Thursday, September 9, 2021

THE MAGIC OF MEMORY

 

I should ask an expert if memories and imagination are somehow intertwined because at this point in my long life I'm putting memories and the ideas they sometimes produce down on paper, so to speak. Since 2013, I’ve written thirteen novels and am currently at work on a fourteenth.

 In a work of fiction, everything our characters say and do is the result of what we imagine happening to them. And not always, but often, it’s something we, or a friend or family member, personally experienced. Or something we read about somewhere, or perhaps learned through research. We then try to apply this information to what we want to happen with our characters. While I occasionally have to search through my memory banks, I’ve been blessed with considerable retention, and recall nearly always comes. I started writing at the age of seventy-five, so those are pretty big memory banks!

 Not all memories are beautiful, of course. And having a good memory sometimes means sleepless nights regretting past bad choices, going over a long list of things done and not done which might have meant a different life. It’s a pointless exercise and thankfully, I don’t do it too often. And it’s a trade-off I can live with, and do so gratefully. I’ve seen first-hand the devastation caused by dementia and I’d rather deal with my bad memories than lose them.

 Maybe this piece isn’t so much about memory as about the remarkable capacity of the human mind and its ability to create. How does that actually happen? With me, it began with a considered recall of a traumatic experience from my teenage years, and an attempt to feel what a close friend did when both her parents were shot to death one horrible night in January 1954, by her estranged brother-in-law. And in the aftermath, how she found the courage and fortitude to go on with her young life, playing the leading role of Julie Jordan in Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical drama Carousel, in which Julie's husband takes his own life and leaves her alone to raise their child.

 I wrote my first book, How I Grew Up, in the first person, setting myself the daunting task of attempting to live another person’s pain. In Man with No Yesterdays, I went even further, trying to put myself in the head of a Vietnam veteran who had suffered a traumatic brain injury and lost all memory of his former life. Imagine having to live with such an enormous loss.

 Not long ago a high school friend with whom I communicate regularly reminded me of a day trip with a mutual friend—actually, the principal character in How I Grew Up, Anita Barker (she’s Melanie Stewart in the book, which is a roman à clef). My friend Audrey even sent me photos from this trip taken in the summer of 1954. I still can’t remember that trip, and my failure to do so gave me a glimmer of understanding for my character Jake Cameron.

Currently, I’m writing the eighth—and perhaps final—novel in my mystery series, which is set in Cincinnati, Ohio in the nineteen-sixties. My time in that lovely city began in the fall of 1955 when I matriculated to the College-Conservatory of Music. Locating “The Augusta McKee Mystery Series” in a city I fell in love with at seventeen and delighted in for sixteen years has awakened many happy memories. Thanks to the marvels of the internet, I've been able to affirm nearly everything I need to double-check particulars about my time in Cincinnati. (Not the least of these tools are Google maps which have helped me numerous times revisit different areas of the city and trace the exact routes I drove.)

 When I published How I Grew Up I at first thought it would be “one and done”—I’d actually written a book. But it was only the beginning, as one story brought to mind another that I needed to write. That has continued for over eight years. I’ve set all my books in the past, during remembered times, with many containing remembered events. Books that sprang from my mind, my imagination—and my memories.

poster for The Pocono Cinema and Cultural Center 

designed by Katy Schulz Burton

For more information please visit my website, www.susanmoorejordan.com



Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Forty-Six Years Ago, Saigon Fell

 

Due to the events in Afghanistan over the past few days, there have been many references to “The Fall of Saigon.” Many of the younger generation may wonder why.

 My two books in “The Cameron Saga” deal with the lives of two brothers who both served in Vietnam and whose lives were forever changed by being part of that war. In Man with No Yesterdays Jake Cameron, the younger brother who served as a Green Beret, has suffered a traumatic brain injury which erases his personal memory almost completely and he is left trying to rebuild a life for himself.

 While he is living in Canada, Jake witnesses the television coverage of the North Vietnamese Army overrunning South Vietnam, and he writes to a friend about his reaction. (It amazed me that when writing this chapter, I actually found the CBC coverage of the event on YouTube and was able to see exactly what my character Jake experienced.)

 Here’s Jake’s letter to his friend Louis:


May 2, 1975 - 3:00 a.m.

 Louis,

 April 30, 1975, will remain with me forever. I’m sure the news of the fall of Saigon reached you.

Thousands of South Vietnamese abandoned to fend for themselves. People who had aided the United States in its fight against communism, left to the mercy of the invading North Vietnamese to do God knows what to them. Seeing those people surrounding the embassy hoping for helicopters to return…and it never happened.

 I had to write you because you know my history and will understand how watching those images tore me apart. No, I didn’t remember my time in service, but seeing the helicopters lifting off from the embassy grounds gave me a chill. Anger…despair…maybe an echo of my time there? I don’t know.

