The Inherent Indignity of Flying

I guess I should subtitle this as my politically incorrect musings on the trials of modern air travel. In my part time job working for an accreditation agency I fly frequently. In years when I manage one survey per month that’s twelve trips. There and back means I’m in the air 24 times. Since you can’t get many places directly from RDU, most of my trips involve a layover. Add in ski trips and cruises and I guess it’s safe to say I’m in the air over 40 times a year. So, I know whereof I speak.

I tend to avoid United. I’ve got nothing against them other than they seem to have purchased their fleet from a third world country.

And I never really liked Southwest’s festival seating. If I buy a ticket, that should be the end of it. You have to call early to get a good number. They entice you to pay $15 extra so you can call in 36 hours before the flight rather than 24. So, I did. I still got a C number. C stands for crappy seat; probably between two wrestlers with 3 ft wide shoulders. But for another $35 they can guarantee an A placement. How is this different than simple bribery?

American Airlines is annoying for several reasons. Any airmiles I’ve earned during the year they decide to ditch at the end of the year. Or I can “redeem” them for magazines no one wants. Golf Digest? Cigars? Really? And can you believe there is actually a magazine for pipe smokers? The other issue is their handling of irregular situations. I was trying to get home from Tucson last spring. There was an ice storm in Chicago that cascaded to bring the entire nation to a standstill. I arrived at the airport about 9 am, the requisite 2 hours before my flight. Check in was a nightmare. I was having back problems at that time and couldn’t stand more than a few minutes. I ended up sitting down in the line. Eventually I saw a wheelchair person walking by and flagged them down. Me and my wheelchair lady then waited in line for another hour. Then we had to get through security. Once past security my flight kept getting pushed further and further back. I admire the counter personnel for not fighting back at the people who were shouting at them, but they did keep us in the dark about what was going on. We apparently were in a satellite terminal and couldn’t leave. By early evening the terminal ran out of food. A hundred stranded, frustrated people were getting hungry. I feared it would get ugly. By ten that night they said they had booked me on a midnight flight to Dallas. At least that was part of the way home. I landed in Dallas about 2 am. The airlines then said they had a 7 am flight to RDU. I figured I could get about 4 hours of sleep if I went to a hotel. Plus, I’d only had one meal that day (a cheese quesadilla with no cheese because they ran out of cheese, but not quesadilla). I grabbed an airport hotel (with no food other than a vending machine). I think I ended up getting about 3 hours of sleep. Back at the airport the next morning and my flight was delayed. And delayed. I finally got home about 6 pm. I tried to get some compensation from American. I had been a hungry, sleep deprived guest of theirs for 33 hours. They refused to pay for my cheeseless quesadilla. They said I should have used a meal voucher from the American counter. I explained that the American counter didn’t have any vouchers. No. I should have used the meal voucher available at the American counter. Well, how about the hotel bill? They would pay part of it. They would short me about $40 because it was over the amount they allowed. I got really steamed over this. It was not a luxury hotel and was right by the airport. In fact, the morning of my flight I rode in the shuttle with three American employees who’d spent the night in the same hotel. Am I not as good as their employees? I never could escalate my claim past “Jason” whom I could tell from his stuttering answers was a pimply faced kid. I finally filed a written grievance, but it was denied. So, I don’t fly American.

I like Delta. I fly them a lot and have a lot of skymiles. I even have silver elite status. That means I get to walk on the right side of the post when boarding the plane rather than the left side with the unwashed masses. I have actually been bumped up to first class a few times.

Getting to the gate has been problematic in the past year. As mentioned earlier, I have been experiencing back issues that make walking long distances painful. The airports mostly have wheelchair service to help with that. But you have to request it when you check in online. If you show up at the airport looking for a chair, you’re gonna wait.

On many trips I use a rental car. I still haven’t worked out getting my luggage and me from the car rental place to the airport painlessly. Sometimes there’s a shuttle. That usually works. But some smaller airports require you to walk (with your luggage) from the rental place to the airport. In some airports (I’m thinking of one in Rhode Island) that could be a long haul.

I like riding the wheelchair. You get some special treatment, such as being allowed to break line. The pushers are all very nice and usually young. And overwhelmingly Arabic. Just this weekend I was pushed in various airports by Ahmed, Abdul and Mohammed. One anomaly was at an airport last year when I was waiting at a counter. The counter attendant asked if I needed help. I said I was waiting for a chair. He said he’d take care of it. After a few minutes on the phone he told me Jimmy was on his way. A few minutes later he said, “Here’s Jimmy, now.” Jimmy came limping up and I’m pretty sure he was on the high side of 70. The way he was limping I wanted to get up and let him ride. But huffing and puffing he got me to the gate. He said he was limping from his recent knee replacement. I felt like a bad person making him push me.

I had an unpleasant experience with wheelchairs last year, I believe it was somewhere out west. I deplaned at the airport late at night. We were at the next to last gate down a long terminal hallway. I asked the gate attendant as I arrived if they had called ahead for the wheelchair since I didn’t see it. She said they had not. I thought that odd since I asked the people at the airport, I was flying from to call ahead for the chair. You’re not supposed to have to do that, but I do from experience. She called for the chair. I sat and waited about half an hour. I asked her to check on it, so she called again. After more waiting I noticed a house phone on the wall. It said it was for emergencies only. I considered this an emergency, so I picked up the phone. It didn’t work. I noticed another one about 50 ft. down the terminal. So, I went to that one. The guy who answered was nice and said he’d send a wheelchair right away. While using that phone I noticed a cache of wheelchairs in the corner. Most of them had the 4 small wheels, but one was a more traditional one with the large wheels so the sitter could push himself. Rather than walk the distance back to the counter, I got in and rode back to the waiting area. The wheels weren’t as large as usual chairs, so I had to really stretch to reach them. But I managed. The counter lady said I wasn’t supposed to use the airport chairs without an attendant. I have to admit I just looked at her and stayed in my chair. And still no attendant to push me. I had been waiting for about an hour now. I reasoned, I got me a chair. Let’s go. So, I put my carry-on in my lap and started pushing myself toward baggage claim. Totally against all airport regs, but the terminal was deserted. I’d have welcomed security personnel wanting to correct me. After a few hundred feet the counter lady caught up to me. She said she was getting off and this part of the terminal was shutting down for the night. She said she couldn’t just leave me, so she pushed me down to baggage claim. She shouldn’t have had to do that. Something went very wrong.

One of the so-called perks of being injured is that you are allowed to get on the planes before the others. If you have flown recently you know that the width of the aisle is now about 16-18 inches. Since I usually have an aisle seat, getting on early allows me to be banged over and over as people come in with their oversized carry-ons and the inevitable backpack. Someone speaks to them and they turn, oblivious of the backpack and it whacks me upside the head. And the average American person is more than 18 inches wide. So, they are squeezing down the aisle, snagging people who are already sitting and dragging us along.

And speaking of squeezing, flight attendants are no longer the Ken and Barbie dolls of yesteryear. They come in all shapes and sizes. I recently flew with one who may want to reconsider her career choice. She was on the plump side. She turned sideways to squeeze down the aisle, but she was as thick as she was wide. She exceeded the 18-inch barrier in all directions. It was a struggle for her coming and going. And on a flight this weekend the attendant had a full beard. I have never liked beards. I think they are creepy. You don’t what might be nesting in there. It was an evening flight and when Duck Dynasty suddenly loomed up out of the dark I nearly jumped out of my skin. I don’t do beards.

Dealing with fellow travelers can be a joy, sometimes. Then there are other times. Like the lady who I swear must have bathed in cheap perfume. I hope I never smell “Charley!” again. And the guy who may have had a bath in the past month, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Or the chatty conservative Christian lady who led to me putting on my headphones and turning up the music mid-sentence. The seat may be saved, but I’m not. And children can be the worst. I question the need to bring a newborn onto a plane. It can be painful to their ears and inevitably causes crying. If grandma just has to see Junior, send her a ticket. I was on a cross country flight with three babies on board. I think they fed off each other, wailing in sychronicity and three-part harmony.

