John Strausbaugh, Stories






Bullet to the Moon





Chapter One





 I was a little sweet on my parole officer. That was new. Then again I never had a parole officer like Miss Abbondando.

In my experience, and did I have plenty, court officers was all beefy, purple-faced, retired beat cops. Bruisers who wore their cheap suits like bursting sausage casings and looked like they'd as lief reach across the desk and throttle you as gouge check-marks into your paperwork with the stubs of pencils they strangled in their hammy fists.

But as the war dragged on, even retired coppers went off somewheres to do their duty, and an army of dames like Miss Abbondando, who I never would meet otherwise, was pulling Rosie the Riveter tours in offices and warehouses and factories all over the country. There was even lady stevedores on the waterfront where I worked and lady altar boys. The only guys you seen in the city anymore was schoolboys, fairies, Chinamen, crips, grandpas, and the dregs a society, like me.

Normally I be happy as a clam to walk streets filled with so many females. Jeez, where was they all hiding before the war? But it was just a tease. With the war slogging on and all the females in a funk, all worrying about their fellows overseas or in mourning, a mook like me was bound to wind up even lonelier than before. A dame would have to be in a pretty pickle to give a old yardbird like me the time of day when her young fellow was off fighting somewheres.

Still, I sure didn't mind coming to see Miss Abbondando every week instead of Killer McGuirk or Iron McGee. None of the other yardbirds did either. We all had a thing for her. Miss Abbondando looked like a kewpie doll, only built for big boys to play with. She had a soft and curvy built and a heart-shaped face to match. She had fiery dark eyes, and full lips that was red and glossy even without lipstick, and shiny black curls trapped under the frumpy hairnets she and all the other gals wore now that bobby pins, like any other nonessential use of metals, was give up for the war effort. All those wild curls like oily calamaris in a fisherman's net give me a warm and funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. My fingers itched to reach across Miss Abbondando's desk and lift that net away and let them curls run free. If she wouldn't of slapped me daffy for trying it.

So yeah, I was squirming like a kid on his first date that Tuesday morning a little before 8 a.m. when I parked myself on the bench in the hallway outside Miss Abbondando's frosted-glass-paneled door in the Brooklyn courts building. I shared the bench with another mook like me, a rat-faced little loser in a fifty-cent wool suit that smelled a mothballs and mildew, slumped beside me strangling a felt newsboy cap in his bony paws. Both of us was parolees who been through the system so many times that this was our real jobs. We sat there not talking, not even smoking now that the only tobacco available was black market and you didn't want to light up in front of the lady court officers clacking up and down the hall in their sensible office shoes. They all dressed like Miss Abbondando did, in suit jackets and skirts, their legs bare, no make-up, wedding rings their only jewelry, their hair in nets or tight knots at the top of their heads. Only Miss Abbondando made it look good.

Her door opened and a big lug I knew and didn't like appeared. He backed out slowly, his fedora in one hand and his other mitt on the knob, taking his sweet time about leaving Miss Abbondando's room.

They called him Potatoes O'Grady. In his day he was a Tammany ward heeler who worked the Hell's Kitchen waterfront. He collected protection money from the Longshoreman's Union, what we called the Ghost Local because of all the convicted felons and desperadoes who padded its rolls and picked up paychecks without ever setting foot on the docks. After Tammany fell Potatoes become a freelance thug for hire. He was getting up there but he could still countersink nails with his bare fists. He could yank me and the other guy off that bench and beat the one with the other if he was in a mood. Which he usually looked like he was.

Potatoes closed Miss Abbondando's door behind him and then stood blocking it. I could see that if it was up to him neither of us mooks would be making it through that door. Potatoes got his nickname because he took so many hits over the decades that his head really did look like a ten pound sack a Idaho's, all lumpy and hard. He had eyes like .22 holes and his nose was mashed so flat he'd have to use a nut pick to clear it. He took his time about screwing his battered fedora onto that big, lumpy head, then flattening his hand-painted tie inside his old double-breasted jacket. Then he made a show of fishing a flat, gold-plated cigarette case out of a inside breast pocket, snapping it open, and fumbling out a Old Gold. An actual machine-made cigarette. I hadn't seen one in months. They was as rare and expensive as diamonds anymore. Only bent guys with connections got their mitts on them anymore. My lungs watered as I watched him pat himself down until he found his Zippo. It was gold-plated with some kind a black gemstone embedded in it. It matched the giant ring he wore on the pinky of his left hand. I could wear that ring like a belt. With lady court officers going in and out of doors all up and down the hall, he lit the duke and blew a trombone of smoke in my eyes.

