Saturday, December 8, 2012

Confession of a Bookaholic

I hope everyone enjoyed reading about the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. I enjoyed sharing it with you, but it's time to get back to my other writing pursuits. I couldn't believe it when I saw I hadn't posted to the blog since October 13. Our writing group, the Bayou Writers, was in the process of putting on our ninth annual writer's conference on November 10, and then Thanksgiving dropped in on us, so time got away from me. I realize Christmas is only two weeks away, but I'm pretty much caught up on that.

Everyone who knows me knows I'm a bookaholic. I never met a how-to-write book I didn't love. I found a real gem just put out by Writer's Digest Books a few weeks ago. It's entitled
Where Do You Get Your Ideas? A Writer's Guide to Transforming Notions into Narratives by Fred White. I've only made it to Chapter 4 and already I have enough inspiration to keep my pen moving all year.

For example, there's a section in Chapter 2 on finding ideas in reference works. Encyclopedias, almanacs, handbooks, dictionaries--all kinds of dictionaries--to name a few. Mr. White recommended Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure and Preposterous Words by Josefa Heifetz Byrne. It sounded interesting so, of course, I had to have it. I just found the word "doxy." We all know a doxy is a "prostitute," but it also has an alternate meaning--a creed or doctrine, especially a religious one. I'll take myself out to the McNeese library and research the word in the OED. There's bound to be a story there somewhere.

Frank Warren put together a compedium of anonymous confessional letters titled Post Secret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives. Some examples:
     < I waste office supplies because I hate my boss.
      <When I get angry I write bad words on my toaster strudel.

I bought that one, too, as well as another he recommended. Dear Old Love, compiled by Andy Selsberg, has hundreds of anonymous messages addressed to former loves. It's on my Kindle.

That's three and a half chapters down and twelve more to go. I need to win the lottery. How many of you can't resist?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: After the War

The Code Talkers had not been nationally recognized until 1969, when the 4th Marine Division Association held its reunion in Chicago. At that time a group of Code Talkers was invited to the reunion and presented with a medallion specially minted in commemoration of their services. In 1971 President Nixon presented them with a certificate of appreciation on behalf of the nation. He thanked them for their patriotism, resourcefulness, and courage. August 14, 1982 was declared National Code Talkers Day by President Reagan, who issued a proclamation of tribute to all members of the Navajo Nation who gave their special talents and their lives so that others might live.

Dan Rather interviewed the oldest Code Talker, Carl Gorman, at his home in 1997, and after the interview said the American way of life might not have survived if it were not for their service. Ninety-year-old Gorman's closing statement reflected the true heart of a Marine when he said, "Old Marines never die. They just go to hell and regroup."

The Navajos today:
Edward S. Curtis was a photographer whose pictures of Native Americans are in museums and private collections across the country. One of the most famous of these, "The  Vanishing Race," was taken in 1904 and is supposed to show the Indians passing into the darkness of an unknown future, stripped of their tribal strength and culture.

The Navajos did not vanish into the darkness, however. Today they are the largest Native American tribe in the United States with a population of over 200,000, and their rich culture is alive and well. They lived through the Spaniards, the Mexicans, the Utes, white settlers, slave traders, the U.S. Army, Kit Carson, GeneralCarleton, the Long Walk, Bosque Redondo, livestock reduction, and boarding school. Many native nations have disappeared, swallowed up into the Anglo world. The Dineh, however, remain distinctly themselves. They have survived.

From the Night Chant

In Beauty (happily) I walk.
With Beauty before me I walk.
With Beauty behind me I walk.
With Beauty above me I walk.
With Beauty all around me I walk.
It is finished in Beauty.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: A Valuable Weapon

Because the Navajos, with their straight black hair, dark eyes, small stature, and somewhat Asian features, resembled the Japanese, each had a bodyguard assigned to him. After one Code Talker was nearly shot by a U.S. Marine, these bodyguards went everywhere the Navajos went. The Code Talkers were a valuable weapon and their safety was first and foremost, one of the bodyguards reported being told by his superiors. However, the Code as well as the Talker was to be protected. If a Code Talker had the misfortune to be captured by the Japanese his bodyguard was under orders to shoot him to protect the Code. Fortunately, this was not necessary since none were captured.

One night in August 1945 the news came over the division radio net that the emperor of Japan had asked for peace terms. The Navajos, naturally, were the first to learn this good news. The elated Navajos decided a celebration was in order. Since tom-toms were not items of issue, they set off au natural for the bandsmen's tents. They grabbed the drums and Indian-danced their way toward the officer's tents with the bandsmen, also au natural, in hot pursuit trying to retrieve their drums. The war ended in the Pacific on September 2, 1945, with the formal surrender of Japan. The men from a nation within a nation were an integral part of that victory.

The Navajo Code did not end with the war's end. The Code remained classified since no one knew if it would be needed again, and it remained so until 1969 when it was finally declassified by the United States government. The Navajos had been told to remain silent about their role in the war and the existence of the code. They kept the secret until it was no longer a secret.

Next: After the War

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: The Battle for the Pacific

After the shock of Pearl Harbor and the capitulation of Hong Kong, the Phillipines, Singapore, and Corregidor, the United States forces recovered enough to start the advance, island by island, toward Japan. As each island was secured it was used for storing supplies and equipment and, sometimes, an airstrip was built for bombers and fighter planes. Soon the war in the South Pacific became an exercise in island hopping. Communication between them was vital. Headquarters needed to know exactly what opposition they were meeting and when reinforcements would be needed.

The dark-skinned, black haired Navajos soon became a familiar sight at Marine command posts throughout the Pacific combat zone as they huddled over radio sets sending and translating messages into a conglomeration of the Navajo language, American slang, and military terminology. From the twenty-nine Code Talkers at the beginning of the war the number had increased to 420 by the end. The Japanese never broke the code as the Navajos relayed operational orders with a secrecy that enabled the United States to advance from the Solomons to Okinawa.

