By Doug Elwell

You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.

Harry Truman


I have a problem I’d like your advice on Mom.


My friend wants to give me this little dog and I don’t know what to do.

You already have two dogs. Isn’t that enough?

She says she’s busy and can’t keep her any longer.

Look, you’re going to school full time and have to be gone from early morning to late afternoon most days. You have a part time job. You live in a relatively small condo. And dogs are social animals. They need attention. They need to pee and poop. They need exercise. How are you going to do all that?

But she’s a friend in hard times and I want to help her out.

Understood. But you’re in hard times too with trying to finish school and work part time. Why do you want to take in someone else’s problem when you’re up to your eyeballs with your own?

I know, but…

Besides your friend knows your situation. If she’s really a friend, she shouldn’t even ask.

I know, but…

Our advice is tell your “friend” thanks, but no thanks.


It’s true; free advice is worth what it costs. Days later we learn she took the pooch in. As we predicted, it didn’t work out. The other two dogs, a hyperactive, out-of-control Chihuahua that should have been on Ritalin and a senile old pooch of indeterminate origin were driving the little waif to seek refuge in her crate almost twenty-four hours a day. She was living the proverbial dog’s life.


Mom, I can’t keep her. She’s not doing well with the others. She sits in her crate and snarls whenever anyone comes near and she digs holes into the couch. Would you take her? Apparently the daughter would have her digging into our couch rather than hers.

There was much gnashing of teeth. When I first saw the dog my heart went out to her. She is a light brown and white Chihuahua/Italian Greyhound mix. Her Chiauahuaness is evident in her head and tail. What is in between is short haired greyhound with the characteristic deep    chest, long slender legs and lean hips. There isn’t much to her since she weighs in at a svelte ten pounds. I saw in her eyes she knew she wasn’t wanted. She seemed to plead through them. I imagined her thinking, here I go again. After I vented my spleen over the poor decision to take her in the first place I saw us enabling daughter’s poor judgement in taking her and now we were facing the consequences. Mom relented. Grumbling, we took the poor thing off her hands. We loaded her into her crate along with her food and some vet paperwork and liberated her from her dog hell.

We got her set up in her new home and I began to sift through her paperwork to get an idea of her history. It is spotty and some interesting and unknown movements are lost, known only to her.


Jaden was whelped in April, 2013. She was named Jaden which is a horrible name for any dog. Actually I wouldn’t even name a kid Jaden, but that’s another subject.


In July, 2013 she was renamed Pumpkin and went by Punky only marginally better than Jaden. I can only guess it was a reference to her tawny coat. She somehow ended up in the Wabash County Animal Shelter in Indiana. How she got there is not known.


She next showed up at the Animal House Shelter in Crystal Lake, Illinois in August of 2013 where she was spayed and vaccinated then adopted on the 18th by Tiffany, the so-called “friend” of our daughter.


In early 2014 Tiffany wheedled Pumpkin/Punky onto our daughter then fled to Las Vegas.


A couple months later our daughter realized she couldn’t keep Punky so we took her in. Immediately we relieved the little thing of the Pumpkin/Punky moniker. I took it upon myself to re-name her Mick. Not that she looks Irish, but more because dogs ought to be given single syllable names that can be spoken sharply without necessarily having to raise one’s voice. A quick sharp Mick gets her attention and we can go from there. I didn’t ask her about it but in a short time she responded to it so I assume she likes it. At least I believe she is grateful to be out from under the anthropomorphic Jaden that sounds like a Wellesley lit major and the Pumpkin that makes her sound like a front porch decoration in October.


So, little Miss Mick has had a chequered history.


She settled into her new home quickly. It didn’t take her long to “decompress”. She had to share her previous place with the aforementioned hyperactive Chihuahua and Max, an old fart, who mostly sits around tisk-tisking the out of control Pups the Chihuahua.

I set her crate up in a small niche near the kitchen and family room. The crate had been her safe place and she seemed comfortable there. Very soon we discovered she had remarkably good habits in spite of having been passed around at least three times in her short life. She sits patiently while we prepare food in the kitchen and when we’re at table. She doesn’t chew the furniture. She doesn’t chew anything other than the beef knuckle bones we give her occasionally. She gets on the couch only when her towel is laid out for her. Otherwise she lies on a carpet or retreats to her crate which she thinks of as her “room”. She doesn’t sleep with us; after all she and we respect each other’s privacy. She has never done her “business” in the house. From the beginning she has been a model addition to our small family. We have welcomed her and she has responded in kind.

