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Writer. Traveler. Europhile, especially Italy and France. Hobbies: rescuing animals from abuse, abandonment and mistreatment, and being sous chef around the kitchen to my chef de cuisine wife.
Corridor of Darkness, A Novel of Nazi Germany (paperback)
My brother James and I once built a nuclear reactor at the kitchen table.
Hard to believe? Sure, but even more amazing, it’s still firing people up almost forty years later.
Okay, fine, a little explanation might be in order…
Early in 1979 we had a brilliant idea: build a board game exploring all aspects of nuclear power, pro and con, with a meltdown in the cards if you didn’t play them right. The timing couldn’t have been better: “The China Syndrome” was leaving movie audiences on the edge of their seats, and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania soon offered America a very real taste of potential nuclear disaster.
Our board game had playing pieces shaped like cooling towers, obligatory dice, cards with arguments for and against, and a nuclear reactor at its core. The control rods in the “containment” structure rose and fell according to the players’ successes and failures. The game box featured a haunting night-time shot of Rancho Seco in Northern California, a sister plant to the Three Mile Island facility. We even included rules for beginning, intermediate, and the very dedicated advanced player.
And here’s what it looked like: CONTAINMENT, the Game of Nuclear Energy Controversy, Crisis and Confrontation.
We ordered up five thousand boxes in advance, ready to handle anticipated public demand.
The publicity quickly rolled in: Jane Pauley and Tom Brokaw presented our game on The Today Show and praised its topicality. Playboy Magazine ran a nice photo with a blurb (not as nice as some of their photos, perhaps, but still nice). Television stations filmed us seated before the game board in on a knoll overlooking Rancho Seco, and the newspaper even ran a nice article with photo. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, the pace of sales proved as sluggish as trying to shut down the tsunami-swamped Fukishima power plants in 2011.
It seems we hit the market just as the American public was turning its collective back on board games in favor of the new video games. And perhaps the idea of spending long hours facing deadly radiation exposure didn’t have the appeal we had anticipated.
So our board-game business, Shamus Gamus, melted down.
Flash forward to 1985 and a letter arrives from nuclear engineers in South Carolina. They pass the long hours at the controls playing CONTAINMENT, and request an arbiter’s call on a finer point in the advanced rules. I settle the dispute, but don’t mention never once having made it through the advanced game. Too complicated for anyone but a nuclear engineer, perhaps.
Now flash forward to November 2014, when the Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History, and Environment at the University of Wisconsin hosts academics and artists from around the world. The goal: explore the Anthropocene, the Age of Man, asking “how might certain kinds of objects make visible the differential impacts—past, present, and future—that have come to shape the relationships among human and non-human beings, living in an era of extreme hydrocarbon extraction, extreme weather events, and extreme economic disparity?”
And Caroline Peyton, a doctoral candidate from the University of South Carolina, presents our game to that scholarly audience as one such object of the Anthropocene. She had discovered an old copy of the game on eBay. Here’s the link to her presentation: http://nelson.wisc.edu/che/anthroslam/objects/peyton.php.
In response to Ms. Peyton’s well-received performance, the game CONTAINMENT is now winging its way to Germany to become part of an interactive learning event at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich this summer. The Rachel Carson Center is affiliated with the Deutsches Museum, Germany’s fine museum of technology.
Back in 1979, sitting on thousands of unsold games, James and I thought our first business venture a waste.
Some 36 years later, CONTAINMENT seems to be enjoying the half-life of nuclear waste.
HOW I ENDED WORLD WAR I, ALMOST BLEW UP A FRIENDLY GARAGE, & SAVED PORN FOR THE WORLD: A Memoir of High School in the ’60’s
The year was 1964, and I was in high school. I had an adventurous friend named Dan, an older brother Mike who thought pornography might broaden my education, and a dangerous love of chemistry.
