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Probably the oldest weapons known to man (once you get past the fist, the foot, and the teeth) are the rock and the stick.  No one, save God, knows for sure which came first.  But you take a rock and put it on the end of a stick, and you have a MACE.

As most of you know (if you’ve been awake at all for the past several years), I collect weapons and armor.  (I also teach classes on weaponry, including next weekend, August 25th and 26th, at the Utah Valley Renaissance Faire at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah—shameless plug, I know, but come on out!  I sing songs, I tell tales, I pass out all the weapons in my arsenal to the audience and teach how those deadly beauties were used historically.  You will get to handle scores of sharp, pointy, and otherwise lethal treasures.  In short, good times will be had by all!  But I digress, as I so often do…)  One of my treasures (yesss, preshusssss) is a lovely, historically accurate, extremely lethal replica of the River Thames Mace.  Now, the River Thames Mace gets its name from the fact that the original was found along the banks of… YOU GUESSED IT!  …the Mississippi River.  (And if you believe that, let me tell you about a lovely bridge for sale in Brooklyn…)  The original River Thames Mace was discovered along the banks of the River Thames (which Cindy and I got to cruise back in July!) and dates to approximately 1100 A.D.  (“A.D.”, for the painfully ignorant or those who are simply victims of a politically correct educational system, stands for “Anno Domini,” or for the Latin-challenged, “In the year of our Lord”, meaning somewhere, give or take a decade, around 1100 years after the birth of Jesus Christ.)  The mace (and I bet you thought I’d never get back around to the subject at hand), is a flanged mace.  That means, rather than simple metal ball at the end of the stick, you have a head with heavy metal flanges.

Here’s a picture of this wicked beauty:

RT Mace

It weighs about 2 lbs. and is just over 2 feet long.  And it is frighteningly effective.  The flanges make the head of the mace lighter (as compared to a solid steel ball of the same approximate size) so you swing it faster.  The flanges also make the weapon far more lethal.  They allow you to concentrate all the force of the blow at one or two points of impact, easily crushing a helm or a breastplate (and the skull or chest beneath).  In other words, it is nasty, efficiently deadly weapon.

Here’s a close-up view of the head:

rt-mace-head-e1503170116281.jpg

I want you to examine this picture closely.  (Trust me—I have a point.  Although some would say my hair covers my only real point…)  The flanges and the half-sphere at the left end of the head are forged as a single, solid piece of steel.  Then comes a gap (where you can see a bit of the exposed wooden shaft of the handle in between the flanges).  Then comes a longer hollow cylinder of steel which goes around the wooden shaft.  The flanges are welded onto the cylinder near the halfway point.

Now here’s the FUN part!  (And he’ll have fun, fun, fun till his mommy takes his weapon away…)  The River Thames Mace is an historical MYSTERY!  And I LOVE historical mysteries!

You see, the flanges are WELDED onto the cylinder.  Today, the weaponsmiths who make this lovely instrument of death use butane torches (or some other modern method of welding) to attach the flanges to the cylinder.  But in the 11th century, butane welding torches did not exist!  I have enquired diligently among  the blacksmiths and weaponsmiths whom I meet at Renaissance faires and I have learned that the only welding techniques KNOWN to be in use in the 11th century both involved super-heating the steel components over a coal or coke fire (stoked with a bellows) and then hammering the red-hot steel pieces together, thus creating a weld.  The problem is, you cannot hammer the red-hot flanges onto the cylinder without DEFORMING them.  (They wouldn’t stay straight once you start beating them with a hammer.)  In other words, the ancient, long-dead smiths used a welding technology that is LOST to history.  WE DON’T KNOW HOW THEY DID IT!!!

And I take great comfort in the fact that we don’t know how they did it.  I am reassured to know that there are still enigmas out there, there are still things we don’t know, there still things to learn.  When you think you have all the answers, the world isn’t a very fun place anymore.  (I know this from experience, because once upon a time, very long ago, I was a TEENAGER…)

I LOVE going to Disneyland.  I love the familiarity, the magic, the nostalgia.  When I find out they have closed an older attraction to replace it with a new attraction, I am profoundly saddened.  (They better not EVER remove Snow White’s Wishing Well or the Sleeping Beauty walk-through diorama inside Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.  DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT, DISNEY!)  But having said that, I also exult in discovering and experiencing the newest creations of the Disney Imagineers.  I love the Disney method of immersive storytelling.  When we visit Disney’s California Adventure, we are likely to go on the Voyage of the Little Mermaid SEVERAL times each day (and surprisingly, nobody seems to object to this).  That one never gets old (and there is almost always some new magical detail to discover).  So, while I revel in enchanted nostalgia, I still find joy in the new magic.  (The new Guardians of the Galaxy ride better be AMAZING, because I LOVED the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror!)

The study of history is a voyage of discovery.  On our recent trip to Scotland, Cindy and I went to the memorial and museum at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn.  I love telling the story of that battle in my weapons classes.  It’s a great story.  But now, I will be telling that story a little differently, because I LEARNED something NEW!  I also found out that some of the details in my story (as I told it) were WRONG.  So, I’ll be fixing those and adding in new details of courage and honor—on the side of the ENEMY.  So, now the story will be BETTER!  (And—be ye warned—a wee bit longer…)

Science (like history) is also a voyage of discovery.  Science is all about asking questions and seeking answers.  When you stop asking questions, when you think you know all the answers, when you teach a theory as if it were a proven fact, when you proclaim, “The science is settled!”, you are no longer in the realm of science—you have crossed over the border into the realm of religion.  What is proclaimed as “science” becomes dogma that cannot be challenged.

It should come to nobody as a surprise that I am a man of faith.  (I am an IMPERFECT man of faith, striving to live according to what I believe… and often failing.)  I believe and testify of Jesus Christ and His Atonement.  I boldly proclaim the doctrines of agency and accountability, of repentance and redemption, of salvation and eternal progression and exaltation.  But even in the sacred realm of faith, I don’t DEMAND others believe and adhere just because I believe and because “God said so.”  I invite others to investigate, to ask questions, to seek answers, to ask for and receive spiritual confirmation of eternal truths.

I do believe in ABSOLUTE TRUTH.  I don’t believe for one microsecond that Schrodinger’s Cat is both alive and dead at the same time.  But I also know that I DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING.  And that comforts me and enables me to love and be friendly and civil to people who disagree with me, even on things that are VERY IMPORTANT, even on absolute truths.  Even when I know I’m right.

Someday, perhaps, someone will discover how the ancient weaponsmiths made the River Thames Mace.  That mystery will then be solved.  And that will be VERY cool.

But there will still be mysteries in the world.  And I thank Heaven for that.

We’re home now.  We had so many marvelous experiences, but I am most grateful for the blessing of sharing this vacation-of-a-lifetime with my best and dearest friend.  My knee gave me trouble throughout the cruise—I bought a cane in Wales and used it throughout the remainder of the trip—but my lovely Cindy stepped in and took care of me.  As a man, it is terrifying to face limitations to my physical abilities, to admit I can no longer do things that were once so easy, but my beautiful eternal companion was always there to help me with tender kindness and love.  She never once made me feel weak or incapable. 

When Cindy has traveled with me on tour with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, we have spent a good deal of time apart as I rehearsed or performed with the Choir.  But on this cruise, we were together almost constantly (except during restroom breaks).  And it was wonderful and romantic and fun.  I couldn’t ask for or imagine a better, kinder, or truer friend and lover.  And it doesn’t hurt that she is so easy on the eyes.  We are nearly at our 36th wedding anniversary, and 36 years is far too short a time to be married to this nearly perfect goddess-in-training.  She is my favorite Disney princess, my queen, my joy, my life, and my heart. 

Thank you, my love, for filling my life with magic.

We’re in London.  We didn’t have a lot of time today, but we made the most of it.  We did have a number of frustrations, all of them having to do with transportation to and from the airport.  I won’t go into all of them, but here’s a hint: if someone ever advises you to take the Heathrow Express train to London, DON’T DO IT.  Unbelievably expensive, and once you’re on it, you have to pay and ride it to the end of the line.  Expensive mistake.  Oh, well. 

And the Hilton London Heathrow Terminal 5 hotel is… nowhere near the airport, and it costs you a ton to go to and from.  They don’t have courtesy shuttles here.

We got to visit the TOWER OF LONDON!  I saw ravens!  They are HUGE birds.  The Tower Ravens each eat 170g of red meat every day plus “bird biscuits soaked in blood”.  They have been known to prey on lambs.  We are talking big, scary birds. 

I bought a raven plush stuffed animal.  I almost bought one dressed as a Beefeater, but the beak was the wrong color, so…).

And the weapons!!!  So cool. 

Just outside of the White Tower in the center (where all the cool weapons are), there is a bit of the wall left from the original Roman fortress of Londinium. 

Oh, and we saw the Crown Jewels too.  They were cool, I guess. 

Big Ben (now redubbed “Elizabeth Tower”)!  Parliament! 