I don’t know if someone trained Mick or if she’s just damned intelligent. But no matter. Miss Mick is a model citizen giving us much more than we expected. She knows several words. Of course she recognizes her name. She also knows Eat?, Walk?, Come!, Stay, with a hand signal, and Heel when on leash. She also has a remarkably accurate internal clock. Within minutes of eleven in the morning she sits in front of me staring.

You have to pee?

She makes for the door.

Between twelve and one, weather permitting, she sits by the door for her walk. The Italian greyhound genes are calling. We walk smartly to a nearby open area on the edge of town. I let her off leash and she bolts and runs like the wind far out then around in a huge circle. If she sees a bird she gives chase. After a few minutes she slows then works back and forth a few yards in front like an English setter on the hunt. When she’s ready she looks then comes to me. I put her on leash and we return home.

At four thirty she appears again, sits and stares.

You ready to eat?

She goes to her dish, tail wagging.


I talk to her a lot. I don’t know what she thinks about it, but she is quick to make eye contact and looks interested. I’m calm when she’s on the floor next to my desk curled into a tiny ball, sleeping blissfully. I thought I was retired, but now wonder if she sees herself as my new career. I hope so.


© 2017 Doug Elwell

Doug Elwell grew up on the prairie of rural east central Illinois. His stories feature the characters, lore, and culture of that region. He explores the depth and richness of the inner lives of its people and communities. He is an occasional contributor to The Australia Times. His work has also appeared in The Oakland Independent, Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource, Writers Grapevine, Ruminate and Midwestern Gothic literary journal. He has a Kindle novel, Charlie, available from the War Writer’s Campaign at www.warwriterscampaign.org. Proceeds from purchases go directly to the campaign, a non-profit that helps re-integrate veterans into society following their deployments. Doug can be contacted via email at: djelwell@mchsi.com.

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Summer Highway to the Future

By Jeremiah Cahill

I get a thrill out of summer travel—road trips, camping and the occasional long vacation. My wife and I enjoyed two weeks this summer through the mountains and along the coast of Oregon, where I reveled in stunning forests, riverside hikes, plus the rare chance to rent a board and wet suit and head out into the surf.

Of course, all this recreation comes at a price and reflects our American lifestyle—consumption. Food, drink, fuel, experiences—as the saying goes, “we’re livin’ large.”

Sure, I enjoy it as much as anyone: Looking forward to the next great meal, fresh-roasted coffee in the morning, the latest craft brew toward evening. And, yes, it all comes due when the next Visa statement arrives.

But what about the other costs?

The amount of fossil fuel burnt in our recreational playgrounds is stunning. RVs, trailers, mega-trucks, classic cars, motorcycles, off-road vehicles, boats, jet skis—and the air travel to get there—it’s all high horsepower running on cheap oil.

To me, as a climate activist, this is daunting: our love affair with fossil fuels won’t end easily.

Toward the end of our trip, these thoughts discouraged me as we drove through the Coast Range headed back to Portland. But then we stopped briefly in a rest area.

Ironically, I found roadside comfort and inspiration in the Tillamook State Forest while reading signage that describes what’s known as the Tillamook Burn.

“The Burn” was a series of fires that destroyed 350,000 acres of magnificent old growth forest in four separate fires between 1933 and 1951.

The first fire started when a steel cable dragging a fallen Douglas fir rubbed against dry bark, creating, in the words of one writer, “a tiny spark that blew into a hurricane of fire.” That first blaze was eventually extinguished by seasonal rains, but debris from the fire reached ships 500 miles at sea. The loss in lumber was estimated at $442 million in 1933 dollars—a serious loss to a nation struggling through the Great Depression. Remarkably, only one firefighter was killed.

Repeated burns led some to think that massive wildfires were inevitable and the land was now too damaged from intense heat to ever again sustain forests. The wildfires presented a scope of devastation that simply overwhelmed people’s thinking and dampened their spirits, leaving discouragement and doubt.

