So Many Tracers and Bursts…from Letters Home

I’m not sure what level people were on when they read Letters Home, the book of my grandfather’s letters to my grandmother while he was serving in the Pacific during WWII as a bomber pilot. Most people probably read the book as one man’s account of his war experience, which I think it would be a worthwhile read at that level. But if he was writing them for posterity, which he might have been, he wasn’t primarily. He was writing primarily to an audience of one: my grandmother (except for one he wrote to my mother shortly after her birth).

He wrote to entertain her, to connect with her, to reassure her, all these things, but he also, at some point, began writing for him. Writing sustained him through the war. Writing kept him together. Maybe I’m projecting because without writing I have trouble imagining who I would be, but the one piece of evidence I use to trust there’s something to my theory is that after his emergency landing in the water, he got picked up by a destroyer. The doc offered him a pint bottle of whiskey, which he drank in one gulp (I guess we’re not judging the doctor’s technique, it was a different time), and then he insisted on writing a letter. He tore the letter up later. (I wish he hadn’t. He said he couldn’t read it himself but I would have liked a try at deciphering it.) Out of habit, he probably addressed that letter to my grandma but he was writing that letter for himself.

There are times he writes straightforward letters just to meet his self-imposed requirement of getting a letter out to her every day. I included some of these to give the book an accurate feel of his letters to her but cut many to eliminate repetition. Other times he sits down to intentionally write her a real beauty, which could feel forced but doesn’t because he has good writing instincts and knows how to avoid writing that feels like it’s trying too hard (this is my opinion, obviously) but also because his aim isn’t to impress you or me or anyone else reading this book he had no idea would one day come to exist, his only aim is to impress his wife.

But other times he’s so accidentally good that is what confirmed to me his writing instincts. This is most clear in his letter from August 16, 1945 when he writes about getting shot down; before censorship wouldn’t allow him to describe the incident that occurred over Kure, Japan. He gives such a clean, ordered account of exactly what happened, without any flourishes. Ends with how he missed one hop but got on the next one “for if I hadn’t I would have lost my nerve completely.”

Then he tacks on this bit that I still remember knocked my socks off when I found it:

I knew before I got hit that it was coming because there were so many tracers and bursts around me that I could have gotten out and walked on them. I jerked like a madman but they got me.

Those lines create such intense imagery, not just of what it must have looked like to be surrounded by explosions so dense and close he could have stepped out of his plane and walked on them but also how it must have felt. The second part of that passage I also love because the “they” feels like not the enemy below firing but the tracers and bursts up there with him. Almost like they’re detached from the people firing them. The pair of lines feel like a man caught in a war aware everyone else was caught in that war, too. The bombers above and the men firing anti-aircraft weapons below are in identical situations, to him. This might seem like a reach, out of context, but the letters provide more context. He writes, elsewhere, “Is it bravery to fly though gun fire to bomb and kill others?”

After the war in a flyover, he writes, “Everything seemed to be under control except that I did see a couple kids throwing rocks at us. Some of the civilians even waved in a friendly manner and then some just waved fists. Most of them, however, just looked up casually. I imagine they are about as relieved as we are that it is all over.”

I had no idea I would find this level of empathy for the enemy when I decided to take on this project, but it’s one of the reasons why reading these letters and turning them into the book was one of the great experiences of my life.

Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific, available in print and as an Ebook from Amazon and as an Ebook through other online retailers. I also have paperback copies I’m glad to gift to interested readers. You can read it on kindle by following this link and purchasing for 2.99:

The paperback copy is available here for 9:

Greg Metcalf is the author of Flowers on Concrete, a novel, Hibernation, a YA thriller, and the memoir Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific. All are available as paperbacks and as Ebooks at He has three other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine, Metazen, and Toasted Cheese.


Story of the Story: Baby’s Breaths

Will this interest anyone? I don’t know. Writers get asked where the ideas for stories come from and seem not to like it, but we mostly hear from the writers who probably get asked that ten times a day. Hard for me to imagine getting annoyed fielding that question.

