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Memoir: The Chicken-Coop Puppy

The Chicken-Coop Puppy

My first dog was a small brown and white Jack Russell terrier. She was smart, protective, and my constant companion that went everywhere with me. When I had first met my husband, it was my dog’s approval of him that made me look at him as a partner. Walking her kept me healthy and her intelligent antics kept me smiling. When she died of diabetic complications twelve years later, I mourned the loss of my friend. There was a large hole that existed in the air beside my ankles.

Months passed and my husband would ask if I could accept a new dog. I always said no. He persisted. We discussed different breeds: terriers, shelties, shepherds, and poodles. The good qualities and the cons of each breed. Through research, we discovered a breed called an Australian Shepard. Contrary to its name, the breed developed in the United States as a counterpart to the border collie. These shepherds were high energy working dogs that were intelligent companions. I thought that one of these dogs would be a good fit for our family and admitted this to my husband one night over coffee.

My husband scanned the listings at no-kill animal shelters for possible dogs, taking my idle musing for consent. He thought that if he found an adult dog that was already housebroken that I would be happier with an adoption. After all, a puppy is more difficult to come by at the shelters and we did not need the hassle of house training a baby dog.

One day, my husband found a likely adult dog on the website of a shelter a few cities away from us. It would be a ninety-minute drive to the place, but the lovely red merle Australian shepherd seemed to be perfect for us. He was the right size, housebroken, and only a few years old. I called the shelter and discovered that the dog was available. Although it was midweek, we decided that I would drive to the shelter the next morning to adopt the dog.

I called the shelter the next morning and found that “Lucky” was still available for adoption. As I drove, I tried to make peace in my heart, to tell myself that accepting a new dog into our family would be good. It was not a betrayal of the love I felt for my former companion.

The no-kill shelter was a squat cement building on a bit of acreage in the middle of nowhere. There were small fenced in areas behind the building where dogs played with the volunteers. I wondered if Lucky were one of the dogs romping in the yard.

I walked to the reception desk and introduced myself. “I called a few hours ago about the Australian Shepard named Lucky. I’d like to adopt her.”

The woman’s face fell. “I’m sorry, but Lucky was adopted around 45 minutes ago. Did you place a hold on him?”

I shook my head. “We had seen his picture on the website. I was going to fill in the paperwork today.”

“I’m sorry, but without a hold, the dog is given to the first person on its adoption list.” She paused and looked me over. “We do have many other dogs that are available for adoption. Would you like to look at them while you are here?”

I was not sure if I wanted a different dog from the shelter. I had set my heart on the beautiful Australian shepherd on the website. Lucky, true to his name, was fortunate to find a home. Would there be another dog at the shelter that would be similar? “I was hoping to find an Australian Shepard. Is there another one here?”

The woman brightened. “We do have one. She came in yesterday and hasn’t been put on the website yet.”

“Are there any holds on this dog?” I didn’t want to risk losing the animal before starting the adoption process.

“No. Not yet, but she is too young to be spayed. By law, we can’t release a dog until it is spayed or neutered. You’ll have to wait until she is old enough to undergo the procedure.”

Too young? This was a puppy. It would need to be housebroken and would chew up our shoes and furniture. I was hoping for an older dog that would not need much training. Still, I was there and it was a long journey home. I did not want to return empty-handed.

“Let me see her.”

The receptionist rang a small silver bell. One of the young volunteers led me from the reception area through a series of passageways and into a second building in the back. As we went along, I could see other dogs housed in various pens and crates along the way. “Cookie is a sweet little thing,” the girl told me as we walked, “She is submissive and would be friendly with children. Wait until you see her.”

We arrived in a box of a room with a cement floor. Off to one side was a ring of chicken coop mesh that served as a tiny fence no higher than my knee. Inside was a puppy that was hardly larger than my hand. She curled into a tight ball against the mesh and did not look up as we approached. The volunteer reached into the wire ring and scooped up the puppy, cuddling her close. The puppy opened her brown eyes and looked at the girl with no spark of recognition or emotion. She seemed dull and stupid to me.

“Adorable isn’t she?” The girl stroked the animal’s soft coat. “She is afraid of water. We can’t seem to bathe her and brushes scare her.” She handed the puppy to me and I balanced the little bundle in the crook of my arm. The puppy just lay there like a lump, her glazed over expression made me wonder if she even saw me. Her coat was soft, the short fur promising to grow long as she matured.

How could this be the replacement for my former dog? The one that protected me from strangers with a growl and cuddled at my side on the couch? Cookie was no Lucky, but she was the same breed and had similar coloring. At 6 weeks of age, the flat face and short soft fur would change into a typical Australian shepherd in only a few months. She might work out as our family dog.

“There is a hold on Cookie? I would be first in line for her?” I wanted to make certain of this before I made a commitment.

“Are you sure you want her?” My expression must have been giving away my misgivings. “There are always dogs coming in every day. You could try again.”

I handed the tiny puppy back to the girl who put her back into the chicken wire pen. The dog stood for a moment and then sank to the floor, listless. Was the animal sick? My misgivings grew, yet my logical mind had checked all the boxes and this puppy fit what we were looking for. I would simply have to accept her lack of intelligence. After all, being smart is not a pre-requisite for love.

“I want to fill out the paperwork. We’ll take her.”

“Okay. Follow me.” We walked back through the buildings to reception and I juggled a packet of forms to fill out. “You do know that there is a one hundred dollar adoption fee for the puppy? You are sure you want her?” The receptionist also must have noted my lack of enthusiasm for the puppy.

“Yes. I am sure.” The constant question of if I wanted the dog was starting to irritate me. As I filled out the forms, I wondered how I was going to tell my husband about the puppy and why I was determined to take her home.

The forms did not take long and knowing that I was first in line for the dog comforted me. I made the long drive back home. When my husband came home from work, he became upset. He had fallen in love with the dog on the website and had his heart set on him. “Cookie is similar to Lucky, just much younger. She could be his daughter for all we know.”

“I just don’t like the idea of adopting a dog that I haven’t seen. You are sure about this dog?”