And… the… Boudicca… Monument…    

Breathe, David.  Just breathe. 

The fish-and-chips we had at a pub near the Boudicca Monument were quite good… until Cindy found three bones in her fish.  So the best fish-and-chips we have ever had were from Alnwyck.  One thing about the fish here—it’s fish-SHAPED.  It doesn’t come in little filets.  You get the entire fish (minus the head, fins, and innards).  I don’t know—I kinda like not having to be reminded of exactly what I’m eating while I’m eating it…  Imagine eating a hotdog shaped like a weird combination of a pig and a chicken…  Mustard ain’t gonna fix that. 

Tomorrow, we’re home. 

Last full day at sea.  It was both relaxing and stressful.  Stressful, because we had to pack and get ready to disembark from the Disney Magic in the morning, and because I actually had a job interview at 10:00 PM.  Yes, I officially unemployed since my latest contract has just finished.  So for the moment, instead of saying, “I’m a software engineer,” I get to say, “Why, yes, I am horror novelist!”  (Because, technically, that’s my only source of income, so buy more books folks—preferably mine!)  So much cool material for the next book… 

Relaxing, because I finally went to the pool!  I went on the Aquadunk—the big water slide-tunnel-bottom-drops-out-from-under-you thingy.  It was fun, not at all scary (not really), and SHORT, even if you do start out with a 30’ drop.  The water was very warm (which was nice, because the wind was strong and chilly).  The pool was restful and had gentle “tides” along the side where small waves went in and out.  I could have fallen asleep.  (Actually, the  motion of the ship makes me sleepy.)  I spent a few minutes in the whirlpool from which I observed a man in a deck chair right next to the pool.  He was fully dressed, wore a sweater and a hat, and had a blanket wrapped around him.  And although he held up a book, I think he was snoring. 

Every crew and cast member we dealt with aboard the Magic was superb.  They treated us like we were someone very special and important.  (Cindy really IS special and important.)  I know they want repeat business and so have a motivation to be pleasant and helpful, but I really feel that our room steward, Elmer, our servers, Pedro and Martin, and our head server, Nundo, were exceptional.  We weren’t just customers, patrons, or even royalty—we were friends and family. 

Tomorrow, it’s back to the real world. 

Well, not quite…

Tomorrow—LONDON!  Yeah, baby!  Yeah! 

(And by the way, the job interview went well, I thought, even if the phone connection dropped—TWICE—at the end.  Have to wait and see…) 

But tomorrow, we have a day (well, an afternoon and an evening) in can-you-believe-it London!  (THEN we fly home the next day…)

To be perfectly honest, today’s excursion was my least-anticipated.  Another castle.  Decorated in an Italianate style.  Priceless art collection.  We simply weren’t excited.  I know it sounds like, “If you’ve seen one castle, you’ve seen them all,” but a 19th century castle just sounded so ho-hum. 

But I have to admit, Alnwyck Castle (pronounced like “panic” minus the “p”—it’s the same language, honest—the “L” and the “W” are silent—makes sense to me…) was beyond impressive.  It’s ENORMOUS.  It’s also the filming location for the first two Harry Potter films, Transformers, Robin Hood—Prince of Thieves, and two Christmas specials from Downton Abbey.  And I recognized so many spots from those films, like the place where Harry and Neville learn to fly.  And even I have to admit the artwork and decorations were impressive.  Of course, my favorite was the room decorated entirely with weapons from the Napoleonic Wars (although I didn’t really covet a single weapon—truly). 

The Duke and Duchess of Northumberland are incredibly wealthy.  One of the Duchesses even had the course of a stream altered just to improve her view.  No kidding.  Money can change the course of rivers…  The castle is their actual residence (although they were not there today). 

The castle guards were really cool, in 19th century uniforms with muskets.  They posed with guests.  I don’t think they were doing their jobs as sentinels, however, because they seemed to let just about anybody in… 

One the Earls of Northumberland (before they were elevated to being dukes) apparently committed treason against Queen Elizabeth (the First).  He was executed, of course, but because he was both a nobleman and a friend of the Queen (some friend), he was mercifully beheaded (rather than drawn-and-quartered, which is an extremely gruesome form of execution, but I won’t describe it here, although I could…).  His death warrant was on display at the castle, signed personally by Elizabeth herself. 

And I wish we could have spent more time in the gardens.  They were magnificent.  A bamboo maze.  A colossal cascading fountain.  A koi pond.  Numerous other fountains.  A poison garden.  (No kidding.)  Our guide in the poison garden was a delightful, soft-spoken man with conspicuous tufts of hair growing out of his ears.  We even saw a robotic lawnmower at work, cutting the grass on a section of the gardens.  We could have easily spent another hour.  Or more. 

We had lunch at the garden and ate the best fish-and-chips we have ever had!  Cindy ate almost a third of my portion (which, to be fair, was much larger).  And she normally hates fried foods! 

On the way back to Newcastle, we also experienced our first British traffic jam.  Most British roads have two (or less) lanes (meaning one in each direction).  However, some of the busier roads (motor ways or carriage ways) have FOUR lanes.  (I’ve heard that London and Manchester have a few eight lane highways.)  My hat is off to our marvelous coach drivers who navigate those narrow roads so skillfully when there seems to be about enough clearance for an inch between coaches (buses). 

We also learned why the British drive on the left (which I now agree is the CORRECT side of the road).  When a knight or soldier was riding a horse, he needed to pass an approaching horseman on the left side so that, if necessary, he could draw his sword with his right hand and defend himself.  The left is the correct and safe side with which to approach oncoming traffic.  This was changed throughout Europe by Napoleon, because the Emperor was LEFT-handed.  The British refused to bow to Napoleon and make the change to the right (WRONG) side.  (I guess we followed old Nappy.)  So they defiantly continue to drive on the LEFT (correct) side. 

The British police are so considerate that they are required by LAW to post a sign warning you that they might be using speed guns/cameras in an area.  They also post a sign if they are monitoring traffic from unmarked vehicles.  How polite!  How sporting! 

Our guide today was John (a good English name) who was—you guessed it—English.  Our coach driver was Brian (a good Scottish name) who was—and I know this might come as a shock—Scottish, with the thickest accent I’ve ever heard.  There were several times when they seemed… at odds.  John, would comment, “The Scots and the English don’t always get along, you see, but we’re all one big United Kingdom.”  He also told us that the fourth verse of the UK national anthem is not at all complimentary to Scots.  (I’m going to have to look that up when I get back.) 

We experienced an amazing, truly head-scratching magic show last night performed by Kyle and Misty Knight.  I was completely astonished.  So was Cindy, and she doesn’t usually care for magicians.  (Something about she doesn’t like to be deceived.  Except at Christmas.  I hope.) 

The weather today was again perfect.  We have been so blessed on this tour. 

As we left port today, local people were lined up on the docks for miles to say goodbye.  One of the boats that followed us had a large, yellow rubber ducky on the deck.  Why?  No freakin’ idea. 

One thing I forgot to mention about Invergordon—the Royal Navy had its newest and largest aircraft carrier docked there.  However, the aircraft carrier has no aircraft.  Not one.  They aren’t expected to be delivered until 2020.  That’s military efficiency for you! 

Tomorrow, we are at sea.  It is our last full day of the cruise.  And I am sad our adventure-of-a-lifetime is coming to a close. 

 

Our tour guide today, James Munro, wore bright red high-water pants, a Saint Andrew’s Cross tie, and a blue shirt.  There was no tartan, but he was dressed, you might say, LOUDLY.  As we boarded the coach, another tour guide, who obviously knew James well, said about his outfit, “You toned it down today.”  His knowledge of the history of the clans in the area was impressive.  He talked a blue (or tartan) streak the entire eight-hour tour, and we loved it.  At one point, he coughed for a bit, then said, “It’s not the cough that carries you off.  It’s the coffin they carry you off in.”  That could have set the tone for the whole day. 

We toured Cawdor Castle.  Now Shakespeare, as much as I love his work, was not terribly accurate when it comes to history.  For example, Macbeth was one of the better kings of Scotland.  He didn’t murder King Duncan.  And if he was “Thane of Cawdor,” it was a long time before Cawdor was built.  Just sayin’. 

Cawdor Castle had an actual drawbridge!!!  And a garden maze with a statue of a minotaur in the center. 

As we travelled through Inverness, the “Capital of the Highlands”, we saw a warning sign next to a road.  You know how you see signs that warn about children playing in area, or deer crossing, or “DEAF CHILD IN AREA”.  Well, this sign cautioned drivers to be extra careful because of… wait for it… ELDERLY PEOPLE. 

Then there was the seagull. 

As we walked past a sidewalk café in Inverness, we saw a very large seagull descending.  As he glided from the sky, he LAUGHED.  At least that’s how it sounded to us.  Then he landed on one of the café tables which was covered with food.  And he commenced to gobble it all down. 

I’m SURE he was laughing. 

We saw two missionaries from the Church out working and we stopped to talk with them.  They were from Idaho and Texas.  One had been in-country for only seven days.  We should have taken a picture with them, but we didn’t think about it at the time. 

