about writing a history of Morrison-Knudsen, and dismisses that quickly:
Ah, let some company tool take care of it!
However, the thought leads to a paragraph which I believe sums up Uncle Joe's life and suggests how he inculcated values in David that make him a brilliant defensive player for the Wranglers:
Still, he couldn't shake the idea that there was grandeur in the toil of working men, a tale of internal-combustion stamina and imagination and courage written in the sweat and blood of the finest men who ever represented the greatest nation on earth, Art Deco janissaries out to raise the whole world's standard of living. Someone would chronicle their achievements, list what they'd built or dreamed up, but would anyone ever live again with that combination of resourcefulness and daring?
It seemed to be a question worth asking and, reading it again, it still seems so.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Through the Cracks

When I think of Dave Campo, I think in superlatives. Three Super Bowl rings will do that for a man. They represent the highest rung in the most popular sport in the United States. Dave also has an NCAA national championship on his resume, representing another pinnacle. Come to think of it, the most fun I've ever had in a restaurant was dining out with him and seeing the reaction of the maitre d' and servers after they realized what kind of celebrity was in their establishment that night. Words like best and friendliest cling to Dave like static electricity. He can't walk the midway of the Texas State Fair without being swarmed by autograph-seekers, perhaps the most popular coach in Dallas Cowboys history. He may be the most talented person I know _ as a teenager, he sang professionally in and around Mystic Seaport, Conn., once as part of the opening act for a Peter, Paul and Mary concert, and he used to turn out exhibition-worthy paintings in his spare time. Superlatives all.

Currently the cornerbacks coach and assistant head coach at the University of Kansas, Dave has at least one negative superlative in his past as well: the worst head-coaching record in the history of the Cowboys. But it's tempting to argue that no one could have done better than his 15-33 from 2000-2002, given that the Triplets _ Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith _ were down to Twins by the time he got the reins. Irvin retired before Dave's first season, Aikman retired a year later, and Smith's string of 11 consecutive seasons with more than 1,000 yards rushing ended in 2002.

Dave moved on to the Cleveland Browns for two years, then joined the Jacksonville Jaguars for three as secondary coach and assistant head coach, adding another coaching superlative when Rashean Mathis became the Jaguars' first Pro Bowl cornerback after the 2006 season. Dave returned to the Cowboys in 2008 for four more years before he was released again.

I've had a few superlatives in journalism, including the New York State Bar Association's Best Legal Reporting award for a profile of the St. Lawrence County district attorney in 1985. But Dave Campo figures in my personal -est parade for giving me the top compliment I've ever received as a writer. That was when he acknowledged that recruiters talk all the time about the ways a blue-chip player can fall through the cracks into the basement of college football. It made me happy to think I'd actually come up with something in a work of fiction that sounded real to a professional coach. He made the comment after reading the part of a manuscript which is now Chapter 8 of my novel "The Leather Man." It highlights Ben Steinbrecher, the defensive coordinator at Canyon State College, discussing the subject with his friend Sam Moody after a dispiriting, season-ending loss in Billings, Mont.

Steinbrecher is absorbed in his thoughts:
What we really need is an NFL prospect on offense, somebody like ... okay, somebody like I used to be to play tight end, or a hard-nosed tailback like Roy Shivers from Utah State. Ugh, I don't even want to think about that game in Logan next year. Or like Billy Cannon. Forget that, you're not going to get any Heismans out of this school.
Moody tries to cheer up Steinbrecher, who is in his first year on the Canyon State staff, by saying the Wranglers need to get lucky. Steinbrecher doesn't want to hear it, but Moody persists.
"I meant when you're recruiting. It takes great players to beat great players, so you need an upgrade."
That prompts Steinbrecher to discuss the difficulty a small college would have trying to lure an elite player:
"You're talking blue-chippers, and the only way a blue-chip player could land at this level is if he slipped through the cracks, like if he had lousy grades or wrecked a pool hall and had to skip town. There has to be something off about a kid of who's born for the big pond and slips into a little one."
"Why do you think I said you had to get lucky?"
Later in the chapter, Moody rehearses the conversation while he waits for Steinbrecher to return his call. Moody, the Canyon City police chief, has had a young man who looks and talks like a blue-chipper fall into the law-enforcement net because of raising a ruckus on a bus in the city limits, and has talked the prospect into taking a look at the Canyon State campus before continuing his trip. The chief tells Steinbrecher that Quintus LeClaire may have some head problems but could use a little Ziklag from authorities. The meaning of that teaser isn't revealed until Chapter 13.


