“Absent Friends” – a story for Memorial Day.

I wrote this story back in 2004, and it was published in a regional magazine, Kansas City Voices. One of the submission requirements at the time was that your story had to take place somewhere in the KC area, and I opted to set this piece in Union Station, my favorite building in the city. I’ve been fascinated with it since my first visit, and get back over there as often as I’m able. I actually wrote most of this story sitting at one of the tables of the cafe I describe.

A few years later, I wrote another story tying to this one, “See You When It’s Over,” that’s set in the past and fleshes out some of the things described by one of the original story’s characters. At the time, I had intended the two stories to act as “bookends” for a potential collection of tales all set in and around Union Station, and that’s still an idea which still might happen one of these days.

For now, though, here’s the original piece:


“Absent Friends”
by
Dayton Ward

Turning to his right, Mark Devlin adjusted the focus on his camera and the old man came into sharp relief at the precise instant he brought a flask to his lips.

“There’s something you don’t see everyday,” Mark muttered to himself, smiling as he snapped the picture and captured the other man’s illicit act for posterity.

In truth, the behavior was nowhere near the most bizarre Mark had seen, even in the time since he had taken to photographing locations and people around Kansas City. Still, it was decidedly out of place for the normally tranquil environs of Union Station, the city’s once-bustling railway hub. After enduring years of neglect as railway traffic dwindled almost to a standstill, the station had in recent years enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. A near-total restoration had turned the formerly condemned structure into an historical landmark and tourist attraction as well as a social gathering point for all manner of local residents.

Definitely not part of the corks and forks crowd, Mark mused as he continued to study his subject, thinking of the wine and food tasting festivals that occasionally took place in the station’s plaza area. The man, at least eighty years of age, sat alone at one of the outlying tables encircling the café at the center of the Grand Hall, though he seemed oblivious to the other patrons occupying tables around him.

Instead, his attention appeared to be riveted on the huge clock hanging high above the floor on the hall’s north side, which Mark knew had been one of the station’s most prominent features since its opening in 1914. Mark watched him drink from the flask without moving his eyes from the clock, but as he peered through his camera’s viewfinder this time, however, he also saw a single tear rolling down the man’s left cheek.

Was he remembering a lost love? Had he received troubling or tragic news? Could he be planning to do something drastic, perhaps even right here in the station? At once both intrigued and concerned, Mark failed to realize he had even moved from his own seat near the Station Master gift shop until he was standing just to the right of the man’s table.

The man’s deeply-lined features darkened into a scowl, and it was obvious that Mark’s approach had startled him.

“What?” he asked, making no effort to disguise his annoyance at the interruption. His voice was raspy and weak, another sign of his advancing years.

“Are you all right, sir?” Mark asked, holding up the camera. “I was taking pictures and couldn’t help noticing that you seemed upset.” Looking down at the table, he saw that the man’s left hand rested atop what appeared to be an old photograph.

The man’s expression softened a bit, though his eyes remained intense as he seemed to inspect Mark, his gaze scrutinizing him from head to foot. Finally, he lifted a weathered hand and pointed to the camera bag slung over Mark’s left shoulder. “Did you serve?”

Looking down, Mark realized the man had seen the luggage tag attached to one of his bag’s straps. A holdover from his military career, the plastic card bore a camouflage pattern and the word “Marines” in yellow block letters. He returned his attention to the older man and nodded in confirmation. “Yes, sir, though I’ve been out for a while now.”

The man seemed to weigh this for another moment before nodding more to himself than to Mark and indicating one of the empty chairs flanking his table. “Have a seat, if you like.”

Unsure why he was doing so, Mark accepted the offer and settled into the chair on the man’s left. Extending his right hand, he offered a more formal greeting. “Mark Devlin.”

“Donald Gibson,” the man replied as he shook the proffered hand. Pointing to Mark’s camera, he asked. “You a reporter or something?”

Mark shook his head. “No, sir. It’s a hobby I’ve picked up in the last few months. I’ve been taking pictures of various places around town, and I realized the other day I hadn’t been here since the reopening.”

“I’ve been coming here as long as I can remember,” Gibson said. “For a lot of years, this was the way to get anywhere, you know. Then everybody started flying.” Frowning, he added, “Not me, though. I just never seemed to be in as much of a damned hurry as everybody else. Besides, there’s just something elegant about traveling by train.”

Mark could not help the smile Gibson’s comment elicited. Though his own experiences were confined to the cattle car mentality of subway transit while living in Chicago, he saw no need to refute the older man’s fonder memories.

