Monday, November 11, 2013


Journal – USO

Day Minus One

                I had everything pretty much so ready—packing should have been easy.

                It’s never easy and I should know that—the pets always want to help. Well, I have a huge duffel bag  and a couple of huge pairs of boots and a huge jacket. That first. Then, logistics! Must have one dress outfit for a dinner—easy. But I’m staying on after the USO portion of the trip in
England. I’m going to visit “my people” in Richmond (the Harlequin/Mira offices there) and spend some time at World Fantasy in Brighton. I’m going to need some other clothing but, hey . . . I’ve been to London several times and if I forget something, I really should be fine. Yes, easy enough to buy toothpaste, etc!

                Dennis is leaving ahead of me for business abroad. So, first up—get him out of the house. After I get the cat out of the duffel bag.

                Note to self—bring a lint remover! (Cat/husky/mutt hair remover!)

Day 1

                Car picks me up right on time for the airport – and then I’m off. I’m on the only plane without a baggage claim listed but I see Paul Wilson who has come in from New Jersey along with our driver. We head to our hotel and first thing that night, we’re out an on our way to a USO center at the base there. We “meet and greet.” It’s not about our books; it’s about the soldiers who want to talk to us about anything. Some want to become writers themselves. Some want to know about the process. Some are just happy to talk.

                There’s a joke in our family that we always get the room furthest down the hall. Mine is the very last; my co-authors on the tour tease me for being so far away. It’s okay, of course—it’s what I’m accustomed to! 

                That night we head out to our first center. We talk to those stationed in the DC area—and we listen to them. And the stories are amazing.

                And then the next day . . . .

Day 2

                Walter Reid hospital. I am immediately grateful that I can make the trek to my room. At Walter Reid, amazing things are done with prosthetics. We fan out—all of us. It’s a little scary. I’m afraid I’ll sit with a soldier who doesn’t want me to sit with him. But we’re there to say thank you and once we start (Kathy Antrim our noble lead!) we are amazed and humbled and grateful all over again. Kathy and I talk with a couple who have both served themselves. In was regular army; she signed up for the guard. Immediately after 911 occurred and the wife’s unit was deployed. They’ve both survived—their two sons and now their daughter have all joined up. Amazing service from one family. 

                I meet a boy who will not walk again – even with all the amazing physicians and surgeons at Walter Reid can do. He isn’t bitter; he’s just ready to go home.

                Another man looks great—nice strong shoulders, cheerful smile. One leg is metal. We also learn he lost pieces of most of his organs including his genitals. He is positive and passionate—and already has amazing programs going that will help other injured men and women move back into mobile lives. 

                They are from the North and the South and all over the country. They are beautiful. It strikes me that throughout history, we have sent our youth in the prime of their beauty and ability to go forth and fight and die and sometimes come back where  they may or may not be put back together.

                When we leave Walter Reid, I know that I am blessed to breathe and just to walk—and that I have met some of the greatest heroes whose names you might never know. It would disturb them were I to cry or kiss their feet so I refrain.

                I thank God that I can walk the distance to my room.  I thank Him that I can walk and
breathe and have all my limbs and I want to knock myself upside the head for anytime I’ve ever complained about a little pain.

                That night, we dress up. We’re there for the gala and we dress up and head down. While we’re amazed by the stories of the men who will receive awards, we also know they’re just the tip of the iceberg on stories regarding courage. I remember that courage isn’t NOT being afraid—courage is knowing fear and acting despite that fear. One of the recipients crawled on his belly to bring back a wounded man despite the heavy fire raging over him. Another jumped into a raging current to save a man and a child—while off duty. I’m privileged to hold the Navy award and walk it on to the stage. It’s happenstance that I drew Navy—we went by alphabetical order—but I was thinking of my dad, Navy Chief Petty Officer. I like to think he was smiling from
heaven, giving me a nice thumbs-up sign.

Day 3

                We head out to the base at Quantico. A traffic jam makes us an hour late but it’s lovely—people have waited to see us. I’m fascinated by Quantico—and to meet a real NCIS officer. I am a fan of the show—Navy, you know! We speak to others there—and I’m able to listen to service members and their families, and I get to hold a beautiful baby for a long time, and if you know me, babies . . . dogs . . . kittens. But, mostly, babies! Her dad is between deployments. 