But over time, cooperation by citizens, government, land owners, scientists and others resulted in efforts to restore The Burn. Hearings begun during World War Two eventually resulted in a decades-long reforestation program.

One key to success were the joint public-private efforts. Volunteers included young people who eagerly hand-planted about a million seedlings over twenty years—still just a fraction of the 72 million trees planted. Everything from state prisoners to newly designed helicopters played a part in that massive restoration.

Reforestation took place simultaneously with forest-industry research into better methods of planting young trees and maintaining mature forests. Eventually trees and wildlife began to recover and in 1973 the areas was dedicated as state forest.

In 1949, a forester holds packets of seedlings to be used by young tree planters in reforestation.

As I stood there this summer under a shady canopy of impressive second-growth forest, one fact jumped out at me: in central Oregon, when pressed, people, institutions and communities rallied to deal with a problem that at the time seemed impossible.

What really brought me hope was realizing that nowadays, facing climate catastrophe, we have similar abilities to cooperate and innovate.

Can we apply lessons from the Tillamook Burn to an Earth already damaged by climate change? Maybe—but why not go one step further—come together and prevent planetary burn in the first place.

Leaders in business, politics, and science now think there’s a way to make this happen. It’s called carbon fee and dividend. That simply means making dirty fuels more expensive (the fee) and returning that money to each household (the dividend) so we can buy cleaner fuel and better technology.

Carbon fee and dividend has come to the fore through the efforts of Marshal Saunders, Citizens Climate Lobby founder. Early on, Saunders realized that climate peril, in his words, “would demand a solution sufficient to match the problem.”

The fee and dividend approach is “a climate solution where all sides can win,” to quote Ted Halstead, founder and CEO of the conservative-led Climate Leadership Council. Halstead sees carbon dividends as an avenue “so promising it can break through seemingly insurmountable barriers.”

These and other groups lead a rapidly growing national and international movement to price carbon, slow atmospheric warming, and create a healthy future.

So, yes, I’d love to spend more time in stunning outdoor Oregon. My wife and I have standing invitations to return. But when we do, I plan to enjoy it while tooling around in an electric car!

(c) 2017 Jeremiah Cahill

Jeremiah sometimes thinks he’s too old or infirm to go surfing, but is occasionally delighted to prove himself wrong.

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The Free Gift

By Marilu Green

The stranger at my front door said the magic words. “I have a free gift for you!” I stepped aside and let him in.

In my defense the doorbell had awakened me out of a sound sleep that March afternoon and when I stumbled down the stairs from my upstairs apartment in Mrs. G’s house, I wasn’t tracking all that well. Luckily for me, cold-blooded killers were an anomaly in Rockford, Illinois, in 1966. Especially those offering free gifts.

Maybe on the front steps, maybe in the foyer, the stranger introduced himself. Not that all these years later I can recall his name or what he looked like. I only remember he was a pot and pan salesman and that he congratulated me on my impending June nuptials. But how did he know I was getting married in June? As if In response to my unspoken question, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the newspaper clipping of my engagement announcement— me in my college graduation photo awkwardly posed looking over my right shoulder and sporting a much lacquered blonde flip, 60’s “helmet hair.” In that photo I looked in no way like the person with bed- head hair who was standing before him. And he wouldn’t have been the first person searching for a resemblance. In fact, one of my English teacher colleagues, Miss Schmidt, a spinster who was known to halt lessons to feed pigeons on the roof outside her classroom, had remarked that the photo made me look like Lawrence Welk’s Champagne Lady. “Not like you at all.” she bit off the words. Weirdly angry at the misrepresentation.

Unlike Miss Schmidt, Mister Pot and Pan dared not be so blunt. After all, he wanted to make a sale. Besides, after a while all brides must have looked the same to him. He’d have quickly scanned past details of both my and my fiancé’s lineage, our wedding date, until he came to what would have been most important to him, my home address. And so he had come a’calling. Brides-to-be need pots and pans, right?

Still a bit dazed, I didn’t protest when he lugged his satchel of wares up the stairs to my apartment. Soon he had stacked and arranged pots and pans all over my living room floor. I sat in a metal turquoise patio chair while the salesman spoke of stainless steel construction and waterless cooking (which to this day I don’t understand). He demonstrated how one pan fit ever so neatly into another and that lids did double-duty. His pots and pans were nice enough but I wasn’t won over by their shiny good looks and versatility.

