Once settled into retirement, we need to find ways to pass the available time, preferably without costing extra money and requiring some commitment. It was in this spirit that I joined the jury of a publication whose brainchild, a Texas lawyer, had made Ageless Authors his retirement plan. Larry Upshaw set up contests for prizes and publications through which he collected the poems, fictional stories and personal essays of authors aged 65 and over. Each submission was rated by three readers like me using a detailed rating and rating scale. Submissions that made the cut were published in annual anthologies that, in addition to award-winning stories, included at least three “honorable mentions” and at least three “recognized.”
I signed up for “Nonfiction” and Upshaw sent me 20 submissions to read and review, along with a copy of his first anthology, published in 2017, dedicated “To All Those Laggards Who Had Other Things to Do when they were young but are now reaching their creative heights. He eventually released Shit ! I wish I hadn’t done that, which was compiled from the results of the 2018 contest and came out in 2019. In due time I received a copy.
The book is divided into “Military Memories” and “Parents, For Better or Worse” sections, plus “Regrets: I wish I hadn’t done that.” It also contains “Special Poetry Prizes” and “Bonus Selections from Ageless Authors”. Although all sections include extraordinary efforts, one of the “military memories” caught my attention and my heart. Scooter Smith, its author, recalls a disturbing conversation with his black “roommate” in one of the squadron’s cabins. “Because of Vietnam,” the roommate tells Smith, “America is training thousands of black men in all aspects of warfare. We learn to speak the language of violence of the white devil. He also says, “Black America has finally realized that political power springs from the barrel of a gun. Smith decides not to argue but to listen to her.
Smith, a new recruit, joined the peace movement and read the recently assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr.. Since his college year, and as an avid reader, he also knows other black writers and mentions the “Ballots”. or Bullets essay by the X guy” – i.e. Malcolm X – to his roommate. Roommate Master Ray Hill Adheres to Black Panther Principles and Is Reading Robert Williams Negroes with guns. Hill leaves the book for Smith to peruse as he boards a plane that is to take him, along with a group of contemporaries, to a base in the Philippines. When the flight falls into the South China Sea with no survivors, Smith begins to read Hill’s book. What he learns leaves the young Texan stunned by the plight of black Americans, “the crushing degradation that was an integral part of black life in America.” He realizes that “asking people who are systematically abused by the business and legal establishment to please be patient” only perpetuates the system.
I was so taken by the writer’s courage that I made his story the focus of a proposal to Wyoming writers for a workshop on “risky writing” for his June 2020 conference. been accepted and, with the Covid raging, the conference moved on Zoom. Through Upshaw, I had contacted Scooter Smith, the writer. Would he talk about writing an essay so many years after the fact? Smith gladly agreed; he eventually mounted the narrative on PowerPoint slides for our audience to read. Larry Upshaw also joined us virtually. During the discussion, it emerged that the fateful plane crash was not due to enemy fire, as readers might assume from the account, but was caused by a flaw in the design of the airplane. The defect caused two more fatal crashes while a fourth aircraft, severely crippled, was brought in by the co-pilot whose arm was severed in the explosion that killed the captain. It was only by examining the damaged aircraft that the problem was identified.
Upshaw was delighted with the results of the workshop. “You and I should get together and develop an online course for older writers and post it on the Ageless Authors website,” he said. “I’ve heard a number of our writers say they want to improve their writing.”
“I’m in,” I said. Indeed, I had written a few blogs for his website, offering tips for getting started and continuing. A webinar seemed the logical next step.
Unfortunately, three weeks later, an email arrived from Larry’s wife, Janiece, who identifies herself as “Dr. Janice Upshaw. She explained that her husband had suffered a stroke.” lucky an ambulance got him to the hospital in time,” she wrote, but warned that it would take Larry months to recover.
In the spring of 2020, Upshaw had issued a call for entries on the theme of the crisis for the next anthology and sent me twenty-two essays to read and grade. Hoping to garner submissions on Covid, he had lowered the age requirement to fifty.
One of the essays I marked “publishable” was “A Family Holiday” – a bland title if ever there was one, considering the trauma vacationers go through. A family from Wales, England had signed up for a holiday on the French coast in a family tent. During their second night in the tent, the writer awoke to his wife’s screams and found himself engulfed in smoke and fire. He rushed into the children’s compartment, where he stumbled upon the corpse of their three-year-old daughter. He grabbed their ten-year-old son, who was on fire, and managed to drag him outside, but the father (who wrote the story) and the child suffered burns so bad they were treated for years. I imagine that the fire, not caused by the family, also gave rise to a lawsuit which kept the family in France. They never returned to their home in Wales, says the writer, even though the tragedy occurred two decades earlier. I felt like a lot of the family’s angst was kept secret.
“I look forward to working with this writer,” I emailed Upshaw. “The story needs some editing and the title does not prepare readers for the trauma about to be revealed. I would like to suggest a more relevant title. The family had been vacationing in France Coyou wild– “The Wild (or “Wild”) Coast” – a name that could be part of the title to allude to the coming darkness. I added that I was amazed at the many submissions that dealt with a crisis or trauma thirty or forty years in the past. Upshaw had been looking for accounts of the hardships of Covid, but clearly these were still too raw for victims to write about.
By summer, I had read and evaluated all of the submissions assigned to me. While I thought every story should be commended – many revealed a hardship or trauma suffered by a family or an individual – some deserved more recognition, I thought, even in the two cases where other readers had rated them .
Silence fell from Upshaw’s office. Eventually, his wife emailed, saying that Larry suffered from aphasia – an inability, caused by brain damage, to understand and express speech. I emailed back that I had heard of survivors recovering from aphasia and hoped Larry would too.
That was eighteen months ago, and not a word has reached me (and probably my fellow evaluators elsewhere) regarding Larry’s fate. I sent emails several times but got no response. The website of agelessauthors.com still exists, and Upshaw still appears there smiling at some administrators, but the site is blocked in mid-2019. I am saddened for Larry, but I also miss the 182 authors who poured their hearts into recounting their adversities only to leave them in limbo – they may never know that a small army of readers studied every sentence of their submission. “I would be happy to contact our depositors,” I emailed Janiece but got no response.
The finding that lingers is that many of us suffer from hardships that we never disclose – or if we do, it’s only long after we’ve fulfilled our work and family obligations, as Scooter Smith did. Perhaps, caught up in the hustle and bustle of life, we cannot afford to reminisce and reflect on trauma, which requires some reliving of the experience. It takes a lot of energy, plus a willingness to work through the horror, which maybe only comes with time. Or our revelations slip away if and when we feel the urge to explain something about ourselves to our loved ones, friends or readers.
I remain humbly grateful to the authors whose personal stories have been communicated to me, albeit by chance; they are forever etched in my heart. I keep wishing I could tell the writers who sent them.
Edith Cook worked as a translator before immigrating to California. She has taught at several colleges and universities; as a writer, she won the Wyoming Arts Council’s Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Prize and its Professional Development Fellowship. Visit him at www.edithcook.com. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the editorial position of the Cheyenne Post.