|The LifeStory Institute
The writer's workshop for memoirists, autobiographers and family historians.
LifeStory was founded in 1991 as a how-to newsletter/magazine and also as an over-the-road workshop
travelling North America teaching and coaching new and longtime writers of all ages how to write about
their lives and the lives of their ancestors. The premise is that everyone can, and probably should, write
their life story to pass on to their family,friends,and others interested, including and perhaps especially,
All material on this website unless otherwise indicated is Copyright 2015 by The LifeStory Institute.
WELCOME TO THE 19th CONSECUTIVE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG! We will run for 28 days (ending on
July 28). JOIN ME!
The idea is that if you write every day for 28 days you will be habituated and will joyously do it forever after!
If you have been here all along, by all means go on writing each and every day. You'll come to love it as I
have these past fifty years. I am Charley Kempthorne and this is our LifeStory website, my means of reaching out to you and all
the wide world. I am a writer and a writing coach. Mainly I try to help people by encouraging and enabling them to write regularly--daily if
at all possible.
Please join me in writing 500+ words this morning about whatever is on your mind. You do yours at home and I'll do mine right here. We
support one another by writing together. If you'd like to share some or all of what you've written, send it to me via email,
19th Journalong continues! Look for the LifeStory Online Workshop coming soon.
BAKED FRESH THIS MORNING
AT LETTER ROCK
Mon., July 27, 2015
So a new week begins. I guess it began yesterday, Sunday, but that never made sense to
me. Sunday should be the end of the week, not the beginning. If I were running the
world, I’d fix that. Stand by.
Saturday morning was always a special time when I was a kid. It meant going to town and
buying candy or some nails to drive in the ground and, during the war, a quarter’s worth
of Liberty Stamps at the Post Office in Poland, Indiana. And there was always the war, the
Germans (Lassie-haters that they were) and the Japanese, only we didn’t call them “the
Japanese” back then, we called them the Japs and the Germans were called Krauts, or
the Nazis, differentiating the great German people (who were for many of us our
ancestors) from Hitler’s gang. It was amazing to me that twenty-five years later I met and
nearly married a Japanese woman whose father, like mine, had been in World War II,
except that her father did not come home. He was killed in the Philippines.
Even after the war I remember playing a game in the alley behind our house at 1819
Poyntz here in Manhattan. We had our trash burning barrel set up there and in the spirit
of that era of anything goes environmentally, we boys made a huge pile of empty boxes
and soaked them in gasoline and after we put a tin can or two on top of the highest box to
represent the Axis Powers, we touched a match to the whole thing and watched it go up in
flames and danced around the conflagration chanting, Hotsy-Totsy, I’m a Nazi! Then,
when the cans began falling into the fire, we went gleenfully on: Hotsy, Totsy! Not so
hotsy to be a Nazi!
The war was a scarring experience for us all.
I had a friend who during the War was the CO of a German POW camp near Marshfield,
Wisconsin. He told me (with a laugh) that his main job was preventing the surrounding
German-descended farmer’s wives from coming to the camp on Sundays and sliding
confections and cakes under the fence to their cousins who were interred therein.
My name is Kempthorne, and that’s an English name. On my mother’s side I am an
Isaacs, also an English name. But my father’s mother was a Nodolf, a German name. So I
am ¾ English, ¼ German. So there you go.
I’ve always wondered: how many German kids are now named Adolf? Probably not a lot.
In that same alley--get this, you’ll love it--Jimmy Dyer and I simulated--or planned to,
though it never came off--the great fight between Billy Conn (whom I always assumed was
from Connecticut, but actually I think not) and Joe Louis for the heavyweight champion of
the world. Jimmy probably weighed all of 60 pounds and I was about the same, so
together we weighed less than half of either of those great boxers.
We even set up a ring with ropes and everything and then we chickened out a couple of
days before. Jimmy was to be Billy Conn and I was to be Joe Louis, known as “The Brown
Bomber.” Both of us were whiter than sheets. ###
I missed my high school reunion this year. We were on the road in New York and New
England during the time they had the weekend long extravaganza back here, Manhattan,
Class of 1955. I remember all that well. Actually, as miserable (sometimes without
knowing it, sometimes believing I was having a hi-larious time) as I was, it’s a wonder I
remember any of it at all. I ran away from home in early December, 1953--I’ve written
about that--and when Johnny and I came back just in time for Christmas after a two
thousand mile road trip down to New Orleans and back, I refused to go back to school.
So after an abortive attempted to get into college (they wouldn’t take me even though I
passed their entrance exam) I went to work. I have always loved work. I worked in a print
shop, in a rubber stamp factory, and as a ticket-taker in several of the local movie
houses. Somewhere in there I started dating a girl who was still in high school and that
led me back in early 1955 to high school. Still I had to take some correspondence
courses to be able to graduate that evening in May, 1955. There was a terrible
thunderstorm during the ceremony and the lights went out. In something they’d never do
now, we passed out candles and we graduated by candlelight. The commencement
speaker, a nice man from Missouri who was a school superintendent over there said we’d
always remember the candlelight service but forget always his speech. And he was right.
Yet I do remember that line, don’t I?
So that’s sixty years ago. A lot of us are dead and gone. Maybe a quarter of us. I think
the class was about 160. Yeah, maybe a quarter of us are dead. One poor kid, Gary
Hixon, died in a car crash at 18, a few days before graduation. I think his parents took his
diploma home. Gary was one of those golden boys: a great athlete, a superior student,
handsome and everything else: and he didn’t live. He might have been president of the
US had he made it.
I wish I could have made my reunion. They are special, and I don’t mean that satirically.
Somehow we have measured our lives with one another. I’ll bet I could name every kid I
graduated with, or nearly everyone, though I’d be hard put to recognize them all. We don’
t look the way we did sixty years ago. On my 50th I couldn’t call out the name of a girl I
was half in love with when we were seniors. Well, I was half in love with at least half the
girls in my class, but this one--who had to tell me who she was--I was more than half in
love with, I guess.
I don’t have my yearbooks. I made one move too many before spending 44 years right
here and they were misplaced. I hope that when I get to heaven there is a big pile of stuff
just inside the Pearly Gates of all the stuff I ever lost--glasses, rings, wallets, yearbooks
and other photo stuff and, of course, hearing aids.### 541 words, 24 minutes.
Sat., July 25, 2015
I needed a prompt. I looked on the shelf in the hallway. There were a dozen little trinkets,
very dusty now, that over the years I or June brought it from the yard, mostly over where
the sandpile used to be. Kids love sand, and we had the kids. So do cats, and we have
the cats, but I’d rake it out now and then and using gloves pick up their doodoo and
through it into the woods. The sandpile was in the shade of an apricot tree that bloomed
and got frozen out nearly every year. Actually I don’t remember ever getting an apricot off
But now, the apricot tree dead and gone, the kids gone out into the wide world, we have
these little things: legos, a little toy truck, things I don’t recognize. The youngest one is
soon to be 36. Rip. Rip loved legos. He more than any of our kids or even any kid I ever
knew, would build elaborate constructions sometimes a foot or more tall. I suppose lots
of kids did that: airplanes, ships, tall buildings.
When I was a boy we had Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, and an erector set that my brother
loved and because I loved my older brother, I loved too. I did not grow up to be an
engineer like him but I did learn to respect buildings and their framing. I added on a room
or two here, helped with others, once with another guy built in a weekend a double garage
from a kit. Several things I built around the farm here that I recall collapsed within hours.
I don’t remember just what, but one or two things did. We just laughed and took a smoke
break with a cup of coffee and maybe I spent the rest of the day writing. Things collapsed
there too, sometimes, but it doesn’t show so much. And I always had the courage to go
back and rewrite. I cared about the writing, it reflected badly on my view of myself if I
couldn’t mend it, but buildings…well, I could always say, building isn’t really my passion:
There were times though, when I was in such despair to write that I couldn’t.
That time in Mexico. I went all the way down there to write and just froze solid. I was
glued to the table in the spacious room with the big open window that could be closed
only with wooden shutters. We closed them at night so, I guess, the bats wouldn’t fly in.
No bats ever did, nor did they ever try so far as we knew, but we both had read that thing
in high school about the bats going in caves at night by the thousands, and we didn’t
want to wake in the night to find a thousand bats clustered twittering all around us,
staring at us with their beady little eyes. Or do bats have eyes? I don’t remember. The
night has a thousand eyes. 510 words, 9 minutes.
Fri., July 24, 2015
I actually like work. All kinds, even lifting and putting things away, cleaning, scouring,
loading and unloading…I have even shoveled my share of shit and enjoyed it. I was
always glad to see such work end but I enjoyed the ending, the sense of having finished
some hard work. What I dislike to the point of hatred is getting started. Should I do this
first or that? Should I start that article now, or first thing in the morning? Upstairs, or
down? In, or outside? Shit,or go blind? God, I hate that kind of thinking. But I do plenty
of it. I am tantalizing and torturing myself.
I have dealt with this so long that I have developed alternatives. I have a list of things to
do, my TTD list. Then I have another, less formal paper from my “Daybook,” (God will
probably not deal kindly with people who get up in the day that he hath made and write in
their puny little Daybook what they’re going to do with it) where I write down things I have
to get done if I can’t do the others. Get it? Got it? Good.
My late great mother-in-law (the very one who knew that it took more muscles to frown
than it did to smile but felt it was worth the extra effort)--dear Lois, rarely sat down
without a bowl of potatoes to peel or something, always something to do--she rarely
rested except when she went to bed because she knew work was what we were born for
and it was her way of serving God and it was her joy and her “play” to serve God; she did
not have a TTD, I do not think.
I don’t know where I’m going with this. Maybe I’m going to work.
I couldn’t sleep. Story of my life. I fall asleep during the day and then I can’t sleep during
the night. I can’t sleep on demand. You’ve got the time now, Charley: SLEEP! It doesn’t
work. I wish I could just turn myself off with a click and back on with a click. All those
little demonic thoughts (and angelic ones too) that come out and play when I lie down.
My head is like a basketball court, everyone running up and down, throwing balls and
making or missing baskets, the crowd screaming, referees blowing whistles…oh, it’s so
exhausting. And then, by the grace of God, I finally in the wee hours drift into a trance
state and then, somewhere in there, somehow, lapse into what I loosely call “sleep.”
According to my sainted Mother, when I was a very small boy of 4 or so, and we lived on
Laramie Street in the old part of town, I would get out of my little bed in the night and,
everyone asleep, go outside and walk up and down the street pulling my wagon and going
through neighbors trash picking out their whiskey bottles (Kansas still had prohibition
then) and unloading them on the rail of our front porch. I don’t suppose I did this more
than once or twice. I’m sure I was dealt with. Once also, at least once, I was told that my
father heard me walking about and came out to the living room (where I was probably
reading a magazine in the dark) with a hair brush in his hand to use as a weapon to kill
me, and I was found to be just me, his 4 year old son, and he put the hair brush away and
with a certain loving brusqueness urged me back to bed. ###
I think it was November 18,1971 when I came out here for the first time to the 80 acre farm
that Mom and Dad had bought a couple of years before—1968, actually—as an
investment and out of some sentimental memories of our living two miles away in the old
Pillsbury place,the big stone house with the widow’s walk at the top. We had lived in that
house from 1947 to1951. That’s the house I think of as my boyhood home, though we had
lived a few years (1942 to 1946) in rural Indiana in the Old Holler and up by Poland,
I have lived two-thirds of my life in the country—in Indiana, Kansas, and in Wisconsin. I
have lived in towns and cities,some big ones: Milwaukee, Kansas City, Brooklyn; Minot,
North Dakota; Rewey, Wisconsin; Manhattan, Kansas; Norman,Oklahoma; Lawrence,
Kansas; Iowa City, Iowa; Stevens Point,Wisconsin. Nice cities, nice towns all, but for me,
village, town or city, compared to living in the country, they aren’t very nice places to visit
and I wouldn’t want to live there, either.
But when I was a high school boy and even into my 20s, I considered a city life—New
York and Paris. I would be an émigré writer, probably more than a little bit like Ernest
Hemingway, without the bullfighting and the big game fishing. Yes,that would be it.
My boss, Lieutenant Commander Julian Rutledge looked at me sourly, standing there
across from him where he was seated at his vast gray steel desk. A sheaf of papers was
in the middle of the desk,nothing else. He was, as he proudly said, “a clean desk man.”
Papers came in and he processed them and within minutes they moved along. He shook
his head and then leaned back and clasped his hands behind his gray head. He lit a
cigarette and blew out a long spume of smoke. “Oh, hell, Kempthorne,” he suddenly said.
“It’s just the Turkish Army.” He looked directly at me again. “Now get out of here and get
back to work.” “Yes, sir,” I said, and turned to go. As I went out he yelled behind me,
“Try not to lose your ass before we get back to New York, will you?” “Yessir!” I said, and
went thankfully out to the deck and the open air.
That ended the Gizli Affair, I called it, gizli being the Turkish word for secret.
Six weeks before, when the 8th Turkish Brigade under the flag of the United Nations, had
embarked our ship in Inchon, Korea, I was given custody by some faceless Turkish officer
of a stack of papers that was, I could see, a passenger list, the name, rank and serial
number of every Turkish troop and officer on board—some three thousand men. I
thumbed through it hurriedly—we were still embarking and the Captain was eager to sail,
yelling at us from the bridge through his bullhorn—and I saw the red word gizli stamped
all over it and wondered what it was meant, but only momentarily—until someone yelled
at me to take the last troops aboard and stand back so that the gangway could be
removed. I chucked it all in the white canvas satchel we had all the other embarkation
instructions in, and stood on deck as the tugs pulled us out into the stream, watching all
the cheering on the dock below and all the bye-byes from the troops thronging the decks
to their friends—many girlfriends, and later we were to discover that about 80% of the
men had gonorrhea (later immortalized as the “gone to Korea”)…the departure was
always a dramatic moment I never missed. But a few minutes later I went below decks to
our office and threw everything on the table and, with my helper, Joey, a yeoman striker
from New Jersey, went to chow. ###
Okay, so here I am at last. It’s 830 here in sunny and (this morning) cool Kansas. It’ll
warm into the upper 80s or low 90s (cool by Kansas standards) by mid-afternoon but that’
s all right. I nap in the heat of the day, and I hope you can too. Remember the old song
from the old play by old Noel Coward, “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the
I am forgetting so many things I used to know, had on the tip of my tongue ready to use
(and was so proud thereof) and now I’m floundering. (I had to think twice to get the word
floundering out, just now, for example.) My grandson tells me, “Maybe it’s not important,
Grandpa.” He’s right, of course. I am unfortunately able to remember I said in my 30s to
my first Reminiscence Writing Workshop here in Manhattan that something they were all
trying to think of that “it doesn’t really matter, does it?” And they glared. They were all
trying to remember where Cole’s Department Store used to be. Very important to them
because they needed the reassurance that they were still here on the planet Earth and
among the living.
As I am now. The people who know (and remember) everything say, Keep your mind
active. Well, I cannot imagine a more active mind than my own—hyperactive—but not long
ago I added on the task of working the newspaper’s daily crossword puzzle to get me in
the mood to sleep and to keep my brain active (yes,a perfect example of working at cross
(pun intended) purposes), but the puzzles were so dumb I just couldn’t go on. I don’t
mean that they were too easy: they weren’t. The cultural references were all after I had
such cultural education as I have had, so I knew none of those. (Do you know the lead
character in the recent movie about the Bingle Bangles?) Or the questions were so inane,
e.g., “Part of a tuna fish can,” that I couldn’t stomach them.
My parents weren’t religious at all. If there was a Bible in the house, we had to go look for
it. It might be on that shelf on a side table in the living room or it might be propping up a
short leg of a bed. Mom, who loved crossword puzzles,might have it somewhere at hand
to use for her puzzles. Both my parents were readers, but not of the Bible. It wasn’t that
they were atheists or anything like that. They just didn’t think of religion at all. Dad wrote
a generous yearly check to our church—let’s see, where was that…somewhere on Poyntz
Avenue—but that was because his accountant said it’d be a good way to get a tax
deduction. We never prayed, we never went to church, we never thought of God at all.
But when I grew up I felt somehow I should deal with that stuff. I wasn’t an unhappy kid,
or I didn’t seem to be, but in my early teens I began to be troubled and I looked into the
possibility of attending a church, and since Dad had to go to town every Sunday morning
anyway to visit patients, he could just drop me at the church and pick me up on his way
home. But that soon became a chore and a bore, so we silently agreed to stop. ### 575
My mother loved to shop. Shopping was always at the top of her things to do today list, if
she had one written out, which I doubt. The only really unhappy memories I have from my
childhood are being in a giant department store (like Marshall Field’s in Chicago) usually
with my brother and waiting while Mom tries on shoes or hats. We’d play on the escalator
and get in trouble with the floorman. Or we’d run or do something, anything, to ease the
boredom—and we’d get in trouble with nearly everybody. I was a child back in the day
when children weren’t catered to, as they are now. The marketing people, if there were
such people then, hadn’t thought that the best thing they could do to increase sales was
to focus on the customer’s “experience” in the store. They just thought that all they had
to do was put out great merchandise at an affordable price. Weird, isn’t it?
My father hated shopping. He never shopped, not even for (say) a gift for Mom on her
birthday or Christmas. He would plead being too busy with patients, and he probably
was. So he’d send his secretary to buy whatever Mom told him to. Or he’d do it over the
phone, and if Mom didn’t like it—the new coat or whatever—Mom could take it back and
get something else, and of course, be doing her favorite thing: shopping.
I am like my father only I don’t have a secretary to send to the store. For a few minutes a
month I can tolerate and even enjoy shopping at the lumberyard or a bookstore. That’s
all. Hell is having to shop, in my opinion.
I love factories, however. I would jump at the chance to spend an hour or two in a good
factory like, say, a sawmill or a shipyard. I would go through and look at everything being
made. I would love to talk to the people who work there. The happiest day at school, ever,
was when my printing class in 8th grade made a field trip to Kansas City to go through
several factories, including Hallmark Cards and the Tension Envelope Company. And oh,
the unforgettably mythic newspaper, The Kansas City Star.
My old friend Bob Joyce once gave me a personal tour of a bookbindery in Los Angeles.
I don’t think I’d like to go through a sausage factory. “Everyone loves sausage but
nobody wants to see it made.” I’m for that. Years ago when I was a housepainter I angled
to go through a paint factory, The Kwal Paint Company in Denver. Now that was pretty
interesting. I tried to go through the Purdy Brush Company in Portland. I asked my paint
dealer to make an appointment for me and he did, or said he did. We drove half a day to
find the place (this was BG,Before Garmin) and when we got there it was closed. I was
much put out. ### 502 words, one hour.
I am dreaming that I’m fleeing from something, in a car perhaps, something, and a horse
starts running with me and I am amazed at how fast the horse is going I am going as fast
as I can and maybe the horse is catching up the horse loaned, I loaned it out, or
something, and now I’m trying to catch up.
Dreams. I feel they are powerful and important but when I try to write about them they
slip through my net. I’ve gone through periods of several months or more when I wrote
my dreams but it bothered me that my accounts were often inadequate or even
inaccurate, I worried that my conscious mind was messing with my unconscious (or vice
versa) and so I’d eventually stop, unsatisfied. Dreams are on the fringe of my life…but
they’re not, they’re at the center of it.
When I started journaling in 1964 part of my subterranean plan was to “at the very least”
give an account of a crazy and chaotic mind--my own. Now I know that if any man or
woman tries to give such an account, they will come to believe that they are crazy, or at
least filled with crazy thoughts side by side with the sane ones.
Ugga ugga boo ugga boo boo ugga. Bingle bangle bungle I don’t wanta leave the jungle: I
refuse to go!
Mom was in bed watching golf on tv. The two cats, Bubba and Trinket, were seated
beside her. When I leaned over to pet Bubba she shrank from me and hissed. “Same to
you, Bub,” I said, and hissed back at him. Mom was working a crossword puzzle too.
When she looked up, her eyes were magnified by the special glasses she always wore
since her character surgery.
“An Italian fish,” she said. “Five letters.”
“I don’t know any Italian fish,” I said.
“Starts with a w.”
Mom looked disgusted.
“Mom, I stopped by Meadowlark today.”
She dropped the newspaper and stared at me. “You what? Why?”
“I asked about getting you on the list.”
Mom pointed her pencil at me like a dagger. “You don’t put me on any list.” Her voice
“Okay. Okay. I was just--“
“Just no list. Not ever.”
“Okay.” I turned to go. “I’ve got to go get the kids.”
“You have ruined my day.”
“Okay, well, let it go. No list.” I looked at her as I left the room. She was already back at
the puzzle, pencil going.
“No list, right.” I was around the corner.
“Ever!” she called.
I think I have a spider bite on my upper left arm. I showed it to June. “It itches like crazy,
it’s red and swollen. It’s already beginning to ooze pus.” “Brown spider,” June said.
“Put antibiotic cream on it and keep putting it on.”
“Oh, it’s not--“
“I mean it. Remember when you had one like that and almost fell off the ladder? I felt it
and it was hot.”
“It could have been anything,” I said. “Maybe it was the wolfman.”
“Put cream on it,” she said. “I’ll go get some,” she said, rising.
“June!” I said. ###
535 words. 1 hour + (intermittent)
Sun., July 19, 2015
I dreamed I was planting corn and as I was planting it, rabbits were eating the seed.
Finally I took a flat bladed shovel and began bopping them with it. But as I woke I kind of
felt there were too many rabbits, though I might be able to grow a small crop. This was
one of several dreams of success I’ve had lately. I don’t really know what to make of it
except that (as June said) it beats screaming out for Help! Help!
I awoke thinking it was Monday, not Sunday, and I lay in bed in the dark planning my day
accordingly. Until I realized it was Sunday. Anyhow, I got up and shuffled around.
Peeing, looking at my aged self in the mirror, washing my hands and face, going out to
the living room and turning on the coffee. A storm was in progress and began gathering
force. The west door had blown open and the screen door was allowing bits of rain to
come through. I closed it. It wasn’t cold, but compared to the heat for the evening before,
it was almost arctic.
I am always amazed at the changes in temperature. Here in July I was standing in the
doorway with nothing on and grateful for the cool, but six months from now in January if I
were to stand here naked with the door open everyone in the house (which is to say June)
would yell at me to close the door and I myself would be feeling a bit so inclined and to
put clothes on with considerable alacrity.
I knew a guy in Wisconsin who belonged to the Milwaukee/Lake Michigan Polar Bear Club
and along with his brethren would on a certain day go down to the Lake and cut holes in
the ice to go swimming. For me that’s right up there with bungi jumping and other Evil
Knievel stuff that I have zero (-0-) interest in. It’s amazing what some people do with their
life. Golf, for example, or model railroading, or stamp collecting. Boredom, I guess. If I
have a leisure activity today it is surely watching children in the grocery or on a
playground. Yesterday some friends came out to look at our land and they had three
children, a young girl of 8; and the other couple had two, a newborn girl (ten days old)
and a boy of two or 3 asleep in his car seat. The newborn began to cry. She was sooo
tiny. The boy was oblivious. And the girl, Rose, was so playful and curious about
everything, especially bugs. The parents were nice people too, and interesting in their
own way, but at my age, the children win hands down. They are, after all, my
And with that do I pass into the business of the day: go forth and help the world spin as
it’s supposed to, and do good for your fellow creatures. ### 500 words, thirty-one minutes.
Sat., July 18, 2015
I slept in and I am l-e-t-h-a-r-g-i-c. I need jumpstarting. This morning if I am here at all I
am here to demonstrate how writing can restoreth an old soul. Zzzzzzzz.
So here I am, 77 years old, only a little decrepit, but working on it. I write, therefore I am.
My doctor when I suggested I was losing some of my memory gave me a big test. Here
are three words, he said, and I want you to remember them: house, dog, and flower.
Flower like a flower, or flour like bread flour? I asked. He looked at a picture on the wall
that just happened to have a flower in i. Flower like that flower, Kevin said. Okay, I said,
House, dog, flower. I’ll remember. I can do that. And I did when he asked ten minutes
So I guess I’m okay. But I still have trouble remembering Doris Day’s real name. (Doris
Mary Ann Kapplehauf, Cincinnati—probably she knew Leonard Slye, who was from the
same town (Roy Rogers).
I once told someone I was the grand-nephew (or something) of FDR. My middle name is
Roosevelt, and I was in fact named for him, along with 1,ooo,ooo other babies born while
he was doing his stretch as Prez (1932-1945). They believed—until I began laughing.
So here am, thus braced in the beams like old Walt Whitman—a mere tyke of 36 when he
wrote that—and ready to go forth this beautiful cloudy and moist summer morning.
From January 1956 to June of 1957 I lived in Norman, Oklahoma. I was in the Navy at the
Naval Air Technical Training Center there. Can’t you just see me there at my typewriter
doing something technical with naval air? Typing on an airplane, perhaps? Actually I
was in the personnel office, and one of my duties was to compile an idiotic monthly
report, the U. S. Workload and Man Hours Report. I was to account for all the hours
worked by all the people “attached to” US NATTC, Norman. This absolutely essential to
our national defense report was compiled by nobody (me) and read by no one. The
captain, who signed it and forwarded it to Washington, did not read it, nor so far as I
know, did anyone in Washington read it. It was a total boondoggle. But it had to be
done. If it wasn’t turned in, after a few days, the chief would come to my desk and want to
know how “that report” was going. I could have picked the numbers I put in all the blocks
at random and, probably in the desperate hours I worked late on it, I did. But I never
admitted it—till now. The statute of limitations on such crimes ran out about forty years
ago. I’m so grateful.