Apparently parenting has gone out of style. Take the case of Little Leo whom I encountered last year. Little Leo and Mommy were sitting behind me. Little Leo was about 4. He started kicking my seat. I could barely feel it, so I didn’t complain. Still Mommy tried to stop him. She explained all about how it was bad manners and yadda yadda. Leo couldn’t care less. He just kept on kicking. And Mommy kept trying to convince him to stop. We hit turbulence so the captain said all tray tables should be up. Leo was having no part of this. Whenever Mommy tried to put up his tray he screamed. And apparently fought. Daddy who was sitting across the aisle told him Mommy doesn’t like it when you pull her hair and then, Mommy doesn’t like it when you hit her. WTF? Don’t they know you can’t reason with a four-year-old? He’s obviously running the show and turning into a little monster. As we stood up to deplane Mommy apologized to me. I just said, “no problem” and left, glad to be free from her constantly redirecting Leo. As I headed up the jetway I heard a sudden blood curdling scream. I looked back and little Leo had thrown himself on the floor at the entrance to the plane having a full-blown old-fashioned tantrum. I feel sorry for little Leo. It’s not his fault. But he will one day have a rude awakening. Maybe people should have to get a license to have a kid. Small children are nothing but id. The Lord of the Flies demonstrated what happens when left to their own devices. Our job is to civilize them. A long time ago in a rom-com with Rob Lowe and Demi Moore (a very long time ago) her best friend was a kindergarten teacher. She said, “My job is to break their spirit.” Pretty strong but not far from the truth.

Bon voyage!

The Accidental Novel

Hey, folks. Good news. For me at least. I now have seven stories that have been accepted for publishing in magazines. One is in this month’s Scarlet Leaf. You can find it online. In the meantime, take a look at this.

The Accidental Novel

            I never meant to write a novel. I never even wanted to write a novel. Novels are long and intricate and take a sustained effort. Much longer than I could ever maintain. Novels are written by smart people or people with something to say. What could I possibly say that would interest someone for 250 to 300 pages?

            Sure, like everyone the thought has flitted through my brain “I should write a book” and just as quickly flitted out again. I had lots of ideas even, but again I thought, how could I sustain them to novel length? It never even occurred to me that I could write a short story. I don’t know why. I enjoy reading short stories. It should have been obvious to me. But there are many things that should have been obvious to which I was oblivious. But that’s for another time and another story.

            It all began with my love of ballroom dancing. I’ve been dancing for nearly 40 years. I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I dabble as a hobby rather than make it a focus. To become really good, I would have to work at it. Then it wouldn’t be fun anymore. I want to keep it fun. An outgrowth of this is my enjoyment of Dancing With The Stars. I don’t really watch much TV. I don’t have a favorite show or anything like that. If I turn on the TV, it’s usually to watch a movie. But I make a point to watch every episode of DWTS. It’s frequently campy and awful, but always entertaining. Since I have a decent knowledge of ballroom dancing and definite opinions about DWTS, about five years ago, maybe more, I started writing a little critique of each show. These were very tongue in cheek, little about the actual dancing but more my opinions on the format, the performers, anything that came to mind that was related. If you want an example of what I wrote, check it under DWTS on the blog.

            I sent out these reviews by email to friends who also watched the show and would understand. People seemed to enjoy them. I got favorable comments. One lady said she had to stop reading my posts at the library because it made her laugh out loud. She was also the one who kept telling me I should start a blog. I kept telling her I had no interest in a blog.

            Short stories weren’t totally foreign to me. I wrote a few in high school as English assignments. In college I took a creative writing class for which I had to write a 5 page plus story. I was not quite satisfied with my result, but the teacher thought it was excellent. I got an A. That story has since been lost in the sands of time. But about three years ago I had a dream. The protagonist of my college story came to me and complained that I had gotten his story wrong. He proceeded to tell me the correct story. I woke up and was amazed at the detail of the dream. I got up in the middle of the night and wrote down everything he told me. That became the story “It Went Down Like This.” It’s on my blog. I’ve shown it to “People Who Know These Things” and gotten favorable comments such as “breezy” and “delightful”. You know, nice things. It became for several years a little noticed file in my computer.

            My father had died shortly before that. As I cleared out his house, I went through all his souvenirs and mementos. Many were meaningless to me, so I threw them out. But I also got a chance to review his photo albums again. The pictures brought back such nice memories. It was a very life affirming experience. I also found a bundle of letters to him from Mom when he was in the Army. There were about twenty letters covering his first three months in service. I don’t know why he saved these and no others. I was unsure if I should read them. On the one hand, they were private correspondence. But on the other, both were dead, so I didn’t feel like I was violating privacy. I’m glad I read them. I got a glimpse of my parents as two young people in love. The letters were endearing, sometimes annoying, a few times even heart breaking.

            My folks had told stories as I was growing up about their courtship. I had lots of family all around who kept the family history alive. Those people are now gone or scattered. I hated to think of such a nice love story being forgotten. So, I wrote “A Love Story”, also on my blog, using the oral traditions and the letters. I meant to send it to family members on Facebook. As usually happens when I get on Facebook, things when awry. I accidentally posted the story to everyone I know. I got lots of feedback on what a “lovely story” it was. I was encouraged to write more. A friend said I should send stories like that to magazines. The thought had never crossed my mind. But I was intrigued. Write short stories? Maybe it was a possibility. I did have a few ideas. But what do I know about writing? Would I be any good?

            Well, sixty stories later I still don’t know if I’m any good, but I’m having a great time. And that’s the point. I don’t care if I’m the next Ernest Hemingway or Stephen King. I write stories for my own pleasure. Since I’m not trying to support myself by writing it’s not a problem. I’ll do it as long as it’s fun.

            One of my early stories was “Best Summer Ever”. It was a kind of coming of age, teenage summer love story. It was from an idea I had as a teenager spending frequent weekends at Atlantic Beach, NC. That’s where the story is set. It’s just the latest iteration of an old trope. I didn’t explore any new ground or new ways of looking at it. I just wanted to add my version. I am happy with the story and it’s on my blog, I think.

            I have a good friend who reads my stories and helps with editing. She has made me follow the rules of paragraphs, hyphens and Oxford commas. I also value her opinions of my work. In discussing the story one day, she offered that she wondered about the background of the female protagonist of “Best Summer Ever”. I reviewed what little background I put in the story. She said she just wondered if there were more. I said that I could write a story about her, but that would require me to channel a 15-year-old girl and I didn’t think I could do that. She replied that I probably couldn’t. Well, that sounded like a challenge. So, I wrote a prequel to BSE. I named it “A Pretty Girl”. The two stories fit together well, and it gave me the idea of coming back and revisiting favorite characters. That led to the two Duchessa stories and the two Escape stories.

            I had left BSE with the comment that the next school year was going to be interesting. Re-reading the story one day I wondered what was going to happen next. Some of my stories I consciously create, building on a template of what I want it to be. Other stories, the ones I enjoy most, are from my subconscious. I tap into it and it pours out on the page, often surprising me. This was to be one of those times. I pulled up a blank page, wrote that Robbie was entering the school and then I opened up and let go. As promised, “Gordo” was a wild ride. Suddenly I had a trilogy. Now I had two stories from the male viewpoint and one from the female. I felt like the ladies should have equal say and “Gordo” only covered half the school year, so I finished out the school year with “Heroes” from the female viewpoint.

            My editing friend said I may have a YA novel on my hands. I reminded her that four short stories are not a novel and I had no desire to write a novel. I intended to leave it at that.

            My touch of OCD kicked in as I realized I had an outcome left hanging in the previous stories. Robbie’s relationship with his brother was not worked out. I wrote a story to reconcile them. As I neared the end of the story, I found that Robbie was not ready to forgive his brother and I couldn’t force it and be true to the story I was writing. The story became “Unforgiven”. I continued trying with another story which became “Finding Forgiveness” and the brothers found a way to co-exist.

            My friend then asked me what’s the deal with Kylie? He’s just background setting, like a lifeless prop. Does he have a story? So that led to “Survivor”. Then I wrote about Robbie finding the girl who would be the love of his life in the midst of a school shooting. That became “Love Among the Ruins”. By this time, I was eight stories in with this group of kids. I had to admit that my friend was right. It was looking like a YA novel.