                Leaving Quantico, I realize just how many families are touched every day—and wonder every day if a loved one is alive and well.

                I’m grateful, too, for my companions. No one could travel with better friends than Kathy Antrim, F. Paul Wilson, Phil Margolin, and Harlan Coben. They are all amazing.
That night, we leave for Kuwait.

Day 4


                We now have Jeremy, a seasoned USO guide, to take us where we need to go. A woman in a burka inspects our documents and checks our visas. When I exit the airport—I see a McDonald’s. It’s a bit strange to see Micky D with Arabic letters.

                When I’d first been asked on the trip, I’d imagined a tent in the dessert. Our hotel is Italian and very nice. 

                We meet our security detail—men with us, men in a car in front of us, men in a car behind us. Most Kuwaiti people are just going about their daily lives; they are friends in a sea of discontent. But the country is a little dot in a vast dessert where many fanatics hate western philosophy and therefore, everyone there is eternally vigilant. We travel through areas of vast riches—and then we travel through miles and miles of desert. These are men and women prepared to go “down range” or into action at any time. They come through when they have just finished deployments “down range.”

                And here, we get to discover just how much the USO is appreciated and we realize just
how much they do. It’s not just actors, movie stars, authors, artists or what have you—the center here has gaming for them, books, computers—all kinds of things to do.

                I get the opportunity to speak with a young man who is with a girl who is just 18. They are friends—he from Louisiana, she from Ohio. He’s turned 21; he has a brother serving who is just 23. He told me about signing up; he and his brother had done so the same day. They hadn’t had the nerve to tell their mom. Then they were going to tell her and convince her they both had desk jobs. They didn’t like; they both signed up to be scouts. I asked him what she said when they finally told her the truth. “She cried,” he told me. I could only imagine. I know, however, as well, that she is very proud.

                One young soldier came up to me and asked if I’d do him a favor. He had just called home to his girlfriend; she was a reader of my books. I went with him and was able to speak with her on the phone. She is writing herself—I’m going to do my best to help her in any way that I can. I gave her my information and I saw his face and started shaking. I owe him so much. He was grateful to me.  There is nothing I can ever to do to compare with what these men and women do.

                The base commanders give us a fascinating talk. I have a better understanding—not of
politics. I’ll never understand politics! But of what is going on and what our men and women do and what they’re expected to do.

                At the library, I have to admit to being super excited that they had about twenty-five books in a special audio section of little tiny boxes that are complete—the earphones, the speakers, the book—all are there in a little box! One of mine was represented. I was grateful to whatever powers there were that made that possible.

                There are two bases in Kuwait. When I leave them, I thank God that my parents made me a first generation American. They loved the USA. I know that I’ll embarrass myself kissing the ground when I come home. 

Day 5

             An over-nighter brings us to Ramstadt, Germany. We stay at an Air Force hotel where many of our men and women—coming and going and being reassigned—are staying, too. This is nice—so many chances to say thank you! We have  time to stay at the USO center there and meet so many people. It’s wonderful. Then, we move on into the hospital. We’re wordsmiths—and yet it’s almost impossible to describe the feelings that come to you there. One soldier down the hall—is a Croatian but joined our army. A bullet nicked his neck; he is here because it’s the best possible place for him. Right now, he is paralyzed. A family member is there to take him home when the time comes.

                One of the most gratifying moments for all of us comes then—a soldier has been waiting, notebook in hand—to talk to us all. He is working on a fantasy novel and has maps drawn of his world. The story is really excellent and we’re all ready to help him.

                One soldier was in for a minor operation and he was charming. He was wearing his USO quilt. I learned again just how much the USO does and I’m grateful to be allowed to be a part of it for my few days.

                One soldier has a brain injury and is learning to speak again. There’s magic in the air; not one of us had a problem understanding him. 

                That night, we head out to the base library. There are actually thousands of Americans living here; it is, in fact, the largest conglomeration of Americans living outside the United States anywhere.  Servicemen and women and their families arrive; there’s a group there of writers. It’s wonderful to talk to all of them and we hope, each and every one of us, that we’ve helped and that we’ll have more programs in the future to help even more.