Bringing the flask to his lips once more, Gibson took another sip, and this time the distinctive odor of Tennessee whiskey teased Mark’s nostrils. As he swallowed the alcohol, Gibson held the flask before him. “If my doctor knew I was drinking this, he’d have my scalp.” Shrugging, he added, “But, I figure once a year won’t kill me, no matter what he says.”

“Special occasion?” Mark asked, regretting the words the instant they left his mouth. Remembering his first sight of the man, he was reluctant to say anything else.

Gibson seemed unperturbed by the question, however. “Depends on how you look at it, I guess.” Setting the flask down on the table, he reached for the faded photograph and handed it to Mark.

Cracked and wrinkled, the photo’s once white border had long ago yellowed with age. The picture itself depicted six young men, each sporting muscular physiques that Mark supposed would be a common sight for the rural, farm-based communities that would have formed much of Kansas City’s surrounding areas decades ago.

“From left to right,” Gibson said after a moment, “that’s Jimmy and Jake Rosemont, Stan Crossfield, Marty Douglas, Lee Ashton, and me. We grew up together, played football together, and eventually joined up for the war together. Summer of ’42, right after graduating high school.”

It was a familiar story, Mark realized, variations of which he had read about in numerous history books. In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, thousands of young men were drafted or volunteered for service as the United States finally entered the massive war already raging in Europe while at the same time turning its sights on the equally vast conflict building in the Pacific.

Pointing to something over Mark’s shoulder, Gibson said, “The last time all of us were together was over there, under the clock. That’s where we said our goodbyes before heading off to boot camp. We even made one of those silly pacts for after the war was over, promising to meet back here every year on the anniversary of our heading out. Swore on it and everything.” His eyes seemed to brighten and a smile creased his wizened face. “Jake snuck a bottle of his daddy’s whiskey, and we all shared it. I remember being drunk as a skunk when I got on my train, and pretty much slept all the way to San Diego.”

Mark laughed at the image that evoked. He had done something similar on the eve of his own departure to recruit training. The resulting hangover had caused him no small amount of pain, especially upon his arrival at Parris Island and his introduction to Marine Corps life at the hands of loud and irate drill instructors intent on making his life miserable for the ensuing eleven weeks.

“Me, Jimmy, Stan and Lee joined the Army,” Gibson continued, “while Jake and Marty went into the Marines. Jimmy, Stan and me ended up in the First Infantry Division, and were at OmahaBeach on D-Day. Lee was always the crazy idiot, so it was no surprise when he volunteered for the paratroopers. Only me and Lee made it home, and it wasn’t until the first year after the war was over, when me and Stan and Jake met here, that we found out Marty died on Okinawa.”

Pausing to clear his throat, he added, “We hadn’t thought about a promise to drink a toast to those who didn’t make it back. It just sort of happened that first time.” As he spoke, Gibson’s attention seemed to drift so that he was no longer facing Mark, but instead seemed to be studying with longing something that only he could see. Unwilling to disturb the man’s ruminations, Mark instead remained silent, allowing Gibson to proceed at his own pace.

“And that’s the way it went for a few years,” the man said after a moment. “Just the three of us, drinking whiskey and toasting our friends once a year. Only Lee stayed in the service after the war, and he was killed in Korea in ‘52.” Shaking his head, he added, “It was just Jake and me after that, and we kept it up. It didn’t matter where a job might take us or how many kids and grandkids we had. Every year, we found a way to meet here.”

Now thoroughly engrossed by the older man’s tale, Mark asked, “What about the years the station was condemned?”

Smiling mischievously, Gibson replied, “We found a way in.” He pointed toward the station’s ornate, arched ceiling, ninety-five feet above the floor. “Damn near got ourselves killed one time, when some of the plaster fell from the ceiling.”

Unable to stifle a chuckle, Mark shook his head at the other man’s gentle humor. It was not enough, however, to keep him from pondering the one question that had yet to be answered.

As if reading his mind, Gibson said, “Jake died in ’94. Heart attack.” Indicating the vast chamber around them, he added, “Good thing they got around to fixing this place up. It was getting to be a tricky thing, sneaking in here by myself. Now I just walk in like the good old days, pay my respects, and go home.” He shook his head, and a wistful expression seemed to grace his features. “In all those years, you’re the first person to ever walk up and ask what the hell was going on.”