Tomorrow, I’ll be up and at ‘em with a little more alacrity, and possibly even on time. But
today, Saturday, I think I’ll cap off my week of spectacular industry by taking a nap and
then eating lunch and then, perhaps, going shopping. ### 523 words, fifty minutes.
Fri., July 17, 2015
I actually had a good night’s sleep after a happy day. We spent most of the day in town,
but not just horsing around. June went with me to see our doctor, a very pleasant and
informative man who has been our family doctor for forty years. Then we went to the
hospital to say goodbye to June’s first cousin, Fred, who was in ICU and getting ready to
be transferred to a hospice. We heard later on the phone that he was only in the hospice
a few hours when he passed. He had a good long life, a loving wife and family, made a
good living as a master carpenter…he had all the blessings.
The happiest event of the day was meeting a young man on the other end, Lincoln.
Lincoln was riding in a grocery cart facing me in the checkout line at Dillon’s. He was
plugged with a pacifier but his big round eyes took me in as I schmoozed with him and
his mom, who was taking her groceries out and stacking them on the belt while my old
friend Kim beeped them through. His mom was pleased to tell me about Lincoln,
something more than one year old, happy to be here, and of course I was only too happy
to tell all about my six children, though all of them are long out of grocery carts and out
there earning a living.
Maybe the happiest thing of the day was the very first thing, that is getting up very early
with June and working upstairs on the rooms up there, June painting while I got one of
the large corner closets ready to store things in. We have beaucoup things to store. I
hope we can work everyday up there a couple of hours so that we have at least one
bedroom all done, and maybe all of them more or less ready for human habitation again.
We might even start a Bed & Breakfast! And maybe we’d let rooms only to people who
were writing or want to start writing their family history.
To be able to work, to be able to be useful…that is glorious. Dad and Mom both urged me
to “get my hands out of my pockets…” and “Make myself useful.” And so after a few
years of studying those suggestions, I have done so. Or tried to.
I told Lincoln’s mother I was looking forward to be among the first to vote young Lincoln
into the Oval Office, and Mom was pleased at that. I said something with a laugh about
how’d vote in the classical political manner, as a resident of a cemetery. But she didn’t
really understand what I was alluding too, i.e., the practice of political hacks getting
people’s names from those in the cemetery as blocs of voters for their guy. I winked at
Lincoln, touched his beautiful little toes sticking out from the front of his little sandals,
and went off to surprise June, waiting in the car, with a little pot of black cherry Greek
40 minutes, 541 words.
Thu., July 16, 2015
I got up in the middle of the night, well, really about 4 am, to do some writing and
publishing on this website, and I could not get online and went to unplug and replug the
tall Wildblue modem and noticed that all the lights were out. June must have unplugged it
during the storm yesterday. But now, everything was plugged snuggly in. But the tall
bank of twinkling blue lights wasn’t twinkling anymore. Oh-oh. For about ten minutes I
checked all the plugs and connections and switches and…there you go. Everything
worked but the modem.
Pitched past pitch of grief…no worst, there is none. Said old Gerard Manley Hopkins,
who knew nothing of the agonies of the Internet, living back there as he did in the middle
of the 19th Century, when all you had to worry about was where the candles and plumes
Three hours later, it’s still off, even as the day breaks.
But now, now, up rises my beloved and with her tangle of red hair hanging down, unplugs
something unpluggable that I forgot to unplug—in fact, that I did not know was even
possible to unplug. And the little blue lights sang and chirped and twinkled again. She
even demonstrated her prowess by getting her email! PRAISE GOD FROM WHOM ALL
My mother laughed and told this story and Dad laughed too so I guess it was true: that
when my older brother was a mere babe, in 1934, a suckling lad, they did not have the
money to buy a regular baby bottle, and she wasn’t breastfeeding (I don’t know why, but I
think it may have been something to do with being a rebel and being so tres moderne,
don’t you know) that since Mom’s brother, Les, was a man who drank a half pint of
whiskey about every fifteen minutes, and so the empties were given a rubber nipple and
handed to Hungry Hal, who cared not a whit about the provenance of the bottle so long as
there was formula in it. And by the time I came along they had enough money to buy
regular formula bottles but Dad knew that a dram of whiskey helpeth the babe to stop
squawling. And so we grew.
So now Bill Cosby may be charged with rape. Maybe he should be. But isn’t there
something about ex post facto laws being, uh, illegal? And could that be so considered?
And so shall we dig up the Duke in the Marriage of Figaro and charge him too?
The storm yesterday was something to behold. The clouds parted, the rains came
straight down, and the roof leaked in all the right places. And so I can’t mow the lawn
In 1951 it rained and it rained and it rained all that spring and the roads closed, the streets
in town became channels for everyone’s fishing boat, and people yelled from the windows
of the second storey of their house and and all the cats and rats sought high ground. It
was called a flood, the Great Flood of 1951, and so it was. Even today you can find the
occasional bronze plaque downtown saying High Water Mark, 1951. ### 541 words, 22
Wed., July 15, 2015
Egad, I said to the lumpy, doughy man in the mirror. Harrummph! And then, drawing
myself up to my full height and sucking in my tummy, I said (manfully) as I rendered a
perfect salute, Good morning, sir! And so began the day. I had slept, with at least half a
dozen urinary interruptions, seven and a half hours. Very good, sir! This way, please.
I shuffled into kitchen and with one foot, dragged the scales out from under its place
beneath the kitchen table, tapped it with the pad of my right foot until it read 8888 and
then 00, stepped on and…waited. Les jeux sont fait. 207.0
I stood down, walked over to my notebook and wrote in the upper left corner, 206.8. (I
subtract .2 for my underpants, which I modestly kept on, since someone might peek in the
window even at this dark hour…a bobcat, a deer, a coyote…an old girlfriend.
Not bloody likely. I was an old man. Why, I was…retired!
Like hell I was! Even if I could afford it, I wouldn’t do a thing like that to me. My father,
God bless that great man, retired and hated it! One day in frustration and desperation, he
saw his last patient, went to the door of his office, turned around the cardboard sign that
said OPEN and scribbled CLOSED on the back. No more ophthalmology!
And he stuck with it. There was a week or so later a little party for family and the team of
nurses and secretaries who’d worked with him these many years, and someone gave him
a t-shirt that said in black letters EYES CLOSED with a cute little drawing underneath that
showed a pair of eyes with the lids shut.
And that was that. He had dropped down to half time a year before. Now he didn’tgo at
all. He got up next morning and sat down at the kitchen counter and read The Kansas
City Times as he ate his Mrs. Paul’s Fishsticks with two eggs sunny side up. He wished
for the few puffs he used to take from half a cigarette, remembered that he had quit, and
For what? To get sicker? To get more dependent and irrelevant? To be a burden?
He and Mom went to Europe to see all the places he’d been during the War. They came
home, thankful to be back. They went to Kansas City to visit their daughter. They may
even (I don’t remember) have gone all the way to California to visit their son. I was nearby
home, 8 miles away on the farm, always there. I’d drop by sometimes and have a cup of
coffee with him. One day I stopped fighting the rainy weather and gave the crew the day
off. I stopped in to visit Dad. He had hanged himself in the closet.
I wouldn’t be like that. I’d be one of those guys who laughed as he boomed out one of the
bumpersticker jokes about being too old to retire. I can’t afford to retire! ###
Tu., July 14, 2015
Well, whaddaya know, it’s Bastille Day. No doubt the French are dancing in les rues des
Paris and Lyons and Lille and Besancon. There was a time when I would have given
fifteen points on my IQ just to have a dram of French blood. Now…well, I’m just glad to
have blood of any kind. Wisconsin blood, Kansas blood, even Washington blood.
My Uncle Arthur was called “Swede,” and I never found out why. He died years ago, or
disappeared. I’m not sure anyone knows where he’s buried, though it is widely accepted
that he died in St. Petersburg, Florida. Swede was known in the family for his witty but
unintended remarks. “A man’s a fool if he doesn’t like blueberries,” Arthur intoned one
morning at breakfast.
Arthur worked for years at the Nash plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He put on the left front
door of this great vehicle—or maybe it was the right. He was also a fine pool player. I
played him once. I broke. He shot, and he shot and he shot and the game was over.
Arthur looked at me and laughed his wonderful laugh, good natured but also kind of one-
upping too. “I fooled you!” his big laugh seemed to say. Arthur looked like the French
ambassador and dressed in stylish double-breasted suits. But when he spoke, you knew
he wasn’t the French ambassador. He perfected his pool-playing skill while Nash was on
strike, which seemed to be almost all the time. Nash, for those of you who don’t
remember, was made in Kenosha by American Motors, which was presided over for many
years by George Romney, the father of young Mitt. The car had the look of an inverted
bathtub and was famous for the fact that the front seat could fold down into a bed. Before
Nash, no one had ever heard of such a thing.
There was the Nash Rambler, and there was the Nash Metropolitan. The Metropolitan was
a pre-compact compact. It was known for the fact that four teenage boys could pick one
up and put it down between a couple of trees.
When I was a teenage boy I was deeply in love with cars. I saw it as a home of my own.
The one I most coveted was the Jeep, virtually the name thing the Ford company made for
the US Army in World War II. But I never owned one. My first car, bought when I was 14
or 15, maybe (in Kansas in those days you could legally drive at 14; a farm boy, I started
much earlier, at age 9 driving the family tractor), my first car, I started to say, was a 1934
Chevvy 4 door sedan. Red. Running boards over a foot wide, big silver headlights on the
fenders, a window shade in the back and a round wheel trunk.
Coming back to the French, I think they made the weirdest looking cars there ever were.
Le Citroen was beyond weird. I think the name given at the time was that it looked like a
pregnant rollerskate. 522 words, 18 minutes.
Mon., July 13, 2015
What was I doing all by myself at a cab stand outside the King George Hotel in Athens, 19
years old, trying to get back to Piraeus, where my ship was before it sailed away and left
me even more alone? I liked Athens. The food was great, the girls were pretty, the wine
was reasonable and never stopped flowing—what’s not to like? Why had I spent the day
doing what I had done--? And why was I all alone? Then, as now perhaps, I had no idea
what I was doing. I got the cab, told the driver where I wanted to go—Piraeus, I kept
saying, Piraeus. Yes, yes, yes, he kept saying, motioning for me to get in. I was hoping
another sailor would come along to help with the fare but no one did, and we were off,
threading through the narrow, hilly, sunny streets for two hours or more, honking our way
importantly to the seaport for the great city of Athens. When we got to the ship, standing
tall and importantly out of the afternoon sun, I paid the driver the $26 fare in German
marks, Turkish lira, a few American dollars and the rest in Greek drachma. He was
satisfied and drove off. I walked up the gangway and boarded, said hello to a few friends,
and with them watched other sailors, even later, board; and then at the last minute
something funny, yet another sailor, some guy in the deck department come down to the
dock with his girl friend but not to board…to say good bye and a shouting match went on
between him and the captain standing on the bridge, threats to the man from the captain,
fingered gestures back from the sailor, and then threats back from the captain of having
his union card, and the old chief standing next to me muttering, He’ll lose his card, you
betcha. And so he waved goodbye, the ship was towed out into the stream and off we
went into the beautiful blue Mediterranean, and I was 19 years old, sixty-eight years ago.
My life has been so long and I have no idea what all this means, to me or to anybody.
I thought that by going to so many places I was getting somewhere.
I dreamed all night. I dreamed I was some kind of magnate, an important guy making
deals here and there as I moved through some big building. I have no idea what that
meant, either. I was friendly, affable, rich, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
This is no way to start the week. I’ll take a bath, wash my hair, get something done
today. But what? I’ll do something physical. I’ll fix the plumbing under the kitchen sink.
I’ll fix the light over th ekitche table. I’ll mow the lawn. I’ll make a list of things to do.
Always leave room at the top of your list for the things your wife wants you to do. Good
Sun., July 12, 2015
Every morning of the world—meaning every morning of the summer—Hal and I would
sleepily pad down the back stairs into the kitchen where Mom would have breakfast for
us. Dad was long gone—maybe he had a surgery that morning, or make a call at the
hospital, Saint Mary’s then was the only hospital for miles, though, well, come to think of
it, next door to my friend Rahim’s big “castle” was another kind of castle, Parkview
Hospital, a lying-in hospital as they were called back then, a birthing hospital. Anyhow—I
digress. We’d eat breakfast—I remember Mom making orange juice from real oranges,
cutting them in half and then putting them on a gadget that worked with her electric mixer,
holding down on the orange while the mixer thing turned and cored it out and the juice
dribbled into the glass container below. We’d have orange juice, maybe cinnamon and
sugar toast, maybe scrambled eggs and bacon. I’d do the dishes then—that was usually
Then the two of us would go down the road half a mile to the creek. Maybe we’d pack a
lunch and stay all afternoon until Dad came home from town and drove down in the ‘39
Buick to get us, maybe swim with us a little before we dressed and loaded and drove
slowly (maybe Hal or even I would get to drive a little) back up the dirt lane to the house
and to supper. Probably we had to do the milking first, the two cows, Ethyl and Blackie,
and even run it through the cream separator, which I often had to wash, and it had a
thousand baffles and other parts. Then it was put into the spare fridge to cool and take to
town on Saturday morning. I guess it made us feel like farmers. In those days every farm
family had a cow or two and some chickens, and the milk and the eggs were sold in town
for the extra money.
My new friend Steve, when I offered him a banana he said Sure, and took it and went on,
Do you know how to open a banana like the monkeys do it? And I laughed and watched
him. They do it from the bottom—no cutting. He squeezed the bottom of the banana with
his thumb and forefinger and the fruit easily popped open and he peeled it up, not down.
I tried it and it worked. All my life I’ve opened bananas from the top where it attached to
the bunch, and the top often as not had to be cut open with a knife and then peeled
down. But monkey know more than we do, and not having a knife, they pinched with their
little fingers and peeled up, not down. Monkey see, monkey do, I said and I have followed
Steve’s example ever since. I eat one or even two bananas every day. And until now, I
never knew how. ###
Sat., July 11, 2015
New York City was arduous. The whole trip was. 5,200 miles in a little Hyundai Tucson
spread over 32 days and a dozen states: for folks our age, that was arduous. I had not
been in New York City for fifty years—more than that, not since I was 21 and now I’m 77. I
spent about 2 years living on a ship homeported in Brooklyn, and when I wasn’t on a ship,
I was barracked at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. I remember now I honeymooned there
with my second wife in 1965, maybe there a week or so at the most. I guess that’s where
that fifty year number came from.
Anyhow, it had been a long time. They only reason we were going there this summer---
just a little over a month ago is that we had been invited to do a LifeStory workshop there
at the great New York Public Library, the place with all the lions in front of it. We stayed
with a friend out in Queens, and took the subway in. That wasn’t bad. And since our
friend, Grant, walked us practically to the library (he worked nearby), that wasn’t bad at
all. It was a pleasant morning and you don’t really walk, you are kind of pushed along by
But after the workshop, which went well, as they nearly always do, we were faced with
carrying our books and all back to the subway kiosk. We were at 42nd and 5th Avenue
and had to walk up 11 or 12 blocks to it, and by that time it was warm, and we were tired,
and the noise of the horns honking (the only town I know how where pedestrians are
horned at so fiercely), and the general din—that’s where the arduous part came in. “I hate
New York,” June said, “I’m NEVER coming back here.” I didn’t say that but I have to say I
felt about the same way then. The rude crowd, the cars threatening, the general
demeanor something like cross between a football crowd going home after their team lost
and a hog auction back home. If I never came back, I would cry about it much. I was just
too old, we were just too old, to find anything fun about this.
At one point June just stopped, dropped the backpack she was carrying and leaned
against a post. She was sweating and pale and puffing. The general din continued, but
suddenly out of the crowd a lady came forth and went up to June and said, “Are you all
right, dear?” And she looked at June and at me. She was sincere.
Suddenly I remembered that New Yorkers were as human as we were back home. June
smiled wanly and mumbled something about being okay, and the lady went on. It was a
touching moment. We’ll remember the honking taxis and the screeching of the subway
trains, but more, we’ll remember the lady coming out of the crowd and asking if June was
alright. Maybe people who put that I [heart] New York on their car bumpers weren’t so
crazy after all, for the city did have, really, a heart. ### 549 words, 21 minutes.
Fr., July 10, 2015
So this is July. It’s wet, the sky is cloudy all day, and the little creek that runs past the
house (luckily our house sits on a knoll) is running along, perfect for kids to play in, as
ours would have been on such a morning as this thirty years ago, building dams, catching
or trying to catch crawdads and minnows.
It's 1960 and I've just matriculated into UW Madison and I was looking for a summer job. I
was 22, just out of the Navy. Somehow I wandered around Bascom Hall and stumbled
down to the basement and went into this huge admin office, clerks clickety-clacking away
and I thought I might get a job there, accomplished typist that the Navy had made of me a
few years before; but alas they didn't want me though someone said, Maybe back there in
Mr. White's place...he sometimes hires student help. Well, this guy Mr. White ran the
transcript-making place, and in those days a photograph (darkroom chemicals and all)
was taken of a record and it was developed and there it was. Long, long before anything
like copying machines. Mr. White was a grinning and friendly guy about 55 or 60 (oh, so
old) who listened to my request for a job and then he looked at me curiously when I told
him my name was Charley Kempthorne, and then he laughed, as if he didn't believe me,
and then he said, Is your father also Charley Kempthorne and I said yes and, eagerly, Do
you know him? Mr. Frank White laughed again and said, Why, I've slept with him! And
then he explained that he too was from Rewey, as were all the White boys, 4 of them--
Alden, of course, who was upstairs being the highest ranking faculty administrative
officer of UW--secretary of the faculty--and Dewey, gassed and damaged in World War I
and granted a small pension and permanent tuition to the U, was probably at that moment
at one of the buildings nearby working on his 2nd or 3rd Ph.D. (this I could be enhancing
a tad) and further he told about the 4 White boys running around with the 4 Kempthorne
boys and sledding and horsing around and staying at each other's houses and all
sleeping in the same bed...and so Mr. White hired me on the spot and I had a summer job
in and out of the darkroom and getting to know Frank, who was a delight. I can't
remember the name of the 3rd brother but of course I also met Alden and Dewey, who
used to come in every day and go back to the adjacent mail room and drop to the ground
and do 50 pushups, a little wizened guy with white hair in perfect trim.
Anyhow, some image in my mind of those eight boys running amok on the streets of
Rowey...about 1920, that was the Golden Age of Rewey, a very American town, very
mythic for me, my father shoeing horses in the blacksmith shop, fishing in the
Pecatonica, or one of those nameless pasture trout streams around, skimming rocks, oh
what a time to be alive! ###
Thu., July 9, 2015
Coming up here in a few days is the—my god!—60th anniversary of my joining the U.S.
Navy. I almost never forget that day, or the day I was discharged 3 years and 5 months
and 27 days later, that is to say, January 16, 1959. Although I loved the Navy—finally—
and it was one of the great parts of my life, I hated it passionately the day I got out, that
sunny morning in Brooklyn, New York when, donned in a brown gabardine suit I’d bought
in Germany at a real clothing store, I practically ran out the gate of the Brooklyn Army
Terminal on 2nd Avenue and 58th Street, jumped in the first cab in the line of Yellow Cabs
and, ostentatiously lighting a big long cigar I’d bought in Guantanamo, I ordered the
driver to take me to Idlewild Airport. It cost me about $25 to take that cab. I got on a
propeller-driven airplane, a direct flight to Kansas City, and a mere six hours later I was
getting off the plane and kissing my wife and then driving home, two hours more, to
Manhattan—not the Manhattan, New York, but Manhattan, Kansas, my hometown I was at
long last returning to. A few days later I was in civilian clothes and sitting in a college
class conjugating etre with a dozen or so fresh-faced youths, male and female, who
regarded me with friendly, but curious eyes: I was a veteran, and an old man of 21 years. I
was married! And a college student, rare enough. Even my professors regarded me with
We lived with my parents, in a wonderfully modern and spacious apartment in the walkout
basement of their large home. A few months later my brother got out of the Navy from
Whidbey Island, Washington, and took up residence in a smaller one large room
apartment immediately adjacent. We were all a family again, my sister and parents
upstairs, my brother, and me—and my wife of two years. It was a wonderful time. Hal
was also a college student, majoring in philosophy, I in English, and Betsy in Education
and English. The three of us spent a lot of time in our large living room drinking coffee
and joyously talking about academic subjects, our readings, what we thought now that we
were beginning to think, laughing about the ridiculous and now faraway rigors of being a
sailor, how glad we were to have our “military obligation” out of the way as we read
Shakespeare, debated Hamlet, considered Zeno’s paradox and whether Santayana was
right when he said that those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it.
We either adored our professors, the chosen few, or condemned the ignorance of the
many who incurred our contempt for being ignorant, perhaps even as ignorant as our
officers were in the Navy, from whose clutches we had just escaped. What a rich life
civilian life was! How could we have ever contemplated joining the Navy? ###
Wed., July 8, 2015
About the only thing that works on this laptop is the time and the date. Evidently it has
not recovered from our trip. I have had it for eight or ten years and by modern standards
it is an antique. The days of buying a toaster when you’re married and it works all your
life are gone. I hate thinking about it. I am going to write this and somehow get it
I have to explain that I have been off and online for the past several days. Please bear
with me (and Toshiba) and please continue writing as if the Journalong were still being
posted every morning. Today is Day 8. If you’ve been unable, like me, to continue, please
continue now. Don’t try to make up past entries. Let’s just go on together, so many
words per day—500 or 100 or whatever.
Some days one just has to pick up the pieces and go on.
It’s another gloomy morning here in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas.
This too shall pass.
Ugga ugga boo ugga boo boo ugga. Bingle bangle bungle I don’t want to leave the
jungle: I refuse to go.
Phil Harris, Spike Jones, old Bing Crosby and Perry Como. Harry Truman, Dean Acheson,
General Douglas MacArthur. Eleanor Roosevelt. Alben Barkley.
I’m really quite bored by the famous Lost Chord.
I openly sneer at great art.
I yawn at the faces
Of folks at the races
And don’t even watch
When they start.
A stone, a leaf, a door.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen:
Nobody knows but Jesus.
It rained and it rained and it rained all during the spring of 1951, resulting finally by May
and June the Great Flood of 1951. I was 13 and lived just a couple of miles from here in a
big stone house. We were high and dry. Somehow we were able to get across Deep
Creek and to the viaduct in town. A crowd of people would always be there standing on it
and watching the world, it seemed, float along and under the bridge and down to the bend
in the river on its way to Kansas City and worse flooding. When the waters finally
receded and the rains stopped, Manhattan puts its shoulder to the wheel and cleaned up
the mud and rebuilt the town. Some magazine, maybe Life Magazine, wrote up Manhattan
and dubbed it “the all-American city.” New buildings replaced the old ones. My Junior
High printing class, which had been in the basement of the Junior High, stayed in the
basement but got all new equipment. I remember the shiny new stones. We even got a
new teacher, though the old one didn’t float away: he just retired. Nick Talarico stood
there by the new stones proudly, a young fellow just out of his Industrial Arts education
college down in Pittsburg, Kansas. I liked him and I loved printing. The very idea of
putting moveable types in a composing stick and then onto a press of one sort or another
and inking it and getting words on a paper—I was more excited about that than
Gutenberg. I didn’t care about anything in school except printing. I bought a little press
of my own with all my savings and I printed small cards that said DIE! On them, which
was the great witty remark made to others by Junior High students in those heady
days…1952, 1953…what a world it was!
I got a job in a print shop in late 1951. ###
Prompts…a word used to suggest what you might write about. I urge everyone to sit
down to write and write about something you already have in mind, for starters. Best,
have a narrative from that day or way back. Don’t stare at a blank page and sweat your
blood away. Write. What to write about may top the list of things to block you, so this is
important. Keep scraps of paper under your keyboard or in some handy place, little ideas
as you go through the day that you’d like to write up. Dad teaching me how to drive, Mom
whistling while we peel potatoes together, The tone of voice Stan Emerson had when he
asked me to come into his office to fire me. The humiliation I felt as I cleaned out my desk
in front of everybody, and left without a sound. These are better than general, vague
prompts like School Days or My first ten years at Goodrich. Best to have some very
specific idea, or even the first line you’re going to write.
So my suggested prompts cannot be your prompts except in a general way. But some
might lead you to a specific idea or first line. For example, I suggest all parents write an
account in some detail of the birth of each of their children. Or their marriage (s). Or the
death of a parent or someone very close.
When people ask me what to write about, meaning is it okay to write about that, that’s a
deep question. I would say, whatever your mind suggests to you. For me, that would be
most anything because I go on the idea that if I think about it, it’s probably important to
me. If I think about an old playmate at Woodrow Wilson School, then I write about that kid
and worry about whether to include that in my memoirs later on, that’s fine. Better—far,
far better—to write too much rather than too little. Too little can’t be edited down. Too
much can be. A blank page is the worst thing in the world.
Prompts…a word used to suggest what you might write about. I urge everyone to sit
down to write and write about something you already have in mind, for starters. Best,
have a narrative from that day or way back. Don’t stare at a blank page and sweat your
blood away. Write. What to write about may top the list of things to block you, so this is
important. Keep scraps of paper under your keyboard or in some handy place, little ideas
as you go through the day that you’d like to write up. Dad teaching me how to drive, Mom
whistling while we peel potatoes together, The tone of voice Stan Emerson had when he
asked me to come into his office to fire me. The humiliation I felt as I cleaned out my desk
in front of everybody, and left without a sound. These are better than general, vague
prompts like School Days or My first ten years at Goodrich. Best to have some very
specific idea, or even the first line you’re going to write.