 It was gut-wrenching to see all those Vietnamese at the locked embassy gates, pleading to be taken out of the country. Some of them people who had visas to come to Canada. What the hell?

I’ve got to tell you, watching those choppers being ditched in the ocean. God, that was the worst. I felt like I might have been reliving the crash I was in…it made me shaky and sick to my stomach.  I managed to hide it from my co-workers who were in the room with me. Probably nobody would have noticed anyway…we were all riveted to the television monitor.

 Through it all, I was proud of our Marines. They never lost their cool and handled an impossible situation with great courage. Did what had to be done. When we got word that the Marines had been successfully airlifted, a whole roomful of Canadians audibly relaxed and exhaled. I don’t think until then I realized I’d been holding my breath.

 I haven’t slept for two nights. I’m too wired to sleep, afraid of what my mind might recover and wake me with. I felt guilty as hell…guilty about being part of that war. We went in, thinking it would be an easy victory. Instead, we pretty much destroyed what had been a once beautiful country. Andy told me about that, how hauntingly beautiful it was when he first got there in 1965. Then walking away from all the mistakes we made. A blasted landscape. Hundreds of thousands dead. All those young American lives lost, and for what?

 All this makes me wonder if I’ll ever be free of Vietnam. It’s in my atoms. Senses that awaken within me that I can’t escape or deny. Part of me will always be a warrior. But I hang on to George’s wise words: “A man can be a warrior with his voice and his passion, finding a way to bring good things to people.”

 Later today I plan to participate in a healing circle held twice a month at the Outreach Centre. Up to now, I haven’t joined in, but I need this. I need to find a way back to peace and balance, and a way to scrub the haunting images from my mind. I pray my First Nation brothers will include me, their white brother.

 I’m going to close, but I want you to know how much I appreciate being able to write you and know I won’t be judged…you never judged me. I can tell you things you I can’t tell anyone else, and that means a lot.

 Thank you for listening.


 I vividly recall watching the TV coverage at the time and having a similar reaction. Disbelief, dismay, anger. I felt physically ill. I was not actively part of the protest movement, but I felt the war was wrong. I was distressed by the way our Vietnam veterans were treated on returning home. It was a sad, confusing time in our country, and then we learned the government had lied to us. About almost everything having to do with the war.

 Watching the events in Afghanistan unfold recently and the quick collapse of the government brought back all that emotion. Once again,  the skies over a national capitol have been filled with helicopters. This was never a “good” war, if there is such a thing. I’m sure many of us who were around in 1975 saw with dread what was doomed to happen. How tragic that those in power apparently did not.

 

 photo by Dr. Bertram Zarins

used by permission

 

Friday, July 16, 2021

OPERATION FREQUENT WIND

The plan to take the Afghan translators out of Afghanistan to a safe place via an airlift is for me an uneasy echo of what happened at the end of the Vietnam War, when a similar plan was in place to take South Vietnamese who had assisted the U.S. military to safety. Some people may recall a series of unfortunate decisions meant that the planned airlift never happened. I vividly recall watching the fall of Saigon on network television. It was a shock; the United States didn’t lose wars. Not like that.

 All of the remaining American staff were safely rescued. But thousands of South Vietnamese who were dependent on us were on the brink of being abandoned. Of course, I hope we do better this time, but we’ll have to wait and see. However, the Taliban is moving quickly to overrun the country. Here’s hoping history does not repeat itself.

 It wasn’t until decades later when I was researching the fall of Saigon for my book Man with No Yesterdays that I learned of the remarkable effort to rescue as many of our South Vietnamese friends as we possibly could.

 Vietnam was called “the helicopter war” for good reason. This remarkable aircraft ferried our fighting men to battles, extracted them from battlefields, dropped supplies to remote outposts, provided transportation of medical personnel and for the wounded to field hospitals. Many brave men died piloting the crafts. Many door gunners died. Helicopter pilots sometimes performed remarkably heroic feats.

 Thanks to the marvels of the internet, while researching this book I found news coverage from the CBC and so watched exactly what my character Jake Cameron saw. Since I had learned more about the importance of helicopters in the kind of warfare we encountered in Vietnam, seeing those scenes of the aircraft being ditched into the ocean I found even more disturbing and tragic. It became almost an analogy of the war itself: all the valiant fighting and loss of life ─ to what end?

 When searching for a photo to include in an addendum to the book I came across Dr. Bertram Zarins’ remarkable picture of a chopper dying in the South China Sea after ferrying refugees from Saigon to the waiting ships of Task Force 76. There was not room on the ships for the many helicopters that had been pressed into use for the escape of additional South Vietnamese.