Dan and I were in the same chem class and decided what we needed most was a first-class, personal laboratory. You know, the kind of place where enterprising chemists could risk life and limb in the pursuit of scientific experiments forbidden in any school environment. His father Mel agreed to our using the attic room above his garage for our experimental facility, so we started moving things up the narrow staircase and under the sloping roof. At one end two metal lockers supported a large concrete tabletop. We hauled up a creaking armoire to hold our stock of chemical reagents and outdated chemistry manuals. And then we conned—er, convinced—our chemistry teacher to allow us to take home leftover chemicals at the end of each school day in return for washing up the school’s lab equipment. A win-win: he avoided doing the dishes, and we had open access to a wide selection of dangerous chemicals and elements. Brilliant, no? No.
Wearing long rubberized aprons, elbow-high gloves, and protective goggles purchased at the Army/Navy outlet, we got to work using an old chemistry manual. For starters, we produced a compound which, as it dried, became very volatile. A slight wind could set it off, sending any large glass beaker flying into the neighbor’s back yard in a loud and purple explosion. Placed strategically under a gym toilet seat and left to dry out on its own, this compound was reputed to create quite a surprise when someone sat down. And leave a lasting purple stain. Or so it was said.
Another experiment was creating red fuming nitric acid. A single spilled drop proved capable of burning clear through the linoleum flooring and the wood sheathing beneath, and piercing a 2”x8” wooden joist, leaving a nice peep-hole from the lab to the concrete garage floor ten feet below. You get the idea. Dan and I weren’t perhaps the most sane chemistry students in school, but we certainly were the most creative. And before long our lab was as well-equipped as the best professional lab. Starting with a few beakers, flasks, glass piping, and a Bunsen burner, we eventually scrounged from second-hand stores miscellaneous lab gear designed to risk the lives of the experimenters as well as the neighborhood.
So along comes World War I. Or rather, that was the subject matter in our history class, and Dan and I volunteered to make—as an extracurricular project, of course—a slideshow of the final battle of that war. Our tabletop diorama featured genuine toxic gas clouds, actual explosive landmines and shell blasts, and toy soldiers and tanks. We also had flaming Fokker and Sopwith Camel airplanes suspended from monofilament lines, set afire, and dripping toxic melting plastic and paint on the display below. Snapping photos left and right while holding our breath as we filled the attic with poisonous gases, we got the shots we needed, then fled down the narrow stairs in a desperate attempt to avoid being belated casualties of WWI. We collided with Dan’s dad. who was rapidly ascending with a fire extinguisher in a rush to save his garage from extinction as smoke and gas clouds billowed from the attic windows.
So now comes the porn part. My elder brother Mike was a fraternity man, and had laid his hands on some porn movies from the 1940’s. “Trip to Ma’s, Part One and Part Two.” Yeah, that’s what they were labeled. We assumed Ma’s was a bordello. These were 16-millimeter, black-and-white finds accompanied by a noisy projector of the same vintage. The lot had been purchased from some cop who had confiscated them in a raid. Now please keep in mind that these were different times, when porn hid behind closed doors. Not like today when it pops up on computer and movie screens at an accidental keystroke. In fact, in those days porn possession was illegal. Yeah, I know, hard to believe.
One afternoon Mike asked if I wanted to look after the movies while he sought a suitable buyer. His fraternity had moved on to other sources of entertainment. I agreed without hesitation, as any cooperative younger brother would. Our chem lab now became a covert movie theater, as well. When no showing were schedules, we stashed the reels and the projector in one of the lockers, well out of sight of prying eyes.
Now, just to be clear, these movies would hardly raise an eyebrow by today’s standards. No soundtrack, shaky title cards, and less-than-stellar acting. The male lead wore dark socks, slicked-back hair, a pencil-thin mustache, and an inflamed pimple on his right butt cheek. One female star was a forty-something peroxide blonde who obviously didn’t care much for physical exertion. The other female was a twenty-something with pin curls who endured the man’s frantic efforts with an unchanging expression of boredom. For a contemporary image, picture the woman checking text messages during sex and you’ll have the idea.
So one day Mel comes in from the garage as Dan and I have just finished scrubbing honey from the wall paper. (I suppose an explanation is in order: We’d been snapping wet dishtowels, and Dan’s cloth sent a big container of honey flying, its tip spreading a ribbon of sticky honey all around the kitchen.) Anyway, in walks Mel, pours himself a cup of coffee, joins us at the table, and says: “Those are quite the films you boys have up there.”
