|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 16th CONSECUTIVE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG! We will run for 28 days (ending on
April 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 my 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
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,
BAKED FRESH THIS MORNING
AT LETTER ROCK PARK
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
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
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 session.
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. But finally
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 yesterday.
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 ancientness.
Okay, so back to what happened yesterday. I went to the animal fair: the birds and the beasts
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
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
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 proper order.
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, Indiana.
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,
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 remember it.)
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 know.
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 work.
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 type.
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 your teeth.
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
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 meat.
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 knows,
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 Troubled World.
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 eaten, etc.)
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
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 pear tree.
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
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 come
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
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, either.
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 the goo.
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 writer
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 sneak previews?
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 wherewithal.
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
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 much.
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
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
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 private life.
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
--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
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 then?
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 entrance exam.
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 do.
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 a car!
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 borrow?
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, smiling
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 to me.
“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 there.”
“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
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 didn’t.
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
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 history, and
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 whether
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 without laughing.
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
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 meant. ###
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
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 longer junior!
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,
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 chore!
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
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 THE DECK!
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, meaning RUN!
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
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 ago,
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 200 pounds.
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 from working
--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
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
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
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
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 12.
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
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 good
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 counselor.
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 change lives.
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
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 answer man.
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 forgetting it.
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
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 great?
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
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 something.
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 beautiful.
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 Manhattan,
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 et…whatever.###
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 still is.
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 pause. ###
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 Nap.
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
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 cigar boxes.
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
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
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
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 tap.
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
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
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 English.
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 writing habit.
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
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
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habit--and a very healthful and happy habit at that. Send $20 even (16 for the book, 4 for
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