I was not. All I could remember was the dull, emotionless expression and limp little body. But something inside me had awakened. I knew that I needed a dog again. That little spot at my side had been empty for too long. Cookie was the same colors and would grow to a similar size as my former companion. I would simply have to get used to her obvious stupidity and that she was a shepherd instead of a terrier.

“Give her a chance. You’ll like her.” I was not sure if I was speaking to myself or my husband. “She is pretty with the same red merle markings that Lucky had. We just have to wait until she is old enough to be spayed. They don’t do it until they are eight weeks old and she is only six weeks.”

Two days later, I received a call from the no-kill shelter. It was the receptionist I had spoken to the day I filled out the forms to put a hold on the puppy. “I wanted to ask if you would reconsider your hold on Cookie.”

“Why?”

“We have five families that are in line to adopt her after you. Most of them have children. I remember how you wanted to adopt an adult dog when you first came here. Would you be willing to give her up?”

I almost growled like a dog myself. The woman was using children to guilt me into giving up the puppy after my long drive to the shelter and losing the dog I had selected. For all her dullness, Cookie did have a cute coat and markings. I also knew that most people did prefer to adopt puppies. After what happened with Lucky, I had little hope that I would find a dog at the shelter of the proper breed if I gave up on this puppy. “No. I definitely want her. I’m just waiting for her to be spayed so I can take her home.”

“Very well,” the voice on the phone sounded annoyed. “Cookie is still yours.”

Two more days later, I got another call from the shelter. “Cookie is going to be spayed today. You can come and get her tomorrow. Are you sure you still want her? There are three more families that want to adopt her.” That made eight families trying to take the puppy away from me.

“Yes. I want the dog. Why is she being spayed this early? Isn’t she too young?” Cookie was two weeks early for her surgery and I feared for her health. The poor thing had been sleeping on cement all alone and now was going to go under the knife. I felt helpless. Despite my filling out the paperwork, would I lose this dog?

“We need to make room for more animals and there are so many people that want her.”

“I will be there tomorrow for her. Have her ready for me.” I knew I sounded cold, but at this point, I was growing angry.

That night, my anger was echoed by my husband. “What do you mean that they are spaying her now? She is too young!”

“It is out of my hands. They can do what they want. I haven’t put down any money on the puppy, just a form.”

“But I want to see her before the adoption. Can’t we get her this weekend?”

I thought about all those calls and the constant requests to give up the dog. I did not care how long the line was on Cookie’s dance card, I was going to retrieve this dog and make her my own. “I think that if I don’t go and get her tomorrow morning, she will be gone. They won’t wait.”

I made a deal with my husband. “Let me get the dog without you in the morning. You can have the honor of naming her. Deal?” My husband liked the idea of naming the puppy himself and he agreed to my plan.

I arrived in reception the next morning. “I’m here to pick up Cookie.”

The woman at the desk thumbed through the book and nodded. “She is still in surgery, but she should be done soon.” She peered up at me. “Are you sure you want the puppy?”

“I promise, the dog will be coming to a good home. Children or no children. She will be well cared for.”

“You do realize that you will need to pay $100 for her.” She paused as if I would relent at the price.

I pulled out my wallet. “Then let’s get the fees taken care of while we wait for her.” The woman stared at me with disbelief. Finally, she took my credit card and began the payment process. I was growing impatient. I had had enough of dealing with these people. I wanted my dog and to go home.

The woman spoke into the PA. “Please bring Cookie to reception.”

An older woman arrived around ten minutes later with Cookie cradled in her arms. Her little white belly had a row of red surgery scars and stitches. The animal was shivering with fear. It was no wonder. Sleeping in a tiny chicken wire coop on a cold cement floor and then going through surgery this morning without warning. It would be enough to scare anyone. The puppy was a little bigger than I remembered and seemed more alert. I reached for the dog, but the woman refused to hand her over. “I’ll carry her to your car,” she informed me.

I paused before going to the exit. “Is there a toy that the dog played with? Something that would be familiar to her?”

“Well, she did have a green ring…”

“I’d like to have it for her. I’ll pay you if you like.”

The handler and the woman at reception exchanged a glance. Then the receptionist rose to her feet. “I’ll go get it. No charge.” In a moment, she handed a rubber ring, almost as big as the puppy to me. I thanked the woman and then led the way out to the car.

“What are you going to name her?” the handler asked as we crossed the gravel parking lot.

“I’m not sure.” I was not going to discuss the arrangement I had made with my husband about the name. “Maybe Belle after Beauty and the Beast.”

The woman looked at the shivering puppy and nodded. “That seems like a pretty name.”

We came to my car and I gestured to the passenger side and opened that door. “Just put her in there.” On the front seat, folded into a neat square, was a small baby quilt that my husband’s mother had sewn for our future children.

The woman lowered the quivering dog onto the quilt and Cookie sank down several inches into the softness. The puppy’s eyes opened wider and she looked up at the woman and me. I put the green ring on the quilt near the puppy, although the animal did not look at it. I wondered if it had been her toy at all.

I shut the car door with a solid clink. “Will she be alright?” The woman seemed to search me as if looking for a criminal record.

I was growing exasperated. “She will be well cared for and loved. I promise.” I wondered if the woman would ask me for blood to seal a pact with the devil.

I went to the driver’s side of my car and got into the vehicle. Little Cookie had not moved from her spot on the quilt. She was my dog now. Stupid as she was. I reached over and gave her a gentle stroke on the head, feeling her silky soft fur. I wondered what name my husband would choose for her. I still voted for Belle. She was a real beauty.

I turned on the ignition and got the engine warmed up for our long drive home. The puppy watched me from her spot in the quilt, her eyes as large as saucers. She stood up, padding the blanket a little with her paws and sniffed the edge of the blanket.

“None of that.” I told the dog, “When we are driving you are to stay on the blanket.” My tone was firm, but kind. The puppy stopped at the sound of my voice. I reached over and gave her another stroke on her head. She settled down on the blanket again. Her shivering had stopped and she continued to watch me from her little hollow.

