Reading JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN on Veterans Day

On this Veterans Day, I join my voice to those expressing profound appreciation to the millions of Americans who are serving, or have served, in the armed forces of the United States. The service and sacrifice of men and women in uniform throughout our country’s history humbles me, and also inspires me to do my part as a constructively engaged citizen to assure this country lives up to the noble ideals which they stood up to defend.

I’m particularly grateful for the veterans in my own family, including my father and most of his brothers, an aunt, several cousins, and my grandfather. The photo of my Grandfather Ochocki’s class at graduation from Armor training at Fort Bragg during World War 2 was proudly hung in the family room of my house growing up. For years, I was convinced that Hitler had killed himself in his bunker rather than risk facing Grandpa O in his Sherman tank, only to be set straight by my laughing grandmother who said the war ended before Grandpa had the chance to enter the fight in Europe.

Because I never joined the U.S. military myself, I am curious about the experience of those who have served under arms. Typically, I read a military-themed book around Veterans Day to broaden my perspective. While I have learned a great deal from biographies and other works of non-fiction, some of the books that have affected me most are novels.

photo by Rick Ochocki

The first book like this was Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo. I borrowed this novel from a friend while in college at Rutgers University, and read it between responding to 9-1-1 calls as a New York City paramedic.

The horror of the of the protagonist Joe waking up in a hospital unable to see, taste, touch, or smell as the result of his World War 1 combat wounds made him an unforgettable figure. His character was a powerful representation of all the military casualties resulting from the industrial-scale devastation that took place on the battlefields of what Trumbo called “the last of the romantic wars” in his introduction to 1959 paperback edition of the novel. Part of the enduring impact of this book was also how my own work encounters with victims with gunshot wounds and severe burns made Joe’s circumstances more vivid for me.

A few years ago, I had another experience that connected me to Trumbo’s story. My sister-in-law’s great-uncle Roy Buckland was killed in combat during World War 1, and is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. While on a trip in Europe, we visited his gravesite on the 96th anniversary of his death.

photo by Rick Ochocki

In the middle of that hallowed ground, I was reminded not only of the terrible human costs of war in terms of life and limb, but also how immense the debt all Americans owe our veterans – those men and women who have borne the burden in defense of our collective life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is why I sincerely mean it whenever I say to veterans, “Thank you for your service.”



Magdalena Hecksa came from a long line of sorcerers. She didn’t find this out until the second to the last day before her 13th birthday, when her mom sat her down for a frank talk. 

“I already know about sex,” Maggie said. “If you don’t enjoy embarrassing me in front of grandma, remember when you signed the permission slip for school?”

“There’s something even more important I need to tell you,” her mother said.

“More important than sex? I doubt it.”

Maggie was wrong. Her narrow vision of the world was blown wide open by the revelation that women in the Hecksa family usually manifested magical powers after they turned 13. The usual turmoil of teenage hormones was intensified by the many hours Maggie spent worrying about accidentally unleashing a spell with damaging consequences.

Things got a little easier when her mother enrolled her in an after-school program – Women’s Initiative To Curb Hostility, Encourage Serenity, where Maggie met other girls dealing with the same issues. And, while she found casting spells challenging, due to the need to say every syllable exactly perfect, she was a natural in potions. In just a few months, Maggie was a mentor to other girls who came to the W.I.T.C.H.E.S program

Photo by Tom Leishman on

Maggie was understandably distraught when in the middle of her sophomore year in High School, her mother took a job in rural Beyond, Wyoming. Not only was she leaving her magical friends, but she also couldn’t imagine kids in Wyoming eager to welcome a Birkenstock-wearing, granola-eating, poetry-reading daughter of a never-married single mother with a Ph.D. in the design, synthesis, and characterization of smart, dynamic polymers. Especially when that girl’s main hobby was enhancing her magical powers.

“Just be yourself and everyone will love you,” her mother advised before her first day of class at Dick and Lynne Cheney-Patriot High School. Maggie was tempted to drink an invisibility potion before home room so she could slide into an empty desk in the back row without being seen, but her mother refused to allow it. Besides, the longest she’d ever managed to stay invisible was only for an hour, and that was even after drinking two whole drams of terrible tasting serum.

It was with dread that Maggie trudged into Mrs. Dulvet’s classroom that morning.

