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Meet Janelle Frese of Rocket Rising in La Palma

Today we’d like to introduce you to Janelle Frese.

Janelle, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
A page turns to reveal the next chapter of a book. It begins with a three-year-old girl dressed in a ruffled blue and white bikini, pigtails in her hair under a red baseball cap, red cowboy boots, holding a wiggling desert iguana in her two tiny hands. She desperately wants to show off the bounty she captured while adventuring through the desert during her morning skip around the family’s small summer rental house. She peeks through the kitchen window and proudly declares, “Hey, guys, look what I got!” She spies on her big brother and his pre-teen peers who ignore her, entranced with the model rocket they are building on the linoleum kitchen floor. She races around to the backdoor of the house. She kicks the door three times. No one answers. The restless lizard flips out of her hands and flops onto the desert sand beside the edge of a concrete path. The girl dashes after it, but she’s not fast enough. It scurries under a sage bush and dives fast down a hole. She imagines the iguana is a scout looking out for all the giant lizards beneath the earth whose movement causes all the earthquakes in California. This iguana might tell his family about her! The girl quickly plans her next move, the mission to make it safely back inside the house before the iguana conjures the giants up to interrogate her. She seems not to notice the heat of the morning sun beating on her back, or the warm desert air burning her lungs with each little breath. Instead, she pounds on the kitchen door. No one budges. The giant iguanas are coming! She demands the boys’ attention now and kicks the door again. “Let me in,” she cries. No response. She kicks harder on the door. She fiercely kicks three more times and shouts, “LET ME IN! IN! IN!” The glass window panel in the door shatters, scattering fragments everywhere. She squats down like a baseball catcher and gazes through the door’s empty space between splinters and broken glass. She sees the boys’ stunned, bewildered faces. Their model-building has been disrupted. Someone inside the house finally speaks, “Oh, no! Not the Rocket!”

I am Rocket, the little girl in the ruffled bikini, pigtails, red cap and boots. I really did catch that lizard and kick that door in with all my might. I was always kind of a force to deal with, even for lizards. I often wondered if that reptile had been studying me the whole time, his little head peeking out of his hole, in shock and awe at my human audacity. If the little girl in me ever sits still long enough to finish this autobiographical fantasy, she’s calling it The Adventures of Little Rocket. It’s my life in illustrated verse filled with creatures and aliens, rocket rides through cities and deserts with rapid twists and turns around baseball diamonds, Marine Corps bases, schoolyards, drum kits on concert stages, soaring through space and time, up around the moon and back. Despite dark mysteries and troubled times, so far, I’ve really enjoyed my ride.

It’s obvious my imagination developed faster than anything, especially during my first few summers of life spent in Twenty-Nine Palms where my father served in the Marine Corps. The desert there was filled with the rich scents of sage and story. It’s funny how childhood experiences and memories continue to manifest deeper meaning throughout life.

I am also Rocket, the baseball player whose nickname was aptly assigned by coaches and teammates during my tenure playing professional women’s baseball in the 1990’s. That moniker stuck after sports writers heard me being called “Rocket” and glommed on to it when writing about our league games. It fits. I stood six feet-one in my metal spikes as a pitcher, and some were heard saying, “Rocket can really bring the heat!” As a writer, I have mostly used my given name, Janelle Theone Frese, in publication, but today I call my business Rocket Rising. “Rising” is a family name on my maternal grandfather’s side and has an interesting history that originates back to 1225 England. For the past 135 years, the Rising family has held a reunion of some sort somewhere in America. I’ve always been interested in that heritage. I was especially fond of my grandfather, Ted Davis, the son of a Rising. He was a great storyteller, avid reader, and lifelong writer with a beautiful hand. He inspired my curiosity of books and poetry, letters and storytelling, just like his mother inspired him. I’ve published a few stories using the nom de plume Rocket Rising, and a few poems under the name J.T. Rising as well, but my first contribution to the literary world was a book I wrote called O Chaplain! My Chaplain! which I published in 2006 under my name, Janelle T. Frese. This is a book close to my heart because it was my first writing experience that truly held me accountable. I was beholden by friendship in the call of duty to get the story right. It is a historical biography about a military veteran who was my dearest friend, Lt. Col. George Russell Barber. He was one of only four Army chaplains who participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy at Omaha Beach, and the only one still living in 2001 when we met and struck up that friendship. Researching his life and military service was a real training ground for me as a writer. I’m very grateful he chose me to memorialize his legacy this way.