When I failed to swoon over the cookware, Mister Pot and Pan changed tactics. Surely a smart young woman such as myself would need good china for all the entertaining I would do when I married! I wasn’t so sure that as a cop’s wife, I’d be called upon to give dinner parties, but I agreed to take a look at the dishes so after he packed up all the cookware, he brought out plates, cups and saucers for my examination. Among the choices was some simple white china banded in silver.

“Hmm, this is nice,” I said lifting the dinner plate, feeling its heft.

“Quite elegant, isn’t it?” The salesman smiled, probably feeling optimistic for the first time all afternoon.

“Yes, it is.” I began picturing myself setting a lovely table. Perhaps stopping to adjust one of the lilies in the centerpiece. Ah, perfect. Our guests would be arriving soon. Policemen have to eat too.

“I can give you a very good deal on that china pattern.” The pot and pan salesman mentioned a price tag in the several hundreds. The number jolted me out of my fantasy dinner party with the chief of police.

“Oh, I dunno.” I said, shaking my head and remembering my first year annual salary as an English teacher was $5200. A wedding gown, actual furniture, rather than patio furniture, for our first apartment together took precedence over fine china.

I must have spoken my financial misgivings aloud because suddenly Mister Pot and Pan was quoting monthly payments that he was sure I could manage. I admit I was tempted until UNTIL he casually mentioned that the payment plan included interest.

Interest! I wasn’t going to pay interest. I had been schooled by my father, who did not believe in buying things on credit. He believed in saving up for purchases and not living beyond one’s means. Why he even paid cash for his cars! They might be nondescript dark-hued sedans, no frill models—my sister and I had to beg him for a radio, but my father owned them free and clear. Like many 22 year olds, finally on their own, I tried to shrug off my father’s ideas and values, but when all was said and done, I was my father’s daughter. So no matter what the salesman said to persuade me, however he might have tried to sweeten the deal, I was adamant. Like my father, I did not pay interest. I would not buy the china.

Dejected, my afternoon caller packed up the china and slung away down the stairs. Before he left though, true to his word, he gave me my free gift, a plastic handled serrated cake cutter, which I have to this day. That is more than I can say for the husband and the marriage.

© 2017  Marylu Green

Marylu Green is a writer who lives in Madison, WI. She is a big fan of public libraries, especially the ones with fireplaces. She bemoans the many hours she used to spend on hairdos and is thrilled now to have “wash and wear” hair. Though she no longer eats cake, she has found other uses for the cake knife.

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“Inserimento” and the Torre Cambiaso

By Sarah White

“Cena? Non ce stasera,” the barrista tells us. Dinner will not be served tonight. The little restaurant of the Torre Cambiaso hotel is closed, because this is a Monday.

This means there really WILL be no dinner, because the nearest restaurant is so far down the mountain that the cost of the taxi alone would equal a dinner.

My husband Jim and I have arrived at this baronial-estate-turned-hotel high on a promontory overlooking Genoa, and we are in the kind of personal low that predictably overtakes anyone who’s been in transit more than 24 hours and has been told there will be no dinner.

The problem, when you are planning your next trip, is to capitalize on knowledge gained on past trips but avoid the trap of thinking you are an expert. That was my situation as I organized a visit to Italy’s Cinque Terre region for my husband and me, in celebration of our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

On our last Italian trip, we arrived in Venice midday, too early to check into a hotel, too tired to sightsee. With nowhere to place our bodies, we ended up in a small park, taking turns napping on each other’s shoulders, desperately sleepy and disenchanted. I swore I would plan better this time.

The way cross-Atlantic flights are timed, the midday arrival is unavoidable. So I set myself to finding a hotel in Genoa that would offer a restful improvement over that dingy Venetian park. Google’s top search result presented me with Torre Cambiaso, “located in a former manor house with a unique tower. It was once the home of a noble family, and is set in its own private gardens with a swimming pool… A walk through the gardens leads guests past a lake, several grottos and a secluded grove where peacocks roam.”

I settled in to read the consumer reviews, and chuckled with a knowing smile at descriptions like, “We struggled to get any service from the bar and when we did we had to wait while a waiter could find the time to get us a coffee!” Yes, we experienced visitors appreciate the unhurried pace, and the less-intrusive service style, of Italian waiters. Those poor uptight Americans imposing their rush-rush attitudes. While several reviews mentioned the remote location as a negative, to me that sounded tranquil–perfect.