I began the drive home. “It is going to be a long drive,” I told the puppy, “So you might as well make yourself comfortable.” My voice was calm, conversational as if I were talking to my husband or a friend. “I hope you like the blanket, little dog. I don’t want you to wander around the car while I’m driving. What if you got under a pedal?” I continued to talk to the dog in a slow methodical way, knowing that what I said was not important, it was how I said it. I used to work in a stable and would always talk to my horses, the sound of a human voice can often calm an animal and help to build trust. I hoped that it would work with this scared little puppy. Cookie tilted her tiny head as she listened.

Cookie was too small to look out a car window, she was just a tiny handful on the car seat. Those big eyes watched me intently. A half hour into the drive, the tiny puppy curled up into a ball, tucking her nose under her tail, and sank down into the folds of the blanket. She closed her eyes and fell asleep.

When I got home, little Cookie woke up from her nap. She leaped to her feet and looked around the car with energy. I smiled at her antics. For the first time, she seemed more like a normal dog. I wrapped the blanket around her tiny body and took the entire bundle with me, dog and quilt, to the house. Cookie’s little head poked out allowing her to see where we were going. Once inside, I set the quilt on the floor and set her free.

Cookie padded off the quilt and onto the floor. She immediately started to sniff around on the carpet and nearby furniture. Back and forth she sniffed around the living room, exploring every corner of the room. Then she scampered off to the kitchen and I watched her gaze out the window of our French kitchen door that happened to be at her eye level. Her little tail wagged as she stared at the backyard and she quivered, not with fear, but in excitement.

Our elderly cat watched the new puppy from the hallway. Our cat had been close to our Jack Russell and I was hopeful that he would accept a new dog. When Cookie ambled over to him, he hissed and ran away. This was not his dog. It was going to take nurturing to introduce the elderly cat to the young puppy in our household.

I let the puppy go where she would. I decided to keep her in the house while she adjusted to her surroundings. I took a seat on the couch and settled in to watch her. The puppy stopped her sniffing and came back to me. She took up a position on the floor a few feet away and settled into a classic shepherd watching pose at my side. Exactly where my former dog would sit. That empty ache at my feet suddenly felt filled. Soon, the puppy curled up into a ball and went back to sleep. I wondered if I should put her back on the quilt, but she seemed content with her spot on the carpet.

Two hours after we came home, there was a rattle in the front door. The puppy woke up and leaped to her feet. As my husband walked into the house, the tiny puppy sprang into action. She barked and growled at my husband, putting herself between me and him.

My husband stared down at the dog and then looked at me with amusement. Our one-pound bundle of terror continued her growling. I leaned over and made comforting sounds. The puppy snuggled against me.

“She is protecting you.” My flabbergasted husband seemed pleased. “How long have you been here?”

“Barely two hours,” I looked at the tiny puppy with new respect. She was continuing to surprise me. Had I had misjudged her? This was not the dull, stupid dog from the shelter. Instead, she was vibrant with a protective instinct.

In time, our tiny puppy would grow into a gentle and beautiful Australian Shepherd. Children at the park follow us on our walks in the hope to stroke her long silky coat and look into her brown eyes. As we walk, she lifts her long tail as proud as a flag. Herding ducks back into the lake became her favorite game.

She is a proactive watchdog who guards the brown lizards in our yard as if they were a flock of sheep. She is the smartest dog that I’ve ever owned and has become as much my best friend and companion as my first dog. I had misgivings that day I picked her at the no-kill shelter, but my instinct proved correct. Our chicken-coop puppy has become the perfect family dog.

Memoir: The Horse Thief

The horse thief
image by guilaine @ pixabay

The bus ride home from school was a long and boring affair through the outskirts of the sleepy lakeside country town. Most of my schoolmates were sleepy from the long day. Only the occasional spitball launched in high arc overhead broke the monotony.

I dreaded the coming summer. Third grade was coming to an end and the isolation I faced for the three months between grades seemed endless. I hoped that my plans to visit my friend would come together. It was a long walk down a gravel road under the power lines to reach my friend. I did have a pony that I could ride to shorten the trip, but my parents would not allow me to ride her off our land. My visits would not be frequent this summer.

I leaned against the cool glass of the bus window. The country road held houses at infrequent intervals. They mingled with endless clumps of blackberry and huckleberry bushes filling in the space between the conifers. Later in life, I would realize that I lived in natural beauty, but as a child it was normal and rather boring.

A bump in the road jostled me awake. Looking out the window, I spied our family’s ponies tied to an oak tree in front of a stranger’s slat-board house. Misty was the elder of the pair, a silver gray with a white mane and tail. When my father had purchased our ponies from the Woodland Park Zoo two years before, she was the pony I was to ride. Along with Misty came Sugar. She was a small filly of light brown with dark gentle eyes. While my father had dickered over the price of a pony to take home, I had sat down next to Sugar and stroked her head and mane. My feet dragged when my father called me and I looked back at the little brown filly more than once as my father showed me Misty. It was not until my father arrived with his pickup that I realized that the little filly who had stolen my heart was Misty’s baby. The pair would come together.

What were our ponies doing in front of that house? I fidgeted on the bench while I waited for the next stop. It was a good half mile up the road. When the door opened, I leaped from the school bus and trotted back to where our ponies cropped on grass under the oak tree.

I knocked on the door of the house and an unfamiliar woman answered. “Did our ponies get out of their pasture? Thank you for finding them.” I was seven years old, short for my age and wearing jeans and a tomboy style corduroy jacket. Yet I did not hesitate to assert to the giant adult before me, “I need to take them home now.”

The woman placed her hands on her hips and looked down with a sour expression. “How do I know they belong to you?”

“But—they are mine—” I was not prone to speaking with strangers, and I was at a loss. No one ever doubted my word before.

“Not good enough. I need proof that they belong to you.” The giantess shut the door.

I left the woman’s property, and trudged to my friend’s house a mile or two up the road. I told my story to my friend and her mother. My friend’s Mom told me that I needed to get my own mother to that house to recover our property. She snorted and called the woman who kept my ponies a thief.

I borrowed their phone to call my mother. This was back in the days before cell phones, so you had to discover places to contact people in emergencies. Within a short time, my mother drove up with my younger brother in tow, and the three of us returned to the slat-board house. The ponies were still there, grazing under the leafy oak tree.

