“Just One More”

Michael Venutolo-Mantovani has written a riveting piece for the October 2022 issue of Wired, “Just One More.” Late on the night of August 15, 2021, Worth Parker’s North Carolina cell phone received a Facebook message about the chaos in Afghanistan. It read: “Sir. I hope you are well. By any chance do you know any Marines who are on the ground right now?” Having retired from the US Marines as a Lt. Colonel six weeks before, Parker thought he’d cut those ties.

The message described the plight of the sender’s brother and father who had both worked for the US military in Afghanistan. With the American pullout scheduled for the end of the month, their lives were in increasing peril. The sender, Jason Essazay, had also worked for the US, but had obtained a Special Immigrant Visa for his service and was living in Houston. “Parker was Essazay’s last resort,” Venutolo-Mantovani writes. At the time the pullout was announced, 81,000 Afghans had pending applications for a SIV. US intelligence reports predicted it would take several months for the Taliban to take Kabul, but as we now know, the fall of Kabul occurred only days later.

When Parker read that the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit was helping with the evacuation, he called an old friend in the unit who said he’d try to help. Working in the eye of a fast-moving hurricane of fragmentary information, changing requirements, and coordination difficulties involving violent extremists and desperate families, Parker’s initiative succeeded.

Three days before Essazay’s contact with Parker, Joe Saboe, who’d left the Army 20 years earlier received a call from his younger brother, wanting help to get a friend and his family out of Afghanistan. Saboe didn’t know how he could help, but “tried the closest thing to a Noncombatant Evacuation Operations tool he had: Facebook. His post asking for help generated a message from a friend of twenty years before also trying to rescue someone. The two men strategized. Soon he heard from more veterans, each worried about a single contact. By August 17, Saboe had a group of volunteers working on the cases of 128 potential evacuees. A story in the Military Times generated more than a thousand contacts from Afghans looking for help and Americans wanting to provide it.

Parker, the former Lt. Colonel, enlisted his high-powered connections in the military establishment to form a group calling itself “the Graybeards.” Learning about Saboe’s operation, Parker hoped to convince Saboe’s volunteers to support the Graybeards’ efforts. “But almost immediately, Parker realized (the younger generation) was comically more tech savvy” than the retired military and civilian leaders. “It was time to reject the chain of command that had been drilled into him from the minute he joined the Marines.” He put the Graybeards’ Project Dunkirk in direct support of Saboe, giving him “some of the best-connected people in the US military and intelligence worlds.”

Heroic efforts were made in a fluid and increasingly dangerous Kabul. They achieved the rescue of more than 1,500 Afghans and, even today, more people continue to be evacuated in ones and twos. Each is a victory, but, collectively, they represent only five percent of Saboe’s database. Volunteers continue to chip away at that list, trying to save, as Project Dunkirk’s motto has it, “Just one more.” This whole inspiring and infuriating article is well worth a read.

Memories of a Queen

Maybe it’s having been named Victoria, but the history and doings of the British royal family have always fascinated me—not the scandals so much as, in the present day, the Queen herself. Like her predecessor, Elizabeth I, she took on a tremendous responsibility at the age of 25 and bore it with grace during good times and bad (Victoria was 18).

I have never seen any of the royals up close—except once. In May 1985, we were visiting the town of Reims, with its famous cathedral, in the heart of France’s champagne region—reason enough to stop over there. Reims is also the town where Colonel General Alfred Jodl signed Germany’s unconditional surrender at the end of World War II. Coincidentally, we were there the day before the fortieth anniversary of the signing, a bit proud that General Eisenhower declined to attend the signing. Not only did he outrank Jodl, but he’d seen the camps. He knew what had been done.

As we wandered the cathedral aisles, practically the only visitors, one aisle to our right I saw a smiling elderly woman wearing a pale blue suit and matching hat. A few well-dressed men orbited in her vicinity. “Look! It’s the Queen Mum!” I whispered. My husband, knowing how poor I am at recognizing people, took a closer look. “Oh, my god, it IS!” I discreetly took a couple of pictures, now rather faded, and the headline from the newspaper the next day confirms the presence of the “reine-mère.”