I was sorry not to hear what the story made other people think of but I realize people can like something and not know what to say or not like something and not want to say. I’m not that green. Also people see the link and intend to go back to it but don’t. Facebook makes returning to find anything rather difficult.

The story is here, if you’d prefer to read it before I give anything away:

“Baby’s Breaths” was a case of found money. I came across it in an old notebook under an entry dated June 2010. I wrote it after work when I wasn’t in the middle of anything, which means I sat to write with no plan. Usually when I do this I meander for a page and end up with nothing but a writing lesson and the enjoyment of the time, because after you learn to stop fearing filling a blank page it really does become enjoyable.

I was preparing to start the “parents raising children novel” I recently finished. I had my dad character but not my mom, so that half explains why I spent that page exploring the mother infant bond. But only half because I’d written a few random lines and had probably been people watching as I went, and I saw a baby tug on her mom’s shirt and expose her bra strap.

So I wrote the opening line of the story and, except for minor changes, only added the story’s last line when I prepared it last spring to submit to Toasted Cheese.

What I would ask people who read it is Who is the narrator?

It’s fair to say me, but I slipped into a kind of character as I wrote it and by rereading it years later I was able to come close to experiencing it as a reader. So I guess I can give my answer. I think, or I like to think, of the narrator as some manifestation of the transcendent. An angel of death. This entity is curious about what this mother might be feeling, doesn’t quite “get” why the mother cares so much about the infant, but finds it sweet.

The title, “Baby’s Breaths,” was meant to land somewhere between the sweetness of a baby’s breath and the panic that would come from thinking about that next breath coming.

Props to JC from another JC and Me

(An excerpt from Little Book of Thou, chapter eleven: Jesus Christ and the Hero Journey. The first two hero journeys mentioned prior to this portion are when he went to the temple to teach the elders and when he resisted the Devil’s temptations in the desert.)

I think the third hero journey of Jesus came with him introducing the planting culture ideas we talked about into a religious system more based on the hunting culture myths. Remember, the hunting culture myths led to religious systems based on duality. One of the troubling results of that thinking is a failure to see another group’s God as the same God as yours with simply a different name. So this pitted you against your neighbor, if your neighbor had a different God, but what does Jesus say? “Love thy neighbor.” Jesus also says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” This to me sounds a lot like the planting culture idea of Earth as a manifestation of the transcendent energy out of which all life comes into being.

Joseph Campbell says, “If you think of us as having come out of the earth, rather than thrown in here from somewhere else, then we are the eyes of the earth, ours are the hands and ears of the earth.” We are the sense organs of the earth in this view. I love that thought and what Jesus says reminds me of that.

The fourth hero journey Jesus goes on is dying on the cross.

Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?

You’ll find lots of answers from many different readings. You’ll find answers from people in your life whose opinions you especially value. Feel free to mark this one clearly with a check mark for What Uncle Greg Thinks [ ]

As you know, I’ve spent my life reading and writing stories, so I tend to appreciate and get the most out of the text of the Bible in story terms. What I believe the crucifixion story is meant to do is teach us to let go of our ego attachment to this world and our bodies and return to the transcendent energy from which we came. Because we can’t relate to that mystery of being returning to it is a frightening prospect. Joseph Campbell puts it this way: “What am I? Am I the bulb which carries the light? Or am I the light of which the bulb is the carrier?” Our bodies carry a speck of the transcendent energy distinctly us. When our bodies die, that speck of transcendent energy distinctly us returns to that sphere beyond all human comprehension.

In the Bible, God came to Earth in human form, as Jesus. The way I interpret that is God so immersed himself in the role of Jesus as a human being that He no longer knew he was God, he was left to wonder. Then he had to believe he was God. He had to have faith. He had to choose to identify with the light instead of the bulb.

The crucifixion represented just how difficult accepting death as part of life can be, but Jesus showed us the way. He was crucified by people threatened by a new way, but he also contemplated escape when he spent the night in the garden before choosing to accept death as a necessary part of their being life. (Which reminds me of Eve’s choice to accept death as a necessary part of their being life, when she ate from the apple, also in a garden.)

