How A Major Life Change Took Me to Sri Lanka

My most recent writing on The Write Place has focused on historical posts about Carrie Nation, Wyatt Earp and a West Virginia coal mining disaster in 1907. These personalities and events touch upon my work-in-progress, Wichita Snake. My original idea was to share nothing on this blog but historical tidbits to promote my fiction.

But there is a writer behind all his blogging–me!–and, as my friend Jon Harvey recently pointed out, some of the most engaging blog posts tell personal stories. So I’m going to shift gears and restructure The Write Place Blog. Not much, just a little. To avoid becoming a kind of ghost in the machine, I’ve decided to dedicate each third post to some personal story or idea I have about reading and literature and anything else that I believe informs my love of the written word.

Ghost in the Machine

Writing about A Life Change: The Write Place Blogger Steps Out of the Machine (Ghost in the Machine by Ky, CC BY 2.0)

So I’m going to dedicate these third posts to a new section on this blog called “Ramblings”. I’m also working on launching an e-newsletter called “Scribblings”. So there you have it. Ramblings and Scribblings will be phased in as part of this blog, starting with this post.

Okay, on to business. The topic of today’s rambling is making a major life change.

Life Change: Travel, University and Travel Again 

My love of the written word originally put me on a path to the university. I’m not just talking about going to college. A lot of people attend the university so they can become qualified to have a professional career.

(Part II of this blog series has been published and can be accessed here.)

And yes, that was a part of it for me. I was an English major, first at Virginia Tech and then at SUNY Binghamton, where I ended up getting my Bachelor of Arts degree. I even had already had set my sights on graduate school and a career as an English professor. I had loved reading ever since childhood and I could think of no other profession that would allow me to spend as much time with books.

But something interesting happened after graduation. I grew restless. At a young 22 years old, did I really need to set such a clear, linear path into the future? Hell, no. So, in dramatic fashion the summer after I entered the so-called “real world”, I skipped town and moved to Alaska where I went to work on the slime line of a sockeye salmon processing center out near Bristol Bay. The shifts were 16 hours long, went all through the night and didn’t allow such a thing as weekends. Read: seven days a week. The job didn’t mess around. It was brutal.

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But I almost didn’t come back. It’s not just that the state is absolutely beautiful although my writer friend Lisa O’Kane (who I recently interviewed for this blog), just posted a stunning image of Denali National Park on her own blog. If THAT kind of scene doesn’t make you want to go to Alaska, I don’t know what will!

After gutting sockeye salmon in a perpetual zombie-like state over a period of about three months, I and the crew I had worked with were released from slime line bondage, flew back to civilization and ended up crashing in a seedy hotel room on Spenard Street in Anchorage. Around twelve of us slept two consecutive nights in one hotel room. One bed broke: don’t ask. But there were rumors coming in of another salmon run up in Cordova and Valdez. More work, in other words. So this was pretty exciting for someone at my young, impressionable age. I was actually kinda sorta starting to make it in Alaska after only a summer there. At least, for what passes as “making it” to a 22-year old.

As I said, I almost stayed.

Yet in the midst of decision-making in Anchorage, I discovered that the application I had put in to graduate school at Fordham University was accepted. I had to separate myself from the crew and take some time to myself. I went to the movies. I left the hotel room and spent a night alone in my tent at Centennial Park. I meditated on the snow-capped mountains surrounding the city in a ring. But I made my choice. I wished my salty comrades farewell, including a guy named Peter whom I had hit it off with particularly well and who had been arrested two years previously for stabbing a cop, and headed back east.

It was a blur moving from the culture of salmon processing centers to that of graduate school in the Bronx. I attended my first classes unshaven, with greasy, shoulder-length hair and wearing a black Ocean Beauty Seafoods cap (the patch of which showed a blonde mermaid with her arm around a giant red crab). But it didn’t take long for me to adjust and I quickly decided to focus my course of study on the modernist writers for whom I had always had a passionate interest.

So I began attending Fordham University the spring of 1995. And things went well. I learned to think in a way I never had before. I read great books. I read Ulysses, for god’s sake. My professors encouraged me. But then, fast forward and less than two years later, I took a leave of absence from my studies to join the Peace Corps and teach English as a Foreign Language in Sri Lanka.

Ernest Hemingway Took Me to the Library AND to the Airport

Truth be told, what informed my decision to travel AND to pursue academic studies was the same thing: books. My favorite modernist writer had always been Ernest Hemingway. I read his short stories in high school but it was a literature course I enrolled in as a freshman at Virginia Tech that really made the earth shake beneath my feet. Professor Hoge introduced me to life among the expatriates in Paris in The Sun Also Rises, to the Great War and a failed romance in A Farewell to Arms, and to safari hunting in Africa in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

(Part II of this blog series has been published and can be accessed here.)

What I took from Hemingway was a love of reading…and a love of life. I craved experience. What has always been a struggle for me (though less so now that I’m a father), is the struggle between the right, practical thing and doing whatever makes me a liver of life.

I didn’t think about it at the time, but that desire to live was working its magic under the surface even as I went through the motions of attending graduate school. That desire had already prompted me to head to Alaska…I should have known what was coming!

During that first year at Fordham, I can’t say I was unhappy. The life of the mind stimulated me then and continues to do so. But I took time from my studies to fill out an application for the Peace Corps and, following a long, tedious, painful federal government-driven process, I received an invitation to teach in Sri Lanka. I had shaved by this point, and had even cut and cleaned my hair. But it was nevertheless time to head off to the airport once again.

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Seven years after the discovery of Ernest Hemingway, my life started slipping away from the academic life and I moved deeper into the world of experience. I wouldn’t truly recognize what was happening until I returned to Fordham University a little over a year later and discovered, in an obscure library carrel, another writer whom I had not yet read before. Only in the discovery of a poem by the poet W.H. Auden, would I recognize what I was going through. But the realization was on its way.

I was going through a life change.

Avoiding Suicide Bombers and Other Experiences

I was a kind of expatriate in Sri Lanka, much as Hemingway, Joyce and Fitzgerald had been in Europe, though I lived in a different continent and for different reasons. In addition to volunteering (which Ernest did NOT go to Paris to do), there was booze, bleary-eyed mornings eating bananas and pineapples on the beaches of the Indian Ocean, friendships forged, cultural misunderstandings, a chronic and overwhelming sense of displacement, and intimacies that otherwise might not have occurred. A lot of those likely DID overlap with what it must have been like for those writers.

And there was war.

I lived in Kandy, the cultural capital of the Sinhalese ethnic majority of Sri Lanka. Most people who think of the Peace Corps envision mud huts and isolated villages, which had some truth to it for my fellow volunteers, though they mostly lived in cement homes smack in the middle of the jungle. But I lived in a beautiful city in Sri Lanka’s hill country, which had an amazing, cool climate. In that regard, most would say I was lucky. I also had email which, in those early days of the Internet, was about the most amazing luxury a Peace Corps volunteer could dream of!

