After D-Day, memories live on

Months after D-Day and all’s quiet on the Western Front. The parades are over, the stories told. The parachutists who reenacted their jump over France landed safely. The Yanks came marching home and Americans moved on to other issues.

But things weren’t this calm in 1944, when days after the Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy, the danger ran as high as the tide on the beaches of Utah and Omaha.

The French town of Cherbourg, overlooking Omaha Beach, still lay in German hands. German gunners manned the Channel Islands between England and France. And E-boats tried to torpedo their way into French harbors to reinforce the German army.

On a day of gray skies and choppy seas, PT 512 set sail from its base in England toward the French coast to survey the damage and observe the German gun placements. Sixteen young men, some just out of high school, took the 80-foot wooden boat across the channel into enemy waters.

My father, Radioman 3rd Class Robert Widmer of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, was on board PT 512 that blustery day in June. He and his crew had seen the bodies washing onto shore, the firefights with E-boats and the bigger German R-boats. They knew there would be high-ranking officers on board their vessel that day, maybe even a general, to observe the beaches. What they didn’t know was that instead of a routine patrol, they’d be taking the supreme Allied commander, Gen. Omar Bradley, and other Army and Naval brass for a ride.

Dwight D. Eisenhower came aboard early, smiled at the men and assumed a position behind the cockpit in the middle of the boat. “We were topside, except for the motor macs (the motor machinist mates),” my father said. “It was very crowded. And we were extremely nervous. Ike was very talkative. He said the usual things: ‘Where are you from, sailor?’ But it was obvious he was the boss. He had that bearing.”

Once they got underway, the talk subsided.

“Most of the brass stood behind the cockpit — it was protected from the waves splashing over the bow,” he said. “They tried to stay dry and hold on.”

With three Packard marine engines, the PT (patrol torpedo) boat could hit speeds of 45 knots, fast enough to lift the bow from the water. They raced across the channel to Cherbourg, then north to the beaches.

The view of Omaha sobered everyone. “It looked like plowed land from the bombardment. It was filled with damaged vehicles and landing craft.”

Over the next few weeks, four PT squadrons formed the Mason Line around the beaches, keeping the Germans in the harbors and preventing their country from attacking the beachhead and resupplying their troops. “No single German convoy got through that line from the invasion on,” my father said.

The squadrons lost two boats.

Like others in the armed forces, Dad wrote to his mother and father, the late Kathryn and Arthur “Shorty” Widmer. And like other letters, his were censored. His parents had to guess about the events overseas.

But on July 20, 1944, he was able to tell his folks what had happened.

“Now it can be told,” he wrote. “Shortly after the invasion began our boat and crew was bestowed quite an honor. We had several top-notch admirals and generals aboard and among them was the big boy himself — General ‘Ike’ Eisenhower. He is a very likable person and very friendly with everybody, and you can see why he is noted for his smile. He got a kick out of riding on a PT boat and we showed him plenty of speed.”

And pride.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, third from left, aboard a PT boat

The Candidate

In honor of the current election cycle, an excerpt from my suspense/thriller, Mr. Magic. You can read the full-tilt lunacy of the role public relations plays in this and other marketing campaigns at Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and bookstores almost everywhere.

And now, Brinker, the defrocked journalist turned PR whiz, will show you how campaigns work their magic:

On a blustery day in early April, Mary Margaret Paulson stood in an open hanger with the snow swirling like dust devils and gazed at the adoring masses. She looked every bit the presidential candidate. Perfect cheekbones, glossy red lips and a bushel of rich brown hair. Long legs in a black pencil skirt, lacy blouse and a red power jacket with shoulders big enough to carry half the states to the convention.

On the campaign trail she’d been called Chillbilly and Bible Spice for her passionate defense of religious freedom. The media mocked her. The pundits hated her. But Brinker knew one thing that many had forgotten: the woman oozed sex from every pore, and men and women alike would sacrifice their firstborn to share the air with her.

