|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.
STARTING TODAY, RIGHT NOW! ANOTHER LIFESTORY JOURNALONG! We will run for 28 days, starting
NOW and ending on November 28. I am Charley Kempthorne and this is our LifeStory website, our means of reaching out to
you and all the wide world. I am a writer and a writng coach. Mainly I try to help people by encouraging and enabling them to write rapidly
and regularly--daily if at all possible.
Please join me in writing 500+ words this morning about whatever is on your mind. (Okay, 250...you decide, but please stick to the number
you commit to.) 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, firstname.lastname@example.org
Look for the LifeStory Online Workshop coming soon and other new stuff now
under imagination and construction.
And if you don't subscribe to the periodical online LifeStory, please do. It's free
and helps you think of things to write about!
BAKED FRESH THIS MORNING
Sun., November 29, 2015
My dad was a doctor, an EENT, back in the day when they
lumped the treatment of diseases of the eye, the ear, the nose
and throat as one specialty. He got his MD at the University of
Wisconsin in 1932, and then went down to the University of
Indiana and did a residency in EENT at the University of Indiana.
There he met my mother and they married in early 1934 and later
that year my older brother Hal was born. I came along four years
after they were married, in 1938, and by that time Dad was
working in a clinic in Minot, North Dakota.
Whatever desire I might have had to become a doctor like my dad
was quashed one Sunday about 1950 when Dad was called by a
patient with an impacted sinus, and he met with her in his office
later that morning. I went with him and it’s likely that Dad let me
drive a little on the gravel part of our road to town where there’s
not much traffic on a Sunday morning. (By age 12 I’d done that
enough and driven tractors enough, that I was a pretty good
driver, but that’s another story.)
Anyhow, Dad met this lady in his office treatment room and she
was in horrible pain. I suppose nowadays he’d simply have called
in a prescription and a pill would take care of all of it but they
didn’t have that in 1950, so he prepared to puncture the sinus
membrane and drain the sinus. He asked me to assist by holding
one of those kidney bean shaped pans against her cheek to
receive any fluid that drained what the large stainless steel
syringe didn’t catch.
Now I was just 12 and prepubescent I guess, but I was beginning
to notice feminine beauty, and this young woman was really
beautiful, black hair, lovely skin, flashing brown eyes, warm and
soft cheeks… and I noticed all that. Yet she was in terrible pain
and moaning softly and pitiably as she sat in the steel treatment
chair and waited for the doctor.
Dad poked the syringe gently into one of her lovely sculpted
nostrils and went right through the sinus membrane and made
the necessary puncture with an audible popping sound.
Now picture the moment: this beautiful young woman in distress
and agony even, moaning in pain and with whom I was probably
more than half in love with already, but as soon as the puncture
occurred the stinking pus began to drain into the pan, Dad saying
all at once, “This will only hurt for a minute” to the young woman,
and to me, “Hold it tight, Charley” and I noticed this beauty with
her breast heaving against my shaking hands and the room filling
with this horrible smell of green and yellow snot, and maybe I’m
thinking How can such a beauty be the source of such a vile
stench? while my pan runneth over with the horrible goo, and
she's saying now oh, thank you,doctor, thank you, thank you!
It was just too much for me, and so maybe I decided then and
there, I’d be a writer, not a doctor.###
Sat., November 28, 2015
In the 6th Grade at Woodrow Wilson School on Juliette Avenue in
Manhattan, Kansas I had my first girlfriend, who was one Elsie, a
prematurely-developed young lady who like me, wore glasses.
She had a very pleasant face, copious black hair and a couple of
small but growing daily bumps where breasts were appearing,
which were evidently big enough to merit her being called “Elsie
the Borden Cow,” after a famous radio and magazine
advertisement for the Borden Dairy Products Company, whose
mascot was Elsie the Borden Cow. Elsie was a big girl, and I
think she had some further knowledge of romance and
I don’t know how we became an item. Maybe we sat next to one
another in class, or maybe Elsie leaked that I was desirable to
her. I don’t what ailed her: I wasn’t much. I was round-
shouldered and a shrimp with a burr aircut and a perpetual
squint. I wasn’t athletic, on the playground I shrank from playing
anything that required skill and physical prowess. When we
played workup softball or football, I was usually the last kid
chosen to play. You know, we’d play something like one-potato,
two-potato and some how two sides would evolve, or maybe the
two leading boys would each make themselves captains and
they’d chose up sides and then they’d be down to one or two
shrimps like me, and the two leaders would say, I don’t want him.
You take him. No, the other would say, looking at me in a
measured way as if I were a hanging carcass, no, you take him.
And then one would say, Oh, all right. Come on, Kempthorne.
Anyhow, Elsie. For some strange reason, she found
me…attractive. Maybe I let it drop that I didn’t find her so bad,
either. But nothing came of it, even though everyone seemed to
be trying to get us to go into the dark cloakroom together or even
on a Saturday afternoon to go to the State Theater together to see
a movie, to sit in the balcony together. Necking or petting wasn’t
yet in the cards.
In fact nothing but dares and talking in short sentences was ever
in the cards for us. Over some slight, real or imagined, within a
few months our romance was an an end. I don’t think we ever
touched, though we did grin goofily at one another when
someone teased us about being in love.
Thus was my early effort in romancing the girls, and thus it was
to be for some years to come. Nor was anything much changed in
my athlete ability. In fact, by the time I reached high school, the
only thing I had going was that I was brainy. In fact, if I had any
nickname that didn’t send me home crying it was The Brain. I did
well on all-school tests, you know, those two hour or even half
day tests we took to determine our IQ or how smart we are. But
by 8th grade, I was flubbing up (as we used to say) there too, in
that I had become the school clown and though my report cards
still had a sprinkling of A’s, there was also red-inked in a
standard sentence, “Charles disturbs others.” Ominous words
for my future. ###
Fri., November 27, 2015
I’ve been sitting here with the cursor blinking now for fifteen
minutes, relishing my coffee, the warmth, the flavor, the steam
rising from the cup, wondering all the time what to write about
this morning, even as the morning slips away. It’s already 736
am PST, and here I am—the cursor blinking. I am playing the
What Shall I Write About? game—yesterday, Thanksgiving Day
and its wonders, thinking now, You know I kind of actually like
holidays anymore, now that I’m old and gray…and then thinking
no, not that, it’s all too fresh in my mind…more my life and times
as a kid…no, not that; the Navy then---nooo. Well, what then?
Of course it’s not a good idea to try to think of what to write about
it when you sit down. Have something in mind, or have a list,
Charley—don’t ya know that?
When I was a boy….
Once upon a time…
Back in the day…
I’ll tell you a story
about Uncle Tom Dory,
And now my story’s begun.
I’ll tell you another
About his brother,
And now my story is done.
We sat at the ferry slip at Steilacoom for half an hour and happily
awaited the next ferry. It was a beautiful sunny day. We sat
commenting idly on the scene before us, the gulls flying about,
the distance across the south end of the Sound to Anderson
Island, which one was Anderson and which was MacNeil, where
there was a prison “for the worst offenders,” Rip said, how
beautiful the water was this afternoon, were we late (no),
answering young Adah’s many questions, feeling the warmth of
dishes of food on our laps, the absolute comfort of the moment.