I bought a Black Watch military tartan kilt and some other related supplies.  The man who sold the kilt was named Constantinos.  Yep, he was from Greece.  And he was fantastic, friendly, and very knowledgeable. 

Then for lunch, we stopped at a pizza place run by real Italians.  We bought two pieces of pizza and an “Italian milkshake”.  The pizza was terrible—tasteless.  We couldn’t even finish it.  And the “Italian milkshake”?  It turned out to be powder, blended with water and ice.  It was awful.  Worse than awful.  Well, that was a disappointment. 

In many places in Europe (and apparently Scotland), you have to pay to use the restrooms.  You need EXACT change, because the attendant doesn’t make change. 

But the seagull made up for it.  That bird redeemed all of Inverness for us. 

Then it was on to Culloden Moor and the site of the battle that ended the hopes of the Jacobites and changed Scotland forever.  We were only able to see it from the bus, but I HAVE BEEN TO CULLODEN!

As we drove along the shore of Loch Ness (and no, we didn’t see the monster), we saw a tourist attraction called Nessieland.  (You know, like Disneyland.)  It didn’t look like much, but there was a green statue of a plesiosaur-ish looking thing in front. 

We tried desperately to take photos of the loch as we drove past, but I doubt any of them turned out well.  We were a wee bit disappointed, but we shouldn’t have been.  Because our next stop was the ruins of Urquhart Castle… on the shores of Loch Ness. 

We were treated to beautiful views of the Loch (but still no Nessie).  We walked around the remains of the castle.  I climbed the highest remaining tower.  The view was breathtaking.  (And no, I was NOT panting after making the climb.  It wasn’t THAT type of breathtaking.)  We had glorious weather and were able to get some stunning pictures. 

As we drove over the Highland hills on our way back to the ship, we passed through several small, quaint villages.  One of the villages had its own zoo.  No kidding.  A zoo.  All of the animals were made of wood or plastic and sat in the front yard of a small house, but… 

We were looking for specimens of the “hairy coo”, a very shaggy cow from the Highlands.  We were informed that there were more of them in America than there were in Scotland.  At long last, after much searching, we spied one!  Of course, all we got to see was the animal’s backside. 

I finally found out what “single-malt” means with reference to whiskey.  You see, they take barley seeds, put them in water until they sprout, then dry them.  The dried, sprouted seeds are then used to make whiskey.  I have no idea how you get all that from the term “single-malt,” but at least I know what it refers to now.  I can now file that away as knowledge that I will never use (unless it’s in a book). 

One last note: as we entered downtown Inverness, our guide pointed out “The American Cultural Center.”  It turned out to be a McDonalds. 

And so, we say goodbye to Scotland and return to England.  When we dock in the morning, we will be in Newcastle. 

This morning, Cindy and I went into the village of Kirkwall for a short exploration on our own.  We visited the lovely cathedral with its magnificent stained-glass windows.  The interior gravestones are delightfully creepy with their depictions of bones.  We also visited the ruins of the Earl’s palace and the bishop’s palace.  These ancient stone bastions were not places of defense (there are no murder holes), just once-magnificent residences. 

We returned to the ship with just enough time to have some delicious English-style fish-and-chips before heading back out for our port adventure to Orkney’s Neolithic heartland. 

Once again, the rain disappeared before our tour.  The winds howled at 30-40 mph, but that didn’t bother me—it only added to the atmosphere of desolation.  We seem to keep getting perfect weather just for us.  (Our dinner table-mates went on the same adventure in the morning, and they got soaked!)  Our tour guide was excellent again.  We have been truly blessed. 

The Scots we’ve met have been, without exception, friendly and welcoming.  We also learned what Scotsmen wear underneath the kilt.  Did I mention the wind was blowing?  Our tour-guide, Andy, said, “Well, that answers that question.”

The stone circles of Stenness and Brodgar predate Stonehenge!  They are not as elaborate as Stonehenge, but they are much, much larger.  The sandstone here tends to break very nicely into slate-like slabs, so the standing stones are tall, thin, flat, and irregularly shaped.  One of them even had ancient Viking graffiti! 

We visited an active archeological dig.  The site was probably not a village, but rather an ancient temple or meeting place of some type.  The site has been active for only ten years and they are barely getting started.  It was very exciting. 

Then there was the Neolithic village of Skara Brae.  Unearthed by accident in the 18th century, the village is beautifully preserved.  The roofs are gone, of course, but everything else was made of stone.  All the buildings are connected with tunnels. 

We know so little about these people.  So many mysteries.  I take great comfort from knowing that we don’t know everything (as I’ve mentioned before).

The Orkney Islands were under Viking control for centuries and almost all the street and village names here are Viking names.  Folks around here are very proud of their Viking heritage.  Even the flag of the Orkneys is very similar to the Norwegian flag. 

This area was home to extremely important military installations during both world wars.  This area was the first to be bombed, and the first to shoot down a German combat aircraft. 

Tomorrow, Invergordon—Loch Ness and Culloden!

 

We cruised through the Hebrides today.  The islands seem like desolate rocks in the middle of the ocean, although most are topped with very green grass.  There a few villages visible, and some of the islands have sheep grazing on them.  We saw a couple of lighthouses.  Other than that, we just enjoyed the majestic beauty of these barren islands.  We did not put ashore as today is scheduled as a day at sea.  The waters are rough with whitecaps everywhere.  The ship is rolling and swaying.  It is all very relaxing. 

We had breakfast with Mickey Mouse, Minnie, and Pluto. 

We finally saw the new Spider-Man movie in one of the theatres aboard.  I highly recommend it. 

Cindy and I held our little sacrament meeting as well today.  Not having anything else to hand, we used Scottish shortbread. 

Then we saw “Tangled: The Musical”.  It was wonderful, as good as it could possibly have been.  And yes, I was bawling my eyes out at the end.  It was that good. 

Tonight, at dinner at the Animator’s Palate, we had a very special activity that I very much enjoyed.  I’m not going to spoil it in case you ever get the chance to do a Disney cruise, but… it was a lot of fun. 

And I ate duck.  And it was good.  I was NOT expecting that. 

And lobster tail.  Lots and lots of lobster. 

They treat us like royalty here or like the uber-rich.  Interestingly, I think most passengers here are very rich.  They go on Disney cruises every year.  Wow.  This is the vacation of a lifetime for us, and it is very unlikely that we will ever get to repeat it.  But I am so glad we did.  We are having such a wonderful time.  Together.  Just the two of us. 

Tomorrow, Kirkwall and Neolithic Orkney! 

 

 

We’re in SCOTLAND!!!

Must… remember… to… breathe… 

Everyone—and I do mean EVERYONE—is so nice here!  When we stepped off the ship, we were welcomed by an older gentleman in traditional Scottish attire.  Our tour guide, Kenny, and our coach (bus) driver, Sam (the owner of Sam’s Travel, giving one of his drivers the day off) were so knowledgeable and so helpful.  They went out of their way—way, way out of their way—to make our day magical.  Kenny (a former police officer) noticed that I was “a-hobblin’”, so he held his umbrella (it was drizzling) over my head as we walked and he answered my myriad of questions.  He called me “Utah” and made sure Cindy and I were well cared for. 

When we left the ship, rain was coming down.  It rained as we drove.  But when we got out of the coach, the rain slowed to a light drizzle or stopped altogether.  The effect was that the day was pleasantly cool and foggy, shrouding the highland hills in an atmosphere of mystery. 

I learned so much about the Battle of Bannockburn that I didn’t know before.  I LOVE to learn history, especially stories of courage and honor.  For example, I learned that an English knight, Sir Giles d’Argentan (one of the enemy), when he knew the battle was lost (even though the English severely outnumbered and were far better equipped than the Scots), saw to the king’s safety, then said, “I have never left the field of battle before the end, and I shall not do so now.”  He returned to the field, even though he knew the English would lose, and he would die.  That’s courage and honor.  Stories like that stir my blood. 

Stirling Castle was a dream-come-true.  Robert the Bruce razed the original, English fortress, but the Scots later rebuilt the castle—and then some.  So much to see.  So much history.  So much blood and heroism and honor. 

But the absolute best part happened just as we arrived at the dock.  Kenny, our tour guide, had played a CD for us on the way back.  It was a beautiful blend of bagpipes, strings, and occasionally voice.  So lovely.  So peaceful.  I commented on how sweet the music was.  As we left the coach, he popped the CD out of the player and gave it me.  I’m tearing up now just thinking of it. 

Tomorrow, the Hebrides.  We don’t get to go ashore, but the scenery from the ship should be gorgeous. 

Conwy Castle was constructed by Edward I (Edward “the Longshanks”) in the 13th century in Wales.  And it is AWESOME.  Today, it stands as a ruin, but it was so very, utterly cool.  (Did I mention it was freakishly, awesomely, cool?)  The roof (along with all the rest of the wood, such as the gates and floors) is gone.  Moss and leafy plants grow in the crevices between the stones.  Pigeons roost in the nooks and crannies.  But you can still walk along the top of the wide castle walls and climb to the tops of the towers.  (Cindy climbed one.  I climbed the same one and then the highest of the towers, and the view took my breath away—it literally made me gasp.  And no, I was NOT panting.) 