Day 6 and 7

                We arrive late, check into the base, grab some dinner, and sleep.

                Jolly Old England and Mildenhall

                While the world grows smaller and smaller in many ways, we’re still across a giant pond and many of our men and women begin a trip out to battle zones through Ramstadt and the RAF base here. The stories we hear again are amazing. 

                At the library, we meet a Colonel who is a huge fan of Harlan; we also hear her story. Her
husband is there; he was military for many years, too. She’s a flyer—they met when he was guarding her plane. He served a long time but now he’s out—she’s still flying. They are charming and so happy together. He jokes that when it came down to it, she was the one who needed to stay in. She outranked him; now he teases that she still seems to outrank him at home. They both appear to be confident and sure of themselves and not in the least concerned with who outranks who.

                At lunch we scatter and meet more soldiers, those coming and those going, and those who remain where they are repairing planes, working on computers, and doing whatever else needs to be done. 

                Our last official function ends that night—we head to a local pub for our goodbye meal with Jeremy, Fred, our amazing photographer, and one another. Harlan had arranged for a car to take him into London so Paul and I, due at World Fantasy Con in Brighton next day, hitch a ride with Harlan into London; the next morning, Kathy, Phil, Fred, and Jeremy head home.

                Jeremy and Fred were wonderful. I miss them already. I hope I’ll see them again.

                I know that Paul, Kathy, Phil, Harlan, and I will always be friends. We’ve formed a little family that comes from the experiences we shared. Unlike any other.

                I know that I am forever changed. I’ve seen true heroes and one thing remains; when they’re complimented, they shrug. “I’m just doing my job.”

                I take it personally. That job is being the front line that protects me. While we squabble at home, the thing is this—we’re allowed to squabble. We’re allowed to complain. We speak our minds. I have the right to strive to attain goals. I am an equal citizen. 

                All these gifts are mine because of the men and women who fight to protect me and my rights.

                I hope I did something for someone. 

                I know that they did an amazing thing for me—they changed my life. I am eternally grateful.     

Thursday, May 23, 2013

30 Days of Why I Love New Orleans - Day 30

The Hotel Monteleone and Writers for New Orleans                                                                                                                                                                                                 The tale of the beautiful Hotel Monteleone began in the city—and far away, in Sicily. That’s where  Antonio Monteleone was born. He’d heard great stories about America and the
American dream and decided he wanted to come to this country. He settled in New Orleans—considered to be America’s most European city, which of course, since it had been under French rule, Spanish rule, and American rule—not to mention that those nationalities had been joined by the Brits and others who had wandered in. Antonio arrived sometime around 1880. He opened a cobbler’s shop on Rue Royale and prospered.

                He loved his new city.

                So, when a hotel became available in 1886 in the Vieux Carre that he loved so much, he bought it. It was on the corner of Royal and Iberville and had 64 rooms.  He did well with his hotel. He soon bought a nearby hotel, the Commercial Hotel. By 1903, he was adding more rooms.

                When he passed away, his son added even more rooms. Neither financial panic nor storms nor any other hindrance, natural or other, swayed the grand hotel. After his son, his son’s son took over—and that’s what has happened to this day.

                After the “summer of storms” had gone through NOLA and the levees broke and disaster struck the city, there were hard times. Somehow—and it still boggles my mind—we could drop newscasters on bridges—and food and water all over the world—but still had a hard time saving way too many of our American people. But NOLA is a tough old grand dame. I was there the weekend before Katrina struck Miami and then moved on across the Gulf and I returned to the city as soon as I could after the disaster. It was a wretched summer; right after Katrina, Rita and Wilma came on through.

                The people of the city were strong. But it was while I was with a friend who owned one of the carriage companies that Writers for New Orleans was born. She told me how grateful residents were for the people of our country—not governments or parties, but the people. And still, what they needed was not handouts after the worse, but work. To get back to work, the carriage drivers, hoteliers, bar owners, musicians, artists—all—needed tourists back in the city. And she mentioned, “You’re a writer; maybe you could get some writers to come.”

                Ah, yes. We could put together a conference. So, okay, a writer’s conference. What kind of a writer’s conference? What would make people come?