My mother left my little brother at the foot of the porch steps, and told me to stay with him. She ascended to the porch and knocked on the front door. The woman answered the door, she was much taller than my mother, and the two women began to talk. Being seven and not always able to follow what adults spoke about up in the lofty regions of the air, I quickly lost interest, and drifted across the lawn toward the ponies. Sugar lifted her head and nickered. I looked over her curly coat and shiny hooves. Beside her, Misty grazed upon the woman’s front lawn and flickered her ears at my approach. Both animals seemed unharmed.

I heard a sharp voice. “You stay away from those animals!” I looked back at the porch with alarm. My mother and the woman were doing more than talking; they were yelling as they poked their fingers at each other. At the end of the shouting match, my mother declared she was going to call the sheriff. She strode down the steps of the porch, grabbed my little brother by the arm and returned to our car. She shouted for me to follow, and after giving my pony a quick pat, I joined them in the sedan.

Returning to my friend’s house, my mother borrowed their phone to call the police. Soon after, we returned to the stranger’s house and parked on the street. We sat in our car, waiting for the sheriff to arrive. Soon, the imposing black-and-white pulled up beside our car.

“What seems to be the problem, Ma’am?” The sheriff was a middle aged man, with graying brown hair and a crisp uniform. The badge on his chest gleamed in the late afternoon light. He seemed imposing to me. I hardly was taller than his waistline. I was glad no one expected me to say anything.

My mother wasted no time in telling the sheriff our predicament, pointing at our ponies. The sheriff and my mother walked to the house, leaving my brother and I in the car. The sheriff knocked on the door and all three adults began talking. I rolled down the window and could hear the conversation. It began quietly, but soon turned into an argument. The woman was stubborn, refusing to give up the animals.

“Why should I believe that these ponies belong to you?” demanded the tall woman, “Do you have a bill of sale for them?” The heated debate continued with the sheriff doing his best to impose order.

I slipped out of the backseat and shut the car door behind me. Kicking a pebble, I wandered over to the oak tree. This time, no adult stopped me from approaching my ponies. It was getting late, and I worried how we were going to get the two animals home. Sugar butted her head against my chest, and blew her hot breath into my hair, as was her habit. I reached over to hug her neck, and stroke her soft brown coat. Sugar was still too young to ride, and far from her full growth. She stood about my height, and we were a perfect fit. When you are seven years old and as small as I was, you value a friend you can view eye to eye. I considered the little brown filly to be my best friend in the world.

As I hugged Sugar, I grew aware that the noise from the porch had stopped. I looked back, and all three adults were watching me. The sheriff gave the woman a displeased look, and the stranger glanced away in defeat. There were a few more words among the adults, and my mother and the sheriff left the porch to join me. The other woman entered her house, slamming the door behind her.

The sheriff untied our animals, and handed the rope to my mother. “Do you have a way to get the ponies home?”

I piped in. “Our house is just over the other side of the woods. I can ride Misty back to the barn. Sugar will follow her. She always does.”

My mother was not happy with my solution, but told the man, “My husband won’t be home from work for another hour, and he has our truck. I have the toddler with me, and I don’t want to leave the animals here.” The sheriff eyed me a few moments. This was the country, and children were out riding horses every day. It was not unusual for the area. He tipped his hat to my mother and me, and departed in his black-and-white.

I left my backpack and schoolbooks in the car, using the ropes to create makeshift reins and a lead rope. My mother lifted me onto Misty’s back and Sugar had the rope lassoed around her neck. It was enough to help prevent the filly from spooking on the trail home. I was happy to have the chance to ride home. I was not allowed to ride off our family land, so this would be like an adventure for me.

I rode bareback alongside the paved road for a short distance, with my mother following behind in the car. Then I cut off the main road to a trail that led through the woods. It connected with the gravel road under the powerlines that I would walk to visit my friend’s house. The gravel road took me to our pastures. As I rode along the fence line, I came to a place where the barbed wire lay flat on the ground.

I gave Misty a pat on her neck. “So this is where you escape artists got out!” I would remember the location and show it to my father when I could. He would have to repair the fence before we could leave the ponies out to pasture again. I arrived at the barn and slipped off of Misty’s back, leading the two ponies into the paddock. I made sure to secure the gate before I left. The sun was starting to touch the horizon.

As I returned home, I thought about the giantess and how she did not accept me at my word. It never occurred to me that someone would think I was lying. It was a new idea to me and it made me understand not everyone in the world was honest. I also gained a new respect for the law. The sheriff saw the bond between the animals and myself, and accepted it as proof of ownership. He used his common sense to guide his way to the truth with good results for my family. I liked that about the man. Yet, the most immediate lesson I received that day, as I had trouble walking home due to my sore thighs and backside, is that I would never again ride a horse without a saddle.

This memoir short story was meant to publish in a literary magazine called “Chicken Scratch Tales” a few years ago, but the publication went under before the issue came out. The story was finally released and now has a home here! This is a true story from my childhood.

Memoir: Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall Header

I stood in the late afternoon sun surrounded by blooms in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library. It is the home to astonishing exhibits. Including Reagan’s Air Force One airliner and a massive piece of the Berlin Wall that stands as a sentinel in the center of the rose garden. Covered in graffiti and moss, it is a symbol of the fall of the old Soviet Union.

I had fought against this barrier between the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war. But, instead of bringing down the Berlin Wall, as President Reagan did, I had found a way to leap across it. Placing my hand on the warm stone of the monolith, I felt a sense of completion.

I had been a serious young woman, recently graduated from college, enjoying her first media industry position. I landed a job as the Unit Production Manager of a nationally syndicated radio news program on NPR. My main duties were being an assistant and liaison to the news editors and other departments of the parent production company.

One morning, I had finished writing the promo for our business news radio program, when the head of accounting walked up. She placed a file on my desk and gave me a stern look. I sensed her frustration, but felt that it was not directed at me, but more at the problem she was bringing to my doorstep.

“We’ve been trying to pay this reporter in Poland for over six months, but every time we reach the Berlin Wall, the money stops. He is your reporter and your responsibility. You will have to figure out a way to pay him.” She went back to her office without looking back.