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Bad Cop, Good Cop

Canyon City is not Los Angeles, and the corruption portrayed in the "L.A. Confidential" movie, based on James Ellroy's violence-filled "L.A. Quartet," is over the top compared with what could develop in a one-horse Idaho college town presided over by a straight-arrow police chief. Still, there is a strain of seediness among Canyon City's stable of officers, and it shows up most strongly in Jed Plinckett.

In his few years on the force, Plinckett has earned more than his share of complaints about rough treatment of detainees. But if he is aware of the swelling dossier in Chief Sam Moody's desk, the knowledge has done little to slow down the patrolman. He continues to push the envelope when making arrests, and that leads him into a painful encounter with a human buzzsaw.

As described in Chapter 6 of "The Leather Man," Plinckett grabs Quintus LeClaire and tries to put him face-down in the aisle of a Greyhound bus, He only succeeds as far as scraping the side of the ex-Marine's brow and ear on a seat while LeClaire is still dreaming about the near-fatal wounds he received in his last firefight in Vietnam. The result is that LeClaire snaps his head backward into Plinckett's face and then knocks him out with a right cross.

As Chapter 7 begins, Plinckett is at home nursing a bruise to the philtrum, the vertical groove between the nose and upper lip. He has been told in departmental training that the philtrum is full of nerve endings, and the back of LeClaire's head has given Plinckett ample opportunity to experience the pain a blow there can cause. He is angry that he allowed a prisoner to injure him and not the other way around:
One second he was feeling the rush of control, brio and authority that is an unspecified but coveted reward of wearing a badge, and the next he was blinded as if a flashbulb the size of a grapefruit had gone off in his face.
Moody, who decided after interviewing LeClaire earlier that Sunday morning to release the prisoner, has the tricky job of trying to convince Plinckett that the decision was justified. Plinckett, enraged, crosses the line into insubordination protesting that LeClaire should be tried for assault, but Moody remains cool and finally calms the patrolman by telling him LeClaire was having a flashback linked to combat in Vietnam.
"You were in the Army, weren't you Jed?"
Moody asks, knowing the answer.
"Sure I was. That's where I got my start in law enforcement."
"Well, this kid is a war hero. He just got mustered out of the Marines after three months recovering from a firefight."
Moody further calms the waters by offering Plinckett a citation, an extra week's pay and time off if he needs it to recuperate. Then he hangs up, calls Ben Steinbrecher, the football team's defensive coordinator and his best friend, tells Steinbrecher's wife to have her husband call him about a potential recruit, and goes back to the fascinating conversation he had with LeClaire prior to the calls to Plinckett and Steinbrecher's home.

Over breakfast earlier, LeClaire offered an explanation for his being on the bus headed to Oregon: He wanted to see the family of a friend who was killed alongside him when he received the wounds that earned his discharge from military service. He also provided two humorous possibilities to explain his unusual first name, which means "fifth" in Latin _ either he was the fifth man in his patriarchal line since the Civil War, or he was named after a popular brand of whiskey:
"One of my uncles told me I was the size of a fifth of Wild Turkey, and it was a miracle I wasn't named 'The Kickin' Chicken.' To tell the truth, I think dad just liked the letter 'Q.'"
The chapter ends with LeClaire citing several of the Latin phrases he learned at his father's insistence that Latin could help him in any advanced education he wanted to pursue. Then, impressed with the lengths the chief has gone to to make sure justice is done, he says he is willing to meet Steinbrecher to discuss Canyon State's football program.


Friday, July 4, 2014

A Tale of Two Body Types

Only the two longest of 55 chapters in "The Leather Man," a 282-page novel, run to 10 pages. Chapter 6 is one of them, and the reason is Quintus LeClaire, one of the most interesting characters in modern fiction. In high school he sets records for rushing yardage and touchdowns in the fall and for sprint times in the spring. and still finds time to get top grades in Latin and the physical sciences. The Louisiana native seems destined to star for LSU until _ in a typically rash, teenage moment fueled by his parents' divorce and his father's deteriorating health _ he joins the Marine Corps in the run-up to Vietnam. His rationale is simple: Play for the Quantico Marines, answer a call to arms, and then return to college.

A few years later, LeClaire is in jail in Canyon City, Idaho, where he runs afoul of the law after a flashback aboard a bus. He has physical scars left by bullet wounds in his shoulder, chest and leg and psychological scars from more than a year of firefights, losing friends and watching his youth fade away.

That's the setting for Chapter 6. The other person in the clean but dingy interrogation room is Canyon City police chief Sam Moody, who gets a predawn call on a Sunday morning to come in and question what he believes to be a "wild man on the bus."