In 2012, we again stumbled into royal doings, when we visited London to take in the special exhibits for the 200th birthday of favorite author Charles Dickens. They were quite fun. The photo is of the writing retreat he used, probably to escape the clamor of his many children. Coincidentally, again, we arrived right at the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee—her 60th year on the throne. We saw a great deal of Jubilee-related pageantry, a Royal Air Force flyover, and thousands of cheering Britons. I saw a dress I liked too.

Dickens
Dickens’s writing retreat in Rochester, England (photo: vweisfeld)

National Booklovers’ Day

bookshare, Flannery O'Connor, peacock
Bookshare box outside Flannery O’Connor’s girlhood home
with an adored peacock (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Touted as “a day for all those who love to read,” today is National Book Lovers Day! So many ways to celebrate: reading to a child, buying a rare book, reorganizing your bookshelves (might need more than one day for that), making a donation of books to your library, or reading something you wouldn’t ordinarily read (ok, I’m ordering Stephen Graham Jones’s My Heart is a Chainsaw right now!). Maybe I should finally paint the Little Free Library my daughter gave me three Christmases ago. Goodness knows, I could fill it! I took the above picture of the one outside Flannery O’Connor’s home in Savannah. Note the peacock on the side—she raised them.

Celebrate with a new five-star mystery thriller! I have just the book in mind: Architect of Courage by, well, me. Enjoy! Click here to order.

The Ride-Along

Frank Zafiro and Colin Conway, two former officers of the Spokane, Washington, Police Department, have collaborated on the important novel, The Ride-Along. One day, at the beginning of his ten-hour overnight shift, experienced officer Lee Salter is asked to have a civilian ride in the patrol car with him. This is not an unusual request in many police departments where ride-alongs are considered part of community relations. In this case, the person who’ll accompany him is a member of a vocal citizens’ Policy Reform Initiative named Melody Weaver. Salter expects a difficult few hours, and so does she.

The authors deserve considerable credit for trying to set aside their biases and present both sides of the police-citizen disconnect. Both parties make their arguments, though the authors’ thumbs seem on the police side of the scale. Weaver is querulous and argumentative, not appearing to want explanations, but rather to criticize. At least at first. Exposure to situations police officers face routinely does get through to her to some extent.

Salter acknowledges missteps by the authorities, particularly in the case of George Floyd’s death. But for the most part, he dismisses the research she cites and she doesn’t come up with specifics, making almost an “everybody knows . . . .” kind of argument. Under pressure, they both tend to retreat to established positions, which not only keeps the dialog from moving forward, but also effectively illustrates how far apart their positions are. Salter’s fallback is “you weren’t there.” That’s an inarguable position.

While the story wasn’t satisfactory in a conventional sense, in that there was no great epiphany by either of them during the ride, it is brilliant in showing how much more dialog is needed to bridge the gap. The book, with its biases (the authors make the point that we all have them), like the ride-along itself, is only a first step. But someone has to take it, and Zafiro and Conway have made a worthy effort. I hope it achieves a wide readership among thoughtful people.

Earlier this week, I wrote about Unexpected Synchronicities. Here’s another one. Recently, I watched the highly regarded 2019 documentary The Human Factor, by Israeli film director Dror Moreh. It chronicles the negotiations undertaken in the Clinton Administration to bring peace to the Middle East. Through photos and video coverage you see the main players—President Clinton; Israeli presidents Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak; Palestine Liberation Army chairman Yasser Arafat; and younger versions of six chief US negotiators: Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Gamal Helal, Aaron David Miller, Daniel Kurtzer, and Robert Malley, who gave interviewers unprecedented access for this film.