The scene resembled a campaign rally. An American flag hung behind two corporate jets emblazoned with the cement company’s logo. Paulson stood on a wooden A-Treat box behind a lectern decorated with patriotic bunting and waved like the queen on parade. A crowd of at least a thousand swelled around her, a line of police officers in reflective vests keeping protesters and supporters on opposite sides of the concrete apron. Sitting in rows of folding chairs under space heaters were local and state dignitaries, representatives from the governor’s office, county council members and the mayors of every city within a fifty-mile radius. The rest of the rabble stood in the cold, their hats declaring allegiance to Garth Brooks, the Phillies and the NRA.

Brinker focused on Paulson’s speech. In an effort to cut costs, the cement company wanted to burn hazardous waste. Residents weren’t convinced by the company’s health studies, which showed emissions would remain below EPA thresholds. His position paper had dealt with the need to balance environmental protection with economic growth. He’d reduced it to three bullet points. Paulson hadn’t gotten through the first when she veered off-message like a bike that had lost its training wheels. She ranted about liberals and intellectuals, the elite and the effete, people who were ruining the country with their bleeding hearts and costly regulations, stifling growth and free enterprise and everything that made America great.

The crowd cheered and Brinker, the PR whiz who’d turned a serial killer into a national brand, started to worry that the stunt wouldn’t backfire, that it wouldn’t create the chaos that guaranteed national coverage. Then, from across the tarmac, he heard the sound of grinding gears and smelled the belch of diesel exhaust as an ancient blue school bus tottered around the corner of the hanger and four dozen Korean woman dressed in hot pink jumpsuits piled out, Buddha at the fore, the notes of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” throbbing from a speaker on the roof.

Buddha, AKA Benjamin Kwon, community organizer and ace travel agent who helped the pursued disappear from the grid. Handing signs to the women—he’d economized by printing both sides, “Feel the Burn” on the front and, on the back, “Burn, Baby, Burn”—he marched them through the crowd, the Koreans forming a wall between supporters and protesters. As they twirled their signs and waved to the camera, Buddha broke away and headed for the perimeter.

Brinker sidled up to him. “How’s it going?”

“’Oppa oppa Gangnam style.’”

“You should run for office.”

Realizing that reinforcements had arrived, Paulson pointed at the ground with a sharply manicured finger and shouted, “This is it! Right here in little old Allentown, PA! The front lines of the battle, the home of concrete and steel that made this nation great!”

The crowd surged, one half cheering, the other half waving signs mounted on wooden stakes the size of baseball bats. Brinker could smell the blood lust as it raced through them, flaring nostrils, pumping muscles, raking their skin until they began to howl.

The handlers must have felt the massive animal coiling for a strike because two of them flanked the lectern as Paulson finished her speech with the pump of a fist and the cry of “Burn, baby, burn!”

The audience exploded, the police line collapsed. Protesters wielded their signs like clubs. Politicians ducked behind the flag. The cement company’s security force, standing respectfully at attention during the remarks, formed a firewall while the handlers hustled Paulson through the back of the hanger.

As police rushed in with batons, Buddha pulled Brinker to the sidelines. Above the roar of sirens, he said, “We have failed you, my friend.”

Brinker smiled as video crews captured the melee. “It’s all good.”

You are where you are

Location, location, location. You hear it all the time in real estate. The tagline is just as important in fiction. And appropriate, given that the lead character in the CW McCoy series of crime novels is a woman who sells real estate. As a transplant, I’m especially aware of it.

That leads to a question I’ve asked since I began writing novels: just when does setting become a character? When does location move from background to foreground?

Readers from Pennsylvania to Florida have called out locales they recognize in both the McCoy and the Brinker novels. Even with names altered to simplify and protect, those locations seem to resonate with them.

As we near publication of the fourth McCoy novel, let’s review the importance of place in the series, which started with Peak Season and progressed to Tourist in Paradise and the latest, Curb Appeal. (You’ll have a chance to preview the new title and cover design later this year.)