I composed the scene in my mind; lounge chairs in the private garden with the peacocks and all, enjoying drinks brought (however lackadaisically) to our elbows as we dozed in afternoon sun. The Torre Cambiaso got my click and credit card deposit for one night’s stay. We would fly to Genoa, arriving midmorning.

That was the plan. Instead, we were delayed in Rome awaiting our connection, and those sleep-desperate hours I’d tried to place in the Torre Cambiaso’s sundrenched garden instead took place in hard plastic chairs in Fulmicino Airport. When we finally got to Genoa, afternoon had turned to evening and “sundrenched” turned to merely “drenched.”

A taxi took us in pouring rain high into the hills above Genoa. Something came back to me from my Googling, a consumer comment saying, “ I was well aware that this hotel is not near anything,” which had preceded a complaint about difficulty getting dinner.

We check in. Our room is small but the setting is baronial, with modern amenities crowded by heavy antiques. We went to find out when dinner service will begin in the little restaurant on the ground floor, where the website promised “Italian and Ligurian cooking styles combine.” And that’s when the barrista gives us the bad news.

The moment is ripe for domestic dispute. But wait, the barrista is promising that the staff will put a cold plate together for us! And there’s a complimentary bottle of white in our mini-fridge. This will do.

When the tray of dinner arrives, we decide to take it upstairs to the library area under the eaves. There we picnic on an array of cheeses, olives, arugula sprouts, breadsticks, and a sliced composed meat called cima. Jim (a chef) is excited to see the cima, a Genoa specialty he’s read about. A veal breast is wrapped around a pate of ground veal, eggs, and pistachios. “It’s no stranger than bologna,” Jim says, damning with faint praise.


The meal and wine raise our spirits. Already we are catching the spirit of the place, imagining it filled with conference-goers or wedding guests. Before long we return to our room, where sleep slams into us.

We wake to find the rain lifting. In a gallery overlooking the courtyard a breakfast buffet offers pastries, rolls, cereal, and blood oranges.

The waitress is stiff with us, and no friendlier to the other guests—a trio of conference planners who have arrived in advance of their event, and a pair of women, probably travelers passing through as we are. Did Google seduce them too?

After breakfast Jim and I explore outside. Maybe now we’ll inhabit the scene I composed when I booked us here, lounge chairs and peacocks and all, revised to feature a cappuccino in morning sun instead of wine at sunset.

Online I had read that the Torre Cambiaso grounds cover 100 acres. I now realize that most of those acres are given over to a working farm. The actual grounds for guests comprise no more than half an acre, falling away steeply from the manor house on its narrowing promontory.

The amenities described online are packed as tightly as clothes in a suitcase. We follow a garden path that winds in hairpins past rose bushes to the grotto. A gas grill squats in an alcove, ready to be wheeled out for summer weddings. A little watercourse flows into a swan pond (the “lake” of the online description). The path leads past cages housing peacocks and swans to a small formal garden surrounding a fountain. At the bottom of the garden stands a little faux Grecian temple, a party house now locked up and in disrepair. I imagine a terrazzo floor inside, a ghostly string quartet playing as guests of the Baron Cambiaso dance.

But here comes the rain again—forget cappuccino with the peacocks. I’m picturing myself here with a conference, or a friend’s wedding. The Torre Cambiaso has a peculiar air of being perfect for somebody, sometime, but not us, not now.

But no matter. We’ve completed our “inserimento.” We summon another taxi and leave without a backward glance.

Our short stay at Torre Cambiaso was a microcosm of any stay anywhere, the predictable highs and lows in mood, the twists of fate. These are the complications that deliver the traveler to the next story and the next.

Lately I’ve been asking for stories of “inserimento”–arrival and settling in. This essay concludes the series for now–but feel free to send further “true stories well told” on this theme. See  submission guidelines here.

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Falling Through the Rabbit Hole

 I’ve been asking for  stories of inserimento lately–see  submission guidelines here. Doug Elwell answered the call with the following Vietnam-era essay.

