Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It Takes A Parish

Max and Elizabeth
I’ve never been prouder of a thumb’s up.

Early this year, I asked our Max Mizejewski, who died Sept. 19 when his Cessna 162 crashed near Borrego Springs, to read the manuscript of my political novel Jackson Place. Max was a war hero who barely survived the 1967 crash of the Huey he was piloting.

Much of the book concerns the Vietnam War. Since I didn’t serve, I feared writing inaccurately or blithely. Two weeks later, Max handed it back with a smile, a few words of encouragement, and a thumb’s up. That was all I hoped for. Max used language carefully. He didn’t gild the lily or stop to smell the roses unless there was time on the schedule and the olfactory episode had been thoroughly mapped out.

Sometimes he didn’t have to speak at all. St. John’s friends sitting in pews behind him say they’ll never forget the Sunday we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the “Star Spangled Banner.” He stood ramrod straight for all three verses, facing the front of the church and saluting. Then he hugged Rebeca and their daughter, Elizabeth.

It was five days before his death. May they always remember the deathless energy of his embrace. May we all remember the energy with which he lived and his example of uncompromising devotion to those he loved.

Max wasn’t the only St. John’s resource I tapped. I invited Trinh Hinson, who was born in Vietnam, and her family to point out any egregiousness in my descriptions of Vietnamese society and places in and around the city that was once called Saigon. Gerry Larson, internationally noted scholar and Presbyterian pastor, asked incisive questions. Our meticulous head of school, Michael Pratt, who has a PhD from Harvard, said he was pleased to have caught relatively few punctuation errors and then wrote a generous review on Amazon. Fellow Detroiter and thriller aficionado Tom Tierney thought I got both the politics and the Motown scenes right.

Cover painting by Robin Rogers Cloud
Andy Guilford was patient indeed, permitting me to feed him chunks of text as they came off the printer and making more great suggestions than I can count. I wrote three drafts of one section before getting a favorable ruling from the bench. He did question why I missed no opportunity to portray Richard Nixon sitting in an easy chair, his feet on an ottoman, while he twirled and chewed on his reading glasses. Had I forgotten writing about the eyeglasses just five pages before? If I may, Your Honor, we call that a leitmotif, I said carefully.

All their good advice notwithstanding, considerably better than the text is the cover, which is based on the work of Robin Rogers Cloud, acclaimed plein air painter, associate professor of art at Saddleback College, and member in good standing of the St. John’s Altar Guild. If you’re Robin’s friend on Facebook, you’re enjoying her exquisite paintings, including those she made during her summer in Montana with the St. John’s Swansons.

After finding the courage to ask an artist of Robin’s stature to help, I suggested a pretty painting of the leafy row of townhouses in Lafayette Square opposite the White House, where much of my story’s action occurs. Robin asked what the book was about. I told her Nixon doesn’t resign in August 1974 and moves into 716 Jackson Place so Acting President Ford can use the White House. In that case, Robin said, it should be scary: “Think Edward Gorey.” Of course, it’s perfect.

The contributions of LEM coordinator and former Nixon chief of staff Kathy O’Connor are also too numerous to mention. I borrowed a description of a child's first glimpse of a baseball diamond from one of my own Vaya columns last year (thanks, editor Linda). I fretted over a paragraph in which Mitch realizes that Emily loves him. Finally, I tried the passage out on participants in one of our Tuesday evening Bible Fellowship meetings.

My fellow pilgrim Gene Giordano gave me permission to use his last name for Nixon aide Ron Ziegler’s bartender at the Carlton in Washington. Gene will forgive me for saying that Mizejewski would also have suited my tough, fiercely loyal character.

I also consulted authorities in the outside world, including famed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward. But I couldn’t have done it without St. John’s. One is blessed to have such collaborators, in ministry and in life. Someone said it take a village to raise a child. It took a parish to write a book.

This post originally appeared in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John Chrysostom Episcopal Church.