I stared at that file without opening it for a good five minutes. What did I know about accounting and payroll? Nothing. I knew that we had dozens of freelance reporters scattered all around the globe, but they spoke directly to the editors, not to me. Accounting had always handled the processing of their checks in the past. It was not part of my regular duties.

My next task of the morning was to check the paper supply of the UPI and Reuter’s news feeds. There was no internet to search for information, back then as there is today. The news came to our newsroom via these wire services. The large printers connected to the world via phone line. It was where our editors obtained the news of the day. As I put new rolls of paper into the machines, resetting them to start printing out fresh batches of stories, I asked one of the nearby editors if he knew about this Polish reporter and his situation.

He did. The situation had been common knowledge among the program’s four editors for quite some time. It was a matter of the government officials opening the reporter’s mail when it reached the Communist Block. No letter from our company to this reporter could pass through the Berlin Wall. That was always where the paper trail ended. The editor worried about losing this reporter if we could not pay him.

I walked back to my desk, thinking about this man in Poland. He had been a stranger to me before, a name on the top of a file, but after this conversation, he was now a real person in need. I could not fault the man for considering leaving due to lack of payment, and that he had chosen not to do so spoke of his dedication. I admired this and I wanted to help him.

I sat at my desk and stared at the wall. Both the physical drywall before my eyes, and at the same time, the Berlin Wall that had become a barrier. I needed to bring down this wall, to find a means of connection between our American company and Communist Poland in a legal manner. I dismissed idle visions of cold war spies and mail drops over transoms.

I had not opened the file on my desk, but in this case, I did not feel that anything in it would be of help to me. If the information in the file had stymied an entire accounting department for half a year, what use could it be to me now? What I needed to know was a means to get money through the gatekeepers of the Berlin Wall and into Poland. It was a matter of connections across international lines, not accounting.

As I sat there, an idea popped into my mind. Why not call the United Nations? Were they not people who worked to solve international situations? At the very least, they could direct me to someone to whom I could ask questions.

I called information and got the number for the United Nations building in New York City. Once connected, I told the operator that I was the Unit Production Manager of a national radio program and needed to pay a reporter in Poland. Was there anyone who could help me?

“Of course, Madam,” the operator said, “I will connect you with the Polish Ambassador. One moment, please.”

My jaw must have dropped when I heard those words. I was a kid right out of college who had not even left her hometown for her first industry job. Now, I was about to speak with the Polish Ambassador in New York City. I gripped the phone and reminded myself that I was calling with legitimate business. I thought again about that reporter and steadied my nerves.

The Ambassador picked up the line and gave me a cheerful greeting. He sounded like one of my old world uncles, speaking with impeccable English, but with a slight accent. “And how might I help you?” He finished after we exchanged a few simple pleasantries.

I gave a brief description of how our accounting department had been trying to pay our reporter in Poland for six months. How the money always stopped at the Berlin Wall. The Ambassador immediately knew what the problem was. He explained that even he did not send money to Poland in this manner.

“Then how do you send money to Poland across the Iron Curtain?” I asked.

The Ambassador explained if we deposited the money to an account in a Polish bank that had a branch in New York City, from there it could transfer the funds to a sister bank in Warsaw. Since both were branches of the same Polish bank, this removed the international mail element. An account could be set up in the reporter’s name and he could withdraw the money in Warsaw. The Ambassador said that he would personally speak to both branches and make sure that the transfer would happen. It was the least he could do to help one of his countrymen.

The Ambassador also apologized that he could not get the money closer to the reporter. Warsaw was one hundred miles away from the reporter’s address, but legally that was the best he could do. I thanked the Ambassador for his time. I told him that I would confer with our accounting department and the reporter to make sure that his solution would be acceptable to everyone. If they were, our people would talk to his people and get the job done.

Next, I called the reporter in Poland and explained about the long distance that he would have to drive to get his paycheck. The reporter was grateful that he would finally be receiving his money and would have a method of getting his checks on a regular basis in the future. He assured me that this method of payment was acceptable to him. His sincere thank you and the sound of relief in his voice touched me.

I leaned back in my chair. According to the clock overhead, two hours had passed since the head of the accounting department had come and left that file on my desk. I picked up the unopened, thick file, and walked through the building to the accounting department.

I knocked on the door frame of the head accountant’s office and asked, “Might I come in?”

She glanced at the file in my hands and said, “Look, I told you that paying that reporter is your responsibility…”

I interrupted her and explained the method of how the Polish Ambassador would set up the connection between the two banks, setting up a pipeline that she could use to pay the polish reporter, now and in the future.

“You called the United Nations?” She seemed flabbergasted by the idea. The annoyance that my appearance had generated vanished from her expression as she said, more to herself than to me, “Why didn’t we think of that?” She called for her assistant as I set the file and the contact information onto her desk.  She smiled at me.

That afternoon, as word of my success spread throughout the company, I received informal congratulations from reporters in our Boston NPR office and from an associate editor who called in from South America. I seldom had contact with people outside our branch of the operation. It was the first time I realized how far our radio program went in the world. I was part of something larger than myself, yet I realized how small the journalistic community was too.

As the sun beat down on my shoulders, in present-day Southern California, I gave the monolith one last pat. Having that piece of stone under my fingers made the events of that long ago day seem more real to me. It was not bits of information I had been dealing with, mere pieces of papers I shuffled. It was real places and people that I had made a difference with. The solid stone of the Berlin Wall under my hand proved that.


Berlin Wall first published in a small literary magazine called Shadows Express Magazine in 2013.  It was the second short story I had ever published.  The story is based on true events of my life.   This version has been cleaned up a little for typos and grammar but is otherwise very close to the original tale that appeared in the literary magazine.

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Memoir: The Poet In Spite of Herself

The Poet In Spite of Herself

I stood before the audience, my notebook open as I prepared to read an excerpt from my novel The Curate’s Brother. It is a historical romance based off of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion. It was one of many readings that I would do to promote my new book that year. The moderator of our panel gestured to me and said, “I present to you our next reader, author and poet, Wendy Van Camp.”