Moody's first surprise is LeClaire's impressive bearing, even in handcuffs. He notices the detainee's powerful build and soon realizes his prisoner is uncommonly intelligent. Once LeClaire begins to share details of his past, which includes receiving medals for bravery in combat (proven to the ever-cautious police chief by showing him his scars), Moody concludes that the ex-Marine deserves something better than jail time and tells him he won't be charged. Then Moody, himself a combat veteran from an earlier war whose own future as a football lineman vanished when he opted to serve his church as a missionary and then was drafted into the Army, surprises LeClaire with a question: Has he ever played football?
That's a question I can handle, LeClaire thought, feeling relief that took him back to Breaux Bridge and its crawfish etouffee, mocha-faced bayous and brown pelicans.
A lively conversation ensues, with LeClaire discussing his football exploits. He answers a question by saying speed is his greatest attribute as a ball carrier, plus the fact that he doesn't fumble. It's music to the ears of Moody, accustomed to the lead-footed, turnover-prone halfbacks at nearby Canyon State College. Moody has sublimated his love of the sport through his friendship with Ben Steinbrecher and other Canyon State coaches by acting as an unofficial talent evaluator and scout for the program, and, after questioning whether LeClaire plans to return to Southeastern Conference country, asks him if he'd like to look at a local campus which might be "a good place for a young man trying to get his life back together." LeClaire says he wouldn't mind hanging around town for the breakfast Moody offers to buy him.

The chapter is full of bright, thought-provoking passages and original figures of speech, starting with LeClaire's stream-of-consciousness instructions to himself when Moody opens the interrogation:
Don't give them any way in, he reminded himself. He didn't want to talk about flares so bright they imprinted on your retinas, about the stench of cordite and roasting flesh _ canine, porcine or human, take your pick _ and fear palpable enough to leave claw marks on your nervous system, combat coming at you like the maw of an alligator.
When Moody asks what caused the ruckus on the bus, LeClaire replies:
"I rode all the way from Louisiana. I've been kind of irregular with the sleep, and then as soon as we got north of Utah I went out like a light. That's some sparse country out there. Those ... sagebrush? They could make the Himalayas look monotonous. Anyway, I fell asleep and had a bad dream, and I guess I scared some passengers. By the time I woke up your guys were all over me."
By the end of the chapter Moody's mood has improved. What began as a work day on the one day he usually counted as a day off has turned into a chance to get in touch with his buddy about someone who might help the team.


Thursday, July 3, 2014


I knew from my first complete outline of "The Leather Man" that I was facing an uphill battle, and that's never good news. From Gettysburg to Iwo Jima to Korea's Heartbreak Ridge, fighting gravity and an entrenched enemy simultaneously has always turned out to be a bitter experience. One of the reasons Pickett's charge up Cemetery Ridge fell short is that the Confederate artillerymen, needing to elevate their cannons, overshot the Union riflemen on the brow of the hill and tore up a lot of trees, tents and food stores in the rear. Without effective artillery, only 900 of the 12,000 men Pickett led up the incline were able to answer roll call the next morning.

For all we know, David may have been aiming downhill when he unleashed the stone that killed the mighty Goliath.

Writing a novel set almost entirely in southern Idaho is nowhere near the kind of ordeal involved in warfare, of course, but I cite the comparison because trying to popularize such a book certainly runs against the grain in the publishing world. The general idea is that populous states not only have more readers due to the law of averages. They also have more doctors, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs. athletes, police officers and scientists _ occupations that are a staple in literature _ not to mention the fact most of the major publishers in the United States are concentrated in New York City.

Idaho does not rank last among the least-popular states used by authors as the setting for a novel-length work of fiction. In fact, it is tied with Utah for sixth from the bottom _ each with 12 titles on a list compiled by Wikipedia. The lowest is Delaware (4), followed by North Dakota, Rhode Island and South Dakota (9 each), and Arkansas (11).

But the southern part of the Gem State does carry another liability for would-be authors _ you can't write honestly about the stretch from Boise to Idaho Falls and points south without having a Mormon character. Put simply, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the largest religious denomination in that part of the state. And, you can't write honestly about Mormons if the intent is to demonize them. Their unorthodox theology and focus on the importance of families and family trees aside, most Mormons are as hard-working, honest, law-abiding and giving as Americans anywhere. The literary problem is that those qualities don't translate easily into exciting characters.