From behind her door, Miss Abbondando called, "Mr. Bigelow?"

O'Grady watched me get up on my pins.

"Scuse me there, Rushmore," I said. I reached around his elbow for the doorknob.

O'Grady blew more smoke on me, like clouds rolling down a mountain.

"Keep squeakin yer pips, little guy," he growled. "One day I squeak um for youse."

Lugs like O'Grady talked like that. You didn't know what they meant. They didn't know what they meant. But you both knew what they meant.

I ducked through the door, hauled it shut behind me, and stood there in Miss Abbondando's office. It was the size of a utility closet, mostly taken up by her desk. There was a wooden chair, a filing cabinet that kept her door from opening all the way, a wooden coat rack, and on the wall behind her a framed 8 x 10 photograph of the 1937 Dodgers. It come with the office. Gibby Brack, Heinie Manush, Cookie Lavagetto and the rest of the bums, grinning like they wasn't headed for a sixth-place finish that year. 1937 was ten years ago but they looked like they was in another century. I wondered how many of them put on a different kind of uniform after the war began. And how many of them was still alive.

"Waiting for a golden invitation?" Miss Abbondando snapped, without looking up from my file folder.

I jumped into the chair. I enjoyed Miss Abbondando's snappy attitude and her thick Brooklyn accent. Coming from any other lips it might of sounded like she was just another dumb guinea broad.

Miss Abbondando said, "Stub?"

She held out a plump little palm.

I reached in a pocket and fished out my last week's paystub from the Pierrepont tin recycling plant down by the docks on Furman Street. The stub got all folded and creased over the weekend, and I was ashamed to hand it to her that way. It felt disrespectful. I dropped it on her desk and patted it down, trying to smooth it out.

Miss Abbondando began drumming on my file folder with her pencil. I give up on the paystub and dropped it in her palm. She looked at it like it was a used hankercheef.

"Don't you carry a billfold?"    

"Well, Miss Abbondando, see, in my line of work."

"Harrumph," she said. I don't mean she made the sound. She actually said the word. "That what you call it, a line of work?"

I liked that Miss Abbondando said it "woik," like me and most folks I knew did, not "werk," like some stuck-up office girl trying to sound like a movie starlet. Miss Abbondando was Brooklyn down to her unpainted toes.

"No, Miss Abbondando," I said.

"You only got four and half days here," she said. "Wednesday you didn't come in till noon."

"Wednesday?" I said, playing for time. "Oh yeah. See, I was sick."

Without looking up, Miss Abbondando asked, "What with?"

I rubbed my sweaty palms on my trousers.

"The croup."

Miss Abbondando's head snap up. Her eyes was so dark they looked like black espresso in those little pinky cups they served it in after your spaghetti in Little Italy. One of her eyebrows curved up. Her eyebrows was black and full. Back when those Dodgers on the wall was still playing, a lot of dames would pluck and tweeze eyebrows like that. They all wanted to look like glamour girls and starlets back then. Now there was a war on and pencil-thin eyebrows went out with nylons and make-up. Nowadays your typical young dame was serious and all business and wanted you to know she didn't give a fig newton what you thought about her fashion sense. Besides, with all the eligible men off fighting, who would a young gal like Miss Abbondando want to impress? She spent her day with mooks like me and mugs like Potatoes.

"You had the croup for four hours?"

"It was one of them twenty-four hour croups," I said. "Only I got over it quick and went in to do my duty."

Miss Abbondando's expression didn't change, but her black eyes said Oh, brother.

"Maybe it wasn't the croup," I tried. "Actually I been meaning to talk to you about that."

Miss Abbondando looked at my paperwork again and started to tap it with her pencil. I knew that she could stick her fingers in her ears and hum "Mary Had a Little Lamb" for all the sympathy I was gonna get, but I plugged on.

"It's the fumes. I'm tellin ya, Miss Abbondando, standing over that vat all day is murder. When I come out I'm spitting battery acid and the whole city is woozy like I'm in a Katzenjammer cartoon."