Like in The Ride-Along, you see two intractable sides, locked in a mutually damaging struggle, in which no resolution seems forthcoming. The two sides’ frames of reference barely overlap. At one point, one of the American negotiators comments that the whole idea of peace meant something different to the Israelis than to Arafat. Then, strategic slips in the last round of negotiations set the stage for 25 additional years of conflict. What had been moving in the right direction slid back into chaos. We need to learn from that on the home front.

Film reviewer Matt Fagerhorn says The Human Factor shows “how much we have to lose when we give into the easy temptation of demonizing those who think differently.” It’s a judgment that applies equally to the conflicts in The Ride-Along.

Further reading and viewing:

Shots Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, and Myths about Police Shootings by Joseph K. Loughlin and Kate Clark Flora.

Dror Mohreh’s riveting documentary, The Gatekeepers, consisting of interviews with past heads of Israel’s internal Security service, Shin Bet, about the consequences of failure to find peace.

Broadway Babies

Two plays in two days hardly competes (except in price) with our five plays in four days sojourns at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival. Still, last weekend we were on the go!

The room in our hotel near Penn Station was technically larger than the bed, as long as you crabbed along sideways. We didn’t plan to spend much time there, so hardly cared, until the middle of the night when . . .

Our first stop was the Museum of Arts and Design at 1 Columbus Circle. In its exhibits on now–“Garmenting” and art jewelry–some of the jewelry could technically be worn. The garments, probably not (see the teepee dress). Afterwards we had some time to kill so sat a while in Central Park. After several big inhales there, it’s possible we were stoned.

Off to our first play: Tracy Letts’s The Minutes! If you’ve ever sat through a public officials’ meeting that’s struggling to stay on track, you’ll totally get the humor in the play’s first hour. A new member of the Big Cherry City Council is trying to find out what happened at a meeting he missed and why a fellow-councilman has mysteriously been removed. No one wants to tell him. Once they do, the last 15 minutes could be from another play altogether. On the whole, it was entertaining, well acted, and we were glad we saw it. (Tracy Letts is in it.)

Lovely dinner at Trattoria Trecolori on 47th Street, very crowded with the pre-theater seating, but quieted as curtain time approached. Husband Neil has a broken toe, so we couldn’t walk to the restaurant and decided to grab a pedicab. We’d never ridden in one. I think he’s at the bank now trying to negotiate a second mortgage. We chalked it up to a nice “experience,” which, on such a lovely warm evening, it was.

Sunday morning, we saw the special Winslow Homer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. Really, really wonderful. Lots to like, including Maine seascapes you could drown in. As you probably know, he’s considered a greater artist with watercolor than with oils. On one occasion, he produced a watercolor, and when the buyer was told the price, he said, “But it only took you an hour to paint it!” “An hour to paint, a lifetime to learn how.” (Now you know my full repertoire of artists’ quips.)

Next up, the matinee of The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. When the railway coach full of traveling salesmen appeared for the opening number, such an excited din arose, I thought I’d teleported to a high school football game somewhere in Texas. Then, when Hugh Jackman stood up at the rear of the train car, it was, wow, must be the championship game! Excellent singing, lively rendition of the score, choreography fresh and inventive, I liked the sets. The whole show is an exceedingly pleasant package.

During intermission, the drama continued in the long line for the men’s room. A belligerent man behind Neil complained loudly and incessantly, as if he were the only person who had to wait his turn. The usher tried to settle him down, but the man totally lost it. When Neil got back to our seats, he started to tell me about it, but I’d already heard the whole story from the two guys sitting behind us. Never a dull moment!

We topped all this off with a sushi dinner, made a 7:14 train. Arrived home, greeted by cats.

How True is True Crime?

In the current issue of Wired, cultural commentator Virginia Heffernan writes about her long relationship with the true-crime tale The Staircase and its seemingly endless, Escher-like iterations.