            So, I kept going. There was “Requiem” as the group held a memorial service for one of their number who committed suicide. Then “Wedding Bells” as a couple got married. Then I backed up and wrote “Senior Year” to fill in a gap. Then there was “Act of Mercy”, the first few pages of which are autobiographical. Then “Kylie and the Spooks” and would it up with “This Perfect Moment” in which 32-year-old Robbie looks back over the past sixteen years and assesses how good his life has been. Looking over it I realized I had left out one important story. It was the hardest to write but I pushed through. It was the story of a character’s suicide. I wrote it first person present tense, so I was inside his head. As I mentioned, it was difficult. I call it “Fade to Black”.

            So now I have sixteen chapters and nearly 100,000 words. Yep, it’s a novel. I’ve entitled it “I Guess It’s Called Growing Up”. That is a comment someone makes in the last chapter. When it poured out on the page I immediately knew it as the title of the book. I’ve shown it to “People Who Know These Things” and gotten favorable reviews and urges to send it to publishers. I’m still editing it, but maybe one day it will find a home with a publisher. It would be cool to have a book, but that’s the last one. I have no intention of writing another novel.

Remember Me?

After a long hiatus I am back. Remember me? No new stories for you yet. I’ve got a few put back for a rainy day, but I’m not ready to bring them out yet. I’ve mostly been working on editing my novel. I just revised an entire chapter going in another direction. Now I have to go through and find places where the events of that chapter were remembered and fix them.

I’m also a fair-weather writer. When in don’t feel well I just cannot write. I’m now in the midst of a chemical peel of my entire face. It either hurts, aches, itches or stings all the time. I began on January 2 under order from my dermatologist. This week has been the worst. I thought about posting a picture but decided against it. Just think zombie movie. That’s why this post is going to be short. I can’t keep focused when all I want to do is rip off my face.

Good news. A magazine accepted four submissions (I withdrew one for personal reasons). They wanted them for different issues. The anniversary issue is out today. You can see it at  www.scarletleafreview.com. I’m the second story after the opening interview with a poet. Just after the story about stray cats.

I’m going to go now. And try not to rip off my face. Until next time.

DWTS 3

Oh, good grief. Already with the gimmicks. Movie Night. Then there’ll be Latin night (hello, Latin is half of ballroom dancing). And Disney Night, which is just movie night all over again. I mean what else could they do; put a big dress on someone and say she’s Space Mountain? And the ever popular My Most Miserable Memory Night. At least with the fall season we’ll get Halloween. My guess is October 28. And who doesn’t love a Halloween party where the costume budget is unlimited?

Last night could have subbed for Latin Night. Only one non-Latin number: Quickstep. And what’s with all the rumbas? 40% of the dances were rumba. Okay, so let’s take the rumbas in order best to worst.

Ally and Sasha. Total redemption from last week for Sasha. He was working that rumba. But so was Ally. Only one performance separated it from Hannah, and way to smack her in the face and throw down the gauntlet. So much light and dark and shading. It actually had texture. She so rocked it. But what’s with Len’s “Don’t touch me”? Who made him God?

JVDB and Emma. This is the point in the competition I wait for. When the male celebrities actually start leading. You could see it all over that dance. He was so strong and pulled out real moves instead of all the acrobatics. One great rondé. Maybe he should have done the splits instead of Emma.

Hannah and Alan. Yesterday’s news. Ho hum. It was fairly hot, but not really rumba. All she did was spin and split. Over and over. Alan knows better than that. I did have to laugh at his sexy cop thing. Had to be the unsexiest cop ever.

Kel and Witney. He’s got those second position breaks down. Did them three times. Loved the confused look when he couldn’t find her leg for the assisted developé. Carrie Ann called it tight. That was a good word for it. And how come Witney wasn’t wearing the blue pendant from the movie? I mean it was Movie Night.

It’s hard to call a winner for the night. No one gave me chill bumps. Kate and Pasha did a very nice QS. Much better than we usually get this early. But her costume made her look fat. Reminded me of Hazel, that maid from the 60s. And those white legs. Did she miss her spray tan session? The glare was blinding.

Sailor and Val. Who’s the producer who doesn’t know what a tango is? This is two weeks in a row with the wild tangos. Way too much smiling going on. It didn’t sound tango; it didn’t look tango. Val grounded it and slowed it down, but it was fighting the music.  And the practice session. What is it with guys who wear hoodies with the hood up while dancing? He looked like some mad dancing monk.

Lauren and Gleb. Interesting how she so easily walked into the character of a hooker. But then she was dallying with about 20 men on national TV. Just sayin’. A whole lotta scrambling going on. She seemed surprised by some of Gleb’s moves. It’s been done before and much, much better. Look here to see how it is done. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHPY0oRfYzM

And it went downhill from there.  

I like Karamo and I hope he’s around for a while. He’s a hoot. But, what the hey, dude? The song title was prophetic. Except instead of still standing it should have been “I’m just standing”. That’s all he was doing much of the time. Jenna was jiving for all she was worth, and he just stood there. Even when he did dance it was so slow. Instead of fun it was more like walking my grandma around the mall. Two shuffles was all we got in the way of synchronized kicks so as far as I’m concerned it wasn’t a proper jive.

The night’s two cha chas were bad and badder. Hard to pick. I guess I have to go with Lamar for possibly worst cha cha ever. And I’m even including Master P, Billy Ray Cyrus Buzz Aldrin and Tom DeLay. Those are the big guns of badness to go up against and he held his ground. There were two actual cha cha moves and both vied for worst ever. After his outing as the Jolly Green Giant last week and this misbegotten mess he really needs to go. The show had the perfect opportunity for a double elimination last night. Losing him and Ray in one night would be a blessing. And as for the song, that also has been done before and much better by Jake Pavelka. See it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onmqBp0hZ_o

Let’s see Lamar shake it like that. I miss Miss Chelsea, as her rodeo celebrity called her. His great line was “I just do what Miss Chelsea tells me.”

And Sean, Sean, Sean (slapping him lightly on the cheek). What can I say? It was good until he started dancing. In actuality it was an order of magnitude better than Lamar, but still several orders of magnitude away from being presentable in public. At least he’s a good sport about it. Give him a few drinks to loosen him up. I hear he’s a real party boy.

The entire night can be summed up in my favorite police line.

“Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.”

DWTS

For a few years I have posted a tongue in cheek review of each week’s DWTS during the season. With a background of 40 years of teaching and dancing ballroom I know a little bit of what I speak. But I don’t really get into the technicalities. My posts are usually scurrilous, frequently profane and always catty. I’m a curmudgeonly old man and I call it like I see it. It’s my blog so I can say what I want. Some find it amusing; some wish I’d go away. I’m going to post my thoughts here on the blog. Aside from this one, it won’t take the place of my weekly short story (unless I run out). I’ll just put a menu tab for DWTS.

Dancing With the Stars: Preview

As predictable as a plague of locusts it’s that time of year again. Dancing With The Stars is upon us. Wow. A new season and hardly a star in sight. Used to be they had a few stars but seems it has now devolved into people few have ever heard of, has beens, and people who are known for being known, not anything they may have done. I call it Mysterious Notoriety. An example is Paris Hilton. Or the Kardashians. Why are these people famous? And this year is no exception. They are offering a gallywhumpus of misbegotten misfits and pusillanimous personae. Sadly, the definition of ‘star’ seems to have gone downhill. I always think of the classic definition- movie stars, stage stars, TV stars and music stars. These are few and far between in this crowd. One comic once commented that Dancing with the Stars would be more accurate if called Dancing with the Vaguely Familiar. So true. 

I have been tempted to boycott this season after last year’s debacle. It was won by a talentless radio personality from Arkansas. He couldn’t dance a bit but apparently everyone in Arkansas voted for him. I hate when block voting lifts the talentless over better qualified dancers. I keep reminding myself that, regardless of what Len says, it’s not a dance competition, it’s a popularity contest. Thus we end up with anomalies like Bobby Bones or that stumblebum baseball player the year before. When you leave voting in the hands of the public you sometimes get unpleasant results (like Trump). Occasionally there is a break out dancer who just wows everyone and runs away with it. Nyle DiMarco comes to mind. But then, I thought that was happening for Juan Pablo last season. He was killing it until suddenly bumped for some unfathomable reason. Even the judges were pissed.

I’m also annoyed at the departure of Sharna Burgess and Artem (I’m not even going to try his last name). I can understand Sharna. She’s getting older and she has her mirror ball now. Artem said he wanted to come back but was dropped. Why? He was a wonderful dancer and partner. He was a great example of masculinity married to grace. He was one of my favorites.