I jabbered happily, telling jokes, remembering this, remembering
that detail from my imagined past…of the way they did stuff
when I was in the Navy, remembering Port and Starboard…
I wonder if the Navy still publishes that mag, All Hands? I’ll have
to google that. Maybe I could write something for them about
how all the time I was in the Navy I couldn’t wait to get out, but
once out and for the next—so far—56 years, I couldn’t stop
talking about it, loving its memory.
And then it was time to cross, and we were underway and
laughing about getting seasick, showing Adah how we were
scudding across the water, such a nice day; people, festive
Thanksgiving people, were getting out of their cars and walking
around on deck, taking the morning sun and air.
Then the expanded table and the traditional dinner—the turkey,
the mashed potatoes and gravy, the homemade biscuits, the huge
bowl of green beans, stuffing, pumpkin and apple pies the size of
medium pizzas, June’s devilled eggs and molasses cookies—the
great laughing and happy conversation, the coffee…the company
of my daughter and her family in their hideaway comfy cabin on
this glorious island, this glorious day. ###
Thu., November 26, 2015 THANKSGIVING DAY
I’ve slept late. I’m sitting here on the big black couch in the long
living room eat in kitchen looking out the long windows at the
yard with its hoary frost on the grass and in the distance and
through the trees, the lower, south end, of Puget Sound. Beyond
that, if I could see, from a little higher vantage, the Olympic
Mountains ranged against the clear sky, and if I could see in the
other direction from that same vantage point, I could see the great
looming snow-covered and majestic Mount Rainier.
I am Charley Kempthorne and I live far, far from home in Olympia,
Washington. This is my new home, as if one could ever have a
“new” home. I am Midwestern boy born and bred: born in Minot,
North Dakota; raised in rural Indiana; lived in Wisconsin (Rewey,
Madison, Stevens Point, Milwaukee even)…and of course
beloved Manhattan, Kansas, which town I learned to spell the
name of by putting together the three simple words Man, hat, and
tan. (At that time I remember reading the name of the car
Chevrolet on a pea-green Chevrolet, this about 1942 or a little
later, and reading it off as Czechoslovakia, because (I guess) I
knew that word from hearing—hearing!—the news on the radio.
Later I was to have a Czechoslovokia as my first car: a large
bright red 1934 Czechoslovokia, and then I owned later two other
Czechoslovokias, a black 1947 one and when I married my first
wife, part of her dowry, you might say, was her brown 1948, and
then when we married or therabouts, we bought a 1957
Czechoslovokia, together, which when we divorced in 1962,
became hers by order of the court.
Writing this, thinking how many men would think it perfectly
natural to write the autobiography of the cars they've owned, how
they would relish that task, and turn happily to doing it, just as
women would happily turn to the “task” of listing lovingly all
their favorite outfits. “My lace taffeta chemille silk…”
There was this guy I knew when I was on shore duty in the Navy
in Oklahoma many years ago, and his name was Charley or
Chuck or one of the derivatives thereof (think Charles, Charley,
Charlie, Chick, Chuck, Chaz…), and he was as compulsive as I
am, and he had been in the Navy sometime, some years, and then
he had to make the decision to ship over (re-enlist) for six more
years, which would have made him a lifer--and he did it. Then he
went around telling everybody, including the officers above him—
even the captain—that he had only 7,568 more days before he
could retire, and only 468 more haircuts, and the exact number of
paydays (he figured it out, I am quite sure—we compulsives
understand one another-- lying in his bunk at night trying to
sleep), the number of shaves, and so on…until he was advised to
turn up at sick bay and I never saw him again. None of us did. ###
Wed., November 25, 2015
I’m very proud that I know how, or once knew how to milk a cow.
We had two cows, Ethyl and Blackie, and they had the run of
nearly all our three hundred some acres when I was a boy and we
all lived at the old Docking Place on Deep Creek six miles from
Manhattan, where my father practiced medicine. He was an
ophthalmologist and an otorhinolaryngologist, I was proud to tell
my friends on the playground, whose fathers were mostly farmers
and carpenters and laborers. I’d say that, and then I’d be
surprised when I was attacked on the playground. I was happy to
explain what each part of the two long words meant—ophth—for
eye, oto—for ear—rhino for nose and laryn—for throat. I’d touch
each part of my facial anatomy as I explained but no! There’d I go
getting pushed head over heels by some big kid backwards and
over the down-on-all-fours body of another kid. Didn’t they want
to learn? I was very pleased to explain.
But no. As I was saying, I learned how to milk a cow. My father
just knew how; though he was a town boy, the town was so
small, a village in Wisconsin, that it was dominated by the
surrounding farms. The blacksmith shop his father had and that
he grew up working part-time in with his three brothers mostly
was engaged in repairing farm implements—sharpening plough
shares and shoeing horses.
So it was just fated that when Dad bought that farm, we had to
have cows. And chickens. We didn’t have hogs there, though
just a few years before where we lived during the War (while Dad
was overseas in North Africa) with my grandparents, we had
hogs, and then of course when June and I took up farming, we
had to have a few hogs. We also had honeybees then, chickens,
ducks and then at one time more than a hundred sheep.
We also had machinery, ringed round our house like a fortress,
three tractors, two combines, a haybaler, two disks, a plough, a
drill…and I don’t know what all. Nothing really worked, day in
and day out, except the old Farmall M, which was so old there
was no paint on it at all, yet it always started and always ran. It
had a loader on it that worked, mostly, and I never took it off.
I was very, very lucky, I think, to have this rural, farming
background. I have been very, very, very lucky to have June with
me every step of the way these last 40 plus years. Very, very,
very, very lucky.
But just yesterday, I have to say, when I was explaining how she
should take her glasses off when she was stretching out on the
couch to take a nap—she said, Don’t you ever get tired of telling
people what to do? Which I thought was a little ungrateful. I was
just trying to explain…
Tu., November 24, 2015
Let’s talk the talk, shall we?
There are lots of chatty people in the world (I am one of
them…how about you?) and there are a lot of people who aren’t
much on talking. As some said of the late Gary Cooper, they are
yup and nope people. I’m not yup and nope, or at least not
without adding a few words of qualification one way or another.
My mother was a talker, my father wasn’t. Mom was yes, but, or
yes, and. The family joke was that she once answered the phone
and it was a wrong number and she talked to them for twenty
minutes. Dad was yup and nope or, more accurately, uhn-hunh
and uh-uh. I guess both are necessary to make the world go
What we don’t need are compulsive talkers, people who (as my
father said) talk just to hear themselves talk. My mother could be
like that, but she could really talk, too, really rattle off a good
story sometimes. I have written a lot of these stories down here
over these many years.
When my kids were in school they’d go to her house after school
and she’d let them watch all the tv they wanted and ply them
with cookies and chocolate milk. She could be fun, too, asking
them about school and telling them stories about her school days
in Indianapolis. They loved her then and now, twenty years after
her death, they love her still.
I did too but sometimes when I came to pick the kids up and she
was in the compulsive mode, she was not fun. I learned to go
there with an exit strategy, and to never, never ask her a question
about the golf game she was watching. If I did, she’d say (still
watching but now talking too), Well on the first hole…and 17
holes later I’d be inwardly screaming. So I learned to tell her I left
the motor running on my truck, or Don’t you hear your phone
ringing, or something, and I’d grab the boys and run.