It first came to her attention in 2005 in the form of a six-hour documentary, recorded on a set of DVDs. True-crime was less of a thing on television then, yet she found the The Staircase “among the most captivating films I’ve ever seen.” It won numerous awards, including a Peabody. And, it was produced by a French filmmaker with the prescient name, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Not quite Holmes, but a worthy investigator nonetheless.

The Staircase recounts a 2001 case from Durham, North Carolina, in which war-novelist Michael Peterson was tried and convicted for the grisly murder of his wife Kathleen. He claimed she died falling down a staircase, but the authorities didn’t buy it. They were convinced he had bludgeoned her to death and charged him with murder. An argument over Peterson’s bisexuality triggered the assault, they said.

The jury convicted him, and he received a life sentence, but in 2011, the verdict was overturned. (A prosecution witness had lied.) In 2017, awaiting a new trial, Peterson entered an Alford plea in which he accepted a charge of voluntary manslaughter, was sentenced to time served, and walked away a free man.

Since that time, there seems the repackaging possibilities have proliferated. In 2012, de Lestrade updated his original documentary with coverage of Peterson’s second trial (Rotten Tomatoes has no critics’ rating, though one wrote “Appalls in its presentation of the sheer incompetence of one ‘expert,’” while audiences rated it 75%). In 2018, it came to ABC as a 10-episode documentary, with more new material (Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 94%; audiences 82%), and in May 2022, HBO Max aired a fictionalized miniseries, The Staircase, by Antonio Campos, starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette (Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 92%; audiences 77%).

And this probably isn’t a complete list. At this point, where does reality lie? As Hefffernen says, “documentaries are filled with staged stuff, and fiction films use real names, real plot points, and often real dialog drawn from court records.” Poor Kathleen Peterson seems a bit lost.

De Lestrade criticizes the recent film for suggesting his team was biased in favor of Peterson, when through its several iterations, his Staircase attempted to leave its viewers uncertain as to the husband’s guilt. However, “taking sides” may be an artifact of de Lestrade’s decision to tell the story from the point of view of Peterson and his legal team.

As true-crime television and documentaries proliferate, and podcasts gain in listenership, it may become harder to separate fact from fiction. Without taking sides on this key problem, Heffernen concedes these hybrid genres have “lived in the flicker of truth and poetry.”

How a Book Is Made

Readers and writers alike may enjoy this interactive New York Times feature from a few months back, ICYMI, which shows step-by-step how a book is made. Elizabeth Harris and photographer Thomas Prior followed the progress of Marlon James’s book Moon Witch, Spider King, from its beginning as a Word document somewhere in the cloud to a finished hardcover book you can hold in your hand.

The first step (after Marlon finishes his cloud magic) is producing the brilliantly colored jacket, which is run on a six-color press, 8,000 sheets of paper in a batch. Next, the aptly-named press that prints the actual book pages. It weighs 200,000 pounds, and the rolls of specialty paper books require weigh 800 pounds each—no supply chain paper shortages here!

It’s probably a good idea that authors are nowhere near these presses. Watching the flying ribbon of paper is almost scary, as is wondering whether the pages will arrive at the bindery in the right order. (Eeek! The gathering machine! Trimming! Gluing!) It’s amazing how rarely these pieces of the process do mess up. As many books as I’ve read, handled, skimmed, etc., I’ve seen out-of-order pages or bad trimming once in a very blue moon.

The cardboard covers (call one a “case,” and you’ll pass for a printing insider) then go on. The striking jacket wrappers are folded onto the books. Boxes of finished books are wrapped, sealed, labeled, and ready to ship. Fini! This is a lot more than I knew about producing a book when I was 10, and my mom found me pecking on my sturdy Underwood. “Writing is so hard!” I complained. “It’s almost impossible to make the right side of the lines come out even!”

An Inside Look at Commercial Airline Flights

This week, we had a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional flight from Newark Airport to Dallas-Ft. Worth. Robert Zyriek, a former Air Force fighter pilot, now an experienced commercial pilot with more than 20,000 hours of flying time, made the presentation. I’d describe the process as an inevitably frustrating exercise in precise planning amidst a sea of unpredictable circumstances.