The castle is located on rocks at the edge of sea—it would have been very difficult to assail.  I looked out some of the many “murder holes” and imagined pouring boiling oil on the enemy (or on people who write drive-by-one-star reviews).  Or hurling rocks at them.  Or shooting arrows.  The steps going up to the towers were narrow and steep, but that was nothing compared to the tiny steps the kitchen staff had to use in the kitchen tower.  (Yes, you read that right—tower.)  There were various rooms built into the circular walls for the tower at various levels where the cooking was done.  And the servants had to climb up and down small, narrow stairs built into the walls of the tower.  Carrying trays or pots of hot food.  That must have taken real guts, I tell you—forget about the soldiers. 

After the castle, we walked around the town and shopped for a little bit.  I bought a beautiful close helm (used for jousting or mounted combat).  It’s going to be fun packing that in my suitcase! 

Conwy is a walled town.  The gate through which we left was so narrow that I doubt the bus had two inches of clearance on either side.  We applauded after the driver had successfully navigated it. 

We were treated to lunch in the Welsh village of Betws-y-Coed.  (Try say THAT three times fast.)  Cindy got her first taste of strawberries in clotted cream.  (She wasn’t that impressed.)  Then we shopped in the medieval village. 

But on the way back to the ship, we drove through beautiful countryside that included moors (where we were told of bog-snorkeling—which is just what it sounds like), rolling pasture lands filled with thousands of sheep, mountain roads so narrow two vehicles could barely pass one another, and the Snowdonia mountain range, where the Welsh believe King Arthur sleeps to be awakened when Wales truly needs him. 

We heard the tale of the Red Dragon, the White Dragon, Myrddn Emrys (Merlin), and Vortigern the Usurper.  (Interestingly, the guide temporarily forgot the name of Vortigern, and I was able to remind him.  Yes, I know the tale well…  I even did it WITHOUT being obnoxious, believe it or not.  Truly—I was not obnoxious.  Honest.  As Cindy is my witness.) 

Here’s something I found very interesting—in the UK, the police are required to post a sign saying that speed cameras may be in the area.  They may or may not have actual cameras, but regardless, they are required to WARN you.  Now if only the Utah Highway Patrol and the Springville police would do the same…  After all, it IS all about courtesy, right? 

I finally had a dinner onboard ship that didn’t involve beef.  No prime rib, no filet mignon, no ribeye steak.  The shrimp and scallop pasta was very good (minus the scallops, of course, which I requested be left out of mine).  It’s like having beef-and-broccoli without the broccoli—perfect! 

Tomorrow, Scotland!!!!

 

Day 5: Ireland

Green.  Green and beautiful.  That’s Ireland. 

Today, we took our first (and last) non-Disney-arranged port adventure.  The biggest difference between a Disney-arranged adventure and one you set up yourself is that if you don’t make it back to the ship on time, the ship WILL sail without you.  So, this was a bit nerve-wracking for both of us.  But none of the Disney-arranged adventures went to Cindy’s ancestral castle…

Cindy is descended from James Butler, the 9th Earl of Ormonde, and James Butler once resided in and owned Kilkenny Castle (in, you guessed it, Kilkenny).  So we HAD to go to the castle.  And we had a wonderful time. 

First, we traveled to Glendaloch (meaning, “glen of two lakes”), a glorious old ruin of a cathedral built in the Dark Ages and occupied for centuries before being abandoned.  The cathedral itself is just a shell of rock now.  The bell tower still stands intact, as does a chapel built much later.  However, a second chapel is barely a foundation now.  The kirkyard is filled with tombstones, some as late as the 19th century.  However, many of the stone markers are so eroded, there is no record left of the dead, except for a nameless stone.  I was saddened to think of these huge monuments, carved so long ago with so much care, perhaps even with love and devotion, meant to last forever, and now, forever mute. 

I was reminded that man may forget and time and weather erase even monuments of stone, but every soul is known to our loving Father in Heaven.  He does not forget us. 

Then we traveled through lush countryside—so many shades of green!  We came to Wicklow Gap and looked out upon the highest point on the Emerald Isle.  We gazed upon locations used in the movie “Braveheart”.  We drove through Hollywood, a tiny village, the namesake of the more famous town in California.  It even had the white letters of the “Hollywood” sign. 

Finally, we arrived in Kilkenny.  And Cindy got to see her castle.  It was much larger and grander than I thought it would be.  It was sold in 1967 by the Earl of Ormonde to the town for £50.  The town has restored the castle to a state reflective of the splendor of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  (I kept thinking of “Downton Abbey” as we walked through the magnificent halls and rooms.)  Cindy was delighted. 

After the castle, we walked down to an old part of the town, down a sloping alley called “Butter Slip”, to an ancient pub, Kyteler’s.  The pub has been there since the 14th century!  The original owner, a “merry widow” who buried four husbands, was condemned as a witch.  She escaped punishment, but four of her friends did not.  This lovely place has a bronze statue of a witch in one of the front rooms. 

Cindy and I split an order of “fish-and-chips with peas”.  The fish was delicious (with tons of malt vinegar), and the “peas” turned out to be pea soup with whole peas in it.  It was yummy as well. 

We had two cab drivers and one bus driver/tour guide.  All three turned out to be quite knowledgeable… and colorful.  You might describe them as “rough around the edges”.  We could hardly understand the final driver, but he was using, shall we say, colorful language.  Then and the end of our ride, he said, “Pardon my French, but I wouldn’t have the balls to…”  “Balls.”  After everything else, he apologized for “balls”.  It was hilarious! 

For dinner tonight in the Animator’s Palate, we were treated to a magical Disney show that played out all around us.  We were not expecting it, so it was, as they say in England, “a lovely surprise.”  You see, everything is “lovely” around here.  Also, folks around here invent new adjectives by simply adding “-y” to the end of words.  A speed bump was described as an “uppy-downy ramp.”  Something circular might be described as “roundy”. 

All in all, today was a lovely, toury, castley, uppy-downy, twisty-turny (wibbly-wobbly, timey-whimey) day! 

On to Liverpool, Conwy Castle, and northern Wales! 

A day at sea.  The ship is rocking and rolling.  Did I mention there’s a Beatles tribute band aboard?  And We’re going to Liverpool in a few days…  Our cabin is in the aft of the ship on the starboard side (listen to me being all nautical and everything), so we really feel the movement of the ship.  The view from our porthole is breathtaking. 

And we saw dolphins! 

We saw an original musical, “Twice Enchanted,” which tells the story of Cinderella and her Prince after they get married… or did they?  It was delightful, well-acted, gloriously sung, and the dancers didn’t miss a step, even with the ship bouncing about in the North Sea.  The special effects were top-notch.  The songs were fantastic.  I was very impressed.  I can’t wait to see “Tangled.”  That’s right!  A musical stage play of “Tangled”…  (My daughter says she hates my guts.)  <evil grin> <evil chuckle> (That’s right, sweetie!  Tangled!) 

We saw Olaf, Anna, and Elsa today as well…  They looked perfect, although Olaf seemed a bit tall… 

We got up late, went to breakfast, returned to our cabin, and slept most of the day.  (Well, I slept.  Cindy read a book.)  It was very restful. 

Tonight, was formal night for dinner with the Captain’s reception.  Captain Andy is from Scotland, and his accent makes me green (or perhaps tartan) with envy.  We dined at Lumiere’s.  I LOVE French cuisine.  (Except snails.  No thank you.)  I’ve had some version of crème brulè at every dinner.  (And I’m not complaining at all.)  Cindy wore her new semi-formal blue gown tonight.  It’s the first time she has worn it in public, and she was stunning!  The dress is a birthday present—an original and exclusive design crafted by my friend, Laurie Hayward from the Choir.  My bonnie Cindy looks like an elegant Disney princess. 

I feel all charged up for Ireland tomorrow!!!

A murder of crows circled the ancient standing stones, while lowering, gray skies threatened rain.  In the distance, barrow mounds housing the bones of ancient pagan kings and their treasures, long ago crumbled to dust, lay scattered across windswept Salisbury Plain.  The stones themselves, standing as mute sentinels—or fallen, but still on duty—guarding the mysteries and arcane secrets of the builders now dead for millennia. 

No one knows why Stonehenge was built, though theories, from the plausible to the ridiculous, abound.  I will not list them here.  I merely wish to offer my own impressions. 

It was the crows that really moved me.  We were not allowed to touch the stones or get too near them for fear of disturbing the as-yet untouched archeological treasures still hidden beneath ground.  But the crows… they flew around the monument, perching on the silent sentinels of the past.  The birds did not come to feed—there was nothing for them to eat.  They flew around the stones or marched around the perimeter.  Watching.  Observing. 

Guarding. 