By Doug Elwell

At the end of a long day of being poked and prodded in places one should never have to be poked and prodded, those of us who were deemed fit to get our whole asses shot off for Uncle Sam stood before some kind of officer, raised our right hands and swore to uphold and defend the Constitution from all enemies of the United States, foreign and domestic. Following our swearing-in we were assigned to a group and were ordered to assemble at the Y.M.C.A. the next day to leave for Lackland A.F.B. basic training.

Frankly, I’m embarrassed to send you off to my Air Force.

The sergeant paused then pleaded. Try to remember that each of you are now the property of the United States Air Force and are expected to conduct yourselves in a way that is a credit to the Air Force. Don’t be any more stupid than you already are until you get to Lackland. Save it up girls; you’ll have plenty of opportunities to show how stupid you are when you get there. When he finished, he was at the boarding gate. Motioning over his shoulder, he said now get your sorry asses on that plane.


We got our sorry asses on that plane headed for San Antonio via Shreveport.


Our sorry asses touched down in San Antonio on June 11, 1966 around two-thirty in the morning. We were met by a sergeant of some kind I didn’t know standing in green fatigues next to an Air Force blue school bus. Sgt. McFarland stood by the door as we boarded. He looked as tough as a piece of charcoal broiled gristle. He was at least in his mid-forties, probably older, short and thick, not fat, from his shoulders to his boots. The first thing I noticed about him was what I couldn’t see. He had no neck. His head sat on his shoulders as if it had once been broken off and rolled into a dark corner and disappeared, so they just sat his head back on his shoulders.


That’s what Elmer McFarland looked like. From the look of the wear and tear on his face, I suspected getting his head and neck knocked off sometime in the distant past was probably what happened. He had the look of a man who had been around the block a number of times and appeared to have lived to tell about it, although in the dark I wasn’t sure. I was fairly sure though that if I had to choose only one man to be my partner in a bar fight, McFarland would be my first pick.


So it went.


A large, lighted sign like the ones at the entrances to trailer parks sat under an old F-100 mounted on a pylon. It greeted us as we were waved through the main gate. The bus rumbled slowly through a maze of dimly lit streets turning left then right then left again. I lost all sense of direction. I would soon realize arriving in the middle of the night in a strange place was the Air Force’s first step in ripping us away from the civilian life we had left. Presently brakes screeched to a halt in front of a mess hall lit up in the night like the painting of Hopper’s Nighthawks. I looked at my watch—three am. It was brutally hot and muggy. McFarland ushered us in where we had our first Air Force breakfast. Large fans on floor stands roared from each corner of the hall shoving the hot, muggy air around. I picked up a tray, a plate, knife and fork and a couple paper napkins that were curling at the edges, turning yellow like a newspaper left on the driveway. As I inched down the line I noticed a tall black cook standing over a large griddle at the far end, scrambling eggs and frying bacon while beads of sweat dripped off his arms and nose onto the eggs. Before I got to the egg pan in the steamer, I picked up a couple pieces of toast and a half pint of orange juice thinking there was less chance of them being seasoned with the cook’s piquant Diaphoresis Vinaigrette than were the eggs. About ten minutes after entering the mess hall, McFarland stood and announced we were to be back on the bus in five minutes. It trundled on into the night through another tortuous series of left and right turns until it screeched to another halt in front of a darkened barracks. He led us inside and said to find a bunk, get some sleep. The lights went out. It was three-thirty.


So it went.


At four-thirty, the lights came on. McFarland paced the center of the bay rousting everyone. We stood at the foot of our bunks rubbing red, swollen eyes and scratching our crotches while he launched into his welcoming speech.