I remember blinking and tilting my head to one side, like a puppy that is not quite sure of a knock at the door. I do write poetry, but until that moment I never considered myself to be “a poet”. In those few seconds, before I began my reading, I had an epiphany. The moderator was correct, I am a poet! The irony was not lost on me.

When I was in grade school, I remember saving money from my allowance in order to buy a notebook that had caught my fancy. It had a green cover with gold foil embellishments and the pages were smooth white paper without lines. I put the notebook in a place of honor among my growing book collection, but could not decide what to do with it. Then it hit me. I would fill the notebook with poetry. I had never written a poem before, but how hard could it be? I was already writing novels, stories filled with Tolkien style dwarves and elves or mermaids who did battle with titans. Not that anyone read the stories but my own young eyes.  Poetry would be compatible with my childhood dream of becoming an author when I grew up.

I cradled my green notebook late at night and sprinkled the pages with little ideas that came to me in my dreams. After I had written a dozen poems, my younger brother swiped the book from my room, read my words and then proceeded to mock everything that I had written. I wilted in embarrassment. My parents mentioned that I shouldn’t be wasting my time writing in the first place. I put the recovered green notebook deep into my stacks and forgot about poetry. I continued writing my novels, but since poetry didn’t make money and was not respected, it would not be part of my life.

The years went by and after graduating college, I found myself working in government and corporate television.  My idea of becoming an author shifted into a dream of becoming the next big director in Hollywood. By this time, I had spent the past five years producing and directing a half hour band showcase series called Musician Discoveries in addition to working full-time at the local cable station. Bands traveled from other states for the chance to perform on my studio stage and be featured in my low budget, labor of love.

After going through a few different hosts for the program and the threat of our studio losing its funding and thus losing access to its equipment, I decided that it was time for a change. I ended my musician series and took my programming out of the doomed studio. Instead, I purchased an expensive prosumer camera and software to edit video on my home computer.

The equipment needed to produce television was thousands of dollars in those days and there was no such thing as YouTube or even the Internet to distribute the work. I would have to leapfrog the program on public channels, hand delivering the broadcast quality tapes to the cable outlets. Yet, I felt it was time to go rogue and create television on my own terms.

I needed a new art form to showcase for the new TV series. Music had been kind to me, but I was tired of it. I thought about paintings. The cliché of being “as boring as watching paint dry” nixed that idea. Then I considered poetry. While I had not written a poem since perfunctory assignments in high school, as a director, I didn’t need to create the content. That would be the talent’s job. Readings were dynamic, the performances would be easy to capture and the thought of shooting on location in the various coffeehouses in the city was appealing in its own right. I put the production together and marched forth, a young intrepid television director with a dream to share poetry on my new program Coffeehouse Poetry.

Realty hit hard and fast. The coffeehouses would cancel my shoot time without informing me. One went out of business and I didn’t learn about it until I arrived a few hours before production. Editing on home equipment was more difficult than the broadcast quality machines I was used to.  I was used to editing on analog equipment and my new home studio was in the then-new digital style.  I was never happy with the production values I could afford on my small budget.

And then, there were the poets.

Never had I worked with such unruly creatives in my life. They were demanding, rude, and unreliable. As the months went by, I sunk lower into depression as each setback destroyed my program.  Every time I received a rude letter or phone call from one of the poets, I felt myself give up a little more. The musicians I used to work with for Musician Discoveries understood the value of exposure that television offered.  The poets did not.  In the end, I produced around a dozen programs before I closed my doors. I bitterly swore to myself that I would never work with poets or have anything to do with poetry again.

Fifteen years later, I found myself shifting away from the long hours and stress of professional television production.  Many of the corporations I worked for were sending their work overseas to Japan or Thailand where labor and studio space was less expensive than Los Angeles.  The major studios remained, but I was facing burnout and the thought of the long commute into the city was daunting.

I remembered my original dream of becoming a novelist. My hiatus from writing was twenty years in length, but thanks to intensive training via Nanowrimo, I learned the techniques of writing books and how to market them.  Science fiction is my main genre, but as a side project, I started an Austen inspired romance series.  Since the romances were easier to complete, I published this series first and became known as an Austen inspired romance author.

During my early years of returning to writing, an author friend suggested that I give poetry a try in addition to the short stories.  Due to its brief form, I could write plenty of them, submitting to more paying markets or use the poems as easy blog posts.  I thought about the idea but cringed inside.  The scar that Coffeehouse Poetry left inside me was a large one.  I put the idea aside.

One Friday afternoon, after I had finished placing my wares into a science fiction convention art show, rain threatened overhead. The heat was oppressive in the atrium next to the art show where all the workshop/panel rooms were located. I had planned to stay for the ice cream social that evening, but it was several hours in the future. A writing panel would help to pass the time until the social event started.

I looked at the placards in front of the workshop doorways, but it was early in the day and most of the programming had not started at the convention. However, there was a scratched-in workshop available and its room was close to where the ice cream social was located. I ducked inside.

There were six or seven people in the room, I assumed that they were fellow attendees who would join me in the workshop. The placard said that this was a Scifaiku workshop. I had no idea what that was, but as long as the air conditioning worked and there was ice water available, I was game to give the workshop a try.

The instructor introduced herself and then informed me that all those people in the room were friends that had come to support her class. They were publishers of poetry magazines. I was the only student and she was going to teach me how to write scifaiku poetry.

I immediately wondered if I could get out of the workshop gracefully, but being the only student, I didn’t want to be rude. So I sat back and watched methods of brainstorming poems, ideas of how haiku and science fiction could be merged, and the structure to follow when writing a scifaiku poem.

The instructor said, “Now you will write a poem for the class.”

Me? Write a poem? I hadn’t done this since high school and that was a long time ago. I could hear my brother laughing deep in my memory.  I remembered the poor grades I got in high school during poetry assignments. Yet, I had the format and the brainstorming techniques before me on the blackboard.  I was a writer of science fiction short stories and had the background research of sci-fi concepts ingrained within me.  How hard could this be? I wrote my first scifaiku, the first poem I had created in more than twenty years.

When I was done, the instructor said. “Now, I would like you to read your poem to the class.” I looked around. What class? I was the only student! All the other people in the room were publishers of poetry magazines, some of them with large followings.

I stood up. I read my poem. I sat down.