Miss Abbondando's pencil stopped tapping. Talking to my paperwork, she said, "You know the terms of your release clear as me, Mr. Bigelow. You're on the street because your country needed you for vital war work. You don't put in a full forty hours a week, you're in violation of your parole. This is your second violation in six months, Mr. Bigelow."

I squirmed in the hard chair. "Jeez, you sure, Miss Abbondando? I don't remember getting sick before."

"Got it down right here, Mr. Bigelow. You didn't go in on a Friday, remember?"

"Aw but see, that was a misunderstanding between me and Mrs. Jakes, Miss Abbondando. I swear she told me to take the day off. They was reoutfitting the plant or something."

She looked up and blinked at me through her spectacles. "We gone through all that, Mr. Bigelow. The plant was open. You missed a day. Period."

I gave up. When Miss Abbondando penciled something in your paperwork, it might as well be carved on your headstone. Besides, the truth was I did skate that day. A lug I knew, Busy Behan, offered me a sawbuck and ten food ration coupons to pop the padlock on the rear door of a funeral parlor on Myrtle Avenue. He didn't tell me why he wanted to break into a stiff house and I didn't ask. It made it easier later in case you was pinched. The bulls couldn't beat out of you what you didn't know. A fellow could take his lumps with a clean conscience, you might say.

I knew I shouldn't of violated that day, but a guy like me's got habits that are hard to break. Another guy offers a guy like me ten bucks and coupons he can trade for a little tobacco just to do five minutes of work. It's that or a day at the salt mines for less dough and no smokes. What's a fellow supposed to do? I only been on the job a little while and was still finding it real hard to get used to. Guys like me ain't like Average Joe. We don't slip on the overalls and grab the lunch pail and whistle a gay tune on the way to the factory.    

"This makes two strikes, Mr. Bigelow," Miss Abbondando said. "One more and you go back in front of a judge and explain to her how you're not unpatriotic, you're just one of the Katzenjammer Kids. You know what that means?"

I sure did, but Miss Abbondando was on a roll so I just sat there and kept my yap shut.

"You're a three-timer already, Mr. Bigelow. She'll give you the book. She'll throw the whole library at you. You'll be back in the hole so deep they'll have to use a diving bell to bring you your slop."

A shiver went through me, just like a cold breeze hit me, even though there wasn't no air moving in that stuffy little closet. I had good reasons not to want to go back up river. There was a fellow up there who would be real glad to see me back, and not in a good way.

"I sure ain't bucking for a return trip ticket, Miss Abbondando," I said. "I'm real grateful to you for the opportunity to serve my country against them dirty natsies and nips."

"Can the corn," Miss Abbondando said. "I got three brothers in the soup, Bigelow. Oldest is in a trench in Turkey. Jimmy's on a sub-chaser in the Pacific. And Vinny, the baby, he's digging foxholes in the snow somewheres in Alaska, holding the Aleutian Line. You miss work, Mr. Bigelow, you could be putting one of my brothers in harm's way. And there are millions of other boys out there, fighting and dying so's you can sit here bending my ear about fumes."

I nodded with my eyes down.

"I won't report this," she said. "But if it happens a third time."

"It sure won't, Miss Abbondando," I said.

"You really want to be reassigned, I got another job I could give you. But it won't be no picnic neither."

"No, Miss Abbondando."

She looked at me for a few more seconds. I could feel them bums over her shoulder grinning at me.

"Now, I got a stack of cases taller and crookeder than you to get through today," she said. "Let's quit the horseplay and get this done, okay?"

"Yes Miss Abbondando," I said.

"Okay, let's give it another go," she said. "Everything good at work, Mr. Bigelow?"

I looked at the calamaris in their net on top of Miss Abbondando's head and said, "Pie a la mode, Miss Abbondando."

"And we won't miss any time this week?"

"Absolutely no we will not, Miss Abbondando."

She made a couple check marks on my file, shut the folder and said, "Same time next week, Mr. Bigelow. Send Mr. Carancala in, please."

I stood. It put me at eye level with the bums. I wanted to ask them what they was grinning at, but they wouldn't remember anyway.

"See ya next week," I said to the top of Miss Abbondando's head.

The top of her head did not answer me.