Sri Lanka was also a nation in the middle of a civil war. Many of the Tamils who lived there had felt disenfranchised since England gave the nation independence in 1948. Freed of the yoke of the British Empire, the Sinhalese majority moved quickly into most of the powerful and influential positions in the government, education and the civil service, while the Tamil minority, originally brought over from India by the English in the 19th century to work on the tea plantations, wasn’t left with much at all.

In the early 1980s, the Tamils began fighting–literally–for their own homeland in the northern and eastern parts of the country. The Tamil Tigers were the first group internationally acknowledged to utilize suicide bombings as a political tool. Most of the “activity” between the Sinhalese army and the Tamil resistance fighters (which is how I describe them–I won’t make political overtures by designating them as terrorists or freedom fighters) took place in the north and east, and in the national capital of Colombo. So volunteers were, for the most part, not allowed in those places.

However, in 1998, Sri Lanka was celebrating 50 years of independence as a nation and the Tamil resistance decided to expand its operations. Prince Charles of England was scheduled to participate in Sri Lanka’s golden anniversary celebrations right in Kandy where I lived.

Except for one slight twist.

In early January 2008, not long before the celebrations were to begin, three Tamil Tigers drove an explosives-laden truck right into the Temple of the Tooth on a suicide mission. The Temple of the Tooth (or the Dalada Maligawa, in the Sinhala language) is the iconic heart of the Sinhalese culture in Kandy and is reputed to hold a tooth of the revered Buddha.

The Temple of the Tooth was also less than a half a mile from one of the schools where I taught. I had been in the temple twice and had walked past it more times than I could count. Sixteen people died and more than 20 were injured in the suicide attack.

Life Change: Dalada Maligawa - The Temple of the Tooth

Sixteen people were killed in an attack on the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka in January 1998. (Photo: Joe Kovacs)

When it happened, I was on vacation in the resort of Unawatuna just outside Galle on the southern coast. I rushed back to Kandy that afternoon to make sure my host family was okay. Bad move on my part: I never called the Peace Corps office to check in and let our country director know I was okay. I had to pass through more checkpoints than I could remember on the trip back up to the hill country and, while the local soldiers were usually friendly with me–a visiting foreigner–there was no humor that day and my bags were ruthlessly searched along with those of every other native person coming into Kandy.

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In the days following that traumatic event, the city was on the edge of riot. I didn’t realize how close everything came until later. But right after the temple attack, a group of Sinhalese began marching around Kandy Lake in the middle of the city, gesticulating, screaming and yelling violent curses against Tamils. It took local Buddhist monks to enter and calm the crowd; without that intervention, who knows what might have occurred.

For several days, whenever I walked to my school, I saw armed Sinhalese soldiers standing in green uniforms and carrying very big firearms outside the residences and businesses of Tamil locals. I heard two stories about their presence. First, that the Sinhalese, in collusion with the authorities, were preparing a widespread assault on local Tamils. Second, and this seems more plausible, was the theory that the authorities had stationed these soldiers in front of Tamil establishments to protect innocent citizens from furious Sinhalese seeking revenge against those aligned by ethnic identification with the attackers.

The golden anniversary celebrations in Kandy never occurred and Prince Charles never came. This disruption, likely, was one key goal of the Tigers in staging the attack.

And I was not the only volunteer who experienced the impact of the Tigers’s decision to expand their operations that year. Another volunteer, my friend Sarah, lived in another hill country city, Nuwara Eliya, where the Tigers decided to shut down the power grid. Nuwara Eliya had, previously, been mostly untouched by the civil war. Well, no longer. The Peace Corps ended up getting Sarah to a beach resort and away from potential hostilities.

(Part II of this blog series has been published and can be accessed here.)

In the weeks after my and Sarah’s experiences, the Peace Corps sent a security officer to Sri Lanka to assess the situation. In the end, that officer decided it was best to send the volunteers home. This was both annoying and embarrassing, from my point of view. It was annoying in the sense that I had chosen to be there. No one made me come to Sri Lanka and I could have left at any time. If I chose to stay, despite the dangers and challenges, well that was my choice, wasn’t it? Of course the Peace Corps’ first priority remains the safety of its volunteers…and it was with that in mind that they blew the whistle and called all the volunteers out of the pool. Still: groaning and eye-roll on my part.

And it was embarrassing because none of the other international volunteers were leaving. The British, the Australians, the Japanese–they were all staying. So we Americans looked squeamish to a ridiculous degree. And it wasn’t the Peace Corps security team who had to say goodbye to the families and friends we had made in our communities. It wasn’t them who had to explain that because of the kind of bombing event that Sri Lankans had become accustomed to as part of their lives, that we were leaving. I taught elementary school kids. Here’s a photo of some. What the hell was I supposed to say to them?

Life Change: Sri Lankan elementary school kids

Goodbye, Joe!

Reading and Traveling 

When I wasn’t teaching or trying to avoid suicide bombs, I read. I read a lot, in fact. I had a lot of down time as did the other volunteers. It became common for volunteers to read and exchange books, including such nuggets as Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, which had just been published and was causing a stir, When Memory Dies by A. Sivanandan, which was also blowing the pants off the local publishing world, novels by post-colonial writers Yasmine Gooneratne and Carl Muller, the travel diaries of R.K. Narayan and Peace Corps’ best known travel writer Paul Theroux.

But my decision to come to Sri Lanka meant, at least for a time, that I took my nose out of a book and left the university behind to live in a world of lush jungles, rogue elephants, suicide bombers, beautiful beaches, sacred Buddhism and civil war. It was a far cry from my decision, less than two years previously, to attend Fordham University and pursue a life of intellectualism.

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The worlds of the mind and of the body could not get much different.

So I wanted experience, right? Hemingway inspired me to not only study the great modernist writers but also pursue a life of experience. Well, I had it now!

I was in the middle of a life change.

Please share any thoughts you have about this story in the comments section below. Stay tuned, also, for my next personal post in mid-August (preceded by two historical posts) when I will write about my return to Fordham university, my discombobulated experience in the classroom, the discovery of an important poem by W.H. Auden, the way I said goodbye to graduate school and to a potential career as a professor, and my decision to move to Washington, DC and work for the Peace Corps.

Once again…stay tuned!

Posted in Ramblings, Travel | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Wyatt Earp, Wichita and a Career in Law Enforcement

Old West lawman Wyatt Earp is best-known as the central figure in the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona in October 1881. That event and the larger-than-life figure of Earp have withstood the test of time as 21st century Americans continue to memorialize with wispy romanticism this nation’s history of cowboys and the lawless Old West.

