Sunday, March 27, 2011

Happy St. Patrick's Day -- 10 days late

Did you know that the nation's second-largest St. Patrick's Day parade takes place in Manchester, NH -- and 10 days after most people celebrate the holiday?

Observing holidays on days other than the actual date is not unusual in our "Live Free or Die" state, where we are practical and frugal to a fault. For example, the Fourth of July fireworks in Portsmouth are on July 3 because it's cheaper. (I cannot explain why trick or treating is the night before Halloween, but I'm sure there's a good reason. However, I'm considering proposing it be moved to the day after -- when the candy is cheaper.)

Manchester, possibly known more for its French-Canadian culture spawned by the largest ethnic group to work in its mills years ago than for being the center of any Irish universe, discovered it could attract a larger number of traditional Irish entries if it holds its St. Patrick's Day parade more than a weekend after the holiday (and by then everyone has sobered up, too).

Speaking as a Parade Princess who knows a good parade when she sees one, I can tell you after standing for over two hours in the 36-degree weather (wind chill 18) that New Hampshire's largest city does indeed give a great parade.

There were 140 units marching along the one-mile route lined with an estimated 70,000 people. The musical entries included 5 bagpipe bands, 2 fife and drum bands, 2 drum and bugle corps and an assortment of other musical groups such as the Amoskeag Strummers Banjo Band and the Sixties Invasion.

In the less-traditionally-Irish categories were lots of beauty queens, baton twirlers and baton twirlers doing Irish step dancing, the Manch-Vegas Roller Derby team, students from two unicycle schools, a hurling team (their odd-looking sticks indicated they were not connected to a sport that might follow imbibing too many Guinness beers), and reenactors from the Revolutionary War, Civil War and World War II. (All of which also prompts me to wonder about the kinds of hobbies other people have -- and why mine are so boring in comparison.)

I was especially fond of this float from Ironworkers Local 7, which was warmly received despite all the anti-union sentiment occurring these days. Notice the green girders -- very festive, don't you think?

The Christmas parade I organize each December concludes with Santa Claus atop a fire truck. What unit do you think ended a St. Patrick's Parade in Manchester, a community with large populations of French-Canadians, those of Irish descent and one that also noted the celebration of Greek Independence Day in its parade ad?

The Sons of Italy Drum & Bugle Corps. If I hadn't felt as frozen as a popsicle by then, I think I would have laughed all the way back to the car.

To guarantee an even larger parade crowd, this year the organizers added the "Shamrock Shuffle" beforehand. Since Husband No. 1 and I arrived at the parade route on the early side after consuming our first French-Canadian breakfast at Chez Vachon (think crepes larger than a plate although we did decide against poutine -- french fries covered with cheese curd topped with spicy chicken gravy -- before noon), we got the opportunity to see the 1,000-plus runners take off from the starting point for the two-mile race and begin returning less than 10 minutes later.

We were delighted when our friend Janet Parkinson snagged a prize for her (actually our) age group but when we asked why she hadn't donned any St. Pat's attire like many of the runners (green wigs, funny hats, fake beards, etc.), she informed us that serious runners know those things slow them down. Oh.

That's Janet with me in the photo -- I think you can easily figure out which one of us runs marathons and which one knows how to dress for a parade in New Hampshire in March.

Actually, it's pretty near April, which seems like a stretch for celebrating St. Patrick's Day, don't you think? Do you believe holidays ought to be celebrated on, well, the actual holiday?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spring: Right/Left and Holiday Lights, Too

According to the calendar, it’s officially spring, although these photos taken today might seem to indicate otherwise. I do hope it was a lovely spring day wherever you are.

Here in NH, Husband No. 1 observed the new season by attempting to remove some of the Christmas lights from the bushes and trees now that enough snow has melted to extricate some of the extension cords from the ice.

But as you can see from these photos, we still have far too much of the white stuff on the ground to remove all the strings of lights, thanks to the second-largest snow total in NH history. (If you look carefully, you can see a string still hanging from the branch in the foreground. I'm planning to shape it into an Easter bunny if necessary.)

Ain’t global warming grand? Experts say climate disruption is sending excess amounts of moisture into the atmosphere (think glaciers melting and water going up into the air just like in those water cycle charts we all had learn in school) and therefore, extreme weather is going to continue.

And now we’re mixing in some Japanese nuclear radiation, too. Can it get any worse?