Grandma Lynne reminded me of The Resurrection, where Jesus returned to life after death and visited some of the apostles. Interpreting this as a story, what that makes me think of is when Grandpa Gary first died I had numerous intense dreams about him that helped me grieve. This must have been an experience many people had, this intense visitation of recently deceased loved ones, and so that common experience went into the crucifixion story. Then Jesus ascended into heaven. But where is heaven? Heaven is a “place” transcendent of a physical location. Jesus also said, “The kingdom of the father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it.”

So Joseph Campbell is saying that it’s true that Jesus ascended to heaven, it’s true as a metaphor, and what it means is that Jesus ascended to heaven through the inward space. Divinity exists within each of us, and we can try to live with our awareness of that divinity within each other, which is the concept, I think, Jesus was sharing with us when he taught his message of peace to the world.

Life Raft Metaphor Ties Letters Home Together

I mention near the end of Letters Home that my grandfather gave away the life raft he and his rear gunner got on after being hit over Kure, Japan, and having to crash land near a destroyer. He gave it to some teenagers passing the house, one afternoon. What I left out is what a surprise this was to everyone. My mom and aunt used the raft as a wading pool. I don’t think anyone ever had a good guess as to what he might have been thinking. I didn’t want to clutter his book with my conjecture, but I felt like it was an important detail to include and let it speak however it might to any readers. He states repeatedly how important it was to him to find a way to pack up that life raft and bring it back with him.

My theory is he survived the emotional turmoil of war by intensely fantasizing about how wonderful life would be after the war and that the hardship they endured as a couple, separated and fearful of his safety, would result in a lasting payoff, a heightened appreciation of a life together. I believe he lived a happy and content life, but I think what he used to get through the war, fantasizing about the happy and contented life he would have, didn’t work in the reverse. He couldn’t dip back into the painful memory of being at war to remind himself how “privileged,” a word he liked to use, he was to have survived the war while so many didn’t and get to enjoy that happy and contented life. It was just too painful a memory to consciously engage. So the life raft that he thought would be a symbol he could keep with him to use as a means of purposely returning to that fortunate moment of rescue, specifically, and surviving the war, generally, failed to work as he thought it would. He probably struggled with why it didn’t. After all, his daughters used it as a wading pool, and my mother was seven or eight when he finally gave it away. So he might have kept waiting and then, one random afternoon, when some kids were happening by, he impulsively gave it away. He didn’t want that connection to the war, the same way he never went to the squadron get-togethers. He just wanted to forget. But that’s just my guess and that’s why it didn’t go into his book.

A Family Named

I started my fourth “literary” or as I prefer non-genre novel in 2010 with an idea that served its purpose and then not only didn’t end up in the book but was never even written. This would be the first book or even story I wrote that featured primarily the dynamics within a family. So I knew that family would have to be named. Names, for me, have little importance. I find ones that feel right and then I stop thinking about them. Some writers would say names are important, which just means names are important to those writers. I generally hit on names that feel “right” right out of the gate and I’m onto thinking about what feels important to me, as a writer, because that’s the only gauge I have for feeling like I’m on the right path.

The last change I made to Flowers on Concrete was the main character’s name. I came out of the gate without one and substituted “Jimmy” because I thought that name posed no risk of attachment. Then I felt the risk of attachment pulling, so I changed it to Chris. Readers of the novel might recognize “Chris” as the name on Sean’s nametag when Trey first meets him while Sean’s working, because Sean would never wear a nametag with his name on it, but has no trouble wearing a nametag with a fake name everyone will read and think is his real name, because he’s Sean. Inside jokes of this sort, that only me and readers of early drafts would get, are dangerously tempting and should be avoided unless they’re harmless so when they’re harmless, indulge away! I thought of Trey as the main character’s name because “Trey” strikes me as a name that sounds short for something though often enough it’s not, which seemed fitting for a character who interfaces with his social circle without seeming to recognize his participation in that circle. But mostly as soon as I thought of it Trey felt “right” and I’ve never questioned it since.

