Bill McCloud Earns Third Woody Guthrie Award

When  Bill McCloud returned from Vietnam, he began sorting out what to do with his life. His war experience, added to his love of history and affair with words, eventually coalesced into a life path.

A three-time winner of the Woody Guthrie Poet Award (2019, 2018, 2017), he is as plain as the red dirt of Oklahoma and as distinctive as the land rush that marked the territory called “Sooner State.” His poetry and nonfiction persuade readers to think, empathize, and reflect on just how the pivotal the decades of 1960-70 were and how they fit into the national fabric.

He earned undergraduate degrees from Northern Oklahoma College, Oklahoma State University, and a master’s from Northeastern State University. Pryor Junior High School, Pryor, Oklahoma, gave him classes to hone his teaching skills before he moved to Rogers State University in 2009.

The Smell of the Light: Vietnam, 1968-1969 (Balkan Press), a first book of poetry, is especially poignant. A tapestry of thoughts range over and around those Vietnam experiences. Here’s an example:

My Vietnam Experience

            I landed in Vietnam

            Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated

            Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated

            There was rioting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago

            Students took over the administrative offices at Columbia University

            Catholic activists burned hundreds of files from a draft board in Maryland

            I left Vietnam

The book provides a slice of history and a sensitive collection of poetry.

His nonfiction assemblage of letters and essays, What Shall We Tell Our Children About Vietnam? (University of Oklahoma Press), pulled ideas from politicians, veterans, parents, nurses, and authors—those people whose lives were affected by the war. It contains hindsight, sorrow, reflection, and—sometimes—wisdom. At the time of the book’s publication in 1989, the Vietnam War was seldom taught as part of American history. Now, What Shall We Tell Our Children About Vietnam? often serves as a text.

You can read more about Bill McCloud on his website. His books can be ordered from Amazon.

McCloud’s poetry, papers, and writing are archived in the main library at Harvard University. His work can also be read on the walls of Tulsa Transit Metro. Gotta love the juxtaposition between those two honors.

I am especially grateful to Bill McCloud for reading my novel and writing a blurb for If You Walk Long Enough, scheduled for the shelves in 2021.

One Step Closer to the Shelves

If You Walk Long Enough is one step closer to being published and placed on bookstore and library shelves. One step closer to being available for personal purchase and gift giving. The gift part is timely with the holidays just around the corner. Adults that lived through the Vietnam War, millennials that never knew the conflict, the LGBTQ community, Nam vets, and fans of the historical narrative will enjoy this novel set against the backdrop of two green, tangled places.

During the summer of 1970, two Marines return to South Carolina and the people they left behind, face changes exploding across the country, and cope with rebuilding home.

Thoughts on Walking

If You Walk Long Enough (with apologies to Alice, from Wonderland)

Where shall I go from here? asks the dog.

Why bother? It is perfectly fine here in the sun, says the cat.

I don’t think it matters, if you have a mud wallow first, grunts the pig. 

Keep walking, pull your share, wheezes the mule.

All roads lead somewhere, offers the cow, chewing her cud.

The world is a marvelous place, declares the spider.

Come, sit beside me, here in the parlor,  

and I shall tell you.

Thoughts on Critters

Remember all the animals in my novel If You Walk Long Enough? They played small and large parts in the lives of Reid, Angela, and Ellie. Their animals are based on those that have shared my life.  I love animals and enjoy making them important for my characters. Here are additional thoughts about critters:

  • Some believe that if you dream about a white cat, good luck will follow.
  • Black Cat Appreciation Day happens August 17. A black cat, adopted from the local shelter, lives at my house. Reid and Angela have a black cat in addition to several others.
  • August 26, 2020 is National Dog Day. Can you think of a better way to celebrate than contributing to your local animal shelter?
  • The technical term for a cat’s hairball is a “bezoar.”  It sounds better than hairball but feels the same when stepped on in the dark.
  • Mules are a hybrid cross between a mare and a donkey. They are smarter than horses and less obstinate than donkeys.  The mule in my novel no longer works on the farm but Angela keeps that mule out obligation.  
  • Forty acres and a mule for freedmen – another government promise gone awry.
  • Global Cat Day happens on October 16.
  • Rin Tin Tin, the famous German Shepherd star, was nominated for an Academy Award. He didn’t win but considered it quite an honor to be nominated.
  • Well known cat stars include Sylvester and Garfield. Lots of laughs but no Academy Award.
  • Seventy percent of people sign their dog’s name on their holiday cards. Some even sign a cat’s name.  Why not jolly it up and sign both?

While you are waiting on the novel, If You Walk Long Enough, think about all the animals that have entered your life. Remember the joy and aggravation.  Farm dog Bugle the beagle, yard mutt Grover, and Rosie, a calico house cat, are modeled on real critters that have shared time with me. Bluetick hound Pretty Sal is a composite of the hounds I’ve thrilled to when their rich bay echoed in hollers. Even the molly (that’s a female mule) and Pansy the milk cow enriched my life as a kid. Gotta smile. Where would folks be without furry family?

