November Memorials – Researching The Shrapnel Story

Each name on a War Memorial has a life story. Before I joined NanoWrimo, I had written many stories. Here is my story of  how I wrote Shrapnel – a  November story – a Memorial Story for my family to read:

For twenty years or more, I had been lugging my father’s WDad beachWII letters in boxes through a series of moves. After sorting  and scanning them, I was intrigued that his letters home gave more baseball reports than bombing actions.

I had decided to investigate this ‘baseball’ thing and discovered that it was actually an Army strategy to help the men keep sane during wartime, and later, transition them to civilian life.

Poking through what my mother had saved in a bottom bureau drawer I later discovered a leather pocket book.  It contained a small trove of letters sent to my father from the families of his crew – the crew he trained with in Texas, the crew he thought he’d fly with over Berlin, the crew that went down on their first mission with their experienced pilot while Dad watched from his plane – he, the green co-pilot with an experienced crew.

These letters changed everything I was thinking.

The letters were thank you letters.  To a lieutenant who took the time to write, give families hope, information that the telegram did not, and comfort, sorely needed.  The single surviving crewman was liberated from a POW camp — 20 days after the crash and two weeks before the end of the war in Europe.

What the home letters revealed was the range of emotions: confusion, pain, grief, determination, acceptance, denial.   I found that these feelings surfaced in contemporary newspaper reports of the families who lost soldiers in Iraq.  I thought about the contrast and similarities between family grief at the loss of son/daughter and the soldiers’ grief at losing their buddies.

Bombing Mission Target

Bombing Mission Target

I never knew that Dad had written to the families; Mom knew.   Obviously, he had told her a lot about his experiences.   And, for us kids,  Dad, like other WWII veterans, did not talk about the war.

If and when he did – it was a one liner.  Yes, he flew to Berlin. What amazed him was that as he was returning to England, waves of bombers were just leaving.   Yes, he flew prisoners of war to Spain.  They were just bags of bones.  Yes, when he came home, he walked up Edward Avenue and no one knew him – he only weighed 135 pounds.  He was a walking stick.

As a result of those letters, my research for a story changed.  I pulled my father’s flight records and tracked down all the missions.  I read about Grafton-Underwood.  I read whatever I could about the airmen who flew the bombers.  I watched and listened to the documentary by Ken Burns. Particularly to the airmen’s experiences.   I re-read letters from my friend who was killed in Viet Nam. I read fiction authors who wrote about other wars – the Civil War, the Great War.  I clipped out newspaper accounts of the Iraq and Afghanistan casualties, particularly accounts of their families.   I read and recorded reactions of families who received remains of their WWII airmen recovered from the Pacific after 60 years. I toured the insides of the B-17 and B-24 Liberator at the Beverly Airport. I hunted down LIFE magazine articles and photos of the end of the war.  I read obituaries.

I kept thinking about contrasts.  Dad’s letters from two years of training – the idealism, the frustrations, the impatience, the pride.  From the front: thanks, baseball, and home.   I had to find flight reality in books, documentaries, and biographies.  I had to imagine what it might be like and so I created a story about Loot and Maxie and their flying crew based on Dad’s story.

While the family thank you letters inspired me, the crew and family feelings and stories in my story were fiction.  What I found unified families then and now – is dealing with ‘no body.’  In some cases, no body means no closure, an open wound that cannot heal.  In others, no body creates a struggle that the future must heal.

For the airmen, no body is the horror of returning to empty cots.  Some men learned to distance themselves, focus on their jobs, their survival.  Some men waked their losses with humor and stories.  Some never recovered.

Yet, one veteran wrote to LIFE magazine in 1945 expressing his horror that the Army was considering a suggestion that bodies buried in the Pacific be disinterred and returned to their families.  He averred that men who fought side by side and died side by side would want to remain buried side by side.  For the men slogging onto bloody beaches, the War was really about the loyalty, the bravery, and the bond to those fighting beside you.  Those Pacific burial grounds were sacred to the blood shared.

While those of us who have never experienced War, yet know loss, we can understand the shrapnel that cuts into Life.  That explodes and hurts us, changes and strengthens us,  gouges and defines us.