Flight 001 was scheduled to leave Newark at 7:30 am Eastern Time and arrive at DFW around 10:45 Central. Leaving, of course meant “doors closed, no latecomers allowed,” and arriving meant “doors open for deplaning,” not when the wheels touch the ground.

That’s a hard-and-fast rule. An excruciating TSA line in San Francisco prompted a couple of guys to prevail on me to let them go ahead, because they were about to miss their flight to Chicago. I of course said “sure,” and as a result, arrived at the gate for my Newark-bound flight just as the door closed. “But the plane is sitting right there.” “Yes, it is, and the door’s closed.” I’d run afoul of the stringent rules of the Federal Aviation Administration, which cover every aspect of your flight, as Zyriek explained.

Planning for a particular flight begins hours before you’re even headed to the airport. For our 7:30 departure, the dispatcher starts around 2 a.m., working up an overview of the flight, condition of the plane, the anticipated weight of the passengers and their luggage, and, most important, the amount of fuel needed.

As the dispatcher does the calculations, the captain, first officer, and flight attendants are still sleeping. The FAA even prescribes when they need to leave their hotel to begin being “on duty.” For a 7:30 a.m. flight, that’s probably about 6:15. We’ve all been on flights where a late inbound flight made the scheduled crew late for our outbound flight. If the combination of the delayed flight and the planned outbound flight will exceed their allowed hours on duty, there must be a new crew altogether.

It’s in implementing the flight plan that the captain contributes to the airline’s bottom line. Pilots can’t control the number of seats sold, but they have some control over the amount of fuel used. The plan covers the route, anticipated weather, whether an alternative landing airport is needed because of weather uncertainties, and the amount of fuel required. The FAA also requires a fuel reserve for 45 extra minutes of flying time, extra fuel for the backup landing airport and for anticipated on-ground delays, and so on. On a short flight, these extra fuel allotments may exceed the amount of fuel needed to reach the original destination.

When the crew arrives at the airport, each member has a job to do. The gate agent hands off the the dispatcher’s plan to the captain, tracks the number of passengers and any special requirements, like wheelchairs, whether there will be animals on board, and the like. The Captain is the nexus of information, and the First Officer (whom Zyriek called “the doer”) turns on the power, programs the navigation computer, and walks around the outside of the plane looking for problems. The flight attendants check their safety equipment, attempt to adjust the cabin temperature, make sure the seats and overhead compartments are working, and take on board food and beverages.

The first changes to our carefully worked out flight plan occur when the first officer’s walkaround reveals ice on the wings. While dispatch planned extra fuel for this, the captain is told the DFW weather forecast is tanking and may require landing at the backup airport (Tulsa), which requires additional fuel. This creates a delay, while fuel is added (time for the wings to ice up again), and dispatch creates a new timing, and a new fuel load calculation. This is why your mom has been waiting at the airport for two hours already by the time you arrive.

In flight, the Captain is anticipating the next moves and monitoring some sensors, but most of the monitoring duties fall to the First Officer. Generally, they take turns “flying” the plane and working the radio. While they might use autopilot during some portion of the flight, Zyriek maintains that autopilot is only as good  as the information it’s given. That’s up to the crew. Over Kentucky the plane encounters a patch of turbulence. Ordinarily, the captain would increase the altitude to avoid it, but the added fuel make the plane too heavy to do that.

During our flight, the cockpit receives reports of worsening conditions at DFW, and Tulsa looks to be in our future, but at almost the last possible moment, the weather moves out, and we land around noon. Whew!

Where Story Ideas Come From: How Story Flows into Daily Challenges, A Core Story Question

Simmering in the background in the architectural world for some time has been the issue of security in building design. Yes, there are guidances (we non-architects might call them “standards”) for security, just as there are for accessibility and, increasingly, sustainability.

But these are often considered a ceiling, not a floor.