 The original plan of an airlift by fixed wing aircraft, which would have rescued many more, was thwarted by the speed of the North Vietnamese Army’s march on Saigon. The use of helicopters, the last resort for attempting evacuation, became Operation Frequent Wind. The Marine helicopter pilots flew back and forth for almost twenty-four hours straight and ended up saving nearly 6,000 South Vietnamese.

 One more example of personal valor by our magnificent military. 


Photo courtesy of Dr. Bertram Zarins


Sunday, July 4, 2021

INDEPENDENCE DAY 2021

 

We are presently living in troubled times, as has happened throughout the history of the United States. But today, July 4, 2021, may we take a moment to recall those men who served in the Second Continental Congress? Those ordinary men, those remarkable men, whose vision was so strong they dared to risk being executed for treason to bring a new nation into an old world. I believe it's acknowledged what they did was unparalleled in human history. 

Wherever we are today on this nation's journey, I choose to hold fast to their belief in the future.

From my author's note for the musical drama 1776, which I was privileged to direct for Pocono Lively Arts in 1989:

"They were men of human shortcomings, yet they were undoubtedly the most extraordinary group of men in all of history to have gathered together in one place and at one time. According to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in his book The Birth of the Nation, they were 'fearless, high-principled, deeply versed in ancient and modern political thought … convinced of man’s power to improve his condition through the use of intelligence, and unafraid of experiment. They were men of vision.'

“To this day the nation and the world are committed to the unending quest to unfold the ultimate meaning of those quiet phrases, written over two centuries ago by a young man in a small room in an unknown city on the margin of Western civilization: 'We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.'”





Friday, June 4, 2021

LET MUSIC LIVE

 In the late spring of 2019, I learned The Guardian was looking for essays for a series entitled “How I Fell in Love With …” and on a whim, sent an email to the editor who was running the series. It was fun to write and let her know about my newfound passion, writing books—“music-centric” books, after a full, rich, and happy life as a musician. Much to my amazement, she contacted me within a day or so and asked me to write the article. No deadline, roughly eight hundred words, just expand what I’d sent in my slightly breezy email.

 Needless to say, I set to work immediately and was even more amazed when a week or so later I received notice that the article would go online on Friday, May 24. Friday Sydney time, actually. I still was having a hard time processing this, but late Thursday night (PA time) I saw the article online. An article I wrote. In The Guardian.

 I shared it all over social media, and early the next morning contacted my sons, both of whom live locally, to share my good news.

 Instead, I learned of an awful tragedy. My oldest son runs his own business, providing soil treatment for playing fields, mostly golf courses, from parts of the greater New York City area into Connecticut and Long Island. One of his most valued employees, and a good friend to boot, had drowned in a freak fishing accident Thursday evening. Twenty-nine years old, sole provider for his family; two children, ages one and three. He was a very good friend of my younger son who also works for the company. My sons were heartbroken.

 It was one tragedy in the hundreds that happen every day. The pandemic that struck the world the following year, and which we are still experiencing, has caused many such valleys in so many lives. It’s often said, “None of us get out of here alive,” and that is a certainty, but the death of a vital young person is difficult for everyone to process. We go through our lives, aware we could be involved in such a tragedy, but certainly not anticipating it. To my mind, a good thing—we can’t live in constant fear of the bad thing that might be lurking around the next corner.

 I am grateful beyond words for the music in my life. My personal motto is “Music—the most powerful force in the universe.” Music can help us grieve, can help us heal, can inspire us, can elevate us as nothing else can. After my week of peaks and valleys, I attended a high school choral concert a few nights later and heard a wide variety of music sung by some great young people, who loved what they were doing and performed exceptionally well.

 The final selection on the concert was a powerful and deeply moving choral piece by Joseph Martin, “The Awakening,” which speaks of a world without music. How silent, how sad. The kind of world we’ve been living in for many months. The final part of the song is based on the composer’s personal experience of emotional healing through his music ("Let music never die in me, forever let my spirit sing.") It ends with a burst of brilliance: “Let music live.

 Music is the constant in my life, as I wish it could be in everyone’s life. It’s our connection to heaven, wherever that may be. It’s a gift from our Creator, whatever we may call him. It helps us survive the valleys and delight in the peaks. It elevates and enhances our existence. It makes life worth living.

 Let Music Live.

 



Sunday, February 14, 2021

MY CONVERSATION WITH AUGUSTA McKEE TODAY

 

Today is Valentine’s Day. I asked Augusta McKee what she gave Malcolm.

 “How would I know? You’ve never written a book that includes Valentine’s Day. In fact, I think only one of the six books that are out there has anything about winter in it at all.”

 “Yes, I know. I want to write a book with winter in it. I did take that last book up to Christmas, remember?”

 I decided to try a different approach. “Well, by now you know Malcolm pretty well, I would hope. If I should write a book with Valentine’s Day in it, what would you give him?”

“I’ve never given him anything other than a lot of headaches. Oh, and the dog. Fritz. Maybe more headaches? But he liked it. I mean he likes the dog. That was a good present.”