Out in the hall, the skinny guy was gone. Some grizzled old grampus of a yardbird was sitting in his place.

"Where's Gorgonzola?" I asked him.

"That supposed to be funny, young feller?" Gramps shot back.

"I ain't sure," I said, scratching my neck. That skinny guy didn't look like the type to duck out on his parole officer. Especially when the parole officer was Miss Abbondando.

"How's her weather today?" Gramps asked, hoisting himself out of the bench.

"Wear your galoshes," I said.


I went down two flights of stairs, past court officer dames who glanced at me with the sort of expression I figure a bug collector gives a new beetle before slipping it the chloroform. Guys in my line of work, as Miss Abbondando wouldn't say, get used to that.

I stepped out to the streets of downtown Brooklyn, and brother I have to tell you that was something I couldn't get used to. The war was dragging on and on, and it was dragging the whole city down with it. Sure, there was a war on when I was locked up. But how could it still be going on? Wasn't we supposed to give the bad guys a pasting and come home for Christmas? That was a lot of Christmases ago. President Roosevelt spoke about how the tide was gonna turn on her nightly radio broadcasts, but you sure couldn't see it on the streets of New York City.

I stood on the steps of the courts building and watched the crowds a pedestrians shuffling by. With the subways closed and all the cabs and buses scrapped for the war machine, the only vehicles you saw on the streets anymore was police, military or emergency. Everyone walked everywhere, but not with that outtamyway spirit of old. Now people dragged their feet and hung their heads like they was refugees in their own city. The boys shuffling around in the prison yard had more pep in their step than these folks wandering the streets.

I did what I did every morning. Tucked my chin into my coat, pulled my hat down over my eyes, lit my first handmade smoke of the day, and pushed my way into that crowd, heading for work. I didn't look left nor right, because I knew what I'd see. Mopey faces, a lot a shops closed, the ones that was still open running out of all the staples.     

From the court offices it wasn't much more than a smoke's walk across Montague Street to the waterfront where I worked. The last block of Montague Street fell down a steep hill to the docks. From the top of that hill you had a grand view of New York harbor. Most mornings I didn't let myself look. I buried my chin in my chest and pulled my hat over my eyes and just watched my shoes shuffling downhill, like all the other zombies around me.

But this morning I forgot and looked up and that view smacked me in the kisser. If there's a finer view in the world than New York harbor from the top of Brooklyn Heights I never heard of it. But now it was a real heartbreaker too.

Straight below me was the East River, looking dark and hard as asphalt. The Brooklyn Bridge laid across it a little ways up to my right. Before the war it would be packed with traffic, but now it was blocked at both ends with walls a sand bags, and old geezers patrolled it in their Home Guard uniforms, with their tin hats and their antique carbines, remembering the days of their youth charging up the hill with Teddy Roosevelt.

Straight across the water was Manhattan, looking like a pile a railroad spikes in the watery morning light. To the left, past the tip of Manhattan and the ferry docks, the harbor opened up wide, with the Jersey shore low and dirty across the way, and Miss Liberty standing up in the middle of the water. They was still working to reattach her right arm at the shoulder. The G-men, or I guess G-women, was still looking for the rat saboteurs who done that to her.

At the bottom of Montague Street the Brooklyn riverfront stretched off as far as you could see to the left and to the right. The docks was all Navy business now. From Red Hook somewheres to my left all the way up to Greenpoint it was one big Navy Yard. Ships of war was parked so close together a guy could step from one to the next. I could see cruisers, destroyers, mine sweepers, sub chasers, torpedo boats, troop ships, supply ships and tenders. Subs had their own parking lot somewheres up on Long Island Sound, where they had quick access to the open ocean. That was too bad. I would like to see a couple a subs. I had a respect for subs. I liked them for their sneakiness. Subs was like the pickpockets of the sea. Not that I ever wanted to be in one. Just the thought give me the mimis. I developed a pretty good case of closetophobia in the slammer.

The docks was busy round the clock. Dockworkers, most of them dames now, crawled all over the ships and piers and scuttled in and out of the big hangar-size warehouses that lined the wharfs. I watched a crane lowering a new gun turret onto a beat-up destroyer. Arc welders shot sparks from the rigging of a troop ship. A line of trucks snaked along Furman and onto the loading dock at Pier 3, where lady stevedores hauled wooden crates and boxes off the trucks and stacked them on palettes they winched up into a supply ship. The lady truck drivers stood around in leather jackets and floppy cloth caps. They cupped smokes in their hands and blew the smoke over their shoulders.