                Okay . . . any kind of writers! Fiction, non-fiction, mystery, horror, sci-fi . . . poetry.

                What if we couldn’t get enough writers?

                Well, then, we’d just have to have readers.

                And what if that wasn’t enough?

                Hm. We’d try to throw a few good parties!

                So, with Connie Perry and my carriage-driving friend, Writers for New Orleans came into being. Having decided that we were going to have a conference, we needed a place.  And that place needed to be a local hotel. Sheraton was going to take care of Sheraton just as Marriott would take care of Marriott—nothing against the chain hotels; I love many. But we wanted a local hotel.

                I had just lost my sister, Vickie, the summer before.  She’s the one who had come to Jazz Fest as long as I could remember. She loved the Monteleone.

                We headed there. 

                And we’ve there for eight years.

I love the Monteleone. I love that it’s been owned by a single family for so many years, and I love that the employees there are people I see again and again. I heard great stories from those I worked with about the assistance given to the employees when they were devastated after the storm—they were, if strapped when the hotel was closed, handed checks for electric and other necessities. I have loved their banquet crews and the management we work with. Every year, it’s really like coming home.

Rather sad, but when we went there, I wasn’t aware of the hotel’s literary credentials. (You think I might have gotten this when I realized there were rooms available such as the “Tennessee Williams Suite” and the “Eudora Welty Suite.” The hotel is one of only two others in the country—those being the Algonquin and the Plaza in NYC—recognized as
“Literary Landmark Hotels” by the by the Friends of the Library Association.

Tennessee Williams did indeed stay here; 214 Royal was his favorite address in the city. William Faulkner wrote here. Truman Capote liked to tease that he was born at the hotel. Actually, his mom made it to the hospital, but she had been staying at the hotel.

There’s so much to love. The lobby is beautiful and ornate. Entering from the street, if you make an immediate right, you’ll be at the Carousel Bar. The carousel was installed in 1949. The bar itself came about because performers—like Louis Prima!—enjoyed meeting friends and enjoying a cocktail after performing.

The pool is on the roof. It’s a lovely place to go, sit, soak in the sun, cool off from the sun, and enjoy a bird’s eye view of the surroundings. There are meeting rooms—like the
Riverview—that look over the Mighty Mississippi. There are ballrooms that are truly beautifully designed and decorated.

And the food—even for banquets!—is delicious.

When people come here, they never want to leave. Aha! That leads to another draw. The hotel is haunted. (Naturally, right?) Several paranormal groups have carried out investigations here and found definite “haunted” activity. An employee died here of natural causes and he’s still around, walking the halls, checking up on the guests. Sometimes, you can hear children’s laughter in the hallways, even though there are no children. While these merry lads and lasses did not die here, it’s speculated that they had such a great time while staying at the Monteleone, that they returned to play.

If you’re interested, we stick to our original plan—Writers for New Orleans happens yearly at the Hotel Monteleone at 214 Royal Street. It’s for all writers, all readers—and/or friends who just want to tag along for fun. Our registration fee is strictly kept at cost—the idea remains to bring people into this incredible city so that they can fall in love, too—and so that more and more people can understand how unique and precious New Orleans is to our very unique and precious country!

Of course, any time you come, you might want to stay at the Monteleone. And if you can’t stay, at least pop in for a cocktail or soda at the Carousel Bar and see the beautiful lobby. Privately, family-owned for over a hundred years—if it weren’t for the fantastic beauty and incredible beauty, that alone would be a reason to come!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

30 Days of Why I Love New Orleans - Day 29

Everybody’s Got an Opinion
So . . . I love New Orleans, which is pretty evident. I’ll never know exactly what made me so very passionate about the city. Is it the history—is it a real mystique, or something that we’ve
given to it.
More than anything, I think it’s the way that Nola manages to be a city of living history. People live out their lives in homes where others tread before, dealing with the tragedy of the Civil War, slave markets, Civil Rights, and more. Restaurants are places where those creating the eras that came before us dined and talked and voiced their own opinion about “current” political situations that shaped the nation we live in now. Since the summer of storms, the city is more international than ever. Everyone is welcome in NOLA—Southern hospitality abounds. There’s the “decaying elegance” of bygone times; there is the good and the bad—an outlook that is resilient and hopeful for the future. There are the cemeteries where the past seems to seep right into your skin and Jackson Square where you see the performers, hear the performers, and the wonderful laughter of the children. Ghost stories in carriages as you listen to the voice of your guide . . . and the clip-clop of the mule’s hooves.
So, coming almost to the end here, I’ve asked a few of my children and friends to give me their opinions of this amazing city. There’s usually something that draws everyone, and for everyone, that something is just a little bit different.