The instructor said a few words about my attempt. Then, one of the publishers leaned over and told me that she liked my poem and wanted to publish it in her magazine. She would pay me. I took her card with shock.

That would be the first scifaiku I wrote, but not the last. I sold that poem and many more after that. Later, I would illustrate the poems with simple line art and that published too. Then someone suggested that I sell the illustrated poems as art prints and suddenly, I was “an artist”.

Now here I stand, with my notebook before me, ready to read my prose to the audience and introduce my novel.  The ironic laughter within disappears in the face of reality.  I am now the author that I dreamed of being as a child through hard work and dedication. And yes, I am a poet too. As strange as it seems to be after all the ridicule this art form has caused me through the years.  I am the poet in spite of herself.


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Flash Fiction: Baptism By Fire

Baptism by Fire Header

Dreams sometimes happen at the most unexpected moments in life. When I was twelve years old, I saw the movie Star Wars at the local drive-in and found myself fascinated not only by the story and the special effects of the film but by the fast-paced new editing style of the film’s director. From that day forward, I had a dream of being a director myself. It made me more attentive to my writing in high school, and when I went to college, I selected a university that had a reputable film school, much to my parents’ chagrin.

During my second year of film school, I was given the opportunity to intern at a local cable station that produced programming for the community. I felt excited by the opportunity and wanted to immerse myself in their program to gain the hands-on experience I needed before seeking a career in the entertainment industry. The cable station ran on intern power. We provided free labor as grips, camera operators, chryon operators, and the technical directing of the live talk shows that were the staples of the studio while the few paid staffers oversaw the operation.

There were two live talk shows produced by the studio, one shot on Monday night and the other on Wednesday night. One program was a fun entertainment show highlighted by interesting local guests and a loud boisterous director that kept everyone in stitches with his jokes. All of us interns wanted to work on this show because it was fun to be on the set, but because of this, there were limited opportunities to find a crew position and to gain the hands-on experience we were all there for. I would often be told by the director that “We just don’t have room for you this week, Wendy. Maybe next time.” I suffered disappointment when I was told that, but I was determined to continue to apply for crew. My reward was that once in a while I would find a position as a cable puller or a camera operator out on the floor. The control room seemed out of my reach Wednesday nights.

The other program was a sleepy political talk show that often had problems gaining guests; the host would sometimes give historical or political lectures to fill the allotted half hour. The director of the political program had trouble finding crew since most of us had trouble staying awake during this program. I was approached personally by the director to join his crew. He played on my sympathy by telling me how short-handed he was Monday night and asked me for my help. I agreed to become a regular crewmember on Monday night.

Six months later, I had progressed from being on the camera to working as a floor manager and finally assigned to the control room. On this particular Monday, I was seated at the switcher as the technical director, feeling like Mr. Sulu from Star Trek since the blinking lights and the whirl of sound from the equipment reminded me of the command bridge of the Enterprise. I looked into the triple monitors before me. Each monitor displayed a different camera view from the television studio just beyond the heavy insulated windows at the front of the control room. Although we were recording the talk show in color, all the seven-inch monitors were black and white. The center monitor was a wide shot of the two people, the host and his guest, seated in chairs with a low table before them. This camera was locked on the tripod, unmoving once it had been set, and left unmanned. We joking referred to the camera as Larry Lockdown. The other two monitors had closer shots, one of the host and one of the guest. Occasionally, the camera operator would be asked to switch to a tighter two shot or to shoot a graphics card that would be placed on an easel by the floor manager.

To my left in the control room was the chyron, a huge metal box of circuits and wire attached to a keyboard and television monitor. The electronic words that were superimposed on our program were created there and a crew member needed to be available to bring the graphics in on the cue of the director. When we had enough crew, the chyron operator would input the information before the show and then update the graphics on the screen so that I could superimpose the name of the host or guest during the program or any information that the host or guest wished to put on the screen. We did not have a remote control for the chyron and the machine was four feet from my station, too far for me to reach. When we did not have enough crew, as was the case that day, I would input in the information before the program went live and the director would scroll to the proper graphic himself during the show and then cue me when to bring the graphic in at the switcher.

To my right was the engineering panels where the final images got color mixed and white balanced. These were the largest machines in the studio, being three feet wide and going from floor to ceiling. I was fascinated by the science behind what they did, but the complexities of engineering took more technical knowledge than I possessed at the time. Behind these large machines was a bank of VTRs, huge cassette players that used 3/4” U-Matic tapes. U-Matic was the analog standard for broadcast quality recording back then, although tape newcomers such as High-8 or Beta SP were also becoming popular and starting to see integration into our systems. The top deck recorded the live program we were producing that night and the others were player decks that we used to insert commercials and PSAs during the segment breaks. At the proper time, a tape would be inserted and cued up to 3 seconds before the start of the commercial block and then the VTR operator would wait for the director’s cue to press the start button at the proper time. Digital technology was still a fanciful rumor on the horizon during the mid-1980s and we were all quite comfortable working in analog format on equipment that by today’s standards would seem rather antique.

The host and his guest were seated on the set and the floor manager was clipping tiny lavaliere microphones to their shirts. The final sound checks were completed. I glanced up at the clock and noted that we were five minutes until the program went live to the city. My director had entered the control room and was making the final checks on the equipment. Color and white balance—Check. Chyron loaded and correct for that day’s program—Check. Commercial reels lined up on the floor before the VTR bank—Check. U-Matic tape labeled with its red record dot in place—Check. He loaded the U-Matic tape into the upper VTR and recorded thirty seconds of color bars and five seconds of black. He paused the tape. We were the only two people in the control room since our other two crew members were on the floor as camera operator and floor manager.

The clock moved to one minute before 7pm. The director and I put our bulky earphone and mic headsets on and I heard the orders both behind me and in the earphones. “Standby to cue talent. Standby to take fade up on camera two.” Our director was not in his chair in the center of the room but stood beside the VTR rack. From there he would switch on the cablecast so that our program would go live.
“Three.” The director started the recording VTR and stepped forward in front of the button that would cablecast the program live on the cable system to thousands of potential viewers in the city.