Before I met the good chaplain, I was reading and grading lots of student writing, enjoying my own writing for fun, taking workshops, writing morning pages, experimenting with automatic writing, attending conferences, seeking out advice from Ray Bradbury at his every local appearance, basically doing crazy, but encouraging things like that. Tackling the job of writing a serious biography about a distinguished war veteran was a huge undertaking that demanded a whole new level of commitment and attention to detail. I had to gain a special kind of confidence. I mean, I always knew I could do it, but the promise of honoring someone’s life experience who became my trusted friend during the process required every ounce of integrity, time, heart, and soul. Chaplain Barber had every measure of faith in me, but I had to have that kind of faith in myself too.

How did I know I could do it? This is often the question I am asked by my students, and one I ask myself. Over the span of my teaching career – I’ve been teaching for thirty years – my students have sought my support, honesty, guidance, and encouragement to be good writers. The first thing I like to do in welcoming them is tell them, “You are all writers on the journey of your life.” I write on the board: There is No Wrong. There is Only WRITE. They pause, some are confused, so I tell them, “Think about it.” Then, we write. I write with them. I try to be a good model. I give them mentor texts to study and analyze. We learn together. I want them to know they can do it. The more they read and write with me, the better they get, and the better I become too. One of my colleagues published a booklet of student writing back in 2002, and passed the torch to me when she retired. Since then, I’ve put together ten years of annual collections of student writing in self-published books called The Hearts and Souls of Gilbert High School. Each year students imagine and select a theme. Sometimes staff members and other teachers join in the fun and contribute writing to a collection or two. These annuals are filled with stories, poems, even artwork. I keep these collections in my classroom for current and future students to see and perhaps gain the inspiration it takes to write their own stories or poems. This year’s collection is entitled: 2020 Vision. As you might imagine, students have much to write about this year. Teaching, like writing, is fun for me. My dad, who was also a teacher and coach, taught me early on to remember things in threes. He made me use the three C’s when I was learning to bat. He’d say, “You gotta have confidence. You gotta have courage. And you gotta master the art of concentration.” It’s easy to remember things in three’s. Take these three philosophies, for example: 1. To be is to do – Socrates. Therefore, a writer writes. Right? A pitcher pitches. A drummer drums. Flip it, and you will see the second philosophy: 2. To do is to be – Satre. If you do it, then you’re it! If I pitch, for example, I’m a pitcher. If I teach, I’m a teacher. If I drum, I’m a drummer. Therefore, to write is to be a writer. And thirdly, there’s the philosophy of Sinatra: Do be do be do! Think about it. LOL. I love that joke. All kidding aside, writing does take work, and that work has been at the core of my life’s journey.