So my suggested prompts cannot be your prompts except in a general way. But some
might lead you to a specific idea or first line. For example, I suggest all parents write an
account in some detail of the birth of each of their children. Or their marriage (s). Or the
death of a parent or someone very close.
When people ask me what to write about, meaning is it okay to write about that, that’s a
deep question. I would say, whatever your mind suggests to you. For me, that would be
most anything because I go on the idea that if I think about it, it’s probably important to
me. If I think about an old playmate at Woodrow Wilson School, then I write about that kid
and worry about whether to include that in my memoirs later on, that’s fine. Better—far,
far better—to write too much rather than too little. Too little can’t be edited down. Too
much can be. A blank page is the worst thing in the world.
Sat., July 4, 2015 posted 555 am. Reposted 0823 am.
Some mornings I wake up depressed, and this is one of them. I sit here and watch my
cursor blinking at me and I curse it. I hate writing. I hate, I hate, I hate. I’m mad.
Everything is bad, nothing is good!
The late William Stafford, a poet, was once asked what he did when he was confronted
with writer’s block. “I just lower my standards and keep on writing,” he said. Ah, so
true! With some human conditions—depressions, blocks, funks—the only cure is to
pretend they don’t exist and go on. If you persist in them they’re going to lead nowhere,
down a manhole into the abyss: no good will come of them.
So here I am lowering my standards (which were never very high anyway) and keeping
on. (Even so I feel like going back to bed and sleeping till noon.)
Okay, here we go…?
Well—first, I don’t like holidays, and especially I don’t like the 4th of July. All that noise,
those booms and bangs. My hearing is bad today because of a stupid thing I did when I
was nine. I rared back and raised my arm to throw a firecracked, one of those little ones
they used to call “Chinesers.” Not a ladyfinger, which only made a little bitty pop, but a
Chineser, which had a quick short fuse and made quite a noise. It went off in my hand,
bad enough, that hurt, but even worse my hand was by my ear. B O O M! And my hearing
was very bad for a few hours. It got better but I think it was permanently damaged
Those were terrible times: the 4th of July in the late 1940s. We had a chem lab we’d
cobbled in the basement, and we’d have made nuclear weapons if we’d had a few more
formula. We settled for making gunpower with potassium permanganate and sulfur…?
You just hit it with a hammer and it’d explode. And then we did terrible things with
magnesium, I forget what we called them, but they burned, oh they burned like flares.
Anything that boomed or banged or burned or whistled, oh, we loved it all so! We
through firecrackers at one another, at police cars (and then we ran, oh we ran, it was so
much fun to run from the police), probably we were so happy we’d have thrown them at
Somehow, I grew up. Well, I got older, bigger, taller. I waited awhile on the growing up
Remember when someone said to shut up, you turned and said, oh so saucily and
trippingly from the tongue, I don’t shut up/I grow up! And when I look at you, I throw up!
Didn’t Donald Trump tell someone to shut up? He is such a dear, dear man, isn’t he?
Such happy days! Life is such a mystery. We are fortunate to be part of it. Just a wee
little, very small, part of it. And now I see the sun coming up. 516 words, 27 minutes. ###
Fri., July 3, 2015 632 am.
Okay, I overslept. Like my momnia, I have insomnia, and I got up in the middle of the
night and did the dishes I should have done before I went to bed. My mom would do that.
Or she’d get up and sew. When I was in high school and would come in way late, there
would be mom, a cigarette dangling from her lips, bent over her sewing machine and
whirring away. Dad would be long asleep, Dad who did surgeries early in the morning.
I dreamed all night it seemed all night. And it seemed all right. I dreamed that some guys
who were neighboring farm boys were fixing my roof and instead of a ladder they stacked
bales of straw all around and over it (somehow) and it was quite a structure and so I said,
Just leave it when you’re done, and we’ll have a house within a house. I thought it was
magnificent, I don’t know why.
When I was in the Navy I was the Mail Yeoman, my first High Office, and I loved it. I got
off early from drill and all that and went down to Division Headquarters and got the mail
for my Company, Company 400. All the other mail yeoman would be there too, eight or
ten of us. The Mail Yeoman for my sister company, Company 399, was one Ratfuck (the
only name I ever knew him by), obviously not the name his mother had given him, and
once I asked him what his real name was, and he said, blandly and deadpan, Ratfuck H.
Smith, or something like that. So maybe his Mom was a sailor, I don’t know. Anyhow we’
d get our mail as soon as it came in on the truck and speedily, running, we’d carry it back
to our company. If we dawdled getting the mail there our ass would be grass, as we
poet/sailors used to say. Truth is we were just kids learning how to perfect our profanity.
I'd jump on the picnic table that was known as the quarterdeck and everyone would
gather round and I’d call out the names. So soon I knew everybody by name. Later when
I was a yeoman striker and out there (as it happened a landlocked sailor at a naval air
base in Oklahoma, of all place) I was privy to such knowledge and more, and I liked that
too. I was for a time the Officer Personnel Yeoman and so I had access to their service
records (it was my job to keep them up to date, after all) and so I’d see stuff like one
officer, our exec, his commendation for the Navy Cross while landing a plane and crew
that was on fire.
For about an hour and a half yesterday afternoon it rained buckets—more than buckets,
sheets of rain so that we couldn’t see out the windows. The dozen or so cats laying
around on the deck took cover, took what cover they could, and weren’t at all happy about
the rain. Cats don’t like to get wet.
So here I am. Good morning. If you’re reading this, I thank you, and if you’d drop me a
note at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me you happened in this morning
I’d be glad. I’m trying to find out who and where my royal readers are. Just tell me
something like, My name is Jan Jansen, I come from Wisconsin, and I’ll be delighted. 588
words, 20 minutes flat. ###
Thur., July 2, 2015, 434 am.
We just rolled into the driveway and I ran the car almost to the gate so as to get into the
afternoon shade, and only then did I remember that I’d wanted to stop at the library and
get a movie. No movie, I said aloud. Damn! So after supper we watched Law and Order,
which June likes and I kind of like. TV shows like that are like old friends who drop by
and they are a little boring but they are, after all, old friends, and there they are in your
living room. I worked during commercials so the time wasn’t totally wasted.
I folded and put away the laundry. I pull the pile of dried clothes out of the drier and fold
them more or less neatly—except for the sheets (I hate doing the sheets), which I kind of
fold/wad and stuff into the cabinet in the bathroom. Also I did the dishes. I tried typing in
a few more names into the database. The pile of evaluations from workshops to enter is
endless. And it’s very slow going.
In Law and Order some pretty young woman was accusing her father of murder. It turned
out he did do it, and he was involved in a prostitution ring with his daughter. Great family
stuff. Then June watched something about the earth and ancient man on the history
channel and I just couldn’t stay awake so I went to bed. The guy on the teevee was
saying that we (homo sapiens) had mated with the Neanderthals and the homo erectus
guys (and gals of course) as well as a new bunch, the daniosify or something like that.
They showed us going around in the jungle looking all primitive and weird. I fell asleep
thinking about my ancestors one hundred millions years ago. Or something.
Another thing about yesterday was it was the first day of the month and I did a lot of work
from 4 am or 5 am to 10, then we went to town and went to a meeting of course and then
we went over to Mike’s to borrow some spiriva, which I am out of, and Mike showed us the
paintings he had been doing. His basement was full of them, of all of them were
interesting and some of them really good. “You’re a busy guy, Mike,” we kept saying.
“These are amazing.” His two huge housecats, Spike and Frank, followed us everywhere
and meowed big loud meows at us. We left and went to
Ben’s to get a bucket of paint and Ben showed us the paintings he was working on. And
they were amazing, too, really stunning.
I never had any desire to paint, never did anything even in junior high art class but
colorwheels, but for awhile years ago I had fantasies of being a great artist, I would make
a painting that would stun the world, it would hang it the great galleries of the world, the
Louvre or the Del Prada (or whatever, that one in Spain) and I would be the Artiste and I
would be pretty great, the Rembrandt of my time, only maybe greater than Rembrandt.
534 words, 454 am. ###
Wed., July 1, 2015 posted 0529 am
There was plenty of mowing to do, and I didn’t mind doing it so long as I could do half an
hour or so at a time. The orchard was tall grass. The lawn was not so tall, eight inches or
so. The mower started up after a slow crank or two and I went right at it, round and
round. Nimbly. Pretty good for an ancient. I dreamed for awhile about when I was 10 or
12 I’d help my cousin Gary mow lawns in Rewey with state of the art reel type hand
operated mowers, the whir, the whir, and in an hour or so we’d have fifteen cents each. If
it weren’t for old ladies and wanting to keep their lawns pretty, half the American boys
would have grown up to be bums. The growing grass kept us busy, and taught us how to
earn our own money. How we spent it was another matter. My son Dan, mocking my little
lecture about handling money, took the quarter he’d earned doing some little task and
said, “Okay, Dad, a fool and his money are about to be parted.” And he bought an ice
cream or something.
I finished half the yard or thereabouts and rolled the mower back to the shop for more
gas. Then I noticed that the lift lever was missing the button needed to lower and raise
the platform. Mmm. There was always something. The thing wouldn’t work without it. I
went back and searched the thick mowed grass. Nothing. I checked the old mower to see
if there was something on there that I could remove and put on this one. There was, but it
didn’t come off easily. In the heat of the day I didn’t feel much like crouching over and old
piece of machinery and maybe getting zapped by a nest of yellowjackets for my pains. I
went into the cool of the house. Cool and dark. June was going at it at her computer,
mailing out no. 161. Good for her.
If only we had this beautiful place paid off we could live and work here till we dropped.
We could just fall apart, piece by piece, like the mower. Maybe they’d find my parts in the
deep grass. Old Ed Gein, who evidently preferred females, would not find me and dance
in the moonlight with my parts. Thank God for small favors.
Once early in the morning in the darkness I was putting the truck gates on to load hogs
for the auction. In my prime then, I hoisted the heavy oak tail gate with the grooved steel
band at the top on my capable back and halfway to the truck (the gate had been laying in
the weeds behind the old barn) and whammo! A nest of yellowjackets had been roosting
in that groove until I came along, and my tender back took the hit. Hits. They bit me so
many times as I dropped the gate and ran to the house that I looked like the Hunchback of
Notre Dame. 524 words/20 minutes. ###
Their little dog, Peaches, some kind of golden spaniel, is under the table where I’m
writing, and her presence and serenity are very comforting.
My theory of autobiography has evolved into journaling day in and day out, 500 words or
so, maybe only 100 words or so (but never less than the pre-set goal—which in my case is
500), writing a slice of my life or whatever every morning (or whenever) which adds up to
a jillion randomly written slices and, necessarily, a full and complete autobiography that
needs neither organization nor anything at all. It comes to the readers (if there are any)
as naturally as having lived next door to me for all those years, and then some, because it’
s likely that the writer sooner or later will reveal himself fully, whether he does so
consciously or not.
And that’s the job. The function of an autobiography is to reveal ourselves fully, so that
our cast of mind is known. This is our contribution to the history of our family and to the
world. Our cast of mind, and how it came to be. This is best done through random
Or so thinks I.###
…and nobody came. All dressed up, notes in my briefcase, I walked around the room
several times, and nobody showed up. I think I sat down in one of the fine chairs and
looked around at my lovely room and thought about having my first cigarette in twelve
years but I didn’t have any around, and I didn’t even have any matches and no one was
around, anyway. That room and that building that morning was the quietest place on
earth. I stayed half an hour or more and then slunk quietly away and drove on to the next
A year or two before that when I first started LifeStory, thinking that LifeStory was such a
great idea that the best and the brightest in America would flock to subscribe, I ran a
small ad in the Harvard Crimson. I think that cost me $60 or so. It was just before Mother’
s Day and I offered a special deal to the Crimsonians, or whatever Harvard students are
called, so they could give their mom a gift that would rebound to the family’s credit for a
thousand years. Nobody called my brand new 800 number. Not one soul. I have since
lost great respect for Harvard, a school I’d always heard good things about. But evidently
they weren’t writers.
I have been married three times. I tell people I am a serial marrier. I am happy to say that
at each of my three weddings, the bride showed up. Lovely, lovely June, my third and
final incumbent, showed with a handful of daisies, and we were officially married in front
of all our family and friends and we have lived happily ever after to this very minute.
And so I can say that I have lived a charmed life.
Sat., May 2, 2015
All this stuff that we worked so hard to accumulate we now are working hard to get rid of.
Tools, even, and machinery, random things of considerable value, random things of no
value. We need the money and so we’re having a yard sale every week. It has crossed
our mind to have a store, and when we run out of things we have to sell, find other things
to buy and re-sell. But I don’t think we really have the heart for it. How much for this?
How much for that? I don’t really care. Some days everything bores me, some days
almost nothing bores me. Life is change—maybe just small change.
Like these words I’m writing, for example. They bore me. Uga-uga-boo-ugga-booboo-uga.
But yesterday I had so much fun writing about June and I driving to town together. In 43—
or is it 44?—years together we’ve spent a lot of time alongside one another in the car.
Crisscrossing America we have laughed and cried and argued and loved. June corrects
my driving with increasing frequency, and I’m beginning to think I need all the help I can
get. A couple of years ago we were with another couple, he was driving, and our wives
were in the backseat. He took her corrections without a murmur. I guess I thought, well, I
could do that. I could let go and accept that help. And to some extent, I have. Now and
then I still bark back.
When June and I got together so many years ago she didn’t know how to look at a map. I
would drive most of the time, all of the time in a city, and maybe I’d ask her how far it was
from Cincinnati to Columbus. She’d gravely pick up the map and look at it and say, “An
inch.” Now she looks at the map, manages the Garmin, and works Google Maps on her
iPhone too. She does a pretty fair job of it. She drives half or more of the time, in town or
I get in the car. I don’t like this car, this Tucson made by Hyundai. I had a Hyundai Santa
Fe I loved. It was so much roomier that the little Tucson. The Tucson gets better gas
mileage, true. But it’s almost a compact car.
My favorite vehicle ever was my little 1996 Chevy S-10 pickup. When I got in that little
truck I was a happy man. I toodled down the road a little below the speed limit and was
totally content. I drove it mostly around town but one year I drove it to Los Angeles and
back. I was by myself and I was going to make a LifeStory trip on the cheap. I was going
to camp the whole way. But when I got to western Kansas, Ulysses, I think, it was too
dark to set up camp and I was too tired. So I moteled it, a real dump, but I just paid for the
room and unlocked the door and fell into bed. Next something like the same thing
occurred. I kept meaning to camp and then I finked out. I don’t really know why—
creature comforts, I guess—but when I got to California I was determined that I was going
to camp. I was in the Joshua Tree National Park. I was going to camp. National Parks—
that was what they were for. As it happened, however, there were forest fires to the west,
even in Orange County, and so the camps were either full of people getting away from the
smoke or they were closed. I didn’t camp on the way back home, either. ###
Fri., May 1, 2015
We were on our way to town. I was driving. June was reading her novel, something about
murder. Suddenly she looked up and said, “I want to get some morning glory seeds.”
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll plant them in front of the chicken house.” “No you don’t,” she said.
“Everything you’ve ever planted in front of the chicken house has died.” I didn’t say
anything. I pulled to a stop at the sign and then eased onto the highway. “It did?”
“Remember those bulbs you planted?” “No,” I said. A white truck came up behind me,
fast. Had I not seen him coming? He pulled into the other lane and stepped on it and
gushed past me. “They were hyacinths. Don’t you remember?” I looked meekly at the
guy in the truck, a big guy in a cowboy hat. He didn’t look pleased. “I can’t even
remember what a hyacinth looks like,” I said. “Well, you killed them when you stacked
ten bales of straw on top of them.” “That’ll do it every time,” I said.
“We’ll plant them on the gate trellis to the front yard.” “Okay by me,” I said. “I won’t
stack hay there, that’s for sure.” I knew my haystacking days were over. I probably
couldn’t pick up a single bale. We passed Lafayette Lane and I stepped up the speed to
60, then, remembering the police often hid behind that beer sign, I dropped back to 45.
Frank Rudolph made his bales so heavy, wanting to save on twine, that they weighed
twice what other’s bales weighed. I could hardly lift them then. June’s novel, which she
went back to reading, was Murder at the Mission. What was that stuff, anyway? She read
mysteries, she watched Law and Order and something called Criminal Minds. She knew
more about crime, probably, than any dozen criminals. I never wrote a mystery. I never
even tried. Even when I tried simply to read a whodunit is I couldn’t finish it. I didn’t care
whodunit. I’d fall asleep. On the bridge I slowed to 40, then 30, and then turned off onto
Fort Riley Boulevard. At the light, there was that white truck cowboy hat guy in front of
me. I never wore a cowboy hat, either. Once I put one on my head at some party and
So it’s May 1. That’s our wedding anniversary, I always told people. June and I got
married the day we met, I’d say. June would roll her eyes, knowing what was coming.
First I’d explain that marriage required consent, ceremony and consummation to be valid,
but if you could dispense with anything, it’d be ceremony. We had consent just a few
hours after we’d met. “Are you horny? I am,” I said, and June consented. She would
say, now, Oh, Charley, shut up. I’d laugh, whoever I was telling this to would laugh. We
consummated, I’d say, and June would look away. We didn’t do the ceremony for a year
and a half. And so today, May 1, we have been married for, let’s see, 1971 to 2000, that’s
29 years, then 2000 to 2015, that’s 15, 15 plus 29 equals 44 years. 44? That long? “How
long have we been married?” I asked June out loud. “I don’t know,” June said, looking
up, and then looking back down at Murder in the Mission. “You figure it out.”
I pulled into the parking lot and we got out. “44 doesn’t sound right,” I said out loud.
June put down her book and we got out went inside. Man, was it a beautiful day. ###
Tue., April 28, 2015
Pete, Gary’s dad, got up at 4 or earlier and drove every weekday to Dubuque to work for
Deere John. He worked on the assembly line as an inspector or something. Pete would
wake us at a little before daybreak and he’d give us a ride a half mile or so out of town and
we’d follow the railroad tracks back into town picking the wild asparagus along the way.
Legend had it that the cooks threw out the uneaten asparagus and it grew on the tracks. I
believed that and could well imagine them throwing it away. But now I’m all grown up and
I kind of doubt it. I don’t know where it came from, but it was there, and we’d get into
town with several bunches of asparagus just in time to go door to door selling the
bunches for a nickel apiece, which would give us a quarter or maybe a dollar altogether
and then we’d hitch-hike to Platteville and play pool all morning at Mike’s downtown, and
then we’d walk out to the park and go swimming in the city pool and then about 3 or 4 we’
d hike out to the highway and catch a ride back to Rewey, sometimes catching Uncle Pete
on the way home.
My mother I remember always singing and whistling. She sang songs while we did the
dishes together, and I still remember th e words of some of them, snatches here and
there…He married the girl with the strawberry curl/and the band played on! Or Give me
land, lots of land, don’t fence me in… She had a wonderful strong kind of contralto voice,
maybe soprano. She could belt it out. I think she was a soprano. I miss her every day,
and Dad too.
I went outside after getting the workshop in Altoona, Wisconsin. I piddled around in the
garden and pulled a batch of smartweed. That stuff grows like a weed! It is intermixed
with a huge and luxuriant honeysuckle bush. Then I went down to the paint shop and
piddled around there, putting a few things away. I worked in the “showroom,” what I used
to call Bay 2, and lined all the old chairs up and at least the place seems to have some
order to it. Then I worked in the mech shop, found some things to sell, and then I went
next door to the art shop and piddled around there, not really doing anything but I did
decide what to do next. I’m going to paper the walls, now bare down to the studs and
insulation, with old feed sacks.
If I keep doing this stuff every day the place will have some order to it by the time we leave
for NY. My long dreamed of plan to do dailies—a few minutes or more work on a bunch of
things every day---which I began a few years ago to despair of accomplishing seems to be
working. God working in my life, doing things for me that I cannot do for myself! ###
TODAY ENDS THIS JOURNALONG. THE NEXT ONE STARTS ON MAY 1.
Mon., April 27, 2015
I weigh 2o8.8, down from 210 point something yesterday. I didn’t eat supper. We had a
late lunch, and I didn’t eat much then. June made some asparagus and rice stuff that I
didn’t like. I ate some, one small helping, and then looked around.
-- I promised myself I would eat only from what you give me, I said to her. –There’s some
of your bread isn’t there?
--Sure, she said. –I just made it.
--Is it still warm? Could I have a slice? A thick slice, warm, with some butter on it?
June’s bread is the best bread I eat. I don’t know what all she puts in it but it’s great
bread that she makes in the breadmaker that my mother gave us probably thirty years
ago. My Aunt Maude used to make bread and everyone in town could smell it and all the
kids would come and sit on their porch and she’d give them a slice with strawberry jam
on it. So now I sat there eating the warmed bread with the butter melting on it, and
guzzled a glass of milk. I just can’t give up milk. I just can’t. I won’t.
I think we were encouraged to drink a quart a day, weren’t we, back in the day? I think I
did. My brother did too. My sister probably did too. When we lived in town we drank milk
from the City Dairy. First it came in bottles and then somewhere in there they switched to
paper cartons. No more washing milk bottles but still I liked the look of it in the bottles.
We’d get it and cream would form at the top. We’d pour that off and the folks would put it
in their coffee and maybe we’d have strawberry short cake or peach cobbler (one of my
mother’s specialities) with pure cream on it.
Maybe the best way to lose weight is to write about food and think about it but not eat it.
My father was an abstemious man, he never overate, and my mother just plain didn’t like
food very much at all. She had to cook it, but she didn’t have to eat it. She’d pick at her
food and talk all through the meal, smoking a cigarette that she’d stub out in her left over
mashed potatoes. The rest of us, our faces in our plates, would hardly look up.
In spite of herself, Mom was a pretty good cook. Every Sunday, it seemed, we had a fine
rolled rump roast beef, maybe the peach cobbler, mashed potatoes and gravy, maybe
green beans or lima beans—not asparagus. The only way I really like asparagus is
watching June eat it and watching it grow in the garden.
We would all go in the living room after and plop down on the couch or in an easy chair. I
have a picture I took one time later in the day when Dad was stretched out asleep on one
end of the couch and Mom was asleep on the other, head back, mouth open. I took it and
showed it to them and laughed, but they didn’t think it particularly amusing.
It was a happy time. ###
Sun., April 26, 2015
I guess death is worse than being hard of hearing, but on the other hand, when you’re
dead expectations of your responsiveness are minimal and, in fact, no one really blames
you for not hearing a word they said. Asking people to repeat what they said is not so
risky, and even the second time sometimes; but the third time, far from being a charm, is
to the speaker a willful act of impertinence. They are apt to walk away in disgust, or yell
at you, or simply to look at you balefully.
Above all, my wife says, don’t guess! She’s probably right. About one time in ten I guess
right. Mostly, I miss. So when someone says they’re going to the bank and I come back
with Where is the tank? it doesn’t set well with anyone.
Sometimes deafness is taken as a sign of stupidity and sometimes that sign is, in a way,
correct. The elderly deaf are likely not only to be afflicted with a hearing problem, but
also with a processing problem. Our brains have slowed down. Our kids speak rapidly
and I can’t keep up. I’m back there half hearing the first part of a sentence while they
have already gone to the second half and are moving rapidly on.
The end result is that the old deaf guy, me, is left out of some conversations. Maybe that’
s just as well. I may not hear what my grandson chattered about but I can hear the music
of the spheres better than he can.
For the last forty years I have driven past a barn with ACCEPTANCE IS THE ANSWER
painted on the side of it. Now I know what that means. I never owned a bumpersticker
that said QUESTION AUTHORITY! But I wasn’t much of an accepter. My job, I felt, was to
question everything. Now I know some things that have become beyond question.
When the nice and very polite policeman in Cimarron, New Mexico, pulled me over and
gave me a ticket for speeding through his town, and said, as he tore it out of his book and
handed it to me, Have a better day, sir! I thought, Well, wasn’t that cute? And it was a
clever and insightful answer. A better day, implying that up to then my day hadn’t gone
too well? As it surely had not if it resulted in speeding through his town. But was it
worth $237? If I got paid $237 for everything clever and insightful remark I made, I would
be a wealthy man. Wouldn’t I? I wouldn’t?
I was only going 62 in a 35 mph zone. It was only the town’s main (if not only) street. It
wasn’t a school zone…or was it? It was a lazy Sunday afternoon. No school was in
I’m dawdling this Sunday morning. I’m thinking of going back to bed. My dad did that,
sometimes. He’d get up at 4, cook himself a little breakfast of two soft-fried eggs and a
couple of Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, smoke half his cigarette and read the Kansas City Star,
and then he’d go back to bed. When he woke an hour later he was completely refreshed
and ready to shave and dress and go off to work. ###
Sat., April 25, 2015
My father was born in Platteville, Wisconsin, and grew up in a village a dozen miles away,
Rewey. This is southwestern Wisconsin about fifty miles from the Mississippi River, and
is one of the most beautiful parts of America. When we cross the border into Wisconsin I
feel I am finally at home. It is my ancestral home. I will be in Rewey in a couple of
months and will take the Town Tour, and look at all the places I remember, though I,
myself, probably didn’t live a whole year in Rewey. At the end of the War, we moved there
from Indiana to wait for my Dad’s return from Overseas. Then so long as Dad was alive,
we visited there nearly every summer. Mom teased him about this, comparing him to a
lemming going to the sea or something, but Dad just laughed and we all packed and left
Kansas and went home to Wisconsin.
I lived in other parts of Wisconsin. I lived in Milwaukee most of one summer at 1624 North
Farwell, close to the Lake. I lived in Madison and nearby Lake Waubesa for a year or two
when I was a student at the U. And I lived in Stevens Point or nearby Mosinee in Dewey
Marsh for about four years. So I have Wisconsin in my bones, as the saying there goes.