“Two.” I heard the soft click of the button. On the machines to my right, lights came on to indicate that the program was now being cablecast. My director continued forward and stood behind me at the center of the control room. I always felt nervous at this moment in the count-down. If something went wrong, it would be seen by the entire city.

“One. Fade up to camera two.” I pressed the camera two button to let the switcher know where to go and used the bar to fade up from black into the image on my middle monitor. My movement was sure and steady, something that I had practiced so that my fades would have the proper timing. “Take graphic.” I pressed the proper button and the name of the program superimposed over the wide shot. “Lose graphic.” The graphic faded away at the press of another button. I heard the director go over to the chyron machine and he advanced to the next page. The name of our host was displayed.

“Standby to cue talent. Standby to dissolve to camera one.” I pressed the button that let the switcher know which camera to take at my command. On the other side of the window, our floor manager was giving hand cues to the host. “Cue talent and dissolve to one.” I pulled the bar down in a smooth and steady motion and the program dissolved between the two images.

In the studio, our host gave the usual scholarly greeting that he did at the start of every program. While we did have the program on in the control room, we kept the volume low so that it would not interfere with our work. I never listened to the program other to make sure that there was audio being recorded.

“Standby to show tag. Tag him.”

I pressed the button to bring in the chyron and the name of our host displayed on the lower third of the screen. “Lose tag.”

I heard the chyron advance as the director pressed a few of the keys. “Standby to take three.” I waited for the verbal-cue, this time not bothering to set up the switcher’s board since it was not necessary for a cut between two shots. “Take three.”

The guest of the program was in a medium shot. “Tag him.” I once again pressed the chyron button and the guest’s name appeared in the lower third of the screen. “Lose tag.”

My director moved back to the center of the room, but this time he took his chair a foot or two behind mine. The busywork was completed. For the next eight minutes, things would be simple. We would do cuts between the host and guest and the director would monitor the audio on the board to my right. Since there were only two people talking on the program, once we set the general levels, there was no additional work to be done. We got by without an engineer to handle the audio board on a regular basis. There would be three segments to the program, each one eight minutes long with two commercial breaks between them.

The program had progressed to its middle segment when both the director and I noticed an odor. Since the program was live, I did not look away from the monitors, but I heard the director shift in his chair.

“Is that smoke?”

I sniffed. A faint smell like burning rubber was in the air. “I smell smoke too.”

The director stood. “There is no one else in the building but us. I better check this out. Wendy, take over.” Those final three words echoed in my brain as I froze in my chair and stared at the three monitors before me in utter shock.

I was now the director of this live television program with no preparation other than the months I had spent as a technical director. I was completely alone in the control room. It was a good thing that the air conditioning was on because I’m sure that I would have broken into a sweat otherwise. Don’t panic, I told myself. You can do this. I took a deep breath and concentrated on the program. When the host asked a question of his guest, I pressed the proper buttons, moved the transition bar, and kept the proper camera on the action. I forgot the voice protocols the first few times, but I recovered my senses within the first few switches on the board and started to give my camera operator and floor manager the cues they needed to do their job on the set. Within a few minutes—that seemed like hours—I began to breathe again. I was directing! And as far as the world outside was concerned, everything looked normal on the air.

There was one problem. At the end of the program segment, I would need to fade to black and then take the commercial reel that was at the back of the control room. The VTR decks were too far away in the room for me to cue up the tapes and punch them in while still working the switcher. I started to go over scenarios as to how I was going to be able to throw to the reel, but nothing came to me. I continued to direct the television program, not knowing what I was going to do when the time came to end the segment.

One minute to the end of the segment, I gave the one minute cue to the floor manager. The host was flagged with a hand signal and a cue card on the set. I switched to the host’s camera as he began to do his segment wrap up. What was I going to do about the reel? All I did was stare at the monitors and work the switcher. My mind was a blank.

“Commercial reel is cued. On your mark.” It was the voice of the director. I was surprised that he did not take over the program. Instead, he stood by the VTR decks waiting for my command as if he were simply the VTR operator. I had no idea when he had entered the control room or how long he had been standing behind me. I issued the commands to the crew as needed to wrap up the segment, cued the proper moment for the reel to play and then faded the program to black before cutting in the reel. It was over. I had done it! I swiveled in my chair to look at the director, free for the three minutes of the reel before the next segment would begin. In television time, three minutes is close to an eternity.

The director smiled at me. “You did a good job there, Wendy. Maybe next week I’ll have you direct another segment of the show?”

“I’d like that.” My own face had an answering grin. “So what caused the smoke?”

“Oh, someone had left the coffee pot burners on and one of them had caught on fire.” My director grimaced. “We are all alone here at night. It could have burned the building down! I’ll have to talk to maintenance about it tomorrow.” The company coffee pot was just around the corner from the studio, tucked away in a passage between two empty corridors where it was easy to miss.

The commercial break was nearing its end and we needed to get back to putting our live television program on the air. The director took over the program at that point and, to my relief, I was simply the technical director once more.

True to his word, the next week I was allowed to direct a full segment of the political show, but under the director’s supervision. The week after that, the director of the fun entertainment show stopped me in the hall. “Why don’t we have you come and direct a segment on my show next week?” I was stunned. I remembered all the times when I was either turned down to crew or only offered a simple position on the set. I tried not to stammer as I accepted the opportunity, but I suppose that I must have looked rather foolish because the director just grinned at me. The following week I directed the entertainment program, again under the supervision of an experienced director. I was the envy of the rest of the interns.

I did not consider myself a director at that point. I was merely an intern gaining my degree in Radio/Television/Film and still had plenty to learn. Eventually, the cable station would hire me and this would become my first paid job in the industry. I was hired as a commercial insertion editor—not as a director, however. That title would come to me years later through much hard work and patience.

It is funny how this event has stuck in my mind the way that it has, over the hundreds of other directing gigs that I performed over the next two decades. I was the director of the talk show for around six minutes, but in my memory, it seems like hours. It must be true that you don’t forget your first time. I will never forget my baptism by fire into the career of directing live television.


“Baptism by Fire” first published in the literary magazine “Shadows Express” during the Winter of 2012. It was the first short story that I had published and is a true story.

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