I think I had an innate desire to want to write well, probably to please the people close to me. As a kid, those people were my parents, my teachers fond and dear, my grandfather. I also had to cultivate a sense of personal pride, one in which I could write until I’m happy. That takes doing. So, I write and I write. I have written every day in some form or another for as long as I can remember, with or without another’s judgment. I would say my writing has been a fluid aspect of my personal life ever since I entered the little writing contest in Mr. Horner’s 4th-grade class at Luther Elementary School in La Palma, California, my hometown. As silly as it sounds, somehow winning that little contest made me feel validated as a writer and gave me the hope that my writing could serve a purpose one day. It also earned me a Famous Star with cheese at Carl’s Jr. with Mr. Horner! I gobbled up that burger, but I still have that 4th-grade hand-written essay. It was a narrative non-fiction piece entitled “The One and Only” inspired by the beautiful life and tragic death of my sweet grandmother, Theone Davis. I must admit I am both enraptured and tortured by her story, and I have yet to finish writing it because it is a story with no ending. How can I end it? The case is unsolved. It’s become part of me, unfinished, unresolved.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
My grandmother’s life was stolen from us on August 5th, 1971, when I was barely five. I was so young I hadn’t yet heard the words “murder” or “foul play” and I couldn’t understand why everyone was screaming and crying. But I remember my grandmother, her love and her sweetness and her playfulness, and I remember how everything in my life changed that hot, dark day. It forced me to toughen up and endure. Before her death, I had enjoyed so many moments in early childhood of being read-to. My grandparents read to me, my mother and father read to me, so many storybooks and poems, but when I was five and grandmother died, the youthful expectation of being read-to suddenly stopped. ‘Strange, too, how 5 is the numeric symbol for change. My grandmother’s death – the way she died, and the fact that her case has remained unsolved for nearly five decades – not only shattered my world, it broke every heart in my family.

As a child trying to understand what happened, I naturally asked many questions. My mother could barely speak without weeping. My grandfather nearly died from grief, but the miracle of his survival became the example I strive to live by. He became determined to honor his beloved Theone by living, by leading, by loving again. He refused to allow the pain and heartache to take any more of us, so he asked us to rebuke grief and shirk the evil pillars of injustice too. He became a hero to me as I grew and matured in the shadow of death’s silent aftermath. I always enjoyed receiving a hand-written letter from him. His letters were filled with eloquent verse, wisdom, beautiful gifts of heartfelt poetry, and I saved them all, and I treasure them to this day. From time to time, I re-read his letters, and he comes back to life, and we have amazing conversations! I still learn from him, you see, from all of them – my ancestors and more.

As a teacher and mother of three, I understand how difficult it is to explain the unfathomable to a child who seeks to know the unknown. Grief is heavy and takes a toll on the soul. Despair over unanswered questions and the agony of injustice is worse. Many weighty memories tug at me, but they keep me writing. Some of my best writing was born of anguish, sadness, anger. I lament. Over the years, my writing, which has mainly been for me, has taken on many forms. In one extraordinary way, it has become an open conversation with ancestors, friends, spirit guides, great writers who have many good things to tell me or to teach. In a way, the trauma of death has been both the curse and the blessing that began my journey. For nearly fifty years, my grandmother’s cold case and all of its haunting, far-reaching tentacles has been the epic saga I write, with many chapters unturned, and it remains the intricate puzzle I will never stop seeking to solve. I have hoped upon hope to write a happy ending one day soon, but I can wait, and I remain open to options. One fact remains, someone knows who murdered Theone Davis. My writing, fiction and non, always seems to contain a narrative of someone telling the truth, the simple act of fairness that holds the power to set souls free.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Rocket Rising story. Tell us more about the business.
Rocket Rising, my business, is less of a business and more of a massive old tree with many sturdy branches. It’s the business of staying busy writing. Sometimes I follow the ideology that I must write what I know, and I have some decent credibility to write a few cool things. But when I embrace the Bradbury-esque style of writing “autobiographical fantasy” then I can write anything in any way, and I do. Anything is possible that way. Even solving crimes. I study my visions and dreams, and sometimes let them write themselves. And yes, my grandmother has paid me many visits! I think this is a common writer’s experience, communing with the dead so-to-speak, and trust me, I’ve asked her. I ask the burning questions all the time, and I do get answers, just not the answers one might expect. In my writer’s nights by the light of a glowing pink candle, she reaches for my hands and tells me everything she knows. She takes me to her Salt Lake City home where she learned to play piano. I’ve met her many pets, her funny parents, her baby brothers and sister, too. She has taken me to the Los Angeles radio stations where she sang duets in the 1920’s. She sang the Bubble Up jingle for me, the first commercial jingle ever to be sung live on the radio! She showed me the time she sang a duet with Jimmy Durante on the Harry Von Zell segment. She took me to the spot where she threw Phil Harris’s ring off the end of the Santa Monica Pier! She and I have built sandcastles at the beach, picked violets along walks together on the streets of Sierra Madre, and we’ve washed freshly-picked cherries in the kitchen of her home in Huntington Park, CA. We’ve sat side by side on park benches and piano benches and giggled through sing-song imaginings, but whenever she tries to tell me who cut her life too short, the candlelight flickers and black smoke rises and plumes above the flame. She can’t give me more than a description of two young men she doesn’t know. They were strangers to her. Phantoms. If I persist, she shows me images of a snarling police chief pounding on a desk. Perhaps he knows. Was he involved? I see faces in the moonlight lurking by my bedroom window, searching for a way in. These emotional monoliths stand like Stone Henge around her case that I will keep investigating until the end of time, or until the hope of a tomorrow when justice is served and souls are set free and hearts are healed and mankind is forgiven. In a nutshell, I have always hoped that my writing business will solve her case.

