All the Way… To the FBI

Quantico 3

On Mother’s Day Rachel and I visited Laurel, Matt, and the grandkids in Manassas, Virginia. We always enjoyed our visits with them. Emma and Ian would get some quality play-time with Grandpa and Mimi. Laurel and Matt would get some rare alone-time to do errands and have a date night. We had planned on going to their cabin in the mountains of West Virginia, but the weather did not cooperate. As an alternate plan, Matt arranged a very special tour of the FBI Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

Matt has been an FBI agent for several years. He was a computer scientist at Microsoft in Seattle before hearing the call to service following the terrorist attacks on 9-11. These days, Matt works as a squad leader in an FBI office that specializes in cyber-crime. He was the perfect guide for our private tour, since Matt went through the grueling, five-month training program a few years ago.

The New Agent Training Program includes classroom instruction on topics like investigative techniques, law, behavioral science, forensics, and interrogation methods. New agents must pass rigorous physical fitness tests and demonstrate proficiency with a number of different firearms. Trainees are placed in real-life situations in a simulated town, where actors play criminals, and trainees are required to think on their feet as they respond to the scenarios.

The FBI Training Academy is located on the sprawling Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia, about 40 miles from Washington, D.C. The Academy takes up 547 acres. To enter we passed through a security gate manned by Marines and a second gate manned by FBI personnel. I was struck by the scenic forest that we drove through and the beautiful landscaping of the grounds. We drove around the campus, as Matt gave us descriptions of the various facilities. These included dormitories, classrooms, physical fitness gyms and tracks, firing ranges, and a large forensics laboratory building. We passed an entire area of the campus dedicated to Hostage Rescue Training, an important sub-specialty within the FBI.

The parking area in front of the main administration building was crowded, and there seemed to be quite a bit of activity for a Sunday afternoon. Several young men and a few young women were unloading suitcases and garment bags from their cars. All of the men were dressed in coats and ties. We would see many more well-coiffed, young people when we went inside the building. Matt told us that this was a special day at the Academy. These were members of a new trainee class, arriving for the start of their five month program. Most of the trainees looked like they already were in pretty good physical shape. Some looked like they might have played college sports. As I watched their faces, I saw both excitement and some nervous expressions. I wondered what part of the training would create the most anxiety for the new agents. I noticed one trainee who didn’t quite fit the mold. He looked like he had never worn a suit before and had borrowed one for the occasion from someone who wore a larger size. He had longer hair and a few days growth of beard. I thought he looked like a young, absent-minded professor. Later, I asked Matt about the diversity of his class from a few years earlier. He said that there were thirty trainees in his class. Ages ranged from mid-twenties to mid-thirties. Most were men. Matt shared that they came from a variety of backgrounds. A few had law enforcement and military experience. But there were also teachers, accountants, lawyers, and even computer scientists!

We spent the next few hours touring several buildings and walking around the campus. Along the way, we passed lots of different trainees and instructors, some walking alone and some in groups. Different categories could be identified by the color of their shirts. For example, the dark green polo-shirts belonged to trainees and instructors in the National Academy. This special program provides advanced law enforcement training to experienced personnel from agencies across the US and from over 150 different countries. Almost everyone we passed would greet us with a very formal, “Good afternoon, Sir” or “Happy Mother’s Day, Mam.” When I passed one young Asian gentleman with a green shirt, he put his hands together in front of his chest and bowed to me. Matt pointed out that the regular trainees carried blue plastic guns on their belts. This was designed to help them get used to the feeling of being armed at all times.

One of my favorite movies is Silence of the Lambs. Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, an FBI Academy trainee. Matt said that this was the first time that the FBI had participated in the filming of a major motion picture. Most of the training scenes were shot around the campus. Walking around, I recognized the setting for several scenes from the movie. We saw the gymnasium where Clarice practiced hand-to-hand combat skills. We walked through Hogan’s Alley, where she walked through a car chase scenario on her way to meet with Agent Crawford, the head of the Behavioral Science Unit. We saw the wooden signs nailed to a tree near the end of the obstacle course that weaves through the woods around the Academy. In the movie the signs spelled out these words:  Hurt, Agony, Pain, and Love It. The actual group of signs included a few more:  Family, Pride, Attitude, Respect, and Loyalty. I wondered how recently those signs had been added. Matt reported that the obstacle course was affectionately referred to as the Yellow Brick Road. Trainees were awarded an actual yellow brick when they completed this challenge. I thought that was fun, as The Wizard of Oz is one of my other favorite movies.

We walked through Hogan’s Alley, the small town built for training simulations. It included a bank, post office, pharmacy, motel, small office building, bar, and even a working Subway restaurant. I wondered what nefarious criminal activities took place in these innocent looking buildings. Most were unlocked and we enjoyed checking a few of them out. Matt described one of the simulations he did in the office building, serving a subpoena to a disturbed businessman. I found two metal shell casings on the ground in front of a building used to practice forced entries into buildings. What better souvenirs of our visit.

