Monthly Archives: November 2014

Wingspread Ezine for Dec. 1, 2014


Wingspread: A new Ezine dedicated to faith, flying, and coming of age in a complex world.

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The Middle Passage: A story about coming of age—Read it at :

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On Writing: “But, how do I start my story?”

James Hurd, November, 2014

This is the first article in a series on writing. The next articles will be: 2. Revising, 3. Editing, 4. Layout, 5. Getting your story out to others.

New book: Wingspread: Memoirs of Faith and Flying.  Review it and buy it at:

Wingspread site:

You don’t have a choice, you know—you must write your stories. Only you can tell them from your unique viewpoint. You owe these stories to your friends and family. You have something important to say. We all must write, even if’s a few pages in a looseleaf notebook. Do it, and give it to your kids, or to your friends.

Why must you write? 1. To find out what you know, what you remember. 2. To organize your scattered thoughts. 3. To discover, perhaps for the first time, the meanings of your own life.

Just start!

The best advice: just start! This will free you. Planning at this point can stifle you. Freewriting means getting a sheet of paper and just writing. If you don’t know what to write, just write this: “I wonder what I’ll write about…” Force yourself to write continuously, without stopping, for fifteen minutes. Save the agonizing and revising for later.

If you must, just create a list of topics and write on the best one:

  1. Firsts in my life (first day of school, of marriage, of a job, of a new home)
  2. The most, the greatest (surprise, gift, sorrow, challenge, friend, event)
  3. What happened when I (lied, broke up, had my first period, moved, had a fight)
  4. My greatest fear; my greatest joy…
  5. My strongest conviction is…
  6. The strangest, most interesting character I ever met…
  7. The first thing I remember is…
  8. The house where I grew up was…
  9. My deepest spiritual experience was when…
  10. Many other topics

How do I tell my story?

Not many things are true across all world cultures, but one thing is true: Everybody loves a story. So tell stories. Story means narrative—moving things along. What happens first? Then what?

You don’t have to make it all about you. You don’t even have to use the word “I.” But you are the video camera, you are the lens through which you let people see your world. What makes a good story? Writing about people, in some detail. Good descriptions of places, descriptions of events. Lots of good dialogue, people talking to each other. Your readers might skip over many things, but few people can skip over dialogue. But most of all, keep telling the story.

Brenda Ueland gives some advice: “If you want to be a better writer, you need to become a better person.” Who knew? But she’s actually talking about transparency, vulnerability, honesty. You might write about your grandmother’s wearing a dress she didn’t wear. That’s OK. But never have her doing something you know she’d never do. Keep true to her, and to your memory of her. So, be honest. Write what you really think and believe. Don’t invent a style you think a reader might like. Write first of all for yourself, and be honest.

Focus, focus, focus

Anne Lamott says, “Tell your story looking through a one-inch picture window.” She means, better to write about a soldier than about the Civil War, your room rather than your house, your first day, rather than your whole time in elementary school, your mother rather than your family. Focus, focus, focus. Sharpen your lens and zero in on one person, one event, one object, one little place. One writer wrote a whole story about a board game he played as a child! Once you have this sharp focus, you can easily weave the other necessary parts around it.

Where to start your story? Where to end?

Don’t write an “introduction.” You’ll probably cut it later anyway. Just jump in! Of course, your story needs some context, some explaining, but you have plenty of time to do this throughout your story. If you must write an introduction, make it the last thing you work on.

Start with the best part of your story, the high point. If you start there, you’ll find that you can build all the other things around it. You don’t even have to start at the beginning! In fact, I usually wouldn’t recommend it. Start at the most interesting part, and you can gently lead your reader backward and forward in time.

Where to end? When you’re finished, stop! And leave the reader with a punch, with the most surprising or significant thing. Maybe keep your reader in suspense a little bit and then hit ‘em with a powerful ending.

So, what are you waiting for? You’re not writing a book, just one story. Start now.   J.H.