I have lived many more years than that in Kansas, but my love affair with Kansas has
always been lukewarm. For years it looked better in the leaving of it than in the coming.
it’s home. Still, if someone told me my grandmother’s house in Rewey, Wisconsin, was
available I would think—fantasize—about moving there.
Now here, right here, at Letter Rock—we have named it that, called it that, and we named
the road LETTER ROCK ROAD thirty or so years ago when the powers that be decided we
should have streets out here, streets with names, just like the folks in town. No more
Route 3. But when I’m here, I feel safe and happy and at home. I suppose I feel the same
way about the nearby megalopolis of Manhattan. Somewhat the same way. A mile north
of here we own our future home: a lot for each of us in The Deep Creek Cemetery. I
wonder if we’ll come then, finally, to feel at home?
I understand in a famous cemetery in southern California there is a guy who had himself
buried sitting up with a drink in his hand. I wonder if someone comes around every day
or so and tops up his drink?
It is gloomy out. I don’t think it rains anymore , it just seems gloomy and looks like rain.
We have entered a period of Global Gloominess. Used to be we’d have a gulley-washer or
two every April or maybe May, and the ponds would fill to overflowing and the kids would
go up below the dam and play in the trickle tube. Happy days! ###
Fri., April 24, 2015
I can’t even remember what happened yesterday. I’m not even sure there was a
Let’s see…we got up. We had oatmeal. I did the journalong. I felt pretty good afterward.
June took a shower. She had left a note to herself on the bathroom counter: Take a
shower. Maybe I should write, you already took it. Or a simply When? I got her up at
603. She wanted up at 6. June, I said through the curtains, it’s six oh three. June?
Unnh. She said, and, looking in now, I could see she stirred.
For thirty years I would ask June every morning, How’d you sleep. Like a log, she’d say.
Or some mornings, Like a rock. So for the last ten years, I’d ask her simply how she slept
and then offer her two answers, choose one. Log, or rock? She’d think, sitting beside me
semi-watching the morning news, and at length she would answer: Log. Or, some
mornings, Rock. But the last couple of years, sometimes, she describes how she couldn’
t sleep on this side, or that side, or got up a million times…more the way I slept. Part of
me silently thought, See, see! Old age comes to us all. But part of me was very, very sad
that this wonderful innocent beside me was giving it up to join me in our crypt-like
Okay, so back to what happened yesterday. I went to the animal fair: the birds and the
beasts were there…
I bought an apple in town at Dillon’s. Apples are pricey things now. Honeycrisps are an
unbelievable $3.99 (that’s $4) a pound. I bought the cheapest, the Gala, a mere $1.99 a
pound. I remembered doing a workshop in Wenatchee, Washington, in the heart of apple
country on the banks of the great Columbia River, which runs all the way through town,
some three miles. When I left town they were harvesting and selling apples by the
roadside. I bought a lug, a half bushel, of Galas and ate two or three a day as I made my
way, working, down the Coast to Los Angeles.
I worked in the car scrunched up writing on my laptop while I waited for June who was
seeing her foot surgeon, the lovable and laudable Dr. Joe. When she came back she
cheerily announced that Dr. Joe had taken her stitches out.
Later, June drove me home. I was determined to take my nap early, so I wouldn’t have
trouble sleeping at night. But I couldn’t go to sleep. I tossed, I turned, I got up and ate a
lemon bar, a confection June made two dishes of that has almost disappeared in three
days. Surely all the sugar in that would make me sleepy. But it didn’t. I worked for
awhile, then tried again. I couldn’t. I was at that odd time when I didn’t feel energetic
enough to work but didn’t feel sleepy and worn out enough to go to sleep.
I lay there. God, please give me a break, I said to the inside of my head. ###
Thu., April 23, 2015
I was maybe 15. I might have been 16. Kite’s wasn’t the first place I’d had a beer: I’d been
drinking down in the south end of town at George’s 1-2 Club from 14 on, and was a
regular there drinking, playing cards for money, sometimes shooting a game of pool,
although there was only one table and it was downstairs.
Kite put a Pabst Blue Ribbon in front of me and I laid a quarter on the counter. “How are
you, Charley,” Kite said. I said something I thought was cute, Kite laughed like a good
bartender—“Ha-ha,” he said—and I took a long swallow from my bottle. Kite swiped the
bar once with his rag and moved on.
Some Hank Williams tune was on the jukebox. I looked around at the dozen or so
students and maybe a few old men sat around, like Mr. what'shisname, all dressed up in
an expensive tweed suit and drunk as a skunk, mid-day. He was already sinking in his
chair; one more drink and Kite would help him to his car. He was too drunk to walk, but
he could probably drive himself home.
I remember the first pizza I ever had was in Norman, Oklahoma, and I was 18 years old.
The pizza was rectangular, and in itself, unmemorable. My next pizzas were in Oklahoma
City at a locally famous place called Sussy’s, and the pizza was round and very, very
memorable. If it were possible now to go to Sussy’s, I would jump in the car on a
twinkling and drive there and have a pizza for breakfast.
Back in the day, pizza was a new thing to the Midwest. New York had pizzarias, I think
they were called, and with so many people of Italian descent, hundreds of places where
you could buy pizza by the slice. Yet when I sailed to Naples and got off the ship and
went to a restaurant, pizza was served as a sidedish, an appetizer, and it was no larger
than the saucer it was served in. Even more stunning, it had nothing on it but some
seasoned tomato sauce! What? Here I was in a great Italian city, and they didn’t know
how to make pizza? But I ate it, and it was delicious. And I suspect if I had looked around
Napoli a bit more, I would have found pizza a la American by the slice, and perhaps from a
street vendor. ###
Wed., April 22, 2015
I have a friend who walks five miles every day. He’s exactly my age, white haired, a
certified old man. But he walks erect, looks healthy, always seems happy on those rare
occasions when he stops to talk to me as I might be driving past or stopped at a traffic
light. I can’t understand why he walks so much except for health reasons. I would get so
bored! But I envy him his no doubt excellent health, and wish I could walk more, had the
time to walk more. Five miles a day! That’s a couple of hours of prime time every day. I
could be writing then. I’ll bet he doesn’t write 1500 to 3000 words every day. But all that
writing doesn’t help my back, or my lungs, or my anything—except my fingers, I guess,
and my mind.
My mother hated walking unless it was to shop. She was a serious amateur golfer,
playing as much as 12 hours a day when she was younger, but even then she went in a
cart. It was faster. Hit the ball, jump in the cart, get out, hit the ball, jump in the cart… I
suppose she got pretty good mileage out of that cart.
Of course back then gasoline was cheap, cheap, cheap! Fifteen cents a gallon where I
went to college in Lawrence.
My father didn’t have time to walk so he ran everywhere he could. He’d carry his maybe
forty pound bag of medical stuff and get out of his car and run into the hospital, or his
office, or to a patient’s house. (They made house calls in those days!) He was in
excellent shape. In the Army his nickname was Tarzan, or Tarz. Probably if they’d had
vines on the streets he’d have swung from patient to patient on them. He was an
excellent athlete and as a college kid won the state pole vault championship in Wisconsin
and got his name on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. This was forever remembered
at family gatherings, and my family never hesitated to point it out to me, skinny and
bookish shrimp that I was. That and cousin Ace who had played for the Packers, or great
uncle Will who wrote a book on algebra.
If only I had eaten my vegetables! (My wife points this out to me today, offering
asparagus and rice for every meal, now that the ugly green stuff is once again in season
and growing vigorously in our six foot long patch in the garden. I am not an asparagus
fan, though I’ll eat it once a year in “Holiday Sauce,” as June happily miscalls it.)
This was out of the family, but there was a man here in town—there’s a park named for
him, Frank Anneberg Park—who had as a young man stood on his head atop the Tribune
Tower in Chicago (the very one Dad had his name in) and played the trumpet! Forever
after that was his claim to fame, though he got the park named after him because he was
the town’s recreation director for 30 or 40 years. I never heard him play the trumpet, but I
saw him around town all the time, striding along, a hairy and muscular man, sleeves
rolled up and with an in-charge look on his face. ###
Tue., April 21, 2015
I like nothing better than cleaning up messes, and I’m pretty good at it. Up to a point it’s a
lot of fun. I mean physical messes, like the mess our shop was before I tore into it. Over
the years things just got tossed into corners, and no one could find anything. So I went
in and took everything out of one corner. I decided this corner would become the place
where I put all the stuff that had to do with working on a car, truck, tractor, ship, or plane,
and so I put all the tools and cans of stuff there. Then I did the same for the building
corner, where I put all the saws and hammers and screwdrivers and tape measures and
the like. Pretty soon the whole place looked like it was the set for Sam’s Saturday
Morning Fix It Show. I felt good. I had put a corner of my world in order. I felt oh so good.
If only life were always that easy. If only I could put all the screwdrivers in my head in one
corner, the hammers, the cans of WD-40, and the wrenches all neatly stowed.
Years ago in the Navy I was in charge of our military department office on board the
USNS General LeRoy Eltinge (T-AP 126), a troop transport. We sailed from Brooklyn, New
York, our home port and steamed for fifteen or twenty days directly across the Atlantic
and into the Med and to the ancient city of Izmir (it was Homer’s birthplace and was
known as Smyrna thousands of years before Christ), and it was all good fun. The office
was let go and got kind of messy. We had an admin inspection and didn’t do well. The
CO gave me hell about it,slouched before him at my best imitation of attention.
And so I went to work. I went through the accumulated unanswered mail, I opened all the
drawers and took everything out and alphabetized it and dusted it and logged it. We had
another admin inspection and still had a low score. I just couldn’t get it right. I worried—I
was a short-timer, I was supposed to be worried about whether I’d fly home or whether I’d
take a Pullman. Here I was sweating the infinite changes that had to be made to the
Bureau of Personnel Manual, and the fact that the contents of the safe were not in the
I suffered. I tried this, I tried that, nothing really seemed to work. Finally, an angel came
to me in the night and spoke ande related to me the Abiding Principle of the Universal
Order: throw everything away. If not everything, as much as you can. Put the rest in
alphabetical order and, preferably, in nice white boxes with neat labels on the side. Print
something like Gear, stowable, #5840, and the date. Put a lid on the box.
And so I did this. All the changes to the BuPers Manual that came in the mail at every
port of call were remanded to the open port-hole as we sailed away. I quietly splashed a
good deal of our office into the drink just as soon as we were past the breakwater and it
was dark. The CO came down and looked at the rows of neat file cabinets, so tidily
labeled, the boxes squared away and stacked in the steel cabinet in the corner, the clean
desk of myself and my one helper. When the admin people arrived and inspected, they
could find nothing, not even a speck of dust. We were given 95s, 98s even, in our
inspection. The CO was very happy. I was publicly commended at quarters. I was a good
sailor. I was a 4.0 sailor. ###
Mon., April 20, 2015
Okay, the 500 words. Here goes.
Around the rock the ragged rascals ran! Ha-ha. Actually that was one of the things my
father might say in the morning as he was finishing his breakfast coffee walking around
our house and looking out the many windows. He wasn’t a chatty guy, but he’d walk
around and look out the windows of the kitchen and then turn and look out the huge
windows on the south in the dining room and living room, and then suddenly he might
turn to me and look at me intensely and say, Around the rock the ragged rascals ran! And
then he’d laugh, and I’d laugh too, and he’d put down his coffee and go off to work. He
had a few other things…I think sometimes he’d say, Blow up your B-bag! Which was
really obscure. When he was in the Army during the War and, he told us once or more,
they go on liberty or whatever they called it in the Army and the street merchants and
hawkers would call to them to buy some trinket or other and, knowing the every soldier
had a bag he carried his personal stuff in that was called a B-bag, they’d call out that:
Blow up your B-bag! And try to sell them something for a quarter or so.
We lived in this big fancy ultramodern all-glass house that Mom designed and Dad paid
for over many years until they got old and finally sold it and moved to an apartment in the
building that Dad owned and had his medical office in, an apartment that Mom designed
and I built, with the help of some more experienced builders who helped me know what I
was doing, or supposed to do. Mom wasn’t an architect, didn’t even have a formal
education beyond high school, where she would have been an honor student but for the
fact that they thought she was a Jew with a name like Isaacs, and probably her distant
ancestors were, but she wasn’t anything, really, just a non-church-going Christian, but
even so they wouldn’t allow her into the Honor Society at her high school in Indianapolis,
I’m sitting here smiling broadly at living in that house, to remember all this stuff, in some
ways very happy years for all of us. Mom and Dad sold this house in 1976. Dad died in ’
83, Mom in ’97. So many years ago! And yet the memory is fresh as the morning dew, I
can smell the coffee that morning, I can see my father in his pin-striped gray suit, I can
feel his zest for life.
So I’m going to get up and have a cup of coffee. I guess I’d better wash the dishes from
last night too, as I didn’t somehow quite get to them last night and the sink is full. Which
always reminds me of a popular 40s tune called (I think), Leave the dishes in the sink,
Ma! The thrust of the song was just that,and Tonight we’re going to celebrate, [so] leave
the dishes in the sink, Ma. Note well that no mention of the fact that when they all came
back from celebrating, Ma would still have to get out to the kitchen and do the dishes,
with no help from the husband or even the kids. In those days it was considered unmanly
and maybe even inhuman for a man to wash the dishes. ###
Sun., April 19, 2015
I’m late, I’m late, I’m late for a very important date…was that a song or just a kind of
mantra back in the day when we didn’t know what a mantra was? Anyway, I’m late again
this morning, overslept.
I once at a job at Earl’s Café and I had to be at work at noon every day—I was a pearl
diver, a dishwasher, and I was paid fifty cents an hour and I was 14 years old. But I was
already an errant lad and I ran around at night, believe it or not. (I can’t believe it but I can
I’d pretend to go to bed and then I’d sneak out the back door and run amuck on the
streets of the city of Manhattan…Kansas. So when I came home in the dawn I’d sleep the
sleep of the misbegotten or something (as they say) and I’d oversleep the time when I had
to get up to go to work. I didn’t get fired, if only because I didn’t do it that often. I don’t
I write about this errant life but I’m sure not bragging, but what good does it do me know
to be ashamed of it? Sure I could wish that I could report that I was president of my class
(I wasn’t) that I was on the football team (I wasn’t), that I married the girl with the
strawberry curl and the band played on, as the song went—or any of that good stuff. But
that would all be untrue. The truth was that I was a troubled kid who but for joining the
Navy at 17, would probably have gone right out of high school to jail.
Yet before I was ten I had a magical youth in the deeply rural woods of southern Indiana.
And then after the way we lived for a time in the village of Rewey, Wisconsin, where my
grandfather had been the village blacksmith, and that was a magical, mythic time for me
also. Then we moved to Kansas, and we lived for four years in the country, 6 miles from
the town, and that, too, was magical and mythic, playing in the creek, ploughing with our
little tractor (a Farmall cub, later a Ferguson 9N), helping with wheat harvest…. And then
we moved to town, exciting, but then that’s where I began to be “troubled.”
Well, this is boring. Maybe the only new thing I’m sensing here is that my life hasn’t been
so bad, after all. I just didn’t learn what I should have when I should have.
What’s important is that today I’m a happy camper. I love my work, I love my wife and
family, I love washing dishes, reorganizing my shop, watching my garden dry up and blow
away—well, of course I don’t love that but it is what it is. We are in God’s hands.
And that is my sermon for today. I think we’re going to skip church and stay home and
Sat., April 18, 2015
I heard a lot when I was younger about the value of working crossword puzzles in order to
ward off dementia. Every few years I’d get a bug, get into a kind of
boredom/insomnia/anxiety mode, so I’d work the daily crossword in the newspaper every
night (or morning or whenever I couldn’t sleep). I nearly always concluded that they were
a waste of time. I’m not a good game person: I wonder, what is the value of spending my
time doing this or that game? There has to be, I think, a purpose for activity other than
Passing the time, or whiling away the hours. Kill time, Shelley said, and you injure
eternity. That’s my justification for being what I am, OCD, an obsessive-compulsive
So now I’m in a period of boredom/insomnia/anxiety and I’m working the Merc’s fairly
easy puzzle every night. It’s pretty stupid. I don’t know why it would do any more to ward
off my dementia (not a joke now, I’m really losing a lot of stuff, and maybe I’m losing the
words as I write, pretty scary—I ask God what to do about this, don’t know, accept,
accept, move on, move on--),than writing a sonnet or even a tough piece of prose like this
one. But for now I’m working the puzzles. Maybe one of the things God wants me to
learn is to relax, waste
some time, injure some eternity.
What on earth is a cow feature? Oh, yeah, an udder. Ha ha. But how does that figure
into crossing with songwriter Neal ---? The only songwriter I know is Neal Simon. It
comes out Neal Sedaku. A Japanese American? Maybe. And so on, back and forth, up
and down, until the thing is done in half an hour or so.
June came home tired and happy, long day. She and Ben had been texturing a ceiling.
They had to rent the equipment, an air compressor, the hopper and the gun to shoot the
ceiling with (whoa!), and they got to the job, got all set up, and then the air compressor
didn’t work. So back the rental place and time lost and so the job took twice as long as
expected. Maybe they ought to make inflatable air compressors…but then how would you
inflate it? Catch 22.
In my days as a housepainter (1981 to 1990), I can’t say that I loved every day of it but it
got better and I enjoyed it. At first I made very little money, and then we made a lot of it
but with too many expenses and then we fired everybody (we being June and I) and made
pretty good money for the next five years, enough to pay off the debts from when we lost
money and then some. What I take away most from that era in my life is that if you want
to be loved, put on a pair of whites and flounce around town. You will be loved, greeted
with a smile and a handshake, and now and then someone will ask you to come by and
give them an estimate. I never felt so wanted as when I was a housepainter. ###
Fri., April 17, 2015
Just out of high school Leslie went to Europe. She and a friend, a girl—I forget her name,
but they had been friends for years. And they just got on a plane in Seattle and flew to
Europe. They took trains all over Europe, spent some time in Poland—I believe with a
friend of her mother’s—and then made their way down to Greece where she stayed for a
year and a half, working some as a nanny, as a salad chef in a café, in the Peloponnesian
coastal city of Navplion. No cell phones in those days—1989 or ’90. I was worried but
very, very proud that she had the moxie to do this. After a few months, I think, her friend
came back, but Leslie stayed and worked. It ended when I got an international phone call
from her and she wanted to leave Greece but had lost her passport. I think we sent her
some money to get the new one, and I remember also buying a bag of her favorite candy,
Gummy Bears, and sending it too at a cost of $16 for a dollar bag of candy that stuck to
Next thing we knew she was in Paris and had matriculated into the Sorbonne. That
however didn’t last because at that particular time France was in a turmoil and the
students went on strike. Plus everyone smoked in class and that got to her. And then
suddenly she had landed in Philadelphia and was changing planes to get back to Seattle.
What an adventure! I had traveled the world, too, but only under the parental auspices of
the US Navy. When I went to Mexico to take the world by storm as a great émigré
American novelist, I came home in a few months broke, no writing, and tail between my
legs. But Leslie! What a kid!
I had insomnia even as a kid. My mom told me that I used to get up in the middle of the
night at 3 or 4 years of age and go outside and wander around the neighborhood. Once,
and this was back when Kansas was legally dry (liquor, not rain—which it is now, illegally
dry, you might say, certainly undesirably dry)—anyway, back in the early 40s and we lived
on Laramie Street, I’d get my wagon and go up and down the alleys and fill the wagon
with whiskey bottles. I don’t think I did that every night. I just did the whiskey bottle thing
once. I guess I lined the bottles up on the railing of the front porch.
Actually in my life I’ve done quite a lot with whiskey bottles. In high school I somehow
became fond of naming a couple hundred brands of whiskies without stopping. I would
stare in the windows of liquor stores reading the labels and memorizing them. If I found a
bottle in the gutter I’d look at it, maybe even pick it up and sniff it. Later in the Navy I’d
drink with my shipmates and I’d take the bottle, put my name in it on a slip of paper, open
the deadlight covering the porthole and toss the bottle we had drunk from into the drink.
(One time only did one of those bottles wash ashore and get opened and generate a
response—a story I’ve told elsewhere, and probably more than once.)
Then late in life I began to drink more, but not from whiskey bottles, but from wine
bottles. I contemplated adding a room to the house using wine bottles filled with
antifreeze to make the walls. Unfortunately I contemplated this only, as tipplers will do—
contemplate rather than do. ###
Thurs., April 16, 2015
I must have been 7 or 8. I hope I wasn’t any older than that. I was walking home from
school with a classmate, Jimmy Dyer. Somehow we got into a mild argument and I told
him as I walked away toward my own house or wherever I was going (oddly, I can
remember the scene, the part of town we were in—I could take you to it today, about 15th
and Osage, the brick sidewalk, the house we were in front of)—I told Jimmy that probably
his father “ate only vegetables.” I think his father was a colonel in the Army, but that’s
what I said. (Whoever heard of an Army colonel who ate only vegetables?) That was all I
could think of to insult Jimmy. We didn’t have, or rather I didn’t know, the word
“vegetarian” then. What we had, what I had in my 8 year old omniscience, was the idea
that eating vegetables was a sign of weakness.
So I was pretty much a meat and potatoes kid from the get-go. I ate the meat, the mashed
potatoes and gravy, loved it, but the peas or the green beans, I’d push around on my plate
like I was plowing snow, pushing the beans here, hoping some of the peas would fall to
the floor and just roll away for a mouse to eat, anybody but me. I got so I’d hide the food I
didn’t want to eat under my plate, and I did that until my exasperated mother bought a
glass plate, just for me, so she could see what I wasn’t eating: breadcrusts, maybe, too,
but peas, green beans, even lima beans. (In the 40s no self-respecting family I knew ever
ate stuff like broccoli or asparagus (ugh!) or cauliflower. That was foreign food, probably
the kind of stuff communists ate. If I ate beans, it was baked beans, heavy with molasses
and whatever else they put in it to make the beans taste like they weren’t beans.
Somewhere in the 60s I heard of vegetarians. Well, one serious vegetarian was a good
friend and colleague at the school where I taught in Wisconsin. He was thought to be a
little freakish because of that. We’d all go out to eat and we’d have steak and whatever
but poor Jim would be given an omelette or a pile of French fries.
But the idea was lodged in my head then that there were people in the world who ate no
Even so, when I left the university life and came back here to Kansas to farm and be a
back to the lander hippie, we raised hogs and sheep, ate them happily and sold them to
the slaughterhouse. We did that for years.
We didn’t really get into butchering our own meat. I participated a little in that at other
people’s places, and for a time we sold lambs to Muslims for slaughter and they
sometimes did it right here on the farm as they faced Mecca (a curious habit, I thought),
but I didn’t really enjoy that. I didn’t like to see a creature die. I guess then it was a case
of everybody loves sausage, but nobody wants to see it made.
Gradually our kids grew up and some of them moved to Seattle where, as everybody
it’s illegal to eat meat within 20 feet of the city limits, and our kids became…vegetarians!
They came back home and refused meat aggressively, telling me how evil it was to eat
“the decaying carcasses of our fellow creatures,” as Helen and Scott Nearing called it in
their great and 60’s popular book, The Good Life: How to Live Safely and Sanely in a
We quit raising animals to eat. Somewhere in there we began to eat less meat, and then,
one day, none. We loved omelettes, salads a la Mediterranean, even—God help me—tofu.
So one day I looked up from the plate and I was a vegetarian. And I loved it, and became
an apostle of it in a small, annoying way to my friends. (Oh, look at the blood oozing out,
Oh, you’re going to eat that beautiful animal, Oh, how would you like to be killed and
And so it was. ###
Wed., April 15, 2015
I am in an extremely haphazard fashion (having concluded that haphazardry is the highest
order I’m ever going to attain to) going through our family archives. What we’ve done for
forty years is simply amass everything that came in through the front door except the
newspaper. A big improvement came when we, meaning I, because June will have no part
of it, changed from putting things in grocery bags randomly to buying those official
looking boxes at the office supply store and marking them things like LEGAL and FARM
and so on and stuffing them and then putting a lid on them and stacking them in a closet.
I enjoyed learning how to make the boxes into boxes out of the flat sheets that they came
from the store. I made the boxes, made the lids, stuffed the boxes, labeled them and put
them in a large closet. Photographs, school papers, business stuff, my own unending
and infinite writings, marriage and birth certificates, souvenirs of concerts we went to or
the kids went to and left them in their room when they moved out, napkins from dinners,
funeral programs, church programs, everything.
Now it’s time, les jeux sont fait, the jig is up—whatever, it’s time to go through everything
and—do what? Digitize it and throw it away? Write about it and then digitize it? Or just
throw it away…do we really need the few records we kept of our hog operation back in the
70s? We were so busy keeping the hogs in their pens that we had precious little time to
make the records that the County Agent suggested. But now I want to save it, don’t I, to
preserve that bit of history.
We had about five sows, big white sows, and they produced pigs pretty steadily (I’ve
forgotten the gestation time) and we tried to make records of them. But the forms are
only half filled out. The only one we both remember by name is Shirley, and I’ve written
about her elsewhere, or earlier in this journal. She was a piglet and a wedding present
when we got formally married in 1974. Joe Mertz came down the road (the wedding was
right here on the farm) with his wife, Shirley, and a squealing piglet tucked under his arm.
Naturally we named her after Joe’s wife, and Shirley went on to become our prize sow, an
excellent mother who regularly turned out litters of 15 pigs, most of whom survived to
fatten and sell.
Then the day came when Shirley was long overdue to go off to market herself. She was
putting on the weight, making a pig of herself of course, and was getting to be upwards of
400 or 500 pounds. She didn’t want to go and she wrecked the old loading chute making
that clear to us. I built a brand new chute and even then it took three or four of us and a
very busy hour or two to get her up the chute and into the truck.