When Glen Marshall arrives in 1907 Wichita, Kansas in my story Wichita Snake, he takes shelter from a local crime syndicate in a rest home called Earp’s Haven. No such place would have carried Earp’s name without his participation in the shootout at the OK Corral some 26 years previously. He managed to get his name attached to a fictional rest home in my story in particular because, approximately five years before he and his team faced down the Clanton brothers and Billy Claiborne in Tombstone, he spent a year in Wichita as a law officer.

Wyatt Earp, famed Old west Gunman

Wyatt Earp, famed Old West Gunman (This image is available for use in the public domain; {{PD-US}}).

Wyatt Earp Arrives in Wichita, Kansas

Wyatt Earp arrived in Wichita in 1875 from Peoria, Illinois, bearing a colorful and sad past. He had been arrested for stealing a horse but managed to escape jail and punishment. His first wife also died of typhoid, pregnant, less than a year following their wedding.

Earp’s arrival in Wichita also coincided with the city’s growing prominence as a railroad terminus for cattle drives up from Texas. Cowboys who had spent days or weeks driving their herds over the plains could now relax with money in hand and the satisfaction of work well done. That generally meant getting drunk and raising hell.

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Into this world, Wyatt Earp was hired as deputy city marshal and he was, according to the local Wichita Beacon newspaper, both competent and fearless in carrying out his responsibilities. The year or so that Earp spent in this role did not earn him lasting fame (the Beacon would occasionally spell his surname “Erp”), but it did kick off a career which would, ultimately, transform him into the historic personage of the fearless lawman.

Wyatt Earp: One Year As a Lawman

Earp’s year as a deputy city marshal was marked by, in addition to keeping the peace among inebriated, cattle-driving cowboys and drovers, documented instances of honesty and cold courage. Evidence that has helped historians separate fact from legend regarding Wyatt Earp’s role comes from documentation in the Beacon. Such evidence suggests, perhaps unsurprisingly in those days of the Wild West, that lawmen had a kind of public stature.

In one reported incident, Earp hauled a fallen, inebriated stranger to the “cooler” to sober up. During processing, the deputy marshal discovered $500 in the man’s possession. To Earp, who made either $60 or $100 monthly depending on various sources, this would have represented a significant amount of money and, perhaps a sore temptation. But, as the Beacon got a hold of the story, the paper stated: ”[the drunken stranger] may congratulate himself that his lines…were cast in such a pleasant place as Wichita as there are but a few other places where that $500 bankroll would have been heard from”.

An additional incident involved Earp calling for a piano to be repossessed for failure of payment. This piano, which had been purchased for a local brothel, became a sore spot among a group of cattle drovers who relaxed there and had to raise funds or face its removal. Soon after, approximately 50 drovers in nearby Delano, which at the time was a bit on  the rough side and known for hell-raising beyond what Wichita typically saw or liked to see, planned to invade the town, carouse, drink all night and cause a lot of trouble. As they approached the bridge into Wichita, they faced a long line of concerned law officers and citizens at the center of whom stood the stalwart Wyatt Earp.

Of course, no one is perfect, and even the competent, appreciated and respected Wyatt Earp had his embarrassing moments, which the Wichita Beacon was equally happy to report. In one well-publicized incident in January 1876, the single-action revolver in Earp’s possession somehow managed to slip from its holster, hit the ground and discharge. The shot narrowly missed Earp, piercing his coat before blowing through the ceiling. It’s the kind of incident that would make for slapstick in modern times but back in the 19th century, such incidents could happen and did, in fact, for one of the Old West’s most legendary gunslingers.

Politics Interferes with Policing

In the end, politics and not incompetence ended Wyatt Earp’s tenure in Wichita, Kansas. In March and April 1876, Earp’s boss, city marshal Mike Meagher was campaigning to retain his position against Bill Smith. In addition to being a political opponent of Earp, Smith nevertheless added fuel to the fire by badmouthing Earp and accusing him of attempting to use his position to hire his brothers as law officers. That was too much for Earp who resorted to fisticuffs. Meagher was forced to fire Earp and, though he won the subsequent election and attempted to have his former deputy reinstated, the city council could not conclusively agree that doing so was a good idea.

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Wyatt Earp’s first job as a law enforcement officer in Wichita, Kansas had come to an end. He soon moved on to Dodge City where, in addition to ultimately getting back into “keeping the peace”, he spent some time running a brothel with his brother, James.

Wyatt Earp and Wichita Snake

As mentioned above and as known to many Americans, Wyatt Earp’s legend was made some years later in Tombstone, Arizona. But his time in Wichita overlapped with the city’s first exciting economic boom, spurred by the cattle trade. By the time Glen Marshall of Wichita Snake arrives, the city was on the cusp of yet another economic renaissance, this one driven by manufacturing and agriculture. The local Chamber of Commerce, of which the fictional Old Smokey Jones is a member of the welcoming committee, was founded in 1901. The open plains of Kansas also appealed to some historic pioneers from the dawning age of aviation.

Glen’s stay in Wichita is cut short by unexpected trouble involving a crime boss and the revelation of who killed his wife. But, at least for his one night in town, he enjoyed the safety and hospitality of Earp’s Haven, a resting house named after the city’s most historic and well-known lawman.

Posted in Wichita Snake | 2 Comments

Carrie Nation, Temperance and Kansas

When Glen Marshall arrives in Wichita, Kansas in my story Wichita Snake, he foolishly asks a stranger at the train station where he can find a drink. That stranger turns out to be someone Glen should not be speaking with, but this character does share the helpful fact that Kansas was a dry state in that year of 1907, perhaps in no small way due to the ferocious temperance movement alive in the state at the time, especially as embodied in the infamous personage of Carrie Nation.

Carrie Nation with her Hatchet

Temperance Advocate Carrie Nation with her hatchet in 1910. (This image is available for use in the public domain; {{PD-US}}).

Carrie Nation: Radical Temperance Advocate 

Still something of a household name (or at least a name people have heard of) in the early 21st century, Carrie (or Carry) Nation is the most well-known, infamous figure associated with the temperance movement that thundered throughout parts of the country in the late 19th and early 20th century. As detailed below, temperance was a radical movement, calling for prohibition rather than moderation in the indulgence of alcohol. Above and beyond the movement was Ms. Nation who was most well-known for vandalizing and destroying saloons throughout Kansas. She was arrested for her methods no less than 30 times.

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The story of how she started destroying saloons in 1900 ties well with the Christian platform that helped temperance groups emerge throughout the country. That year, shortly after she and her second husband, David Nation, moved to Kansas, Carrie claimed she had a vision from God that told her to GO TO KIOWA. The following day, she smashed the window of Dobson’s Saloon in Kiowa, Kansas. Shortly thereafter, a tornado struck eastern Kansas, which Carrie claimed represented divine approval of her actions.