“Then it’s my good fortune, I think,” Mark said, his voice heavy with genuine admiration. “And their loss.” He had spoken to many veterans over the years, including a few from the Second World War. Of course, nothing Mark had gleaned from those conversations would ever provide him with the kind of visceral memories harbored by men like Donald Gibson. He at least was one of the survivors of that war, unlike the staggering numbers who had died before truly having the chance to live.

Smiling, Gibson said, “Well, thanks for indulging an old man. I don’t get to talk to someone your age all that often, you know.”

“The pleasure was all mine, sir,” Mark replied, sensing that the appropriate time for him to take his leave had arrived. Rising from his seat, he extended his hand once more. “Thanks for your time.”

Ignoring the gesture, the man waved him back to his chair, adopting a thoughtful, mentoring manner which Mark suddenly realized reminded him so much of his late grandfather. “Tell me, son,” Gibson said, “did you ever see battle?”

“No, sir,” Mark replied. “I was in combat services support during the Gulf War, but they didn’t send me to Saudi Arabia.”

“But you had friends who did, right?” the other man asked. “Buddies who died over there, or even for some other reason?”

His own expression sobering, Mark nodded in confirmation.  It was something he had not thought about in a long time, after all. “Yes, I certainly did.”

Retrieving the flask from the table, Gibson offered it to Mark. “Here, then. Let’s drink to them.”

Mark smiled as he took the flask. “Only if you promise to meet me here next year.”

Copyright © 2004 by Dayton Ward. All Rights Reserved.

Posted in my stories, tributes, writing | 1 Comment

Happy Towel Day!

Did you remember yours?

Towel Day: Celebrating the Life and Work of Douglas Adams

“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”

— Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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The Batcave Podcast, Episode 41!

Another episode of The Batcave Podcast, already? What’s up with that?

It seems that host John S. Drew has put his foot on the gas, at least a little bit, as he continues with his retrospective of the classic 1960s Batman television series starring Adam West, Burt Ward, and cast of favorites. For the second season’s 22nd story (and 45th and 46th episodes overall), he’s joined by indie filmmaker Robert Long to discuss the return of the Clown Prince of Crime Joker in “The Joker’s Last Laugh” and “The Joker’s Epitaph.”

From John’s write-up:

“The Joker returns to Gotham City with a scheme to take over one of the major financial institutions of the metropolis. And he’s engaged the services of a group of unusual goons to help him – a group of robots. These robots are stronger and faster than the Dynamic Duo, but they’re also mute, save for Mister Glee. This gives Josie, the moll, more of a role in this episode. And as all this is going on, Batman schemes to thwart Joker, but his plan backfires and he finds that he’s placed Bruce Wayne in financial and mental jeopardy.”

See what John and Robert think of these episodes: “The Joker’s Last Laugh/The Joker’s Epitaph

Posted in batcave podcast, feelin' nostalgic, friends, nerdity, podcasts, tv | Leave a comment

We be Rushin’…..

Thanks to today’s mail delivery, it’s official: On July 9th, Michi and I will be taking the girls to their first real rock concert:

rush-r40-tix

Michi and I have been going to Rush concerts since 1990’s Presto tour. We haven’t missed a tour since then, and we’ve even managed a twofer on occasion with a given tour.

Once the kids came along and they started hearing Rush music in the car or at home and taking a liking to it (Addy used to sing “Red Barchetta” at bedtime), we know that their first “real” concert had to be with Geddy, Alex, and Neil or else would would forever consider ourselves failures as proper parents.

Yes, there’s already been the odd Disney-related thing here and there, but once I heard rumblings about them wanting to go to a One Direction concert this summer, I started getting nervous. At that point, Rush had not announced plans for a tour to celebrate their 40th anniversary; something similar to what they’d done ten years ago when the Big 3-0 rolled around.

(Yes, Michi and I were there. See above.)

Thankfully, the boys must’ve heard about my plight, for they came through and announced not only a 40th anniversary tour, but with a date here in KC that gets them in here ahead of the 1D guys.

(:: insert sigh of relief here ::)

They also announced that this perhaps also will be the last large-scale tour they’ll do. Yes, time is beginning to catch up with the Trinity, and they’re starting to think that maybe they want to dial it back a bit. If that’s true, then I’m doubly happy the kids will get to see them live because let’s face it….this band puts on a hell of a show.

Okay, boys. Bring it on.

rush

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Happy 35th Anniversary, The Empire Strikes Back!

It is a dark time for the
Rebellion. Although the Death
Star has been destroyed,
Imperial troops have driven the
Rebel forces from their hidden
base and pursued them across
the galaxy.