The Middle Passage

(These stories are in some way connected to Wingspread: Of Faith and Flying: )

I barely survived three years at Orange Middle School. I resent that I had to do puberty at the same time.

When I spread my wings, I discovered that the rest of the world was not Fundamentalist. Indeed, hardly anybody was. And furthermore, some of them were really scary.

My first day, I happened to pass Jimmy Creech in the hall. Creech wasn’t the sharpest needle in the pincushion—it would take him two hours to watch 60 minutes. To my eyes he was bereft of grace, a bellowy eighth grader who stood 6’5.” But he walked like the Fonz, and had a gaggle of admirers following him.

I must have said something like, “Hey there,” or “What’s up?”

Creech paused, turned, and addressed my person: “What’d you say?


“Come’ere kid.”

I came. He ripped a piece of paper out of my notebook and wrote on it.

“Turn around, kid.”

I turned. He scotch-taped the paper sign to my back and said, “You take that off and I’ll beat your face in.” The sign read “I AM THE SCUM OF THE EARTH.” Then he walked away.

I wore the sign the first two hours of middle school. Finally, a teacher saw it, ripped it off, and asked, “Who did this to you?”

“I dunno,” I lied. From that day on I realized that I was not the most important person on campus.


At lunchtime, the kids who had money walked across Glassell Street to the high school cafeteria. The rest of us ate our home-packed bag lunches under sheltered tables that stood near the softball field. Most kids ate Fritos, little cans of juice, and candy bars. I wanted the same, but instead, Mom packed me mayonnaise and avocado sandwiches. I would ask, “Anybody wanna trade me for Fritos?” Nobody. That day I learned that not all families are the same.

Some days, if I had money, I would throw Mom’s sandwiches in the trash, sneak through an illicit hole in the chain link fence, and buy tamales at the little Mexican restaurant across Sycamore Avenue. A green banana leaf enfolded the moist corn meal. The cook had stuffed the dough with raisins, onions, and succulent pieces of pork and potatoes. I can still taste those tamales.

One lunchtime I turned to the kid next to me and said, “Have you seen our new music teacher? He’s an old fossil.”

Turned out the “fossil” was standing right behind me. He said nothing, but beginning that day, I became his special project. He inspired me to sing my heart out in his school choir. He was a pilot, and gave me my first airplane ride. I cried the day he left our school because Jack Coleman was a Christian man. I learned from him that there are people in the world who care deeply about you, even if you’re a jerk.

The boys

After lunch, the boys sort of milled around the playground or huddled in tight little groups. Carl was squat, muscular, a football type of guy. Jerry played first base in our pickup games. Don had a crew-cut with a waxed ducktail. These were the noble ones—they drank from the Source. I always invited them to my birthday parties and miniature golfing at Shady Acres in Long Beach. They never invited me back. I learned that friendship isn’t something you can buy.

I got a crash course in fashion when I noticed these boys wearing three-button button-down shirts (you left the back button unbuttoned) and perma-pressed slacks with a little cloth belt buckle on the back. Or they wore Levis. If a kid came to school with a new pair of Levis, they would wrestle him to the ground and tear off the little red “Levi” tag on the back. My parents provided well for us, but we weren’t rich, so I didn’t wear Levis; I worn unknown-brand jeans.  My mom found a second-hand tee-shirt somewhere with “Orange Grammar School” on the front (an obsolete name for Orange Intermediate). I only wore it once.

Gary Noll had punched me in the stomach in elementary school. Now, he saw me as a tempting target and challenged me to a fight. Some of us were shooting baskets after school waiting for coach McKee to come out when Gary Noll walked up and chose me off. It was a brief fight. He put me in a crushing headlock that I thought would rip my ears off.

He said, “Say ‘uncle!’”


He let me go and walked away. I tried not to let the others see me crying.