Carrie Nation continued to vandalize saloons and, in 1901, her oppressed husband half-jokingly suggested that using a hatchet would allow her to maximize the damage. She soon took advantage of that suggestion and began “hatchetations” where, either on her own, or with other hymn-singing women of the temperance movement in tow, Carrie would enter taverns and destroy the equipment.

Carrie Nation and Justice divorced in 1901 though Carrie kept the surname “Nation” believing, as she believed other so-called signs from above, that she had been chosen to save the nation from vice. She also liked to spell her name “Carry” so that, with the middle initial “A” indicating Amelia, her name prophetically read: “Carry A. Nation”.

Temperance in the Late 19th Century

The prohibition of alcohol in the United States eventually succeeded through passage of the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. But success was not an easy road and organized efforts to oppose the consumption of alcohol began as far back as the early 1870s when what would become one of the largest, national temperance organizations, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, was founded in 1874, in Hillsboro, Ohio.

The female members of the WCTU had a flair for the dramatic in their pursuit of prohibition in the late 1800s; they actively picketed saloons, blocked the entrances to saloons and prayed for the souls of bar patrons.

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The WCTU didn’t merely oppose alcohol as a vice; they believed it was both a cause and a consequence of a number of other social and family problems. The group took an interest in such concerns, including poverty, public health and sanitation, though each of the first few presidents had a different view on the overall goal of the organization. The WCTU was successful despite its changing and evolving needs, and continues to exist to this day.

Carrie Nation: WCTU, Hatchetations and Personal History

As a founder to the Kansas chapter of the WCTU, Carrie Nation had many of the same qualities and beliefs of the other members, though her so-called religious calling to fight alcohol might also relate to a history of mental illness in her family. Her mother believed she was Queen Victoria of England and Carrie’s daughter also struggled with mental health problems.

And as  a notorious crusader, Carrie cut an imposing figure–a six-foot-tall zealout carrying a Bible as well as a hatchet, and wearing a black dress and bonnet. Her “hatchetations” became legendary even beyond the immense damage created to private establishments. Bars and saloons used to quip during the first decade of the 20th century that “all Nations were welcome except Carrie”.

And while other individuals arrested as often as she may have struggled to keep up with court fines, Carrie Nation lectured and sold souvenir hatchets to help keep herself afloat.

David Nation, who gave Carrie her memorable surname, was actually her second husband. Her first husband, Charles Gloyd, was a physician during the Civil War and also a terrible alcoholic. One year after they divorced, he drank himself to death–lending some credence perhaps, then, to the WCTU mission–and to Carrie’s own pursuit for prohibition.

Extremism of All Kinds

Old Smokey, a committee representative of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce when Glen Marshall arrives in Wichita Snake, alludes to the mission of Carrie Nation and the prohibitionists. In particular, he points out how zeal of any kind–prohibition rather than moderation–would likely lead to other extreme vices and hidden activities.

Old Smokey has a few secrets of his own, as Glen finds out. But he does have a point. After the 18th amendment passed in 1919, an era of speakeasies, contraband and violence emerged. Al Capone and other gangsters came to symbolize the unflagging desire and need for Americans to tip the bottle despite the nation’s best efforts. Prohibition was repealed with the passage of the 21st amendment in 1933.

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Extremism of all kinds will have their personalities. Glen Marshall stumbles into Wichita during the popularity of the temperance movement. But ultimately society self-corrects to some safer middle ground. Between temperance and organized crime, Glen may or may not get out of Wichita alive. It’s not always easy to navigate through the interests of individuals who believe what they believe, and will do anything to show it.

Posted in Temperance, Wichita Snake | 1 Comment

Essence: Interview with YA Author Lisa Ann O’Kane

I was excited to recently connect with and interview Lisa Ann O’Kane whose debut young-adult novel, Essence, was released on June 3. I have known Lisa (virtually) since 2011 as we both, on different occasions, belonged to the same close-knit writers group in Denver, Colorado. Lisa has since moved to Florida and I to Maryland. However, we became friends through a mutual love of writing and it has been my pleasure to watch her exciting though sometimes challenging journey to publication. Readers may follow Lisa’s journey via her blog, Kicked, Cornered, Bitten And Chased. Her bio and links to her social networks follow the interview below.

Essence Book Cover - by Lisa O'Kane

Essence by Lisa Ann O’Kane, young adult author and adventurer

1. One of the main questions Essence poses, Lisa, is: “What is the true nature of a person’s essence?”. Outside the context of the book, what would you say is the essence of true living?

What a fantastic question, Joe, and thank you so much for interviewing me! I would say the essence of true living is the courage to distinguish between the experiences society tells us we need and the experiences we actually need in order to thrive. Everyone’s life path is different, and the most destructive thing we can do to ourselves is spend too much time comparing our personal milestones to everyone else’s.

2. Idealism pervades Essence. Different communities essentially vie for the right to broadcast and, in some cases, enforce the way they believe life should be lived by others. What do you think about idealists and idealism? Would you consider yourself an idealist?

I was definitely an idealist in my early twenties when I believed I would spend my life traveling the world and volunteering, but I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I have had to learn some very hard life lessons as a result, but I do appreciate the fact that I had the courage to risk failing. I only think idealism becomes dangerous when it begins to override logic. It also becomes dangerous when people start imposing their beliefs on others. This is the crux of the conflict in Essence.

3. You discussed with Beth Christopher what Yosemite National Park means to you, and how your experience there helped you imagine the characters from Essence. But you have lived in other places such as Colorado and Alaska that people also think of as havens for outdoors people. The beautiful cover image from your blog, Kicked, Cornered, Bitten and Chased, says it all. What, if any, spiritual significance does the outdoors have for you? Does it make you feel centered?

Great question! The outdoors most definitely holds a spiritual significance for me. My parents are former park rangers, so I grew up hiking, camping, swimming and exploring with them. I learned to identify flora and fauna before I learned to write, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t seek solace in nature. I am pretty confident the outdoors will always be a character in my future novels.

4. One of the things you do well in Essence, which other stories either can’t or don’t think about doing, is demonstrate the evolution of characters beside the protagonist. Your protagonist, Autumn Grace, goes through one heck of a metamorphosis in the book. But another crucial character, Ryder Stone, goes through something similar. When you started writing the book, did you expect their relationship would end up as complex as it was?

I’m so glad you appreciated Ryder’s metamorphosis! He was definitely the biggest wildcard in my novel, because my original plan for him was very, very different. Once he and Autumn began interacting, however, their relationship really took on a life of its own. In many ways, they are the yin to each other’s yang, and their personal journeys ended up reflecting this.

