Monthly Archives: February 2009

Vacant Lots – a Memoir

When I was growing up in Oceanside, Long Island in the late 1940s and early 1950s, our spiritual addresses were vacant lots. Small-town housing developments then were frequently unnamed spurts of fifteen or twenty houses, just a block or two, and there was always a buffer zone of one or more empty lots between layers of development. Life outside of school and home-the life of childhood play-was situated for me in one or another of three vacant lots within a few minutes walk or run from home. There were plenty of other vacant lots, but these three had un­dergone colonization by us neighborhood kids. They had character. Although someone owned them, they seemed to be our property and were treated accordingly. The Bamboo Lot, the Deep Woods, and one that was not then named but which I’ll call the Baseball Lot took us in and embraced us. Each had a separate function.

The Bamboo Lot, a double-sized undeveloped corner lot, was, as the name suggests, a thick tangle of bamboo. Though hard to penetrate, it succumbed to our stubborn efforts and suffered sev­eral worn paths and a few small clearings. In the Bamboo Lot, we could quite easily get lost from roadside view. This lot, just a few houses away from my home, was basically for just getting to­gether and for imaginative talk, often about getting even with Mrs. Schaeffer, the neighborhood scold. Here, we’d trade baseball cards, play marbles and mumbledypeg, and develop our cursing skills. So quickly sheltered from passing cars and prying adults, we made wild plans, sneaked smokes, and poked at snakes and other creatures.

Of course, the Bamboo Lot provided the raw material for stickball bats, unneeded walking sticks, fishing poles, flutes and whistles, and the weaponry of our war games, which rarely took place there but rather in the Deep Woods. The lot was a gen­erous and inexhaustible provider. We all practiced our skill with knives on the bamboo stalks and shoots, and singly and together we fashioned marvelous things, often joining bamboo lengths with wrappings made of vines or pliant reeds. Judy Leathers, who played with us there when we all still looked like boys, was the best at devising these fastenings.

The Bamboo Lot stood for several years, somehow resistant to development while other empty lots in the neighborhood were built on. Maybe the dense bamboo itself made the corner inhospitable. Eventually, though, it was tamed and a large house with an ele­gant yard claimed the space. We never got along well with the new family who took our Bamboo Lot away. Treating their children as usurpers, spoilers, we called them names, tripped them in the hallways at school, and generally made them miserable. After a while we just ignored them. They stayed on their property and we stayed off it. They were trapped in what we had lost.

The Deep Woods, a much larger undeveloped area a few blocks further to the east, was several lots wide and very deep; I don’t think we ever walked all the way through it to whatever road was its distant border. It was the typical wild space of the coastal mid-Atlantic, densely green with many large, overhanging trees that provided shade and kept in check the low-lying scrub and grasses. Wild berry trees provided color as well as snacks, and they also provided projectiles for small arms fire.

A clearing in the Deep Woods held our fort. Actually, it wasn’t ours: its basic design and construction predated our gen­eration of kids. Nonetheless, we had taken it over and improved it. The basic structure of the fort had been formed by nature. Two large trees, only about eight feet apart, had been half-sev­ered and bent over about four feet up from the ground. We be­lieved they had been hit by lightening. Their toppled upper trunks stretched out in the same direction, with the distance be­tween them narrowing to about four feet where they rested on the ground. The length of these upper trunks, from the point where they angled down from the place of fracture to the ground, was twelve or fourteen feet. All the tree limbs had been chopped off by our predecessors, as had the narrowing (once topmost) part of the trunks that rested on the ground and had once carried the trees’ crowns.

Upon this sturdy sloping frame we built or rebuilt platforms by placing odds and ends of “discovered” lumber and the stripped trunks of smaller fallen trees. And upon these platforms we erected further fortifications-not quite walls, but barriers against intruders and rests for our bamboo spears and other de­fensive weapons. The fort was always in progress. From its var­ious heights and appurtenances, we could jump, swing, and other­wise risk our necks. Coming back from the Deep Woods, we often wore bloody knees and elbows. Every now and then, a defense of the fort resulted in a trip to the hospital.

After a few years, the near, roadside width of the Deep Woods was developed with several houses, including the one Arnold Tucker’s family built. Because the Tuckers let us cross their property to reach the diminished Woods, Arnold quickly became one of the gang. But in another year or two our visits became less frequent. We spent more time at the candy store and other places where there were girls around. Arnold and Judy Leathers were the first to have anything like a date. Younger kids clamored over our fort. Occasionally, there were signs that hoboes had stopped by.

The Baseball Lot was really a large sweep of undeveloped but largely cleared lots that ran from in back of our house to the intersection about six houses west, fronting on the street behind us. At the far end of this stretch, the older kids in the neigh­borhood had worn in a rough baseball diamond. The baseball field backed onto the property line of Mrs. Schaeffer and one other neighbor whose name I forget.

From the first warm days of spring until school let out, late afternoons would find us in the Baseball Lot. Once school was out for the summer, we would gather there at almost any pre­arranged time to start a four- or five-inning game. My friends’ older brothers would get things going, picking captains and choosing up sides from their teenage peers down to the fledgling players: Billy Markland, Scudder Black, Howie Schleich, and my­self. While there was clearly a pecking order, everyone got to play. Limitations were accepted. I usually played second base to minimize the disadvantage of a weak throwing arm.

Although Little League and other organized leagues existed, most of us spent our game time on the Baseball Lot in informal but hotly contested competitions. We managed without umpires or coaches, though sometimes the girls served as line judges, call­ing balls fair and foul. Their participation was more a matter of friendly help than officiating, though in Judy’s case we knew that something else was going on. Our parents did not show up, we had no uniforms, and some of us didn’t have baseball gloves. We were grooming ourselves for absolutely nothing, and yet we played all out. There were no slackers. The early spring games ended at sundown. Later on, games were discontinued when two or three of us got called home for supper, then they might resume on full bellies to conclusion or nightfall.