I learned more vocabulary from the boys than I did in English class. They would say “Oh, fat,” “spas out” (a mockery of spastics, whose gestures they would expertly imitate), or we would call someone “brain” (mocking his stupidity). My linguistic education was bilingual—I learned dirty words in English and also in Spanish–even though I didn’t know what they meant.

The girls

Playground talk often shifted to the second gender, and soon my hormones began warring against my Fundamentalist morals. All the girls at Orange Intermediate wore dresses or a blouse and skirt. The boys would look at their legs when they walked up the bleacher-like stairsteps to the second floor. Sometimes when a girl leaned down at the drinking fountain, a boy would come up behind and snap her bra strap.

I noticed Sally Gould. When her father hired me to do yard work at her house, I longed to see her coming and going. But she was a princess—above my class. Besides, Mike had the pole position with her. Once when I saw Mike and Sally from a distance, Mike said, “Hey, come over here if you wanna fight.” Mike was four inches shorter than me, but what he lacked in bulk he made up in bluster. Plus he wore a button-down shirt and pants with a buckle on the back. I walked away in shame.

Dark-haired Judy Clark was the smartest girl in school—smarter than I was, and better than I was in spelling. Once I tried to stiff Miss Parker on a spelling test. She had marked the word “America” wrong because my “i” wasn’t dotted. I then embedded a tiny dot in the line above and turned it back to her. She didn’t buy it, and Judy got the higher grade.

Shirley—blonde, beautiful, burgeoning—was the daughter of the owner of a furniture store. When we were in second grade she was my first girlfriend, but I hardly dared speak to her in intermediate school. At graduation she played the piano in a strapless dress.

And there was Bunny—not a beauty queen, but chatty, approachable. When we would ride the fan bus to “away” games, Bunny would issue a general invitation to the boys—“Here, hold my hand—it’s no big deal.” I felt guilty when I reached out to grasp the moist, promiscuous hand.

The girls at Orange Intermediate were taller, more articulate, more social than the boys, and light years more mature. I assumed they all had high morals and maintained sturdy fences and boundaries. Not true—my friend Helen trafficked in trashy poetry and other girls earned the reputation of being “easy”—but my wrong beliefs protected me from seeking unwarranted liaisons.

The principal

At intermediate school I learned about the criminal justice system. The principal was the ultimate threat, the face of justice that was supposed to motivate good behavior.

Once Mr. Hardesty sent me to the principal’s office for participating in a chalk fight where pieces of chalk landed in the goldfish bowl. It was a fun time and I thought, It was totally worth it. Another time, Miss Wilson sent a few of us to the principal because, instead of listening, we were sitting in the back of her English class reading the newspaper. The principal said, “Jamie, your citizenship has really slipped.” I realized that “citizenship” wasn’t something I had ever thought about improving.

Once during lunch hour, some of us were playing handball against the building instead of participating in the required softball game. The principal told the PhyEd coach, Mr. Elmore, to deal with it. Mr. Elmore was a proud man, bronzed, muscular, and serious as a heart attack. He talked as if someone had put sand in his toothpaste. He took three of us to the woodshop where he found the wooden paddle with the holes drilled in it.

He told me, “Grab your ankles.” I upended, wondering how hard he would hit.

He hit. The single, hard whack brought tears to my eyes but I refused to sob.

A Fundamentalist in a worldly school

At Orange Intermediate, I just felt weird. Later I learned that “feeling weird” is common for pubescent males, but I was convinced it was because I was a Fundamentalist. A “Fundamentalist” is sort of an Evangelical on steroids.

The kids at school came in only three categories: Unchurched, Catholic, and mainline Modernist (read “worldly”). I didn’t fit any of these categories. As far as I knew, I was a group of one, a spiritual orphan.

I would stand mute while my friends discussed the movies they’d seen. Our church was anti-movie, so I never entered Orange Theater. Or when my history teacher talked about early hominids and evolution, I had to tell him, “I don’t believe that. The Bible doesn’t mention it.”

