The Agony and The Ecstasy

Look what I found on YouTube while researching END OF THE ROPE, my 1962 novel and the first of the Sixties Trilogy!

Here is the VERY (well, maybe not THE VERY, but it's VERY, VERY CLOSE)... the film I saw in elementary school about Bert the Turtle and ducking and covering and how to protect oneself against the dreaded Communist Nuclear Attack.

Oh, HOW this brought back memories... not only of those duck-and-cover air-raid drills (which I just finished writing about in chapter two of the new novel), but look at the way we dressed, look at how classrooms looked, how teachers dressed, how society structured itself... and notice that, in this nine-minute film, there is not one black face. Not one Indian or Latino or Asian face.

I'm writing (as a fictional story) my days at Camp Springs Elementary School in Camp Springs, Maryland. I'm writing about Andrews Air Force Base, where my father was stationed for seven years and was, for his last years there, Chief of Safety for the 89th MATS -- SAM FOX -- the squadron that flew (and still flies) the President of the United States. I'm writing about "the Communist threat." I'm writing about 1962, the space race, the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis. I'm writing out of my life. (The patch below calls Sam-Fox the 99th -- anybody know why?)

From a research standpoint, there is so much I'm still culling through. And, from a fictional standpoint, creating these characters and their stories out of whole cloth, there is still so much I don't know.

I was nine in 1962. Franny, my heroine, is twelve. But her brother, Drew, is nine. Franny is a middle child. Drew is the youngest and only boy; he can do no wrong in the eyes of his parents. And why is that? WHY? I have struggled with this for so long from a story point-of-view... it's okay for Drew to be the golden child, but I want, as the writer of the story who is creating 1962 (and, in addition, if I do my job well, a universal story) for the reader, to know WHY Drew is the golden child.

He had rheumatic fever last year. That's what happened to Drew... and that's what happened to his family. Ohmygolly. OHMYGOLLY. This changes so much. I have been working on this novel, off and on, and now relentlessly, for over ten years. I had no idea about rheumatic fever... don't really understand what it is. But my friend MikeM., who was born a year after I was... he understands.

Long ago, maybe almost twenty-five years now, MikeM. told me about his struggle with rheumatic fever when he was 12. His heart was forever damaged... and seven years ago, MikeM. had a stroke, partly as a result of the rheumatic fever... so he has been much on my mind, and now I see that my undermind has been chewing on this story...

... and suddenly, sitting here at the page, day after agonizing day, trying to figure out the relationship between Franny and her brother Drew, it comes to me, out of the ether, that Drew has survived rheumatic fever, and his family is so concerned for him, so worried about his health, his future... and I think, "why didn't I see this ten... five... two years, two MONTHS ago?"

Well... because it wasn't time yet. I could cite you chapter and verse that may or may not be right or true about how these things happen. I could say that my friend MikeM. came to our big family celebration in May and I hadn't seen him for some time and that, after that, I started thinking more and more about his life and our connection, and somehow his account of the harrowing rheumatic fever days of the early '60s crept into my consciousness as I wrote forward on this novel... and maybe that would be true.

And maybe not.

I don't know. But I do know that I wrote about these conversations, and those memories, in my notebooks -- twice. I wrote about it when MikeM. first told me this story, probably in 1980 (I have not looked up the particular notebook although I have it; I have a stack of old notebooks, as high as my waist, in my closet), and again in May this year, when I wrote for myself a wrap-up of the party. So somewhere, this fact was working on my subconscious, which is where Story is born.

We write out of our lives, whether we realize it or not. And we have to trust that what we need will be there when we need it, even if we cannot know what it is.

I think that Drew having had rheumatic fever fits so well into the fact that he projects such bravado now (he is convinced, for one thing, that he will be an astronaut), and it fits so well into my whole "we may be annihilated tomorrow" theme of this novel... I can hardly express this to you in a cogent manner, so I won't try any longer, except to say that I have felt so bereft about this revision in these past several weeks of slogging, even in the face of steadfast support from editors and agents and writer friends and a couple of select readers.

But, finally, I am learning and re-learning that it is only BIC -- Butt In Chair -- that saves me... isn't that amazing?

All the people you love and trust can tell you you're doing a good job, but you know when the story sings.. you know it, don't you? You know. Okay, I know... I can only speak for myself. But I know when I'm cookin' with gas, and this only happens when I am willing to keep my B in the C and SIT HERE with the story at hand, and be willing to jump down those dark rabbit holes and climb back up again, and try one thing and then another and then, suddenly, though a process I cannot begin to understand (let alone articulate, as you can see), say, "OHMYGOLLY! Drew had scarlett fever last year!"

And that explains everything.

Maybe you had to be there.

I've also got these l'il creatures mentioned in END OF THE ROPE. Franny has quite a collection of them, and she also calls her brother one of these... anybody know what they are?

Film at Eleven.


  1. I've thoroughly enjoyed reading your books although I am twice the age of your intended readers. I wanted to comment on the rheumatic fever. My grandfather died of a massive heart attack at age 50. As a small child he had had rheumatic fever, but unfortunately no doctor ever picked up on how much his heart had been damaged.

    From the stories I have been told by my Great-Uncle my great-grandparents felt the same way Fanny's parents do about Drew.(My Grandfather was also the youngest.) They had wanted to protect him, had treated him differently his whole life, but it still wasn't good enough. Their little boy was still taken too early. It makes perfect sense to me (as a future reader of your book) that Drew be treated as the golden child.

  2. Kristin, here are my condolences, even decades later. Thanks for this thoughtful and heartfelt post... what a revelation. I have had little experience with rheumatic fever, and I am hearing from several readers... this is so helpful. Golden Child, indeed... your post helps me realize that Franny, even though she may not see it yet, must come to realize the nature of her family's fear about losing Drew... even if Drew doesn't see this, either. Such important thoughts -- thanks.

  3. Is that critter a Rat Fink? I never had one, growing up as I did in West Virginia where everything seemed about a decade behind and some things just never made it to us, but my friend Elaine is a total geek for a rat fink.

  4. Ann -- yes, that critter is a rat fink!! Thanks for reading and commenting -- and thanks to your friend Elaine who remembers and reveres those lovely, finky creatures!


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