So I wrote up Shirley. I think I’ll throw her record away. Next in my random history
writing, I’m going to attack the box of old Christmas cards. ###
Tu., April 14, 2015
Thank God it's an even day, an even-numbered day. I sure don't like days that are
numbered 13, like yesterday. Poor yesterday! I like even numbered days, I love my
birthday, the 24th. I don't know what I'd be like if I had been born on the 23 or the 25th.
First of the year is good; very good, even though its an oddie. Last day of the year, oh
awful. I wouldn't want to have been born then.
Do I really believe what I'm writing this morning? Well, of course--and of course not. I am
all that I ever was, it's still in me: the fear of the dark, the stepping on the crack that will
break Granny's back (who would do such a thing?), and all of the 13 stuff. The primitive
lurks within me. Yes, I have a reptilian brain.
Crazy as it is, this is the way I do things, and sometimes it really works. I call it my
Stations of the Cross. I go to the garden and for three minutes with gloves on I pull the
smartweed that has grown up in the corner beside the honeysuckle. I stop, go into the
Art Shop and work on putting down a small rug at the front. Three minutes later (not
exactly three minutes, I'm not precise about that) I go into the Mechanical Shop and sort
drill bits. Then, whammo, next door to the large bay I now call the showroom because we
have stuff to sell in there, and I dejunk one corner and make room for the dozen or so
chairs we want to sell--get rid of, shall I say? Then I dejunk the lumber bay next to that
one, taking out all the 2 by stock and arranging the 1 bys by length. Okay, next, back
outside to the Diamond (our outer yard) where I drag some brush to the creek. Then I go
to the inner yard and pull some weed stalks down by the Hospas patch that are left over
from last year. Finally I go to the orchard and prune some water sprouts off the young
She's got a German accent and she's worked at the store counter for years. Tonight she
was on the postal counter. I handed her the envelope and said, Okay, I have three
questions. Okay, she said, go for it. Number 1? Number 1 is can I use my debit card for
postal stuff? Sure, she said. I took out my card and slid it through the payment gadget
SLIDE YOUR CARD NOW. Smile. Okay, number 2 is can you send this media mail? She
already had things going and in ten seconds she was taping a stamp from her machine on
the face of the envelope. Three thirteen, she said. Now whats no. 3?
Oh, I said. I had already forgotten. I guess it's whats my name? I laughed. I'm forgetting
everything! She didn't blink. Maybe its Sweetheart? I smiled broadly. Maybe it is. Just
call me Sweetheart. Okay, she grinned, tossing my envelope into one of the canvas
postal bags. Now whats your mittel name? I hesitated. It's Sweetheart too, I said. You
know, Sweetheart, sweetheart I half mumbled and half sang but I realized she never heard
this old song. DO YOU WANT CASHBACK the gadget asked, and offered me an option of
five denominations. I pushed no. The lady--I was now totally in love with her--tore off a
ticket and handed it to me. Have a nice evening, Sweetheart. You too, I said. ###
Mon., April 13, 2015
I met a man I didn’t like. I don’t know why, I just didn’t. But we had to see one another at
group meetings once a week. This went on for about a year and, if anything, I liked him
less each time I saw him. One night, just before the meeting started, he came over to me,
put out his hand and shook mine. We had a brief, warm conversation. We have been
good friends ever since.
This morning I remember my mother, who died about twenty years ago. Now my mother, I
am sure, could when she was alive, remember her mother. And her mother, when she
was alive, could remember hers; and so on, back into remotest time. So when I’m
remembering Mom, I’m remembering all time. Does that make any sense?
If I am cremated when I die (no sooner, please!) then how can I burn in Hell?
Such are my troubling thoughts this April morning, this moment in time that will never
My grandfather always walked with his hands clasped behind his back. I now find myself
doing that occasionally. Do I do that because I’m remembering my grandfather and
imitating him? In some sense I am him, modified by a couple of generations…
Breathing heavily and in pain and with great effort, Gramps rose from his bed and walked
to the corner of the room where his rifle leaned against the wall. Steadying himself
against the chair by the bed, he laid the rifle on the bed. Then he slowly made his way to
the top drawer of his dresser on the other side of the room, opened it, and took out one
bullet. Wobbling back to the bed thinking there’s not much breath left in my body, he sat
on the edge of the bed and, hands trembling, the little bullet clicking against the hard
steel, he pushed it into the chamber and closed the bolt. He leaned back in bed against
the pillows. I’ve had this rifle since I was a boy, he thought, put the end of the barrel
against his forehead, and fired.
It’s 1998 and I’m standing in the cemetery at Cloverdale, Indiana in the warm sun. There
is no headstone, just a metal marker pushed into the ground that says, Lewis Clinton
Isaacs 1870-1950. I stood for awhile looking at it, remembering. Then I made a resolution
to go home and have a headstone made for his grave, and I went back to my waiting car.
Now it’s 2015 and five in the morning and I’m sitting here remembering my unfulfilled
resolution. Gramps was for the four War years my father was gone, my surrogate father,
and I adored him, I followed him everywhere around the farm, I lived for his smile of
approval or his tousling of my hair. I may never be able to fulfill my resolution, but let
these words, and the many others I have written about him, be my monument to him. ###
Sun., April 12, 2015
I’m drinking left over coffee. It’s just possible that some of that coffee leftover from
yesterday was left over from the day before; and the day before that, and so on, since we
never throw the coffee out. So if you came to my house the coffee you got in your cup
might be coffee made in antiquity.
So it was with the popcorn at the State Theatre where I worked as a teenager. The
overpop—popcorn left over from the night before—was mixed in with the newpop, which
had been from the day before, etc., etc. so it was entirely possible that a single popcorn
might have been from when the theatre’s grand opening in 1935.
Those were the days. Things were not so strict back then.
For instance, I used to occasionally help my father in his doctoring. I would hold
something, I would do the autoclave, something simple like that. One time on a Sunday
morning we drove to town together as Dad had a patient to see at his office. This would
be about 1950, and I was 12, and we still lived in the country then, six miles from
downtown, where his 2nd storey office was. I was happy to go along because Dad would
allow me to drive until we got about a mile from town. He taught me to drive: they didn’t
have driver training in those days. I never had a driving lesson. In more that 65years of
driving I have never had an injury accident, and not many of the fender bender kind,
Anyway, so we went to town to see this patient who had called in with an impacted sinus.
They did not have antibiotics then, either—not really—and so Dad’s job was to use a long
silver syringe and perforate something (I don’t know much about innards) by going in a
nostril and draining the sinus into a pan held against the patient’s check, a kidney shaped
pan, as I remember. My job was to hold the pan tight against the patient’s face to catch
Now the patient was a beautiful young woman, maybe 30. I was 12 and just becoming
aware of feminine beauty. I was maybe a bit intoxicated by this beautiful brunette who
was, of course, in terrible pain. I held the pan and Dad did the perforation and the yellow
and green goo began to quickly drain. At the same time the woman was moaning with
pain and then suddenly as the relief from the impaction came, she was moaning almost
with ecstasy, and moving around a bit in spite of my father’s admonitions to her to hold
still, and I had to sort of follow the movements of her head to keep catch the stuff.
And did the stuff stink! It quickly filled the room and almost made me retch. Dad, the old
pro, was unaffected. But I can still smell that stuff, and still see it floating in the little pan
as it came out of her nose. Simultaneously she was by then almost jumping and
moaning, Oh, thank you, doctor, oh, thank you doctor, oh thank you so much!
I did not become a doctor. The concatenation of the beauty of the woman and the smell
and the sight of what had come out of her was just too much for me, and so I became a
I hope you all enjoy your breakfast. ###
Sat., April 11, 2015
Okay, I was up late but it was to good purpose: to watch Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,
which I saw probably when it came out in 1943 but that’s been awhile and I hope I may be
forgiven for enjoying it all over again as if it were a movie I was seeing for the first time,
enjoying it for its own sake but also now, 70 some years later, enjoying it for its history,
for a look back on that culture, now so quaint.
The only time good movies come on is in the middle of the night. So it came on at
midnight—hey, a midnight show, just like as of olde. Remember Midnight Shows? Or
I’m also trying to fix a broken drawer in our kitchen cabinets. It is the junk drawer, surely
everyone has one, where we put all the stuff that everyone needs: a few screwdrivers,
clothespins, a mousetrap (no mouse), a device to hang Christmas cards from, and a
sharpening stone. It has been deteriorating for years—really the whole cabinetry should
be replaced but we can’t afford it just now.
When we came here in ’71 the house was literally abandoned, had been for eleven years,
and had become the nest of varmints of every description, birds and snakes and toads
and skunks and millions of hornets. We swept the place out and I began renovation that
would last for, I said, thirty years. Well, here it is more than forty years, and so things are
ready to be renovated again. I don’t know if I have the energy for it or the psychological
In those days I was hindered a little by not knowing how to do anything. Nowadays I
know how to do it but I haven’t the oomph. Remember oomph?
I did not know, then, which way a screw turns until a plumber friend taught me a poem,
Righty tighty, Lefty loosey. I knew a lot of poems, I had been a teacher of English poetry,
and I was much abashed and humbled by my plumber friend, who knew nothing of
Shakespeare’s sonnets or the sprung rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins. But he knew
how to turn a screw or a pipe fitting and so much more. I was learning. And so, Righty
tighty, Lefty loosey. It has served me well.
I did learn when I was a boy chemist, this one: We see poor Willie’s face no more/For
what he thought was H2O/Was H2SO4.
My big brother, who taught me everything in those days, got interested in chemistry and
so together we begged and borrowed from K-States chemistry department all the stuff,
chemicals and apparatus, to make our own nuclear weapons in our basement at 1819
Poyntz Avenue, where we lived then, townies that we were then. (When we moved to the
back to the country in 1947, chemistry was cast aside for playing in Deep Creek, which
ran for a mile across out huge old farm.) ###
Fri., April 10, 2015
Years ago, living in Topeka and going to therapy and analysis all day at Menninger Clinic,
but by then living out in the town in a grimy apartment, I got this goofy job writing
advertising. I got the job on a bet. A friend and I were walking along the street, mid-
afternoon, and talking about writing—Jerry was a writer and had been a friend of
Burroughs and the other beatniks in Paris—somehow Jerry said, I bet you can’t go in that
advertising agency and get a job. And I took him up on it and I did. The guy talked to me
a little bit and asked me to bring some writing samples. I walked five blocks to where I
lived, got them, and came right back, and he looked at them while I sat there, and he said,
Okay, I’ll take you on.
So I won the bet but the job didn’t work out. I worked there about two months, and one
day when I was wondering how I was going to quit when I’d told the guy this was what I
wanted to do with my life—write advertising—and he saved me the trouble by walking in
and firing me. “It just isn’t working out,” he said. And it wasn’t. I hated writing stuff in
praise of Ohse wieners and Ford cars.
Ten years earlier I got a job just before the great Flood of 1951 as a store clerk in a paint
store. It was a lonely job and I was terrible at it. Nobody was there most of the time. I
was covering home plate and I didn’t know paint from perfume. People would come in
and rummage around and bring me a quart of something and asked if it would do the job
and I would honestly say I had no idea. Sometimes they’d just chuck it back on the shelf
and leave, sometimes with a sigh they’d buy it. In a couple of days I was saved by the
rising waters of the flood, he let me go and within hours the water was lapping at the
sandbags we’d filled and stacked at the front door.
I didn’t like my job when I worked at the Panhandle Pipeline Company in Kansas City,
either. The building on about 36th and Broadway between downtown and the Plaza was
four or five stories and I was on the 4th floor, I think, me and about 100 guys with huge
Marchant calculators on our desk who were called the accounting department. I was a
Junior Accountant. I had no more facility and feel for such a job as I did selling paint.
But gamely I stuck it out through the summer before I started graduate school.
Now, I worked as a grad student, too, as an “assistant instructor” and oh, my, did I love
that job. And I was pretty good at it too. I loved teaching writing to freshmen, and I liked
them, and they liked me. ###
Thu., April 9, 2015
I once had a job, I was just 14, one summer in 1952, working at Earl’s Café. I was a pearl
diver, as we used to say. I did not, of course, really dive for pearls: I dove into dishwater
and washed dishes. A lot of dishes. I worked from noon to 8 pm every day. I received
fifty cents an hour.
I’d fool around all night, ending up coming home at dawn (I’ll explain how I managed that
in a minute), and then I’d go to sleep…and sometimes oversleep. I’d show up at work half
an hour or even more, late. The dishes would accumulate. Earl, the curly red haired
mean man who was my boss, would chew on me. I’d take it, of course, but I knew I was
going bye-bye if I was late too often. So I eventually got control of it.
In 1951 for me the world changed. I had been a farm kid most of my life, or at least a very
small town kid, living in the country or in a village of 250 people in Wisconsin, and
suddenly in ’51 we moved into town—a huge city of 12,000 people, a hub of education and
commerce and I don’t know what all. I was agog. My folks built a fancy new house on a
hillside and my brother and I slept on the bottom floor and could come and go through
the back door, while my parents lived on the top floor and came and went through the
front door, really the second floor. Of course my bro and I ate upstairs with our folks and
the living room was up there and we were up there a lot, especially to eat, but the point to
be noted is that we could come and go at night without being observed. We could, for
example, and we did, sit upstairs and talk to our parents, yawn and say good night, and
go downstairs and instead of going to bed, slip out into the lovely darkness and go on the
town. My bro was 16 or 17, and I was 14; and we did that. But it meant I didn’t sleep
Once—just once, we came tiptoeing in about 4 in the morning, moving as we did in the
black darkness, skilled as we were from long habit, and suddenly the lights were snapped
on and there sat our father glaring at us, belt in hand, and offered us some “strap pie.” Of
course we said, oh, no thanks, we’ve eaten already, but he gave it to us anyway. And so
for a good long while after that, we went to our rooms at night—and stayed there. I
listened to the radio, updated my stamp collection, and even—God help me—studied a
little when I got bored with everything else.
And so I’m late this morning. I did slip out the back door last night and go out on the
town, believe me. I just couldn’t sleep. I wrote for a while, to my credit, I watched an old
movie, and I ate a bowl of cottage cheese and then, thinking that insufficient, I also ate a
bowl of bran flakes (bran, bran, bran! My doctor says) before I returned to bed at about
the time I usually get up.
But I did all this, of course, just to make a point: I can still write 500 plus words in ten
minutes flat. ###
Wed., April 8, 2015
I get up and shuffle around. Bathroom. Then to the kitchen to turn on the coffee, record
my blood pressure, and weigh in. I flip on the TV while the coffee is finishing up, and
there is the tail end of Key Largo. Bogart is talking to one of the Edward G. Robinson’s
thugs. Robinson’s name in reality, I remember, was Immanuel Goldberg. I wonder what
his folks would think if they knew he changed his name. I guess they would have been
proud of him. I’m proud of my son, who took a stage name. But he doesn’t use it in his
So old Humph, long gone from smoking way too many cigarets, bumps off everybody on
the boat and makes it to dawn and shore, smiling to see lovely Lauren, and another movie
is over. I wish I could watch movies all day long, eat popcorn, lounge around, hang out,
as the kids say. I wish I could stop time and watch 6 or 8 movies in a row.
For the last two weeks when June and I drove to town and as we passed Moore’s Pond on
the roadside we saw a shoe. Somebody lost a shoe, one of us said, and then, a couple of
days later, That shoe is still there, and again a day after that. It was a sneaker, and looked
like a pretty nice one. Probably somebody was out at Pillsbury Crossing, took off their
shoes, June said, and forgot to put them back on. –Where’s the other one, I asked. –
Maybe it fell somewhere else.
--Remember reading about that violinist who gave a concert with his Strad, then left and
put the thing in its case on the hood of his car while he unlocked it, forgot it, and lost
it…an $800,000 Stradivarius? --I remember you telling me about it, June said. –If that
shoe is there tomorrow, I’m going to pick it up. –What’ll you do with it? --I’ll write about
it, I said. –Maybe someone will come forth as the owner. Cinderella’s sneaker. Maybe we
should turn back, maybe there’s blood on the track.
Maybe there are folks out there who don’t remember Cinderella’s story. Cinderella lived
with her wicked step-mother and her two daughters. Cinderella was pretty: the two step-
sisters were ugly. But the wicked stepmother favored them and made Cinderella work all
day sweeping up ashes and cinders down in the basement. And so she was Cinderella,
beautiful blonde babe dressed in old clothes working her fingers to the bone shoveling
ashes, while the two big horsey stepsisters laid around eating bonbons and painting their
fingernails all day long.
When an invitation was issued by the Prince to come to the ball at his palace, the
stepmom was all excited and hoping to marry off one of her daughters to the handsome
prince, got them all dressed up for the thing, but told Cinderella she had to stay home and
tend to the fire. But then when they left here came the Fairy Godmother and dressed
Cinderella in finery too, beautiful Italian high-heeled slippers and all, and so she went off
to the ball also.
You know the rest…she stayed too late and had to run to catch her coach and lost one of
her slippers, having danced the evening away with the Prince, and so on and so forth. A
modern day Cinderella would no doubt wear expensive sneakers like this one I picked up.
A nice shoe with a yellow stripe around it. ###
Tu., April 7, 2015
When I was 15 I ran away from home. I’ve written about that. I came back just in time for
Christmas, which suggests how sincere I was to sail to world and live on my own as a
seaman, roving reporter and man of the world. But even though I came back home I
wouldn’t go back to school. The truth was I was ashamed and embarrassed about how I’d
come back, tail between my legs, and I didn’t want to face any possible teasing from my
fellow students and the teachers. So when my mother asked me why I left school and I
told her it was boring and too easy—which it was—she said, Why don’t you go to college
We had a college in our town, Kansas State, and I knew it well—I had played on the
campus all through my youth, went to the meager student union and played pingpong
and the pinball machines, and had even graced the library with my presence a time or two
when I had to do a heavy duty term paper (joke). Most of my friends’ parents worked up
on “the hill” as the college was referred to in those days. I had always supposed I would
go there, someday. Oddly, this was before the mania to “get into a good school”
descended upon our society. We all started out at K-State. It was our school.
So Mom needled and encouraged me and I went up there to Anderson Hall and walked in
just like anybody else and said I’d like to go to college. I was surprised they didn’t just
assign me a few classes and take my $95 or so (that was the tuition then for a semester).
Someone talked to me and when they learned I hadn’t finished high school and didn’t
want to but wanted to further my education (so I said, though I had no idea what that
meant), they said, Well, maybe you can, maybe you can’t, but first you’ll have to take an
So they sat me down at a table and gave it to me. It was only a couple of hours and I just
raced through it and passed with flying colors. I guess that got their attention and they
agreed something had to be done. I was too smart to be in high school. (The idea of
being emotionally stupid didn’t occur to them.) However…a new Director of Admissions
had been hired but hadn’t yet shown up for work. His name was Mr. Ellsworth T. Gerritz.
He would show up for work on Monday and they’d put the problem of what to do with me
on his desk.
So, Mr. Gerritz showed up and the very first thing he did was say no. I don’t even think he
talked to me…I don’t remember. No, he said, I was too young. The only way I could go to
college without finishing high school first was to be a veteran, and I wasn’t a veteran and
wasn’t old enough to join. But I didn’t go back to high school. I worked, which, for me,
was the better education. Maybe I didn’t need one. After all, I knew the capitals of all the
states of the union and most of the countries of the world. ###
Mon., April 6, 2015
The kindest and gentlest man I ever knew was James Glenn Graham. Glenn, or Mr.
Graham as I always called him, or nearly always, was my employer at his print shop,
Graham and Graham, Printers, at 324 Houston St., in my hometown of Manhattan,
Kansas. I worked there all through high school from October 1951 to May, 1955—nearly
every day after school for an hour and a half or two hours and on Saturdays, 8 to 530.
Glenn was a worker—I was kept busy—and he was thrifty: I started at 25 cents an hour
and worked my way up to $1.25. But in a time when my father was very, very busy with
his medical practice, and in some ways rather remote, Glenn became my second,
surrogate father. He was an old man with a full head of white hair, a kind face and a
handsome fellow at that. He was short, maybe 5’8, shorter than I grew to be in the years I
worked for him. His wife, Elsie, who was the other half of the Graham and Graham and
she kept the books and met the customers when they came in, answered the phone and
went to the bank and on other errands—Elsie was shorter, grayer, and just a little heavy.
She had a bad hip, I guess, and walked with a tick-tock gait that old people sometimes
I went to work for them when I was taking a printing class at school, and Mr. Talarico, the
teacher, suggested I see them about a job, if I wanted a job. Of course I wanted a job. I
didn’t particularly like school, even though I was a pretty good student, and a job would
make me feel more grown up—plus I’d have my own money and could, when I was 14, buy
I was the Grahams’ only employee, and they had no children, and so I was a natural to be
treated as the one they didn’t have. And I loved it, and I came to love them. They never
did me any unkindness—not once.
One very cold winter day a boy who worked at a larger print shop a few blocks away came
in, very frosty with cold, and asked Mr. Graham if he had a paper stretcher he could
Mr. Graham held onto the composing stick in his hand and walked up to the counter
where Eddie stood, red-faced and panting from the cold. “A what?” Mr. Graham said,
Eddie explained that one of the men at Artcraft Printers, where he worked, had sent him.
“They’re running out of paper and they need a paper stretcher to finish out a job.”
I was folding a newsletter we printed and though I went on working, I was all ears. Eddie
was a year older than me, a grade ahead in school, but he had just been hired a few
weeks before at Artcraft. I had never heard of a paper-stretcher, and the concept was new
“Who sent you?” Glenn asked gently. “Was it Ross?”
“Oh, no,” he said. “It wasn’t Mr. Busenbark. It was Johnny.”
“Johnny?” Glenn said slowly. “Oh.”
“Yes, sir. And if you don’t have it, I’m supposed to go up to the Tribune and get one
“That’s a long walk,” Glenn said. He looked past Eddie through the frosted window at the
piles of plowed snow.
“I hope you’ve got one.”
Glenn nodded and tapped a piece of type against the composing stick. He put the stick
on the counter and folded his arms. “Eddie, they’re just funning you. There’s no such
thing as a paper-stretcher.”
Eddie seemed hard put to believe it, but he nodded numbly.
“It’s too cold a day to be doing that,” Mr. Graham said. “You go back and tell Johnny
there’s no such thing and to put you back to work.”
“No such thing? No paper-stretcher?”
The old man laughed shortly. “No such thing. They’re just putting you on. Evidently they
don’t have enough work to do down there.”
Eddie thanked him and left. Glenn walked over to the window and peered out at the
thermometer nailed to the outside window frame. “Four degrees,” he said aloud. He
shook his head and smiled at me. “I guess I was supposed to tell him to go to the
Tribune, and they’d send him to another shop until he got the idea.” ###
Sun., April 5, 2015
I just realized it’s time for my annual Thank God For Little Inventions recognition. Top
award this year goes to the human being who invented the Mute button.
I had a friend who had a door mat that said GO AWAY. If you didn’t he had a huge dog, a
Great Dane, I think, that came to the door and snapped and growled at you behind the
door sidelights. He was a colleague when I taught English in Wisconsin. He was let go
because he insisted on living with his girl friend, one of his students, in a tent on the lawn
of the main admin building. He applied for jobs elsewhere, and one place, a college in the
South somewhere, asked for a photo. In those days they had just passed a law saying
you couldn’t ask somebody’s race when they applied for a job. So they got around it by
asking for a photo. My friend sent them a picture of Omar Sharif. He didn’t get the job.
Another friend about that time, a struggling artist, had gotten onto the unemployment
dole to support his work in art. The only problem was he had to apply for a job now and
then. So he’d go two or three days without bathing, eat some garlic, light a cigarette and
walk in one of the stores looking for help and ask them if they wanted any help. They
Another award ought to go to the person who invented Velcros. However, a negative
award ought to go to the miscreant who invented little packets of ketchup and mustard.
Another Miscreant Award ought to go to the person who developed the idea of forcing a
phone caller to listen to their idea of music while you waited to be connected.
Oh, it’s a terrible world, isn’t it? It’s important to start the day with a little ingratitude. I’m
so grateful to be able to complain.
After we left Aldi’s we got in the car and June said, Home?
Let’s get a single plant to put in the garden, shall we? I said.
June never argues when I suggest we buy plants. So we drove across the street to Terry’
s Eastside Market and she went in. I’ll just wait in the car, I said, reaching the newspaper
from the seat behind me. I read the paper and watched June as she went from plant to
plant. It might be a while, I thought.
I read about who died, first. I checked their ages. A few were younger than me, a few
were older. No one I knew. Then I read the Arrests. No one I knew there, either. I turned
to the Sports Page. The Royals weren’t playing. And the Final Four was a day away.
Then I looked at the front page. Everyone’s mad that Obama made a deal with them bad
Iranians. Oh, it’s so awful to seek peace. Netanyahu, the kid from Philadelphia who went
to Israel, wants no deals with the Iranians. Oh, no. ###
Sat., April 4, 2015
In some families, maybe in most when I was young, politics was never discussed. In my
family, God bless ‘em, politics was always discussed. I honor my parents for fostering
that. My mother was outspoken, a Democrat; my father was not outspoken but he was
persistent, a Republican.
If everyone in the world wrote ten slices from their life, that would be 7 billion times ten
slices of life. I don’t even know how to write that. But it’s a lot of meat loaf. We would
then have something like a real contemporary human history. If we had that, that human
let’s say we had that from the beginning of time, then we’d have a real human history and
then, THEN, we’d have a more sensible way of going forth. Ruben-corbin, I’ve been
thinking, what a nice world it would be!