The thing about compulsive talkers is that often they talk in order
not to say anything. Sometimes they’re afraid if they don’t fill the
room with jabber that something emotionally real will leak out of
them and they’ll be in big trouble with themselves or others or
both. That’s the really sad thing. I can be like that sometimes
(rarely, I hope) or, more often, I can be Hey, give me some
attention, Look at me, puleeze, puleeze!
On the other hand I can be informative, witty and charming, like
this morning. Don’t you think? ###
Mon., November 23, 2015
It’s four in the morning and though I’ve had something like a
good night’s sleep it’s an hour too early to get up. But I got up,
I’m up, I’m up. What’s more I’m up and have nothing to say.
Maybe I’m written out. Maybe ten million words is enough.
Why do we remember some things and not others?
Why do I remember being on a train with my brother riding into
Milwaukee in the summer of 1953 and the conductor is walking
through the cars calling out MILLLLwaukee! MILLLLLwaukee!
Why do I remember that moment, that few seconds, and not
Is it all up there in my head, everything, every moment of
consciousness? That cannot be…could it? Or maybe if I just
think the right thoughts, say the right words, make a certain
movement of my body, the next thought will be jostled out and
into plain view? Is there a camera mounted, figuratively
speaking, on my forehead that takes a continuous motion
picture…and with audio too?
Life is truly seen through a glass darkly, at best, or at worst,
perceived as a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
I should know better than to sit down in front of a blank computer
screen without any prompts, anything in mind to write about.
I used to sit in high school classes designing letterheads and
business cards. I worked after school in a print shop, and that
was the most exciting time of day. I loved printing. I loved it!
And anything that Mr.Graham told me I took in and immediately
tried to put it to use. He told me one day that the typography of a
job should reflect the kind of business it was for. “You wouldn’t
make blacksmith’s invoice with the same type you’d use for the
Primp Shop. Mr. Graham (years later, I was to dare to call him
Glenn) showed me an invoice for Roberts Blacksmith, the type
dark and bold, and then the ladies beauty salon, the Primp Shop,
in a fine, thin feminine hand. I marveled that he was exactly right.
School I thought was useless. Looking at the girls and yearning--
well, there was that. At that time there was a cigarette called
“Lucky Strike,” the advertisement in magazines and on the radio
was, L.S.M.F.T. which stood for “Lucky Strike Means Fine
Tobacco.” (Who thought that one up?) For us boys, looking at
the girls in their sweaters, the joke ran Loose Sweater Means
Floppy Tits. We laughed at that. We thought it was sooo clever.
And I used to wonder, who thought those jokes up? Did they
spread across the country word of mouth?
One time on vacation with our parents, driving through some
town in Illinois (no interstates in those days, you by-passed
nothing), my brother and I saw a couple of kids our age walking
along and on impulse we gave them the finger—and they gave
the finger right back! We were astonished that they knew about
it. Here we were, 800 miles from our home in Kansas, and here,
too, they knew about The Finger! ###
Sun., November 22, 2015
Lots of dreams mean, I suppose, lots of anxiety. I dreamed a lot
last night. I had two violent dreams where I was so engaged I
thrashed about. In one I grabbed June’s fingers and wouldn’t let
go until she called out, Let go of me! Let go! And I woke enough
to mumble Oh sorry and let go. Later I was dreaming I was in
some altercation with some guy and I soundly struck the
mattress three times, thinking I was hitting his neck. Who was
he? I don’t remember.
So it was a long dreamy night.
Maybe this is muddled and I’m mixing things up. Google it. But I
read years ago that the Senoi, a South Seas people, got up every
morning, assembled, and told their dreams and interpreted
them. Every morning. And there is no mental illness in their
culture. That’s what I remember. I’ll google it myself, later. Even
if it isn’t true, it ought to be. We need to share more of
ourselves. The more we share of ourselves, the less likely there
is to be dysfunction, violence, and disruption.
Talk, talk, talk.
At home on the farm we had—have—lots of wild turkeys. You’ll
see flocks of them, 25 more or less, roaming the land together.
They’re harmless and a delight to see, especially when they have
some babies with them, young ones maybe only a few weeks
old. Or months. I don’t really know anything about them except
that they are among our favorite home residents, they eat bugs
and they roost in the trees. I like them and always felt honored to
have them around.
Hunters like them too. I suppose they harvest some of them for
Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims didn’t. They didn’t eat pizza and
serve it, the way I did one Thanksgiving I just wrote about the
other day. I’m not a hunter and not too much of a meat eater,
though my son bought a turkey sandwich at a deli the other day,
then decided he didn’t want it and so he gave it to me—
“southwestern turkey” it said on the label. I unwrapped it and
poured a glass of milk to guzzle with it and thoroughly enjoyed
As a kid growing up in the 40s and 50s, we ate meat every chance
we got. At breakfast we had eggs (of course) and ham, bacon, or
sausage. At noon we had bologna sandwiches in our lunch pail,
or some kind of lunch meat. At supper we had meatloaf or minute
steak or, a favorite, Mom’s Swiss steak. Saturday night we
always had hamburgers. Sundays we always had pot roast of
beef, or a ham or a turkey or chicken.
My grandpa, Gramps we called him, lived with us in his declining
years and remembered once how in his day they ate possums,
and when we all laughed, he asserted that possums were in fact
very good eating. So once we shot a possum and brought it
home and Mom cooked it for her father, who was a little surprised
when she brought the smelly greasy thing out on a huge platter
and put it down on the table in front of him. He looked at it
dismally. He took a couple of bites and then pushed it aside. I
think the dogs and cats had a pretty good evening with it. ###
Sat., November 21, 2015
Famously Mark Twain said, “Everybody talks about the weather
but nobody does anything about it.” And so it is. The weather
here in Olympia is mild compared to home. Rain, rain, rain, yes—
but it never gets really cold. Twenty degrees Fahrenheit isn’t
cold. It’s chilly, but not bone-chilling. You put on a jacket and a
scarf, wear gloves, and stay inside more or less. In Kansas it
gets a lot colder and, what is worse, a lot windier. And then you
feel it in your bones. So I’m glad we’re away from there for the
But we came here to be around our children and grandchildren,
not for the weather. If they lived in Kansas, we’d be there and
would happily go out on one of those see-your-breath cold winter
mornings and help bring in the firewood.
When I was a mere boy of 24 it was clear my life had run into a
ditch. I sat still in a room in front of my typewriter smoking one
cigarette after and listening over and over to La Traviata. After a
month or two of this with the help of my father I sought treatment
for the anxiety I was feeling. I went to the Menninger Clinic in
Topeka, Kansas, not fifty miles away from where I lived then in
Manhattan, and at that time one of the most famous psychiatric
hospitals in the world. It was an expensive place but, I tell my
friends, I got in on a scholarship.
Over the next four years I was a patient there, at first living there
for several months, then moving out but going there every day all
or part of the day for a year or so, then going there 2 or 3 times a
week for an hour of psychotherapy—nothing but talk, no drugs—
until I left in June of 1966.