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these scenes from Florida’s Gulf Coast, where the sun shines on the good and bad alike.

Jeff Widmer is the author of five novels and three books of nonfiction. You’ll find his Amazon author page here.

Condos line the skyline of Sarasota, Fl, across from the marina where Walter Bishop berths his sailboat in Peak Season

 

A Viking Sport Cruiser yacht like the one CW hijacks in Tourist in Paradise

 

Deep Hole at Myakka Park, where alligators aren’t the only predators in Curb Appeal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading, Florida style

My wonderful friend and fellow writer Jeanne Johansen sent me this photo of two members of her husband’s book club reading Peak Season on Florida’s Treasure Coast.

Peak Season marks the first of a trilogy of crime novels featuring real estate agent turned investigator CW (Candace) McCoy. You can find it and the other novels in the series at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and Kobo, with the audio version at Audible.

Thank you, readers, everywhere.

Have a photo of you or your friends reading a CW or a Brinker novel? Feel free to send the image to editor (at) allusionbooks (dot) com.

 

Gardner’s Ghosts

On a warm Tuesday in September of 1982, I received a letter from the novelist John Gardner about a collection of my short stories he’d been gracious enough to critique. That evening, as I sat in the newsroom editing copy, the city editor swiveled his computer monitor and said, “You should read this.”

Gardner had died that day, the 14th, in a motorcycle accident. The description in the story that had moved over the wire read like something from his novels. It didn’t make sense. I’d just seen him, on my first and only visit to his house in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, standing in his makeshift office, touring his home, speaking to his fiancée. He was a living legend among writers, his novel October Light a bestseller, his newest at the time, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, leading the book review section of the New York Times. Unlike many celebrities, he was approachable, hospitable to emerging writers. And now he was gone.

John Champlin Gardner Jr. was born on July 21, 1933. His death 36 years ago came as a blow. The author of 14 novels and numerous others works, he taught at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the State University of New York’s Binghamton University. All notable achievements, but a CV hardly describes his influence.

Over the course of his career, he evolved from ardent critic to mentor who embraced veterans and novitiates alike. Still, his true north was in storytelling. He eschewed labels, focusing on the ancient art, rewriting epic tales like Beowulf from the monster’s point of view and putting people at the heart of great philosophical debates. He strove to create what he called “a vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader, writing novels with an intensity often reserved for short stories and poetry.

His passion overflowed in his nonfiction, too. Gardner seemed obsessed with the collision of philosophy and culture. He constantly argued against nihilism, a doctrine that claims nothing is knowable and rejects all distinctions in moral value. In his work of criticism, On Moral Fiction, he called for books with “just and compassionate behavior,” art that “establishes models of human action.” It’s likely he deeply identified with Grendel, the monster in Beowulf, who finds itself cast from heaven because it is ugly, comes from a bad family and asks too many questions—possibly a comment on the maligned state of humans, as Gardner’s father was a lay preacher.

While his characters were not always models of behavior, Gardner treated students and aspiring writers with a generosity and grace consistent with his values. I first met him in May of 1982 after he spoke, at the invitation of professor and novelist Fred Misurella, at East Stroudsburg State College, in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Gardner looked the part of the Great Writer, sporting a shock of white hair overflowing his forehead and small, wrinkled bags under his eyes. His ubiquitous pipe kept winking out as he talked. He also acted the part. After reading aloud the first page of one of my stories, he invited me to his home in Susquehanna for a longer critique.

* * *

Gardner lived across an open metal bridge on the edge of town, in a farmhouse nestled among the hills the locals call the Endless Mountains, purplish gray and draped with mist like the webs of tent caterpillars. The clapboard house resembled an old train station, with curlicues over the porch. Inside sat Gardner’s son, Joel, a photographer, and Susan Thornton. She and John were to be married that Saturday. A colleague of his handed him a few short stories and a novel for Gardner’s comments. They talked about producing plays in Susquehanna and about a literary magazine on which he was working.