More importantly, however, it is her wish that I remember her for the way she lived, not the way she died. She wants me to live a joyful, happy life. Like my grandfather, I think I’ve honored that. First and foremost, I love my livelihood. I am a teacher and have been teaching writing and literature since 1990. I can’t imagine a year without that. This year was a challenge making the transition to distance learning, but hey, who doesn’t love a challenge? Certainly not a writer! It’s kind of like distance healing. I am also a Reiki distance healing practitioner. If you’re open to receiving, I’d be happy to send you the powerful healing energy! I also make time for music. I play the drums and percussion and have enjoyed working and performing with many talented musicians and artists over the years, mainly for fun, but, oh the stories and the travels! I could write another book, and I am! I am so grateful to my mother and father who allowed me to do things little girls didn’t traditionally get the chance to do in the 1970’s like play drums, run around in cowboy boots catching lizards, and play softball and baseball.

Once upon a time, I was an NCAA Division 1 championship softball player at Nebraska and later played professional baseball during a brief moment in history when a tiny window opened just enough to let a few women through to get paid to play for two summers. I pitched for the Los Angeles Legends in 1997 and the Long Beach Aces in 1998. Lots of stories there! I have many stories in the works as I speak. Currently, I am working on a book and co-writing the screenplay about a charming mid-Century Italian-American family from a town called Andalusia near Northeast Philly and all their whimsical exploits, and I’m not even Italian! I am also proudly and excitedly editing that wonderful collection of student writing and poetry for publication this summer. But always, always, always I am writing another chapter of “The One and Only” – the story of my grandmother Theone, that hand-written story ever-evolving from the fourth grade. Today’s chapter is the latest conversation of Pink Candle Interviews, another playful psychic chat with my dearly beloved. Grandma Theone squeezes my hand three times, and I begin to write. Suddenly, all of the forces of nature mix in a writing ritual steeped in the steam of every element: Earth – paper, pen, a small wooden table, a rickety chair. Water – perspiration and tears, a glass of water, rain. Air – I take a deep breath, and the spirits draw near, ghosts reappear from the past and gather ‘round. Fire – I light a pink candle, watch the flame flicker and glow as the story grows longer and the mystery unfolds.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
If you ask me about luck, I would say I’ve been savvy enough to turn bad luck into good on many occasions throughout my life. As an athlete, I’ve been on underdog teams who surprised the heck out of everyone with the big win in a championship game. As a teacher, I’ve seen struggling students find their voices and declare victory on the graduation day stage. It was one lucky day when I met Chaplain Barber and he called me Ji-neel in his sweet Georgia voice. It was bad luck turned on its side when my grandfather said in his darkest hour that, “Somehow, some way, some good must come from this,” and I listened and I believed him. I learned that I might actually possess the power to turn a tragedy into a triumph. That’s not so much luck as it is determination, and I am fiercely determined. I am, however, still awaiting that lucky break in the case and the day that someone in law enforcement calls to say they caught the bad guys and solved my grandmother’s murder.