The idea that I have to fix the world is to talk. I believe in talk. I
suggest we all get up in the morning and sit down at a table and
say, after maybe reading a little something from the Bible, the
Koran, the Gita and I don’t know what all, The meeting is now
open for sharing. And one by one, we would for the next hour go
around the room sharing. No one would interrupt anyone. You
would have five minutes only. When it came your turn, you could
say anything—but you couldn’t do anything. At the end of your
sharing, everyone would say Thank you and the talking would go
to the next person…and on and on. At the end of the hour the
chair would close the meeting with some more “public words,”
perhaps a generic prayer or maybe, on second thought, a very
specific prayer, or maybe just some beautiful words. And then
we’d leave and come back the next morning.
That talk alone would only be a step toward fixing things. But it’d
be a step in the right direction. It would be an implicit
recognition of one another’s humanity. Isn’t that a big thing,
really? And who knows what it would lead to after a few
It’s just a suggestion. ###
Fri., November 20, 2015
This Journal goe back 52 years and is about ten million words
long. In spite of that length in both time and the number of
words, I feel I’ve only scratched the surface in the representation
of how my mind works—a mind no more complex nor any less
complex than that of any other human being. I still have things to
say. Maybe I need to write more narratively, because only in
narrative is the truth revealed.
Oh, bananas. I don’t know. I do know that last night for an old
man I slept well, dreamed well, and woke with a smile on my
face. I am grateful to be here this morning, grateful to be alive.
This is the day the Lord hath made. I am sitting here in my son’s
wonderful home, living here as his welcome guest, living in this
wonderful city of Olympia, Washington on the south end of Puget
Sound. I listen to the coffee noisily gurgling and know that very
soon it will stop and will be done and I can get up from my
comfortable seat on this couch and walk over and pour myself a
cup and sit back down here and drink it and feel it’s warmth.
I really haven’t a single solitary complaint. I do owe money and
I’m behind in it, but no one is really hurting and I’ve got the
opportunity to line up more work today and thereby earn some
money and do some good for others.
Ooops! (Or oopsey-daisey! As we used to say.) I now know why
the coffeemaker was gurgling—June didn’t put any water in it, so
it was sucking air. Now, having put in some water, it is silently
In a few days it will be Thanksgiving. For years as a young and
middleaged man I looked upon Thanksgiving as an annoying
break in the routine. It didn’t even occur to me to be thankful.
We ate too much on the day and even so had too many leftovers.
I didn’t even like turkey all that much. I’d just as soon have a
hamburger and a mess of fries doused with ketchup. In fact
about forty years ago we had Thanksgiving (I mean, you have to
have it, you can’t get out of it) at our house and invited my folks
out. I looked forward to that. But I insisted—insisted—that June
make, instead of turkey, one of her big wonderful pizzas. So we
would have a Thanksgiving Pizza. The kids were all for it. My
mother didn’t like the idea but laughed and agreed to come. But
when they came and the big pepperoni with everything was
brought forth, Mom reached into a bag she had brought and took
out a big foil package in which she had, heated and ready to go,
to serve Dad, right down to the turkey, the gravy, and the
dressing. He quietly ate it.
What possessed me to do that? Nobody was really angry, but I
had disputed my upbringing and had my infantile way. And I was
35 or 40 years old.
Thu., November 19, 2015
Yesterday we stopped at the Good Will on the way back from the
grocery in Lacey. June never complains about stopping there,
and she always has to be dragged away, practically. She loves to
shop in stores like that. I found a book in one of the four big
rolling book tubs, paid $1.08 for it (hardback, The Young Lions,
by Irwin Shaw), went by June sorting through one of the long
clothing bins and said, I’ll be in the car. Fifteen minutes? June
nodded without looking up as she scooped up a wool sweater,
examined it quickly and then tossed it back.
In the car I read steadily for half an hour. I was delighted to find a
novel I could read, really read, without have to fight sleep. Shaw
was a good writer. I had read his other great novel, Rich Man,
Poor Man, years ago and enjoyed it. By then it was 3 o’clock. We
could get the mail on the way home. Where was June?
Of course she was still shopping. Like most men, I hate
shopping, even when it’s something I want, like a book. I just
want it, whatever it is, to be there in my hands being put to use.
June loves to shop and will more often than not come away from
an hour’s shopping without having bought anything. Forty-four
years side by side with her and I can’t figure her out. She was
and is a mystery, a red-haired, freckled mystery.
Most of the stuff she found was for others. For me, an unopened
deck of playing cards, a large envelope full of unprinted ganged
business cards for LifeStory; for herself, though, this time, she
actually had gotten some things, a shirt, two shirts actually, a few
small jingle bells (I love bells, she said, shaking them), a small
plastic tub for me to wash dishes in…a basket of the kind and
size you might hang on a wall to put mail in or a bouquet of dried
Jonathan Holden, an old friend I have not seen since he retired
years ago, said that shopping was a party for the lonely. I would
guess he doesn’t like to shop either. When he was still teaching
at the college, I’d pick him up once a week or so and we’d go
have lunch together and talk. We never shopped together.
What about browsing for books? That was different. I learned
about books when I browsed for books. I’d pick a book up, read
some of it, sometimes standing there in the store for an hour,
reading, learning about that book, that writer.
When I was young, when we were young, June and I, we’d go to a
thrift store—Goodwill, Saint Vincent de Paul, Salvation Army, and
of course yard sales of every description, oh we loved yard sales.
I’d go for the books and June would go for the junkiques and
clothing. I bought books, books, books. I always figured I was at
the very least piling up an inventory for our retirement job:
having a book store, maybe with some art prints and records too,
that we’d open near a university somewhere and we’d go to our
store and I’d sit in the back and write noisily on a big old
Underwood standard typewriter, clattering away, being grumpy
when some one came in wanting a book. June would sit in the
window with a cat on her lap and watch the world go by…and
that would be how we’d live.
Practical. No luxuries, we didn’t want any. Just sell a few copies
of some book we’d already read and didn’t want anymore, or a
print of a van Gogh or somebody. Very practical. Simple. But
along came the Internet, and books were nothing but light
anymore. The whole culture of reading and loving books went
south. And prices became outrageous. To rent a bookstore,
even a dusty one with peeling paint, thousand dollars a month.
Place to live in back, another thousand dollars a month.
Everything except our meager pension was a thousand dollars a
month. Bicycle, a thousand dollars a month. Furniture, another
thousand. Wood for the stove, a thousand. ###
Wed., November 18, 2015
This is the exact day that, forty-four years ago, November 18,
1971, I first set eyes on where we’d live until September 15, 2015:
Letter Rock Farm. It’s a holiday for us and for all the folks back
home at the Manse, the Great House of the People—no people
now but cats and rats and varmints of every sort.
On that fateful day in 1971 I found a bedpan full of poop on the
east porch, a strange find. I mean, if you’re going to dump on the
porch in a bedpan…why not do it the way the bears do it? I
emptied it out in the woods and moved on. So let us hope that
this festive day there will be no such urn or pan in evidence.
Yes, I thought, looking around at the vacant-eleven-years now five
room house and one room basement, the collapsed two room
chicken house, the one room shop and the 1500 bushel grain bin
(home to 1500 rats these many years, big ones, big rats, power
packrats 12 to 18 inches long)—yes, I exulted, I can fix this place
up! We’re going to love it here, six months work would be all it
would take for I, fresh from Wisconsin, I could turn it into
dwelling even while finishing my novel, snapping my fingers to
get it bought and published by scrambling editors, and moving
on, then, to California and fame and fortune! Yes! I was 33 (the
same age as Christ) and I could do anything!