Then it was my turn. Gardner retreated to his study, a spare room with big windows, to concentrate on the story I’d brought. His desk consisted of a door resting on two sawhorses, covered with pipes and stacks of papers. He hunched over the work, making quick notes in pencil. Then he and Susan had to leave, Gardner apologizing repeatedly for offering me so little time.

In the living room, I asked Joel how much of his father’s work was autobiographical. Not much, he said, but then opened the door to the dining room. With its thick beams and sparkling new plaster, it resembled something out of Mickelsson’s Ghosts.

There were other similarities. The main character in that novel, Peter Mickelsson, is a professor at SUNY Binghamton who is battling a failing national reputation and the IRS. He lives in Susquehanna and is going through a divorce. That much mirrored Gardner’s life. But Mickelsson is going mad, his mind enflamed with the ghosts of Martin Luther and Nietzsche, as well as his wife, son, two lovers and a murderous couple who used to live in the farmhouse. Joel smiled at this and said his father invented most of the book.

* * *

John Gardner was born in Batavia, in northwestern New York. His father worked as a dairy farmer, his mother as a high school literature teacher. His first novel sold about a thousand copies, but The Sunlight Dialogues became a bestseller in 1972 and October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He was an academic but not an elitist. Playboy paid top dollar for his short stories. (“Julius Caesar and the Werewolf” appeared in September 1984). He raced motorcycles, survived surgery for cancer of the colon and was married several times. He settled in rural Susquehanna on a 30-acre farm and continued to work.

A gifted writer with a marvelous ear for dialogue, he always wrote interesting books. But with Mickelsson’s Ghosts, he had completed his evolution, merging philosophy with a vital narrative, tempered by a humility that bordered on self-doubt. By the time he got to Susquehanna, he’d turned the ferocious critic into a man who wanted to say good things about others. People believed he was trying to find his place.

That day at his house, he seemed subdued. Seated on the couch, he spoke in a smooth and quiet voice about future projects. As an aside, I said I’d had trouble finding his work in the local bookstore. The novels weren’t filed under the category of “Fiction.” I’d asked the clerk if she carried the author and she led me to the back of the store. We found his books filed under “Literature.”

Gardner listened intently, without expression, then threw back his head and laughed.

Stars and Stripes and Sousa forever

John Philip Sousa III (1913-1991) did not follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, but those who met him discovered a spirit as creative as the famous march king. I interviewed Sousa the younger in the summer of 1987, when he visited Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, for a concert in honor of the man who wrote what many consider to be America’s second national anthem.

John Philip Sousa III marches to the beat of a different drummer than his famous grandfather. It isn’t that the New York City resident doesn’t thrill to the stirring marches of his illustrious forbearer. It’s just that he’s more inclined toward the written word.

“I love hearing them,” Sousa said of the marches during a concert featuring “Semper Fidelis,” the Marine Corps anthem, and other favorites. “But writing always has been my enthusiasm.”

The New York resident is the author of two books, both nonfiction, of which one was a bestseller. He was assistant publisher of Fortune and formerly head of public affairs for Time magazine and in charge of long-range development for the Time-Life Book Division.

“Right now, I’m writing a book on good taste in management,” he said. “Then I think I’ll write my memoirs.”

John Philip Sousa III relaxes during a concert in honor of his grandfather

He is also head of the Sousa Foundation, which controls the rights to his grandfather’s work, although he admits that, when he was young, he wasn’t aware of the music.

“I paid no attention to it at all. As far as I was concerned, he might not have existed. Then, when a certain aunt died, I got stuck with the whole Sousa Corporation. It’s just something I have to do every day. I think I owe it to my grandfather.”

As a youth, Sousa may not have been familiar with the music, but he has fond memories of his paternal ancestor.

