I have always been envious of writers who are able to effectively render the natural world. I grew up in the city so in some sense, nature is a foreign land to me. It is, however, a foreign land in which I have traveled. As a boy, I was a member of Boy Scout Troop 17 in Elmhurst, Queens. There were camping trips every month throughout the year, two weeks of summer camp in July, and a special “long trip” in August where each year we went on an extended cross-country road trip. In August of 1972, I hiked Mount Washington in New Hampshire, navigated the rapids of the Penobscot River in Maine, hiked along the rocky shores in Acadia National Park, and did traditional New England style Cod fishing in Nova Scotia (making Captains Courageous, a very enjoyable read in school the following fall). 1973 was a grand tour of the west including a backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon, mountain climbing in The Grand Tetons, and canoeing in Missouri. 1974 was a trip to Arkansas for a multi-day canoeing the beautiful Buffalo River. Years later when the Clinton Whitewater scandal erupted, I actually knew where the place was.
These experiences stimulated all my city-boy senses senses and whenever I read a piece of writing that effectively captures them, I am transported back to those places in my memory. Some of these places have shown up in my writing. My young couple in “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” spend a night camping in Acadia National Park. Another couple hike up to Indian Cliffs in Ten Mile River Boy Scout Camp, near Narrowsburg, New York in my story “Indian Summer.” How I end up mixing fictional couples with boy scout memories in stories with romantic themes is perhaps a topic for psycho-analysis. As my late father might have said, “Boy Scout camp was never like this!”
I wrote “Indian Summer” in a hotel room in Bellevue, Washington. It was early spring and I was inspired by the bluest sky I’ve ever seen, the towering evergreens and the sight of Mount Rainer’s face glistening in the late afternoon sun. I sat down at the computer and challenged myself to write something that captured the natural world. I imagined a couple walking alone in the woods. My first attempt was to write it as a narrative poem. I’m not really much of a poet, so after about an hour of fumbling around, I switched to prose, and it started working for me. After about three sentences, I realized that I was doing Hemingway, but decided to press on anyway.
Although I was in Washington State at the time, my mind went back to memories of hiking with my boy scout troop. A favorite destination for a hike in summer camp at Ten Mile River in New York, was Indian Cliffs. The view at the top is of a bend in the Delaware River.
I imagined my couple hiking to Indian Cliffs on the trail that starts near Camp Kunatah in the Rock Lake section of the reservation. Old memories of the sights, the smell of the pines, the feel of the earth and rock beneath my feet came back to me.
After I finished the first draft a few hours later, I read what I had written. While I was proud that it was quite a lovely account of couple walking through the woods, it really wasn’t much of a story. While it seems that I had captured one of those all to rarely “perfect days” that we experience and remember forever, there was no plot, no conflict.
I set it aside for a week and thought about it. The piece did indeed capture a perfect day in the lives of the couple in the story. Like any other perfect, idyllic day, it cannot last for ever. However blissful they may be, the real world eventually intrudes and that perfect day must come to an end.
The Hemingway-like style of the story also made me think about Hemingway’s early stories, themselves sensuous trips into the natural world. “The Big Two Hearted River” came to my mind along with its protagonist, Hemingway stand-in Nick Adams. The “soldier’s home” theme got me thinking about what was different now from when Hemingway’s time.
The war in Iraq was about two years old at the time. I live in a part of the country where there are a lot of service families. In some of them, both the husband and wife were in some branch of the military or members of the reserve. An acquaintance of mine was a lieutenant colonel in the army and his wife was in the army reserve. She had recently been called up and deployed to Iraq.
Another friend of mine teaches English at a community college in upstate New York and had been writing to me about some of her students, some just returned, some on their way to Iraq.
I had found the element of the real world that intrudes into that idyllic perfect day where my couple are the only two people in the world. I went through the story and carefully dropped in little bits of narration and dialogue that just hinted of my newfound theme. After that I took a few more passes through the story, ruthlessly cutting as much as I could to make every single word that was left the essence of the the piece. Although I didn’t quite make it, my goal was to cut it to exactly 1000 words.
The story is now four year old and as time has passed, and the war drags on, this story has grown on me and it’s now one of my favorites.
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