My eye was still wandering when I heard a guy say, "Wouldn't have a spare dart there would ya, brother?"

It was Gorgonzola, standing in my path. Outside in the gray daylight he looked even scrawnier and paler than he did indoors, like a shrunken head with its body still attached. He was clutching that felt cap of his in his right hand.

I rolled myself three coughers that morning. One for the walk to work, one for after lunch and one for the walk home. Even rolling your own was tough, tobacco was so short. We made do with what we called bits, as in bits and pieces. What you did was collect all the butts you found, anywhere you found them. In a gutter, on the tavern floor, wherever. At the end of the day you field-stripped them and made a little pile of the tobacco. It was never enough, because most folks learned how to smoke a butt down until it burned your lips and smoked your front teeth. You could spend the whole day collecting enough butts to make three bits. So folks used any filler they could get their hands on. Chicory, dried grass, a little sawdust. You sprinkled a few precious flakes of actual tobacco in there just to give it a ghost of a hint of a memory of what a real smoke tasted like.

They were stinkers, but they was so much work I hated to give one away. Especially to a guy I was beginning to think I didn't like.

"Sorry Mac," I told Gorgonzola. "This here's my daily ration."

He shrugged. "That's all right." He cranked his pointy little jaw over one bony shoulder and said, "Hey Potatoes, be a sport and loan me a nail."

Potatoes leaned himself away from the door of a empty storefront. I don't know how I didn't notice him before. He stood behind Gorgonzola and threw us both in his shadow. He had one of his Old Golds in his teeth. He pulled it out and flicked it over our heads into the street. My heart sank. He barely smoked the thing. I could build three days' worth of bits out of it. An old lady going by bent over quick and snatched it.

Potatoes and Gorgonzola stood there blocking my way. I was getting the feeling this wasn't no chance encounter.

"Say, what you birds playing at?" I said.

"We was waitin for you, Jeepers," Gorgonzola said.

"Got a message for youse," Potatoes rumbled, in a voice like crushing rocks.

I felt my knees begin to shake. In my world when a lug says he's got a message for youse it ain't never good news. Ever since I got out of stir I was dreading hearing them words. Hearing them come out of a bruiser like O'Grady didn't make it no less worse.

"Love to stay and chat, fellas, but I got to get to work," I said. "There's a war on you know."

Gorgonzola scrunched his rat face into what I guessed was supposed to be a tough guy look. He pointed the crumpled cap at my belly.

"What you gonna do," I asked, "haberdasher me to death?"

"There's a pepperpot under the bonnet, wisenheimer. Back up."

I stood my ground. Not because I wasn't gun-shy, because I was. I just figured that whether he had a gun under the hat or not I was pretty sure he wasn't dumb enough to use it on a crowded street. He looked pretty dumb but not that dumb.

Potatoes stretched one arm out over Gorgonzola's shoulder and put his hand on my chest. The fingers went from one shoulder to the other. He leaned at me and pushed me back on my heels. He kept leaning and I found myself backpedaling until my shoulderblades slammed against the shop door. The doorknob nuzzled my friendlies. Potatoes loomed over me like a mountain about to fall on a little Alpine village, and I was one of the little villagers.

"Seymour Spitz ast us to ask you to see him," Gorgonzola said, standing somewheres on the other side of the mountain.

You know how they say your blood runs cold? My veins felt like they turn to icicles. Seymour Spitz was the last name I wanted to hear these mugs say. Seymour Spitz was one of the most dangerous guys in the rackets. To say he had a bad temper was like saying you can't cool lemonade with lava. He was one of the only guys in the rackets nobody ever give a nickname. You couldn't tell how he might react. He was just Seymour Spitz.

"Tuesday still visiting day?" I said. "I'll bring him a cake with a file in it."

Potatoes leaned on me with more of his weight. I felt my ribs corduroying my lungs.

"He ain't in the caboose," he rumbled. "They sprung him on the same deal they sprang youse."