“He was charming, relaxed. He had a good sense of humor. He smoked cigars all day long, but back then, it was good for you.”

The elder Sousa wore mismatched clothes and “always had a piece of music in front of him.”

He’s familiar with the music now. “I love it. I have the same favorites everybody else does, ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ and the ‘Washington Post March.’” But one piece stands out. “It’s ‘El Capitan,’ from the operetta. He wrote 20 operettas, you know.”

Although Sousa has heard the marches hundreds of times and is used to the fireworks and fanfare, he still marvels at the reception with which audiences greet his grandfather’s music.

“Last summer I was in [New York’s] Central Park for a concert with Leonard Bernstein. There were about 100,000 people there. They cheered and applauded him and he played a number of his own compositions, but they wouldn’t let him go. And finally he turned around and what did he play? ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’”

During a speaking engagement in Toledo, Sousa was asked about the connection between John Philip Sousa and the Fourth of July. “I said, ‘Funny you don’t know that. He invented the Fourth of July.’”

Does he see a resurgence in Sousa’s popularity together with heightened interest in patriotism?

“No, they are just good marches. Yes, they make everybody cheer and clap, but if the marches weren’t that good, everybody wouldn’t be cheering and clapping.”

Sousa saves his sentiment for other things. He will not divulge his age. He will not even discuss it. Once, when he bought a ticket on the Long Island Railroad, the ticket agent asked if Sousa was over 65 and eligible for the discount rate.

“I asked for a ticket, not a discussion of my age,” Sousa fired back.

He seemed more relaxed at a tribute to his grandfather’s music in the tiny borough of Delaware Water Gap, Pa., lounging in a director’s chair in a white suit that matched his hair. “I thought it over and the concert just sounded so enchanting, with everybody up here knocking themselves out. And it wouldn’t kill me to come up, you know.”

Sousa appreciates music but never learned to play an instrument. “I blame this on my mother, if blame is the right word. She couldn’t carry a tune. Talking to myself I said, ‘He did it better than anybody. Do something else, John.’ So I did.”

Pat Dorian directs the band on Aug. 20, 1987, 75 years to the day when John Philip Sousa conducted a similar concert on that spot in Delaware Water Gap, Pa.

The Magic of Bob Dorough

For Bob Dorough, three is a magic number. For his legion of fans, it’s Bob himself who’s magic.

Whether he was singing times tables or scat, Bob made music and learning fun for adults and children alike. He died April 23, 2018, at his home in Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania, at the age of 94.

In the late 1970s, I wrote an article about him for DownBeat that was never published. Here it is at last, the story in his words of how he created Multiplication Rock, presented as a tribute to a most remarkable man.

* * *

It can be no accident that Bob Dorough included the song “Because We’re Kids” on his album Beginning to See the Light. The piece not only sums up his attitude toward children, which led to his job as composer of the ABC-TV series “Schoolhouse Rock!” It reflects the relaxed image he projects, the open smile that reaches you even before the soothing Southern twang of his voice.

Intoning the words of Dr. Seuss, Dorough sings, “But we’ll grow up someday, and when we do I pray we just don’t grow in size and sound and just get bigger pound by pound. I’d hate to grow like some I know who push and shove us little kids [sniff] around.”

No chance of that now. Dorough has spent the past several years scoring “Schoolhouse Rock!” in which he teaches children math, grammar and civics in a respectful and entertaining way. Listeners have long associated him with jazz, from his work as an accompanist to his own 1957 classic on Bethlehem records, Devil May Care. But that challenge met, he turned to producing popular artists like Spanky and Our Gang and writing advertising jingles.

After a decade-long hiatus from the jazz world, his career has come full-circle and he’s back to doing some of his favorite things. The veteran of swing and New York City jam sessions has returned to nightclub performing (including a recent stint at Bradley’s in New York) and has released a new album—a live performance recorded in California with longtime associate and bassist Bill Takas.