Dan and I exchange looks of terror and mumble incoherent nonsense.
Than Mel continues: “Those photos look like actual WWI battle scenes.” He smiles smugly and takes his coffee mug into the living room, whistling. And Dan and I release a mutual sigh of relief.
Now in retrospect, I know that Mel was pulling our leg. He knew. He wasn’t admiring our 35-mm slides up there. He was talking 16-mm. But, what the hell, right?
So then I hide the movies and projector in the trunk of my car, and drive around for months wondering what to do with them. Concerned about a traffic stop, arrest and imminent incarceration, I drop by my brother’s place to give the whole kit back. He and his wife are out, so I put them in the bottom drawer of an old dresser in the garage, hidden way in back, and promptly move on with my teen life.
A couple of months later Mike asks about the movies. Ever the entrepreneur, he had found a buyer. “But wait,” I say to my brother, “Didn’t you find them in the garage?” But now it’s dawned on me that I never told him I’d hidden them there, and recently-married, he and his wife have moved in the meantime.
So that night, under cover of darkness, the two of us sneak up the driveway of his former rental, trying not to wake every dog in the neighborhood along with the new renters, enter the garage from the unlocked side door, and rescue the porn from certain oblivion. Or at least from discovery by the wrong people. And Mike has his sale.
And there you have it. I ended World War I. I nearly blew up a garage. And we saved porn for the world. Well, maybe not that, but two out of three’s enough, right? After all, it was high school.
Copyright 2015 Patrick W. O’Bryon
Everyone knows the story, right? Shepherd David, the underdog, takes on the well-armored Goliath to settle an endless war, and fells the Philistine giant with a stone from the sling he uses to protect his flock. A story to hearten any young startup company that wants to tackle Microsoft or Apple. But now it seems Goliath may have been the near-sighted underdog suffering from pituitary malfunction, and David was using state-of-the-art artillery which could fire as accurately and with as much power as a modern 45. For the new take on this ancient story, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s recently-released book.
I bring this up because here’s a David and Goliath story of my own. Or at least of one of our cats. You must know by now that I’m fascinated by animal behavior, domestic and wild. So it will be no surprise to learn my wife and I care for a number of cats, mostly abandoned felines. Some have sweet dispositions but also health issues making re-homing difficult, others are full of affection but too old for adoption or can’t be separated from long-time companions, that sort of thing. And then there’s Lexi, whose distinctive personality either wins you over or leaves you wondering why you didn’t get a dog instead.
Here she is:
Note how she grooms herself before the mirror. Cat vanity. And the truth is, she’s a diva in her mind, and a bully when it comes to the other cats, but you can always count on Lexi to entertain. Lately, she’s started hiding in the bushes above the koi pond. She’s actually pretty poor at hiding, since her stark white ruff emerges from the greenery like a ball of snowy fluff, and any creature approaching head-on can spot her in a flash and keep its distance. Nevertheless, she takes advantage of her rocky perch above the pond to observe the fish below and soak up the sun.
Early this morning a tall white crane dropped down clumsily from the sky, intent on finishing off the few goldfish not yet devoured over the course of last year. Once we had a dozen large and healthy butterfly koi inhabiting the pond, but one by one they disappeared down the gullets of these big birds. I finally decided that “fish gotta swim and birds gotta eat,” so let nature take its course. I no longer run out of the house yelling wildly and waving my arms at the first approach of a great blue heron or sparkling white crane.
But no sooner had the crane settled to the rocks then Lexi became a flash of fur, flying over the rocks and springing high in the air toward the startled crane. Keep in mind that the crane is about four times larger than Lexi. Here’s the David vs. Goliath moment. The bird flapped up to settle fifteen feet above on a curving birch trunk, then sat in the sun and looked around in total disdain of the little cat down below.