And, I think as scarring as losing his crew was, those letters to their families helped my Dad.  My mother understood that.  I wonder if she also saw God’s hand…Dad was shocked by the bombing destruction, the impact on the ordinary people.  He stayed for the occupation – one year in the south of France.   When he returned home, he continued that rebuilding; he spent 32 years providing public housing and housing programs to the poor, disenfranchised, the disabled, the veterans.  God works in mysterious ways!

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November – Month for Writing and for Remembering

IT’S  NOVEMBER:  NanoWrimo sparks over 300,000 writers to start their new novels.  War Veterans gather at cemeteries and memorials to remember past sacrifices.  Both seek to engage us in stories that matter.  I paired these two groups and their twined purposes when I read:

” Little Valley, a town in upstate New York plans to demolish the Cattaraugus           County Historical and Memorial Building — its Civil War Memorial. “Mark Dunkelman, historian for the 154th New York regiment, ( conveyed this news to Damian Shields, an Irish archeologist who researches the stories of the Irish who fought in the American Civil War.    You can read the details on Damian’s blog site:

Why should you or I, or Damian for that matter, care about preserving a Civil War memorial?

Well, it struck a chord with me – for my NanoWrimo story is about a veteran Irish Sharpshooter, whose journey through the Berkshire Hills begins his healing from the horrors of the Civil War.     As I have read about that war, and other wars, I have begun looking more closely at War Memorials.  Most towns place these memorials – often marble or granite slabs – in a visible place to remind its community of those sacrifices, of those lost, of those with no gravestone to mark their passing.

Whether it is the Civil War, the Great War, World War II or following conflicts, what is most important are the individual names, representing the individual sacrifices, telling the individual stories.  These are not memorials to the wars but to the men and women who fell.  Their stories matter.

Newburyport Civil War Tablets listing 1500 names

Newburyport Civil War Tablets listing 1500 names

First, we share the family feeling of pain that comes when no body comes home for burial.  Bodies that were dismembered by cannon fire at Gettysburg, that were buried in the mud of Ypres, that lie in the island sands of the Pacific, that rotted in fetid jungles or disintegrated into fragments with a roadside bomb.

Second, we share the community loss of their gifts and potentials had they lived to contribute to our cities, towns, villages.

Third, we share the results of their sacrifices – both positive and negative.  For after every such conflict, don’t we question ourselves, our country, our meanings?  Don’t we search for new paths? New solutions?  And, just as likely, don’t we fail and fall into the morass again?

As Siegfried Sassoon wrote in his poem Aftermath, March 1919:
Have you forgotten yet?
    Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

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Novel Writing Month is Here — AGAIN!

It’s November – and it’s National Novel Writing Month!   Again!

I’m joining the 300,000+ writers in writing my novel.  This is my third year participating in this venture. Besides having fun and writing 45,000 words last year,  I renewed my belief in: Everyone has a story to tell!   And developing stories need listeners.

NaNoWriMo prompts writers to write at least 50,000 words in one month toward completing a novel.  NaNoWriMo has organized regions throughout the country and encourages you to join Write-ins.  Write-ins are held at Starbucks, Libraries, Parks, Schools  — just about anywhere the regional rep can find.

It’s at the Write-ins that writers collaborate by listening to developing ideas and stories.

It’s always fun to meet the Newbies – those who have never attempted a novel, much less join a group of seeming pros!  Rapport is always key to welcoming the Newbies – once they hear a few stories, they feel at ease.  Guess what? They learn: these writers aren’t pros – just folks with a good story to tell.

What  writers share with the newcomers is Energy — Food is always important!  Eating and talking around the table break down the barriers and creates a convivial atmosphere.  Encouraging words, coffee refills, cranberry muffins – all the ingredients to give First-Timers courage.

Does every NaNoWriMo writer get to 50,000 words at the 30th day of  November?  No.  And that’s okay.  Some  writers simply wanted to write. Some need encouragement from others to work up backbone to finish.  Some like to compete in Word Wars  – as the  means to finish that novel.  Others just like the fun of it….even if it’s their 7th year and they are still trying to find their way.

NaNoWriMo sets up such a framework  that encourages and supports any willing writer.  They also work to  engage and encourage youngsters to write through  educational support and fundraising efforts.  This is a unique experience that any one can enjoy — and succeed.