How is it that when I have grandiose fantasies, I get in arguments with myself about
I’m a Fleet Admiral or just a Commander with the Congressional Medal of Honor? I mean,
if I can fantasize at all, we’re talking about making things up, right? But I don’t like to
make things up totally. So, with some reluctant humility, I rarely take the rank of Admiral
of the Fleet.
Of course, whether a Commander or an Admiral, I am ever and always The World’s
Greatest Living Writer. In fact, I am one of (that humility thing again: just one of) the
Greatest Writers Who Ever Lived. Kids go to college and English majors take courses in
me. Me! To get the BA, you have to have at least one course in Charley. The typical Ph.
D. in English will have Charley I, Charley II, Charley III and Charley IV.
Late in life it is getting harder and harder to sustain these fantasies without laughing.
Actually, late in life, it is getting harder and harder to sustain any life review of my life
The situation is grave, but not serious.
Yesterday is a blur. I got up early and worked very hard for four hours straight. We went
to town, and while June had a doctor’s visit and then PT I ran errands. I got the stuff for
manicotti at Dillon’s, I got cottage cheese and tomato sauce from Aldi’s, I dropped books
off at the library, I…I don’t remember what else I did, but it was plenty.
I worry about all the stuff I can’t remember. Last night with friends we were talking about
old movies, and I couldn’t remember a lot. None of us could remember “the greatest B
movie ever made,” until we looked it up (no fair!) and noted it was A Touch of Evil.
I have not seen one good movie in weeks. Of course all the stuff on teevee is either
awful—monster stuff, vampire stuff, spectaculars, drivel like that—or they’ve been shown
so many times all America can lipsynch them: Shawshank Redemption, Good Will
Hunting… So there.
Mares eat oats, and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy. A kid will eat ivy too…wouldn’t
Fri., April 3, 2015
I’m doing exactly what I’ve told other writers not to do: I’m sitting here trying to think of
something “good” to write. I want to write the last draft first. I want the world to come to
my door and sing How Great Thou Art.
So it’s time to write a few words from my natural language: Uga-uga-boo, uga-boo-boo,
uga! The quick brown fox jumped over the five dozen liquor jugs….now it the time for all
good men to come to the aid of their country…
You get the idea. Horowitz didn’t get up every morning of the world and go into his studio
and play the Moonlight Sonata. Some days I bet he played Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
Actually, I began life as a young Horowitz, but I stayed with Twinkle, Twinkle. I took
lessons at the behest of my doting mother. Actually I couldn’t even play the Twinkle
thing. I couldn’t figure out how to do both hands at once—it just didn’t seem natural.
(Though today I type with both hands and do it very well…go figure.) I played something
with one hand C D E/C D E then a skip! And I concluded my concert pianist career with
that. I went outside and played in the street with the other kids.
Later we moved to the country and I played in the creek. I loved Deep Creek. My brother,
Hal, and I would go down to the creek every day starting in the spring (I guess we had to
work going to school in there some days, now I think about it) and we’d stay much of the
day down there when summer began. We never wore suits, learned to smoke cigarets,
and just generally lived the Huck Finn life.
We smoked cigarets because we used the lighted cigarets to burn the leeches off our legs
when we got out of the creek after an hour or more of swimming and splashing about.
Some of those leeches were big as half a dollar, and if you tried to peel them off, you’d be
a bloody mess. They didn’t want to go. But if you touched their backside with a lighted
cigarette, they dropped off quickly.
I haven’t been swimming in anything bigger than a bathtub in years. I am too olde. Oh, I
am sooo olde.
My father once told me, laughing, that when he and his three brothers and other kids in
the village of Rewey, Wisconsin shot baskets, and if the ball went through the net a clean
shot without touching the rim, they’d all yell Syph! And if the ball hit the rim, bounced
around and then went in, they’d clap their hands and yell Clap!
Well, boys will be boys. One of Dad’s favorite good-humored rebukes to us kids was to
quote one of his teachers: Boys, boys! Someday you’ll be teachers! And we’d all
laugh, but truth to tell, I was about 30 and a teacher myself before I understood what that
Thu., April 2, 2015
I know a lot about my parents’ life; I know a little about my grandparents’ life. I know
nothing about my maternal great-grandparents. Their last name was Isaacs, but I don’t
think they were practicing Jews. I have no idea even what their names were: they could
have been Brunhilde and Razzamatazz Isaacs. I have no idea. I think they lived and died
in Kentucky. I doubt that old Razz was a bank president; more likely he was the guy who
hauled the bricks to build the bank. The Missus, I don’t know. Maybe she played the
piano in a theatre (not likely), I just don’t know. If I have a picture of them, it is around
here somewhere in a box. I have a few boxes of stuff. I don’t know if my sister or brother
have anything. We’ve never talked about it. We are totally mis or disorganized.
But I could sit down right now and write a fairly long and pretty thorough biography of my
mother and my father. What should happen next is my brother, my sister and I should all
sit down at a big table with a steaming pot of coffee and spend the day going through all
the material we have together (and organizing it) and making a verbal record of it all.
It’s raining and soon my internet will shut down. The heavens are flashing and rumbling
and rain is actually slashing down (I looked) on the deck. We haven’t had a significant
rain since we’ve come back in late February from the land where it rains all the time, the
great Pacific Northwest.
Years ago we put rebuilt a large part of the roof and it hadn’t rained in weeks and so it
looked like a good time to take the roof off, the old one, and we got it off and the day was
done and there wasn’t a cloud in sight and so we fell exhausted into bed…only to waken
to lighting and thunder and then rain, hard, right down on us as we lay in bed. We got
some construction plastic and spread it over us and hunkered down for the rest of the
night. It rained two inches. Well, we needed the rain.
I have done so many dumb things in my long life that I’m thinking of writing an
encyclopedia, the Encylopedia of Dumb Things People (who are dumb) can do. Once in
1969 I bought a brand new car, a cute little ’69 Toyota Corona. On the way home with it I,
happy, whistling, I remembered how as a kid we used to gun the engine, shut off the
ignition for a moment and then turn it back on and there would be a blast from the muffler
like a cannon shot. And so I did that, right then and there, zooming down the street, and
it exploded and then suddenly it sounded like I was driving a Sherman tank. I had blown
the muffled off. Cost me thirty bucks and it was embarrassing to explain to the mechanic
and my wife. ###
Wed., April 1, 2015
Back in the day boys were named John, Robert, Charles, James, David, Michael, mostly,
with a smattering of Donalds, Philips, Edwards, and whatevers. Joshua wasn’t there, nor
Jason, nor Jiminy Cricket nor any name considered weird. Girls were named Elizabeth,
Carol, Marilyn, Laura, Nadine, and a few other variants. Now, what are kids named now? I
can’t even spell them. Our grand and great grandchildren are named after cars, planets,
spices..what was it Frank Zappa named his kid, Moon Unit? Come on, Frank.
I’m so glad to have an American name like Charles. Well, uh, Charles Roosevelt, that
takes a bit of explaining. I didn’t say anything about middle names, which were and are
and always have been inexplicable. Okay, I got the Roosevelt because FDR was my
grandfather. Now and then I tell someone that and they actually believe me. Do I look
presidential to you? Or even grandson-of-presidential? No. In fact my father was named
Charles Roosevelt Kempthorne. He was born, you see, back in that early 20th Century
patriot era where we were so busting with pride about our leaders that we named our kids
for them, and my father was born while Theodore Roosevelt was out there swinging the ax
and leading America through the dark forests. So he got that name in the middle of
things. Then I came along 35 years later in 1938 and my father named me for himself and
my mother named me for the then-prez, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. My mother was a, uh,
Democrat, you see, and my father was a Republican.
I was, yes, a junior. (More shall be revealed.)
I chafed under the polysyllabic name of Charles Roosevelt Kempthorne, Junior. Probably
that kept me from early stardom. I didn’t want to be junior to anybody! But dutifully I put
it on the forms you fill out, the school records, the driver’s license, all that. My diploma at
Iowa is made out to Charles Roosevelt Kempthorne, junior, printed in Old English. As my
grand kids might say, How gross can you get?
In the middle of my life I changed my name to simply, Charley Kempthorne. No -es
(“Charles, you are to go to the principal’s office right now!”), no Roosevelt, and certainly
no Junior. I was happy. Most people accepted that. I had a little problem with my Social
Security. They wanted me to be Charles, and that was that. I cry every fourth
Wednesday I cash my check.
A few years ago going through the family junk (the archives), I found my birth certificate.
With a flourish was written in the name CHARLES ROOSEVELT KEMPTHORNE and…no
junior. All that suffering for nothing. I was free. I was still ROOSEVELT, yes, but no
But it was too little, too late. I asked a lawyer. He said he’d be glad to take my money but
it’d be easier to just start calling myself Charley Kempthorne. So I did.
Well, that’s the story of my name. Everybody’s got a name story, don’t they? Well, that’s
Sat., March 28, 2015
Is there anything more inane than wondering what you would be
like today if only….? If only you’d gone out with Suzie Q., if only
you’d taken that job in Paris, if only you’d taken that course in
nuclear physics instead of the one called Golf Then and Now?
Inane, but, yes, human?
I was talking to a couple of college lads last night and I said if I had
it to do over, I don’t think
I’d have gone to college at all. Instead I spent twelve years there,
from 1959 to 1971, that was pretty much what I did. Student or
teacher, that’s where I was. But what if when I was a lad of 15 and
ran away to New Orleans and kept on going…what then?
Johnnie Rush, who had a beautiful ’47 Chevy Fleetwood, and I took
off one dark December night in 1953 and drove—first to Saint
Louis, where we stayed the night, and then south to Jackson,
Mississippi and then to New Orleans. By the time we got to New
Orleans, we were broke and, truth be told, which it wasn’t, we were
homesick. We sat in the car parked in Audubon Park watching
some people dressed in white play golf. We talked. “I’m going
home and join the Air Force,” Johnnie announced. “Where shall I
drop you off?”
He had listened to me prate on and on about how I was going to
jump a ship in New Orleans and stowaway and become a cabin boy
and sail the seven seas. The moment of truth had come. It was
Johnnie’s car. Together we had maybe six or seven dollars. May
God strike me dead, I had a failure of nerve. I finally squeaked, “I
guess I’ll go back with you.”
And so we did. In a few days of marathon driving, picking up a
hitch-hiker who helped a few dollars with the gas, we were once
again tooling down Poyntz Avenue in Manhattan to see if there was
anybody we knew and could honk and wave to.
But what if…?! What if I’d said, “Just let me out at the docks?”
And down at the docks with all the people going about, loading
and unloading, the great tall ships, and I just slipped aboard one of
them, the Coronado, let’s say, and quickly crawled into a lifeboat
made fast to somewhere forward, and gone to sleep in the warm
afternoon sun? And maybe that night, hearing the deep voice of
the engines going, I had walked into the crew’s night pantry and
asked what was for supper? And the big tall Negro night
pantryman with the big tall white chef’s hat had looked at me and
said, Who are you, boy? You deck crew? You too young to be on
board. I have to report you to the Mate!
And what if the Mate had looked at me and said, “We’re a hundred
miles out. What are we going to do with you? “ And I’d say, “I can
work, sir. I can help. I can earn my keep.” ###
Fri., March 27, 2015
Why do we care, even one whit, about whether “our” team wins or
not? “My” team has been Kansas—the Kansas Jayhawks—and it’s
true that a thousand years ago I went to school there, but I am not
in the least sentimental about that. I was glad enough to leave it.
As soon as I graduated and moved on I began to get letters from the
KU Alumni Association wanting money so that they could….I don’t
even know what they planned to do with the money except feather
their own nests. I never sent them a dime. Going to Mexico to
write the great American novel, getting remarried, I was too busy to
bother with the KU Alumni Association. I never went to any of their
meetings, didn’t wear a sweatshirt or anything that said KU on it,
and knew absolutely no one in the administration. I couldn’t have
told you the name of the president of the university itself, much
less the president of the alumni association.
In fact I was so sick of getting letters from them one day with a
laugh I scratched out my name and wrote DECEASED across it and
dropped it in the mail box. I did not hear from them again. So I
went to Mexico, didn’t write the Great American, came home on a
plane and started teaching at the University of Wisconsin at
Stevens Point, a town I’d never heard of up in the northern part of
the state. I left after a few pleasant and eventful years, and had
warmth then, and do now, for my many friends there all now grown
old, but I never supported their “team.” I never thought of the team
as “my team”—in honest fact I never knew they had one until some
guy in one of my freshman English classes came to see me about
his grades and mentioned that he was on the football team. “The
Pointers,” he said, and I had no idea who they were. I had never
heard of them, had never been to a game, and was completely
unimpressed that he was on “the team.” I gave him the grade he
deserved and moved on.
I left Stevens Point and came back to Kansas, where eventually I
started my LifeStory hustle, which I still do. In connection with
that, I had to get publicity about what I was doing, and it happened
that one day I called the KU Alumni Association to see if they
wouldn’t want to write an article about what I was doing trying to
get people to write their life stories. I phoned them, and the lady
who answered said she’d never heard of me. “We have no record
of your ever attending KU,” she said. I protested that I had two
degrees from there, got them back in the 60s. (This was in the
90s.) “Let me call you back,” she said.
She did, later that day, and said she had done some research down
in the basement where the archives were. (This was before
computers did much for us.) She had, indeed, found my record—
among those who had died. “You’ve been dead for thirty years,”
she said, laughing. I laughed too, and told her the story that I
suddenly remembered. So I joined the Alumni Association and was
immediately restored to life. They wrote the article, I picked up a
few subscriptions, and for half a dozen years I kept up my
membership. I haven’t exactly died all over again, but I must say
my contributions have gone into…a state of arrest, shall we say?
Meantime of course, I wear my little KU cap and watch every game
that “my team” plays. ###
Thu., March 26, 2015
Remember when it was weird to write the date 2000-something?
For a year or two we all said “The Year two thousand and…” And
then we started saying/writing just “Two thousand,” and then we
started saying/writing “Twenty-ten, twenty-fifteen, and so on,” and
then one day it seemed weird to write or say “Nineteen hundred.”
We get used to things. Just imagine what it must have been like
back in one million BC. You’d go to the bank to write a check and
you wouldn’t have enough space to write the date, “March 26,
1,000,000 BC.” That would take a lot of getting used to. What a
So anyway, here we are in twenty-fifteen. Four days into spring. It’
s dark out, still, and I’m late for the third morning in a row. It’s six
thirty right on the button. I wish I could stop time, do all the stuff I
have to do, get all caught up and then say, Okay, start time again.
I would also like breakfast served to me on a silver tray. One of my
staff of servants would come into the room (after knocking, of
course), and bow and scrape his way over to where I’m sitting, bid
me good morning, sir, and place the large tray on my lap (helping
me to sit up and fluff up my pillows) and then lift the lid over my
eggs over easy, my toast, my two strips of bacon…
In the Navy at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, it wasn’t like
that. Suddenly the lights went on, and someone would come
running down the rows of bunks with a twenty-gallon garbage can
(the classic “shitcan”) in hand as he banged the inside with a billy
club. He would say over and over something rude and crude like,
All right you shitbirds! Drop your cocks and grab your socks!
Reveille! Reveille! Of course the word reveille was not pronounced
it the French manner, but Americanized into Revalee, Revallee! HIT
No servant discreetly tapping on the door. No tray upon our laps.
We had five minutes, maybe ten, to dress, fall out and be marched
to chow half a mile away. Often as not the march was double time,
After chow we were given maybe fifteen minutes to wander back
(straggle back was the phrase then) to the grim gray barracks each distinguished from
the other only by a number painted on the side and sit around the “quarter deck” (picnic
table painted gray, as was everything, the famous “battleship gray:) and, if the “smoking
lamp” was lit, we could relax and have a cigarette before the morning routine began with a
roar from the Chief Boatswain’s Mate or his designated flunky.
I was 17 years old, six hundred miles from home. How could this be happening to me?
Here I am, 60 years later, and I still wonder that. As old Randall Jarrell wrote many years
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State
And I hunched its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.###
Tues., March 25, 2015
My mother always voted for the Democrats and my father always voted for the
Republicans. All three of us kids, once we were old enough to be political, leaned
Democratic. So at the dinner table Dad had his hands full fending off our challenges in
the context of whatever issue was in the news that day. We were readers (this was before
television) and we took four daily newspapers, at least a dozen news and pop culture
mags like Time, Life, Newsweek, Look, Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, as well as
National Geographic and on the big kayak-shaped coffee table in our living room were
also at least six or eight medical magazines that we all occasionally dipped into for
whatever reasons. (As a teen, I was very interested in one of Dad’s books, Sex
Endocrinology, which in those days was for me and my cohorts right up there with the
bra ads in the Sears Catalog (which we also had out) for our lusty reading—or should I
But back to politics. Yet Dad never wavered in his Republican views. We joked that he
voted for Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover over and over and over. He loved Nixon and
Reagan and hated FDR and Truman and LBJ, who ruined the country, in his opinion.
Now, as it happens, my middle name is Roosevelt. My father’s middle name was also
Roosevelt. But my father was born in 1903, when Teddy Roosevelt was in office—not a
Republican, really, but not a Democrat either. So Dad was pleased to be named for him. I
was born in 1938, when FDR was in office. My mother claimed I was named for FDR (as
did I, when I was old enough to start claiming stuff like that), but my father insisted that I
was named for him, and he was named for TR, not FDR and so—there you go.
For all that, the only real argument and concern my father had when he got home from the
office and hospital and a long and hard day’s work in both of those places as well as, in
those days, making a housecall or two nearly every day—as you might appreciate, his
only real concern was when was supper to be served. My mother wasn’t a timely person,
a chronic insomniac who sometimes slept all day—if she wasn’t playing golf that day.
When Dad came home, Mom would be up, but often still wearing her “duster,” a kind of
housedress women wore back then. Supper was something she hadn’t even thought of.
Dad would begin with joking imprecations about dinner, but as the afternoon waned into
evening, the jokes became less funny and more serious. At such times my mother would
reluctantly go to the kitchen but not without a few parting shots at Dad, who sat frothing
behind his newspaper in his chair in the living room. At length dinner would be served.
Though my mother was an indifferent cook, at best, I don’t think he ever complained
about her food. He was glad to eat, and he did, with relish and appreciation. ###
Tues., March 24, 2015
When June and I got married right here on the farm under the four cedars trees in our
yard—May 26, 1974—we had been living together for a little more than a year and we were
both trying to de-academize and become farmers. June’s folks were real farmers and we
learned a lot from them. Two wedding guests, Joe and Shirley Mertz, came walking down
the road; Joe had a live piglet under his arm, and that was their wedding present to us.
Shirley, as we named her, was a twenty pound white piglet and she quickly grew up, as
hogs do, and she turned out to be a very good breeder. She had several litters of 12 or
more and she was a good mother. Soon we had a lot of piglets who were quickly
becoming hogs. It takes about 5 or 6 months for a hog to attain “butcher weight,” about
I look back at my life this morning, a cloudy, rainy day, and I honestly have no idea why I
did the stuff I did. Soon enough we were raising hogs and making a living at it—sort of.
We have always “sort of” made a living. I have to conclude today that I am slow. I was
slow to figure out how to combine earning the money for a living with living the way we
wanted to. It wasn’t that we were lazy—usually at the end of the day we were exhausted
--it was that we were—well, slow. Why, for example, when June had a BFA in art and I had
an MFA in writing—why or why oh did we become pig farmers? I had been an assistant
professor of English at one of the branches of the University of Wisconsin and we could
have gone back there and picked up where I had left off just a couple of years before. But
we chose not to do that. I loved teaching, loved the university…but I left. In the 60s I
slipped into hippiedom. So did June, whom I did not know then. A talented and prize-
winning artist, she was slipping into hippiedom too. If we had not become hippies, we
would not have met, we would not have been attracted to one another.
How exactly does one become a hippie? It’s an attitude thing. Growing your hair long
was simply a sign of a certain attitude. Wearing old clothes was another. One day at the
university I was wearing a suit and tie and then somehow within a few months there I was
wearing a blue workshirt and a railroadman’s striped cap and boots. Hippies had to wear
boots. We didn’t wear our suede hush puppies anymore. No. We wore chukka boots or
lace up boots or even (as June did) cowboy boots.
I wish I could look back on my long life and see that I did everything for good reasons.
But I can’t. I can’t say I did them for bad reasons, either. I just did what I did. ###
Mon., March 23, 2015
What if it never rains again? We spent the winter, a good part of it, in a place where it
rains every day, and now here we are back in Kansas where it hasn’t rained more than a
couple of feeble rains in the month we’ve been back. I always hated that about Kansas: I
was always hoping for rain, watching the weather, wishing it would cloud up. When it
didn’t rain I always took it personally: God wasn’t going to let it rain because of me.
And then yesterday, my team, the great University of Kansas, lost to…Wichita? I didn’t
even know they had a team. They’re Kansas people, aren’t they? Wichita, Kansas…why
then are they not cooperating? Why can’t they can’t together on this?
Same thing with the rain. Why can’t the State of Washington share its excess rain with
Kansas? They build pipelines to carry oil…why not build ones to carry rainwater? I just
don’t get it. What’s technology for?
This is Monday. It’s time to complain.
Everything is bad…nothing is good. Everything is bad…nothing is good.
Plus it’s cold this morning. 37 degrees. What’s the meaning of this? I demand an
explanation. I want my mommy.
Just now I learn it’s going to go down to 20 here in a couple of days. And the trees are
just starting to bloom. Don’t they know that? The apricots are in bloom, and now it’s
going to go down to 20, and what’ll that do to the apricots and all the other beautiful
flowers? Oh, boy, do they ever have things wrong. This week isn’t starting out right. I’m
moving to Texas.
Actually we lived in Texas during the War. By “War” of course I mean World War II. It was
always hot and dry and sunny. We learned to sing The stars are bright, it’s never night,
Deep in the Heart of Texas. We sang it over and over until our parents were ready to
scream. In fact, they did scream. We were near Camp Barkley, close to Abilene, definitely
deep in the heart of Texas.
But I wouldn’t want to live in Texas. All those guns and cattle. I’m a vegetarian—sort of.
We went to Washington as vegetarians and came home as flexitarians. When in Rome,
right? We were in flex, so we ate meat. It wasn’t my idea. In some of the motels we
stayed at, we ate soylent green for breakfast. I am quite sure that’s what it was.
I am struggling this morning to write one intelligent word. But I can’t, I just can’t….
Okay, here it is: I believe, I have come to believe, that as a child (which of course I still
am, among other things) I believed that if I just cried loud enough, yelled loud enough,
asserted my two foot high presence enough—then the world would pay attention. But it
didn’t happen. That infuriated me all the more. My infantile fury should have changed the
world. But it didn’t. And so things have been screwy ever since. ###
Sun., March 22, 2015
When I was 19 I got married and about five months later we moved to New York City.
Betsy and I had been living in Norman, Oklahoma, a small college town then not far from
Oklahoma City; I was in the Navy. When I was ordered to Brooklyn, New York, I was still
in the Navy and was to be based in Brooklyn but on a ship sailing out of there.
But for a few days, we considered ourselves residents of Brooklyn, and we stayed in the
Mohawk Hotel in Flatbush. It was a small retirement hotel—nearly everyone there was
ancient. There was a dining room where we ate, and everyone stared at us like we were
from another planet. Which, really, we were. We were from Kansas. We were just kids.
We knew nothing of the culture we had been dropped into. In a few days I was sent
aboard a ship sailing next day for Bremerhaven, Germany, and we decided that Betsy
should go back home and finish college. We may have driven back together, but I think,
really, that she drove back to Kansas alone. I don’t remember. The new plan was that she
would go back to college and finish up there while I finished my two additional years in
the Navy—or year and a half, really, and with any luck, a little less than that if I could get
an “early out” to attend college. I didn’t get that early out as luck would have it. I did get
out one week early, January 16, 1959 instead of January 23, 1959.
That year and a half at sea was one of the high points of my life. Though by then I can’t
say I liked the Navy and was thoroughly sick of it, I loved ships and I loved the sea. If I
had it to do over I would have served my time in the Navy and next day signed up for the
Merchant Marine and spent another five or ten years living aboard a ship. I loved the
sailing, I loved the idea of being underway, I loved words like “underway,” “topside,”
“gangway,” “going aft,” and all those words that sailors use in their everyday life.
In fact wherever I was an whatever I did, words were the principal force in my life. That’s
why I loved the printing trade, which I learned working for a print shop in Manhattan.
Words like “quoin,” “make ready,” “type high,” “composing stick,” “stone” and all those
words became part of my vocabulary and part of my life.
Maybe I should have become a doctor, like my father. All those Latin words that fell
trippingly from the tongue…great disease names like “retinal detachment,” and
“eurhythroblastosis fetalis…” Wow!
The writing biz has nothing to compare to that. We have all the words, but we have none,
really, of our own. “Paper,” what kind of a trade word is that? Not much. Now,
“Computer.” I used to know this guy, Ray Whearty (whatever happened to you, Ray?),
who was my colleague when I taught at this little state school in Wisconsin, and with
whom I shared an office, and Ray too was a writer and he talked about his “machine,”
meaning his typewriter. I picked that up. Today sometimes I talk about “my machine”
rather than my computer. It sounds so much more professional. ####
Sat., March 21, 2015
If I could do anything I wanted today, what would I do?
I’d probably sit here and write. But I’d have something to write about.
Yesterday June and I were sitting here on our couch together and talking. There’s a new
issue of AARP out and they always have a celebrity, don’t ask me why I don’t want to
know, on the cover. This month’s is Bob Dylan. He’s wearing sunglasses and staring at
the camera blankly—no smile. “I wonder why he never smiles,” June said.