And like the stones themselves, the murder of crows was absolutely and eerily silent. 

In other words, it was sooooo cool. 

We really lucked out on today’s tour, because we had the absolute best tour guide, Sue, and a very knowledgeable bus driver.  They took us places not on the itinerary and showed us many things we did not expect to see.  We drove through tiny English villages, rolling, hedge-rowed countryside (right out of Tolkien’s paintings of the Shire).  We saw sheep, cows, and pigs.  We were informed that pigs are rarely out and visible this time of year.  (“So that is a lovely treat.”)  It was first real rain in a long time, and we were told that the first harvest of wheat had come early.  The fields were all white and ready to harvest… 

We drove down country roads where the trees and hedges grew right up to the edge of the road, and the trees and hedges were trimmed to form a very tight tunnel, in places blocking out the sun entirely.  We passed public houses, manor houses, houses with thatched roofs (we learned it’s illegal to change from a thatched roof to an un-thatched roof and that thatchers have to study and apprentice for years to learn their valuable trade), farmhouses, country inns, and castles.  We learned that the land in that area is made up primarily of chalk and flint, and it is best for farming hay.  Flint stones are incorporated visibly into the walls of many of the houses. 

Sadly, just after our bus (“coach”) arrived at Stonehenge, one of the men on the bus suffered a heart-attack or stroke.  The emergency response was immediate, and he was whisked off a hospital in Salisbury.  The last we heard was that he was sitting up, responsive, and talking.  However, we don’t have any other details. 

Many of the towns we passed through had names that ended in “puddle.”  Our guide told us that the word was originally “piddle” (meaning just exactly what you might think it would mean), but most residents thought it unseemly to have a village name that referred to urination.  So they changed “piddle” to “puddle.”  However, there is one village that is quite proud of the name Tinkleton. 

Our wait-staff is incredible.  I told the drink steward that I would appreciate a Sprite pretty much as soon as I arrive.  It’s there within a minute.  The food is so good.  And the entertainment?  We attended our first show in the theatre tonight, and the performances were Broadway-quality—even though the ship is swaying and rocking.  A lot.  I haven’t felt sick at all, but I haven’t gotten my sea-legs yet.  I stumble…

Every night when we return to our cabin, the turn-down service includes an arrangement of a blanket, towels, and chocolates into a fanciful animal.  Tonight, it was manta ray.  Very cool. 

Tomorrow, we spend the entire day at sea.  It will be glorious! 

Well, today, we unexpectedly found ourselves back on U.S. soil.  I mean, it wasn’t completely unexpected, given our choices, but we didn’t quite understand the consequences of those choices. 

You see, Cindy and I went to the Normandy American World War II Cemetery and Memorial—and that is officially U.S. soil in Normandy in France.  That sacred ground was given to the United States as a in honor of the nearly 10,000 men and 4 women who gave their lives during the Battle of Normandy (including the D-Day invasion).  It was a somber experience, seeing all those crosses and Star of David tombstones.  So many gave their lives to defeat Adolph Hitler and his horrific dream of national socialism. 

It was also sobering to realize that we have forgotten the lessons of the past, because so many are embracing socialism in our country today.  We are embracing the idea that the state gives us our rights, that the state should care for us from cradle to grave, that the state should decide who lives and who dies, who deserves compassion and resources, what we can and cannot say, what we can and cannot think.  We have forgotten the lessons of the past and are gleefully teetering down the stony slope that has succeeded exactly zero times. 

Our rights come from God, and compassion should come from the heart, not the barrel of a gun or the pen of a bureaucrat. 

We also got a chance to go to the site of the British component of the D-Day invasion.  Did you know that the British BUILT an artificial harbor so they could bring in large ships and supply the invasion forces?  I didn’t.  It was astonishing to the see the technology invented by the British forces to accomplish this.  Including floating bridges where the trucks (lorries) drove out to the ships, off-loaded the cargo, and drove back to shore.  It was so cool.  Winston Churchill essentially said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Quit arguing about how it is to be done.  Just do it.” 

We also visited Pointe du Hoc and saw the ruins of the German gun emplacements.  We learned the story of the heroic American Rangers who captured and held the Pointe for many days as their own numbers were slowly worn down to almost nothing, guarding the American flank against the German garrison in a nearby village.  I descended into the ruins of a German bunker where the Rangers held out against overwhelming odds. 

(Just in case you were wondering, I also climbed back out…) 

And as we traveled along the Normandy countryside, we saw a memorial pillar set up in a small village, and at the top of the pillar was a bronze chicken.  That’s right—a chicken.  I have no idea why.  Neither did our guide.  All I know is that it looked like a war memorial with a chicken on the top.  Hey, perhaps, the builders were inspired by Disney’s Valiant.  (Look it up.  Okay, it wasn’t about a chicken, but it was about a WWII pigeon…)  Or perhaps, Chicken Run. 

We also had lunch at a delightful country farmhouse.  While there, I saw a Russian sage bush swarming with bumblebees busily going about their pollenating duties.  I have never seen so many bumblebees in one place. 

We also saw many FRENCH cows.  I remarked that they were UNLIKELY to end up overcooked. 

At dinner (in the delightful Animator’s Palate back aboard the ship), we finally met our regular dinner party.  Everybody (except for Cindy and I) has been on MULTIPLE Disney cruises.  One couple had been on sixteen!  And two ladies were from Liverpool (England), and they were going with us on a cruise around their native land.  (At lunch, we also met a couple who had been on THIRTY-SIX Disney cruises, and had been married 36 years.  I’m sensing a theme here…) 

Cindy and I are having the time of our lives, and we are just getting started! 

Tomorrow, Stonehenge!!!  (Yes, Stone-freaking-henge!)

Day 1: DOVER!!!!

We’re on our way to Dover!  (Did you catch the Disney reference?  We’re merrily, merrily, merrily…)

Cindy and I are on a bus, traveling through the English countryside.  I’ve never been to the British Isles, and neither has my bonnie bride.  And we’re going on a cruise!  Not just a cruise—a Disney cruise!  For us, this is the vacation of a lifetime.

We had to get up at 4:00 AM this morning. No, make that yesterday morning.  Our flight was at 10:00 AM, but we were told to be at the airport by 6:00 since it was an international flight.  This, of course, turned out to be EXCESSIVELY early.  But better safe than…. you know.

I have to say, Delta is the absolute best.  Even though we were NOT traveling with the Choir, Delta treated us like royalty (or at least as much as is possible in economy class), even if we did have to sit on the very BACK row on both segments of our flight.

When we boarded our bus at London Heathrow Airport, we were informed that there wasn’t much to see on the way to Dover—except grass.  Maybe so, but it’s BRITISH grass.  There were cows too.  BRITISH cows.  (Which means they will probably end up overcooked at some point.)  But we just saw a CASTLE!!!

And we just saw the white cliffs of Dover.  So freakin’ cool.

We are now at the port of Dover, waiting to board the Disney Magic (our ship).  And Minnie Mouse just arrived!!!  That means WE have arrived!!!  (…even if we are still waiting to board the ship.)

Can you tell I’m geeking out?

Is it just that it’s Disney, or is it the accents?  Everybody is so polite.  I think it’s got something to do with the accent, because even at the airport, the border control personnel were very friendly.  Then there was the rest stop on the way to Dover—even the clerk in the convenience store made us feel welcome.  Definitely the accent.  Maybe when I get home, I’ll pull a Gwyneth Paltrow and affect an accent to make everybody think I’m really nice (or snotty or just plain weird).

We’re now aboard and it is our first morning.

So many nationalities among the cast and crew!  We have so far been served by folks from Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Serbia, and of course, Great Britain.  So, we’re being treated to accents from around the world, and we’re loving it.

We dined at Palo’s last night.  Now, MOST of the food here is free, but there is a $30/person extra charge to dine at Palo’s.  We weren’t all that excited about paying extra for an Italian restaurant.  (I mean, my wife’s lasagna is to die for.)  But it was incredible.  Lots of extras.  Well worth the premium charge.  But our server!  He was from the Philippines and he was so attentive.  When he found out we were celebrating our 36th wedding anniversary, he decorated a plate will chocolate and red and yellow jellies, spelling out, “Happy Anniversary,” of course.  He also added red hearts, framed in chocolate, and a chocolate chain of red and yellow “jewels.”  Then he brought us a third desert!  Because he was from Manilla and I had spent five years of my childhood at Clark AFB, including a couple of weeks in Manilla with a dear native family while my parents travelled about the orient, we had an immediate connection.  When he learned we were from Utah, he associated us with the Church and missionaries.  After dinner, he said, “I know you won’t be wanting coffee.”

The stateroom is really quite luxurious.  The bathrooms are tiny, but well-designed.  The bed was VERY comfortable.

Needless to say, I am impressed.