You and me got jobs to do. You do what you’re told. If you don’t, I’ll be climbing up your sorry asses twenty four hours a day. (I had heard “sorry asses” so often I thought it might be a rank. Later I learned it was—Airman Basic) Anyway he went on. Last night you heard some sergeants screaming, calling their men names and so on. I don’t believe in that. We got to get through as best we can with the least amount of aggravations—don’t like no aggravations. He stopped near the door to the latrine and faced us. One more little thing. I don’t like debriss around my barracks. He made the “ess” sound at the end of debris. I didn’t volunteer anything. Maybe another time when it’s just the two of us in the day room discussing Proust over brandy and cigars I’ll mention the s in debris is silent. At any rate, he began pacing up and down the center aisle looking at the floor as if searching. If you see any debriss, pick it up. He shuddered. Debriss is someone else’s disgusting filth and if it accumulates—especially chewing gum wrappers and cigarette butts—if it accumulates—cigarette butts are the worst—stink and when they stink—germs in the butts—debriss multiplies—maggots—oh—candy wrappers—don’t want to live with no filthy maggots from stinkin’—debriss. It’s those godless commies—spreadin’ debriss around in the middle of the night to weaken us—drag us down to the godless gutters of filth they live in. Beads of perspiration dotted his forehead. He shouted, this barracks will not be a filthy godless gutter. He shuddered, brushed his arms as if to rid them of debriss. He stood still, back to us, slapping at maggots in his ears. I wished I had some steel bearings to give him to roll around in his hand like Humphrey Bogart in Caine Mutiny. But I didn’t.

Excuse me. He disappeared into the latrine. We looked at each other in silence—some resumed scratching their crotches, then the sound of running water. When it stopped, we heard paper towels cranking out of a dispenser on the wall. He emerged with his hands full of them, vigorously drying his arms and wiping his ears. He threw the towels into the trash, straightened and ran his thumbs around the inside of his pant waist then dismissed us.


So it went.

At five a loudspeaker attached to a nearby pole erupted with a series of loud scratches from a worn out record followed by a blaring trumpet blowing Reveille. A few minutes later we formed up outside and started our day.


The thrumming routine of basic training was under way.


So it went.

Doug, after Basic Training

© 2017 Doug Elwell

Doug Elwell grew up on the prairie of rural east central Illinois. His stories feature the characters, lore, and culture of that region. He explores the depth and richness of the inner lives of its people and communities. He is an occasional contributor to The Australia Times. His work has also appeared in The Oakland Independent, Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource, Writers Grapevine, Ruminate and Midwestern Gothic literary journal. He has a Kindle novel, Charlie, available from the War Writer’s Campaign at www.warwriterscampaign.org. Proceeds from purchases go directly to the campaign, a non-profit that helps re-integrate veterans into society following their deployments. Doug can be contacted via email at: djelwell@mchsi.com.

Posted in Guest writer, Writing prompt | 4 Comments

Travel “Inserimento” and a Book Review: Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Lately I’ve been calling for your travel “inserimento” stories–settling-in tales about arriving in a new location for the first time. Meanwhile I’ve been reading Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel by Lisa Cron. Yes, dear reader, I look everywhere for fresh insights to bring you, including in the world of fiction-writing.

This morning it struck me that Cron’s advice is highly relevant to writing that “inserimento” episode of your travel memoir. Her key point is that, based on the science of what our brains are wired to crave in every story, writers must not start by plotting the external structure of their work (whether fiction or nonfiction). Rather, we must blueprint the inner struggle of the story’s protagonist. What do they want? What do they believe will help them achieve that aim, and why? Where is a mistaken belief thwarting their progress?

Or, to let Lisa Cron say it:

How do you isolate and identify your protagonist’s inner struggle, so you can then develop it? By laser beaming into his specific dueling internal duo: what your protagonist wants (his desire) and the misbelief that keeps him from it (think: fear).  It is from these two small, burning embers that all stories grow and flame. It is this struggle that becomes your story’s third rail.

The opening of a travel memoir is the perfect place to explore this starting place. Before the external events get underway, the trip to the airport, the jet-lagged “inserimento” in some strange new now, the protagonist wants something and believes something.

  • She wants to arrive in a novel, exciting, delightful experience.
  • She believes she knows enough / has trusted the right advisors / to lay plans that will deliver that surprise and delight.

Here’s a little example from my 2008 trip to Italy–

 “Cena? Non ce stasera,” the barrista tells us. Dinner will not be served tonight. The little restaurant of the Torre Cambiaso hotel is closed, because this is a Monday.

This means there really WILL be no dinner, because the nearest restaurant is so far down the mountain that the cost of the taxi alone would equal a dinner.

We have arrived at this baronial-estate-turned-hotel high on a promontory overlooking Genoa, and we are in the kind of personal low that predictably overtakes anyone who’s been in transit more than 24 hours and has been told there will be no dinner.