“He wants to look haughty,” I said. “Those guys never smile for the camera. They’re
poseurs. Total frauds.” I didn’t think of Pat Boone or Doris Day, who always smile.
“Smile for the camera,” they used to say. But for rock stars and such, they say, “Wipe
that smile off your face. Look cool for the camera.” And so they strike a pose. The idea
in life is to look cool.
I guess you can look what you want to look like, I went on thinking. Bob Zimmerman from
Duluth, Minnesota wiped the smile off his face and went to New York City and put on
sunglasses and never smiled again. He sang like he had just had a laryngectomy, called
himself Bob Dylan, and never looked back.
I am fond of remembering that Roy Rogers was really Leonard Sly from Cincinnati, Ohio;
that Doris Day was really Doris von Kloppelhoff; that Tony Curtis was Bernard Schwartz,
and Cary Grant was Archibald Leach.
When I was around 10 I was one of Roy’s fans. At a movie of his, Roy Rogers and the
Raiders of Sawtooth Ridge, they gave away free 8x10s of him with his horse, Trigger, and I
tacked it on the wall above my bed. I’d give it a good look before getting into bed at night
and I’d fantasize about being with Roy out on the range or running down some miscreant
or other. But sometimes I’d forget what Roy looked like, exactly, so I’d turn on the light
and look again, turn it off, and go back into my fantasy.
This greatly annoyed my room-mate and brother, who was no fan of Roy, and just wanted
to go to sleep.
Could I ever escape being Charley Kempthorne from Manhattan, Kansas? Grinning
goofily for the camera, making some smart remark or other…? I am what I am, said
Popeye the Sailorman. Popeye was maybe the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century.
Honestly. I can’t say I’m well read in philosophy, but I read a little. I remember
Wittgenstein, what did he know? “All the world’s the case,” or something like that. Or
old what’shisname, the Dane, who said that if God didn’t exist it would be necessary to
invent Him. Actually, that’s kind of smart. Much smarter than Sartre, who said he was
extremely embarrassed by the fact that God did not exist. Sartre, of whom Norman Mailer
said, would have given fifty points off his IQ to have been five inches taller. ###
Fri., March 20, 2015
I am writing this morning without coffee. Let’s just see if I can make it through 500 words
without gasping for breath or going into anaphylactic shock, or both.
I began drinking coffee as a teenager, 14 or 15, because I wanted to be like grown ups.
Grown ups drank coffee and smoked cigarets (yes, I began doing that too) and of course I
wanted to be a grown up and on my own! I bought an old car for $100. I had a job after
school and on Saturdays in a print shop downtown and I made my own money and so I
bought my own coffee, my own cigarets, and my own car. Wasn’t I the proper grownup.
See me there, 1953, standing in front of my 1934 Chevy with a couple of pals. No doubt
right after the picture we went to town and had a cup of coffee or, if we could fake our
age, a ten cent glass of beer. A few years ago I gave up drinking beer. But I kept on with
the coffee, and with the attitude: I gotta have a cup of coffee or I’m gonna die.
I’m not going to quit drinking coffee, I don’t think. I just want to see if I can make it fifteen
minutes into the day without it. So far, so good.
Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country. The quick brown fox
jumped over five dozen liquor jugs. How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a
woodchuck could chuck wood? Around the rock the ragged rascals ran. She sells
seashells at the seashore.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.
When I was about that same age I ran away from home about once a week. Once I made it
to New Orleans—that’s a long story. But another time I made it to Topeka, Kansas, just 50
miles away. I wanted to get a job and live on my own. I went right downtown to where all
the state offices were, all the big white buildings, and I went with some trepidation up the
steps into the office of the STATE PRINTER. It was a big building. State Printer was
actually an elective office in those days, and Fred somebody was it. He was a big affable
heavy man, and his swanky office was just inside the great hall of the building humming
with people doing the state’s printing. I went into his office and asked to see the State
Printer. They showed me into his office and there he was sitting at his desk and asking
me what I wanted.
(This is a true story.)
I piped right up and said I was looking for a job as a printer.
“Are you a high school graduate?”
“No, sir. I just want to be a printer.”
“Son, you have to be a high school graduate.” He peered across the desk at me. He
wasn’t unfriendly. “How old are you.”
“I’m 15 going on 16, sir.”
“Hmm. Well, I’d like to have you working here, but I want you to go back home—where
are you from?” He asked, and I told him I was from Manhattan—“I want you to go back to
Manhattan and finish high school and then come back and apply for a job here.” “Yes,
sir,” I said.
“Do you have folks?”
“Good.” He slid a printed card across the desk to me with his name and photo on it, and
it said VOTE FOR --- (I can’t remember his name but I’d know it if I heard it) FOR STATE
I thanked him, went down the long stairs, and got into my car and drove back to
Manhattan. I did graduate from high school, but by then I didn’t want to work for the State
Printer, though I thought about it, and then I went down and signed up for the U. S. Navy.
And now I’m going to make some coffee. ###
Thursday, March 19, 2015
This morning I think of all the people in my life I have met or was in contact with for a few
minutes or a few hours or even a few days, people I’ve forgotten, never knew the names
of…just people streaming past in my life.
On the other hand, JFK once looked at me. He was three feet away, surrounded by a
dozen Hungarian students and…little old moi. As he was talking vigorously to them, he
glanced at me. Doubtless his stream of consciousness didn’t register me. I might have
reached out and taken his hand and shook it but I was overcome with shyness. I could
have told him what I thought about the world situation. The moment passed. He moved
on, late for his plane. Jackie walked along in his wake, surrounded by reporters and
others. I went back downstairs to have another cup of coffee in the University of
Wisconsin student union cafeteria and to study my French. Eh bien, Charley.
Once a guy in a workshop told how he had been a teacher at Princeton University as a
young man and he sat behind Einstein at a lecture. It was a cold winter night and Einstein
had hung his coat over the back of the chair and the guy said he touched Einstein’s coat.
Now there’s achievement.
A man went to God and asked God if it was true that to Him, a million years was like a
minute. God said yes, that was so. Then the man asked God if to Him a million dollars
was like a penny. Yes, that’s true also, God said.
The man marveled at that and briefly hesitated. Then he said, God, could I have a penny?
Yes, God said, in a minute.
Hahahahaha. That joke is older than Methuselah, you might say.
I went yesterday to a small group of memoir writers at the Riley County Senior Center.
We have been meeting a couple of times a month now for five years. We’re old friends,
and we enjoy reminiscing. We bring something we’ve written and read it to the others.
Usually something in the story touches off a bout of reminiscence. Reminiscence in itself
is wonderful fun, I think, and probably healing of whatever wounds we might have. We tell
stories on ourselves and laugh about it. The meeting was small, only half a dozen of us.
That is part of its charm and fun, but of course we’d like more people to come. It’s one of
the town’s best kept secrets. I guess people stay away, well, partly because they’ve got
other fish to fry, but as much as anything, I suppose, at the horror of having to write
something and bring it and—shudder! Read it aloud.
One time I was riding on a bus out West, maybe one of those times I was with a couple of
my kids, and it was dark and late but I couldn’t sleep as we rumbled through the
mountains and neither could this guy next to me, and we started talking and we talked all
the way to Denver at dawn. We exchanged life stories, as people will do. He was a little
older than me, a very voluble and pleasant man. I came to admire him. At the end of the
night he said something about how life just went on and on, didn’t it? and Wasn’t it a
wonderful thing? And that became part of me, part of what I believed. I never knew his
name, never saw him again, but he became part of me. ###
Wed., March 18, 2015
There should be a little tin guy there beside you every time you think you’re smart, and
his job would be to hit you on the head with a mallet—firmly but not fatally. The thunk of
the mallet, like some Rube Goldberg machine, or like the little gadgets in the inner ear,
would send a shock wave right down your spine to warn you that, really, you are stupid to
think you’re smart. This would in turn trigger a wave of thoughts about how to
reconnoiter and get back on track. All this would result in some readjustment of your
opinion of yourself.
I not only felt I was smarter than everyone in the world, I thought if they knew more about
something than I did, well, that something didn’t matter. Only what I knew mattered. And
what did I know?
a. I knew that a sonnet had 14 lines except in the case of a curtle sonnet, which only had
b. I knew that if you started your story in the middle that was known as in medias res.
c. I knew the license plate numbers of my friends’ cars.
d. I knew that the capital of Ethiopia was Addis Abba.
In addition to this vast encyclopedic stuff, I had a wonderful sense of humor and I was
able to laugh at others very easily.
Finally, I knew that whatever trouble I got into, I could write my way out of it.
Now approaching old age if not in the thick of it, the little tin guy with the mallet is
thwacking away like nobody’s business. Every day if not every hour I learn something
new I thought I already knew but didn’t. I also learn that, if gnat’s have a memory, that’s
what mine is like. Someone says, My name is Jack, and I hold out my hand and say, Mine’
s Charley. What’s yours?
If I am given a number of more than 4 digits, by the time I get to the 4th one I have
forgotten the first 2. Well, it’s tricky.
It’s pretty distressing to be at the end of my life just the kid in the back row with his head
down, hoping the teacher won’t call on him. What’s the capital of Missouri, Charles? Uh,
Kansas City? No, Charles, it’s not Kansas City.
Yet this morning I feel some inkling of something new that I need to know and, once
learned, I may not forget…soon.
I am learning that I do not know anything. I know that I don’t know.
It’s refreshing. Ahoy, inside the head! There’s nothing here…it’s clean as a whistle!
One thing—that ability to laugh at others that I’ve always had—I have managed to modify
slightly to accommodate myself into the “things to laugh at today” category. That’s a
In other words, contemplating the rise of the sun this morning, I know that, Though the
situation is grave, it’s not serious. ###
Tues., March 17, 2015
I was knocked around a little in school but not routinely and, really, nothing like I
deserved. Given my errant and insolent and disruptive behavior, I deserved to be rolled
into a little ball and knocked out of the park. From about 8th grade on, I was a case of
“Charles disturbs others.” I thought I was cute, and some of the other students did too,
but mostly I was just being a jerk—a disruptive and badly behaved kid. This was back in
the early 50s, and then the only recourse the teacher had was to thwack me a good one or
to send me to the principal’s office or write a note to my parents. In fact my parents didn’t
want to be embarrassed by a note from school. Nor did the principal want me to be
sitting in his office when, maybe, he was trying to make out with the school secretary. My
parents were busy: my mother was a serious golfer and my father was a doctor with an
office full of patients.
For school counselors they had one guy on the faculty who maybe had taken a psych
course or two and was willing to earn a little extra money talking to kids like me—most of
whom had nothing to say or if they did, like me, they simply ran rings around the poor
I guess this was in the days after errant students were beaten routinely but before the rise
of counseling the Troubled Youth. I was certainly a Troubled Youth. But most teachers
were reluctant to spank or otherwise touch kids then, at least in my public school in not-
really-very-liberal Manhattan, Kansas. But Manhattan was a college town, and some of
the kids were faculty children, and so…maybe that was part of it.
Al Hargrave, the gym teacher, knocked us boys around, though, and did it on such a scale
and with such fierce routine that for his pains he got fired.
Gym class under Mr. H was like being in the Army. We stood at attention on a black line
painted on the gym floor for most of the hour while Hargrave amused himself by taunting
us. One day, Larry Finuf was chewing bubble-gum in formation, a real no-no. Hargrave
advanced to him, his face red, his curly blond locks quaking. Are you chewing gum,
Finuf? Of course Larry lied and said he wasn’t. “Open your mouth,” Hargrave said. Larry
did, and of course there was an enormous wad of Double Bubble gum in all its pinkness.
“Reach in your mouth and take the gum in your hand,” Hargrave said. Larry did as he
was told. “Now put your hand on your head,” Hargrave said. Larry hesitated. “Go ahead,
Finuf. Put your hand on your head.” I suppose if Larry had been cunning and resourceful
he would have put his hand on his head with the palm and the gum upward, but he didn’t.
Anyway, he would only have infuriated Hargrave all the more and delayed the inevitable.
Hargrave put his own hand on top of Larry’s and pressed down and around so that the
gum was mashed into Larry’s long hair.
It happened that Larry was a carrot-top. He had beautiful and fine and long orange hair.
Now he had a wad of Double Bubble ground into it. Everyone was horrified, but everyone
was laughing too. Hargrave went on with the class and his various harangues until class
was over and we were finally sent downstairs to the showers.
I don’t know if Larry went to the showers along with the rest of us. What I do know is that
a few weeks later, Mr. Hargrave was down in Wichita, selling cars for a living. ###
Mon., March 16, 2015
I have always washed dishes, and I’ve always liked it. I stood on a chair to help my mom
with the dishes. She washed, I dried. This was in the 40s. The idea of a machine that
washed dishes then was restricted, I guess, to German Bahnhoff types or something like
that. Hitler probably never washed dishes. I’m not saying that had he washed the dishes
every night for his mom that he wouldn’t have been Hitler. But it’s a thought. Little things
Maybe, come to think of it, washing the dishes all these years has kept me from being a
Hitler. I don’t look much like him. Even when I had black hair, I didn’t look much like
him. The obvious shock of black hair across my forehead, the clipped moustache, the
cold (blue?) eyes…I had and do not now have any of those. I have never had a moustache
though I am not philosophically opposed to one. My neighbor has grown a moustache
and he looks quite distinguished and like a secretary of state. And he could be one
because he’s one very smart guy chez politics.
My Uncle Arthur, however, who often wore a fine double-breasted suit and looked like the
great French diplomat of the 19th Century—his name is apparently one of those bytes of
information that my grandson Kyle tells me wasn’t important to remember anyway, and so
I have forgotten it—when Uncle Arthur opened his handsome, toothy mouth even with his
fine head of white hair and strong face—well, it was quite apparent he was not a diplomat
at all. Chevalier, wasn’t that his name? That of course is the singer, Maurice Chevalier.
Well, it doesn’t matter.
I don’t think I ever looked like anybody big. Well, there was that semester or two at
college when I resembled “Bill, who attended Harvard.” This was back in the early 60s. I
was in graduate school at KU, the university of Kansas. I was happy and teaching part
time and all over the campus all day long. No less than three times that semester
different men came up to me and said “Bill! I haven’t seen you since Harvard!” or
something like that. They were quickly disabused. I told one I hadn’t seen him since
Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, and he quickly excused
himself and slunk silently away.
I have never been at, in or near Harvard. Not once. It’s in Massachusetts, I know that,
though back in the day when someone told me they had gone to Harvard I said, Oh, that’s
in Pennsylvania, isn’t it? I’d have gone off to Harvard like anybody else if they had asked
me. But they didn’t. So I became very proud of being a public state university sort of
fellow. But now, looking back, I wish I’d never gone to college at all, much less stayed
around twelve years of my precious life. In those twelve years I could have gone to sea
and become a deck officer on a smelly freighter making ports of call in South America—
and writing novels—or I could have gone to New York and worked on some daily rag of a
newspaper—and written novels—or I could have gone to work in the vegetable fields of
Peru—and written novels—but instead I went to Kansas State University, Washburn
University, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Wisconsin and the University of
Iowa (have I left anyone out?)—and did not write any novels.
I did, however, after more than 30 years of de-universitying as a pig farmer, shepherd,
handyman, housepainter and fixer of toilets, write one novel.
Sun., March 15, 2015
I'm writing and out of the corner of my eye on mute with captions is some History channel
thing about the Empress Theodora. She was, apparently, quite a babe the Emperor
Justinian's courtesan and confidant.
When I was a kid I memorized other peoples phone numbers and license plate numbers.
No Justianian I, but I did what I did best. I remembered numbers. Want to know my
family's first phone number here in town? 3917. Yes! 3-9-1-7. My wife's social security
number? I've got it down. The license plate of the first car I ever owned, my beloved 1934
Chevy with the wide runningboards and the big silver headlights standing out there on the
huge fenders? It was (can you wait?) RL 14530!!
Later I graduated to other stuff: Doris Day's real name (Doris von Kloppelhoff), the
population of New York City in 1950, the height of the highest fresh water lake in the
world, Lake Titicaca (11141 feet)...oh, what would you like to know?
In this same vein I proceeded through high school, the Navy (serving on board T-AP 126,
The Rose, built in 1946 and scrapped in 2000), and college learning hot and useful stuff
like Alexander the Great's birthday (323 BC), how many lines and the rime scheme of an
English sonnet, and Italian sonnet, the definition of Gerard Manley Hopkins' sprung
rhythm, not to mention the capital cities of most of the countries of the world...oh, I
learned so much, I was so learned, I was just bustin' out all over with erudition. I was the
And then in my 70s I began to forget things. Names, numbers, what I had for breakfast,
where I parked my car (I was in truth never too good with that...it was too practical, but
where I used to park my car was another matter)I knew everything useless and now I was
My grandson, Kyle, said, Maybe it didn't matter all that much, Grandpa?
And so I let go of a few million non-essentials. Maybe a few million more won't matter,
either. Ah, the things we learn from our grandchildren!
When was the War of 1812? Who wrote Beethoven's 5th Symphony? Who is buried in
Grant's Tomb? Who wrote the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini?
When I was in the 7th grade at Manhattan Junior High, and Miss Ida Jane Summers asked
what the capital of Missouri was, my hand shot up. I waved my hand and snapped my
fingers for her attention. Not you, Charles, Miss Summers said. We all know you know,
she went on, smiling saccharinely at me as my hand was going down and wilting as I sat
there in the front row. Today we'd like to know what the others know. She looked at the
back row where a bunch of boys sat trying to hide. Elmer? she called at the biggest boy.
Elmer put his thumbs in his bib overall straps. Uh, Kansas City? No, Elmer, I'm sorry,
Miss Summers said. Delbert? Delbert looked at the floor. Uh, Saint Louis? He had been
there once with his Mom and Dad. No, Delbert, that's a good guess, but ... Anyone? Her
bright eyes canvassed the rows of students and finally she looked at me, bursting to
speak. All right, Charles, tell us what it is.
JEFFERSON CITY! I screamed. And Miss Summers smiled and nodded and went on with
her lecture. The boys in the back row glowered at me. I'd get mine on the playground, I
had a feeling, and I slunk my head down. ###
Sat., March 14, 2015
It’s a little after midnight. We got safely through Friday the 13th. The only bad luck is I’m
having trouble with my backspace key. I carefully jimmied the cover plate off and blew as
hard as I could to get the dust off, and it’s better, but it’s not all better. I will have to do it
again soon. Maybe I should take one of those cans of air and go through the whole
thing. It is after all an 8 year old machine.
I can’t sleep now because I slept when I came home this afternoon. We had some ice
cream, or I did, and we took a looong nap. We were tired. When you are old you are tired
a lot. Or I should say I am. So here I am, a bit after midnight and I’m up sitting here in the
living room, watching Classic Arts on TV, or listening rather, watching only out of the
corner of my eye, and writing. I am always writing. As a little kid I sat in my room and
wrote while other kids were out playing baseball. I had some money coming because I
helped with the wheat harvest and with that money I bought a Smith-Corona portable
typewriter. I painted the keys with luminous paint so that I could write in the dark. (It didn’
t really work, as after about ten minutes the luminosity wore off and I’d have to turn on a
lamp and hold the typewriter up to it to re-charge the paint.)
In high school other kids had favorite bats; I had a favorite fountain pen, an Esterbrook. It
was a beautiful washed green and I had a broad tip so that my handwriting looked, to me,
pretty impressive. In the Navy of course I was a yeoman, a typist really, that’s all, but I
loved being that, and letting anyone and everyone know that in the old Navy the yeoman
was called “the ship’s writer.” Less impressively, a yeoman was called a “titless wave” or
merely a “Remington Raider.” I worked on a heavy Underwood machine where, someone
figured out, that if you typed on it all day long you lifted ten tons. That’s a lot. Maybe that
number isn’t right. But it was a lot.
Out of the Navy and in college I bought a little Smith Corona again, older even that the one
I’d had as a boy, one made in 1938, the year I was born. I wrote my first long work of
fiction on it, a short novel I called Bellissima. It was corny but coherent and even in its
way, moving. No one ever published it but I did use it for my MA thesis.
Then a friend, Paul and his wife, Nancy, who had rooms in our own house in Wisconsin,
and charged them no rent because they were, after all, friends, and we had plenty of
space…well, they gave me a brand new Olivetti Underwood typewriter, a portable, and so
cool—it was the first colored appliance of any kind I ever had. It was a little paler than a
robin’s egg blue, with black trim. I used that machine for years. It was, in fact, my last
typewriter. I wish I’d kept it. Maybe I’d be a better writer.###
Fri., March 13, 2015
The story of my night was long and dreamy—and pee-y. I dreamed about laughing bears.
What I wouldn’t give for a night’s sleep like any of my grandchildren no doubt are just
finishing up in their beds out on the West Coast. The sleep of childhood…long gone. My
doctor, whom I saw yesterday, has a new pill that will over time shrink my prostate down
to where I can get a better night’s sleep. I just wish I could have spent the first year of my
life pooping and peeing and let it go at that: from 2 on, don’t bother. Wouldn’t that be
But that laughing bear dream was interesting. I’ve had many dreams of bears bearing
coming after me, and they weren’t laughing. I was terrified. I’d usually wake up sweating
and maybe screaming to: Help! Help! I’d scream, and my wife would pat me on my rear
and say, Charley, it’s just a dream.
But it wasn’t just a dream. It was, but deep down where we live, it was holy terror,
running from my self, running from the reality. But in this dream the bear at first was
terrifying and chasing and then we ended up laughing together—I can see that big bear
mouth open with those enormous teeth curled in laughter—and he offered me some
candy from a sack and we ate it and laughed together.
That’s a change. Maybe the thing that has been chasing me all my life is really my friend
who would share his candy with me. We could sit in the sun and laugh and eat candy.
I pay attention to my dreams. In dreams I am really awake. [I also pay attention to my
slips of the tongue or pen, and just now, above, I wrote the thing that has been changing
me rather than chasing me. Whoa!
I wonder if the sometime compulsion to tell a dream is similar to the compulsion some of
us have to tell a story—or two. And how about the guy in Rime of the Ancient Mariner
who sat on a stone and told the wedding guests the story of the killing of the albatross,
ending with He prayeth best who loveth best/All things both great and small?
I dunno. Life is weird. And maybe it’s not so bad, after all.
When I was a little kid and had a piece of candy some bigger kid would always come
along and say, Gimme a bite, will yuh? And then he’d take it—tootsie roll or whatever—
and chomp a huge bite, handing me back a mere fragment. Maybe that’s when I began to
think that life was unfair. I wonder where those kids are now, the ones who took almost
all the candy from little kids’ candy bars? Are they the CEOs of large corporations? Or
are they down and out, lying under bridges, sipping Gallo from a bottle wrapped in a
paper sack? ###
Thu., March 12, 2015
A slice of life is revealing, as revealing if not more so, than many an ordinary narrative
from one’s life. And so I write that I went to Dillon’s to buy an apple and there I am in the
thick of teeming life, looking at the mounds of red and green and yellow apples.
When I was a kid an apple was an apple and it cost a nickel…if they had any. I looked at
the various types with the cute little oval labels pasted on them…Jazz, Honey Crisp, and
so on, and I look at the prices, some of them as much as 2.99 a pound. A buck fifty for a
single apple! Of course these aren’t apples off trees of the local orchard. No. These are
Tibetan apples grown only in the Tibetan sun and with arugula patches (Chinese arugula,
of course) nearby because of the, don’t you know, special aroma of arugala and how it
interacts chemically with Tibetan apples… And then these are harvested in the full moon
while the Tibetan monks are up there in the mountains having their pre-dawn swim and
prayer, and within minutes the apples are flown probably cabin class to markets in the
USA and Europe where they are downloaded and specially refrigerated until they arrive
there on that apple stand right under your nose.
Hmmph, I say to all that, as I pick through them and check my pocket to be sure I’ve got
enough money for a Honey Crisp, which is the reigning queen of appledom. And then I
see my old pal, Ken. We have been living all winter in cities and wherever you go, there
are people. Here in the Little Apple (pardon me, but that’s our nickname), Manhattan,
Kansas, wherever you go there are people you know and went to school with or go to
church with or bought a used car from.
So Ken and I schmooze as we look at the apples and remember the time we dug a
basement together out here at our place, Letter Rock, so many years ago. “It was a pretty
dumb thing to do,” Ken laughed, “but it was fun.” “I guess we’d never heard of a back
hoe,” he went on, and I allowed that in fact I had not, that I did not have the slightest idea
what a back hoe was…maybe a hoe you used backwards? “We did everything
backwards,” Ken laughed again, and picked up a Honey Crisp to take with. “Lunch,” he
said, and waved and went off.
I took a Honey too and moved onto the yogurt section. Oh, they were all out of the French
yogurt flavored with African corn blossoms…darn. I’d just have to go with either Dannon’
s, or Yoplait, or…any of the other 144 different kinds of yogurt. When I was a kid we didn’
t even know what yogurt was…some kind of, no doubt, communistic stuff that would give
us the ideological trots.
What a life it is, no? ###
Wed., March 11, 2015
In that little black Renault one time I was driving to Topeka from Lawrence for my therapy
hour with Dr. Bob Menninger, and at the west edge of Lawrence on old Highway 40 (which
was the way I always went) stood a couple of guys hitch-hiking. I picked them up. (Or
now I think about it, it might have been at the east edge of Topeka on my way back to
Lawrence; I simply don’t remember and it doesn’t much matter.) They said something
about car trouble, I think, and of course one was in the back and the other in the front.
You couldn’t seat three people in the front of a Renault.