We had our mandatory lifeboat training.  Our gathering location was in a restaurant called “The Animator’s Palate”.  All the tables were covered up, but the place looks really cool.  I can’t wait to try it out!  We met a family from Canada.  This was their SIXTH Disney cruise.  With kids.  (Must be really well off…)  They were quite nice.  They said they had also cruised with another popular cruise line (which will remain nameless), but it doesn’t compare to Disney—at least according to them.  We also met a man travelling alone.  I was astonished.  Imagine travelling alone on a Disney cruise!  As it turns out, though, he is aboard on business to help with the architectural lighting.

As we sat out on the aft deck of Deck 10, waiting to leave port, some massive seagulls flew so close and so low that their wingtips nearly brushed the head of a lady at the railing (less than a dozen feet from us).  I managed to get one (actually, SEVERAL) shots of the lady (in an attempt to capture the seagull and give the viewer perspective of its proximity and size).  Only one shot came close.  It was a maybe-you-had-to-have-been-there moment.

So far, the only disappointment is that you must pay for the internet aboard ship, and it IS expensive.  So, I won’t be posting any pictures as we go.  (I’ll post them when we get back.)

Next up, Le Havre, France!

Sunday morning was really rough.  Not because it was Mother’s Day.  I really enjoy the chance to show my wife and my mother a little extra recognition and appreciation.  (I mean, seriously, I’ll use any excuse to give presents.)  No, it was rough for purely physical and personal reasons.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir had just finished a week of recording sessions, and we were exhausted.  We recorded Tuesday through Friday nights.  Each time I go to Choir, it is my habit to leave early from work, go to the Lion House Pantry, eat dinner, and write (e.g., work on my current novel).  This is my “sacred writing time,” and I try very hard to let nothing interfere with this.  However, leaving early means that I have to finish my work-day at home, late at night.  It makes for an exhausting week.

We finished our recording sessions on Friday night, and this allowed me to go to the Renaissance Festival and Fantasy Faire up in Marriott-Slaterville on Saturday.  I am teaching my medieval weapons class each Saturday this month (plus Memorial Day).  Yes, I know I VOLUNTEERED for this madness, but then, I can never resist an opportunity to show off my arsenal, talk weapons, and sell and sign books.

The bottom line is that I was plum-tuckered-out on Sunday (Mother’s Day), and I still had to do the “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast that morning.  Now, all that singing, recording, weapons-teaching, and book-signing equates to a LOT of standing.  I have a bum knee, and I will have to have it replaced (AFTER I’m done with the Choir in three years and not before, thank you very much).  So, I was taking my prescribed pain meds Tuesday through Saturday.  The problem is that I don’t LIKE taking the meds, because when they wear off, they make me very sick.  So at least once a week, I don’t take any meds to give my body a break, to reset, as it were.  Usually, I do this on Friday night.  But we were recording on Friday night, so Friday wasn’t a viable option.

So, Sunday arrived, and I decided to forgo my heavier meds that morning.  “I can do this,” I thought.  “Yes, I have to go home and bake a German chocolate cake (my wife’s favorite) and make dinner for nine, but I can do this!”

Well, about the time we got to the break between the run-through rehearsal and the actual broadcast, I was hurting pretty badly.  And I was sick.  I mean, I was ready to puke.  (This is a side-effect of the medicine wearing off.)  I didn’t have time to hobble down to the wardrobe room, grab my wallet, stumble to the vending machines in the maintenance break room, purchase a soda from the vending machine, consume it, burp violently (hey, gotta have that detail in here) to settle my stomach, lurch back to the wardrobe room to replace my wallet, then clamber in a most ungainly fashion up the stairs to the Choir loft before the broadcast.  So, I was stuck.  In fact, I was sitting outside the Tabernacle, eyeing one of the bushes as a likely spot to empty the contents of my stomach, fertilize the lucky shrubbery, and gross-out audience members.  I mean, nothing invites the Spirit like watching a member of the Choir lose their—well, I actually hadn’t eaten anything, but…

At that moment, as I was about to bestow upon the bush the gift of stomach acid, one of the Temple Square missionaries, an older sister, walked up to me and handed me a bag of chocolate chip cookies.

She told me it was to thank me for helping her find an old friend in the Choir the week before.  But to me, she was an answer to an unspoken prayer.  Help me, Father, to get through this.  And my regular readers will know my mantra for my service in the Choir—Not for my glory, but for Thy glory.  And so, my Heavenly Father sent me chocolate chip cookies through this kind woman.  I ate two, and they settled my stomach perfectly.  (I shared the rest with some of the other men in the Choir.)

That random (or perhaps, not-so-random) act of kindness saved me that morning.  And I am grateful.  Very, very grateful.

I don’t ask the Lord to make my service easy, I only ask Him to make it possible.  And He does.  Besides, with God, nothing is impossible.

So, find opportunities to bestow random acts of kindness.  Smile at a stranger.  It costs you nothing (in most cities—although, in some cities I’ve visited, it might be dangerous).  Say hello.  Call a friend.  Write an email.  Give your mother a flower.  Tell your wife, your son, your daughter, your brother, your sister, your friend that you love them.  Mow a neighbor’s lawn.  Do something nice and unexpected with no thought of reward.

You may save someone.

And you won’t do your own soul any harm, either.

They may not be just chocolate chip cookies—they just might be a miracle, an answer to prayer.

Recently, I did the unthinkable—I submitted a short story for a romance anthology.  You can stop laughing now.  Seriously.  Listen, if you develop a hernia, don’t blame me.

Of course, my story had a horror twist (which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with my work).  And although the story has been accepted and will be published, I was told that I had “broken the rules.”  I was told, “It made me cry,” and “It’s a beautiful epic love story,” but I was also informed, “It’s not romance.”  Apparently, “romance” ends when two people finally come together after some obstacle is overcome.  It ends at the first kiss, the proposal, or the altar.  After that, it’s not “romance.”

I beg to differ.

Last week, we (my wife, my parents, my aunt, and I) watched Walt Disney’s Bon Voyage.  It’s a cute comedy from 1962, starring Fred MacMurray and Jane Wyman (yes, Spock’s original mother, and if you don’t get that reference, you are definitely geek-challenged, you poor, ignorant soul).  The premise of the movie is that after twenty years of marriage, raising three children, Harry and Katie Willard finally get to take a luxury cruise to France.  They had planned to do the cruise early in their marriage, but “life got in the way” (as it so often does).  There are typical (and perhaps predictable) misadventures along the way.  (My favorite concerns Harry, the dad, getting lost in the sewers under Paris while his young son gets to tour the Louvre, which is where Harry wanted to go in the first place, but never gets to go…)  There is also the potential for teen romance for each of the two older children, but ultimately, the story isn’t about the teenagers.  The story is focused on how Harry and Katie (the dad and mom) are still in love.  After twenty years and three kids.  That’s the point of the movie.  It’s about how this middle-aged couple still love each other and are true to each other after all that… life.  In short, it’s about romance.

I love Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and although the direct-to-video sequel, The Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea, is largely forgettable, there is a moment at the end that just made the movie for me—the enthusiastic kiss between Ariel and Eric.  A husband and wife who have a teenage daughter, have been married for a decade and a half and still love each other!  What a concept!

Maybe one of the reasons divorce rates are so high is that we expect love, true love, to involve only rushing pulse rates, rapid breathing, and sweaty palms.  (Or to quote one interpretation of Merlin in a fairly terrible movie, “all this hair-pulling and jumping about.”)  But that’s not true love.  True love requires hard work and devotion.  It requires selflessness, not a selfish obsession with how someone else makes you feel.

My parents live with us now, and we are delighted to have them with us.  My father is very active.  He does more physical work around our home than the rest of us combined.  But he is fighting progressive memory loss.  Sometimes, he struggles to remember names and words.  I remember one evening as he lamented how he might soon not be able to remember how to perform a once-simple task.  Tenderly, my mother said, “We’re not there yet, but when that time comes, we’ll figure it out together.”  Now THAT is true love.  Maybe it’s not “romance,” but it is true love.

And in my not-so-humble opinion, true love trumps romance any day of the millennium.

Now having said that, my wife still makes my heart pound, my breath quicken, and my skin tingle.  I miss her when we are apart, and can’t wait to be reunited with her.  And she is still the most beautiful and the sexiest woman to ever grace this Earth.  She’s my lover, my confidant, and my best and truest friend.

And for some unfathomable reason, she likes me too.

A couple of years ago, I reported an encounter with a soprano of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and… it didn’t go so well.  It started innocently enough, with her asking me “How are you?”  And I answered innocently enough.  A quick conversation ensued that included me mentioning that I had been selling my LDS horror novels at ComicCon.  Her reaction to the very idea that any good latter-day saint would write horror was… interesting.  Let’s just say, she couldn’t get away from me fast enough.