The duo recorded Beginning to See the Light on their own label, Laissez-Faire, to achieve the artistic freedom they desired. The track from which the album receives its name—a Harry James, Duke Ellington composition—finds Dorough swinging on piano around Takas’s strong walking bass lines. Throughout the rest of the recording, Dorough livens the recording with his unique voice, a reedy sound that’s soft and thin as a whisper, spiced with a drawl that echoes his West Texas roots.

Born in Arkansas, Dorough fell in love with music while in high school, to the point of going back to school another year after graduation to take advantage of playing with various bands. He picked up piano by ear after discovering he could compose and hold down more jobs by playing that instrument, then headed for North Texas State at Denton to polish his skills. “It was the first college to put jazz on the curriculum,” he says. “It was just a hotbed of jazz.”

His salesman father had other ideas for his son. “I was a natural mathematician. My father said, ‘You could be an engineer ‘cause your math grades are so good.’”

But New York City beckoned. “I played in different bands and combos and mostly we jammed. We were always playing. It was a way of learning. And I also liked singing. I got into my own style of singing. I guess I pretty much formulated my own style at a fairly young age, although I had what I thought was a late start in music. I was interested in serious music, too. Composition was my major.”

Dorough’s late start may account for his affinity for children and his long life in the business. “I always endeavored to think young, act young and live young, and take care of myself. As I say, I felt I got a late start in music. I was drafted and was in the Army. All that threw me way behind schedule. I dropped out when I was 28 or so, working on a master’s degree I never got at Columbia. And I’m probably one of the few American boys who took a high school post-grad course.”

When jobs in his field ran thin, he turned to producing popular artists—Chad Mitchell, Roberta Flack, Spanky and Our Gang. He tried advertising work. That move gave him an exciting job and a whole new audience—children. “It’s like anything else. You make a contact and get a job, and if it’s good, you get another one,” he says of his introduction to “Schoolhouse Rock!” and its creator.

David McCall, president of the McCaffrey and McCall advertising agency in New York, faced a problem that Dorough was soon to solve with twelve songs later released as Multiplication Rock. “His idea was to set the multiplication tables to music. He got it from his own child, who couldn’t memorize the tables but he could sing along with Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles and memorize all the words. So my partner, Ben Tucker, claimed I was the man to do the job.

“Apparently they’d tried other New York City composers and they had gotten a kind of result they weren’t looking for, sort of a simplistic writing-down-to-the-children insipid approach. So I went to see them about it and that was it. Even though they were in the advertising business, they seemed prepared to develop this idea, which was nothing new, actually. It was a little bit new in that he [McCall] wanted the multiplication tables set to rock music. Everything was rock music in that year.”

Dorough calls the assignment “a rare opportunity, one of the most exciting commissions I’ve ever had, a chance to communicate with the younger generation. I didn’t know if it would be on record; I didn’t dream it would be on TV.

“I sort of laid back a couple of months. I didn’t want to go popping out obvious rhythmical tunes. So I just studied my math books. It’s strange. I’m a collector of mathematics books. I’m a mail-order freak. I’d see Fun with Games and Numbers and Mathematics for the Millions, well I would order the book. Maybe I wouldn’t even read it. When I got this assignment, I just came home and started cracking all these books. I was prepared for the job.”

He also received some help from his daughter, Aralee. “My daughter was just entering the grades where they studied math. It gave me a chance to try some things on her.”

While the outcome was supposed to be rock, Dorough found he had created a gentler sound. “Some of my friends said, ‘That’s not rock, that’s jazz. You snuck it in on them.’ I don’t know. It’s neither rock nor jazz.”

The advertising agency originally tried to market Multiplication Rock as a record and a book, but the agency’s animation department worked up a better deal for another client, ABC-TV. To date, the network has produced 25 3-minute films. Dorough makes several a year and works as the show’s musical producer and arranger.