He told me, “I don’t believe it either, but we have to teach it.”

My Fundamentalist pastor told me I had to separate myself from the contagion of the World. And at intermediate school I saw the world all around me—worldly dress, worldly language, worldly activities. I felt compelled to “witness” about my faith, speaking Jesus-words to my unchurched classmates. I refused to participate in square dancing. At graduation, they were all doing the Bunny Hop in the auditorium while Howard and I sat in the lobby playing chess. Howard, the supreme nerd, once asked our math teacher if she knew how a right triangle is like a frozen dog? (Answer: “perp-in-di-cooler.”) I didn’t like Howard. I didn’t like myself. We were both nerd-heads.
Looking back, I see that I was a prig, a “holier than thou” person. But the kids at Orange Intermediate tried their best to squeeze that out of me.

Pushing puberty

And yet, I felt more than different—I felt insecure, with an unfulfilled passion to conform. But I failed to fit in. (Much later, I discovered that most middle schoolers felt that way.)

One place I wanted to fit in was in the locker room. Coach McKee would say, “Now you boys need to go to the locker room and shower.” My palms sweat now, thinking about it. The locker room provided a display case for flowering puberty. Or not—I don’t think I was flowering. I had spindly arms and legs, only faint traces of body hair, and a freckle-mottled face. The eighth graders would steal my towel and use it to snap my bare derriere, then make me kneel and beg to get my towel back.

I did not like my body. Looking in the mirror I would think, My eyebrows are too low! I obsessed about that for a while. In the locker room, I discovered a new athletic appliance—the jockstrap. I didn’t even know boys needed one, but I self-consciously climbed into it. Other boys were less self-conscious—once Mike pulled his on and stretched one strap over his shoulder. He looked around and asked innocently, “How do you get into this thing, anyway?”

My most vivid memory of the locker room was Billy, a bully who would steal the pennies off a dead man’s eyes. One day he turned from the adjacent urinal and peed on me. A little yellow river trickled down my leg and onto the floor.

                                                   *          *          *

Looking back, I see that most of my learning at Orange Intermediate took place outside the classroom. I learned how to deal with adversity, how to relate to “worldly” people, how to be “in the world but not of it,” how to respect women, how to share faith, and how to have compassion for all people, even Billy, and Jimmy Creech. And most important, I learned something about Christian humility. Indeed, Orange Intermediate taught me that I was not the fourth member of the Trinity.

In search of my lost soldier cousin

[These blogs and stories are unpublished, but all are in some way connected to Wingspread: Of Faith and Flying, Booklocker Press,  ]

It’s 2011 and Eddie’s been dead for over 50 years—I’ve never even seen his picture. I wonder, Why don’t my relatives ever talk about him? Why do I seek his grave today?

Early on, I discovered that our family was strange—a peculiar, small island among our extended family kin. We were Fundamentalists—no one else was. So, I seek Eddie’s grave today to learn more about the rest of the family.

Dad told me, “Your Uncle Everett trained in Texas to fly B-29s. One day, he was marching in formation when he saw his cousin Eddie from Minnesota marching right in front of him—he didn’t even know he’d enlisted! Everett came home and lived into his 80s, but Eddie was fed as fodder into the military machine, and, when he was 29, German guns cut him down.” That was all Dad said. Today, I search for Eddie’s grave. Why? I wonder. What will I do if I find him?

During the war, Dad wanted to be an army chaplain, but lacked seminary education, so he turned to carpentering. By the time I was three years old, it was clear the Allies were winning. Dad would call me outside when he’d hear a plane’s roar. “Look! That’s a B-36 bomber. It has eight engines.” I loved to watch the bulbous sub-spotting blimps floating over Newport harbor. They hangared in two 1000-foot-long, wooden structures near Santa Ana. Dad said, “I worked on every rafter in that building.” For Dad and me, WWII was a beautiful thing—all patriotic and exciting.