“Class, we have a new student joining us today,” the teacher said. “Magadella, (titters from around the class) please stand up here and tell us a little bit about yourself.”

“Well, my name is Magdalena,” she said. “But I prefer to be called Maggie. Me and my mom just moved here from Berkeley, California.”

“If I lived in an Antifa hell-hole, I couldn’t wait to get away from the socialism,” a girl with long blonde hair said from the front row. “I saw on TV that imported ferrets are treated better in the People’s Republic of Berkeley than real Americans.”

“Settle down, Jessica,” Mrs. Dulvet said. “Thank you, Megadylan.” The class erupted in guffaws.

“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Dulvet said to Maggie. “You have such an interesting name. Please take the open seat next to Tommy Kuhlkid in the second row.”

The next few weeks at the new school were difficult for Maggie. At least during classes, teachers put a lid on the teasing and the pranks that victimized her. In the hallways, she was on her own. The worst bullying came from Tommy’s immensely popular girlfriend Jessica Tipton and her gaggle. Maggie was grateful when her mother encouraged her to Skype with her friends from W.I.T.C.H.E.S.

Tommy was athletic royalty in Beyond. Not only was he on the Cheney-Patriot football team, he was captain of the basketball team, a baseball star, and a three-year Varsity starter on the soccer team. But, he wasn’t a very good student. Every quarter, there was fear in the athletic department that Tommy’s grades wouldn’t be good enough for him to keep playing.

Maggie, on the other hand, was an exceptional student. And her favorite class was chemistry, which she thought of as boring version of potions. She wasn’t surprised when the chemistry teacher asked her to tutor Tommy.

Since Tommy was nicer to her than most of the people in school, she didn’t mind helping him. And he was kind of handsome, in a goofy teenage way, so it wasn’t like spending extra time with him was too awful a chore.

 What Maggie hadn’t counted on was how jealous Jessica would get of their time together. Her treatment of Maggie got even worse after the tutoring started. Finally, Maggie concluded maybe magic was needed to solve this problem.   

She had learned from W.I.T.C.H.E.S. that the Manifest potion caused the drinker to see an authentic physical representation of the moral character at the core of the very next person they laid eyes on. Maggie decided to give a little of the potion to Tommy and see how Jessica was exposed. 

One afternoon, she and Tommy were in the lab making up an experiment he had botched. While she watched Tommy’s clumsy effort to mix this, warm that, and stir the other, Maggie concocted her own brew.

While he concentrated on his work, she carefully put a few drops into the open can of Red Bull that Tommy always carried with him. She took a sip herself while keeping her eyes off him.

Suddenly Jessica burst into the room.

“Hey weirdo, get lost. I want to talk to my man.”

Maggie looked directly at girl and stifled a laugh at the horrible monster she saw – fiery orange eyes, large yellowing teeth, scaly and scabby skin, and gnarled, grasping talons. Maggie excused herself. She was hardly out in the hall when Tommy shouted.

“Get away from me you wicked creature. I never knew you were so hideous!”

Tommy sprinted past Maggie and down the hallway trailed by a wailing Jessica.

“Keep your filthy claws off me,” he yelled. “I never want to see you again.”

Maggie went back into the lab. Before tidying Tommy’s station, she poured the remainder of her solution down the waste drainpipe and smiled to herself. The potion had worked. Perfectly. 

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

Out of the Fire – Accepted for A Year in Ink 11 (2018)

New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother says success as a writer requires “supreme determination, persistence, and rebounding from rejection.” One of the hard realities about submitting work to agents, editors, and contests is that rejection is not only possible, but likely.

That’s why an email I received this week was so wonderful. Please allow me to quote the first line – “Thank you for sending us ‘Out of the Fire’. We love it and would like to publish it in the next issue of A Year in Ink.” I was literally speechless with delight.

 I wish all of you could have been with me when I read those words. The moment was even richer because a favorite Christmas song was playing on SiriusXM radio at the same time.
I’m grateful to San Diego Writers, Ink for accepting the first chapter of my romantic suspense novel for inclusion in the annual anthology – to be printed in June, 2018. Please keep an eye out for more information about the Anthology release party.
I’m still querying to get the full novel published. And while odds are that I’ll get a few more rejections before another acceptance, at least it won’t be too long until readers get to sample my story of the love sparking between Fire Captain Danny Russell and fashion designer Natalie Sands.