If you ask me about success, I would say three things. First, success is a series of steps in the right direction. That makes good common sense, doesn’t it? Keep moving forward doing the positive wonderful things you love. Secondly, I have never tied success to any outcomes. In just being determined to do things for the love and the joy and the happiness of it, I have felt a sense of personal success. That’s really all anyone needs. In baseball, of course, I wanted to win every game of every season, but sometimes, in defeat, I learned more. I could be playing the most glorious game with the truest of grit and determination, and then BOOM, game over. Meet the agony of defeat. But sometimes in losing a game, we win the lesson. Learning is success – learning from mistakes, going to the place where friendships are forged or teammates grow closer, you know? Thirdly, success is having fun. I have fun when I write. I have fun when I play my djembe or sit behind my drum kit. There can be public scrutiny in anything for sure, but if I worried about that or what kind of story I’m writing or which style of music I’m playing or what kind of book or screenplay is next, I wouldn’t have fun. So, I beat on the drums and jump at any chance I’m invited to play. I write and teach and live and dream. So far, feedback has been positive. I’ve earned a few accolades along the way which I am ever-so-grateful for and humbled by. But I will tell you this, my greatest reward is the deepest most meaningful moment found in the little things in life. Lighting pink candles. Picking wild roses. A tasty curveball called strike three. A letter in the mail. In my classroom, when I find a note or letter from a student on my desk, often from someone I never knew I had reached or influenced in any way, and it’s filled with simple words of loving thanks, those are the gleaming golden trophies. I could cry tears of joy forever just thinking about that.

If you’d like to be published in one of my Hearts and Souls books, well, you’d have to be a student at my school! These books are free, but they cost us to print. You’re certainly welcome to donate to that good cause. Paypal any amount to: jtfrese@sbcglobal.net. Add GILBERT in the remarks. My students and I will really appreciate that. If you would like to buy the 2006 edition of my book O, Chaplain! My Chaplain! you can find it here at this link: https://www.trafford.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000149817. Eventually, I’ll get a couple of dollars in the mail for that. There are some nice reviews of the book on Amazon if you want to read more about it or get it there. Otherwise, you can pre-order the anniversary edition I intend to publish in 2021. Send $20 via PayPal to jtfrese@sbcglobal.net. Earmark your message, O, Chaplain! If you’ve ever known and loved a veteran, I think you will enjoy this book – a tribute to a true gentleman, veteran, and friend. Email me if you have any questions about that. If you like sports and have a heart for the plight of women in sports, I started a Facebook page for the Ladies Professional Baseball League. I have been prompted to write a book about women in baseball from the perspective of a player who was there, and I’m testing the waters to see how much interest there is. Hopefully, a lot. Maybe so much that MLB will finally get the hint, it’s time women get a real chance to play again, not just coach or drag the infield. Come on! I’m talking women suited up and getting paid to play!

And, most importantly, if you have any connection to Huntington Park, California, mainly between the years 1968 and 1975, I would love to talk to you. If you knew my grandparents, Ted and Theone Davis, I would love to hear stories you remember of them. I am seeking any information regarding my grandmother’s case, anyone who remembers anything or who may have information about who might have been involved. Please contact me at jtfrese@sbcglobal.net or Facebook message me. I’m on FB as Janelle Frese. If you’re an Instagrammer find me @jtrocket1867. Follow me on social media! You’ll see I still love lizards. You’ll meet Bubbles, my four-year-old tropical iguana. She’ll keep you up to date with my writings, printings, poetry, music performances, and more. If you’re curious about psychic energy and studying automatic writing, hit me up on my Pink Candle Interviews page. There’s always something to talk about there.

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