Now Lexi wasn’t about to let this fly (pun intended), so she did her best to climb the rose trellis and approach the crane. The bird, confident of its perch, spread its wings to the sun, straightened a few feathers, preened and plucked, basically doing anything to aggravate Lexi, who remained out of pounce-range, tail flicking in frustration. Meanwhile, Tara the black cat watched to see how this all played out. Since Lexi often picks on her, Tara was ready to let Lexi take the fall.
Once Lexi realized she would never reach the crane, she backed off, feigned disinterest and wandered down the hill, tail hoisted high as she left the pond area. For twenty minutes the crane continued its preening, then flew to our rooftop and waited.
When all appeared safe, the bird flapped down toward the edge of the pond, ready for that postponed breakfast. But just as it hit the ground, out from behind thick foliage flew the determined Lexi in one last desperate lunge for the bird. She had snuck around the pond and lurked under the plantings, biding her time. We were very surprised to see her spring from the surrounding greenery. The crane was equally surprised.
And had had enough. The big bird flapped away through the trees to seek a more hospitable pond, one ideally lacking a white devil cat. Lexi watched it flee, than parked herself between the basins and began to groom her coat, fluffing up to her fullest. Vain, yes, the diva, yes, but obviously proud of having done her duty protecting the goldfish.
To experience living with a Lexi, visit http://www.simonscat.com and check it out. And if you wish to contribute to the rescue of cats without a home, please support http://www.fatkittycity.org. That great organization can use all the help you can offer, and your donations are tax-deductible.
Ever since I sat in a movie theater years ago and watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, I’ve had a strange fascination with our winged co-habitants here on Earth. Not some “birder” fascination, where I might spend hours out in the field recording every song and sighting. Rather, simply the acknowledgement that birds live in such close proximity every day, but we rarely devote much thought to them. They are background clutter most of the time, that fleeting glimpse of a pair of bluebirds swooping from tree to tree, a mess on the sole of your shoe if you tread where a Canadian goose has waddled by, the hummingbird with his beak stuck in the porch screen. You gently set him free to the disgust of the watching cats, that sort of thing.
But once in a while, just once in a long while, the birds intrude into our lives. Who hasn’t been dive-bombed by a jay protecting a nest? Who hasn’t spotted powder blue robin’s egg lying broken on a sidewalk? Who doesn’t love California’s Bodega Bay…oh, wait, that’s just another allusion to the movie. Sorry, got distracted.
The other morning I stood on our terrace , espresso cup in hand as I looked out over our small fish pond. I noticed a sudden movement on one large, sloping boulder. A bright-red berry had popped out from beneath the overhanging Pyracantha bush and was rolling down to finally rest on a stone shelf near the water. It traveled a good four feet.
Meanwhile, a bird emerged from deep in the bush, cocking its head to the side as it watched the berry find its way to the bottom. Now I have no idea what kind of a bird we’re dealing with here, just one of that brown sort of average size and—one would guess—average bird intelligence. But this one hopped down to the now stationary berry, picked it up in its beak, hopped back up to the top of the boulder and released it again. This time the bird raced alongside the ball, keeping a close eye on its descent. It was playing, doing what any kid would do, finding fun in seeing how the thing bounced down the uneven surface.
During one descent the red ball lodged in a crack in the rock, and the bird lifted it out and sent it back on its way. It played this game with the same berry a half-dozen more times before abruptly stopping, looking over at me, then picking up the berry and flying off into the trees. I assume to find a rock elsewhere where no watched to spoil its private fun.
Science tells us that birds are the last of the dinosaurs, so it only makes sense that, having survived many millions of years, their brains must have a pretty good development for survival. But for play? Can you imagine watching adult velociraptors chase a primordial melon down a boulder, just for fun?
Which brings me to this: as I returned home this morning from a walk, I took a moment to stare up into a beautiful sky. You know the moment, when the fall air feels crisp, and the trunks of the birch trees, having lost most of their leaves to the latest storm, contrast so sharply with the bright blue sky. And there, sixty feet above me, sat two huge vultures staring down with their yellow-rimmed red eyes. They were all fluffed up to catch the first rays of the sun, and watched me with curiosity. And I wondered what might be going through their minds. Their kind has certainly been around for a lot longer than mine, gathering around a feast provided by nature.