Near the end of our walking tour, we entered the main gymnasium. Again, there seemed to be a lot of activity going on. Along one wall were tables of food. In another area were a variety of games that one might find at an amusement park or carnival. A gregarious National Academy instructor waived us over and insisted that we help ourselves to pizza, popcorn, and cookies. He explained that the Academy was hosting a special group of kids for the day. The kids came from all over the country, and each of them had lost a parent in the line of duty. The day combined lots of fun activities for the kids, along with classes and counseling. The kids had already eaten, and there was a ton of food left over. Emma and Ian were more than happy to comply, and we enjoyed our feast, sitting in the grass outside of the building.

All in all, it was a fascinating and thought provoking day. The trainees and instructors who we encountered were bright, professional, and dignified. The sacrifices that they are making are significant. The risks that they are willing to take for their country are substantial. Their motivations come from somewhere beyond personal recognition and reward. Like my son-in-law, Matt, they have found a calling to serve. At a time when leadership from some of our highest elected officials is suspect and lacks even a semblance of dignity, it was reassuring to see that some institutions have maintained their integrity. I am very proud of Matt and thankful to the men and women who work to keep us safe.

Mended Wings: Paperback Version Released


The paperback version of Mended Wings is now available from The publication date was April 27, 2017. Thanks to Peggy Nehmen from N-K Creative for the beautiful cover. Thanks to Jason and Marina from Pulgarus Studios in Australia for the formatting of the book’s interior.  I hear from lots of readers that they still prefer holding a real book, rather than an e-book reader. I hope you enjoy! I am working on the print version of my first novel, Painted Wings and hope to have that available in the next few months.

Travel Tales: Lodging Fit for a Hobbit

Rachel made the arrangements for the lodging for our seventeen nights in New Zealand. She surprised me when she described the accommodations for the two nights we would spend about an hour’s drive from the movie set from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. We had reservations for an evening tour and hobbit banquet at the actual Green Dragon in the Shire. Rachel found a most fitting place for us to stay. It was called Underhill and would be our own, private hobbit hole.

Underhill was located on a working farm, a few miles outside of the town of Hamilton on the north island. Many years ago, before hobbits had been made famous by the movies, the farmer had built a single room, earth home next to a pond. It sounded like an early version of a man cave. The farm was passed down to the farmer’s daughter and her husband, and they decided to turn the earth home into a one-room bed and breakfast. Because of its resemblance to a cozy, hobbit hole, they named it Underhill.

Rachel and I found the farm without difficulty. We parked our rental car next to a fence by the farmhouse. We had only been in country for a few days and were still getting used to driving on the left side of the road with the steering wheel on the right side of the car. Our hostess came out to greet us and helped us load our suitcases into the back of an ATV for transport to our lodging. We climbed in and rode down a dirt track that meandered through the farm. It would have been a muddy and difficult trek on foot. After coming down a steep hill, we reached a final gate. On the other side was Underhill.

The main structure was carved into the hillside. The floor, walls and roof were constructed of natural stone and concrete. Grass grew on top of the roof and around the outside walls. Two large, wooden barn doors made up most of the building’s front wall. They were wide open, exposing the single room to fresh air, sunlight, and any other bits of nature that might want to enter. Walkways and stairs around the neat compound were built with natural stone and boulders. To the right of the house, built into the hill, was a small patio. On the patio was an ornate bathtub. Rachel and I had encountered outdoor showers during our adventures in Costa Rica, but never an outdoor bathtub. It reminded us of the television commercial for Cialis.

Two small buildings had been built near the outdoor tub. One housed a modern shower and sink. We would learn that the running water system used rainwater. The other small building enclosed a composting toilet. The instructions said to sprinkle sawdust over everything after you had used the toilet. There was no electricity at Underhill. There were a few battery-powered lanterns. The main lighting at night was provided by candles. There was a large candelabra on the table in the center of the room and many other candle sticks located on other walls and surfaces. A coal-fired stove was available for heat and cooking, and we were given instructions on how to use it.

The natural landscaping around Underhill added to the charm of the setting. A wooden deck extended out into a small pond, filled with Lilly pads. An old wooden bridge passed over a different part of the pond, allowing access to the other side. Cows could be seen grazing on a distant hillside, and we were told that we might be visited by some friendly llamas who lived on the farm.

As we were being introduced to our new abode, our hostess mentioned that because of the natural construction and surroundings, there were mice that sometimes visited, especially at night. We were assured that they stayed under the cupboards by the sink, and that the traps were currently empty. Rachel and I were a little overwhelmed by the day, and I don’t think either of us really reacted to the idea of sharing our room with small, furry guests .

The set up for meals was very simple. Later in the afternoon, the farmer delivered a portable ice chest with our dinner preparations and breakfast food. The menu for dinner included a large porterhouse steak, a package of eight giant sausages, a bag of salad fixings, a loaf of bread, and two pieces of chocolate cake. We laughed at how the meal was quite heavy on the protein side. There was a new-looking gas grill for cooking the meat. Breakfast consisted of yogurt, granola, and more fresh bread.