Until now, Dorough has concentrated on writing and recording for some of the legends of jazz. His 1957 release, Devil May Care, featured himself and Miles Davis. The trumpeter later invited Dorough to compose and sing a number for The Sorcerer. Mel Torme and others have recorded Dorough’s “Comin’ Home Baby,” and the Fifth Dimension covered his “Winds of Heaven.”

Now he takes life easy on his 3-acre farm in the foothills of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, playing piano and flute duets with his daughter, lounging in flannel shirt and wool socks in his sparsely furnished home, an easy hour from the studios in New York. “I sort of fell in love with this part of the country. This reminds me a little of my boyhood in Arkansas. It’s similar terrain. Matter of fact, my grandfather used to be this far from the river there,” he says, pointing to the Delaware River.

As for the future, Dorough is enthused about the rerelease of Devil May Care, out of print until it was reissued as Yardbird Suite. His plans include performing, finishing the TV series, composing and working on a grander scale with an orchestra. He will continue to compose along traditional lines, even though he embraces jazz-rock fusion

“I think it was inevitable jazz and rock would gravitate toward each other.” The musicians in both camps, he says, were using improvisation. “I think music is just coming together. It’s like the whole culture has been fused by communications. I myself was always in love with exotic music of all kinds. I liked Indian music from India and I liked African music. And naturally I liked some classical music, too, what you would call modern classical or modern contemporary.

“Culturally, I can see this fantastic blooming of all elements and styles. I’m definitely all ears.”

Jeff Widmer is the author of the CW McCoy and the Brinker series of crime novels.

Bob Dorough entertaining children in the late 1970s (photo by Donald S. Fisher)

What’s my (opening) line?

I was sitting next to NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce when he challenged the group to recall a favorite first line of a book. His was the opening of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Many years later, as he faced a firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

We went round robin. My contribution was the epic opening of John Mortimer’s introduction to his titular character in “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” a line (it stretches half a page) too long to reproduce here, let alone remember in full at the time.

I hadn’t thought about that conversation until last week, when I came across the short story “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas in The New Yorker. The story opens with the line, “I slept through the burglary.” Now, who could possibly do that? I thought. It’s a provocative lead, one that introduces the unique voice of a singular character. I read the story in one gulp.

There are many well-known openings, from Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) to the Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) to the oft-parodied line from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I’m sure you have some favorites, maybe Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” or Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Just so.

And then there are the lesser-known kickoffs, the ones that brim with promise, that say, if you keep reading, you shall discover new worlds with a companionable guide.

Here, in no particular order, is a collection of my favorites, a mix of contemporary and classic lines from male and female authors alike:

“Woman’s lying in bed and the bed’s on fire.” Don Winslow, California Fire and Life.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups.

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” Gillian Flynn, Dark Places.

“It began, as the greatest of storms do begin, as a mere tremor in the air, a thread of sound so distant and faint, yet so ominous, that the ear that was sharp enough to catch it instantly pricked and shut out present sounds to strain after it again, and interpret the warning.” Ellis Peters, The Sanctuary Sparrow.

“On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.” Anne Lamott, Plan B.

“It was a put-up job, and we all knew it by then.” Anna Quindlen, Miller’s Valley.

“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.” Elmore Leonard, Glitz.

“This really happened, this story.” Laurie Lynn Drummond, Anything You Say Can and Will be Used Against You.

“I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.” T.C. Boyle, “Descent of Man.”

 “Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits.” Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer.

“Joe lived, but it wasn’t something he was particularly proud of.” C.J. Box, Open Season.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” William Gibson, Neuromancer.

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” Janet Evanovich, One for the Money.

And lastly, my all-time favorite, a slight deviation from the pattern we’ve established here in that the quote needs a second sentence to complete the punchline. It’s from Jennifer Crusie’s breakout novel Tell Me Lies. “One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers.”

Now that’s a keeper.

What are you favorite opening lines? Leave a comment here, or on your social medium of choice.