Now fast-forward to last year. I was walking through the underground parking below the Church Headquarters Building and… there she was again.  This sweet soprano was standing in front of a heating grate.  She had her purse sitting on a ledge above the grate and was rummaging around in it.  (Aside note: As a fond and interested observer of the fairer sex, it seems to me that ladies will often spend time rummaging in their purses, searching for some small item or other—searching with the absolute conviction that the elusive mathom MUST be in there.  I, on the other hand, know better than to attempt to find ANYTHING in my wife’s purse.  If the love of my life asks me to get her something from her purse—for example, her keys—I seem to be incapable of finding it.  I have learned it is best to simply hand her purse to her.  You see, I’m terrified that I’ll rearrange something or lose something—like my sanity—in the perplexing kaleidoscopic labyrinth that is my wife’s purse.  Now, after that lengthy non-sequitur, I shall return to my narrative.  But did you notice the cool Tolkienism I worked in there?)  As I approached this charming lady, I did so with both trepidation and amusement. I’m going to ask, “How are you?” I thought.  And hopefully, she won’t snatch up her purse and run away. After all, I’m an LDS horror writer.  That’s as bad as a purse-snatcher, right?  Probably worse. But anyway, here goes…

“Hi,” I said. “How are you?”

She looked up from her purse-questing, turned her head toward me, and did something completely (at least to me) unexpected—she smiled. “I’m fine.  I just love standing here.”

I stopped walking. Not only was she not treating me like a diabolical purse-snatcher, but she was initiating casual conversation.  But as unexpected as that was, I have to admit that I was intrigued by her words.  “You love standing there?  In front of the heating grate?  Because it’s warm?”

She nodded, still smiling pleasantly. “And it smells so good!”

What smells so good? The air coming out of the grate?  That must be it.  “Huh.  I wonder what they’re putting in it?”

She rolled her eyes and let out a dramatic sigh. “Oh, now you’ve gone and ruined it.”  Then she chuckled.

I laughed along with her. “Sorry, but I’m a horror novelist.  It’s part of my job to imagine the sinister in the mundane.  It could make for a good story.”

Her rummagings apparently completed, she turned and walked with me toward the tunnel that leads to the Tabernacle. “A horror novelist?  How very interesting.”

And just like that, I stepped into the Twilight Zone. Don’t you remember the last time we talked? “Actually, I write LDS horror.”

“LDS horror? Wow.  How does that work?”

And we had a very pleasant chat on our way through the mists of the Twilight Zone on our way to rehearsal. And that time, she didn’t run away…

Now, I didn’t actually think there was something sinister coming from the heating grate, not for one second. But my horror-writer’s brain immediately began IMAGINING scenarios.  But that’s all they were.  I didn’t really think there was a terrorist injecting deadly gas into the ventilation system, or that some nefarious, disgruntled church employee was drugging us all with mind-control gas so he could force the leaders of the Church to change the doctrines.  It was just imagination, not reality.  But imagining is a big part of what I do.

Now are there terrorists out there who want to murder people?  Yes, of course.  But I don’t suspect every stranger I meet of being a terrorist.  In fact, unless they DO something or ANNOUNCE their plans to commit mass murder, I don’t suspect anyone of being a terrorist.  Even if they don’t look like me.  I mean, if I were to be afraid of every person with red hair or brown eyes or freckles or pierced ears, I would live in constant fear of imminent, horrifying, and painful death.  But I don’t.

Are there people who would gladly use mind-control gas to force others to their will? Absofraggin’lutely.  But just because I don’t agree with someone or someone believes differently than I do, doesn’t mean I think that person is evil.  I mean, seriously:  I have a beloved son-in-law who thinks Disney World is better than Disney Land, Star Wars is better than Star Trek, and chicken in Mexican food is delicious!  He is so messed up in his head!  Deluded!  And yet, I still love him.  He’s a great guy, and I’m very happy he’s sealed to my daughter.  (Even if he is dead wrong on certain critical, vital issues.)

In Cervantes’ classic novel, Don Quixote tilted at windmills, because they might be giants.  That didn’t mean that the windmills actually were giants.  In fact, as far as can be determined, they were just windmills.  So, other than some slight damage to the windmills and Don Quixote’s own bruises, no damage was done.  (Perhaps the owners of the windmills might take exception to that.)  On the one hand, I applaud Don Quixote’s courage to do what he believed was right, no matter the cost, no matter the ridicule.  “To dream the impossible dream…”  On the other, consider if, instead of windmills, our noble knight of La Mancha had slaughtered human beings, because they might be sorcerers or demons.  Then his noble, glorious quest, no matter his motivations or delusions, would have been evil.  Now, if all he had done was to voice his strong opposition to wizardry and demonic powers, there would have been nothing wrong with that.  People might find it annoying, they might disagree with him, they might argue back—especially if they were innocent of witchcraft and consorting with devils—but Don Quixote’s voicing of his deeply held convictions would not make him evil.  Only an act of evil would do that.

I, like many people, have deeply held convictions.  I am unabashedly LDS.  I oppose gay-marriage, abortion, and the normalization of that which the Lord Himself has condemned.  (I also think that chicken in Mexican food is disgusting, but you’ll have to read “The Sweet Sister” to understand my reasoning on that vital topic.)  I realize that puts me at odds with some people.  However, I have never carried a sign in front of a pro-gay-marriage church, stormed a gay wedding, or stood in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic and shouted, cursed, or thrown blood at the terrified women entering or leaving.  I have boycotted products and companies, but although I may have announced my intentions, I have never attempted to force or shame others into joining me.

In short, all I have done is to express my convictions and tried to live by them.

And in return, I get some variation of the following—often from members of my own faith:

  • “It’s obvious that you hate gays.”
  • “Every time you cringe when a gay person touches you, you show your hatred.”
  • “You hate women.”
  • “You want women to die.”
  • “You hate people of color.”

These charges are beyond ludicrous. People who know me see how I treat my friends and loved ones (some of whom are gay and some of whom are—and I know this is going to shock some folks—women) with the utmost love, respect, and affection.  And since when does the color of a person’s skin, the color or shape of their eyes, the texture of their hair, or any other “racial” distinction make any difference at all?  It certainly doesn’t to me.  After all, my dear wife is of English-extraction, and I don’t hold that against her.  She’s perfect the way she is.  (Besides, she’s part Irish, and that’s almost like Scottish, isn’t it?)

The tactic of equating a difference of opinion with hatred is as despicable and as it is cowardly. And it is all too common.  “You disagree with me, therefore you hate me/gays/Tongans/women/polar bears/trees/clean air and water/puppies/kittens/baby sloths.”

Seriously?

It seems this new gospel of tolerance-above-all only applies to people who agree with the popular dogmas of the day. As Jesus said, “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:9)

And then there’s this chestnut: “I have friends and family members who are gay/Chinese/fans-of-chicken-in-Mexican-food. Don’t you see how hurtful your words are?”  This may also come as a shock…  Perhaps, you should sit down before you proceed further.  Are you sitting down?  Okay, here goes…

So do I.

And guess what? I LOVE them!  And, hopefully, they love me back!

For me, one of the coolest parts of Don Quixote is the idea that he treats a whore like a lady. He loves her (chastely), even if he doesn’t agree with (or even acknowledge) her lifestyle.  He doesn’t—and never would—condone her lifestyle, but he loves her anyway.  And his love is pure.  And his love eventually makes her want to change.  His love and his unswerving devotion to his principles help to redeem her.

Having an opinion or an idea or a deeply held (and hopefully, abided by) belief doesn’t make someone evil. Only an act of evil does that.

If you pre-judge someone, assuming hatred when none exists, isn’t that—dare I say it—prejudicial? Isn’t that the definition of bigotry?

After all, sometimes a windmill is just a windmill.

But, having said all that, Star Trek is still better than Star Wars, and Babylon 5 is better than both!!!

I Sang!

Let’s get right to the elephant in the room: I sang at the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States of America, and there are people who want to murder me and my fellow Choir members because of it.  In a somewhat less extreme response, there are also people who have vowed to never listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir even again—even going so far as to say that when they listen to or watch General Conference, they will mute the sound when the Choir sings.  Seriously?  You’re going to listen to the prophet who told us to go, but not to us?  Good luck explaining that one.

Now to put this all into perspective, during the Music and the Spoken Word broadcast this morning, I sat next to a friend of mine, and my friend’s mother had passed away earlier this week.  Needless to say (but I’m gonna say it anyway), this was an emotional broadcast for him (and to a far lesser degree, for me as well).  But he was there, singing Be Still, My Soul.  And my friend was also there with me in Washington, D.C., just days after losing his mother, singing America the Beautiful.  Why?  It’s very simple—because that is what he was asked to do.

You see, when the Choir president says to go and sing, you go and sing.  And just for the record, the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approved the trip.  That’s right, the prophet of the Lord said to go and sing.  For me, there was no debate, no wringing of hands, no drama.  God asked me to go, and I joyfully, enthusiastically answered the call.

Now, singing at the inauguration was voluntary.  That’s right, nobody was forced to go.  And there are many people, myself included, who have very strong feelings about this past election, the candidates, etc.  I didn’t vote for President Trump (and I didn’t vote for Secretary Clinton either).  I voted for someone else.  But I was one of the first to sign up to go.  Why?  Because God asked me to.  Because I love my country.  Because I revere the principles of the Constitution and the peaceful transition of power.  And because, I love singing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

However, the Inaugural Committee asked us to limit the number of Choir members to 215, so a lot of folks who signed up to go did not get to participate.  Selection was random.  (They literally pulled our numbers out of a hat.)  I was very grateful when I was informed that my number had been selected.