Why not try it?  You can join at:


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The In-Person Experience

I love Bruce Tempkin’s post today commenting on his in-person concert experience with his daughter.  He relates this experience to his passion – creating the customer experience.

It reminded me of my daughter making plans to visit her uncle in Pittsburg to see one of her favorite alternative bands that was performing in a tiny renovated church in Milltown outside the city.  She learned about the band from online downloads.  She followed them online.  But for all the onlining…what was really important was hearing them in person and sharing the fun with all the other fans packed into a tiny hall that had once housed church-goers.

I think fears of onlining neglect the human spirit that needs and seeks the in-person experience.  As Bruce points out the shared experience “makes people feel more connected.”   And this connection is both physical and emotional.

Consider this comparison:  You receive an email from your cousin that your 90 year old aunt died from overheating because the nursing facility did not attend to the air conditioning unit.  You and your cousin correspond over a few emails.  You feel badly and do your best to convey your feelings.  He responds with appreciation.  Yes, you are connected.

But what if, instead of responding with an email, you hop in your car to visit your cousin.  You knock on the door, greet him with a hug, and spend time talking with each other.  The in-person connection is so much more powerful.  The grief is shared directly. The bond between you renews and grows stronger.

Granted, you might feel more comfortable emailing your cousin about the dying and death.   The email does connect both of you — in a cerebral way.  Intellectually, he knows you care and may believe you can understand his grief.  He has no way of knowing if you can feel his grief.

Nearly 20 years has passed since my friend Pat was diagnosed with cancer.  Even though I was near broke at the time, I hopped on a plane, rented a car, and sat at the bottom of her front steps waiting for her to come home from work. To hug her, see the kids, meet the grandkid – to talk about nothing vital – just to talk and eat together was a momentous in-person experience for both of us.  It gave her courage to come east as she was recuperating to see family.  She fought for five years and left us just before Christmas.

For me, that experience crystalized the importance of being there.  I am sad she is gone, but I can still hear clearly her laugh, her Nebraska accent and feel the warmth of  her friendship.

Consider all the people you care about and have not seen or spoken to …. get on the phone or get in your car or take the next plane out — make the connection.  In-person!  Renew and contact, it may be just what your spirit needs.

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Oh those First Impressions!


When you attend a training conference, or go to a Chamber of Commerce meeting, or join a business discussion group  – you expect your colleagues to act and look “businesslike” and professional. The conference attendees may be from all over the country; the Chamber may include familiar faces; the discussion group may be close peers.

You want to create a positive, professional impression. You may want to make contact with experienced professionals in your field; you may want to promote new confer triobusiness; you may want to further increase a business friendship. You extend your hand and introduce yourself to those you don’t know. You smile and greet those you know. You may exchange a story with someone you know very well.

You read people – react to their nonverbal cues.  You assess people: their appearance, their diction, their conversations.  Your first impressions.  And, in turn, you are read and assessed by others. (Did you know you have 11 seconds to make a good first impression!)

WRITING IMPRESSIONS     When your customer, client, peer, or manager receivesimagesHand2 your email or letter, they expect  that you will provide clear, concise communication.  Your opening line is your business handshake.

The words you select covey a tone – serious, friendly, concerned, as well as pompous or stuffy. The appearance and organization of your document add or subtract to your professional image.  In the time it takes for someone to read your opening line and scan the email, letter, document, your professional image has been assessed!

What kind of first impression do you make?   Serious or pompous? Competent or Incompetent?  Smart or Smart-alecky?  Unctuous or Friendly?

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Tapping Employee Entrepreneurial Spirit

When we think of entrepreneurs we think of energy, drive, risk-taking. We think Success! Consider the current high school and college graduates. They believe that they can start their own businesses at any time. Many of my college students, inspired by internet success, constantly tinker with ideas.  They dream of riches and fame!

Yet, studies show that entrepreneurs have no age limits. In other words, entrepreneur-ing does not require youthful vigor.

A recent news story highlighted examples of retirement-age entrepreneurs. One woman created a booming business in recycling mannequins. What had started as a funky purchase – she used several mannequins to spunk up in her garden – aroused her curiosity. Where do used or old mannequins go? Her curiosity led her to purchase used mannequins. Her creativity led her to restore and resell mannequins to small businesses. Her interest led her to seek online marketing help. Her delight in working with retail businesses led her to exclaim “Why not?” She expanded the business to include a large warehouse with thousands of mannequins. She’s doing very well, thank you!

