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.