A couple of days earlier I’d been driving down Massachusetts Avenue in Lawrence and I
parked, ran an errand, and when I got back in the car I saw on the pavement an ice pick, a
common enough thing back in those days—a few people still used them, I guess—and I
picked it up and tossed it into the open glove compartment. I thought nothing of it, it was
just something intact that was lost by somebody and maybe I’d need it some day for
Well, the guy sitting in the front while we were driving to Topeka saw that, picked it up
and looked at me weirdly. Do you use this on hitch-hikers? He said. I laughed a little
uncomfortably. He played with it, felt the sharp pointed tip, rolled it around in his hand,
and showed it to the guy behind me. Here I was, driving along, not that far from the State
Prison Reception Center on Topeka’s east side, and these guys, one of whom I could not
see, were playing with an icepick. Luckily this was before In Cold Blood. Finally the guy
tossed it back into the compartment—I might have suggested that to him, I don’t
remember—and we drove on and got to their destination and I let them out. Whew! I don’
t think I’ve picked up two hitch-hikers at once since.
Of course, no one hitch-hikes anymore except escaped murderers. Back in the day,
though, I hitch-hiked a lot and I loved it. It was a wonderful, happy and free way to travel.
I don’t mean just free free, I mean it made me feel free and footloose and—maybe I liked
this the most, an observer of the world rather than part of it. Something about that I
liked. I was kind of like, to use the French phrase (!) a flaneur.
One time when I was supporting my writing habit and my family by working at odd jobs in
town a couple of other guys and I built a decorative fence for a rich old lady who was so
pleased that she had us inscribe in the still-wet concrete sidewalk, How hard, How
Which, I thought, was dumb enough. But she looked in some book and got it in Greek,
which none of us, including her, knew from—well, Greek. So, eager to please—and to get
paid—we followed the book she gave us and carefully wrote it in Greek on a sidewalk in
I don’t suppose there are contractors in Greece going around with American books and
writing Howdy or something like that on their sidewalks? ###
Tu., March 10, 2015
My father loaned me the money to buy a used Renault, at least to make a down payment
on it. He didn’t approve of foreign cars. It wasn’t old: it was a 1959 Renault and this was
about 1963. It was black and white and had two horns: one little toot for city driving, and
a lower one for country. Instead of a glove compartment with a door it had an opening
with no door. Of course all the dashboard names of things were in French. Oh, did I love
that. I had taken a couple of French courses and I wished fervently that I was French. I
had zero French blood. I would have given anything to have at least some, and to have a
French name instead of a Cornish one. Who ever heard of Cornwall? What great
intellectual had come from Cornwall? Nobody that I knew.
I had been at Menningers and still went there three times a week for analysis/therapy and
all the men psychiatrists—except mine—were Europeans or South Americans and they
wore their topcoats over their shoulders without putting their arms in the sleeves. Oh,
God, I wanted that. Oh, I wanted to do that too but mostly I was afraid to: someone would
make fun of me. I wanted so terribly badly, though, to be European. Anything to be
anything but the Kansas Midwestern boy that I was. I had only been in France once, and
that was for about eight hours when I was on board the Rose and we stopped in La Pallice
for refueling and I went ashore and bought a pipe for a dollar that was made in France. I
tried to smoke it instead of cigarets but it just didn’t work out.
I spoke French to myself. I couldn’t wait to start dreaming in French. Once a pretty
French girl, really from France, said I had a good French accent and I fell in love with her
on the spot. I looked at myself in the mirror that night and said bonjour or something and
thought I looked oh so Gallic.
I can’t believe the hours I wasted studying French—in college and out. I would have been
better off to study agriculture or engineering. But there I was, confront with a problem like
replacing one of the huge blades on my disk all I could do was look at it and conjugate
etre in two or three of its many, many tenses.
I wasn’t a linguist. I just wasn’t. The only books I ever read in French without resorting
constantly to a dictionary were so silly that a child would find them silly. My youngest
daughter went to Europe out of high school and traveled around and picked up languages
easy as pie. She even matriculated into the University of Paris. By that time I was here on
the farm raising pigs—cochons, I should say, so all I could do was oink and fantasize that
one day I’d be invited to lecture there, a visiting Americain, un homme tres amusant
Mon., March 9, 2015
My mother had a pet cat, Trinket, and Trinket had a buddy, Bubba, and both of these huge
and ugly cats slept with her or near her the last years of her life. I did not like them and
they did not like me. When I came by Mom’s Bubba would disappear behind furniture
while Trinket would sit on Mom (almost always in bed except when she was in the kitchen
making the cats their daily pork chop) and stare at me balefully.
But of course Mom loved these cats, and when she died a neighbor and friend put their
feeding dish on the flat stone on Mom’s grave. It was there for fifteen or so years and
then it somehow cracked in half and I took it and put it in our art shop for repair, where it
I am not a cat person, though we have here at the farm—or the Institute, I should say—
always ten or fifteen or twenty of them hanging around the back door. June loves them
and feeds them. A kind neighbor, Cynthia, fed them while we were on the West Coast for
three months. June claims they keep down the mouse population and it’s true I have not
seen a mouse in years. One or two of the cats are friendly enough to me, but the others,
though I have never done them wrong, sense my inherent enmity and run from me.
Dogs are another matter. I like dogs, big dogs like my beloved Molly Moose. Molly was
half Saint Bernard and half Collie. Or so we all said. She was a big happy dog who
wagged her great tail like a flag whenever we came near. On hot days she used to crawl
through a hole in the side of the rock foundation of the house and lie there in the cool
darkness. We might be in the living room and we’d say, or croon, Molly Moose! Molly
Molly Moose! And she wag her tail against one of the joists and make a thump-thump-
thump sound that would delight us all.
Molly just got old one day and went out under an apple tree in the orchard and died. I dug
her grave right under that tree. Now, as it happens, the tree itself, planted when we first
came here forty some years ago—the tree itself has died.
We talk about getting another dog but I doubt we will. They are too much trouble—they
run (though Molly never did), they bark (Molly barked only when the coyotes howled or
when a stranger came), or they are otherwise noisome, jumping up on people with
wagging joy with their muddy paws, or slobbering on the toddlers… So I doubt we’ll get
one. I’m not really a pet person, anyway. We don’t even have a pet rock anymore. I can’t
relate to fish. Our youngest son had a pet spider of some kind that disappeared in the
catacombs of the basement. It is probably still alive down there and will, no doubt, leap
out at us one fine day and eat us whole. I think about that now and then. It gives me
Sun., March 8, 2015
I think Fall Forward/Spring Back is the dumbest mnemonic device there ever was. It just
doesn’t remind you of anything except you’ve got to go one way or another. It’s Spring
Forward, Fall Back isn’t it? But why would you necessarily Spring Forward and Fall
Back? I wouldn’t spring forward if a snake were on the path, would you? No, I’d spring
back, and quickly.
I just hate it when they mess with the clocks, anyway.
We had our yard sale yesterday. It was a little chilly to begin with but it warmed up and
we sat at the table in front of the Art Shop and drank hot coffee. A few cars straggled
down the road, mostly friends, and we made a little money and got rid of a few more cubic
feet of our junk, had a lunch and a nice chat/update on family news with a our nephew,
who had decided to drive over from Topeka, and then we took our Customary Afternoon
The success of the event inflames me with the desire to do it every Saturday for the rest
of my life. I like sitting and talking and being given money, especially if I don’t have to
count it, I can just drop it in a cigar box.
Evan Davies, boyhood friend, and I collected cigar boxes. This was in the early 1950s,
and Evan and I would after school make the rounds to the stores were cigars were sold
and ask to have their empty boxes of Mississippi Crooks, Roi-tans, and King Edwards.
We’d get a few every time. I had limited space to store them in my room at home but Evan
was the Episcopal priest’s son and they lived in the church house, whatever it was called I
can’t remember, and Evan had the run of a huge attic. He had an entire room stacked
high with cigar boxes. I was so envious.
I had a use for my boxes, anyway. I collected stamps, also, and on those after school
times when we didn’t do cigar boxes I would go through the trash of various businesses
downtown and tear stamps off envelopes that had been through out. Mostly the stamps
were just standard three cent first class commemoratives, but sometimes, especially at
places like the big insurance company, Farm Bureau, I’d get some fives or some more
exotic commems. I tore them off, took them home and soaked them in bowls of warm
water in my bedroom and then laid the stamps out to dry before I popped them into my
Today I haven’t a single solitary cigar box. Nor do I have any of my comic books, which, if
I did have them, would allow me to pursue my impecunious efforts for the rest of my life. I
can’t believe that some of the comics that I had and threw away had a monetary value in
the thousands. I had a stack several feet high of Plastic Man, Superman and Superboy,
Wonder Woman, Crime Does Not Pay, and even Archie and His Friends. ###
Sat., March 7, 2015
Befitting a day when we are going to have a yard sale, last night I dreamed of trying
unsuccessfully to herd a couple of errant hippopotamuses and ending by shooting them.
Dreams are the Royal Road to the Unconscious, Freud said, but what did he know?
I did get a night’s sleep, and for that I am grateful. And the day that looms (still dark) and
will bring with it a flight of yardsalers at the first crack of dawn is by all accounts to be
warm and sunny. I could laugh my way through the day, and probably will, but I have
some items to sell—a cement mixer, a big chain saw, and so on that will bring some
money, and we need some money to pay off some of the bills of our 95 day trip west,
which financially did not quite meet our expectations.
I have not had a lot of retail experience. I do not want a lot of experience with that. I think
however I may yet develop some experience.
I would have been very happy running a small town newspaper in the 1930s, say. Or the
captain’s yeoman on board a slovenly old freighter that steamed from New York to Vera
Cruz and back. Or a professor of litrachuh in a backwater college. Or living out my life
here in the shade of a grove of walnut trees.
So Harrison Ford is in the hospital after crashing his vintage small plane on a Santa
Monica golf course. Everybody likes Harrison Ford and wishes him a speedy recovery, a
Chicago kid who went to Ripon College in Wisconsin and became a carpenter to the stars
in Hollywood before he became one of them. Ripon, Wisconsin is the town where the
Republican Party started in 1854…I think.
Maybe today after the sale it will be nice and we will walk up to the top of Letter Rock Hill,
a place I have not been since last spring. I am sure the ponds are dry. Yesterday
unearthing things for the sale I found a completely intact dessicated adult cat lodged in
between two doors. What a way to die. Well, as they say: Curiosity killed the cat. I gave
the fossil, as it might fairly be called, to June, who after expressing dismay and
wondering which cat it was—if it was one of ours—put it in her studio where it will
become a work of art. If only the cat had eaten whole another cat before it got wedged in
there, we could have something like the famous fossil at the Sternberg Museum of the
great Neolithic fish inside another fish that had eaten it…
It disturbs me that though I was born in Minot, North Dakota, I have no memory—none
whatever—of that fair city. A friend from that city has a t-shirt that says, Why not Minot?
Which is the motto of the town. But on the back of the shirt, is an answer to the question:
Freezin’s the Reason.
I must have personal experience of that. I was born January 24. ###
Yesterday—OMG, yesterday. Due to multiple technical failures as well as due to the fact
that we don’t use it much anymore, we sold our—well, my, anyway—beloved 1996 Chevy
S-10. We are trying to de-junk, after all, and despite several interventions by friends, it
remained parked out there and in the way of everything. My dream was to completely
restore it and repaint it and place it on a pedestal. But pedestals are expensive, and
someone has suggested to me that life moves in a forward direction rather than a
backward one…so we let the poor thing, the official truck of the LifeStory Institute for
nineteen years, go… Mike’s Wrecker came and got it.
Only a few years ago I drove that truck by myself all the way to California and back doing
workshops. It was one of the happiest motor trips in my life.
And tomorrow, Saturday: we are having a yard sale. We are seriously dejunking: I am
even letting go of a few books. It’s terrifying.
All my life I have collected books. It all started when I got out of the Navy and was a
student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1959, and Dick Olson and I would
haunt the bookshops around town, especially Paul’s Used Books, and I built my
collection, which grew over the years to the several thousand books it is now. I never de-
booked except once, and that was in the late 1960s when I gave all my books to the library
of the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, and we went off to Mexico to become
émigrés. I don’t regret that. I was back there a few years ago and it was a great pleasure
to see some of my old books in that library.
But I began collected again when we got back and today we have a couple thousand
books. My excuse for collecting books—not rare books but good books was that first,
one can never have too many copies of Moby Dick, and two, when I retired the books
would become my inventory for a bookstore. I would sit in the back of the store and go of
writing, and when the occasional customer would interrupt my endeavors I would
grumpily go forward and sell a book or two to pay for supper.
Yes, that was my 401k. That was my financial planning. It looked like a winner.
It was a wonderful fantasy until some yardbird invented the computer and made printed
books more or less irrelevant. I spent about ten years crying about that and the rate of my
collecting has dropped off sharply. I actually completely ignored the last annual sale just
a few weeks ago at the public library of their withdrawn from circulation books. They sold
over 100,000 books to my fellow townspersons and I did not buy a single one.
However, I am now thinking of opening a used bookstore, anyway. I will open up, arrange
a few special books on the table by the door, and lecture on Moby Dick or As I Lay Dying,
the books I have spent my life with. I may offer them for sale to the right buyer. ###
Thu., March 5, 2015
One hundred six years ago today in West Point, Kentucky, a village in Hardin County
located on a former meander bend of the Ohio River, my mother was born: March 5, 1909.
She was the youngest of five, and the apple of her father’s eye. She told me some of her
childhood stories, and many of them I’ve written down here in this Journal but I have not
collected them. She told once about being sent to the neighborhood tavern with a small
pail and a nickel to buy her father, tired after a long day’s work, a pail of beer from the
Her father was Lewis Clinton Isaacs, whom I came to know very well during the War years
and after until he died by his own hand in 1950 at the age of 80. Her mother was Lizzie
Lee Knight, who died in 1943, and whom I remember only a little of, who told me to go
easy on the butter as it was 54 cents a pound. She died at home—we lived then in rural
Indiana near a town called Poland—of nephritis, at age 63.
She told about her growing up years in Indianapolis. She was a happy, playful, fun-loving
girl. I have a photograph of her with some other girls laughing and lounging on
somebody’s car waving pennants for the local basketball team. It was during the State
Tournament, she told me, and “some guy from a newspaper came along and snapped
their picture,” as she said, and they put it on the front page of the Indianapolis Star.
She was a good student but was excluded from the high school honor society because
she was thought to be Jewish: Lillian Isaacs. The family were not practicing Jews and
didn’t really seem to practice anything except work and play and live and laugh as best
they could in poverty.
Mom escaped the poverty of the 1930s when she married a young doctor who was a
resident at the University of Indiana Hospital. Thus she was able to provide her parents
with a final home in some modest comfort and to raise her three children in a big house
with no fear of the wolf at the door.
Mom died the day before she was 88 on March 4, 1997. I think the cause of death was
listed as respiratory failure but basically she just quit eating. She never liked to eat,
anyway, even though she cooked for all of us. She was a smoker and she loved to talk.
We’d look up from the table when she fed us and she’d be telling some story or other and
smoking a cigarette that she’d stub out in her pile of mashed potatoes. She thought of
her children and grandchildren until the very end, but she did tell me once that when she
died she wanted the whole world to end because “she didn’t want to miss anything.”
Years ago when I thought I might be able to write poems I tried lifting from the newspaper
an obituary or two and arranging them on the page as a stanza or two of poetry. I never
did anything with these half dozen or so “poems” but I was impressed with how easily the
bare facts of a life became haunting statements when arranged in that form. ###
Wed., March 4, 2015
Graduate school, the first time around at the University of Kansas, was one of the
happiest times of my life. I think I not-so-secretly liked being treated well and with
respect. They called us “Mister” and “Miss” and “Mrs.” (This was in the days before Ms.
was thought of.) Yes, I was called Mr. Kempthorne by faculty and students alike. I was a
quite the fellow, and was in a school where if I hung around and kept my nose clean long
enough, I’d soon be called Doctor. I was pleased to tell my father, who was a medical
doctor, that the “doctor” in Latin meant “teacher.”
Oh, I was so smart, so sassy…and I was in love with literature and a pretty girl, too.
I had two classes of English Composition. One met in the basement of Robinson Hall in a
room that had been a chemistry class—there was a gas jet and a sink at the front of the
class. The other met—I don’t remember where it met, actually. Somewhere on that
wonderful, beautiful campus…probably in a basement room with no windows, but so
what? They called me Mister Kempthorne, and if they didn’t really hang on my every
word, I was willing to be deluded into thinking so.
There were about twenty or fewer in each class. I think maybe there were more than a
hundred sections of Freshman English. The instructors all had a desk, if not an office
with walls and a door, in a former airplane hangar, Lindley Annex. This was where we
held our “conferences,” as they were called, with individual students. They’d come
slinking in carrying their marked up theme and I’d go over it with them, saying really
enlightening things about how there should be punctuation at the end of each sentence,
and—of course—a paragraph should have unity, coherence, and development.
One time a pretty girl who was in a sorority and was in danger of losing her membership
because of poor grades, looked at me intensely and asked me point blank to raise her D
to a C…and put her hand on my thigh! I almost fainted. I held my stand, though, and
wouldn’t raise her grade. Punctuation before passion! She stalked away, her high-heeled
shoes clicking on the concrete floor. Her action had completely derailed me and it was
half an hour before I was back on track as Mister Kempthorne, Assistant Instructor of
Another time I was threatened by a guy who came to class in a tank-top tee shirt back
when they were just called undershirts. He was from New Jersey and a tough kid. He
didn’t exactly say, “Gimme a higher grade, see” but he did make it clear that if I was dumb
enough to haunt the Rock Chalk later that night, he might reconfigure my face a little. I
think I might have cut him a little slack as, really, he had a lot of potential. Really. ###
Tues., March 3, 2015
I drink my coffee whenever possible from a couple of favorite cups. I have (and June has
one too) a nice cylindrical midnight blue cup that says on the side COOK PAINT MAKES
YOU LOOK GOOD, and nothing else. It’s a souvenir from my days as a housepainter,
about which I grow more sentimental in proportion to the number of years I’ve been out of
that onerous and difficult occupation that was lived through in order to support my
I love that cup. I carry it with me in my car and when I go to a meeting or church or
wherever they’ll give me a cup of coffee—gas stations of course—I drink from that cup.
When I drink from that cup (pardon me), my cup runneth over.
But my in-house favorite cup is a similarly cylindrical one that is pure white with a light
blue drawing of a freighter sailing into port. Above are the words, TACOMA
LONGSHOREMEN CREDIT UNION. I love this cup too. I never was a longshoreman but
my son, Rip, is. I have had this cup which he gave to me almost from the time he became
a longshoreman more than ten years ago. A couple of times I’ve dropped it and we’ve
pieced it back together and glued it more or less successfully except for a chip in one part
of the rim that you don’t want to sip from because it’ll cut your lip.
I am finicky, obviously, about what I drink from. Of course if I want a cup of coffee bad
enough, I’ll drink from most anything. But I’m not happy then.
To a lesser extent I’m this way with favorite bowls, spoons, glasses—everything. To be
sure, I have favorite pens. I don’t write much in longhand anymore, but when I do to make
a note or some such, I always use a no. 7 gel pen made by Pilot. I h-a-t-e ballpoint pens
and I will not write with them, even if they work.
Yes, it’s an OCD world out there. Or should I say, in here? I guess if someone gave me a
check for a million dollars and I had to endorse it and I had no pen but a b.p. , I’d use it.
But I wouldn’t like it.
We all have our little quirks. What do they mean? The great lexicographer Samuel
Johnson had all manner of things he had to do just to get down the street. He touched
every light pole he ever passed. He kicked at rocks like a child. Of Bishop Berkeley’s
famous contention that the world exists only in our own mind, he said, kicking at a rock,
“I refute it thus!” Quite a guy, old Sam. I did not know him personally and I thought his
novel, Rasselas, the worst novel ever written. We had to read it in college and we took to
calling it Rassle-ass. Our professor loved it and praised it in the most general terms a
good 18th Century man could. ###
Monday, March 2, 2015 Letter Rock Park
When I was a boy of 30 or so I got up every morning to music. I’d put on a record, a 33
rpm, and I’d dance and swing like an orangutan all over the room, singing along,
conducting, there I was, half naked and jumping up on the furniture as lively (I thought)
and lithe and all those good L things like old Fred Astaire singing in the rain, only of
course there wasn’t any rain inside. I was never depressed.
Well, not on wakening. As I went through the day sometimes my mood would change,
maybe, but the first thing was music and dancing and singing and swinging. One time I
was listening to, I think, old Mussourgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, all those brilliant
brassy cacophonous passages and I made a leap for a parallel bars I had on a doorway
and the bar came loose and I went flying. It took the wind out of my sails and I think later
on I even went to the nearby hospital (I was living in Kansas City then) for a check out. I
was okay, a couple of young interns said. They were bored and amused at my plight.
Now sometimes—just sometimes but it’s on the increase—I get up and I feel like dancing
and singing. In my mind I jump around the room, maybe I get down on my knees and sing
Sewanee, how I love ya, how I love ya, my dear old Sewanee…
I smile as I shuffle out to the kitchen to dip a cup of old coffee out of the maker and nuke
it in the microwave. This morning I sang, along with Roberta Flack, The First Time I Saw
Your Face. Then I sat down here and began to write. In just a couple of minutes I’ll go to
You Tube and pull up You Are My Sunshine and play it (I forget the artist’s name, a sweet
young thing) for my wife to waken her for the morning festivities.
But yesterday afternoon I was so depressed I thought again and again, Why, when a
month ago I was on the Golden Gate Bridge (which by the way I just got the toll bill for
yesterday), why, oh why, didn’t I just stop the car and leap? I can fly, I can fly, I can fly!
Are those called mood swings?
“O the mind, the mind has mountains,” warbled old Father Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Cliffs
of fall, sheer, no man fathomed.”
ATTENTION ON DECK!
This is Monday, March 2, 2015, and it’s time to get with the program. And do we have a
busy day for you, Charley. We are going in town to our meeting early, and stopping off at
Dillon’s to dance a bit (we used to dance in the canyons of groceries, cans of pineapple
and devilled ham, where nobody could see us, not even the spy cameras, which of
course then weren’t even thought of, not even by Dick Tracy) to pick up a few things to
eat and then we’ll come zooming home to a busy, sunny workaday day. Oh Frances, Oh
Frances, Oh please tell me why…your mother is calling and you don’t replyyyy….###
Sun., Mar. 1, 2015
Okay, if you wake up depressed—as I just have—why not pretend to be joyous? Let’s
pretend that I was wakened by a phone call from Sweden telling my I’d won the 2015
Nobel Prize for Literature. The guy who calls and who has, wouldn’t you know, a marked
Swedish accent in spite of having been schooled at Harvard, apologizes profusely for
waking me up. “Oy, Messair Kampthawnuh, Eye ham zo zorry. Eye cud call back latair.
Eye ham zo—
“Oh, that’s alright,” I say, I had to get up to go to the bathroom, anyway. You said I may
already be a winner of…just what was it?”
“Ze Nobel Price fur Litrachuh,” he said.
“Really?” I say. “Jack is that you? Have you been drinking again? Do you need me to
come and give you a ride home?”
Okay, I’m not now so depressed as I was.
I did once get a surprise and pleasant call from a big shot reporter on the Kansas City
Star: he wanted to interview me. His name was Jim Fisher. Yes, he said, he wondered if
he drove up here from Kansas City would I have the time to be interviewed. Of course I
didn’t believe him, I have lots of practical joking friends, and so I got ready to whinny the
loudest horse laugh in the world, but something clicked in my febrile brain and I held my
tongue and played along. I said sure, and I gave him directions to drive here. Turned the
guy was for real and he came up and we talked around my kitchen table for a couple of
hours and had a great time—two old men about the same age reminiscing—and he went
back to the city and wrote a nice article for the Star about LifeStory and what we were
cooking up here. That would be back in…about 1992.
Now I am even more less depressed than I was a few minutes ago.
It has snowed. Three or four inches, if that. We are not exactly snowed in, but we aren’t
going to go out there and skid around over hill and dale. We’re going to stay home from
church and maybe walk over to the neighbors and say hello.
And then we’ll work all day and watch the sun go down on March 1, 2015. I just have to
say, in passing, that I wish we raised hogs again. I really liked hogs. I enjoyed their
company and found their comments on late 20th Century culture of considerable value.
They also sold well: we never lost money on hogs. And by the time they were what we
hoggeurs (what hog producers are known as) call butcher weight, they had gotten out of
their pen so many times and broken so many fences and rooted up so much of the garden
that I roundly disliked them and had no compunction whatever about loading them for the
sale barn. ###
In 1996 I wrote For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History. It did well,
was very well reviewed, and is still doing well. There are copies in about 2,000 public
libraries--including the great New York Public Library, where a recent research paper on
family history writing issued by it quoted the book several times. About 12,000 copies
have been sold in all. Of course I like to see people buy it but, honestly the book I think
most of you need today is the one shown at left.
Why? Because while For All Time is a good introduction, Narrative Journaling: 28 Days
to Writing More or Less Happily for the Rest of Your Life, shows you how to get the
writing done. This book leads you through the process of eliminating attitudes about
writing that are keeping you from actually doing it, and then shows you how to cement
the process into a daily habit--and a very healthful and happy habit at that. Send $20 even
(16 for the book, 4 for shipping) to LifeStory, 3591 Letter Rock Rd., Manhattan, KS 66502.
Orders are processed the day received. Pay with check, money order, or credit card
number (number, year and date of expiration) or go online to our website www.
thelifestoryinstitute.com to order and pay for it via credit card. You can also order by
phone, 785-564-1118 or 785-564-0247. Leaving Fairfield