So, where was I?
We were deep in the heart of Mexico. Tlaxcala. Ah, yes, while the
spirit of Malcolm Lowry looked on, I was going to finish my novel.
But not the first day, oh no! I didn’t write a line the first day in
that enchanted 48 room, 2 guest (us) hotel, all painted a pretty
white and in the shade of great trees and Mount Popo, formally
known as Popocatepetl, an active volcano. We had a couple of
rooms and a bathroom, all very modern—except, friends had told
us in the US, do not drink the water. This seemed to be affirmed
by the fact that the maid each day filled a jug with water for our
drinking and placed it on a table in our room. How thoughtful!
Mexico was a wonderful place. So that was what we drank.
Then one day a few weeks later we happened to see her as she
made up the room…and filled our water jug from the tap in the
bathroom. Immediately we got the Aztec Two-Step, as it is
known, or was. (Bear in mind this was 1966; I don’t know what
the water situation is now.) But the hotel was very commodious,
and since for $48 a month we got European Plan, i.e., meals
included, we dined in the splendor of the huge dining room---all
alone. We could hear the clatter of dishes and the happy chatter
of the kitchen help, but we ate all alone.
In fact, that was my main thing to take away from my experience
as an émigré who did not speak the language: the loneliness. ###
Tu., Nov. 17, 2015
Somehow we hatched this idea of going to live abroad. We were
sick of America. We wanted, like Hemingway, Gertrude Stein,
and all the others, to be émigrés. I couldn’t write in such a
bourgeois culture, I had to be somewhere…plus grandes, plus
something! Europe was unaffordable so we got on a Greyhound
bus (after finishing the novel and publishing it to much acclaim
and, oh, éclat, naturellement, we be vaulted to Paris and the
literary life) and went to Mexico. We funded the whole thing not
with savings but by selling what we had, mostly our little MG car,
the 11oo, a “sports sedan.”
And so leaving Lawrence we said goodbye. As we pulled away
from Lindley Annex I tossed my little wooden desk sign that the
University had made up for me, CHARLES KEMPTHORNE, out
the window and into the street. Boom, and I was an émigré
writers, 28 years old.
We stopped in Tulsa to say goodbye to Patsy’s parents and to
seek their disapproval, which we easily obtained. But it was our
life and our nickel, and so we bought a ticket for Mexico City and
got on the bus. The ride across the border on, by then,
Greyhound del Norte, was a whole new world. The driver of the
bus had been shopping in the US and as soon as we were in
Mexico,the town of Nuevo Laredo, he stopped the bus and
handed the shopping bag to his waiting wife, and when we
understood what was happening we looked at one another and
smile. This wouldn’t be possible in the rigid old USA. I opened
my little book and took notes. We travelled all night, dreamed,
and next day we were in Mexico City. Our eyes were like saucers
as we drove madly into the big city with evening coming on.
Somehow we got a tiny and cheap hotel room, an extravagance at
that. But what could we do?
Next morning we decided we couldn’t live in Mexico City. It was
just too overwhelming. So we trooped to the US Embassy for
advice. A young man there told us about a town he had just
vacationed in, Tlaxcala, a beautiful small city in the mountains a
100 miles or so away. We got back on the bus, this time a
second class bus that was cheaper and more picturesque. We
were the only Americanos on a bus filled with families that had
been in Mexico City (by this time we had learned to call it,
learning our first word in Spanish, espanol, Mexico, Meh-hi-co,
and thus fortified, we got our boletos and boarded. People stared
at us curiously, and we were friendly and, we thought,
sophisticated émigrés. We said gracias and hola a lot, nodding,
smiling, conscious of our pale faces. On the top of the bus and
inside were sacks of things they’d bought, boxes, crates,
bicycles, and our luggage too.
Winding through the sunny mountains we arrive, fabled Tlaxcala,
and got a suite of two large rooms at the only hotel in town, the
Hotel Tlaxcala, naturally, and were we soon discovered, their only
guests. Somehow we learned, or came to believe, that in this
very hotel, the great Malcolm Lowry had written his signature
novel,Under the Volcano, and in fact Mount Popo was visibly
close. Here we would make our stand. I would write a novel here
before we went to Paris.
Sat., November 14, 2015...
So far this morning I have (a) overslept three hours because I
couldn’t sleep last night, (b) set the printer to going and printed
10 copies of the wrong thing, (c) unplugged the mouse from the
big machine, thinking I was unplugging the earphones, (d)
broken a glass in the sink, (e) thrown a banana peel at the
garbage can and missed and it went on the floor behind the can,
hard to reach place…oh, what a beautiful morning. And oh, it’s
raining steadily for the third straight day.
Into every life a little rain must fall, or a lot if you live on the edge
of the Pacific Ocean.
The only time I ever swam in the ocean, any ocean, was the
Indian Ocean and I was coming back to our ship, anchored out,
and I didn’t have the quarter needed to pay the water taxi guy and
he came at me yelling, in Arabic I suppose, and I jumped in the
drink (I’d had a few drinks of another sort) and swam to the
companionway much to the delight of my shipmates looking
down at me and laughing and cheering me on, I swam fifteen feet
and got out, shook myself off like a dog, and scrambled the stairs
to the main deck.
We had stopped there, at Steamer’s Point in Aden (I think) and
anchored out while they sent a huge hose to re-fuel us so that we
could sail on to Japan.
But I love to swim in creeks. That was about all I did in the
summer when I was a boy, swim in the creek on our place. I took
up smoking cigarets at age 11 because when I’d get out of the
water my legs would be covered with half a dozen or so leeches,
and as everybody knows, the only good way to get a leech to
release its tentacles is to touch their backside with a lighted
cigarette. They fall right off. Otherwise if you try to pull them off
they hang on and you bleed and it’s a mess.
That led to many years of smoking and to my liking it here in
Olympia on the edge of the Pacific: because it’s right at sea level
whereas mountainous Kansas is 1100 feet above sea level; as a
result, my COPD, which I got from smoking all those years (as
well as the genetic predisposition), and made breathing more
difficult at such high altitudes. But here, now, it’s much easier,
and in fact, I’m thinking about entering the Senior Olympics. I
quit smoking in 1982, the last act on December 31 of that
So, ho-hum: nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.
Actually I’m on the south edge of Puget Sound off the Budd Inlet,
all of which is off the Straits of Juan de Fuca which is on the
edge of the Pacific. It’s a five minute walk to the water’s edge,
whatever it is called. I think I heard someone one day talking
about seeing a whale. In Deep Creek, where I got the leeches, we
never saw a whale. ###
Fri., November 13, 2015
So it’s Friday the 13th. Let it be.
I got up too early. I could easily go back to bed. No one would
know. But I’ll stay up. I feel ten times better than I did half an
hour ago when I lay in my bed, the bathroom light on and shining
across the bed, doing a kind of get up/don’t get up thing over and
over. I got up. And here I am.
REVEILLE! Reveille! Drop yer cocks and grab yer socks.
Reveille! Reveille! All this done to the tune of a billy club being
rolled around and banged against the inside of a shitcan, a
twenty-gallon garbage can to you sillyvillians. Someone in the
back of the barracks said, Shut up, Novak, and go back to bed.