5. Getting back to an emotion that might be considered the polar opposite of idealism and something Autumn experiences in Essence, what can you tell us about disillusionment?

In the spirit of yin and yang, I really wanted to explore emotional extremes in Essence. Idealism’s natural pair was disillusionment, so I’m excited you picked up on this! The book is all about literal and metaphorical balance: between right and wrong, good and evil, too much and too little. I wanted to demonstrate that there is really no such thing as black or white, and nearly everything is a shade of grey.

6. I was sorry to read your June 20 blog post about the fact that your publisher, Strange Chemistry, is closing its doors. You wrote in a forthright way about all the joy and the disappointment you experienced with them. Will Essence remain on sale after Strange Chemistry is no more?

Thank you so much for your condolences. The demise of Strange Chemistry was certainly an unexpected heartbreak. I am thankful for the time I got to spend with my team of professionals, and yes, the novel will continue to be available through and

7. I know that, before Strange Chemistry announced it was closing, you were writing a sequel to Essence. You spent, what, about a year developing that story? Is that a project you want to finish? What other writing projects interest you at the moment?

I originally wrote Essence as a standalone novel with series potential, and the folks at Strange Chemistry jumped on the idea of its sequel right away. I have been developing that sequel for the past year, so I am definitely disappointed it will no longer be published as planned. Although I am comfortable with the way my story now ends, I am exploring other alternatives to “finish the story” for the readers who want to know what happens next. I am also working on a completely new project, so I will have to do some strategizing to decide what I should do next.

8. I expect to be in Orlando next summer for a conference. Is that far from where you are? Any chance you’ll be around if I hop in a rental car and come find you so we can meet in person for the first time, have a beer and talk about writing?

Woohooo!!! I live in St. Petersburg—less than two hours from Orlando! Name a time and place, and I’m THERE! Can’t wait to finally see you in real life! Thanks again so much for the great interview!

Lisa Ann O'Kane - young adult author

Lisa O’Kane – Young Adult Author whose debut novel, Essence, was released on June 3.

Lisa Ann O’Kane is a young adult author and former vagabond who once camped out in Yosemite National Park for an entire summer, an experience that inspired her debut novel ESSENCE (June ’14, Strange Chemistry). She is the Zookeeper-in-Residence on, and she is represented by Hannah Bowman of Liza Dawson Associates. Participate in Lisa’s social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram and Pinterest.

Posted in Writer Interviews | 3 Comments

Fairmont Coal Disaster : The Day 362 Men Died

My latest blog posts have focused on the U.S.-Mexican border in an effort to help paint a picture around the characters and incidents that occur in my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. Recently, I published a new page on my blog that outlines my interest in writing a series of stories about the Maddox family men from 1907 to 1999.

My first effort in this regard will be a short story called Wichita Snake, which takes place in 1907 and in which Glen Marshall (who will become William Maddox, Billy Maddox’s great-grandfather) arrives in Wichita, Kansas less than 48 hours after the death of his wife, Abigail Maris, at the hands of a cold-blooded murderer. Glen and Abby left their home of Monongah, West Virginia, following a mine explosion that killed hundreds of men and boys.

I hope to publish Wichita Snake by the end of July 2014.

Miners in Monongah, West Virginia

“Monongah – Carbon Arc Lights” by D.D. Meighen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

1907 Fairmont Coal Company Mining Disaster

The mine explosions that send Glen and Abby westward are not fiction. On December 6, 1907, just before 10:30 am, a series of explosions in Number 6 and 8 mines in Monongah caused chaos not only underground but above ground as well. They made buildings shudder, tossed people like rag dolls and wreaked havoc with the transportation system. Street cars were thrown off their rails like toys; horses fell on the streets as though light as feathers. Such was the force of the explosions.

In all, 362 mining men and boys were counted dead though mining companies in the early 20th century kept such notoriously poor records that many more workers were reputed to have died. In Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, Davitt McAteer believes closer to 500 men were killed. What could be counted were the number of widows (250) and children (around 1,000) left without husbands and fathers.

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Varying accounts of the disaster point not only to the collapse of the mines following the explosions but to the destruction of the ventilation system which, when operational, prevented the build up of toxic fumes in the compressed spaces where miners worked underground. Rescue efforts, as a result, were hampered by the presence of black damp (which included carbon dioxide and nitrogen, but no oxygen) and whitedamp, which was primarily carbon monoxide. Rescuers could not go in and what miners may have survived the blasts presumably could not come out.

Even had survivors been able to breathe in an oxygen-free environment, their way to the surface would have been prevented by the collapse of the entrance of mine number 6 and the obstruction by wrecked ore cars of the mine’s primary entrance.

A Mining Disaster Just Waiting to Happen

Sadly, a disaster of this kind was just waiting to happen. Since the Norfolk and Western Railroad entered the state in the 1880s, West Virginia had become one of the largest coal producers, drawing African and European workers to a newly booming economy. The surname of Glen’s wife Abigail, Maris, hints at her French ancestry. The new influx of laborers to the coalfields did not, however, lead to especially robust safety measures. Up to and, for some years, through the Fairmont coal mining disaster, West Virginia remained one of the most unregulated states in the country.

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Three years afterward, however, and partly as a result of the mine explosion (along with many others in the country), the United State Congress established the U.S. Bureau of Mines to inspect mines and prevent conditions that would lead to future tragedies. As a result, history has only theory to determine the cause of the explosions at the Fairmont coal mines: either the accidental ignition of methane and coal dust, or blown-out shots.

Fairmont Coal Disaster: Reality and Fiction

In my fiction, the staggering tragedy that was the Fairmont Coal Company disaster sends William and Abigail westward. Abby, already a strong-headed and willful young woman, has long been unhappy with her parents’ decision to move to West Virginia and take advantage of the coal boom. The explosions take her brother’s life.

And while mining explosions throughout the United States were only increasing in the early 20th century, those in Europe–the continent from which Abby hails–were on the decline due to effective government intervention.

For those who lived in and around Monongah, West Virginia at the time, meaning for those outside the realm of my fiction, the tragedy was very real and devastating. The Fairmont coal mine explosions represent the worst mining disaster the nation has ever experienced and, possibly, ever will.

Posted in Mining, Wichita Snake | 1 Comment

Humane Borders – The Day I Gave Water to Migrants

If it’s true that everything is politics then I made a strong statement volunteering with Humane Borders back in 2003. Of course I didn’t mean to. All I was doing was researching life on the U.S.-Mexican border in Arizona. But there you have it.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, one source of research for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, came from the above-mentioned two-week trip to Arizona. I had reached out before I left on my trip to the faith-based outfit, Humane Borders, which was founded in 2000 to stem the tide of migrant deaths in the Sonoran Desert. Humane Borders places blue water jugs at pre-selected locations throughout the desert, claiming to meet a humanitarian need for those crossing the brutal, scorching terrain. It does not specifically endorse the migrants’ journey; nor does it repudiate it.

