Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Book Risen from the Rubble by Judy Nickles

One of the last batch of “war babies” (that’s WW II for all you youngsters out there), I grew up in a West Texas town full of reminders of the terrible price exacted by that conflict. San Angelo was an old town with “military” roots—springing up across the Concho River from Ft. Concho, one of many frontier fortresses established to protect settlers from Indians who obviously (and rightly!) objected to encroachment on their lands.

World War II had touched the entire town. Scanning the list of county KIAs, I recognize the names of too many: the father of a high school classmate, the son of a mayor, two brothers who were sons of a man my father knew well. One of them received the Medal of Honor posthumously.

The airport which is still used today housed a bombardier training school. The Air Force base still in existence took its name from a San Angeloan who died in the First World War. In November, vets stood on downtown street corners selling poppies which we wore with pride on Armistice Day (now Veterans Day since President Eisenhower effected the change in 1954).

Progress in the form of modern architecture and a dying downtown killed by the new mall and strip shopping centers in the newer part of town hadn’t yet changed the landscape of my childhood. So, when I think of my hometown, I think of it the way it used to be. And that’s the way I wrote it in Dancing with Velvet.

The book centers around the St. Angelus Hotel, now gone, where generations of young people danced to the music of live bands in the Roof Garden. With a shadowy memory of that grand place and my parents—who used to talk about it with mysterious smiles—gone for years, I found myself scrambling for information which would authenticate the setting of the story I wanted to tell. My last resort was an email to Rick Smith, a newspaper columnist who learned his craft from the same journalism teacher who taught me mine. If anyone could dig up information, Rick could—or Ed Cole would haunt him forever!

And he did. He put out a call in one of his columns, and people I thought gone like my parents came out of the woodwork. He cobbled together three more columns full of trivia about the St. Angelus. Together we breathed life into the book I call a love song to the town which nurtured me.

Dancing with Velvet
In the waning days of the Great Depression, Celeste Riley wonders if life will always be the same: going to work and coming home to keep house for her widowed father who ignores her. She clings to her married sister, Coralee, and the recurring dream of a blue velvet curtain and a faceless lover who beckons her beyond it. Then a blue velvet dress in the window of a local department store seems to promise the change in her life she so desperately longs for. When she dances in the arms of Kent Goddard at the Roof Garden, she is sure she has found the man of her dreams and is crushed when he disappears from her life. Soon after Pearl Harbor propels the United States into war, he returns in uniform as a student at the new bombardier training school. Inevitably, a wartime separation threatens their deepening relationship. Then Celeste realizes that what she doesn’t know about the man of her dreams may become her worst nightmare.

With Kent overseas, Celeste fights her own war with pride, self-deprecation, and the need to forgive. Before he comes home…if he comes home…she knows she has to win.

Judy Nickles

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