Control of Iwo Jima was vital to both the United States and Japan. The Japanese leadership knew that the loss of Iwo Jima would be followed by Okinawa's fall and the invasion of the mainland. Their orders were to defend the island at all costs. The first Code Talkers came ashore in the second wave, and six Navajo nets worked around the clock for 48 hours. Their commander reported that in that period alone they sent and received 800 messages without an error. Iwo Jima was one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific. Six-thousand eight-hundred Americans lost their lives during the 36-day battle. Three of these were Code Talkers. One officer reported the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima were it not for the Code Talkers.

Next: A Valuable Weapon

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: Testing the Code

The Code Talker could switch from using the code words to spelling the word from the alphabet, which had at least three terms for the most frequently used letters of the English alphabet. To do this the Talker would use A, B, C to let his counterpart know he was going to spell the word out instead of using the word itself. Example: the word "abandon" is ye-tsan (run away from), but spelled out it would be Apple (be-la-sana) Badger (na-hash-chid) Ant (wol-la-chee) Nose (a-chin) Deer (be) Owl (ne-ahs-jah) Needle (tsah). Note the use of two different words for A and N so as not to establish a pattern for the Japanese code-breakers to study. One of the Anglo marines who worked with the Code Talkers said the Navajo code was American double-talk mixed with a sound like water from a jug being poured into a bathtub.

After the alphabet and code words were complete, the memory work began. This was the easiest part of the requirements since in Navajo everything is in memory. The songs and prayers and everything else was in the oral tradition.

They tested and retested their coding and decoding skills in the classroom, sending such messages as "Landing wave on beach but loss is high." They started out with messages of a few words and rapidly worked their way up to longer ones. During field trials they were amazed at how well it worked. The messages came out word for word on the other end, including semi-colons, commas, periods, and question marks. When the field trials had ended the received message matched the sent message to the letter.

The code proved to be fast and accurate, but unbreakable? United States Intelligence put it to the test. During the field trials the code was transmitted over radio and picked up by them. They worked on it for three weeks, but could discern no repetition or sequences or pattern. U.S. Intelligence could not break it.

While at Camp Elliot the Navajos received training for general Signal Corps: Morse code, panel codes, signal flags, field telephones and radio (operation and mechanics). They also received combat training. The pilot program was an unqualified success, leading to a recommendation that another 200 Navajos with the proper qualifications be recruited to continue the program. These twenty-nine members of the first class, however, were assigned to various units of the 1st Marine Amphibious Corps and 2nd Marine Division Communications Personnel and shipped out to the Pacific Theater as soon as possible.

Next: The Battle for the Pacific

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: Developing the Code

By the end of the first day they had devised the alphabet. They repeated it until it was committed to memory, and fell asleep repeating it to themselves. They had to come up with words in English that had Navajo counterparts. Most letters had two or three words, such as ant, apple, and axe for A, badger, bear, and barrel for B, and so on. Only V, W, X, and Z had one word only. The word for W is weasel and the Navajo word for weasel is gloe-ih.

After the alphabet they created 211 Navajo words to substitute for military terms that were nonexistent in Navajo.
Commanding General=War Chief
Major General=2 Star

Organizations were more difficult, so they substituted Navajo clan names for many of them.
Battalion=Red Soil

Substitute words for aircraft were much easier. Birds seen on the reservation prvovided easy to remember substitutes.
Dive Bomber=chicken hawk
Fighter Plane=humming bird

Navajo names of fish and water mammals were chosen for ships.
Mine sweeper=beaver

Terms frequently used in battle needed Navajo synonyms.
Confidential=kept secret

Some substitutes were chosen for shape or resemblance.

Countries took on names with special meanings to the Navajos.
America=Our Mother (loved this one)
Japan=Slant Eye

Because the Navajo did not measure time as the Americans and Europeans did, their language had no terms for months of the year. They chose words that described the season or the events that took place at that time of year.
March=Squeaky Voice
April=Small Plant
May=Big Plant

The Navajo words cannot be pronounced as they are written. The English alphabet alone cannot produce the pronunciation or the true meaning. Many accent and phonetic marks are needed to represent the tone and pitch of each syllable and the gutteral sounds so unfamiliar to the non-Navajo. Even a Navajo would need to know which dialect was being used. 

Next: How the Code Was Used

Friday, September 7, 2012

Permission Granted

The matter was turned over to A.H. Turnage, director of the Division of Plans and Policies. There were several issues that he had concerns about: the possibility of mistakes during translations, possible problems in teaching the Indians to use technical equipment, and the fear that using Indian dialect under combat conditions might slow communications. He was advised by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the Navajo language would indeed be an ideal medium of communication since the messages would be unintelligible to anyone other than the Navajos themselves. They would also be exceptionally fast since the individuals could translate as they received, thus doing away with coding or transcoding. After studying the reports he granted permission for the Navajo project, although the pilot program was authorized for thirty Navajos of the 200 requested.

Although many applied during the recruitment only 29 Navajo men made it into the pilot program. Fluency in both Navajo and English was the main requirement, but the men also had the rigors of boot camp facing them.It was not much of a problem for them,however, after overcoming a few cultural differences. The commanding officer reported to the Commandant that they had done exceptionally well at the Depot, having at an early date developed a very high esprit de corps. The group of 29 men, he said, was still intact. None had dropped back due to sickness,disciplinary action or lack of ability to keep up with the others, which was highly unusual, the rate of attrition being from five to ten percent. He reported that their progress had been highly satisfactory.

After graduation from boot camp the men were sent to CampElliott for further training. They received their "special assignment" there. The Marine Corps had plans, the officer told them, to develop a combat code based on the Navajo language for use in battle situations.Creating and using this code was their special assignment. As he wrote the instructions on the chalkboard, the Navajos watched in amazement. Construct an alphabet based on the Navajo language, choose Navajo words to substitute for military terms, keep the terms short for rapid transmission, and memorize all terms. That was all. Just do it. And that is what they did, working as a team and starting with the asphabet.

Next: Developing the Code

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Unbreakable Code: The Testing Begins

Sorry about the gap between posts. I've been at Killer Nashville since last Wednesday. More about that when I finish up with the Code Talkers.