Two Humane Borders volunteers fill jugs at a water station.

Two Humane Borders volunteers fill jugs at a water station.

Humane Borders: “This Organization is Not a Rebel Organization”

Humane Borders is not, or so it says, making a political statement with its water jugs. Of course, everyone has their own interpretation of what people and organizations do, and Humane Borders has received its share of criticism over the years, including in this Washington Times article, for encouraging and abetting migration, as well as for aiding alien and drug smugglers.

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After I called Reverend Robin Hoover, founder of Humane Borders, to schedule a sit-down interview, he said that was fine and asked me to meet him at his church, First Christian in Tucson, on a particular morning. When I showed up one sunny day several weeks later, instead of finding a cool office, some comfortable chairs and an offer of a cup of coffee, I found myself thrown in with a group of volunteers sorting dried fruit, hoses and water tanks in the church parking lot.

Humane Borders Volunteer Fills Water Jug

I photographed this Humane Borders volunteer filling a water jug in the Sonoran Desert.

Reverend Hoover, who was there, gave me a quick nod. My name was on the list of volunteers scheduled to head out into the desert that day and drop off the water jugs. Really? I thought. I guess he figured an interview wouldn’t be nearly as effective as getting me out there to see what Humane Borders was all about.

Within a few hours, five of us were headed west out of Tucson on I-86, which snakes and slaloms for more than two hours through the heart of the Sonoran Desert to the oddly named town of Why. We were in a somewhat beat-up pick-up truck with one giant, sausage-shaped water tank drilled into the truck’s flat bed, and surrounded by tied-down empty water containers we would fill from the tank and pour into the jugs for border crossers once we arrived at our designated locations. The truck didn’t have the best suspension in the world (it’s amazing all my teeth survived the journey) and we spent time during that long tedious ride across the desert discussing current events and, in particular, the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Humane Borders Volunteers Hit the Desert

It was me riding shotgun, the Latino driver of our truck and three twenty-somethings in the back seat. We joked about the spoof someone had put online where if you Googled “weapons of mass destruction”, the first search result was a play off the Page Not Displayed message: These Weapons of Mass Destruction Cannot be Displayed. We talked about the likelihood that Iraq had anything at all to do with the September 11 attacks.

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We didn’t know each other but camaraderie came easily since we were all in the vehicle together with the common purpose of working to save lives and no one was really talking about much else those days except for Iraq.

Filling water jugs

The Humane Borders water tank on the truck bed is used to fill water jugs.

We weren’t driving all the way out to Why, of course. Reverend Hoover and his team do more than randomly place water jugs in the desert. Even back then, only three years into the existence of Humane Borders, the outfit already had sufficient data about migrant deaths to have a sense of where the popular, high-risk crossing corridors were, and where water jugs would be most beneficial.

Our group of five ended up, as a result, in some of the most remote locations of the Sonoran Desert, including in the Pipe Organ Cactus National Monument, which is federally protected land due to all the plants and wildlife. We reached the location where we would set up the jugs, and our driver (whose name I cannot recall) began muttering, as he pulled out the hose, about all the desert capers, pomegranates and cereus that migrants trash on their way north.

It took a while to fill the large jugs from the tank and water containers. The jugs were originally 55-gallon syrup containers, donated by Coca Cola and painted blue to stand out in the desert when placed alongside flags as indicators to border crossers of their location. The color also prevents algae from growing in the water.

Giving water to migrants is an experience unique to the southwestern border. Our driver had been on many volunteer runs before and told me he has seen groups of border crossers who don’t feel safe enough to get too close but linger within sight of the jugs so that after Humane Borders volunteers have gone, they will come in for water before continuing their northbound journey.

Humane Borders in Recent Years

It has been more than 10 years since the day I volunteered but Humane Borders still is going strong. The Christian Science Monitor reported back in 2007 that Humane Borders had 63 trained drivers, approximately 8,000 volunteers and 84 water stations on both sides of the Arizona border. The organization’s pump trucks make around 750 trips out to the desert each year.

Humane Borders water jug outside Rio Rico, AZ

While following a popular migrant route, I came across this Humane Borders water jug outside Rio Rico, AZ.

Robin Hoover’s fame and/or notoriety has also put him in something of an international spotlight, and he presented on human rights issues for the World Council of Churches during United Nations Advocacy Week in November 2008.

As mentioned above, Humane Borders has been the subject of heavy scrutiny. But the organization’s impact has been significant enough that its leaders have criticisms of their own. They accuse those actively opposed to illegal migration of lingering around their blue jugs hoping to nab border crossers. At least in this 2009 report by the Green Party of the United States, the Border Patrol would seem to have agreed not to watch water stations. But private vigilante groups make no such promise. (Accusations that Border Patrol agents watch Humane Borders water tanks actually lead to an argument in one scene of Billy Maddox Takes His Shot.)

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In my last post, I highlighted that an increasing number of arrests in the Rio Grande Valley reflects the growing popularity of Texas as a land route across the U.S.-Mexican border. In researching this post about Humane Borders, I learned that Reverend Hoover has been aware for several years of the rising number of migrant deaths around Texas. In 2012, he relocated to Fort Worth along with his humanitarian vision.

My day of giving water to migrants is long gone but the organization’s mission continues.

Posted in Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, Border, Border Patrol | Leave a comment

Rio Grande Valley – Why More Migrant Apprehensions?

A few days ago, CBS Houston reported that the Border Patrol had arrested more migrants in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley in the last 8 months than were made in the previous 12. Nearly 160,000 arrests have been made in the Valley since October 1, the start of the federal government’s fiscal year. The sum total of arrests made in the same region during fiscal year 2013 (October 1, 2012 – September 30, 2013) was only 154,000 arrests.

Border Patrol Truck in Rio Grande Valley, McAllen, Texas

“South Texas McAllen Fenceline Aerial, Rio Grande Valley” by U.S. Customs and Border Protection is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Arrests on the southwestern border plummeted after the financial crisis in 2008, to the point where, as the Pew Center Hispanic Trends Project reported in 2012, net migration from Mexico to the United States fell to zero, if not less. So the rise in apprehensions might, at first glance, appear to indicate growing confidence and optimism among migrants from Mexico and Central America.

Rio Grande Valley Border Crossings: What Do the Numbers Mean?

But, as with most numbers related to border crossings, their meaning is not as self-evident as it might first seem. In addition to spotlighting the rising number of apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley, the media report also explains that the number represents a shift in migratory patterns.

During the first decade of the 2000s, Arizona was the hotbed of international migration activity. (A few years ago, the city of  Nogales, Arizona got itself a new border fence). When the number of Border Patrol agents assigned to cities in Arizona jumped during those years, migrants began avoiding populated communities and crossed in the middle of the bleak, empty Sonoran Desert, leading to heat- and dehydration-related deaths.