Novak laughed harshly. Your mother, he said.
I sit here now, sixty years later, the laptop warm against my legs
as I write, as I remember, U. S. Navy Training Center, Great Lakes,
Illinois, July, 1955. I have been a sailor for ten days and I hate it.
I want to go home, I said. McNeil farted. Somebody giggled. Our
average age was 18.3 .
At chow, a run of a mile or so—we did not walk anywhere—we ate
chipped beef gravy on toast, the famous shit on a shingle,
guzzled our milk, slurped up our coffee and, the half hour gone,
walked back to our gray barracks among all the other gray
barracks, our home distinguished by the fact that is said in large
black letters on the side, building 2701. Be it ever so humble, I
said to Fred Parrish, the red-headed kid from Minnesota, who
was with me, smoking a cigarette and walking hurriedly.
When my father went into the Army in 1942, he was 39 years old.
When his father was 18 in 1888, he was…I don’t know where he
was. Wisconsin somewhere, I suppose. I don’t know what he
was doing. I know almost nothing of his life other than a few
facts: he was the village blacksmith. He had a wife and six
children (like me), four sons and two daughters (like me). But he
had one wife. I have had three. I had two and now I have one—
we have been married for forty-three years. 43 times 365 = how
many reveilles? Ya gotta get up! Ya gotta get up! Ya gotta get up
in the morn-ing!
Back home I read in the Manhattan Mercury just this morning
online, a young man of 25 shot himself once in the head and
died. Suicide was, famously, a permanent solution to a temporary
June and I had a fierce argument, shouting, tears. I’m going to
kill myself, I said to her, I’m going to die now and my death will
be on your hands. I got the rifle down from the rack on the wall
and loaded it. I’m going out to the shop so you won’t have a
mess to clean up. June sobbed. I went out to the shop.
Somehow I expected June to follow me, but she didn’t. I held the
gun up to the high ceiling and pulled the trigger. Bang! Then I
went back inside. June was still sitting in the kitchen, sobbing. I
mean it, June. I really mean it! I put the gun down on the table. I
could be lying on the floor of the shop all dead and bleeding, I
Thu., Nov. 12, 2015
When we got back to New York after the run to Beirut I got off the
Eltinge and was transferred up to where we were barracked on
the 4th floor of the Brooklyn Army Terminal. We had a little
corner of that floor, windows all along where we could watch the
ships going in and out below. One day, maybe it was then or
maybe it was earlier, we saw Elvis shipping out. Or rather we
saw the crowd around Elvis, 10,000 teenage girls. We didn’t
think much of it, it was just a teenage girl thing. I had gone with a
friend on a lark when I was stationed ashore in Oklahoma to see
“Love Me Tender,” and we just laughed, or I did, all the way
through. Elvis was not an icon then—we didn’t even use the
word icon then—he was just somebody’s idea of how to make
some money off the teen crowd.
So it was by then probably November and I think I may have
made one more run on a ship going to Germany. Or maybe it was
Panama. I don’t remember. And that trip took us right up to
Christmas, and everybody took Christmas leave, it seemed, but
me. I was getting out in January, so why go all the way to
Kansas—1500 miles—just to come back to be discharged and
then go all the way back? So I hung around the barracks and
buffed the concrete decks to a high shine when they could catch
me. Mostly I checked out at 0800 and went two blocks up the
street to get a bus to take me down to the Brooklyn Navy Yard
where I was getting some dental work done. I must have made
half a dozen trips down there. Not that my teeth were all that
bad, but the Navy could turn anything simple into a month’s
work. So I’d go down and have my appointment, maybe they’d
do a filling, and then I’d coming back and hang out at one of the
waterfront bars, McGuin’s or the Hamilton or Johnnie’s, one of
those places, drinking slowly until 1600 when I’d get back to the
base and report in just in time for liberty call.
It’s all kind of a blur, now, 56 years later. I didn’t keep a journal
then. I did write home, some, but I don’t know where those letters
are today. Long since burned, I suppose. I didn’t really do
anything useful. And most of the fillings the Navy put in didn’t
stay in. After I got out we went out one night for a steak dinner,
celebrating, and I took one bite and a filling fell out. I ate the
steak, I paid for it, but I had to do it carefully to avoid getting
something into the hole where the filling had been. When I went
to the of course civilian dentist to get it refilled I showed him the
old filling and he laughed and said something about that’s the
military for you, and put in a new filling.
Nor during that time buffing decks and getting fillings did I once
go to any of the great cultural stuff in New York. Tickets to the
Brooklyn Dodgers were free; tickets to the Met, Carnegie Hall, any
of that stuff—they were all free if you went in uniform.
I didn’t go. I sat around in the evening, walking a few hundred
feet to the NCO club where I sipped rye and water (my favorite
drink then, a habit I’d picked up when I was still on board a ship
and we were being worked on in a shipyard in Bayonne, New
Jersey) until I about fell off the stool, and then I, or we if I was
with friends, would stumble or slither back to the barracks and
fall into the rack and sleep till dawn.
Wed., November 11, 2015 Veteran’s Day
This is Veteran’s Day, so I slept in. It’s 830 am here on the edge
of the Pacific Ocean. I’m a five minute walk from the southern
edge of Puget Sound.
I was not a Pacific sailor, but an Atlantic sailor. My home port was
Brooklyn, New York. A friend gave me a Navy cap, very nicely
embroidered, and I wear it every day, and now and then people
will see that and say, Thank you for your service, which is sort of
embarrassing, because I did almost nothing except twiddle my
thumbs for 3 years, five months, and 27 days of active service.
However, I did have one day in a combat zone. I don’t know if it
was so designated by the USA because we were just there,
standing by, but the cannons and the bullets were flying in the
hills and even in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon. It was October,
Sometime earlier that year, I applied to get discharged early or, as
they called it then, “released to inactive duty.” I was supposed to
get out on January 23, 1959, the day before my 21st birthday. I
wanted to go to college and they had an “early out” program
where if you wanted to get out early for school, you could apply
and get out up to three months early. I figured out that if I got out
in October, I could enroll late and be okay. I think I even applied
to Kansas State University (then called Kansas State College, in
my hometown, the very campus I had played on as a child) and
was accepted under those terms. So, Charley, here you go.
At the time we were steaming along in the South China Sea, and
suddenly all hell broke out there, and the thing in Beirut was
going, and there were little mini-wars going on all over the world.
I went up to my friend the radioman’s shack behind the bridge
every night and listened to the world news—and worried. It didn’
t look good. God wasn’t going to let me out of the Navy alive. I
was not going to live to be 21, a man. I was going to die a mere
And so it was that God caused the Navy to order my ship to
Germany to pick up 1,500 US troops and take them to Beirut to
“standby.” This stuff in Beirut was one of those Cold War things
where there was an insurrection in a country and there was a pro-
communist side and an anti-communist (pro-American) side; and
so we were there to cheer the good guys on and, if called upon,
to help. My ship, the USNS General Leroy Eltinge was in the
Military Sea Transportation Service, and so we brought the troops
in. My early out to go to college was cancelled by the powers
that be in Washington.
Beirut is one of the most beautiful harbors in the world, I was
told, but I didn’t see the beauty of anything; I just heard the guns
in the magnificent hills around the ancient city. And they were
shooting in the streets, too—gulp!—but a limited liberty was
called for the crew and the military department, so with a few
other sailors I went ashore to a hole-in-the-wall bar and ordered
up something to drink. I drank a quart of cherry brandy mixed
with a quart of gin. I passed out on the floor of the bar.
The next thing I knew I was back on my ship and it was a sunny
day and we were steaming west toward New York. One of the
ship’s crew had seen me on the floor of the bar and being rolled
by some Swedish sailors. My shipmate chased them off and
hoisted me on his shoulder and fireman-style, carried me three
blocks back to the ship.
But I didn’t get out early. Well, I got out one week early, on
January 16, 1959. I sat in New York ashore for two months and
some, buffing decks and waiting for my orders to come through.
When I got out, I flew home and a day later I had shucked my
uniform forever and I was sitting in a French class conjugating
etre with a roomful of pretty girls. Two months later I received a
letter from the Navy saying that if I would send $2.78 to
Washington, I would receive by return mail the Armed Forces
Expeditionary Medal for my heroic storming of the beaches of
Beirut. I was the man, I was there. But I passed on buying the
medal, and instead spent the money, no doubt, on beer down at
Tue., November 10, 2015
I’ve got no complaints.
Remember when that was a common reply when some one asked
you how you were doing? “Oh, I’ve got no complaints.” Well,
this morning I don’t have any. When I was a little boy, just like
now I guess, I wrote letters to people “How are you doing?” I
would write. “I am fine.” I guess I didn’t have any complaints
By the grace of our youngest son and his wife, we have a place to
stay out here in Washington, and by the grace of God I can
breathe easier than I could back in dusty old Kansas. We are
fortunate also to have their daughter, our youngest grandchild,
living with us. Last night after a couple of days with a bad cold
and a fever, she was better. She and her mom and grandma were
all doing something in the laundry, but every now and then she’d
peek into where I was working and say, Hi, Grandpa. Sweeter
words I’ve never heard. Hi, Grandpa. Max, my 14 year old
grandson, big tall Max, who studies math and gives speeches,
came down from Seattle a few weeks ago. Our 4 year old
grandson down in California, he calls me “Grandpa Charley,” is
doing well. I haven’t yet seen Violet, his big sister, our other
grand-daughter, nor any of our stepgrandchildren out here, but
we’re working on that. We are so fortunate that they are safe,
doing well, and we have them in our lives.
I’ve got no complaints.
I do have a lot of work to do, though. Writing work, teaching work,
setting up workshops work…work, work, work. I’m grateful to
have work—and very useful work at that.
Work is something I’ve always had in my life and for which I am
extremely grateful. I worked around the house from early
childhood. My dad was overseas when I was 4 until I was 8,
working in his profession of being an ophthalmologist and an
otorhinolaryngologist, as I used to proudly tell kids whose dad
was a bricklayer or a baker or a butcher—anyhow I worked
around the house then doing chores for Mom. I’d do the dishes
standing on a chair. I’d run get this, or run get that. My brother
worked too. We all worked. In the house, in the garden, upstairs,
downstairs—for Mom, for Gramps or Grandma. Work was our
So when I was old enough to get a job, it just made sense to go
downtown in Manhattan to a print shop on Houston Street and
ask for a job. I had some training in a printing class in junior
high, and so now I became a printer’s devil (where that came
from I do not know) and spent most of my time cleaning mud off
type. There had been a flood that summer, the Great Flood of
1951, and it was now October, 1951, and I was 13, and it was so
many years ago, nearly 65 years ago. And I had work. ###
Mon., November 9, 2015
I haven’t heard any jokes for a while. Not necessarily good ones: I
haven’t heard any at all. No one has come up to me and said,
Charley, have you heard the one about the… No one. I guess I
could look some up on the Net, but honestly, has life come to
So I’ll tell one.
It was the time of the French Revolution. A priest, a poet, and an
engineer were about to be guillotined. The priest stepped up first
and put his neck on the block. The executioner pulled the lever
and the great blade fell—and jammed just inches from his neck.
“Well,” the executioner said, “you are a man of God and evidently
God has seen fit to spare you. Go forth and prosper.” And the
priest was let go.
The poet came up and put his neck down and, whaddayuh know,
the same thing happened: the blade jammed. The executioner
shrugged. “It must be one of those days,” he said. “You can go
too.” And the poet bounded away.
The third man, the engineer stepped up and, before putting his
neck on the block, looked over the great machine of death and
said, “I think I see your problem.”
As a boy, sitting in my room on the farm in Deep Creek, not far
from where I later lived for most of my life, I read a lot, and one of
my favorite books was Bennett Cerf’s 2,500 Jokes for All
Occasions. That joke I just told wasn’t in it, but many good ones
were, and I set aside my school lessons and memorized every
one of them. I told them around Woodrow Wilson Elementary
School; later, promoted, I told them around Manhattan Junior
The two loves of my life are stories and laughter, so it’s not
surprising that humorous stories occupy so much of my
attention. Wasn’t it in the Decameron that Death was averted one
day at a time by one of the sequestered ladies telling a story
every day? Maybe I believe that. Maybe I believe that Death can
be averted by telling just one more joke.###
Sun., November 8, 2015
Years ago—more and more of my comments begin that way—
years ago there was a radio show called Life with Luigi. Today
we would say it was anti-Italian and anti-ethnic generally, but
back then it was considered (along with Amos n’ Andy) just good
clean fun. Luigi was charming and incompetent, of course, but
on every show at some point he would compose impromptu a
little poem and recite it. It might, say, be an ode to a dandelion
he saw in Central Park. “O little dandelion in Central Park,” Luigi
would begin and go on for a few warbled lines, charming us all
out there in radio land.
Now I suppose they would spray the dandelion with 2-4-D or
something. Those damn things will spread all over if you don’t
kill them, you know.
Or maybe they’d go to (this just in from the NY Times online) to
the Academy of American Poets or something called Tumblir and
post a poem. I guess thousands do it every day.
Walt Whitman, probably my favorite poet, said that if we thought
life was wonderful then death was even more wonderful. Hail to
that, I say, I’m feeling that way this morning. I don’t mean I’m
feeling miserably suicidal, no not at all. I’m sitting here in our
son’s big house on a fine couch in a big room that is a walk-out
basement, breathing the wonderful Puget Sound air, and I feel
great. Not suicidal at all, just at one with the idea that I won’t be
here forever, I’ll be there: and maybe there isn’t such a bad
place. God will speak to me, and She will say, Move over,
Charley, make room for the children. And I’ll be good with that.
Make room for the children.
I’m a materialist now. Yesterday at a Good Will store we bought
for $15 a table to eat on. It’s not large, about 3 x 4, room enough
for four people and maybe one little one like our granddaughter.
And last night we ate by ourselves, and it was good. We had
I like Good Will, though they’re more expensive than they used to
be. At one of the Good Will stores here, nearly everything is sold
by weight. You could go there and find the Hope Diamond and
you could buy it for $1.49 a pound. Furniture, however, is sold as
marked, but usually it’s pretty low. Like our new table. Day before
I saw a bamboo upholstered chair and bought it for $2.99. It
looked antique and had a label for the maker, a company in
Tennessee that specializes in banquet and “hospitality” furniture.