She thought about it. “Malcolm gave me some nice things. My engagement ring in the second book. A piece of jewelry for our wedding. And then when you sent us to Europe for our honeymoon, he gave me a bracelet that I seldom take off. A charm bracelet with one meaningful charm.”

 “You didn’t give him a wedding present?”

 “If I did, you neglected to write it into the book. We wrote our own vows. Does that count? I promised I’d always have his back and I would be his partner for life. And then I sang to him.”

 “Just imagine I plan to write the next book—well, not the one I’m writing now, because it takes place in the summer—but the one after that and it includes Valentine’s Day in the time frame. What would you give him?”

 “The only jewelry he wears is his wedding ring. I guess I gave him that. And his watch. Maybe I’d give him a Rolex. Would that make you happy?”

 “It’s not about me, it’s about you and him.”

 “Right. Of course it is. You have absolutely nothing to do with all this stuff.”

 “I only write what you guys tell me to write.”

 Augusta stared at me frostily. “We didn’t refer to a couple as ‘you guys’ in the 1960s.”

 “Oh, sorry, lost my head. What you and Malcolm tell me.”

 Augusta stared off into space for long moments. I hummed while I waited for her to respond, the song she sang for Malcolm at their wedding. “Yours Is My Heart Alone.”

 “Well…that Rolex sounds like a good idea. I believe he’d like a good watch. Cuff links, maybe? He sometimes wears shirts that have cuffs.”

 “Can’t you come up with something more original than that?”

 “Why do I need to? You’re the writer. You figure it out.”

 You see what we writers have to deal with?

Friday, September 11, 2020

The Day the Skies Grew Empty

On the second weekend September of 2001, a community theater organization I was part of, Pocono Lively Arts, held auditions for a planned November production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. In a chapter in my book More Fog, Please: 31 Years Directing Community and High School Musicals I wrote the following:

 We had callbacks for the production on Monday night, September 10. I was on the phone the next morning talking to a voice teacher about Anastasia Dietze, a young woman we were seriously considering for Maria, when my phone call was interrupted. It was my friend Judy Lawler. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center,” she told me. I told her I would call her back. Then the nightmare unfolded.

My son Stephen, who had been my lighting director for a number of years, was living and working in Westchester County, New York. I had no reason to think he might have been in Manhattan but I was not able to reach him by phone for many hours. Hearing from him, finally, that night, was a huge relief. I could hear the stress and anguish in his voice; New York had become his city.

(NOTE: It was during that phone call that Steve called my attention to the empty skies. I live below a major flyway; walking out onto my deck, I looked upward and saw only stars.)

One cast member’s father worked in one of the Twin Towers. His dad was late leaving for work that morning because he had to take David Wertz’s little brother to school. When the first plane hit, if he had not been late, he would have been at his desk instead of on the George Washington Bridge headed into Manhattan. He was able to turn around and was home by six o’clock. The family hadn’t heard from him all day and didn’t know where he was, or if he was safe.

Another high school student, Meghan Lastra, had a cousin who had just begun work at the World Trade Center; in fact, it was his first day. He was missing during our rehearsal period. We learned he had been uneasy about working there. His remains were finally recovered. We grieved with her family. Many people in our community lost loved ones that dreadful day.

Stroudsburg is within commuting distance of the New York City area; many residents work in and near the city. Children were kept overnight at several schools in the county, thanks to the generosity and kindness of many people who provided bedding, food, and comfort. Some parents never returned home. It was a very sad, tense time.

PLA members wondered what we should do about the show. Should we continue? My director’s note for this production of The Sound of Music reflects the feelings we all experienced:

 On September 11, we were making final casting decisions for this production. We had just spent an inspiring weekend hearing some one hundred fifty adults and children who were willing to share their time and talent in order to help present this show to the community. Then that Tuesday morning, as so many did, we wondered if this undertaking was meaningful at all in the harsh new world in which we all found ourselves.

The answer, of course, is yes. Without beauty, without music and art, civilization would indeed be totally changed. That all of us want to continue to create and re-create reinforces our very reason for being. Over the past weeks, all of us involved with this production have found a renewed appreciation for this story of love and courage. The story of Captain von Trapp and his family seems especially timely today, and I think, particularly for the children in the cast, our participation has given us a truly worthwhile experience.

As always, we are very grateful to the small army of volunteers who make this production possible – the remarkable people who work backstage, the musicians in the orchestra, the people who usher and help with tickets. Thanks to all of them, we can offer you an afternoon or evening of reliving this lovely American tradition, musical theater, by two of the finest of its creators, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Community productions such as ours are a part of the very essence of this great country.

Many thanks to you, our loyal audience, for helping us to celebrate America in this special way.

Susan Jordan


September 11, 2001