So for this book I used underlines where the family’s last name would go and waited for a name to feel “right.” None did. And now, on the verge of having a readable draft ready to print, one needed to. I’ve taken multiple walks through the cemetery reading graves and pondering possible names. I felt like I was forcing it so I kept putting it off. Today I thought of one. If you’re reading this expecting this blog to end with what it is, I’m sorry. I’m not going to say because it wouldn’t mean anything. It’s just a name. It’s not like the dude’s rug in The Big Lebowski that ties the book together. It has perhaps a touch of meaning in the context of the novel but mostly it does its job of being the name of the family and drawing little to no attention to itself. I thought of it and it just felt “right” and I don’t expect to think about it again.

I desperately hope, one day, the novel is available for people to read and you’ll know the name then. If I’ve annoyed you with this post, please just ask and I can tell you the name privately but really, I promise, it wouldn’t be a highlight of your day. Flowers on Concrete, my first novel, is available at Amazon, in paperback and as an Ebook. Amazon has a convenient feature where you can read the opening few chapters to get a sense of whether or not the book appeals to you. If it does, you can purchase one there or purchase one from me. Thank you for reading.

Ancient Moving Lights in the Sky

This is from The Little Book of Thou: Reflections on Ancient Myth and the Writings of Joseph Campbell, a book I wrote for my sisters’ kids as a Christmas present.

Excerpt from Chapter Six: Social Order and Individuality

You remember in an earlier chapter we talked about mimicry. Ancient humans mimicked plants they ate and the animals they ate. These influences didn’t go away but there was something else they observed about the world that they tried to mimic. Can you guess what? Look up. What do you see? If you’re outside, you’re likely to see either the sun or the moon, depending on if it’s day or night. Well, ancient humans observed the sky, a lot, particularly as farms made their food source more consistent and dependable. They found in the sky seven lights that moved against the fixed stars: the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets. These correspond to the days of our weeks, today, which shows how these influences continue to impact future generations. They noticed those lights moved in a consistent order. They thought this must have meant something important that they ought to mimic. How do you mimic lights in the sky?

They applied the consistent order of the lights’ motion. If you think of people first noticing the moon and other smaller lights and then recording how they move over time, you can imagine how profound it would be to discover they moved in a consistent pattern. Why? What did it mean? They decided it meant they should establish a similarly consistent social order. This is where the ruling court of feudal times comes from: the king as the moon or sun, the queen as Venus, and the other court members the other visible planets. They also formed social castes within their populations, a sort of ranking order of importance among people, to match these moving lights. Imagine how important they seemed!


Still open to requests for excerpts from Little Book of Thou, but I thought the introduction seemed like a logical place to begin. From the introduction: The Ancient World

People, humans, are natural storytellers, which relates directly to what wonderful listeners we are. We observe the world and listen to the stories being told all around us. Right now, you could stop reading this, go out into your yard or to the park, and find a caterpillar. You could put that caterpillar on your arm, watch it walk one way up your arm, stop and raise its head end to sense which way to go next, and change direction and walk the other way; within minutes, you would imagine that caterpillar is thinking, much like you think. You might have learned in school that bugs don’t think like we do, but knowing that probably wouldn’t keep you from feeling a bond with that caterpillar.

Little Book of Thou: Reflections on Ancient Myth and the writings of Joseph Campbell is a book I wrote for my sisters’ kids. I’ll post excerpts under the tab “Joseph Campbell.” This caterpillar on the arm bit is also a nod to another of the great teachers in my life, the late, wonderful Carl Sagan. I forget in which one of his books he uses watching a caterpillar on your arm to show the ability humans have to anthropomorphize. In Community, Jeff Winger used a pencil and named it Steve. Same idea.

Little Book of Thou, Table of Contents

I’m so used to writing fiction I almost forgot to include a table of contents in Little Book of Thou. Little Book of Thou is a short book I’ve been working on as a Christmas gift for my sisters’ kids. Reflections on ancient myth and the writings of Joseph Campbell. I posted a couple of snippets, already, and I’ll post more soon, under the tab “Joseph Campbell.” Any requests? Pick a chapter and I’ll put together an excerpt from it. It’s finished. I’m just doing one last pass.

Little Book of Thou

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Ancient World

Chapter One: Mimicry

Chapter Two: Myths

Chapter Three: Caves

Chapter Four: Gaia – The Earth Goddess

Chapter Five: The Gender of Gods

Chapter Six: Social Order and Individuality

Chapter Seven: Two Creation Stories

Chapter Eight: Transcending Duality with a Cat and Dog

Chapter Nine: The Serpent

Chapter Ten: God

Chapter Eleven: Jesus Christ and the Hero Journey

Chapter Twelve: Trickster Gods

Transcending Duality with a cat and dog

You have a pet dog and a pet cat. Maybe they don’t get along very well together. You think of the cat as having a certain set of qualities, it looks and behaves a certain way and the dog looks and behaves in a certain way quite distinct to the cat’s. The dog poops outside, the cat poops inside. The dog bothers company wanting petted and scratched, the cat runs and hides from company. The more differences you look for, find, and think about, the more different your two pets seem. Then one day you come home and find the dog asleep with the cat curled up against the dog also asleep. They are comforting each other with warmth. You see that and think, Aha! My cat and my dog are both the same in the sense that they are both my pets that I love.

They are still separate as cat and dog, but your perception of them has transcended that distinction and you now relate to their sameness in a profound way. Even if they don’t get along, as well, at some later time, that sight of them curled together asleep will remain your primary experience of your two beloved pets.

Brief illustration included in my work-in-progress Joseph Campbell book I’m writing as a Christmas present for my sisters’ kids. Posting bits as I go. There are more under the Joseph Campbell category tag and more will be coming.

Hibernation: Release Day

Today is the official release day because the four kids I wrote Hibernation for should be getting their copies, today. I wrote it as their Christmas present for 2013. It was meant to be a thriller for my three nieces and nephew who were approaching the age when Hunger Games was soon to appear on recommended reading lists, at least for the older two. Nothing against that book, at all. As the uncle of kids I’d held when they were babies, I just wanted to ease them into the age of thrillers with something less, well, violent. I consider Hibernation a bridge between Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great and Hunger Games.

I was happy enough with it that I reworked it and prepared it for publication.

I always read the children’s books I’ve been giving my nieces and nephew for birthdays and Christmas. (I have a reputation for always giving books as presents.) And I’ve enjoyed them too much to present Hibernation as a book intended only for young readers. So for adults with kids or for adults who want to spend an afternoon reading like a kid, here’s how to get your copy of Hibernation.

The Ebook is 2.99 at Amazon and Smashwords. If you don’t have an Ereader, there is a free kindle app.

The paperback is seven dollars at Amazon.

I’m selling copies for five dollars, signed with my thanks for your interest. I can also mail a signed copy for eight dollars to cover postage. Send me a message if you’d like one. I have twelve copies left but I would be glad to order more.

I’ll post snippets in future blogs and on facebook. So feel free to keep Hibernation in mind as a future read. Contact me anytime for a signed copy. Meet Lisa here:

Back Cover description of Hibernation is here:

With families bedded down for the season behind the bolted doors of their season rooms, their valuables are vulnerable to the looters, getting worse every year. Mr. Walters, with his stay-awake juice, patrols to keep the neighborhood safe. This year he gets some help when twelve-year-old Lisa wakes up early and wakes up her dad, Tom.

Tom joins Mr. Walters and finds an up-early dog to keep Lisa company and keep her safe. Only Lisa and her dog, Shaggy, do some patrolling of their own and are soon on the trail of the dangerous looter Mr. Walters has been after for years. Lisa is told to stay away from him, but Shaggy has a different idea. Lisa can’t leave Shaggy to be a crime dog all on his own, can she?

Start with the free Amazon sample, here:

Links below from wordpress. Thank you for reading.