So it was with some unease that I began writing Chapter 5 and brought in Sam Moody, the Canyon City police chief and the bishop of a Mormon ward, comparable to a parish or congregation. I knew Moody was ideal for the situation because of his acquired background in counseling on the one hand and interrogation on the other. He also was just right for a book trying to steer as far as possible away from the brutal top cop of "First Blood," who goes 180 degrees the other direction in pursuit of Sylvester Stallone's troubled Vietnam veteran. The question was whether non-Mormon readers would accept Moody, a real concern given the way some Republicans turned against Mitt Romney because of his religion in the 2012 presidential election.

I also was aware that I'd hit a home run with Chapter 4, explaining the arrest of Quintus LeClaire because of his war-related nightmare aboard a bus stopped in Canyon City, and I wanted the succeeding chapter to be at least of that quality. So I began:
Sam Moody had a feeling it was going to be an unusual day when he awoke. Feeling that way on a Sunday morning was not usually a good omen. Moody liked Sundays because of their predictability.
The reader is told that Moody had a future as a college lineman, but chose a two-year mission before his career got off the ground and never back to football. Instead, he was drafted before he could enroll in college and saw combat in Korea. Moody has just finished toweling off to prepare for his day of presiding over a series of meetings when the phone rings and he learns that a passenger went "Looney Tunes" on a bus and injured a patrolman before being arrested. After learning LeClaire's name, the police chief tries to figure out who will question the detainee.
Moody's mind went into full gallop, trying to remember which of the department's three detectives was on weekend call. Blankenship worked last night, so he's out of the picture. Duda? Crumb, he's on vacation. Rizzati? That's a no _ today's his anniversary. I guess that leaves me. Why do buses always arrive in the middle of the night in towns this size?
Moody's discomfiture takes him to the city-county lockup and an eye-opening meeting with the Cajun prisoner in the next chapter.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Dream

Walt Disney Productions put out seven, two-reel documentaries in the True-Life Adventure series before the release, in 1953, of "The Living Desert," the company's first feature-length nature film. My parents took me to see some of the others, but _ possibly because I was more sophisticated, but more likely because I was a bit older _ "The Living Desert" stuck in my mind long after I lost track of its predecessors.

Flash forward more than five decades. I had retired from journalism, wire-service weary and anxious to take up creative writing, my long-neglected reason for majoring in English Literature. I had the title of a book, a hero, several thousand words saved on my hard drive _ and an idea for an antihero scarred by combat in Southeast Asia and struggling to reconnect not only with the vestiges of the life he'd known before the war but with life itself.

At that point I was at a crossroads _ somewhat pleased with the prologue and three preceding chapters of "The Leather Man," but aware that Chapter 4 had to be better, because Quintus LeClaire was a special character. I pondered how to begin, fearing that the question might be insoluble. I'd known LeClaire's name for most of the 32 years I was an AP sports writer, but that did me no good. It wouldn't do to start with something like, "Quintus LeClaire had a flashback." After what, in retrospect, was a remarkably short period of time, I happened on one of the first magical moments of my life _ remembering a large cactus flower spreading its petals across a big screen. I reached for the keyboard and typed out an 11-syllable declarative sentence, perfect in its simplicity, meter and adaptability to introducing LeClaire:
The dream began as a flower unfolding.
The words came easily after that. In the final sentence of the first paragraph, LeClaire recognizes the blossom as something resembling time-lapse photography, a boyhood memory which seems in focus at first but keeps changing as he wrestles to make sense of what he's experiencing. LeClaire is in a makeshift greenhouse one moment, and the next he's outdoors, a vision that suggests danger:
LeClaire didn't get that one _ he liked it in the greenhouse, the shade, and the way you could move around. Keep moving, because three months out of intensive care and three weeks out of the Marine Corps wasn't a lot of time to lose the feeling that something malevolent might pop through the two-by-fours and plastic any second.
In the next two paragraphs, the flower image mutates into a fireball that reminds him of napalm, his Vietnam-specific phobia:
He knew then that he was back in the jungle, with the difference between life and searing death determined by which side of the hill the flyboys hit.
The rest of the chapter describes how LeClaire, still asleep, becomes vocal enough that the driver of the Greyhound bus carrying the ex-Marine jumps out to flag down a police car. LeClaire becomes more agitated, and one of the officers who boards the bus decides to arrest him even though it's apparent LeClaire is still dreaming. He feels layers of sleep slip away as the dream nears an end, but he's still out of it when the cop bangs his head into a seat trying to put him on the floor. LeClaire responds by knocking out that officer only to be arrested by the backup, and that sets the stage for the meeting in Chapter 5 between the war veteran and a police chief with a connection to the local football team.