Evading the dreaded Imperial
Starfleet, a group of freedom
fighters led by Luke Skywalker
has established a new secret
base on the remote ice world
of Hoth.

The evil lord Darth Vader,
obsessed with finding young
Skywalker, has dispatched
thousands of remote probes into
the far reaches of space….

It was a hot day in Tampa (aren’t they all?) on May 21st, 1980, when a couple of friends and I, after standing for four hours in the hot Florida sun finally were able to make our way into a theater that no longer exists, soaking up as much air conditioning, Coke, and popcorn as our bodies could absorb when after three long years of anticipation, these familiar words finally appeared on the screen….

LongTimeAgo
And the audience went nuts.

Released 35 years ago today, The Empire Strikes Back (or, “Episode V” as some people insist on calling it) was that rare sequel that proceeded to top its predecessor. Working from a script by Leigh Brackett and the incomparable Lawrence Kasdan, director Irvin Kershner pulls and stretches on the mythology created by George Lucas. Empire amps up by several notches everything we loved about the original Star Wars while adding new characters and revelations as the journey of Luke Skywalker from backwater farm boy to potential savior of the rebellion against the Galactic Empire begins to take a darker turn.

We’ve got the evil emperor, who we see is the real power pulling Darth Vader’s strings. Then there’s that whole business with Han Solo and Princess Leia, and Boba Fett the super cool bounty hunter coming after Solo. And what about that conniving prick Lando Calrissian, or Yoda the annoying Jedi master? Oh, and did we mention that whole knowledge bomb Vader drops on Luke right after he chops off the dude’s hand?

Awkward.

Those who have only experienced “the original trilogy” via home video or (:: gasp! ::) after discovering Star Wars via one of the more recent films do have one thing going for them: they were spared the “agony” of having to wait three more years to see what would come next. On the other hand, I feel that those who’ve only watched the (at present) six Star Wars films in their “episode order” have been denied the true impact of the surprise twists presented in Empire (and later, Return of the Jedi).

Now that I’m a parent and once my kids started getting into Star Wars, I made sure to show them the films in their original release order. My oldest had been watching the Clone Wars cartoons, but the truth of Anakin Skywalker wasn’t revealed to her until we watched Empire and Return together, and I still laugh at the sounds she made when it all became clear to her.

(Proper indoctrination of offspring into Star Wars? Achievement Unlocked.)

For my money, The Empire Strikes Back remains the best of the Star Wars films, at least to date. Can The Force Awakens unseat it from the top of my heap? I was about to say, “It’s welcome to try,” but as Yoda would say: “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Anyway, my kids and I will be there in December, ready to see for ourselves.

In the meantime? Happy 35th, Empire. You’re not scruffy-looking, at all.

the-empire-strikes-back-dream-poster

Posted in fandom, feelin' nostalgic, movies, nerdity, star wars | 9 Comments

Book sightings!

armageddons-arrow-coverMy spies report from various fronts that copies of Armageddon’s Arrow are beginning to show up in the wild. As of this morning, I have two confirmed sightings.

The book’s “official” publication date is next Tuesday, May 26th, but since most mass-market paperbacks don’t have actual street dates, they can start turning up as much as a week or so ahead of time, depending on when a bookseller gets their stock out to the shelves.

Those of you who prefer e-Books to paper will have to actually wait for the 26th, though, as sellers use the “official” date for dropping the soft copies. If you’re already ordered the book for your e-Device du jour, you should be getting it at some point after midnight on Tuesday.

(What? You haven’t yet ordered yours? da hell, man?)

As I’ve mentioned before, the cover art for this one comes to us courtesy of the incomparable Doug Drexler, working in collaboration with Ali Ries, who provides those glorious backgrounds to accent the ship action. I think I’m going to have to work in a reference to a “Riesian Anomaly” in a future book.

All righty, then: Let me know when it starts showing up in your neck of the woods. We’ll call this the thread to log additional field reports for sightings. Bring us your blurry photos, shaky-cam videos, and eyewitness accounts of your encounters with this beast. Tread carefully, and always stay in pairs or groups, yo. Happy hunting!

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2015 Scribe nominees announced!

iamtwIt’s that time of year, again!

The International Association of Media Tie-In Writers (IAMTW) has announced their nominees for this year’s Scribe Awards, as well as the recipient of the 2015 “Faust” Grandmaster Award. I’m not going to steal any of the thunder from the formal announcements, but instead post the organization’s official press releases here. First up? The Scribe nominees, which includes a number of names familiar to me as well as several people I’m proud to call friends:

Continue reading

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