On February 27, 1942, Johnston arrived at Camp Elliott with four Navajos. He considered fluency in this difficult language impossible for anyone who did not grow up speaking it. His plan,therefore, was to recruit not only those men whose first language was Navajo, but who also possessed a fluency in English as well. On the day of the test, Colonel Jones, who had installed a field telephone in the headquarters building and invited General Vogel and his staff to attend, handed the Navajos six messages similar to those used in military operations and gave them an hour to practice. The men used this time to choose Navajo words to substitute for military terms such as dive-bombing and anti-tank gun.

The testing began. A member of the general's staff would write a message and hand it to one of the Navajos, who translated it into his language and relayed it over the field telephone to a Navajo in another room. This man, in turn, would translate it back into English and prepare a written message. Fifteen minutes later General Vogel inspected the translated messages, and the accuracy convinced him that the Navajo language could be used for code purposes. On March 6 he sent the results of the demonstration and Johnston's proposal to the Marine Commandant in Washington, D.C. "The demonstration was interesting and successful," he wrote in the accompanying letter. "Messages were transmitted and received almost verbatim." He also requested the recruitment of 200 Navajos.

Next: Permission Granted

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: The Idea

High-ranking military men in Washington were reluctant to approve the further use of Indian languages for combat communication, being concerned that accuracy might be hampered by static and combat noise. Furthermore, Indian vocabularies did not have military and technical terms. They believed that an unbreakable code was impossible, convinced that creating new codes based on the English language was the best way to go.

The US might have missed an important strategic advantage if not for a World War I veteran named Philip Johnston who convinced some high-ranking marines in San Diego that the use of one certain Indian language could create an unbreakable code. Johnston, the son of missionaries, had grown up on the Navajo reservation with only Navajo children for playmates, and quickly learned the difficult language.

After reading about military maneuvers in Louisiana where Indians from tribes in Wisconsin and Michigan were being used as "code transmitters he came up with a unique idea. In San Diego he contacted the area signal officer, Lt. Col. James E. Jones and asked him how he would like a device that would assure complete secrecy in battlefield messages. The colonel assured Johnston that no code or cipher had ever been completely secure in the history of warfare.

Johnston persisted. Suppose an Indian language was used as the basis for the code, always used orally, by radio or telephone, and never written down. The colonel explained that the idea had been tried and proved to be impractical,but Johnston persevered. His idea, he said, was not to merely transmit messages in an Indian language but to build a code based on Indian words.

He finally had the colonel's full attention after speaking a sentence in Navajo and asking him if he honestly believed that anyone but a Navajo could understand what he had said. He pressed his advantage and invited the colonel to repeat a Navajo word he uttered syllable by syllable. The absolute inability of Jones to comply convinced him of the possibilities of the complex language. He asked Johnston to arrange a meeting. 

Next: The Testing Begins

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: Choctaw Precursors

The idea of using Native Americans to relay coded messages during wartime actually started in 1918 in the Argonne forest of northern France. Defeat seemed imminent for the Allies at the hands of the powerful German army. American commanders had been directed to capture a German stronghold at Forest Ferme. A surprise attack offered the only hope for success, but the Germans had managed to intercept and decode every Allied message.

The solution to the problem was discovered quite by accident. An American captain overheard two Choctaw soldiers speaking in their native tongue, and an idea surfaced.The captain inquired as to the number of Choctaws in the battalion. Eight men who spoke fluent Choctaw were discovered. To test his idea the captain had one Choctaw translate a message into his language and relay it to company headquarters using the field telephone. Another Choctaw at headquarters listened to the message and accurately translated it back to English for the battalion commander.

The experiment was successful, and at least one Choctaw was assigned to each field company headquarters to begin at once to handle communications by field telephone. The Allies achieved victory at Forest Ferme, and the Choctaw code talkers played a major role. The Germans failed to decipher one word. The U.S. government cautioned the Native Americans to keep their role in the war a secret in case American forces in future conflicts had need of them.

German officials identified the language and began making their own plans for "future wars." After the war, during the 1920s and 1930s Germans, saying they were tourists and scholars, visited Native reservations ostensibly to study Native American culture. In fact, they had been sent by their government to learn Native languages. By the time the United States had entered World War II in 1941 most American Indian tribes had been visited and had their languages studied thoroughly. But not the Navajo.

Next: An idea is born.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: The Navajo Language

The Navajo language is extremely complex and the pronunciation difficult. A few traders and missionaries had even tried to learn it prior to 1942, but they only learned enough to conduct their business. They never attempted to use Navajo in daily conversations. Indeed, there were only about 28 non-Navajos who understood the language extensively.

An attempt had been made to write the language, but it remained essentially oral. It remained pure since the Navajos did not adopt foreign words as other languages often do. For instance, when the radio and telephone made an appearance on the reservation, they created new Navajo words for them. "Radio" became nil-chi-hal-ne-ih and "telephone" was besh-hal-ne-ih. The words are not pronounced as written since each syllable requires sounds that would need accent marks and phonetic symbols. Even with knowledge of phonetic symbols the unpracticed tongue would find it difficult.

Anthropologist Clyde Kluckholn wrote that the talk of those who learned Navajo as adults always had a flabby quality to the Navajo ear.

Next: The Choctaw Precursors

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: The War Begins

President Roosevelt declared war on Japan the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Volunteers flocked to military recruitment offices to enlist. Since there were none of these on the reservation, dozens of Navajo men gathered outside the superintendent's office, armed with hunting rifles and ready to fight the enemy. However, they were sent home since no draft call had been sent out and no enlistment procedures were in place on the reservation as yet.

On December 7, 1941, Keith Little was at boarding school in Ganado, Arizona. He and some of his fellow students had been hunting with .22 rifles and had a rabbit simmering over a fire in the woods beyond the school, being thoroughly sick of what they referred to as "cafeteria gruel." While they waited for it to finish cooking one of the boys went back to the dorm for something. When the boy returned, Little recalls this conversation.

"Hey, Pearl Harbor was bombed!"
"Where's Pearl Harbor?"
"In Hawaii."
"Who did it?"
"Why'd they do it?"
"They hate Americans. They want to kill all Americans."
"Us too?"
"Yeah, us too."

Little and his friends promised each other they would use their .22 rifles to go after the Japanese instead of rabbits. I found this in an article by Bruce Watson, "Navajo Code Talkers: A Few Good Men." It can be found in the Smithsonian, August 1993.

Next: The Navajo Language

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Unbreakable Code: Indian School

At the end of the bitter four-year confinement at Bosque Redondo the survivors of the Long Walk returned to their belolved homeland between the four sacred mountains. One of the stipulations of the Treaty of 1868 that allowed them to return was that all of their children between the ages of six and sixteen were to attend school. The government was supposed to provide the classrooms and a competent teacher for every thirty students. Since the roads were so bad and the winters so severe the children remained at boarding schools for months at a time, away from their families. In addition, it was the policy of the federal schools to expedite "acculturation" as speedily as possible. They were forbidden to speak Navajo while there. Punishment for this ranged from beatings with a strap to boys being dressed in girls clothing to having one's mouth washed out with strong soap.

The children were reminded constantly that they had to learn to dress, to speak, and to think like white people. They were to forget their Navajo upbringing and their Navajo way of life, which they had been taught was beautiful and good and given to them by their own Holy People. They were to forget all this in order to become like the Anglos and to pray to their deity. However, their parents and grandparents would not let them forget that the white man had been their enemy. He had subjected them to life on a reservation, had been responsible for the terrors of the Long Walk, deprived them of their land and freedom, and the right to many of their ancient ceremonies and religious rites. But more importantly, he still considered them savages and heathens.

As one can see from the preceding events, the Navajos had little cause to get involved in the "white man's war." However, they saw the attack on Pearl Harbor as an attack on the Navajo Nation as well as on the forty-eight states. They felt that the beauty of their Reservation and its holy ground must be defended. Although this may seem inconsistent with the treatment they received at the hands of Kit Carson and General Carleton, it is not inconsistent with the Navajo's love of their land.

Next: The war begins.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: Stock Reduction

New Mexico and Arizona gained statehood in 1912. Oil was discovered on Navajo lands, bringing more federal involvement in tribal affairs. Toward the end of the 1920s the government became concerned that soil erosion on Navajo lands was the result of overgrazing by Navajo livestock. Government observers linked the silt-runoff problems at nearby Lake Mead and Hoover Dam to the erosion on Navajo grazing lands. President Franklin Roosevelt initiated the Navajo Stock Reduction Program to deal with this problem.

The administration planned to replace traditional sheep herds with fewer hybrid animals that would produce more meat and wool per animal,hoping the stress to the environment would be less since there would be fewer animals on the grazing land. Also, the government would hire Navajo workers to build dams, bridges, and schools to make up for loss of income due to the reduction of their herds.

However, the plan didn't work since there were not enough jobs to make up for the lost income. Instead of gaining more grazing lands by reducing herds, the grasses died and less desirable plants sprung up in their place. In an attempt to protect their herds, each family settled in an area and claimed as much land as possible. Since they no longer moved about constantly and spread grazing over large areas, the result was the overgrazing of nearby grasslands. Government officials began destroying sheep and goats, turning Navajo prosperity into poverty and the Dineh again faced hunger because of government actions. The Navajo consider stock reduction another great tragedy in their history. Only the Long Walk was worse.

Next: School Days

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: Troubles with the U.S. Government

There was an intermittent state of turmoil between the United States and the Navajos in the years preceding the final battle in Canyon de Chelly and their subsequent removal from their homeland. One of the causes was the slave trade in the Southwest, which had existed for generations, but it had become so extensive by 1850 that it was estimated that thousands of Indians were laboring in New Mexican homes. A young Navajo could go for as high as $200 on the auction block. Those involved in the trade found it to their advantage to keep things stirred up between the United States and the Navajos so as to gain official sanction for their trading activities. Activities by these traffickers in human flesh served to keep relations in turmoil.

General James H. Carleton arrived in New Mexico in September 1862 with orders to destroy the Navajo and Apache threat to the white settlers there. To carry out these orders he picked Colonel Christopher "Kit" Carson. His orders to Carson were simple: kill all the men who resisted and capture the women and children. Skirmishes went on intermittently until January 1864 when the Navajos made their last stand against Carson and the U.S. Cavalry in the massive Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. With its thousand foot walls all around and only one entrance it seemed the ideal stronghold. However, Carson and his men rode across Navajo lands and into the canyon burning hogans, destroying crops, uprooting fruit trees, and killing livestock. By winter the canyon sanctuary had become a prison for the surviving Navajos who had taken refuge there, and without food or shelter from the cold, they had no choice but to surrender.

The defeat at Canyon de Chelly brought the greatest tragedy in Navajo history. They were forced to leave their homeland and make what became known as the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo. Hundreds died during the 300-mile journey, and upon arrival they found the area already occupied by the Mescalero Apaches, among others. Many more died in the strange and crowded land that was to be their home for the next four years. Approximately 8,500 Navajos began the Long Walk, and only 6,000 returned to their homeland.

The Kit Carson era was the most tragic in Navajo history. The Long Walk was to the Navajo nation what the Holocaust was to the European Jews. The survivors never forgot what they experienced, and they passed the stories on to their children and grandchildren. To the Navajos, the Long Walk and the years at Bosque Redondo were the worst things they had to endure in the name of Manifest Destiny.

Next: Statehood and More Troubles

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: Navajo Belief About Death

One Navajo belief that has caused many difficulties for them in their dealings with outsiders over time is their fear of death. This was especially true of the Navajos who fought in America's wars of the 20th Century. They are not afraid of dying, but want no part of anything that has already died. The Navajo faith teaches that people are not totally extinguished at their deaths. Unlike Christianity, however, the traditional Navajo religion did not assign the souls of the dead to an afterlife in another world. Traditional Navajos believed that the evil part of a dead creature or person lingered on Earth. The chindi, as these spirits were called, returned to the place where the person had died to terrorize the living. Chindi were to be avoided at all costs. Once a person was dead, his or her name was not to be mentioned again, even if the dead person was a loved one.

If a person died in their hogan, the body had to be taken out through a hole in the northern wall, since north is the direction of evil to a Navajo. The hogan was either burned to the ground or abandoned and allowed to fall in on itself. One of the greatest favors a belegana (white person) could offer to Navajos was to bury their dead relatives for them. Burial was an ominous task, and elaborate ritual precautions had to be taken to protect those who had to perform it.In the Pacific war, Navajo Code Talkers were surrounded by chindi. They lived among death and slept among death. They had to pull bodies of dying and dead comrades out of vine-choked ditches and slimy rivers; they huddled in fox holes all night long while dead enemies lay in the darkness around them.

Next: Troubles with the US government

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: The Female Principle

Even during the Nineteenth Century the Navajo treatment of their women was strikingly different from that of most other tribes. This equality was close to the women's rights doctrine of today. The marriage ceremony was simply eating a meal together, and divorce was just as easy. The goods were divided equally with the children going with the mother. Free love went along with women's rights. None of the women were chaste, and venereal disease was always a problem.

A Navajo man would never make a bargain without consulting his wife or wives, and they never struck their women. Because of being treated well, Navajo women were better looking than the average women of other tribes, and consequently were coveted by the slave traders. Their main deity is a woman, who assists the Navajo after death to fight his way through the evil spirits and get across the great water barrier to the other side. She will not do this unless they have treated their women well.

Next: How the Navajo death beliefs affected the Code Talkers during the WWII.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Unbreakable Code Continued

The Spanish arrived in 1598, and the Navajos, large and powerful by that time, raided their settlements frequently. By the end of the century they had acquired livestock-horses, cattle, sheep, and goats-by raiding and trading with the Spaniards. The Navajos considered these raids to be economic pursuits rather than war. Being very adaptable, they also learned agriculture, architecture, weaving, and improved pottery techniques from the Pueblo people who were already here when the Navajos arrived. Then the United States took possession of the southwestern territories in 1846. The Mexicans and the Navajos had been fighting and stealing from each other for centuries, and they didn't stop just because the Americans were in control.

The Navajo social structure was flexible, and underwent enormous changes over several centuries, but the reason they have been able to survive when other tribes have since disappeared has been their ability to adapt to their situation and environment. Certain themes have persisted in their culture, however: the primacy of age, individualism, reciprocity, and the female principle. Old people are honored. Age has as much to do with the power structure in a community as wealth does. Even the poorest of people are treated with the utmost respect if they are advanced in years. The rights and wishes of the individual are extremely important. No person has the right to speak for another, or to tell them what to do. Every debt must be repaid no matter how long it takes. The ledger is never closed. This is also true for a favor. It must be recompensed. If someone is unable to repay a debt, either of material goods or a kindness, his family feels obligated to do so.

Children are usually considered descended matrilineally. At the center of the social unit is a core of women - mother, daughter, sister - and their sons and brothers. Women are often the instigators in matters of romance. At the Squaw Dances, for instance, the girls most often select the partners. The wife's desire to live with her mother usually takes precedence over the husband's wish to stay with his, and often a brother/sister relationship is more important than a husband/wife one. This "female principle" could explain the low occurrence of rape on the Navajo reservation, which is nearly half that of the general American rural population.

Next: More on the female principle.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Unbreakable Code Part 1

A few years back I started reading Tony Hillerman's mystery novels set on the Navajo reservation and became fascinated with the Navajo culture. I started doing research of my own on them and came across the story of the Code Talkers assigned to the Marines in the Pacific. This is such an intriguing story I wanted to share it with others, but I'll have to do this in several posts. First, a little background.

Julius Caesar said, "I came, I saw, I conquered." His descendants and their kin, not wishing to be outdone by their famous ancestor, did likewise in the New World. They came. They saw. They took. They came, those restless Europeans, some searching for riches, others yearning for a better life than the one they left across the sea. Some fled religious persecution that ravaged the European continent. Still others came to escape the gallows. They came, for whatever reason. They saw a vast and beautiful land with room for all, it would seem, who had the tenacity and the grit to tame it. And then they took and took and took.

American for the Americans, from sea to shining sea. That was the belief in the middle of the Nineteenth Century as the United States geared up for its push to expand westward. Newspapers and politicians touted Manifest Destiny, the notion that the Americans were divinely sanctioned to cover the continent with their own brand of enlightenment. Americans were the chosen, ordained by God to extend the national boundaries from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico, and that's what they set out to do. However, there was a problem. Someone was already here, and they didn't go gently into the night.

The Navajos were one of the many native nations that lived in the southwestern section of the continent. They were primarily located in northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southern Utah. The Navajos and their linguistic cousins, the Apaches, arrived in the Southwest sometime in the mid-fourteenth century. The traditional homeland area of the Dineh, meaning "the people," which is the name Navajos use to refer to themselves, is at the Gobernador and Largo tributaries of the San Juan River seventy miles west of Santa Fe. The earliest Navajos were organized into small groups with a headman whose job was to lead the people to find food and water.

Next: The arrival of the Spanish.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Common One Hundred

What do the following words have in common?


They're perfectly good English words, right? How many times have you heard them in the course of a conversation? How many times have they crept into your writing over time? They are on a list of the one hundred most commonly overused words in the English language. But never fear. There's a book that addresses that. The title is A Cure for the Common Word by K.D. Sullivan. The back blurb on the book tells us our brains hold a vocabulary of more than 20,000 words, but we only use a small fraction of them. Instead we use the same words over and over. Words like interesting, good, and nice. I mean, how general and abstract are those?

Each word has a two-page spread with definitions, sample sentences, quotes, and an extensive list of synonyms. These can be found in any good thesaurus, of course, but the list breaks them down into parts of speech. Nearly 60% are adjectives and adverbs.

Let's take interesting, for example. The author provides ( I almost said gives, but it's on the list) 39 "cures," with seven "powerful remedies." Here are the remedies for interesting:


It's better than a thesaurus because the author zeroes in on the culprits. It's well worth the $14.95 list price. So, when you begin the revision process and find your prose or poetry ho-hum, grab this little gem of a book and start circling words.

Writing Prompt:
Write about the stain on the wall.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Writing Classes

Last week I attended the second of the poetry and flash fiction Leisure Learning classes at McNeese. At the Tuesday night poetry class Connie had us free write from memory about a time we got away with something. I remembered the swimming lessons at the lake on Shell Beach Drive when I was about five. The instructor told us we'd be going under the water the next week and get a shell from the bottom and show it to the class when we came up. I stewed about it all week. Even offered to stay home and pick the strawberries. If anyone has ever picked strawberries they know how desperate I was. It's not that I was afraid of the water. Just didn't like going under at that time in my life. Five years old, for crying out loud. At any rate, I got my shell and showed it to the class. But - I didn't go all the way to the bottom for it. And that's all I'm saying about that. After I read it out loud for the class, Connie said it worked great as a flash fiction piece, so I'll use it in that class for this week's assignment.

Next we did some poem sketching from Sandford Lyne's excellent book, Writing Poetry from the Inside Out. From several groups of four words each I chose one with the following words: icicles, poor, roof, beauty. I ended up with a haiku. Here's my attempt.

Icicles melt the
beauty of the roof into
a pudgy puddle.

For the non-poets among us, a haiku is a Japanese form with three lines and a syllable count of 5-7-5.

For the FLEX YOUR MUSCLES writing prompt see what you can do with those four words. Maybe you can get a longer poem or even a story out of them.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Someone once called me a professional student. Maybe it was because after graduating from high school in 1954 it took me the next fifty years to finally walk down the aisle and receive my Masters degree in English. That's right. Got that puppy in 2004 at the tender age of 67. Unfortunately I won't be around to join my fellow grads from the class of '04 when they get to sit down at the front in their golden robes in 2054. Be that as it may, that  education is something I wouldn't trade for anything in the world and it's something no one can ever take away from me.

And guess what? I'm still at it. Last week I made my way out to McNeese not once, but twice. Poetry class on Tuesday and Flash Fiction on Thursday. I've been seriously blocked since the first of the year. Hadn't written anything new since January. I left Poetry class with two poems and Flash Fiction class with one very short story. Got my mojo back. These are Leisure Learning classes, so there's no pressure to do anything. I have two excellent mentors. Connie, a retired teacher, is the poetry instructor, and Rachel, an MFA grad student is our fiction teacher. We only have three in the poetry class, but that's okay. Quality, not quantity. We have a few more, maybe eight, in the fiction class, but still quite manageable. 

So go ahead and call me names. I'm going to keep at it as long as the old brain lets me.

P.S. If you do the math you can even find out how old I am. I don't do math. I'm an English major.

Writing Prompts
Anthony Burgess suggested taking a page from a dictionary and seeing if the words on the page can build up a scene or a description.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Oner

Preacher Hebert was a oner. "Preacher" was a nickname he picked up in grammar school, and it followed him through his long, diverse life. Will Rogers once said he never met a man he didn't like. Preacher went him one better. He never met a man who didn't like him. As the years passed more and more of his friends, coworkers, and family members said goodbye to this world.

"There won't be anyone left to see me off," he often joked. He would have been surprised at the steady stream of condolers on visitation night and the standing-room-only crowd in the chapel the day of his funeral. There were plenty there to "see him off." Wife, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, former coworkers, hunting and fishing buddies, seven siblings, and assorted extended family. And friends. Lots of friends of all ages. The eulogies went on for quite a while.

He was in my life from the day I was born until the day he died. I observed nearly every phase of his life. Early on I remember those dark Cajun looks--the curly  hair, the laughing eyes, the pug nose that is a strong familial trait of the Heberts. Tall and solidly built, he had an athlete's fluidity of movement. I remember his hands--so big they could hide a baseball, strong enough to skin an alligator, yet with a touch so delicate he often bested his sisters, so I'm told, in a game of jacks. The dark curly hair grayed and thinned over the years, but the laughing eyes were there until they closed for the last time in his ninety-second year. December 8, 1999. Twenty-three days before the new century.

He excelled in all sports, but his passion was baseball. He was amazed he could actually get paid for doing something he loved so much. But when it was time, he hung up his cleats and went on to the next phase of his life. He never tried to relive the past through his children. Of the five of us, only two showed any real interest in sports, but that was fine with him. He always supported us in everything.

His retirement years afforded him the opportunity to pursue his other passions. He hunted ducks in the fall and winter. Spring and summer was the time for fishing and gardening. He skinned alligators during gator season and read "shoot-em-ups" when the weather was too bad for anything else. His talents extended to the kitchen as well, where he could whip up a mean gumbo. We were often treated to fried filleted fish, French fries, and fried okra followed by our mother's blackberry cobbler.

A snapshot shows him sitting in his pirogue in a quiet backwater of the Calcasieu River, an old man fishing, his face shaded by a battered baseball cap. A stranger might be surprised to know he'd been equally at home on the pitcher's mound in St. Louis, San Diego, and Pittsburgh. That snapshot is only part of his story. He was in my life a long time, and I regret he's no longer a part of it.

Writing Prompt
See what you can do with this:
A person who refuses to fit in and an asteroid heading toward Earth.
(Taken from The Storymatic)

Monday, May 21, 2012


In the year 1888 the Whitechapel district of London was being terrorized by a brutal serial killer preying on prostitutes, who are among the most vulnerable among us. The unknown murderer was called Jack the Ripper. Other nicknames included "The Whitechapel Murderer" and "Leather Apron." He was never apprehended.
Some fourteen years later, in 1914, New Orleans had its own version of the miscreant who was running around the city terrorizing schoolgirls, albeit not as brutally. The following report appeared in the New Orleans States:

           Three New Orleans girls have fallen victim to Jack-the-Clipper, who
            was abroad Friday, snipping the plaited locks of young schoolgirls.
            Many other girls were said to have lost their hair, but are suppressing
            it because of the resultant unpleasant notoriety. Superintendent
            Reynolds has detailed special officers to watch for the miscreant,
            who has been operating mostly on street cars and in moving-picture
            It is not thought that any hair dealers are guilty, for the tresses were 
            slashed but a few inches from the end, while the guilty parties had an
            opportunity of cutting off two or three feet of hair.

One week later the same newspaper reported this story:

           Since stories have begun to appear in the papers regarding the
           unmentionable thief who has been cutting off hair, New Orleans girls
           have come to realize that they wear wealth on their heads. Not only
           that, but they are taking great pains to guard it.
           A chattering group of school girls boarded a car Thursday at the
           corner of the Sophie B. Wright High School. Thick braids of black,
           brown and golden hair hung down their backs. As soon as they had
           found seats, giggling stopped long enough for them to reach round
           with the trained precision of a comic opera chorus and bring their
           braids to the front and tuck them carefully in the front of their coats.
           One whose hair wasn't long enough to reach worked with her
           refractory curls until she had them all safely tucked from sight in
           the crown of her hat.

His fetishism apparently satisfied, Jack-the-Clipper disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared on the scene. However, during the years 1921 to 1923 a new epidemic cropped up. Bobbed hair was coming into fashion. This new evildoer invaded boudoirs and lopped the tresses into rough-cut bobs. It should be noted here that the victims were all young women who wanted nothing more than to be "thoroughly modern," but who had been forbidden to adopt the new style by old-fashioned  parents or husbands. Perhaps feminism was alive and well in the earlier part of the last century. And maybe Jack-the-Clipper was a convenient scapegoat .

I found this charming little story in Gumbo Ya-Ya: Folk Tales of Louisiana.

Writing Prompt:
What is the worst thing you would do if you knew you could get away with it? Write about it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Southern Writers Magazine: A Review

Fiction. Nonfiction. Poetry. There's something for everyone in the May/June issue of Southern Writers Magazine. While I was paging through it I ran across some names familiar to me. 

Jessica Ferguson, past president of the Bayou Writers Group in Lake Charles, Louisiana, of which I am a member, spotlights Louisiana writer Vicki Allen. She is the author of four books, two of which are on reading lists at local Louisiana high schools.

James R. Tate, a member of BWG, is in the Good Reads by Southern Writers column along with his book, Blood Bias, a thriller set in Texas.

Sherry Perkins, current president of the Bayou Writers, interviewed Viggo Mortensen about his poetry. Yes. Aragorn himself. When he's not running around Middle Earth he's writing beautiful poems. Check out the interview on page 22, where he dispenses advice for aspiring poets.

Several other articles caught my eye. There was advice on when to use the word "that" and when to leave it out. Something I've long struggled with. Book Proposal Boot Camp by W. Terry Whalin had excellent tips. C. Hope Clark tells you how to build your platform. Are you ready to start your memoir? Check out Kimberly Rae's piece, Your Story, on page 27.

There are quite a few other informative articles inside. I would say you need to get your own copy and look them over. You'll be glad you did.


Writing Prompts
Write a story or poem using these words:

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Death Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy'or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
                                                                                 John Donne

Joshua Shane Reeves
September 15, 1986 - April 14, 2012
Gone too soon, but never forgotten.
Beloved grandson, son, husband, father, brother, nephew.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Loup-garou

I wrote a short story, "Sidonie and the Loup-garou," a couple of years ago in response to a class fiction assignment. What in the world is a loup-garou, you may ask. An ancient evil who's been running around the swamps and bayous of Louisiana since the arrival of the French Acadians after the British kicked them out of Canada. The loup-garou came along for the ride and has been here ever since.

According to the old folks a loup-garou is a man-wolf who walks around upright on two legs. He, or she, has large red eyes, a pointed nose, shaggy hair, and long, sharp nails. Cajun children grew up with the warning "Be good or the loup-garou gonna get you" ringing in their ears.

The Cajun loups-garou differ from the Hollywood stereotype, who are often portrayed as loners, solitary outcasts. The Cajun loup-garou is anything but. They love to party. They can dance all night just like their human Cajun counterparts. They hold their balls at Bayou Goula during a full moon and also on the night of St. John's Eve, June 23. This is the night they gather from throughout the Delta for a gigantic convocation.

FYI: to ward off an attack throw a bayou bullfrog at a loup-garou (they're terrified of frogs), or sprinkle salt on the creature and their fur will catch on fire.

Following is a short scene from my story:

She stood there a moment, squinting into the blackness. Red eyes stared back at her. She couldn't move. She heard a mewling sound, like a cat in pain. She realized the sound was coming from her.

Denny. I've got to get to Denny. He'll take care of me. And I've got my frog. Papa Leon always said the loup-garou was scared of frogs. He promised me. If I can just get to Denny's house.

She whirled and sprinted toward the pasture, fueled by adrenaline and secure in the knowledge she had the fastest time on the track team in the hundred yard dash and the high hurdles. The fence loomed ahead of her. It didn't take long to make it over the wooden rails, and she looked for the porch light's welcoming beam ahead.

It wasn't there.

She could see the muted blue of a television set from a window, but the porch light was out. She kept running.

Just make it to the house. Denny would be waiting. She didn't know if those red eyes were still behind her. She sure wasn't going to stop and look. She wasn't going to stop until she got to the back door.

Sidonie had to go over another fence to get into the back yard. The blue water of the swimming pool gave off an eerie glow in the moonlight, mirroring the giant white orb in the glassy surface. She skirted the edge of the pool and skidded to a stop at the door.

She grabbed the doorknob and pulled. Nothing. She yanked harder. Several times. Where was Denny? He was supposed to be there to let her in.

She turned and backed against the door, clutching her frog to her chest. The red eyes emerged from behind the pool umbrella. Hairy hands reached out. She shoved the frog at him. He snatched it away.


My advice? Stay away from Bayou Goula in June. If you must travel there take a burlap sack full of  live bullfrogs and a gallon-sized salt shaker.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

I've Been "Tagged"

My friend, Jess Ferguson, tagged me with some questions, so here goes.

1)What is the one book you couldn't live without?
Other than the Bible, it would have to be The Million Word Crossword Dictionary. In addition to helping me out with my crosswords, it's a great Thesaurus. Better than a regular one, actually.

2) What can you see out your window at the moment?
A gray March afternoon and the Pousson's house.

3) What's the weirdest thing you've ever eaten?
Like Jess, I'm not an adventurous eater, but I would have to say it would be the powdered milk and eggs we had to use in Goose Bay, Labrador.

4) What fictional character would you most like to marry?
That's easy. James Bond, as played by Sean Connery. A close second would be the sergeant in "From Here to Eternity," as played by Burt Lancaster.

5) If ever a fictional villain was going to win, who would you want it to be?
Hannibal Lector, because the ones he went after usually had it coming.

6) How many types of cheese can you name off the top of your head?
American, Swiss, cheddar, parmesan. Love 'em all.

7) If you didn't want to be a writer, what would you want to be?
An archeologist,

8) Can you play a musical instrument?
I can play "Chopsticks" and "Heart and Soul" on the piano.

9) Do you own a Kindle or Nook or any sort of e-reader?
I have a Kindle Keyboard and a Kindle Fire.

10) If you do, how many books do you have on it?
95 when I counted yesterday. Since then I've bought two more.

11) You just got published. In a glowing review, someone calls you the next [insert famous author name here]. Which famous author has to watch their back now you're on the scene?
James Lee Burke. Wish I could write like him.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Flex Your Muscles Part 2

Last time I told you about some online sources for writing prompts and exercises. Besides the internet a large number of trees have given their all so we scribblers can jump-start our creativity. One of the best books I've seen is A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words. The subtitle reads: "image-driven story prompts and exercises for writers" and the author is Phillip Sexton. The photographs were provided by Tricia Bateman. Over 110 photos are inside its pages just waiting for us to add our immortal words. It has chapters on the different elements of fiction writing: Beginnings, Description, Character, Dialogue, Emotions, and Endings. Chapter 7 is titled "Story Starters" and has 120 pages of exercises that focus on specific ideas about the craft of writing and working with photos. The last chapter has suggestions for using the exercises a second or third time.

So there you are. Enough suggestions to keep you busy for awhile. And who knows, you just might end up with something some editor might be willing to take a chance on.

Gotta go. My first exercise awaits. There's this letter with no return address. What's in it? How is my protagonist going to react to the contents? Why?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Flex Your Muscles

"Write every day."
"How would Yo-yo Ma sound if he didn't practice that cello every day?"
"Do you want a surgeon operating on you who didn't work on his skills?"
 "What about Michael Jordan or Larry Bird or Kobe Bryant? Or Jack Nicklaus? Would they be any good at their game if they never practiced?"
How many times have we heard someone say something like that? I heard "Write every day" for the first time way back in 1985 when I started taking classes and getting serious about my writing. I've heard it several times a year ever since. Every class I ever took that's the first thing the teacher said. "Write. Every. Day."

Okay. That sounds like good advice. What do I write about? How many times have you sat staring at the blank screen or the pristine sheet of paper and wondered how to get started? I have. Many times. That's no excuse, however. A ton of things exist out there to get you started.

Online, go to and click on the box. "Today this sentence popped out: The rich jungle guide climbed the wall in the ballroom for the grandmother." Surely we can get a story out of that. After all, we're writers, aren't we? Go to Every Friday a new prompt is posted. Another weekly site is Subscribe to THE TIME IS NOW and every Thursday they'll send a fiction prompt, a poetry prompt, and something new, a creative nonfiction prompt, to your inbox.

That's just a few you can find on the Internet. Next time I'll tell you about some of the books out there.
So go ahead and flex those writing muscles.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Are You Portable?

The March issue of The Writer magazine has an interesting article by David Harris Ebenbach titled "The Portable Writer." He says he worries when he hears a writer say they can only write at a certain time or in a certain place or in a special kind of journal with a special pen or only on the computer. Unfortunately for us the perfect conditions are elusive. It would be nice to be able to go to an artist's colony in the mountains or a writer's retreat by the sea, but those conditions are short lived. I decided to take stock of my own writing routine to see how portable I am. Not very, I'm afraid. I go to the library at 9:00 in the morning. I sit down at the last table in the back of the nonfiction section. I spread  my paraphernalia all over the table and get to work. I get a lot done and wrap things up after about two hours. But then last Tuesday, horror of horrors. Someone's sitting at my table! Messed up my whole day. Then the magazine came in the mail and I read the article. Like the song says, there'll be some changes made. I'll clean off my desk so I can use it to write on instead of catching clutter. The kitchen table has possibilites. Stellar Beans and Books a Million every now and then. My brother has a nice cabin on the river. How about you? How portable are you?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Listen To What They Say

I just returned from a ten-day cruise to Key West and the Bahamas. Very relaxing. No telephone ringing. No deadlines. Just endless water and balmy nights. No worrying about query letters and the dreaded synopsis. Lots of reading, though. I had a  book on my Kindle that I started reading after we set sail. It was one of those "can't put down" books. NO REST FOR THE DEAD by 26 different writers. Great book, and highly recommended. But I digress. I sat on a window bench reading, saving the table for my sister and cousins, who had gone to the casino to kill time until the next Trivia game started. Two couples sat down at my table and started talking. Like I said, I was reading and minding my own business. One of the women left for the casino and her husband unloaded some interesting things about his wife and her family on the other couple. I tried. I really tried to keep reading and not eavesdrop. The wife came back and they all got up and left, and I hotfooted it back to my room and wrote down everything I could remember him saying. There's no way I'm not going to get a short story out of that conversation. So listen to what they say. You never know when someone will drop it in your lap.