From Jason Pozzessere  (my son and co-author of A Child’s Cry, Cast of Characters)
When in New Orleans there are three main attractions that most people just can’t get enough of. Bourbon Street, with its wide array of bars, club, and restaurants is a sure bet for a crowd pleaser. Second is the art, it is everywhere, and you can find beautiful works in galleries, shops, hotels,and even on the streets. But the third, and most important one--in this foodies humble opinion--is the food!

From K Paul's, to the World Famous Acme Oyster House, there is plenty to find that is sure
to please. But nothing beats a late night round at the Original Cafe Du Monde when one needs a respite from a fun night on the town or a crazy all night bender.

Since 1862 this French Market Original has been serving tasty treats to folks that have no known equal in the modern world. From its scrumptious food specialty, the French beignet, to its perfect partner in crime, a steaming glass of Chicory coffee, the cafe is sure to please just about everyone with working taste buds.

You also never know when you might catch a show, as the locals often times burst out into spontaneous song, or perform a little "reality drama" right in front of you. And have no fear for your safety, as some of New Orleans' finest can be found there taking a breather from a hard night on the streets at just about any time of day.

So if you find yourself in the mood for a great snack head on down on your next visit. I love it, and my moneys on the bet that you will too!

From Connie Perry (Organizer extraordinaire of Writers and Louisiana native)
One of the reasons I love New Orleans is because it is a part of me, part of my heritage.  I was born and raised in Louisiana, although it was in a different city, it really doesn’t matter.  Louisiana is one of the greatest states in America.  We may be one of the smaller states, but our state offers a myriad of opportunities to all.  Our state and New Orleans have a flavor all of their own.  All you have to do is come on over to visit and you too will be enchanted by the people, culture and some of the best food on this planet.  Ah, but my favorite thing? My son lives in New Orleans.  And my best friend comes to visit several times a year.  The memories we share are priceless!

From Erin McCarthy (USA Today bestselling author of True, a new adult novel, and many
I love New Orleans because of the joie de vivre of both the locals and the tourists... how it's a city that embraces the philosophy of live and let live.  The deep sense of history, the amazing food, and the wonderful music all draw me back to NOLA again and again!

From Chynna Pozzessere (daughter and hard-working L.A. actress.)
Uptown—While a lot of people love the French Quarter, I love Uptown. The area has a great neighborhood feel, wonderful coffee shops, and a real sense of community. I also love
the cigar shop in the alley by the Monteleone—lots of friends have worked there!

From Kathleen Pickering (author of When We Began and more! Kathy’s family owns a jewelry store—she is our expert!)
I'd never been to New Orleans until I attended Heather's first Writers for New Orleans conference eight years ago. Returning to New Orleans--and Heather's conference--has been an annual love affair for me ever since. New Orleans is vibrant with history, character and a passion for living that reaches a body through the city's diverse culture and heritage. Locals are delightful. Food is amazing. Music is as abundant as the breeze and keeps you dancing down the sidewalk with a smile on your face. Oh, and did I mention the jewelry and antique stores? Beignets and chicory coffee? Reasons enough to return each year! Thank you, Heather for choosing New Orleans as playground for writers. The city offers inspiration around every corner, indeed!

I was truly interested in myself in everyone’s answers—because, as I suspected, there’s not really just one thing—or perhaps it’s everything. New Orleans offers its own unique ambience; yes, it is the architecture, the history, the beignets, the laissez faire, the old and the new, and maybe, especially, it’s a piece of America that is just as special as we are as a
people—a beautiful part of the puzzle that’s the American dream.
Maybe, sometimes, it’s because there’s nowhere else you can get such wonderful cheese grits!
Ah, you never really know.
But you may just find yourself falling in love with NOLA anyway.