So as you’re gorging yourself on turkey this Thanksgiving, be thankful that the birds have grown smaller over time. But, just to be on the safe side, you may want to glance out your window to be certain the nearest tree doesn’t teem with Raptors, cocking their heads to the side and wondering just how you might bounce, rolling down a boulder toward some pond below.
Copyright 2014 Patrick W. O’Bryon
For those of you who prefer audio books, Corridor of Darkness is now available in that popular format on Amazon, Audible.com, and iTunes! Tim Campbell, a professional narrator with a rich baritone voice and over 60 titles to his name, does a superb job of bringing my first novel of Nazi Germany to life for the listening public.
And–in case you missed the announcement–Beacon of Vengeance, Volume 2 of the Corridor of Darkness trilogy, is now available as both eBook and trade paperback, with the audio version coming later this fall.
My sincere thanks to all of you who have given the series such a warm reception and posted your reviews on Amazon.com!
Three a.m., and the rigors of international air travel have put your internal clock at odds with sleep. You arise in the dark and step to the broad, open window. Only a horizontal rod of iron separates you from the vast skies above and the distant Mediterranean Sea some thousand feet below.
The French Riviera. The Cote d’Azur. That point where Ancient Rome drew a line between Italia and Gallia, Italy and Gaul. At your feet, where the waters meet the land, Caesar and Pompey once passed with their legions, setting out to conquer the world or returning from brutal conquest.
High above, stars fill the sky. Below and halfway to the sea, a necklace of amber beads and diamond jewels marks the hilltop village of Èze. Far off to your right a spit of land hides the town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, and the city of Nice casts a steady nocturnal glow beyond the rise.
Now a random cloud of fog drifts landward from the sea, enveloping the stones of Èze in a suffused glow before moving steadily onward. Soon the necklace of lights shimmers clearly again.
And so close that you are tempted to reach out to touch them, numerous small bats flit against the dark sky stilling their nocturnal hunger. They swoop so close that the flutter of their wings stirs the air on your bare chest. This unending dance proves as fascinating as the distant view beyond.
And then you imagine joining their flight, free to explore unhindered the nighttime world spread out below.
The stuff of dreams, the stuff of travel. It stays alive once you are home again and the jet lag long past.
To experience your own dreamscape in this region, consider a stay at Domaine Pins Paul (www.domainepinspaul.fr). Philippe and Marie-Jose’ Ponnelle are gracious hosts.
I’m thrilled to have S.K. Nicholls, outstanding writer and prolific blogger, post this review of my new release in the Corridor of Darkness trilogy, Beacon of Vengeance, A Novel of Nazi Germany!
I have been catching up on some sequels and series. There are some new authors I have been introduced to this past year that have really managed to keep me engaged and Patrick O’Bryon is one of the best.
You can read my review of his first book: “Corridor of Darkness” here.
“Beacon of Vengeance”, the new thriller inspired by his late father’s undercover life in Nazi Europe, is Volume Two in the “Corridor of Darkness” trilogy.
Patrick O’Bryon, a self-proclaimed Europhile who has traveled extensively, has a writer’s voice, language, and eloquent writing style perfect for Historical Fiction of this time period and location. O’Bryon’s ability to create realistic imagery and evoke human emotion with his words is incredible. “Corridor of Darkness”, his debut novel, sent chills up my spine as he described pre-war Germany in all of its splendor and chaos, and a thrilling and perilous…
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In the summer of 1941 America edges closer to joining battle against Hitler’s victorious armies in Europe…but a dangerous spy game is already underway.
Reluctant former operative Ryan Lemmon disappears in Nazi-occupied France, a country riddled with corruption and deceit. Ostensibly assigned to the State Department’s Special War Problems Division, Ryan now works for America’s newly centralized intelligence office under William “Wild Bill” Donovan. His official assignment– undermine German intelligence operations across Occupied Europe.
But the first task of independent-minded Ryan Lemmon remains deeply personal–release his friends from a fascist internment camp while there is still hope for their survival.
And what ever goes exactly as planned?
Beacon of Vengeance, the new thriller inspired by my late father’s undercover life in Nazi Europe, is the second volume in the Corridor of Darkness trilogy. It is now available as a trade paperback at online retail outlets, and as an eBook for Kindle and Apple readers on Amazon.com.
For ease of ordering, just click on one of the book covers pictured in the blog footer at the bottom of the page.
And, as always, I deeply appreciate your comments, and your reviews!
Watch for the audiobook edition of Corridor of Darkness coming this fall, and Fulcrum of Malice, the final novel in the series, coming in May 2015.
(Should you not yet have read Part One of this little hospital memoir, you may want to check it out first.)
“Let’s get out of here!” The teen-aged son of Dr. B appeared every bit as worried as the rest of us, seeing as the empty hospital’s front entrance had been locked again by the intruders, the drug room door was wide open and a light was burning inside. And someone had called for the elevator but failed to ascend to the fourth floor where we had been about to call for the lift.
With a recent break-in and theft at the recently-abandoned facility in Carrollton Missouri, the 19-year-old’s suggestion appeared to have great merit. My little sister Laura and I thought the idea sound. Thunder rumbled outside, the nighttime storm continuing unabated.
Everyone spoke in whispers. “What about the watermelons?” It was his girlfriend doing the asking.
Laura and I exchanged glances of disbelief before heading down the ramp toward the basement, figuring we could grab the melons and exit out the service door that opened to the parking lot of the abandoned hospital. I took the lead, Laura at my heels, and we moved as quietly as possible, no one speaking, rounding the bend at a landing and descending toward the dim light we’d left burning upon our arrival.
Just as I cautiously approached the final turn toward the kitchen, every nerve on edge…a sudden shock sent me jumping back right into poor little Laura.
Older sister Colleen had jumped out of the shadows and sent all our hearts through the roof.
“What are you guys up to?” she asked, all innocent eyes, of course.
As lightning continued to flash through the narrow basement windows and thunder shook the concrete walls, we learned the whole story. Dr. B. and my father had wondered what was taking so long fetching watermelons for dessert, so they had driven over to the hospital. Colleen had opted to join them. They came in the front door, locking it behind them. Then they rang for the elevator, assuming (rightly) that we were upstairs picking out beds for the family’s overnight stay. But before the elevator car arrived, Dr. B opened up the drug room, leaving the light on, intending to make up a first-aid kit for my parents as a gift to carry on our travels. Then they had decided to go down and get the melons before checking on us upstairs.
No break-in. No fevered drug addicts out to get us. Nothing scary at all.
Just one older sister taking some smiling pleasure in having scared the bejeesus out of me. Of us.
Time for revenge.
A couple of hours later the family had gathered on the fourth floor and our mother assigned bedrooms. Mine was closest to the elevator end of the hall. Then came Colleen’s. And the our mother’s, and so on. Each with a single bed, each along the same side of the hall.
I gave it about ten or fifteen minutes, to make sure everyone had settled down and ideally drifted off. The storm continued unabated, with sheets of rain pouring down the tall windows and flashes of lightning momentarily lighting up the room as thunder rattled the panes.
I inched out of the tall hospital bed and eased myself low, close to the floor. Step-by-step, inch-by-inch, I made my silent way by lightning light into the neighboring room until I reached my goal, ready to rise up at the foot of the bed, ready to return the favor to my dear sister Colleen.
At the moment of a particularly loud clap of thunder, I assumed my full fifteen-year-old height and let out what I hoped to be my spookiest howl.
Further dead silence.
And then…from the head of the bed came a stern voice, uh-oh, my mother’s voice: “Pat, no nonsense, just go back to bed and let people sleep.”
I slunk back into my room, bested once again by Colleen, who, I am sure, heard it all in the next room and fell asleep gloating and giggling at having, once again, gotten the best of me. She had switched rooms at the last minute with our mother, knowing what I was sure to try in the darkness of that abandoned hospital.
Look out, Colleen. I still owe you for that one, dear sister.