Two Short Story Collections, Novel Forthcoming

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The first galley proof for If You Walk Long Enough is being revised. Like the title says, walk or work long enough and you’re sure to get somewhere.

This novel, set between the Vietnam rice paddies and South Carolina tobacco fields, is a story of emotional violence, moral fatigue, and loss. As I work, I think back on several of my short stories with a Vietnam era backdrop and reflect on my family members and friends that served.

From my first collection of short stories, Washed in the Water, comes a tale of a Vietnam veteran that earns money by picking up discarded betting stubs at a racetrack. “The Stooper” is looking for a good ticket accidently tossed.

Four stories come alive in my second collection, If the Creek Don’t Rise. Each spotlights a different aspect of that decade when men returned home unwelcomed, draft cards were burned, midnight travelers crossed into Canada, and families ruptured. And, then there were the cargo planes filled with black body bags, in soldier’s jargon, tits-up bags. The country roiled divisive and stared into a growing chasm.

The first story from Creek, “The Soldier and the Lady,” views the war from those that went and those that waited, a tale told during breakfast. “Three Friends, Class of 1970” is a flash fiction piece when choices are made and consequences endured.

The Vietnam War was a time of great secrets. “A Letter from Canada” reveals an event that shakes a daughter’s life and validates a father’s love for two women.

The final tale in this quartet, is “Opie’s Fish House: A Love Story.”  Two brothers, an illicit affair, and ill-fated paramours coil up in blue smoke while a cigarette smolders.  

If You Walk Long Enough will be available 2021. If the Creek Don’t Rise and Washed in the Water are currently out through Pen-L Publishing and Amazon.com. Original drawings by Susan Raymond add a special note to both books.

A Southern Culinary Law and Side-dish: Cole Slaw aka Slaw

There’s no way you can have barbeque, fried catfish, or fried chicken without cole slaw as a side dish. Sometimes it’s simply called slaw. For all I can determine, it’s a culinary law in the South, that slaw is not only served with these main dishes, but is also present at church potluck suppers and picnics. Always.

Cole slaw is a vegetable-based salad made from the cole family of plants. It ranks right up there with American greats such as hot dogs and hamburgers.

For those that might be unfamiliar with this side dish, it is made from finely shredded raw cabbage, red cabbage, chopped sweet pickles, shredded carrots, onions, and dressed in vingerette or mayonnaise. Some folks get carried away making slaw and add stuff not traditionally used. Pineapple, celery seed, apple chunks, bell pepper, jalapenos, and other such ingredients. Dressings can be fancied up with buttermilk, blu cheese, or sour cream.

Among modern slaw fans, shredded broccoli with onions, carrots, and Ramen noodles dressed with ginger, vinegar, and oil is gaining popularity. In fact, a vinegar-based coleslaw is used on a variant of the Rueben sandwich, usually made with sauerkraut, called a Rachel Sandwich.

Truth be told, the traditional cabbage slaw with onions, sweet pickles, and mayonnaise is the star of church suppers and southern dinner on the ground. No need to get fancy –unless you have just moved South from some place slightly north and are trying hard to fit into the community.  

Need recipes? There’s really no shortage of ways to fix this side-dish-picnic-staple-potluck-supper dish. Find what tickles your taste buds at this recipe site. Two incidents of coleslaw can be found in my novel, If You Walk Long Enough.  No surprise since the tale is set in in the South. Look for it on bookstore shelves 2021. In the meantime, enjoy healthy eating with cole slaw.  

Tobacco Barns: Silent Testimony

Sometime around 2012, fifty plus years after leaving, I went back home to Madison County, Florida. My high school reunion was scheduled and, although the family was gone, I had an urge to visit friends, touch roots, and see what had become of the old farm.

Years back, my family grew brightleaf tobacco under a government allotment quota system. The two-story gabled structures, unpainted, and windowless had ridge poles for holding sticks of tobacco. Barns, common as sand spurs, sat scattered across the countryside and were constructed to keep heat in for the six-to-eight-day curing process. Even in various stages of deterioration, they had a pleasant, golden odor with earthy undertones.  

A labor-intensive crop picked ground-up, tobacco was the cash crop of the South. When the bottom three leaves turned from green to slightly yellowish, the summer picking season began in earnest. Those days, everything from the seed beds, started early spring and protected by mesh cloth, to final auction was done by hand. Each farmer ran a crew of neighbors and blacks who picked weekly, strung the leaves on tobacco sticks, and hung the sticks on barn rafters for curing. Folks hired to work were called “hands.” The variety of tobacco grown, method of curing, and intended market, determined barn construction.

After curing, the sticks with the tobacco were taken out of the curing barn and stacked in a pack shed to season, to regain enough moisture to soften them for handling but not enough to allow for mold. A this point the tobacco is “unstrung,” graded for quality, and round baled in 650- to 850-pound burlap sheets for the auction houses. There, auctioneers chanted in a sing-song rhythm and walked the aisles while big cigarette companies bid on the cured leaves.