Many of those who went (myself included) had to take two days off work (i.e., “vacation”) to go.  Many of us (myself included) went in spite of health issues.  Many of us (like my friend) went in spite of family crises.  It was a great privilege to go, but it was also a sacrifice.

We didn’t sing, Hail to the Chief.  We didn’t praise a man.  We sang, America the Beautiful.  We sang to America.  We sang in praise of the American Dream.  We sang, “America!  America!  God shed His grace on thee.”  We sang, “America!  America!  God mend thine every flaw.”  The American Dream is not the American reality.  We are a flawed nation and a flawed people.  But the dream, the ideal, is what we are fighting (and singing) for.  And we must never cease fighting (and singing) for it.

Okay, the elephant in the room has been acknowledged.  (More like it’s been beaten half to death.  Poor elephant.)

As I alluded to above, threats to the Choir were serious and credible.  My poor wife was so worried, she asked me to find all the life insurance documents.  (Not kidding.)  So we were all asked to say nothing about where, when, or how… or even what we were going to sing.  In fact, we were told virtually nothing.  We were told what to pack and when to show up at the airport.  We didn’t know where we were going to stay.  We were asked to turn off the GPS in our phones and not text or post anything to anyone.  We weren’t even allowed to tell our spouses where we were.

However, now that the cloak of secrecy has been removed…

My carpool left for the airport at 3:00 AM on Thursday.  We boarded a charter flight at 6:00 AM.  I must say that Delta flight attendants are the absolute best!  We were treated like first-class (regardless of where we sat).  The food was excellent.  The service was excellent.  (And the movies were free!)  I watched “Batman: The Killing Joke”.  Not bad!  Then I slept (because I hadn’t slept the night before).

Once we arrived and the airport, we boarded one of five buses and were whisked off to the Capitol.  When I say, “whisked,” I mean to say that we left directly from the airport.  I do not mean to imply that we traveled quickly.  Due to traffic, protests, and threats, we took a somewhat roundabout route.  When we arrived, we unloaded from the buses, lined up, and climbed the risers for rehearsal.  We were allowed to take a few pictures during this time.  And we also got to listen to Senator Chuck Schumer rehearse his speech SEVERAL times.

Then we rehearsed.  We were accompanied by the President’s Own Marine Corps Band.  We’ve performed with them before, and they are amazing!  The big problem was that they were BELOW us.  We couldn’t see them, and they couldn’t see us.  It was a challenge to stay together.  But we worked it out.

The weather was a little chilly, but I was very comfortable in just a long-sleeved shirt.  (Yes, I wore pants too.  That should be implied, for crying out loud.  So get your mind out of the gutter before you make yourself sick.)  Others wore jackets.  And hats.  And scarves.  And gloves.  (Come on, folks, it wasn’t that cold.  As my 8th grade English teacher used to say, “On a day like today, the little school children in Siberia go out to play without their sweaters…”)

Then we boarded our buses and were “whisked” off to one the Marriott hotels in the area.  We were served a delicious buffet dinner.  As we ate, we learned about all the logistical miracles that had occurred to get us there less than 4 weeks after receiving the invitation.  One of those miracles was finding hotel rooms for 225 people (215 Choir members, plus directors and staff) in a city where the hotel rooms have been booked for months.  I can testify that many miracles were performed in our behalf.  (Let the doubters and detractors chew on that.)  40 of us (including yours truly) had to stay at a different Marriott.  So after dinner, the few, the proud, the weary were “whisked” off to our hotel.

After about 4 hours of sleep, I arose at 4:00 AM (after waking at 3:00 AM and not being able to get back to sleep).  We boarded our bus at 5:15.  Then it was breakfast at the other Marriott, announcements, and a bus ride through the dark to the Russell Senate Office Building (next to the Capitol).  We dressed in our nifty white coats, and were processed through security.  We had been told that we would not have access to bathrooms for 4 hours, so we needed to avoid drinking anything prior to going to the Capitol.  Almost immediately after we were reminded to avoid consuming liquids, we were provided with juice and water.

And we waited and waffled between hydration and cautionary bathroom trips.

Then we marched over to the Capitol and took our places on the bleachers.  (We were informed that it took a month to assemble said bleachers.)  And we waited some more.  I was very comfortable in my coat and scarf.  Others wore jackets AND sweaters under the coat.  I guess I’m just hot.  (I didn’t mean it that way!  Try not to barf on your keyboard.)

We had to stand for a very long time while everyone and their escorts (and their dogs) were introduced.  That wasn’t fun, but the members of the President’s Own Marine Corp Band who played trumpets and drums, acting as heralds, stood at attention for hours.  It made my knees ache (well, ache more) just to look at them.

I saw the great men and women of our government as they filed in and sat below us.  I saw Bill and Hillary Clinton.  (Well, I saw their hair, mostly, from up above.)  I saw the justices of the Supreme Court.  I saw the senators and congressmen and congresswomen.  I saw President and First Lady Obama.  And of course, I saw President and First Lady Trump.  And the thing that impressed me the most was how small and ordinary they all looked.  I mean, when it began to rain a little, the men and women of the House and Senate pulled out plastic rain ponchos and put them on.  Just like ordinary folks.  (I bet they even put their pants on one leg at a time just like me.)

They wield great power, but that power comes from us.  They and we need to remember that, and we need to hold them accountable.

To tell the truth, the people who impressed me the most were the two apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ who were in attendance.

During the actual ceremony, we got to hear Senator Schumer’s talk once more.  I was shocked when the crowd booed him.  I realize that the crowd was mostly a Trump crowd and that this is America and we have the right to protest.  I didn’t like parts of the senator’s speech, but it never occurred to me to jeer at him.  To be perfectly honest, this was the low point of the trip for me.  I actually liked parts of what he said and I was saddened to hear my fellow countrymen be, well, rude.

Then the Vice President took the oath of office.  I was impressed with how similar this oath was to the oath which I took when I was commissioned as an officer in the United States Air Force.

Then we sang.  I think we sang well.  I was told by many people that we sang beautifully.  I am humbled and grateful for that experience and opportunity.  We sang in praise of the American Dream and we begged God to shed His grace on us, to mend us, to refine us, and crown us with brotherhood.  I sang not for my glory.  We sang not for our glory.  We sang not for President Trump.  We sang for the glory of God.

And then we listened to the new President as he addressed the nation and the world.  I agreed with many parts of his speech, with the caveat that I sincerely hoped he meant what he said.  There were parts I didn’t agree with.  It never occurred to me to boo.

In the crowd, I observed about eight people who held up a banner saying, “RESIST.”  Resist what?  Constitutional government?

And as far as the size of the crowd, from where I sat, the crowd went all the way back to the Washington Monument.

We didn’t see the violent protests taking place elsewhere in the city.  Protesters broke windows and looted businesses.  Way to make a statement, folks.  You hurt ordinary people.

However, I didn’t see any of that.  I had a great experience, and while we sang, I felt the Spirit of God.  I know that somewhere, someone watching their television wondered, “What is that?  Why does this feel different?”  We sang for them too.

After the ceremony, once the important people (who looked just like ordinary folks from my vantage point) were safely away, we were allowed to descend from the scaffolding and walk back to the Senate Office building.  Shortly after that, we were “whisked” away to the airport.  And once again, we were treated to the fantastic service of Delta flight attendants and pilots.  I watched “Florence Foster Jenkins” on the way home.  I highly recommend the movie.  I arrived home shortly after 10:00 PM.

It was a quick and exhausting trip, and I’m so grateful I was able to take part in it.  And I am very grateful to be home with my lovely Cindy and my mom and dad and my aunt.

America isn’t perfect.  But the American Dream is worth fighting for.  It’s also worth living for.  It’s worth voting for.  I wish our new president well.  I will support him where I can and oppose him where I must, just like I did with the last president.  I will pray for him and for our great, imperfect nation.  I thank my Heavenly Father for the liberty He gives us.  May we cherish that liberty and exercise it wisely.  May we faithfully serve the God of this land, even Jesus Christ.

And may God bless America the beautiful.

My weapons class which I call “Swords and Spears and Axes, Oh My!” or “Medieval Weapons 101” is now available online!  You can’t actually handle the weapons online, but… you can take the class for free!  Go to my unwillingchild.com website and click on the “About the Author” link. (Notice my fiendish plan to get you to visit the website first? Heh-heh-heh!  Actually, don’t notice that.  Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!) Then click on “History of Weapons” to enroll.

Did I mention it’s free?

Enjoy!  (But don’t enjoy so much that you don’t come to my classes at renaissance fairs and writers conferences…  At least there you’ll get to handle the weapons and ask questions.  However, you could always ask questions via email, my blog, and facebook.  Stop that!  You’re telling them too much!)

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