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The Border Patrol subsequently established a specialized Tucson, Arizona-based emergency search and rescue unit called BORSTAR (or Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue). And incidentally, the first BORSTAR unit developed in San Diego since it was in southern California where most migrant activity occurred in the late 20th century.

So now, Border Patrol apprehensions have begun to reflect the increasing attraction of Texas as one of the best land-based migration routes. And for those who may be wondering if the difference in Rio Grande Valley apprehensions between 2013 and this year is just an aberration, it might be worthwhile to also note that the number of migrants arrested in the Valley during fiscal year 2012 was under 100,000. The rising number is beginning to look more like a trend than anything else.

The Rio Grande Valley – The New Arizona?

Arizona continues to play a role, albeit a strange one, in this new migration pattern. Just a few days ago, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Texas is “dumping” hundreds of illegal immigrants at bus stations in Tucson and Phoenix. Apparently, Texas doesn’t quite have the bandwidth to process the increasing number of migrants apprehended trying to cross the border. But Arizona, having been the place to cross for a long time, ended up with years and resources to build up a detainment and processing infrastructure. So perhaps, figures Texas, why not just bring our detainees there?

Needless to say, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who has never been the most lenient advocate when it comes to migration and who just a few years ago participated in a high-profile, finger-pointing conversation with President Obama about her disappointment with the Administration’s border policing policy,  is not amused. She used the source of her latest frustration to reach out to the President once again–though this time, she used a letter instead of a lecturing finger.

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Equally interesting is that a large number of migrants crossing into Texas are not from Mexico but from Central American countries. And they’re not just men, they are families escaping “crimes, gangs and poverty”, to quote the CS Monitor. Apparently rumor has it that women and children who cross into the United States are allowed to stay.

More about that in a future post.

So while, yes, it’s true, the American economy may indeed be improving–just last week, every major news outlet under the sun reported that the full sum of jobs lost during the recession has been recovered as of the the latest Department of Labor report–one other factor contributing to the rising number of apprehensions, at least in a certain part of the country, is this: the migration patterns of job seekers coming into the United States from Mexico and Central America has radically changed.

The Rio Grande Valley, it seems, is the new Arizona.

Posted in Border, Border Patrol | 1 Comment

Sign Cutting II – History of Sign Cutting

As detailed in my last post, Border Patrol agents use sign cutting to track anyone crossing the international border including migrants seeking job opportunities in the United States or drug smugglers moving their narcotics across Arizona’s Sonoran Desert in the Southwest.

Sign cutting was not devised by American border enforcement. The history of sign cutting dates to a period long before modern civilization, when humans had little in the way of protection from the natural elements. In addition to shelter and fire, food represented the most basic need. Hunter-gatherers would track creatures such as mammoth and elephants for long periods of time.

History of Sign Cutting - Agent prepares to search for migrants

Search and Rescue agent gets ready to track migrants in the Sonoran Desert

History of Sign Cutting: American Indians

Moving forward in time, American Indians also used tracking methods to hunt for food. One recent story from 1859, a magazine about life in Oregon, recalls the life of Avex Miller, a Wasco Indian from Oregon’s Warm Springs reservation. The story details how his father taught him tracking methods, which Avex used subsequently to locate a boy who strayed from his family and the body of a police informant who had gone missing, among others.

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Miller laughed at the theory that American Indians are the best trackers, attributing it to stereotype. But he does point out how Indians were raised closer to nature than a lot of other social groups. He says effective tracking/sign cutting relies on four qualities: patience, perseverance, keeping an open mind and having empathy for the person you are tracking. (That last point ties in with the occasional Border Patrol experience of finding sign that indicates a medical emergency and the need to call in emergency personnel.)

The Border Patrol has had a strong partnership, incidentally, with a group of elite American Indian trackers from the Tohono O’odham Indian reservation in Arizona, called the Shadow Wolves. Smithsonian featured the Wolves in a magazine article in 2003.

The Tohono O’odham reservation is federally protected land in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. A significant amount of illegal border traffic crosses the reservation and smugglers would often recruit locals to assist in their operations. As one retired Border patrol agent told me, one strategic reason the Immigration and Naturalization Service decided to partner with the reservation and its elite trackers is because they knew the local communities. Their tracking skills, first of all, could be put to great use. But the very presence of the Shadow Wolves could also, hopefully, deter smugglers who hoped to take advantage of high rates of unemployment on the reservation to move contraband.

As the Smithsonian article details, the reputation of the Shadow Wolves has become such that they have received invitations to lead training exercises internationally to assist other countries hoping to deter smugglers of biological and chemical weapons.

History of Sign Cutting: Border Patrol Continues Age-old Tradition

The idea of the Border Patrol agent hearkens back to the American concept of the rugged outdoorsman–the cowboy, the rancher or the cattle driver. U.S.  Customs and Border Protection, which now falls under the domain of the Department of Homeland Security (the INS having been dismantled in 2003), is a much more politicized and much less romantic group of individuals than cowboys are.

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Yet, the same tracking skills Border Patrol agents use on a daily basis tie to that history of sign cutting that has evolved over the period of thousands of years. The United States is a relatively young country and border enforcement issues tend to drive the ire of many a Congress person or senator. But agents continue to harness the power of tracking in the American Southwest. It’s a job that has never gone away.

Posted in Border, Border Patrol | Leave a comment

Sign Cutting and the Border Patrol I – Tracking

If you hang around Border Patrol circles long enough, you will inevitably hear mention of something called “sign” and a process of tracking border crossers called “sign cutting”. One definition of sign (not mine) is “physical evidence of disturbance by the passing of people, animals or objects.” The presence of sign is one of the most important ways Border Patrol agents know that desert-crossing immigrants or drug smugglers have passed by. It is, of course, agents’ jobs to track and interdict these individuals.

Sign Cutting: What To Look For

Perhaps the most common (though by no means, the only) type of desert sign is footprints. The floor of the Sonoran Desert, which stretches across most of southern Arizona and where a good deal of illegal crossing occurs, is impressionable enough to leave evidence of others’ passing.

Border Patrol agents communicate with each other according to the type of footprint they encounter. They may refer to a heel or sole type such as a ”running W” or a waffle pattern.

Border Patrol Agent Sign Cuts

Border Patrol Agent Tracks Sign in Early-Morning Arizona

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Trained agents also recognize different types of footwear such as a cowboy boot (a plain sole with a separate heel mark), a work boot, cross-trainer shoe, a Vibram-type lug sole or Chuck Taylor, to name just a few. Sign evidence that someone wearing carpet booties or huaraches has passed, the latter of which is a type of slipper, will also let agents know they’re likely tracking poorer migrants who can’t afford anything fancier.