I realize these aren’t very positive, hopeful thoughts in line with a spring-like attitude of reawakening and rebirth and for that I apologize, but I’m writing this from the hospital emergency room where my mother was taken by ambulance after suffering chest pain along with a nasty flu bug, which also has now afflicted my father whose family birthday brunch was canceled today as a result of this lovely virus.

Fortunately, both are improving and the Code Blue going off elsewhere in the ER appears to be a technical glitch. So there is some good news on this first day of spring.

In the midst of this medical adventure, I received a call from my brother who was attempting to negotiate my parents’ washing machine and he and my father could not figure out why it wasn’t working after attempting to turn on the cold water going into the appliance. Turns out the wrong faucet handle was used. This surprised my mother, who observed from her hospital bed that, of course, everyone knows which temperature of water comes from the faucet handle on the left and which pours forth when you turn the handle on the right.

Is that true? Without looking, can you quickly state which one delivers hot water and which one provides cold?

I admitted that I would have to think about this, prompting my mother to respond that anyone who is observant would know this. She laughed when she said it, so at least I knew she was feeling much better. Nonetheless, as someone whose former profession relied heavily on observation skills, I took offense to this. But then I realized that faucet handles just aren’t important to me. I suppose I either turn both to produce a lovely blend of lukewarm, or maybe I choose hot or cold instinctively.

Suffice it to say faucet handles are NOT something I spend a great deal of time thinking about, especially when I’m preoccupied by more important subjects – like the rate of snow melt and the shame that comes from still having Christmas lights up in mid-March.

In the hope of proving I do indeed possess some powers of observation, I will note here that there are an unexpectedly large number of homes in my city that still have Christmas wreaths on their front doors even though the owners would merely have to open said doors to remove the now brown and ugly decorations, not shovel through a snowbank of historic proportions, as most front doors seem to open to the inside. (I have at least observed that.)

But perhaps my fellow citizens are preoccupied with other things, too. Maybe global warming and radiation drifting over from Japan, for example.

So, what do you think: does "everyone" automatically know which faucet handle delivers hot water and is it a major faux pas to have your Christmas decorations still on display in spring?

Inquiring minds want to know. (And I'd rather be thinking about snow melting than nuclear melting, wouldn't you?)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Why I Write Mysteries

When a writer friend recently asked why I write mysteries rather than other types of fiction, I realized for the first time that the reason has more to do with a young murder victim named Deborah Sue Williamson than the fictional girl detective Nancy Drew.

Like many, my initial encounter with the mystery genre occurred at a young age when I discovered the adventures of Nancy Drew and the thrill of being able to solve challenging puzzles along with her.

But after carefully contemplating my writer friend's question, I know now that it was my first real murder mystery that had a far greater impact.

I was a young police beat reporter at a newspaper in Lubbock, Texas, when beautiful blonde newlywed Deborah Sue Williamson was brutally stabbed 17 times on Aug. 24, 1975, and left to die in the carport of her new home. Her husband found her body when he returned from working at the pizza restaurant he managed. Her wedding dress lay on the guestroom bed and her purse was missing, along with their wedding album.

She was only 18 years old.

The murder, which remains unsolved today, shocked the West Texas city of 225,000. My editor proclaimed that the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal would carry a front-page story every day until her killer was found. By the time he gave up almost four months later, I knew more about Deborah Sue Williamson than anyone had a right to beyond her immediate family.

For more than 35 years, her murder has haunted me. When a crazy drifter named Henry Lee Lucas confessed in the 1980s to her slaying and over 500 more – crimes he later recanted – I knew it wasn’t him. Her parents did, too, and even sold their home to finance an investigation to prove it so police would continue looking for the real killer.

And it is a grave injustice and an unspeakable tragedy that her murderer still walks free today.

I think about this whenever I write a mystery story or work on my novel. I’ve used pieces of Deborah Sue’s story in my fiction. I imagine the terror she felt and remember how desperate her parents were to see the crime solved, sharing everything possible with the police and a reporter in the hope it would lead to her killer.

Journalists must steel themselves against emotional involvement in order to try to report the news in an unbiased manner and as a police beat reporter, this was sometimes especially necessary to maintain my sanity because I saw the worst of humanity like law enforcement officers do every day.

I have been a far too frequent witness, professionally and personally, to the devastating aftermath of crime, including the murders of Deborah Sue and other people dying in horrible ways. These tragedies never leave me. Incorporating them into my writing sometimes makes it easier to try to understand and deal with them.

Fiction also offers a wonderful opportunity to right great wrongs. There, I can make sure the killer is caught and there is justice for the victim.

I only wish someone had been able to do the same for Deborah Sue Williamson and her family.