I had wanted to cushion the landing from a transatlantic flight, and (mis) believed that my knowledge of Italian culture trumped the several negative reviews on Trip Advisor of the Torre Cambiaso. And I got what I deserved… a good story (which I’ll publish here in a few weeks) and a comeuppance for my hubris.

Back to Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. As I read, I am finding my approach to memoir writing undergoing a deepening in appreciation for the emotional beats of the story, brought on by the shift from a focus on external structure to internal struggle.

The book itself is annoying for its padded, joke-y style. I’ll end with a quote from GoodReads reviewer Rebecca Renner: “…a little bit of really stellar advice almost eclipsed by the rest of the junk surrounding it. My advice? If you read this, check it out from the library. Read pages 35-123 and skip the rest.” That’s what I’m doing and hey, it’s working for me.

Writing prompt: Send me YOUR stories of inserimento! Submission guidelines here.

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A Guatemalan Inserimento

Last week I called for your travel “inserimento” stories–settling-in tales about arriving in a new location for the first time. Several of you have responded, so here come the stories! – Sarah

By “WanderN Wayne” Hammerstrom

As WanderNWayne, people assume my wandering travel is directionless, without destination or arrival. Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat tells Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there.” Anywhere and somewhere are wonderful travel locations discovered by random wandering, but I often need to go to a specific destination, and that’s when unintended adventures begin.

I had volunteered to help at a rural school in Livingston, Guatemala, approximately 150 miles from my location in Guatemala City. Google mapped my northeastward route with public transportation: bus to Copan, in Honduras, for a 3-day exploration of ancient Mayan ruins, then bus to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, where I would have to take a boat to Livingston, which is a water-only-access community adjacent to the Caribbean shore. My itinerary was made with good intention, but like the crumbled Mayan ruins I had finished exploring at my first stop, Copan, the schedule and route quickly fragmented.

I nearly missed the hotel shuttle that took me to my second, connecting bus. My limited Spanish vocabulary is sufficient for making small-talk, ordering a meal, a beer, or a place to sleep, but not for navigating details like bus routes and schedules. When I didn’t hear my destination announced, I assumed that shuttle wasn’t going where I was. Wrong, my destination was en route to the final stop.

After 15 miles, the shuttle driver assisted me, his geographically confused passenger, onto the bus going to Puerto Barrios. To reduce my continued anxiety, I calmly walked the isle past local commuters as an experienced world traveler, who carries his personal belongings in a backpack. My confidence returned, and soon was sharing songs on my phone with adjacent passengers in broken English and Spanish conversation. Music can bridge cultural gaps and languages.

My musical reverie was interrupted later by a bus assistant silently waving me to bring my backpack to the front of the bus where I was unexpectedly let out at an unmarked, rural transfer point. Alone. Somewhere or anywhere, but not at a busy bus terminal. There was no sign or indication of being an official bus stop, only a metal bench placed on the sandy roadside. Two people came to stand with me, assuring me that this was the route to Puerto Barrios.

A rural gas station in Guatemala, photo by WanderNWayne

A 15-passenger van, already filled with perhaps 20 people, stopped to load the three of us onto the front seat with the driver; my pack pressing upon my lap. Uncomfortably, we rode silently through the hot afternoon sunshine. The van driver asked me where I was going and I simply stated, “the port of Puerto Barrios,” because I didn’t want to try describing a destination I knew nothing about. He nodded his head and continued erratically swerving around slower vehicles and driving on pedestrian sidewalks whenever left-lane passing was unavailable. His route wouldn’t take me directly to the boat dock I needed, so later he stopped the van and motioned to the left as a direction to the port. Hefting my backpack, I exited the van and walked in that direction as dusky shadows were beginning to conceal my destination.

In darkness, a small boat filled and slipped quietly into the busy shipping lanes of the port. Mine wouldn’t depart until a number of paying passengers made the voyage financially viable. My arrival in Livingston, by boat from Puerto Barrios, took more than an hour of listening to slapping waves against the hull, looking at residential lights on the shore, and hoping we’d see, or be seen, by other vessels on the black water.

At journey’s end, I was both exhausted and stimulated by the 5-day adventure that took me well out of my language and location comfort zones.


© 2017 Wayne Hammerstrom

Wayne Hammerstrom has been a lifelong traveler who now wanders (WandrNWayne) serendipitously on journeys near and far. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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