But sign isn’t only footprints.

One Border Patrol officer speaks about the months’-long training he had to go through with a veteran agent to learn how to identify other, less noticeable sign that can reveal itself in the desert to the sharp eye including kicked dirt, dark soil, broken plant limbs or stomped plants, bits of clothing, water bottles and wrappers.

Experienced border crossers, including  guides-for-hire called coyotes who lead others across the desert for a fee, can make sign cutting difficult for Border Patrol agents by brushing away the footprints they have left behind, often with a bit of creosote bush.

Travel at night also provides two distinct benefits for border crossers. First, it’s much cooler than crossing under the scorching daytime desert sun and therefore crossers expend less energy. Second, the darkness makes it much harder for agents to detect or cut sign.

Sign Cutting: Border Patrol Techniques

Border Patrol agents are not always at a disadvantage when it comes to sign cutting, however. While crossers do what they can to evade detection, agents use a process called leapfrogging to try to get ahead of groups of crossers whose sign they have encountered.

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Typically, when agents are in their trucks in the desert and encounter sign, they line out the sign and take an educated guess about a future location where they believe they can cut off the crossers.

Lining out sign involves a few steps.

Judging by the sign, agents will try to figure out in which direction the crossers seem to be heading. They will simultaneously gauge factors that might be important considerations.

A set of prints that doesn’t seem to be heading in any particular direction but wanders aimlessly around could mean the agents have come across dehydrated (and delirious) crossers, in which case they have a medical emergency on their hands and need to call in medical assistance as soon as possible.

But if the sign is moving in a consistent direction, the tracking agents might figure out what nearby topographical features are motivating crossers to head in that particular direction. A nearby highway could indicate that crossers are heading for a rendezvous with a friend who has a car, for example. A Tucson-based humanitarian group called Humane Borders leaves blue water tanks in various locations throughout the desert to ensure thirsty crossers don’t end up dying of thirst. Crossers may rely on the location of these tanks as a way station to someplace place.

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The depth of the footprint also speaks to the speed at which border crossers are traveling. Shallow prints indicate speed. These individuals have not stepped in any one spot long enough to leave a strong mark. Deeper, darker prints indicate slower, plodding steps.

Once agents have made an educated guess about how far away and where they feel border crossers are heading, they determine where they need to drive to make an interception.

Border Patrol agents have wheels; the border crossers do not. Hence driving up ahead to intercept them is called leapfrogging.

In my next post, I’ll talk more about the history of sign cutting.

Posted in Border, Border Patrol | 1 Comment

About the U.S.-Mexican Border Fence in Nogales, AZ

Around the time I started writing my Border Patrol novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, I figured a research trip to the southwestern border would be a good idea. So in June 2003 I flew down to Arizona for two weeks. I arrived in Tucson, rented a white Jeep Wrangler and headed south on Interstate 19 (with the top down, natch) to Nogales, Arizona, where I had already decided a good part of my novel would take place.

Below is a photo of the international border fence I took during that visit. It was my first experience ever at the U.S. – Mexican border. (I re-create the experience fictitiously through the eyes of my protagonist, Billy Maddox, in my novel.)

The U.S. - Mexican Border Fence in Nogales, AZ (2003)

The U.S. – Mexican Border Fence in Nogales, AZ (2003)

When I was there more than a decade ago, the border fence, or “la linea”, was made of corrugated steel plates that used to be parts of landing mats from the Vietnam and the first Gulf Wars.

Differences Between Border Fences

It’s ugly as sin; establishing that fact requires only simple observation. In a 2011 article in the Christian Science Monitor, a citizen of Nogales related her experience growing up before the landing mat fence was raised. Before 1994, a 2.8-mile stretch of border through and beyond Nogales was marked by a simple chain-link fence through which, as the author Lourdes Medrano points out, citizens on both sides could peer and observe the way life was lived in the other country.

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That opportunity clearly was not a priority for those who raised the steel mat fence. As if the fence wasn’t bad enough, and it’s not easy to see in my photograph, but three lines of barbed wire run along the top of the fence to deter climbers. One problem for line agents as a result of this fence has been that they became vulnerable to attacks from the other side. You can’t see anything through the steel fence. Up until a few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for agents to get hit by large rocks thrown from the other side.

Ms. Medrano, the author of the Christian Science Monitor article, also wrote casually about how, when the chain-link fence was in place, citizens from both side of the border could casually slip through, not for illegal migration purposes necessarily, but for the purposes of experiencing and appreciating the culture on the other side of the city.

Nogales is actually a city cut in half by the border, which could understandably make people inclined to want to visit friends and family on the other side of the fence.

Another curiosity about her article is the accompanying image of the fence. Here’s the link again. In her photo, the fence is painted into a cheerful, colorful mural. That differs significantly from and likely came later than the date of my photograph, which shows a drab, mud-brown slash in the earth that seems to suck all light and positive feeling from the accompanying landscape.

Border Fences: Bad for Business?

When I toured the DeConcini port of entry in Nogales in 2003, the customs officer showing me around pointed out how when the landing mat fence went up in 1994, local businesses, especially those on nearby Morley Avenue, were incredibly unhappy that the horrible aesthetics would create a distasteful environment and drive potential customers away.

When I pointed out to my guide how the composition of the fence nearest the port of entry changed from the steel plates to a sandstone-like wall with squares of aqua-blue glass, he smiled and agreed that aesthetic demands meant that something more attractive than the steel mats was necessary in an area populated by large numbers of people.

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Presumably, that would have been little consolation to the shop owners on Morley Avenue, a few blocks away, who still had to deal with the fence looming over their businesses from the nearby rock and scrub-covered hills, or to the citizens of the hilly Buenos Aires colonia on the Mexican side of the fence.

A New Border Fence: Bigger and Better?

This fence–the one I saw in 2003–was replaced just three years ago by a taller one the U.S. government claims will be both more secure and also safer for Border Patrol agents patrolling the line. The newer fence is taller than the last one and has a metal sheet at the top that makes it fairly impossible to climb.

The new Nogales fence is bollard style, meaning it is composed of a line of vertical posts set close together but which still allows people to see through to the other side. That at least provides something of a return to Ms. Medrano’s earlier days when she and citizens on the other side of the fence could see how life was lived on the other side.

From the U.S. government’s point of view, the increased safety for line agents comes from the fact that you can now see what was happening on the other side and who is there. In 2012, the Nogales International news outlet reported that, at the one-year anniversary of the new fence, assaults on agents were down and communications between both sides of the border were up.

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Fences come and fences go on the U.S.-Mexican border. But in many respects, for security, safety and aesthetics, things would seem to be moving in a positive direction.

Posted in Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, Border | 1 Comment