If entrepreneurship knows no age – why not tap employees’ ES? That is, their Entrepreneurial Spirit.

We know that engaged employees are more likely to enjoy their jobs. In his blog, Customer Experience Matters, Bruce Tempkin reports that engaged employees are “more committed to helping their companies succeed.” By tapping into employees’ ES you can create more successful and satisfied employees. Exponentially, increasing company success and customer happiness.

Let’s parse our mannequin entrepreneur’s story. Here are the five elements that fed her entrepreneurial fever: Interest—curiosity—discovery—creativity—delight. Can you inspire these five elements in your employees to free their ES at work? Let’s have a go at it!

INTEREST    Are your employees naturally interested in your business, in your customers?   No? THEN: Feed them information on products, services, customers, potential customers, competition. Educate them and let employees educate you.   Have fun!

With knowledge comes interest!

CURIOSITY Do your employees ask questions about your business, about your customers?  No?  THEN: Create opportunities or processes that encourage questions. Prompt their thinking with “What if…” questions and scenarios. Let them create their own “What if..” scenarios. Encourage them to research. Encourage them to compare.

No progress without questions.

DISCOVERY Do your employees share what they know about your business, your customers?  No?  THEN:  Always follow up on what employees have learned. Discuss and debate to increase perspectives, options, ideas.

AHA moments motivate!

CREATIVITY Do employees offer ideas, suggestions, programs for improvement?  No?  THEN: Collect ideas, challenge trite thinking, seek input. Encourage employees to work together on solutions. Don’t let ideas die and deflate employee enthusiasm. Have employees test ideas and solutions.

There is always more than one right answer!

DELIGHT Do your employees like your business, your customers, their jobs? How do they show their delight?  No?  THEN:  Celebrate success – whether large or small. Give private handshakes as well as company applause. Acknowledge contributions. Thank employee effort. Use social gatherings to create stronger relations. Involve everyone.

Never too many celebrations!

To tap employee ES you have to create an environment that nurtures interest and curiosity, that encourages and rewards creativity, and that shares small and large victories.

Start tapping!

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We live in a world of two truths: isolation and connection


“The other day I passed a young woman who was texting and crying, bending intently over her phone as strangers brushed past her on the sidewalk….My normal first impulse – and, I think, most people, even in Boston–would be to make some sort of compassionate gesture, even if it’s just to ask, “Are you okay?”  But this time any such instinct was overridden by technology.”

So described Carlo Rotella, Director of American Studies as Boston College. in his essay, A good cry in digital isolation.   (

I often observe people walking with phone glued to their ear, apparently oblivious to all around them.  And you have observed – mothers pushing strollers, commuters wobbling in traffic, riders on the T, teens on the beach – all ears attached to their cell phones, apparently blind and deaf to their surroundings.  Would you dare  to ask them for directions?  Would you confidently comment on the beauty of the day?  Would you point out that their child is dribbling ice cream all over his shirt?

Like Rotella , probably not.

The electronic devices seem to suck attention and sensitivity.  And further, create an invisible bubble around the person.  Glassy-eyed students intently mesmerized by laptop screens.  Ear buds and ipods silencing external sounds of bird song and car horns.

Rotella ends his essay with a question unanswered – what kind of people is this equipment teaching us to be.


The other day I watched in horror as a bomb exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon and another bomb exploded two blocks away, seemingly louder and stronger than the first.  While people screamed in the confusion, many ran toward the blast where they knew the injured lay needing help.  It was not a matter of are you okay?  It was how can I help?  Untrained bystanders made tourniquets, staunched bleeding wounds, offered comfort until first responders and medicos arrived.

Cell phones clogged the waves and were shut down.

Without technology.  City residents offered stranded runners shelter, blankets, directions.  People helped each other find their loved ones in the chaos.  Off duty doctors and nurses rushed to the scene to help.  And, spectators made their way to hospitals to give blood.

Technology has not overtaken humanity, yet.  Technology can isolate us.  Technology can connect us.  It is still our choice.

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