The ball field of the Baseball Lot was still thriving when we left Oceanside in 1954, but the several subdivision lots to its east, including the one behind our house, had been built on. Mrs. Schaeffer remained miffed about the foul balls that would end up in her yard, causing us to trample through her garden, or the occasional one that would bounce off her house or break a window. However, she never called the police (though she con­stantly threatened such action) and our parents were always quick to offer payment for damages and warn us to be more careful, which we were. Diehard players at war and marbles and baseball, our energy knew boundaries. We lived in a time of civility.

When I returned to visit the neighborhood years later, the old baseball field and most of the other vacant lots were gone. Kids had well-groomed, well-lighted parks to play in and communi­ty centers with backstopped baseball diamonds. Lists of organized activities and team calendars covered the bulletin boards, and scores and schedules filled the local weekly newspaper. By the 1960s, parents had taken over as well as hired program directors, and play was not the same thing anymore. In more recent years, parents have pushed neighbor umpires into court over bad calls. Kids have shot each other dead over inside pitches under the blaring lights of civic stadiums where we once roamed free, wild only in our imaginations, in vacant lots.

 [“Vacant Lots” originally appeared in the WordWrights No. 20, Nov.-Dec. 2000]

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Linnea Sinclair’s Steamy Sci-Fi Saga

UPDATE:  A different version of this review appears in the May-June (2009) issue of Fort Myers Magazine. See Ft.Myers magazine – Linnea Sinclair

Hope’s Folly, the latest title by Neapolitan Linnea Sinclair, is a rapid-fire romp through futuristic political intrigue and high-risk passion. Aboard an aging and compromised spacecraft, Admiral Philip Guthrie attempts to thwart the plans of the corrupt Imperial forces. The Imperial leadership, against which the seriously wounded Guthrie has rebelled, is attempting to kill or capture him, and Guthrie, a leader of the newly independent Alliance Fleet, must use the only opportunity available, a failing antique craft smelling of oranges from its recent use as a cargo vessel.  To raise this conflict to a higher power, Sinclair puts a determined, talented, and attractive Alliance sub-lieutenant, Rya Bennton, under Guthrie’s command – and man she had fantasized about since childhood when she knew him as the best friend of her father – then an Alliance leader.


Sinclair’s imagined world is drawn successfully on many levels. First of all, there is her confident delineation of the shipboard technology – and especially the weaponry – that makes up the world of Philip, Rya, and the other characters. Tension builds around fixing the failed systems of “Hope’s Folly” in advance of an ultimate confrontation with Imperial might. Sinclair’s sure-handedness in describing the spacecraft’s myriad problems with power generation, armaments and defenses, guidance, and communication make this race against time credible and palpable to the reader.  Though for some readers there may be too much space given over to detailing the futuristic hardware, most will enjoy it. No Tom Clancy reader would find Sinclair’s techno-imaginings unwelcome.

Additionally, Sinclair lends sensuality to the hand weapons worn and wielded by Philip and Rya. Rya, especially, is attuned to the eroticism of weaponry. In “Hope’s Folly,” the weapon is as much embraced as worn. It hugs the body and is sometimes joined with it. The curves of the hand weapons and the curves of Sub-Lieutenant Rya Bennton are matched in shape, in seductive power, in explosive potential.

The tug of war between decorum and passion keeps the romantic intrigue smoldering. As the daughter of his best friend, as his military subordinate, and as a women 16 years his junior, Rya would seem off-limits to the smitten Admiral Guthrie. But Rya’s boldness raises the intensity of Guthrie’s temptation. Her proximity to him as the Folly’s chief security officer allows her to impress him with her skills and character while making each accessible to the other. Add the psychology of wartime, the sense that there may not be a future, and the postponement of pleasure seems a fool’s gamble. By alternating which of the main characters is the controlling consciousness of the narrative, Sinclair builds the reader’s appreciation of both Philip’s and Rya’s dilemma. There is a sure-handedness in the way the author enters the thoughts and emotions of her characters that makes them – at least during immersion in the story – convincing and compelling.

A good-sized cast of minor characters populates the closed world of Hope’s Folly. These include a suspected Imperial mole, a by-the-book commander who cracks under stressful circumstances, and several versatile specialist officers who perform their duties bravely. Each minor character is effectively drawn, and each participates in the range of perspectives on the dangers confronting this mission and the Alliance. Sinclair individualizes them with aplomb, and she weaves them into a cohesive team under Admiral Guthrie’s charismatic but sometimes challengeable command. Not the least of these characters is the mysterious Captain Folly, a feline who prowls the spacecraft. As Sinclair’s readers know, a cat always figures in her fiction, and this one seems to embody the spirit of “Hope’s Folly,” at once its mascot and namesake.

With Hope’s Folly, Linnea Sinclair builds on a secure reputation as a leading fashioner of science fiction romance. She straddles and blends these genres with a unique bravura and wit. Already a multiple winner of major literary awards in her field, Sinclair is likely to add to her collection with this latest title, due out from Bantam Books in late February.  linnea-sinclair

Linnea Sinclair will be the lead-off speaker at the Naples Writer’s Conference associated with the Naples Press Club’s 7th Annual Authors and Books Festival. The Conference, held on April 4 and 5 at the von Liebig Art Center in downtown Naples, will offer workshops on the craft and business of writing. Pre-registration is required. Authors and publishers will be exhibiting, selling, and signing their books throughout the Festival. This book fair, which includes entertainment, is open to the public at no charge. For more information visit the website or call (239) 593-1488.

SEE ALSO:  Linnea Sinclair and Linnea Sinclair (2)


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