We spent the afternoon relaxing around our private hobbit hole and enjoying the property. I even did my Tai Chi routine out on the deck, looking out on the pond. Early in the evening, I grilled our steaks, and we enjoyed our meal, sitting out on the deck. We were struck by how quiet and serene our surrounding were, not your typical bed and breakfast.

It had been a stimulating day, and we chose to go to bed early. The bed was custom designed for the space and was unique. It was built into one wall and the shape was irregular and rounded. The person sleeping on the inside was against the stone wall and would have to climb over the other person to get out of bed. Rachel offered to take the inside. We got out our headlamps, placed them near the bed, and blew out the candles. It was very dark. We had just begun to doze off when we heard the first scratching coming from the cupboards under the sink. For the next few hours we listened to intermittent mouse activity, hoping that eventually they would figure out that there was no food out. Instead of the noises going away, they eventually changed in character. In addition to the scratching, now there was a banging and even high pitched mouse vocalizations. I told Rachel that I thought a mouse must be caught in a trap. It was time for a midnight, wild animal safari!

Rachel and I had learned, as seasoned adventurers, that sometimes you have to improvise and make do with the tools that you find around you. I donned my headlamp and explored the kitchen area for weapons. I found a heavy sauce pan and a spatula. Rachel intervened and encouraged me to switch out the spatula for a set of salad tongs. With the headlamp switched on and armed with a dangerous sauce pan, I slowly opened the cupboard door. Inside was a mouse with one limb caught in a spring trap. He or she was dragging the trap around and banging into anything that was encountered. At a different time, I might have evaluated a variety of possible actions. But not that night. I bonked him with the sauce pan, picked him up with the salad tongs, and plopped him in the pan. I carried the pan outside and left it to be dealt with in the morning. My heart was beating a mile a minute!

I felt a sense of triumph. We had faced danger and responded to protect our home. Rachel and I crawled back into bed and lay next to each other, savoring the silence. Rachel propped herself up on her elbows and looked over at me. “I am not staying here another night!” she said with a tone in her voice that suggested that this was not negotiable. “That’s fine,” I replied. “But think of the great story we’ll have to tell about our night in our own, real hobbit hole.”

In the morning we made arrangements to spend the night in a different bed and breakfast in Cambridge, a town about half-way closer to the movie set. That turned out to be a bit of an adventure as well. Perhaps that will turn into another found story,


“Underhill”  Hamilton, New Zealand, 2017

Mended Wings is getting some good press!

It has been a good week or two for Mended Wings. A few days ago, I received notice of a review by Kirkus Reviews. You can read the complete review on the Review page of this website. Kirkus Reviews is a well known, literary review publication, and reviews by Kirkus are sought after by authors of all stripes. The review had many positive comments and a few criticisms as well. That would be what I would hope for. One comment was that there was enough information about brain injury that parts of the book seemed like an educational pamphlet. I did want my readers to have sufficient information about traumatic brain injury that they would appreciate what the main character was going through in her life. Maybe they will learn a little in the process!

The second exposure for Mended Wings came in the March, 2017 issue of the St. Louis Publisher’s Association News and Views. Each month one book is featured in “The Book Corner”. Mended Wings was the featured book in the March publication. The newsletter can be viewed online at www.SLPAnews.03.17.pdf.

The First Reviews Are In!

The first reviews for Mended Wings are in! They came from a website called Readers’ Favorite, a site that links readers with authors and offers free reviews. The reviews were positive and received five stars, the highest rating. You can read them on the Reviews page.  I took a leap this week and submitted the novel to Kirkus Reviews, a major review organization. Kirkus warns authors that they will receive an honest review, including the good, bad, and ugly. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. Excerpts from a positive review would make a good cover quote for the print version of the novel.

If you have already downloaded and read Mended Wings, please take a moment to give the book a rating on Amazon.  Even a one sentence review that says you enjoyed it, would be great!

There And Back Again Wins Readers Favorite Five Stars Award

“Mended Wings” Book Release

mended wings cover final hi res

The e-book version of “Mended Wings” was published earlier this week on the Kindle platform. This represents over a year’s worth of writing, editing, and all of the creative energy that goes into a novel.  The story is about a young woman named Flicker and her journey toward independence following a traumatic brain injury.

Several people helped me bring the book to life. Thanks to my editor, Stephanie Ernst, for her helpful suggestions and attention to detail. Thanks to Peggy Nehmen for the beautiful cover design. Thanks to Bill and Pat Imhoff, and Laurel Braverman, for their feedback on the first drafts. Thanks to my amazing partner in life, Rachel Dietz. Your support and inspiration are so important, and seeing the characters through your eyes enriches them. Finally, a special thank you goes to the hundreds of young people with traumatic brain injuries who I worked with in Wisconsin, Florida, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Missouri. I learned as much from you as you did from me.