Dad had grown up near Eddie’s Minnesota home, but in 1920, Dad’s family abandoned Minnesota for California. Dad said, “My dad went west and got rich, but Eddie’s dad stayed in Minnesota and got poor.” The families rarely contacted each other.

In 1982 I moved back to Minnesota with my own family. I talked on the phone with Dad’s cousins, but never met them. Now that they’re all gone, I can’t heal the breach between our families, but if I find Eddie’s grave, perhaps I can at least honor his memory.

The search

Dad never seemed that interested in his Minnesota relatives. Years ago when Dad visited us, we walked the grasses of Winnebago’s North cemetery, but didn’t find Eddie’s grave—in fact, we found no Hurd graves at all. I knew that Eddie’s grandparents had died in the “Old Soldier’s Home” in Minneapolis. Suddenly it dawned on me—Eddie was in the army; I’ll bet he’s buried at Ft. Snelling!

Today Barbara and I lurch along the Hiawatha light rail line, get off at the airport stop, then walk a few hundred yards to Ft. Snelling’s iron gates. I am briefly overwhelmed. I think of Dante’s “I had not thought death had undone so many.” It’s the size of a city, with identical headstones stretching to the horizon. I see no person—just row upon endless row of stones planted in fresh-mown grass. Two hundred thousand military dead are planted here, and, to avoid digging winter’s frozen ground, workers prepare 1000 new graves every fall for the winter’s new crop. Today, only the mute stones speak for those who can speak no longer.

We stop a worker roaring by on a small garden tractor. He tells us, “There’s a large kiosk at the far end that lists all the burials.” We walk about a quarter mile to the kiosk and I browse the records. Most of the Hurds listed were buried since the 90s—I recognize none of the names, and no “Eddie Hurd.”  Then I remember Edwin, Eddie’s grandfather. Was Eddie’s name “Edwin?” I find him immediately—“Edwin Kenneth Hurd, Section B-1, Site 360N.” I never knew his middle name. But I’m puzzled by the interment date—December 11, 1947, exactly three years after his death.

Ft. Snelling opened in 1939, and the first burials must have been at this end. We walk a short distance and find section B. Stones here date from 1940-44, probably WWII deaths. I had read that the Battle of the Bulge, America’s bloodiest battle of the war, lasted from November 11, 1944 to January 25, 1945. Now we’re passing many graves from December, 1944. Was Eddie part of December’s harvest?

The stone                                                    

We read the little numbers on the backs of identical stones—362, 361…—and stop before 360N. There it is! I kneel and touch the small, white, granite stone, rounded on top, with a little cross carved inside a circle. I trace the letters with my finger:

Edwin K. Hurd
Staff Sgt Infantry
World War II
November 27 1915
December 11 1944

That is all. He lies under a fragrant cypress tree, one insignificant drop of blood among the 52 million civilians and military who perished in WWII.

I imagine Verna waiting in Minneapolis for her husband’s return, searching the papers, looking for any news. But never would she embrace him again. Undoubtedly they buried him where he fell in Belgium (a country his parents had never seen) along with 19,000 other American dead. When did his parents, Nelson and Mary, first receive the death telegram?

It must have taken three three years to ship his body back home. Would the family have traveled up from Winnebago for the interment that bitter December winter? It must have seemed like a second death. His sister Gladys, 25 at the time, would have been there. I almost met her in the 80s, but just as we planned a road trip to Medelia, she died. I wonder how long it’s been since anyone visited the grave? Did Eddie’s brother or sisters ever come here later? I visualize Verna’s wan face as she makes a later, solitary visit, perhaps to offer a Memorial Day bouquet. How soon we forget.

* * * *

Curious—why do I seek healing here among the dead? I cannot staunch my anger, and my heavy spirit savors the bitter swill of war—this early death, the loss of memory, severed family ties. How make amends? How reconcile? I can’t unring the bell.

I hesitate—then, fingering the thin stem, I lean against the stone a penitentiary flower–then we depart.