Hometown Heroes

A reluctant superman takes a leap of faith; a Cold War warrior fights for his life.



"Every good person I've met who believes in God: You look at them and think, That person can tell you a story, a crisis story, like the story of Abraham and Isaac — a story where they were pushed to a place that didn't make sense. It feels to them like craziness. Reason can only take them so far. They can't figure it all out. But that would be faith."

And that would be local writer Geoffrey Wood commenting on his debut novel, Leaper: The Misadventures of a Not-Necessarily-Super Hero (WaterBrook Press). But how's this for craziness? Or is it faith?

James, a divorced 30-year-old strung out on caffeine and working in a coffee shop in a city a lot like Memphis, discovers one day that he can, in the twinkling of an eye, transport himself across space. One moment he's getting the kinks out at his acupuncturist and the next moment he's inside his ex-wife's garage looking for something she's been bugging him about. One moment he's inside a bookstore reading up on transspatial transport and the next moment he's inside the bedroom of a kidnapped boy. And one moment he's inside a jail cell and the next moment he's a free man.

James's ex-wife, Meg, doesn't believe in this sudden superpower of his. Father Chavez, his spiritual adviser, has his doubts. And a detective named Goss will have none of it: He's out for James' arrest. Even James can't believe it – at first. Then he can, and what does he do? He goes about doing some good in this world of his, according to the faith that inspires him. Or is it craziness?

In an interview, Wood wouldn't say. So you be the judge after reading Leaper, which covers three days in the life of a nonhero who's blessed with a superpower and cursed with a load of personal problems. His job's in jeopardy, his apartment's a pile of unpacked boxes, his nosy neighbor's a lunatic, his dinner date with a co-worker is a disaster, and another co-worker is a "leaper" himself — from the roof of a hospital: a suicide named Kevin whom James, a likable guy but a nervous wreck, can't save.

What saves Leaper? Wood's pitch-perfect ear for comic dialogue, and it's no surprise. A Memphis native trained in theater at the University of Memphis, Wood admits, "I hear voices . . . but don't write that down!"

What Wood means is that he knows he's got a good character going when he can hear that character clear as day, and Leaper fairly crackles with those characters. But when it gets down to business — the business of religious belief — leave it to an elderly man, whom James encounters inside a Catholic church, to make the more serious point:

"Without God, reality is madness. Reason will tell you so. You either madly trust in God, or you trust in a world gone mad without him."

Heady thoughts for James: crazed on caffeine but on the brink of a life-changing relationship with God — God "the coffee guy," as James describes him in a Leaper parable.

Wood's a coffee guy too. He works the morning rush hour at the Starbucks near Poplar Plaza, but he's also worked his share of theater stages as a performer and director. Nothing "big-time," he says about those stage days and nothing to do with trying to make a million dollars. "I don't have a million dollars," he says, "so it's worked out fine."

His writing's working out fine too. Wood got on great with his publisher, WaterBrook, the moment an editor read the opening pages of Leaper (after she passed on the big novel he'd worked hard and long on). And he's already at work on a second book for WaterBrook — another comic novel about another superhuman gift with major implications: invisibility.

No trouble, though, spotting Geoffrey Wood. He's that guy behind the counter at Starbucks, who can tell you a story — a crisis story — but with great comic timing. It's called Leaper. Look for it.

Shelf Life

Clarence Cecil Adams, age 70, died in Memphis, his hometown, in 1999 — too late to see his own story into print. But here it is: An American Dream: The Life of an African American Soldier and POW Who Spent Twelve Years in Communist China (University of Massachusetts Press). That lengthy subtitle, however, only begins to describe Adams' extraordinary life.

He was born in South Memphis — son of an 18-year-old mother and a father he never knew — and he grew up in a garage apartment behind the "old Coward Place," a house that would become the city's fine restaurant, Justine's. Life in 1930s Memphis wasn't easy for any child who was poor and black, but nonetheless, Adams was a happy kid. The grandmother who raised him nicknamed him "Skippy," and Adams did what he could do to make life better: He scavenged at the Chickasaw Coal Yard for his grandmother's kitchen stove. He shined shoes on Main Street. He worked room service at The Peabody.

He was also bright and headstrong, earning As and Bs in school but an F+ in conduct on one report card. And he was good in the ring: the boxing ring. At the age of 17, though, he left his hometown — as much to escape the police who one day knocked on his door as to escape the segregated South. Adams joined the U.S. Army.

He served in Japan, and when war was declared in 1950, he served a second tour of duty in Korea as a gunner. If he thought racism existed solely in the South, however, Adams learned soon enough that it operated at all levels of American society, including the armed services. But he survived.

He survived a Chinese raid on his all-black division. He survived the sub-zero march to a prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea, where he made it through almost three years of captivity. And in 1953, the year the war ended, he refused repatriation to the U.S. Adams chose instead to live in China, a society that, he believed, offered him the chance for a better education and better opportunities. And it did.

Adams earned a degree in Chinese literature, and he worked as a translator for the Foreign Languages Press. He met and married his wife, Lin, and he fathered two children, a daughter, Della, and a son, Louis. He talked to W.E.B. Du Bois, Mao Zedong, and Chou En-lai. But he never joined the Communist Party, and he was never the "turncoat" that newspapers, including The Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Press-Scimitar, labeled him.

It was a label hard to live down — especially after Adams, in a broadcast issued over Radio Hanoi in 1965, urged black American soldiers in Vietnam to return home and fight first for their political and economic freedom in the U.S.

In 1966, at the beginning of China's Cultural Revolution, Adams himself returned home, to Memphis, with his wife and children. What he faced was a summons to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington. The charge: disruption of the morale of American fighting forces in Vietnam. In Adams' honest testimony before that committee, however, the charge was dropped.

Without money and without the prospects of a career, however, life for Adams in Memphis meant years of hard luck coupled with hard work. So he took what he could get: agent for a black-owned insurance company, and truck driver for a printing company. But Adams was and remained his own man, and in 1972, he and Lin opened the first of several Chinese restaurants throughout the city. He ended his life the proud owner of a home in a middle-class neighborhood — an integrated neighborhood that would have been unimaginable in 1930s Memphis. And he ends An American Dream — his memoir based on tape recordings and notes made by his daughter and with the help of editor Louis H. Carlson, a professor of history — this way:

"I was determined to be my own person and control my own destiny, and no one else was going to define who I was or tell me what I was supposed to do. When you think about it, isn't this what America is supposed to be all about?"

It's what An American Dream is certainly about. And as stories go, it's a fascinating, underreported chapter in Memphis and Cold War history. 

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