Over the years DWTS seemed to pull in their celebrities (a better and more accurate word than stars) based on categories.  Archetypes even. Such as:

Divas/Icons. These have tended to be bona fide stars. People like Patti Labelle, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Florence Henderson, Cloris Leachman, George Hamilton, Donny Osmond, Marie Osmond, Valerie Harper, Billy Dee Williams. People we have actually heard of and consider stars. This year we have Mary Wilson. She was a Supreme. And not one of the nine who sit in Washington. She stood behind Diana Ross and said doo wa. Still I consider her the only true star on this year’s show. Maybe Kate Flannery.  I’ve never seen The Office. It seems like a lower tier TV show, but what do I know?

NFLers. Emmett Smith, Jerry Rice, Jason Taylor, Warren Sapp. The show always has a few football players. They usually do well. All that stepping inside tires at practice makes them nimble and quick on their feet. Ray Lewis gets the nod this year and an honorable mention for Lamar Odom since he’s basketball. Bballers have not been successful on the show. Too tall.

Boy Band Refugees. Aaron Carter, Nick Carter, Mario Lopez, Joey Fatone, Joey Lawrence, Lance Bass, Drew Lashay, Nick Lashay. It seems all the Backstreet Boys and InSync have been on the show at one time or another. They seem to have cleared out all the boy bands. What about Boyzone and Menudo? Now they have moved on to girl bands – Pussycat Dolls and Fifth Harmony. Nicole Schwerzinger won it running away along with Derek Hough. He could probably win with a potato sack as a partner though. I mean he even got Big Girl from Glee across the finish line. He strangely couldn’t do much with L’il Kim, though. Fifth Harmony’s steatopygian Normani did respectably on the last outing. Ally Brooke will now try. BTW I only recently noticed that Camila Caballo ( of the recently wildly popular “Havana-na-na”) was with Fifth Harmony at one time.

People Seeking Redemption. Paula Deen (no), Kate Gosselin (definitely no), the Kardashians (Kim, nope; Robbie, yes), Li’l Kim (no), Jerry Springer (surprisingly, yes), Ryan Lockte (kinda). This is definitely the place for Sean Spicer. I don’t know who came up with him, but it was actually pretty savvy. People will watch just to see what he does. I have to give him credit for fleeing the Trump madness. I’m predisposed to like him just for that. He seems to be be pretty funny when he’s had a drink or three. Maybe they can let him have a few in the Celebrequarium and he can entertain us with his sparkling repartee. Maybe Sarah Huckabee Sanders next season. She’ll have to learn to wear a dress like a lady and stop fidgeting with her bra strap.

Embarrassments, WTF or Why?. Tom Delay, Steve Wozniak, Redfoo, Macy Gray, David Hassellhoff, Michael Waltrip, Rick Perry, Charo, Kareem Abdul Jabar. This sometimes is a catchall category. Since DWTS has cleared the celebrity B listers and C listers, they are really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Remember the bull rider? Or the rodeo guy who kept calling his partner Miss Whitney. So many times after scratching my head and saying “who?”, my next question is “why?”  There are a few this year. Hannah Brown has two claims to ‘fame’. She was on the Bachelorette aka “I can’t find me a man so I need to troll the whole damn country” and was Miss Alabama. Since her state seems to be winning the race with West Virginia to see which can be the most backward state, I wouldn’t brag about it. And Queer Eye guy Karamo. Is he the token homosexual? They’ve taken to being a little more inclusive recently. They also had that Carson guy from Queer Eye and Lance Bass. They even had Chaz Bono to represent transsexuals. I’d like to see them run a transsexual who hasn’t had their parts altered. I mean who DOESN’T want to see RuPaul on DWTS? They had a drag queen on DWTS Australia this year. Christie Brinkley? Okay, everybody knows her so the name recognition is good. She’s rich as God, but all I can tell that she has done is have her picture taken and marry and divorce Billy Joel. But she has also lasted nearly 50 years in the business without saying or doing something so unutterably stupid that the whole world hates her. Not so easy these days. Maybe she’s just really a nice person. Still doesn’t answer why she’s on the show. However, models have rarely done well on the show. Except for the brainless Brooke Burke. They tend to be stiff for whatever reason.

Career Reboot. All the Backstreet Boys, Mario Lopez, Ralph Macchio, Frankie Munez, Vanilla Ice. The bills gotta be paid, you know. This is where I put James van der Beek. The Dawson’s Creek and BH90210 kids have not done well. One died recently, one has been reduced to playing a dad on Riverdale, several have been in and out of rehab. I checked James VDB’s work and found he recently worked on Vampirina. Nuff said. Kel Mitchell may be a ringer. He’s listed as a comedian but has done some TV and movie stuff. In 2011 he was in “Dance Fu”, a kung fu/dance movie. So he’s had some dance experience. Most recently idb says he’s in Spongebob Squarepants. I guess it’s a voice part. The only live action I’ve seen is Spongebob on Ice. Not sure I’d put either on my resume.  And Lauren Alaina is listed as a country music star. Well, kinda. She was a runner up on American Idol. But maybe being runner up means she’s good. Like Clay Aiken. I mean, who remembers the guy who beat him? Although another Idol winner took DWTS by storm – NC’s own Kelly Pickler. But she charmed her way to the mirror ball, plus she was a good dancer.

Creepy. Gary Busey wins this category hands down but I think Macy Gray gave him a good chase. Still, Rick Perry’s bromance with Vanilla Ice was the stuff nightmares are made of. As creepy as Bing Crosby singing a Christmas carol with David Bowie.

Kids. Bindi Irwin, Zendaya, Bristol Palin, Milo Manheim, Duck Dynasty swamp girl. Kids usually do well, except NC’s Hayes Grier from a few seasons back. They’re kinda hard to break.

Handicapped People. Linda McCartney (one leg), Marlee Matlin (deaf), Noah Galloway (one leg, one arm), J.R. Martinez (deformed face), Amy Purdy (no feet), Nyle DiMarco (deaf), Danelle (blind), Terra Jole, the midget lady (Poor Sasha was saddled with her. When he first met her the look on his face was priceless. It totally said “OMFG what am I supposed to do with this?)

Olympians. Kristi Yamaguchi, Apolo Ohno, Dorothy Hamill, Charlie White, Meryl Davis, Evan Lysacek (I sense a theme here), Shawn Johnson. Athletes also do well. We call it Dance Sport for a reason.

People We Love Just Because. Jane Seymour, Dawn Welles (Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island), Bill Engvall, Tommy Chong, Danica McKellar (Winnie on Wonder Years), Niecy Nash (and all her jiggly parts), Susan Lucci, Pamela Sue Anderson. Not any lovable scamps on the new season.

People We Love To Hate Just Because. Nancy Grace, Jerry Springer, Kate Gosselin, Tamar Braxton, Pamela Sue Anderson. Sean Spicer might also fit this category for some.

Singers Who Surprisingly Have No Sense Of Rhythm. Billy Ray Cyrus, Michael Bolton, Master P, Wayne Newton.  I have to say I was so surprised.

Heroes. Buzz Aldrin (the man couldn’t dance a lick but he made 11 year old me want to be an astronaut), Noah Galloway, Alek Skarlatos, J.R. Martinez. Everybody loves a hero. I wish we had one to like this season.

People With Funny Accents. Helio Castroneves, Gilles Marini, Victor Espinoza, Cristian de la Fuente, Kelly Pickler, Bindi Irwin.

(Scary factoid: I pulled nearly all the above from off the top of my head. I did need to look up a few last names. I seem to have an alarming amount of my limited brain space devoted to this).

So there you have it. This year’s miscellany of miscreants. Off the top of my head without seeing anything about the contestants I’d say Mary Wilson won’t last long. She’s 75 years old. Ally Brooke, Ray Lewis and Kel Mitchell are my bets to do well. We’ll see. It starts up next week. Get the popcorn ready.

A Love Story

            Growing up I frequently heard my parents speak of meeting when they were young but I never knew much else. I usually ignored what I considered “mushy stuff” when I was a kid. During the last few months of his life I had the good fortune of spending a lot of time with my Dad. He told me about their meeting and courtship. It was always his favorite subject. Putting it together with what Mom told me and other sources I feel I have a good feeling for how it went. It was such a neat story I wanted to record it.

            As a sad sort of coda, after Dad died I found a bundle of letters that Mom wrote to him during the first few months of basic training. I don’t know why these letters survived and none others. At first, I didn’t know what to do with them. Should I read them? They were private correspondence. I finally decided that since they were both deceased, it was okay to read them. I’m glad I did. I got a picture of my parents that I never saw. They were starry-eyed kids, so much in love. They never lost their love, but it settled down with time. But the letters spoke of the bright kind of love between a man and woman just a few months married, both still thrilled with each other and cruelly torn apart. And there were some passages that made me blush. I even found a discussion of possible names for “junior” if there ever was one. I also found bits of family gossip that I never knew. It was definitely interesting reading.

            But now, the main event. The Courtship of Mary and Alton.

A Love Story

In late 1952, eighteen-year-old high school senior Mary Reid wanted to have a Christmas party. Problem was all the Saturday nights in December before Christmas were already scheduled. So, she decided to have the party after Christmas, on December 27. Her friends told her she was crazy to schedule a party then. So close to Christmas everyone would be doing family things. But Mary was stubborn. She stuck with her plan. Saturday evening came and a few friends stopped in. Then a few more showed up. Then more and more. Soon the house was filled with people. A friend told Mary he was so glad she decided to have a party because he was sick of family gatherings.

Later in the evening, Mary’s frenemy, Edith, showed up with her new boyfriend, 22-year-old Alton Bass. The six-foot tall, handsome blond-haired blue-eyed farm boy caught every girl’s eye. He was quite a catch. He said later that he felt an instant connection with the party hostess. Within a few days Alton had broken up with Edith and paid a call on Mary. She was thrilled to be asked out by such a handsome boy, with a car, and making Edith mad was a bonus. Soon Alton had a date with Mary every weekend. He also came by frequently in the evenings after his farm chores were done. He would play cards and board games with Mary’s brothers while she finished her schoolwork. Father Reid said no courting until that was done. Alton had no brothers but three of Mary’s five brothers lived at home. They readily adopted Alton and made him part of the family.

Winter turned to spring and in June, Mary graduated from high school. She wasn’t ready to settle down and wanted to try life in a big city. She moved to the state capital, Raleigh, an hour away, found a job and boarding house and settled in. Alton was not happy about this. He was in love with petite blonde Mary. He continued seeing her. He would drive the hour to the city twice every weekend. He said he became very familiar with all the back roads. He ran off the road more than once while falling asleep at the wheel in the wee hours of the morning. He said his car only had two speeds – high and fly. He never got caught by the police, although he outran a patrol car one night.

This wasn’t working out. He was crazy about the girl so Alton asked Mary to marry him. She readily accepted. Since they had met in December they decided on a December wedding. They were married December 18, 1953 and settled down to farm life. They were in love and everything was idyllic. Then Uncle Sam called. Alton was notified in March, just three months wed, that he was needed for the peacekeeping in Korea. The country had been partitioned in the ceasefire just a month before Mary and Alton were married. No one knew if the peace would last.

Mary was frantic. Mother Mollie and father Lloyd Bass were also concerned for their son’s safety and the fact that he was their only son, and was their sole support as the one who worked the farm. The officials they spoke with assured them that Alton would be dismissed from service for “hardship” on his family. The paperwork was applied and the hearing came. A county official had to make the decision. This was a woman who for some reason did not like Mollie Bass. I have never heard my grandmother speak ill of another person except this woman. Mollie said “she dressed and acted like a man and was so ugly no man would have her.” The woman said Alton should not shirk his duty and refused to dismiss him. He entered the Army on May 18, 1954. Mary went to live with Alton’s family. She said in her letters that she cried herself to sleep every night.

Alton eventually was relieved of serving in the former combat area because he was the sole support of a farm family. By the fall, he was stationed in Japan. I have copies of some of the pictures he and Mary exchanged during the long separation. I have a picture of him lying beside a pool referring to himself as a “bathing beauty”. Another shows Mary in her Easter outfit with a note “The wind nearly took me away.”

Mary decided she did not like living on the Bass farm. She wanted to go to work. She moved back to Raleigh, got her old job back and moved into an apartment with a friend. I have a picture cut from the newspaper that shows her as the “girl flashing the big smile” as she is mailing drivers license renewal forms from the Department of Motor Vehicles in 1955.

In February 1956 Alton was told his enlistment was coming to an end. The Sergeant encouraged him to apply to Officer’s Training School and become career military. He said “I just want to go home and see my wife.”

The night before his ship left Japan Alton’s friends took him to a local tavern to celebrate. Some Navy men came in and as nearly always happened when Army and Navy mixed, a brawl broke out. Alton’s friends told him that if the MPs got him he’d be in the brig and miss his ship. They drug him to a back room and literally threw him out the window. He made his ship and spent 2 weeks sailing across the Pacific. I have pictures he took as they passed under the Golden Gate Bridge with all the soldiers waving their hats in the air and cheering. They had three days in San Francisco until air transport was available. Alton and two friends went to a café. Their waitress was blonde, pretty and flirty. She eventually became a bit suspicious of the three young men staring at her. When she cautiously approached their table one of Alton’s friends said, “Excuse us, ma’am, but you’re the first white woman we’ve seen in two years.” She smiled and turned on the charm. She got a big tip.

The soldiers’ air transport first landed in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was 20 degrees below zero and the men only had their tropical uniforms on as they had to hustle across the runway. Alton said the hangar seemed miles away.

Plane and bus and eventually in early March Alton stepped off the bus in Raleigh, NC. Mary was waiting and a mess with tears and makeup streaming down her face. She wrapped herself around him and said “Don’t you ever leave me again.” He promised and kept the promise for over 50 years. They went home and nine months later I was born.  

50th Anniversary

Mary Bass died in 2007. Alton mourned her every day until he passed away in 2016. His love for her was legendary in the community.

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

This is perhaps my most controversial story. Religion seems to always go that way. As a child I was brought up in a Baptist church and have a good knowledge of the New Testament. Re-reading the gospels and Acts as an adult I feel there is a story between the lines that we have not recognized. That gave me the idea for this story. A gospel is defined as “good news”. I have given that name to the story because it is a letter from Mary of Magdala, known in the New Testament as Mary Magdalene, to her friend Martha of Bethany containing good news. There is a non-Canonical book named the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. That one contains trappings of gnostic knowledge and animated crosses hopping about. Don’t confuse the two.

As an avid student of history, I am well versed in the time period. Nothing in the story conflicts with known historical events. If any of the characters existed (there is no proof), we have no knowledge of their actions outside of admittedly conflicting Biblical texts. Was there even an historical Jesus of Nazareth? The verdict is still out. What happened to Mary Magdalene after her Biblical scenes is unknown. There is no record of a Simon Peter. Urban legend is that he died in Rome or Jerusalem, that he was beheaded or crucified (sometimes upside down), and it occurred somewhere within a twenty year span.

I’ve always felt that Simon Peter was a bit of a con man and went with it for the story. There were rifts among the Disciples. Philip complained of Jesus’ preference for Mary Magdalene. There was ongoing animosity for Judas. Non-Canonical books reference Judas being a boyhood friend of Jesus. James, the brother of Jesus expected to be the next leader of the Jerusalem church but was immediately shoved aside by Simon Peter. The Disciples also complained of Jesus’ preference for the company of his “Beloved” which some assume to be John.

The back story of John in this work of fiction comes from an unusual comment in Mark 14:51-52. It is open to several interpretations, some of them not so savory. The Gospel according to Mark purports to be an eye-witness account. However, it says that Jesus went alone into the garden and all the Disciples fell asleep. Since Jesus was never allowed to speak to his Disciples after his arrest, how do we have the story of what Jesus did while alone? And why were they in the park in the middle of the night, anyway?

For the ease of readers I have opted to use the modern translations of characters’ names, except Jesus. His name is so heavily imbued with traditions that I have opted to use the older version – Yeshua.  

Crucifixion plays a role in this story. I have read in-depth about the process and watched a number of long, frequently graphic, documentaries to make sure I understand the process. It is a particularly gruesome death.

For anyone not familiar with the Caesars, this is set during the reign of Claudius. He was the sane emperor between Caligula and Nero, two of the most infamous of Roman emperors.

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

“In the VII year of Emperor Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (48 CE)

“Mary of Magdala, now in Rome unto Martha, wife of Eleazor, High Priest of Bethany in Judaea.

Peace be unto you from God our Father, my sister in the love of our Master.

Your son and I are well and have received your letter. We were saddened to hear of the loss of your brother Lazarus and sister Mary in the fever. John was nearly inconsolable, he so adored his uncle. I held him and stroked his brow as he wept like a babe. I was glad to be able to help him. He has grown into such a fine man and taken such care of all of us.”

Poor John. One more cruel blow in a life filled with such miseries. I may be impious to think this, but our Lord has burdened him more than is just. So many disappointments for one so young. We have all failed him.

“We are settled in apartments in the imperial city. I have made contacts with a local group of messianic Jews. I did not give them our true names, not knowing what Simon may have said of me. They know us as the widow Johanna and her son John. It was surprisingly easy to gain their trust once they recognized I was from Judaea. They all asked if I had met the Master and I felt it prudent to disillusion them of that. Then I began to put our plan into action.”

Yes, our Plan. Like a grain of sand in an oyster it has been burrowed in my soul for near ten years now. It was such a relief to finally get to the final act. My pearl. We are all so different from that awful time, now fifteen years gone. Confusion, terror, loss and so much misery. I’m not sure how we all pulled through.

            I look across the room at John poring over a scroll. Yes, he has grown into a fine man, but it is a façade. His smooth face hides a dark, tormented heart that may never find release. I still remember him that day standing with us in the open field watching our lives be torn apart. He had his arms around Mary whom we all called Mother, holding her as if she were the child, though not yet bearded himself. She was broken and bowed as she watched her eldest child die the cruelest death the Romans could devise. John held her steadfast but his face was a mask of grief. Tears ran down his face and hoarse sobs were wrenched from his throat. I wanted to soothe him, make it somehow better but I was grieving my own losses. My Master dying, our dreams shattered and my beloved missing. 

            Simon was the one who brought the news to us. Judas, my beloved, the man I had loved these past two years, whom I had agreed to marry, had betrayed us and sold our Master to be executed. He had then taken his own life. How could this happen? How could I have not seen this? How could I have shared his life and bed, whispers in the dark, stolen kisses and not known the serpent that lay coiled about his heart? To lose my love and then find he was untrue. I was doubly shattered. Mother was equally devastated. She said she had lost two sons, one to the Romans and one to his own hand. We struggled to comprehend it. Judas and our Master had grown up together, best of friends, as inseparable as brothers. With Lazarus, their triumvirate had run rampant through the streets of Nazareth, driving Lazarus’ older sister Martha to distraction and younger sister Mary to tears. And how they all cried when Simeon moved his family to Bethany.

“The Romans have much more civilized attitudes about women than our countrymen. As a woman of substance I can move freely about the city. As a Roman citizen through my dear late husband Festus, I can also conduct business and be received in the finer homes. But it still helps to have a man like John at my side. He is such a comfort.

I lost no time proceeding with our plan. A few words, a few names dropped and some well-placed bribes soon put me in front of the Praetor.”

The sweetness of our plan is that we had no hand in the final act. Our hands unsullied, the legal machinery would enact our revenge fully and with a savagery only Rome could conceive.

For nearly five years after our Master’s death we had trudged through our bleak meaningless lives. Yeshua had asked John to see to Mother if anything ever happened to him. John had hung on every word the Master uttered and his slightest whim was as a command to John. Beloved. That was what our Master had called him. The others frequently mocked him and used the name to make him blush. But when Yeshua called him that, he glowed.

            A beardless youth, John was in total thrall to this man who spoke so sweetly of love, so fiercely of divine vengeance and had us all striving to be as our Lord wanted us. John never returned to his mother in Bethany but quietly carried Mother back to her home in Nazareth where he oversaw her care the rest of her days. He was never quite the same since that awful time and needed someone to care for him also, especially when the night terrors came. So I also became part of the household. We three managed to support each other and muddle through.

            It was Simeon and Eleazor who found out the truth. Simeon is John’s grandfather and a high priest in Jerusalem. His son in law, Eleazor, John’s father, is a priest in Bethany. When our Master was on trial for his life, Simeon was the near lone voice pleading for mercy if not justice. But his voice was as one in the wilderness, crying in vain. Although on the council, he was seen as a provincial by his peers because he came from a small town. He was usually kept on the periphery. He had tried to see the papers on Yeshua’s charges but they were missing from the records he was allowed to see. Nearly five years after the fact Simeon stumbled upon them in a secret cache in an office usually reserved for the high priest Ananias. He was devastated by what he found. He knew Yeshua’s family. Joseph had even approached him about a marriage between Yeshua and little Mary. Back before Yeshua made it clear he had no interest in women. But Mary, Martha and Lazarus were close to Yeshua so he knew that everything in the file was false. The charges were designed to push the Jews and the Romans to execution. Yeshua was set up. He also found the paper requesting release of thirty pieces of silver from the treasury for the witness. That was when his blood ran cold.

            Eleazor and his mother in law, Salome, called on us, saying they had distressing news. John sat between Mother and I, holding her hands, awaiting yet another blow. Eleazor quickly explained that Simeon had found the temple request identifying the traitor. It was Simon. Simon, who now calls himself Peter, the self-proclaimed leader of the remnant of Yeshua’s followers. We were stunned into momentary speechlessness. Then Mother cried out, “He killed my boy! God curse him, he killed my boy.”

“But this means Judas was innocent. He never killed himself. That monster killed him also,” I muttered. John and Salome calmed Mother while Eleazor quietly explained to me about the false charges. I wanted to publicize Simon’s perfidy and have him in prison. Eleazor told me the papers were secret, Simeon could not remove them and any attempt to act on his part would only end his career while the papers quietly disappeared.

“I may be an old woman, but I can still use a knife. I will find him and cut out his heart,” Mother swore. She made as if to go where the knives were kept. John quickly restrained her. She fought for a moment and then collapsed into him.

Salome sent Eleazor home while she stayed. She was an old friend of Mother and held her in her arms, rocking her as if a child. Mother wept as if she had lost her son anew. She said Judas was supposed to keep him safe. She had feared he would come to no good end associating with the lower class ruffians who hung out about the docks.

“Fisherman, he called himself,” she reviled Simon. “The only thing he fished for was his next mug of ale. My Yeshua was naïve about people. Judas was the smart one. He was supposed to be the protector.”

            Sadness was almost a physical presence in the room until suddenly hate bloomed bright in my heart. Simon must pay. I eventually said it out loud. Instead of denying it, they simply asked “how?”

Mother said, “The law says ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. He has taken two lives from me. He must pay with his life. I want him dead.”

Salome, Mother, John and I formed a cabal that night with the simple aim to bring Simon to justice. Simply murdering him wasn’t enough. He had to be exposed for what he was, a lying traitor who abandoned people who trusted him. He had to experience pain, fear, total misery. Salome brought Martha, Lazarus and their sister Mary into our group. Lazarus had to be physically restrained when he was told what Simon had done. We met many evenings and went around and around but gained no traction. And then King Herod Agrippa died.

            Pontius Pilate had been recalled to Rome about three years after our Master died. He had been replaced by another ineffectual governor. This governor was also recalled leaving King Herod as Rome’s only representative in Judaea. When he suddenly died, his heir was elsewhere in the empire and Rome seemed in no hurry to install him nor send another governor.  

Governance lurched onward, much like an insect who will keep moving forward even if you remove its head. If nothing else, Rome’s ways were efficient. Salome was the one who saw our opening. She was friendly with Princess Berenice. Although nominally Roman, Princess Berenice, King Herod’s niece was ethnically Jewish so Salome could call on her without being defiled. Salome noticed on her visits to the palace that while the administration still worked, there was little oversight and frequent confusion. On one particular visit to the palace Salome managed to secrete a copy of an edict by King Herod in her robes.

            Eleazor, being the best Latin scholar among us, procured some fine parchment and drafted a bill outlining various crimes against the state with which Simon could be accused. Sedition, treason, cursing the Emperor, inciting riots, murder. He ended with a proclamation that Simon was an enemy of the state and should be extradited to Rome for trial. It was important he be tried outside of Judaea. In Judaea he had friends. Outside we could more effectively control the flow of information. Eleazor carefully copied King Herod’s elegant Roman signature. Salome carried this document for some time on her visits to the palace until she found her opportunity. In an unguarded moment, she slipped into the royal office and actually got her hands on the royal cypher. She quickly sealed the document. Now it was official. We waited patiently for an opportunity. Then we heard Simon was planning a trip to Rome to visit a cell of messianic Jews there. This was our great chance.

“Arranging the meeting with the Praetor was not difficult. Actually meeting him was another matter. I was stood up time and again. I realized I was acting like a country bumpkin. I spent a good bit bribing more people. This finally got me a hearing. My story was that as a confidante of the Princess Berenice, I was entrusted with an official message for the emperor from King Herod, one of his last acts. As I expected, the Praetor said that he handled all the official correspondence of the emperor. No matter. The important thing was to get this entered into the official machinery. He looked over our letter and said the charges seemed serious. Then I showed him the package we had put together of all the witness statements and other faked documentation of Simon’s crimes. He surprised me by saying that Rome had been watching Simon with concern for some time. He said that Simon had recently slipped out of the city and they had lost his trail. I assured him that I knew people who could locate him.”

The meeting with the Praetor was easier than I expected. I could tell by the look on his face that he immediately spotted the clumsy forgery of the letter from Herod. I removed a bracelet from my purse made of gold with fine filigree work and set with semi-precious stones. It was beautifully worked and worth more than even I, as a woman of some means could afford to purchase. I had received it as part of my late husband’s estate. I said a silent prayer to my dear Festus and immediately knew that he would approve its use to help preserve Judaism. I offered it as a token of love from Princess Berenice to the Emperor. The Praetor smiled and said the letter would further their case against Simon’s seditious activities.

“John and I began attending the meetings of Simon’s group. They seem to believe that our Master was the actual prophesied Messiah, even though he fulfilled none of the prophecies. They have chosen the Greek form of Christos so call themselves Christians. And apparently Simon has told them that the Master named him Peter, the Rock. I listened agape as they recounted stories he had told of the Messiah feeding thousands, healing lepers and walking on water. The most astounding lie was that our Master rose from the dead. Dearest sister, we saw him die upon the cross. We saw the crows picking at his entrails as his corpse decomposed at Golgotha. We witnessed the Romans disposing of his bones in the common pit for executed criminals. How can Simon spread such lies? And why is he believed?”

We found that Simon was aware of Roman scrutiny and had headed to a safe house in Naples. I dressed in my most sumptuous robes and sought out the elder of the Christians. I confided in him that I had the ear of the lady Livilla, niece of the Emperor. She was expressing interest in the new religion and wished to hear more about it. I assured him that it would bring much more security to all of us if Simon could convert a member of the imperial family to the faith. I gave him an imitation ruby ring I had purchased at the bazaar saying it was a token of faith from the lady. I knew it was an opportunity Simon would not be able to resist.

“In short order Simon was back in Rome and the Praetor and his men were waiting. Now we had the rat in the cage. As a courtesy the Praetor informed me when Simon was captured.  He also graciously allowed me to visit him.  He inferred from my actions that what I wanted with Simon was not to ease his final days.  I saw his evil grin when he told me when I could return to ‘see the prisoner’.”

As the guard unlocked the cell door he shouted through the grill, “you have a visitor you old devil worshipper.” I stepped in and found Simon sitting on a bench in a dank stone room that smelled of a mixture of many vile things.

Simon had aged in the intervening years. I suppose we all have, but he looked far older that his years. I had not seen him since shortly after our Master’s death. He had shunned all but his inner circle and we drifted away from his group. John and I, Yeshua’s brother James and even his mother Mary were all pushed aside as if we did not exist. Those of us who knew Yeshua before Simon and knew his true teachings were inconvenient to Simon’s reconstructionist history. There had always been a sharp division among our Master’s disciples. There was much arguing over who was the best follower, who was the most favored or most important. Yeshua seemed oblivious to this and even stoked it by constantly asking young John to come sit at his right hand and petting on him as they rested in the evenings. John, Judas, James and I were from more prosperous families and were always suspect in the eyes of Simon and his thuggish companions from the lawless alleyways by the docks.

            I saw the surprise in Simon’s face as he recognized me. But his face smoothed and he greeted me.

“Welcome, sister. Come to succor me in my hour of need?”

“Simon,” I said. “You are no brother of mine and I have no sympathy in my heart for the likes of you.” He sighed and dropped his fake smile.

“Still the shrew, I see. I always told Judas you were more trouble than you were worth. Always putting on airs and acting better than everyone else. Strutting about hanging on Yeshua like a harlot.”

“The Lord should strike you for even uttering the Master’s name. How can you even live with yourself? Professing love and devotion to our Master’s face and in the back alley selling him like a slave for thirty pieces of silver.”

“I see my little ruse has been discovered.”

“But why, Simon? Why would you be so evil? You murdered our Master. The Lord will not forgive murder of a holy prophet. And neither will his people.”

“He was no holy man, sister. He was a man like any other. And a rather dull one at that. Andrew would have been content to remain in that hovel and eke out our lives as fishermen for the rest of his life, but not me. I have ambition. I want greater things. Yeshua was my way out. He had a golden tongue and could charm a crowd. In the beginning he directed their anger at the Romans. The fever was hot in the land. The people were ready for revolution. With Yeshua leading the way and Andrew and I as his generals we could have swept the Romans out of Judaea and into the sea. You and Yeshua were two of a kind. Always with your heads in the clouds, seeing nothing of what’s going on around you. But he went off message. When the Pharisees and other temple buggers began circling he lost his brass. That’s when he began all that blessing of the meek shit. I tried to steer him back but he had lost his stones.” I was aghast at Simon’s simple stupidity.

“You naïve fool! Yes, enough Jews working together could sweep the standing Roman army from our shores, but you cannot beat Rome. The entire world bows to Rome. Rome IS the world. They have legions upon legions. They would pour in and massacre every Jew in the East. You’re trying to throw our world into a blood bath.” Was this his master plan?

“You’re soft in the head. Just like Yeshua,” he replied. “By my estimation we needed something to bring the situation to a head. To make the people rise. If Yeshua would not make the call, I figured on helping him. What we needed was a martyr. A good bloody martyr would unite the people like nothing else. I resisted the idea at first. I really did. I rather liked Yeshua. He was a bit dimwitted but generally likeable. I even told the others to ignore that he always had his nose up that boy’s ass like a dog in heat. My old group, Andrew, the sons of Zebedee, were easily convinced. Thomas and Philip took more work. Matthew was easy. He never forgave Yeshua for allowing Judas to hold the purse. He wanted that honor. The others fell in line or disappeared.” I became uneasy as I saw that the look in Simon’s eye was not one of sanity.

“You utter, utter fool.” I could not restrain myself. “You have destroyed the lives of so many people for what? A dream that will never happen?”

“Oh, but it is working. I have cells in nearly every important city. When we are numerous enough I will give the call and we will throw down the Empire of Satan. We will reconsecrate the temple in Jerusalem and usher in the thousand year kingdom. With me at the right hand of God.”

  “And you keep your ‘cells’ loyal by feeding them a pack of lies? Miracles, resurrection?” I asked.

“I tell them what they want to hear; what they need to hear. It moves them toward the Lord. That is what is important.”

“Oh, Simon. You have lost all touch with reality. You have perverted everything Yeshua advocated.”

“I only refined it, gave it focus. Yeshua dead is a much better touchstone than Yeshua alive. People might not follow a sodomite.” He must have noticed my indignant start. “You weren’t there the night he was taken. We were in the gardens near Gethsemane. He slipped away from us. When the soldiers came he was caught practicing love thy neighbor with that lapdog boy of his. Check the Roman report. When they seized Yeshua that boy was bare assed naked as the day he was born. I had to laugh as I saw him sprint through the garden, his white ass bobbing in the moonlight. It’s better this way. With Yeshua out of the way, we can burnish his image the way we want.”

My thoughts went to John again. That poor boy. Did Yeshua assault him? Is that the turmoil that he wrestles with in the dark nights? Is that the source of his torment? I had no time to think of it at the moment.

“Well, it appears your days of burnishing are about to come to an end,” I said.

“Probably not. The Romans make a lot of noise, but I have been careful what I have said. I have kept my remarks just inside the law. They have nothing to hang me on.”

For the first time since seeing Simon I smiled. I related to him the packet of letters and affidavits I had given the Praetor attesting to his complicity in multiple felonies.

“What have you done? You bitch!” he exploded. Then more moderately. “It looks like I did Judas a favor in saving him from you.”

“I was sure you killed him,” I said.

“Actually, Andrew killed him. Broke his neck with his bare hands. Andrew has always been the strongest man I know, strongest Jew since Samson. Mathew and I strung Judas up to make it look like suicide. It worked for fifteen years. Now it’s so long ago, no one cares.”

“You’re wrong Simon. I care. Mary cares. The people who loved Yeshua care. In fact

Yeshua’s mother asked me to deliver her message to you personally.”

“Oh, and what is it?” he asked.  I spit forcefully in his face.

“Message delivered.”

As I gathered myself to leave I told him, “The verdict has already been handed down, Simon. You are to be executed. The Praetor is considering making you a part of one of the Emperor’s spectacles. He and I are hoping to be able to feed you to the lions. I find the image of that amusing and comforting. Farewell, Simon. May God have mercy on your soul. I surely would not.”

“Sister, it would be a lie to say that I did not taunt Simon that night in his cell. He admitted to his crimes of selling our Master to the authorities and to murdering Judas. He is totally unrepentant and appears to be insane. Master always said to minister to those of feeble minds but this time I say no. There is no other person I was so glad to see put underground.

As we predicted, Simon was convicted of crimes against the Empire and sentenced to death. Irony of ironies, the method chosen was crucifixion. Simon died a slow, painful death. And for that I am eternally thankful. I am sure the Master would urge mercy and forgiveness in our hearts. But I have neither.

Simon’s words about the night Yeshua was taken kept creeping back on my mind. Was he just toying with me or was there more than I knew? I finally went back to the Praetor’s office and found a helpful clerk. With a little gold he agreed to dig through the official records with me. I asked about capital cases in Judaea fifteen years ago. He found the box of reports. I asked if there was information about Yeshua son of Joseph being executed. He found several papers related to it. I was allowed to look over them, the arrest report making my throat tighten and tears burn my eyes. My reading of Latin is limited so I paid the clerk more to read it to me. It related that a centurion took ten men and using details provided by the informant found the group in the gardens near a wine press. The centurion said he recognized the informant in the group but did not wish to expose him.

“I asked ‘which of you is Yeshua son of Joseph?’ A man in their midst answered ‘I am Yeshua.’ Then from out of the darkness to the right we heard a call ‘Judas, no! You cannot do this.’ Then he said loudly, ‘I am Yeshua.’ I ordered the men to take both into custody. As my soldiers approached the man off to the right, a young man, nude, jumped up and ran away. A surreptitious aside from the informant revealed which man was actually Yeshua. The imposter was one Judas, son of Simon of Kerioth, a close associate of the prisoner.”

I dashed the tears from my eyes as I realized that my Judas had offered his own life in place of our Master’s. And yes, something did occur between Yeshua and John. Was this part of why John remained so moody, seeming to take no joy or satisfaction in finally bringing Simon to justice? My poor, poor boy. I don’t know how to help him.

            As it turned out, the next spectacle was weeks away and the Emperor wanted to go ahead and deal with the “Christian problem”. So on a chilly spring morning, Simon and five other criminals were led out to the place of execution with a small crowd of curious onlookers following. Where were all his Christian friends? Afraid of being identified and suffering a similar fate? John and I were already there with our ideal viewing place staked out when they approached. A small group of guards in gleaming helmets and scarlet capes surrounded and goaded when necessary the six men bowed under the heavy load of the crossbeam they each carried, their wrists already affixed to it by ropes. Their bleeding backs showed they had been scourged prior to their execution. Their faces held varying degrees of pain, resignation and terror.

            There were six poles planted at the place of execution, to serve as uprights for the crosses. The condemned were stopped in front of the poles. Most of them dropped to the ground, exhausted by their ordeal already. One, however made a mad dash for freedom. Some of the guards blocked his way with spears and laughing they dragged him back to the others.  

The six men had been stripped of their clothes before the scourging. Now as they rested I could see them begin to shiver in the cool morning air. A couple of guards unceremoniously grabbed a prisoner and rolled him onto his back. Although his arms were already lashed to the crossbeam, the Romans, being the masters of cruelty, also used large nails to increase the pain. As another guard approached him with the iron spikes he began shouting ‘No! No! Please, no!” He screamed piteously as the first spike was driven through his hand. He alternately screamed and sobbed as the other hand was affixed. A stream of piss arced up as he wet himself during his agony. The two largest guards took hold of the crossbeam and dragged it to the first upright. Groaning at the weight of the beam and the prisoner combined, they hoisted it up. A hole in the crossbeam fit into a notch at the top of the upright. The sudden jar when it fell into the socket caused another shriek. The writhing man’s toes could just touch the ground. A guard pressed one of the prisoner’s feet against the upright a few handspans above the ground and drove a spike through the ankle and into the wood. This elicited more shrieks from the agonized man. The other foot was similarly impaled. The guards stepped back inspecting that their workmanship was correct. The poor man hung writhing and twisting his body trying to find the position of least pain. Hanging limply caused tremendous pain in his hands and torqued his shoulders. With the arms expanded he could not exhale. The only way to breathe was to press down on his feet, exacerbating the incredible pain already present. The involuntary need to breathe would keep him struggling on the cross, possibly for days, without the comfort of sleep or fainting.

            Simon was second. As they grabbed him another criminal bent over and vomited on his feet. Some of the onlookers laughed. Simon struggled as hard as any of them as he was being nailed to the cross and he shrieked mightily as they raised him in place. My heart sang with glee with each ringing pound of the hammer upon the nails. His wails were music to my ears. Once he was upright I got a chance to see his face. It was a mask of agony. The eyes were haunted with a look of terror. I thought perhaps he could see the face of Satan rushing toward him to grab his soul and cast it into Sheol. I paid little attention to the process for the other four. It was similar. Some others vomited or pissed on themselves. One had greenish brown feces running down his leg as he was being nailed to his cross. But I had eyes only for Simon. The agony he would experience for the few days it took him to die paled in comparison to the fifteen years of misery that I had experienced. But it would have to do.

            We left at midmorning. We found a nearby bakery, purchased some food and went to sit in the shade of a pagan temple to eat. I pondered on the scene of barbarity I had just witnessed. I had to wonder if I had lost some of my humanity in being unmoved by the horror of it all.

            Once the morning mists had burned off it became a brilliant day. We returned to the place of execution in the afternoon. Some children had come and were taunting the condemned and throwing pebbles at them. The guards laughed and half heartedly shooed them away. The heat was beginning to rise and I noticed that with it came biting flies. The flies and other flying insects swarmed about the tormented men on the crosses. Most of them had stopped bleeding except when they jerked. Some continued to moan or sob. Some just stared straight ahead, slowly writhing, dully awaiting death. Simon was in the latter group. He did look toward me once. We held eye contact for a few moments. Then he looked away. After a bit I put my arm through John’s and said “take me home.”

            It was cold enough that night that we could see our breath the next morning. It must have seemed brutally cold for the unfortunate men exposed on the crosses. We returned to the place of execution on the third afternoon. Simon’s groin was dark with blood, piss and feces. His head hung to the side, his mouth and nostrils black with flies seeking a place to lay their eggs. A crow perched on his shoulder was making a meal of one eye. No movement, no breath. Simon was no more. I smiled. May the demons of Sheol torment him for all eternity.

            As is Roman custom, Simon’s remains were left on the cross until he was little more than a skeleton. What was left was eventually tossed in a common pit reserved for criminal remains.

“Now that Simon is dead my heart feels lighter than it has in many years. I only regret that our Master’s dear Mother did not live to see this day. I like to feel that wherever she is, her soul is no longer heavy with sadness.

John and I have decided to remain indefinitely in Rome. I have come to enjoy the conveniences of civilization. We have made some acquaintances and are trying to enjoy life for a change. An older Senator has shown an interest in me. It is time for a new page.

I had not seen any of Simon’s cell of Christians until last night. We received a furtive message that they were meeting in secret to hear the message from a new holy man, a Jew from Tarsus named Paul. I’ll not send the centurions after them, but neither will I participate. My Master’s message was clear, follow the law of our fathers and love God above all.

Peace be unto you, my sister in the Lord.

Mary of Magdala”