The life of tobacco farmers was deeply influenced by this growing and harvesting cycle. Men, women, and children, whether white or black, filled the fields and barn areas from day-clear to dusk. Their hands, arms, and clothes were coated in green leaf tar. Voices rose and fell, weed and earth odors floated on the air, and tin roof heat-pings rang sharp. Farm life revolved around tobacco and income for the year rested on the outcome. Growing tobacco back then was a way of life ruled by weather, the plants, and seasonal cycles. Although farmers planted and raised corn, cotton, hogs, and other products, the family’s lifestyle and community standing rested on tobacco.

During the 1970s change overtook the crop: public health risks, lack of government price supports, large equipment costs, and bulk barns combined to dethrone King Tobacco.

Today, tobacco growing is a vernacular no longer spoken and the barns turned to other use. In some parts of the country, these old barns are persevered as heritage assets, silent testimony to a way of life past. 

Summer 1970 and Reid, his sister Angela, and wife Ellie struggle with their emotional angst while deciding on the future of their tobacco farm.

If You Walk Long Enough will be on bookshelves by 2021.

Vietnam, Traditional Clothing, and Women

            There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, each with unique and specific clothing styles. For example, ethnic people on the plateau dress in colorful attire while the plainspeople tend to dress simply using natural fibers such as silk, hemp, and cotton. Peasants across the country often wear pajama-like costumes, in the South consisting of a pair of pants and long-sleeved, button-down shirt split at the sides with two pockets in the flaps. The garment’s simple yet versatile style is useful while laboring or lounging, in rural or urban areas.

The most popular and widely recognized Vietnamese dress is the traditional áo daì, a floor length dress worn over quan trousers. The top is slit on both sides. Quan pants are loose and flowing. Le Thi Linh, in my novel If You Walk Long Enough, wears the áo daì each time she appears.  

The áo daì, more common in the northern part of the country than the south, was frequently considered a political statement with ties to Vietnamese nationalism and feminine beauty. The dress was popular in South Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s during the time of the Vietnam War.

During the ’50s, Saigon designers tightened  the fit made popular in South Vietnam during those war years. This redesign fit tight around the wearer’s upper torso, emphasizing bust and curves. Although the dress covers the entire body, it is thought to be provocative, especially when made of thin fabric. “The áo dai covers everything but hides nothing” is a popular saying among Westerners.

Since the 1990s Asian, European, and American styles have influenced Vietnamese men and women. Vietnamese women wear a variety of clothing including the colorful, elegant áo daì but have been strongly influenced by cross-continent travel, cultural exchanges, and media. The áo daì. usually individually fitted, may require several weeks for a tailor to complete. In 2008, the top and trousers cost approximately $200 in the United States and around $40 in Vietnam.

Some traditional clothing styles have been lost and more modern styles substituted, largely replacing the long-sleeved shirts and wide trousers. Efforts to preserve older-style clothing can be seen at traditional festivals and entertainment venues.

Áo daì is one of the few Vietnamese words that appears in English-language dictionaries. Check it out.  In the meantime, consider If You Walk Long Enough available 2021.

People Are Reflected in Their Food

Have you ever called a peanut called a “goober” or eaten gumbo? Used roux in your cooking?  If you answered yes, then you have experienced part of the Gullah language and culinary culture.

Two of my characters in the novel, If You Walk Long Enough, began their friendship over food. Ellie and Diana bonded over Lowcountry foods including seafood, She-crab Soup, catfish stew, red rice, gumbo, and Frogmore Stew, sometimes called Lowcountry Boil.   

When the early planters established sea island rice plantations, the slaves working those fields brough with them a rich and diverse food heritage that has evolved into what is commonly called Lowcountry cuisine, traditionally associated with the coastal estuaries of South Carolina and Georgia. Sometimes parts of North Carolina and Florida are included as the bookends of this Atlantic coastal plain. Variations on Gullah foods spread along that plain and further inland into the South. At times, these variations took on other names—soul food, southern cuisine, and home style cooking.

These foods, traditionally associated with French, Spanish, and West African cooks, included what came to be known as the holy trinity of ingredients—peppers, celery, and onion. These are seasoning foods, meant to break down during the cooking process and help season the other ingredients. Garlic is something added to this threesome with green onions and parsley sprinkled on top as the final dish is served. The allusion to holy trinity is meant as a sign of respect to their roles in cooking.

By the way, for those unfamiliar with roux, commonly used along the Louisiana coast where Cajun or Creole cooking dominates, is a thickening agent traditionally made from flour and lard. Filé is another thickening agent common to southern regional cooks. Other customary cooking ingredients include rice, okra, sweet potatoes, peppers, and onions. When available, chicken and ham were added to the coastal diet and dishes. Further inland, fried foods predominated.

Lowcountry foods  and cooking can be distinguished from southern dishes by the use of seafood. Non-coastal areas had no refrigeration hence shrimp, fish, crabs, and oysters were not available to cooks inland.  Other common seasonings to these dishes along the coast, include pepper—black, white, or cayenne—bay leaves, thyme, and oregano.

Also, from my novel, Mary and Calvin grew a freedman’s garden:  they never planted plantation cash crops such as sugar cane, cotton, or tobacco. Only foods to add to the frequently poor diet of slaves were considered for planting.  Check out these and other tidbits of information in the novel, If You Walk Long Enough.