I wondered what kind of war work Seymour Spitz was doing. Scaring the pants off Heil Hitler came to mind. Anyways, it didn't matter. If he was sprung, I was sunk.

"Say look, fellas," I said. "If I don't go to work it's back to Greystone Academy but quick. How's about you tell Mr. Spitz I'll drop in on him on my day off?"

"That supposed to be a gag?" Gorgonzola said.

"Aw now look here boys," I said. "I can't go with ya. You gonna put me in dutch with Miss Abbondando. She got me down for two strikes already."

At the sound of her name O'Grady's meathooks dug deeper into my ribs, like he was hauling up a Oldsmobile by the grillwork. He peeled me off the door.

"Stop stallin, wise guy," Gorgonzola said.

O'Grady took a step back. His fingers unpried themselves from my ribs. The sun came out again. The air rushed into my lungs. Lots of pedestrians was dragging their feet past us. Miss Abbondando's office was back to the left. The Pierrepont shed where I worked was down the hill to the right.

I faked left and ran right. O'Grady reached a big arm out for me and I ducked under it. There's times being a squirt has its advantages. In the corner of one eye I saw Gorgonzola raise his fist. The cap fell off and darn if he didn't have a little pistol, one of them .22 two-barrel derringers we called lady killers because they was so petite and dainty. They was useless from ten feet away but up close he could blow a chute through my brains from ear to ear.

I ducked into the sleepwalkers and ran downhill as hard as I could. Nobody paid me any mind. War or no war, they was still New Yorkers. I ducked around old geezers on canes and fat ladies in long cloth coats and younger gals in overalls and hair kercheefs swinging lunchpails on their way down to the docks. I bumped a few elbows and got a few hey watchits but that was all. I heard shoes and a guy breathing hard behind me. I chanced a look over my shoulder.
Gorgonzola was huffing and puffing and giving me his mean face from a good four lengths behind me. I couldn't see if he still had the pepperpot out. I didn't see O'Grady but I knew he wasn't running nowheres.

I kept ducking and weaving down the hill. My heart was banging against my ribs like a tin cup on a jail cell door. When I made the bottom of the hill there was a line of trucks on Furman but they wasn't moving. I shot between two of them and was on the cinder lot beside the Pierrepont shed. The shed had a big hangar-type door standing wide open. I aimed for it. I could hear Gorgonzola wheezing behind me and his shoes crunching on the cinders. A few trucker gals who was standing around the lot smoking bits watched us with no expressions. They probably figured we was just a couple of little geezers late for work.

I ran into the shed and threw myself against the wall. It was dark in there after being outside and for a second I was blind. All the big machines clanging in there made me half deef too. My heart hammered my ribs like it would crack them. I choked for air and coughed up a week's worth of bits.

When I caught my breath a little I snuck a peek around the hangar door. Gorgonzola was in the middle of the lot bent over with his hands on his knees, wheezing and looking about to throw up. Them bits was bad for us all.

"Jeepers Bigelow!" Mrs. Jakes yelled over the noise of the machines. "What do we owe the pleasure to?"

She was standing by the time clock with her fists on her hips. In her dungaree overalls and head kercheef she looked like one of them Russian peasant broads who was always busting into patriotic songs in them pro-Commie moving picture shorts they used to show sometimes before the main feature back in the days when we was still thinking the Russians was our friends because they hated the natsies too.

She watched me wheeze like a old accordion and said, "You gonna croak?"

"Just need to catch my breath," I wheezed.

"What you run for? Man your age."

"Didn't want to be late," I said.

"Harrumph," she said. Not the sound, the word. I guess it was a fad or something.

I took another peek out the door. Gorgonzola was standing out there looking back at me.

Mrs. Jakes looked out too.

"That mook a friend of yours?"

"No, Mrs. Jakes."

"Then what's he standing there for?"

She took a few steps out into the daylight.

"You. Go away," she hollered at him.

He gave her his tough rat face.

"Go on, beat it," she said, shooing him with her hand. "This a place of work."

He stared at us for a few more seconds with his gun hand in the pocket of his cheap jacket. Then he turned and started walking slow toward Furman Street.

Mrs. Jakes walked back in.

"Okay now? No heart attack?"

"No, Mrs. Jakes."

"More the pity. You wanna punch in now or you need a golden invitation?"






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All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009-2010 John Strausbaugh

All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh