by Dave Lager

Unassigned chapters

“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

— Annie Dillard (1945- )

I have no idea what she’s talking about − just because I have more than a dozen drafts in a Word folder called “unassigned chapters…”

FACS (two): Sheriff Mark Ballard

Mark Ballard is the Fort Armstrong County Sheriff that hires Ro Delahanty first as a dispatcher in 2001 and then as a sworn deputy in 2003; her first few weeks as a rookie deputy are the focus of “Ro’s Handle.” He will continue to be a major character in future Ro Delahanty novels I have in the works While there is a bit of background on him in “Ro’s Handle,” here is the more detailed stuff I didn’t have space for…

Ballard was born in Syracuse and attended one of the New York state colleges on an Air Force ROTC scholarship. After graduating in 1967 he received advanced training as an officer with the Air Police and from 1968 to 1970 was assigned as a young lieutenant to the Criminal Investigation Division – the Air Force’s equivalent of a detective bureau – at the sprawling Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where he headed-up a unit looking into on-base drug activity. In 1970 he did a tour in Vietnam in charge of a security unit for the Air Force’s section of Tan San Nhut Air Base, and from there was deployed to Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois, where he commanded the base security unit.

While at Chanute he started his master’s degree in law enforcement at nearby Illinois State University, where he met a girl from Lee’s Landing that he eventually married. In 1972, when she graduated and he left the service, they moved to Lee’s Landing where he joined the city police department, eventually becoming a captain.

Ballard ran for Fort Armstrong County sheriff in the fall of 1992; he was re-elected for a second term in 1996; and a third term in 2000. There is a chapter in “Ro’s Handle” where he announces he will run for a fourth term in 2004, for which he will be unopposed. Early in 2008, though he announces he will not seek a fifth term that fall − but that’s a chapter for a future Ro Delahanty novel.

At six-four, Ballard is always a presence, not dominant, but commanding. He has the distinguished long face of his English heritage, which can be dour-looking in repose, but can also break into a ready smile – picture the actor Liam Neeson. He wears his medium brown hair mid-length; when Ro becomes a deputy 2003 he is in his late-fifties and showing lots of gray at the temples.

While previous sheriffs generally wore suits or cowboy-inspired outfits, to be supportive of his deputies Ballard always wore the same uniform as theirs, right down to the departmental issue Sig-Sauer P 229 sidearm, except his dark brown shoulder epaulets simply said “Sheriff” in gold letters. He also drove a regular patrol car, although it was one of the older cars in the fleet.

Ballard generally favored a collegial “we’re all in this together” management style but could be tough when needed. Where many law enforcement agencies adopted some variation of the famous Los Angeles Police Department motto “To protect and to serve” for public consumption, Ballard instead had a motto for internal use only: “Pride and Professionalism.”

Throughout his sixteen-year tenure as sheriff he is a champion of innovation. For example, one of the first changes he makes as the new sheriff was to have every patrol car equipped with a mobile data terminal (MDT) connected to a central computer at the department’s headquarters. This, in turn, led to patrol deputies taking their patrol cars home; instead of having to spend half-an-hour or more coming to headquarters for a daily beginning-of-shift roll call, they simply logged-in for any necessary updates and immediately started their patrols from home.

Where his predecessor had been experimenting with “stealth cars,” unmarked vehicles in neutral colors and with no visible lightbar, Ballard went in the opposite direction, insisting that all patrol vehicles be in the traditional black and white paint scheme, have prominent door decals identifying them as sheriff’s cars, and conspicuous roof-top light bars. He liked to say: “It’s not about trying to fool the bad guys; it’s about being visible to the folks we’re supposed to be protecting.”

Similarly, he abstained from having a so-called “community officer” whose sole job was do school visits, make presentations to clubs and organizations, and recruit and train neighborhood watch projects. He argued that every one of his deputies needed to currently be, or in the past should have been, a “street cop” (done regular patrol duty), and that these were the folks who ought to be talking with the community.

Over his sixteen years as sheriff – the longest tenure of any Fort Armstrong County sheriff – Ballard was named Chief of the Year three times by the Iowa Association of Law Enforcement Officers.

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Life’s ambiguity

“Life is ambiguous; there are many right answers − all depending on what you are looking for.”

– Roger von Oech (1948- )

As has probably become obvious if you’re at all following these posts, I collect quotes. This one from Roger von Oech, the author and presenter on creativity, is one of my favorites. While it might not seem to be about the topic of writing, which my quotes tend to focus on, I think it does have something to say about what we do as writers: We live and breathe in that world of ambiguity, it’s what allows each of us to say something unique as an author and allows each of our readers to find something meaningful to them in our books…without it, as writers we would have nothing to say.

FACS (one): Iowa’s Oldest Law Enforcement Agency

This is the first of several posts on the Fort Armstrong County Sheriff’s Department (FACS), where Ro Delahanty first worked as a dispatcher and later became a sworn deputy.

In the early 1800s there were several settlements along the Mississippi River on the eastern edge of what would later become Iowa; Burlington to the south, Lee’s Landing in the central section, and Dubuque near the northern end. Most consisted of little more than a trading post, several saloons, a hotel, one or two churches and a cluster of cabins.

By 1838 Lee’s Landing had become the larger of the settlements, although not by much, and had hired a sheriff, but who it was understood was also responsible for keeping order in the surrounding rural areas, since Lee’s Landing was not yet officially a city. Fort Armstrong County was chartered in 1846, along with a half-dozen others, at the same time Iowa became a state. One of the first things the fledgling county did was add the existing sheriff to its payroll. When Lee’s Landing did finally incorporate as a city in 1852 it formed its own constabulary (police department), but the sheriff that had already been on the job for nearly fifteen years continued to serve the burgeoning farms and small towns in the county outside of town.

While Burlington had a town constable as early as 1836, that position was abandoned when a new county sheriff was established in 1846; the City of Burlington did not establish its own police department until the 1850s.

Similarly, in the late 1820s Dubuque had a constable hired by one of the lead mining companies in the area, but whose duties focused on security and property protection rather than local law enforcement. That “job” only lasted about fifteen years, until the mid-1840s, when the City of Dubuque and Dubuque County each established their own law enforcement agencies.

Which is why the Fort Armstrong County Sheriff’s Department official seal carries the legend “Iowa’s Oldest Law Enforcement Agency.”

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 27 – Neshnala’s Saga: Neesh-na-ha-a-la

Ro glanced at Frank, her expression a mixture of an accusatory “why didn’t you warn me about this?” and incredulity. Frank winked, as if to say, “She’s something special, isn’t she?”

Recovering a little, Ro asked, “What in the world am I doing up there with those… Those giants?”

“I’ve got the article about you winning that shooting championship last year. I thought it was so cool that you out shot all those guys…” – Ro remembered Frank telling her essentially the same thing on their first date – “…and the article about how you took down those bad guys last summer. You’re the first real, live hero I’ve ever met.”

Always uncomfortable with what she thought of as “the hero thing,” Ro shrugged, “I was just doing my job.”

“R-i-g-h-t,” Missy said, drawing the word out as if to say, “I’m not really buying that.”

But then, noticing Ro’s uneasiness, added, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to embarrass you. It’s like… I can have all these heroines I’ll never get to meet up on my bulletin board, but you’re here and I’m getting to hang out with you. That’s so cool.”

“Oh… Then… Well, I’m glad to be hanging out with you, too,” Ro said.

On the drive from Lee’s Landing Ro had conjured up all kinds of daunting scenarios of how terribly wrong this first meeting with her new boyfriend’s daughter might go, from Missy being resentful because Ro was an intruder on her life with her father to the girl being the cliché of a teenager, lots of giggles and empty babble about pop stars that Ro had never heard of. This was not going the way Ro had thought it would, which was turning out to be a good thing.

Abruptly changing subject, Missy said, “Dad says you have a thing for Neesh-na-ha-a-la.”

Ro shook her head, confused by the strange juxtaposition of ideas. “Yes, ever since I was a kid I’ve had ‘a thing’ for… What did you call it, Neesh-na-ha-a-la? Is that how it’s supposed to be pronounced?”

“Yep,” Missy said, then, bending over, lifted-up a large canvas shoulder bag, after rummaging in it for a moment she produced a file folder with a dozen pages inside. She handed it to Ro.

“These are copies of a chapter from a 1918 doctoral dissertation by a University of Iowa history student named Marvin Distant Thunder – isn’t that a wonderful name, Distant Thunder? I found it online when I was researching the tree. For his dissertation Dr. Distant Thunder interviewed descendants of the native Americans of eastern Iowa,” she said, clearly excited about sharing information she thought would be important to Ro, like she was seeking if not her approval, at least a connection.

One of the things Ro had always liked about Frank was his child-like sense of wonder, which she was now seeing reflected in his daughter. “I could like this kid,” Ro thought, which both reassured her and at the same time frightened her.

“According to him they pronounced the tree’s name as Neesh-na-ha-a-la. Us lazy white folks are the ones who contracted it to just Neshnala, and mistakenly – as usual – translated it as the Tree of Knowledge. But Dr. Distant Thunder claims the literal translation is ‘the tree that knows things,’ which he said has a connotation of spiritual rather than practical things.”

Ro knew exactly what Missy and Dr. Distant Thunder were talking about. When Frank had given her the opportunity to touch Neesh-na-ha-a-la last fall it had indeed been a spiritual experience that she was still coming to understand.

“And he argued the tree is at least 300 years old; he said even the Cheyenne in Minnesota and the Lakota Sioux on the Great Plains knew about it as far back as the early part of the 1700s.”
Ro took the sheaf of papers. “Thank you, Missy. That was very thoughtful of you,” then, taking a chance, added, “and really nerdy,” hoping the girl would take it as the compliment she meant it to be.

Beaming, Missy Reyner did.

(This is the final chapter in the Neshnala Saga. Later this week I’ll begin several posts of background on the Fort Armstrong County Sheriff’s Department.)

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

On writer’s block

“A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to do it.”

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Whenever I hear someone talk about “writer’s block” I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Henry Ford: “Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.’

Chapter 26 – Neshnala’s Saga: Missy Reyner

“Well” – Ro was a little surprised, but at the same time not really that surprised – “that’s Missy, but that isn’t quite the Missy I expected.”

Missy was Melissa Reyner, who was standing next to her father at a table in Des Moines’ famous Duff Brothers Waffle House, her favorite restaurant.

Ever since the divorce, Missy and her father would cap off their weekends together with a mid-afternoon meal at the waffle house, then Frank would drop her off at his ex-wife’s and head back to Lee’s Landing; for the last six months that had meant for his evening with Ro. But Ro was coming to Des Moines to meet with Johnna Mack on Monday to check on her progress in preparation for defending her Iowa sport shooting championship.

“Why don’t you come in on Sunday afternoon? I’d like for Missy to meet you,” Frank had said. Ro had agreed with some trepidation, not being able to think of a legitimate reason why she shouldn’t.

Ironically, the plan was that after dropping Missy off, Frank would not join Ro at her motel but return that evening to the state park to be ready to go to work the next morning, leaving Ro in Des Moines by herself.

Frank had proudly shown Ro all kinds of school pictures of his daughter, and while the girl smiling down at her – Missy was easily an inch or two above six feet, close to three inches taller than Ro – was the girl in the pictures, the pictures hadn’t come close to capturing her uniqueness – oh, call it what it was, her “far out look.”

Not only was she very tall, but also very, very thin. Her auburn hair, just a few shades browner than Ro’s brick red, was in a long bang swept across her forehead and was tipped in fluorescent green. Her large-frame, tortoise shell glasses completed a look that proclaimed, “I am a nerd, and proud of it!”

The girl glanced at her father, her expression expectant, then turned to Ro and extended her hand, “Hello, Ro. I’m really glad to finally meet you.” And, of course, there were those eyes, her father’s eyes, dark and intense and looking right at you with genuine curiosity.

The girl’s handshake was firm, but not aggressive. “I’m glad to meet you, too, Missy,” Ro answered, perhaps a little less enthusiastically than she had wanted.

All throughout her not quite three-hour drive from Lee’s Landing, Ro had rehearsed a variety of approaches to what she might say after they got the obligatory greeting out of the way. But Missy quickly took care of that…

“No, I mean I really am glad to finally meet you,” Missy said with what could only be called an admiring look.

They sat down and ordered, Ro taking the girl’s recommendation to try the pecan waffle; Missy ordered one too; Frank opted for his favorite, a Reuben sandwich.

“I’ll bet dad hasn’t told you you’re on the bulletin board in my room at home.”

Ro frowned, having no clue what to say. What first jumped to mind, “I wonder what your mother thinks of that, having a picture of her ex’s girlfriend on your wall?” she didn’t articulate.

She finally stammered, “Your bulletin board… Uh… Why?”

“I collect pictures and articles about strong women – Princess Diana’s up there, so are Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Amelia Earhart… I call it my Wall of Fame.”

Ro blinked… She had done exactly the same thing on a bulletin board in her childhood room, among her collection of “strong women” were Lewis and Clark’s invaluable guide Sacajawea, the world’s first great female athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias…and Amelia Earhart. It was like, they had this unexpected connection, which both made her feel good, but at the same time was a little scary.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 25 – Neshnala’s Saga: Seekers

But what Neshnala did seem to have done was awaken something inside of her, something probably already there, perhaps had always been there, just never noticed; an awareness of the vastness and diversity of things, but at the same time an appreciation of the essential interconnectedness and inexorability of things.

What she was now thinking was frightening because it was so contrary to what she’d always believed, or what she had wanted to believe: that she was the one in control of her own destiny.

Ro sucked in her breath. “So that’s what that meant!” she muttered to Pete, then explained: “Do you remember me talking about Mrs. Klein’s homeroom” – it was when Ro was in ninth-grade – “and how she used to have these inspirational quotes projected up on her whiteboard every day for us to think about? I just remembered one of those quotes because it suddenly makes sense. It was a Buddhist proverb: ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear’.”

Thinking about the “conversations” she’d had with Pete over the years about her goal of becoming a cop, Ro snorted: “How many dozen times did I say in one way or another I thought I’d found my path. But what if it’s the other way around, Pete, what if it’s like this, ‘When the seeker is ready, the path becomes clear’?”

She thought back to when she’d quite unexpectedly, even to herself, announced to her fifth-grade class she was going be a cop… Not grow up to be a mother, or a doctor, or a pop singer – a cop… Quite unexpectedly…

She thought of Sonny, whose father had introduced him to golf as something a father and son could do together… Not play catch, or attend a stock car race, or watch sports on TV – golf… Only to discover, quite unexpectedly, the young man was very good at golf…

She thought back to when Atti, who was only fifteen at the time, had, quite unexpectedly, admitted to her friend she’d slept with a boy, not because she was even remotely infatuated with him, but just because she was curious about what the experience was like… Not day-dreamed about it, not sneaked an erotic book to read, not looked at pornography online – had sex with him… Quite unexpectedly…

“I was supposed to be a cop,” Ro muttered out loud, articulating what was becoming clear, “Sonny was supposed to play golf; Atti was supposed to collect experiences.” That brought a small laugh, because she’d never quite thought of Atti like that, yet knew it was a perfect description of her friend – a collector of experiences.

“Okay,” she said aloud to the teddy bear, “let’s finish this out… So, where does this ‘supposed to’ thing come from? I think it’s inside of us, always has been, we just need to let it out.” She snorted, “I know… We can ignore it, we can deny it, we can even fight with it, but it’s always there, waiting patiently for us to be ready.”

Ro pursed her lips: “You’re right, I did leave out someone didn’t I?” After a pause: “Um… I guess it’s because I don’t think Frank’s path has found him yet.” She didn’t know exactly why she said it, except it was how she felt.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.”

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

That’s all well and good, Ernie; but if you actually DO create a living character, you darn well know they have the nasty habit of keeping you awake until all hours of the night demanding you pay attention to THEIR story – how come you didn’t warn us about that?

Chapter 24 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003

(This is first part of a draft chapter from the next Ro Delahanty novel, “The Berlin Fiddle”.)

Ro had learned if she didn’t feel sleepy within a few minutes of lying down, she wasn’t going to sleep; this morning was one of those times.

After their stop at Brody’s, Frank had gone back to the park and she’d returned to her apartment, undressed and climbed into bed. She’d really thought she was tired; they had made love half the night, they’d gone out to see Neshnala, then to Brody’s. But now she found herself sitting up against a pile of pillows looking across the dim room at Peter Panda in his usual spot on top of her dresser.

“What’re you staring at?” she said with mock impatience to the three-foot teddy bear that had been her “roommate” since she was two years old. Her sounding board and confidante, she thought of him as her version of Wilson from the Tom Hanks’ film “Cast Away.” Clearly well-loved, he had several bare spots in his “fur” and because one corner of his mouth was missing had this silly, but at the same time inscrutable smile.

“Whaddya mean, ‘Is something’s bothering me?’ No…,” she insisted.

After a pause: “I know I can’t sleep. That doesn’t mean something’s ‘bothering’ me.”

The teddy bear just stared back with an expression that said, “R-i-g-h-t…”

“Okay, I guess you could say ‘bother,’” she said with resignation. “But, it’s not like upsetting… It’s more like so much has happened I kind of need to sort it out.”

“Like?” she said, repeating Pete’s question: “Well, let’s see – I became a deputy sheriff,” there was clear pride in her voice; “I’ve got a new ‘boyfriend,’” she said “boyfriend” as though it had quotes around it; “I was in a shootout with some bad guys,” this matter-of-factly, like it was a normal part of her job; “I helped clean-up body parts after a pretty horrible accident,” also matter-of-factly; “Sonny’s going pro,” this was with affection; “Atti’s really excited about her new job,” also with affection; “and I got to pay my respects to Neshnala,” this with wonderment.

“What?” she said with a frown of disbelief. “No, I am not jealous of Sonny and Atti. I can’t believe you even asked that question. Why would I be jealous? I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do. They’re doing what they want to be doing.” She shrugged, “See, all’s right with the world…”

After a pause: “Why are you looking at me like you don’t believe me?” She rolled her eyes, answering the teddy bear’s question: “Oh, so you think I’m agonizing… Well, I suppose I am, but about what? I don’t think for one second that Sonny shouldn’t be playing golf or that Atti shouldn’t…”

Her mouth dropped open and she sucked in her breath, like something important had just occurred to her: “…Atti shouldn’t be who she is.” Then, shaking her head added, “No, that’s a cop out, Pete… It’s too… Too pat… Too easy…”

Even though Ro was aware the stuffed animal had no facial muscles and couldn’t change its expression, she “knew” one eyebrow went up, encouraging her: “Okay… Keep going…”

“But, where do you want me to go?” she demanded, confused by a jumble of thoughts.

She plucked at the light blanket that lay across her lap… She stared out the window… She adjusted the position of her butt… She plumped the pillows, again…

“I know I’m stalling,” she finally said to the teddy bear, then laughed because she almost added, “Give me a minute,” the very same words she’d said to Frank a little over two hours ago when she was resting her fingers on Neshnala.


“Oh god,” she sighed, staring at Pete.

Suddenly connections started to fall into place, things began to make sense. When she’d approached the tree, and touched it for the first time, her only expectation – at least that she had been conscious of – was to pay her respects. It was a private ritual she’d repeated with literally hundreds of old trees for as long as she could remember. When she could touch a tree, she did; when she couldn’t, she pointed, but always with the same silent mantra: “I respect your age and your strength and what you’ve seen.” She didn’t know exactly what it meant, except it was how she had always felt around old trees.

Ro hadn’t really expected Neshnala to respond, no tree ever had.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

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