When the authorities confront the protagonist of my forthcoming novel, architect Archer Landis, with information that his murdered associate (and lover) was affiliated with the Arab American community, they jump to the conclusion, terrorism. Was she trying to ferret out details on the vulnerabilities of key buildings his firm has designed? Was she going to turn sensitive information over to the bad guys? They say yes, but he’s sure they’re wrong.

As a conscientious businessman, he has to do more than bluster about this. He is angry, but how can he turn the situation around? For many buildings—especially ones like embassies and government structures, military facilities, transportation hubs, stadiums and other places where many people congregate—a balance is needed between security and openness. Countries don’t want their embassies looking like fortresses, littered with clunky bollards. A new building’s design has to include features that not only help thwart any attack, but also make the structure a less attractive target in the first place. There’s psychology involved.

Without inserting an essay on this balancing act into the novel, I had to find ways to talk about these real-world concerns in what I hope is an interesting way. Certainly, they are uppermost in Landis’s mind once the attacks on him, his family, and his business begin. All this is part of making him seem to readers like a real person, with real-world concerns.Architect of Courage is coming from Black Opal Books on June 4.

Who Are You, Really?

Being bitten by the genealogy bug gives you a ticket to the vast carnival midway of life, with all its delights, haunted houses, and proofs of strength. You can wander into any number of enticing alleyways, all in the name of “research.” Recently, I participated in a Zoom lecture by author Paul Joseph Fronczak who’s written books about his strange history, which was made into the CNN documentary, The Lost Sons.

Ten-year-old Paul Fronczak found some newspaper clippings from the mid-1960s hidden in the family attic. They described how a woman disguised as a nurse had kidnapped a day-old baby boy from the maternity ward of a Midwestern hospital.

Fifteen months later, a toddler boy was found abandoned in northern New Jersey, identified as the missing child, and returned to his parents. The stories he’d found were about him, Paul Fronczak. Although raised in a loving home, Paul always felt like an outsider. In later years, he convinced his parents to get a DNA test, to make sure he was really their missing child. Short answer: he was not. But who was he?

He embarked on a quest to find his biological parents and, if possible, the kidnapped Paul. Again, DNA provided answers as well as new questions. The author Paul’s birth name was Jack Rosenthal, and he was born in New Jersey. (Ironically, he’s grateful to have grown up in the Fronczak home, because the Rosenthal family “was a nightmare.”) Jack Rosenthal’s birth certificate revealed a new mystery. He had a twin sister, as yet unidentified. After six years of effort, Paul did find the Fronczak’s biological son, called Kevin, living in Michigan.

If the Fronczak case weren’t convoluted enough, The Washington Post (paywall) recently covered the story of the Bryntwick family of Montreal. Anne Bryntwick was a single mom in the 1950s, who for a decade had an occasional liaison with a man named Mike Mitchell. Apparently she saw him frequently enough, because, as her son Bob says, she gave birth like clockwork “every year, year and a half.”

Anne raised five children herself, but six of her babies disappeared. As DNA-testing became more popular, information on what happened to these babies began to appear when two of the adopted-out siblings found each other. And they found their brother Bob. All but one of the adopted-out siblings were raised as only children, and, even though they are now in their 70s, they enthusiastically embrace their new-found brothers and sisters.

It seems Mitchell, their father, was selling some of Anne’s babies for $10,000 apiece to U.S. and Canadian couples desperate for adoption. Laws at the time didn’t ban such sales, and poor, uneducated women like Anne were ripe for exploitation. Meanwhile, Mitchell was married to another woman, with whom he had eight more children.

“DNA doesn’t like, people lie,” says one of the adopted-out sisters. And lying was easier when people didn’t discuss certain things. Some families still don’t. The other Rosenthal children are not interested in meeting their brother Paul, nor are most of the Bryntwick half-siblings, children of the married couple. Both of these sagas are eye-popping reads!

True Identity by Paul Fronczak