I scrolled around and found one that looked sort of like the one I
bought that was selling on e-bay for more than $6,000. Whooee!
Chair for sale! ###
Sat., Nov. 7, 2015
I learned new things every day. It wasn’t so much that I wanted
to—oh, I did at first—but it became a necessity of survival. I had
to learn working the soil and growing things, how to cut and burn
firewood, animal husbandry, how to maintain a tractor and all the
other farm machinery, carpentry, electrical work, pumping water
and how a pump works, building a concrete block wall, what
trees made good firewood and what trees weren’t worth cutting
down. I did everything wrong. I began to long for my academic
days where I was, if not a star, I was accepted as an equal. There
I began to feel like I was seen as a traitor to my class: I had
spurned (and I had, I had!) what they offered me and now I was
suffering the consequences. In my new life, I was the kid at the
back of the class who did not know the answer; I was the one
who didn’t get it. I had to knuckle under and learn the simplest
things—“rightey tightey, lefty loosey” was a revelation. I literally
didn’t know how to nail two boards together. I went to the
hardware store and asked for some for some fourteen penny
nails, and was laughed at and told there was no such size.
I was like a child, but I wasn’t a child. I was a 34 year old man, a
grown up, a husband and a father…and yet I knew very little
about anything important. Was it critical as a farmer to know that
an English sonnet had fourteen lines that rimed abba abba cde
cde? Or that Heinrich Schliemann unearthed the twelve ancient
cities of Troy?
No. It was important to know how to wire a circuit, how to plant a
seed, how to drive a nail, how to castrate a hog. I was supposed
to know these things from growing up, but of course I hadn’t
grown up as a farmer or builder or any of these “practical”
things. My father was an ophthalmologist and an
otorhinolaryngologist, right? But of what use was that on the
I did know how to learn…some things. I sought out people who
knew and who were willing to talk. There was no internet, there
were precious few books in the library, there were no 800
numbers to call. Most of my neighbors, willing enough to be
helpful, could not imagine not knowing the things they knew
almost in their blood, things they had learned in childhood. They
couldn’t imagine someone, a grown man at that, not knowing
For my part I couldn’t get past the idea that I could learn to do
anything. I had an MFA, I had been a professor—how could I not
know how to learn quickly and easily to overhaul a tractor? Why
was I baffled by fixing a carburetor? It wasn’t working, I took it
off the tractor and took it to my workbench and took it apart, only
to see all these little things that looked like BBs fall out and
bounce away on the floor. I ended up taking the carburetor, in
parts, in a grocery sack to the mechanic in town, who laughed
and laughed. ###
Fri., November 6, 2015
And so the days go by, running together into our seamless past.
We have been here in Oly since September somethingth,the
middle of the month or so, and we don’t feel like strangers
anymore. We basically know our way around town and
understand something of the flow of traffic. That’s a relief. For
seven weeks now.
But I lived in Manhattan, Kansas for some 3000 weeks and I knew
every nook and cranny of the old town, though not so much as
the newer, 21st Century, part. In fact I do not know so very much
of the 21st Century, period. It took me five years of it to learn to
write it correctly. I’d make out a check (we still had checks then)
and I’d write the date, May 1, 19-- and then I’d have to cross it
out and write 20. It still doesn’t sound right; it sounds futuristic,
really, and maybe it is for the likes of me, for whom most of my
future is behind me, as one old timer laughed and told me about
his future a few years ago. I knew so much and was so sure of
nearly everything “back in the day,” a phrase I use more and
more. Now I just dodder along, feeling my way, with not really
much of an idea of what’s going on. I put one foot in front of
another and hope that there’s some earth there to support me.
Katherine Hepburn credited the fact that she had lived in the
same house for thirty years with much of her success and
happiness in life. I understand that. We lived in the same house
for 44 years, and I understand the feeling: this is where I belong,
even, I am master of all I survey. Which of course we weren’t, but
that illusion often sustained me. I don’t know where I’m going
with this. Earth to Charley! Earth to Charley!
I hear my wonderful grand-daughter, age 3, running across the
floor. It makes us smile to hear her. She does not walk anywhere;
she’s a runner. If she runs like this when she’s a grown-up, then
she will capture the whirlwind. The fact that she and all the
children—all my grandchildren and all the children in the world—
are up and running is so reassuring. I think today after we do our
meeting in town and run our errands we’ll stop near a grade
school and watch the children play at recess. Now that is a
I know that this is another day, a day the Lord has made for me—
and you—and it’s an honor and a miracle to be here, sitting in
this large long living room in my son’s large long house, writing
on a little machine I bought fifteen years ago and have written
literally millions of words on, drinking a hot cup of good coffee
and looking forward to a day of work, study, hoping, and helping.
Thu., November 5,2015
When in 1973 it became plain that my father was tired of my
working for him to support my growing family, I began to look for
work in painting houses. I had painted Mom and Dad’s house
and liked it—June helped—and I painted for some friends—the
Moore’s, a few others—and then my name got known around
town, at least among people who knew of me, or who had been
patients of my father. I traded on his reputation as a doctor. I’d
do an estimate, getting names from the paint store, and I was
okay at doing them, it was writing and I caught on quickly.
They’d look at the estimate, look at me—I always wore whites and
looked the part,or tried to—so they’d look and then ask,
“Kempthorne…are you any relation to Doctor Kempthorne?”
“Yes,” I’d say of course. “He’s my father.” And they would nod
and say, “Well, then, I guess you could start Monday.”
Sometimes they’d describe what Dad had done for them,
removed a wood splinter from their eye, helped them with a
painful impacted sinus or an earache. Apparently his being able
to do that qualified me for painting their house. Or part of it.
For my first jobs were often partial.
It was an uphill battle. I had by then a van outfitted to paint. I had
some spiffy business cards printed. I wore whites. I’d hang out
where my potential customers might be—Dillon’s fancy grocery
on the West Side, notably—or in banks or other businesses,
including the paint stores. Of course they were eager to get me
hired so I’d buy paint from them.
Early on I found it wasn’t especially helpful to tell people I had
been a college professor, but in spite of my whites I looked
professorial and talked professorially (see?) and I couldn’t stop
my ego from speaking that way. I’d talk about preparing the
substrate of a house, I preferred the term “coatings” to paint, and
I’d throw in a literary allusion or saying something like “as it
were” or “if I may.”
Gradually I built up a clientele. I didn’t know anything, really,
about painting, but I knew how to learn. I learned from every real
painter in town. I’d note how carefully they cut in around a
window sash, how they dipped their brush, how they set up a
ladder and what tools they used. Anything. I was affable and
able enough (and non-threatening) that sometimes a real painter
who was too busy to do a job for a regular customer would toss
the job my way. “Hey, would you be interested…?” I’d be on the
steps of that customer within an hour, saying Jerry had
recommended me, and on his recommendation, I’d usually get
At home we lived from hand to mouth, job to job, day to day,
more often than once going to the big plastic Miller’s HighLife
bottle in the corner of our bedroom and dumping all the coins
therein on the kitchen table and counting them so we could go to
the groc. If only I’d known how to handle money, we might have
done very well. But that skill has eluded me to this day.
Wed., November 4, 2015
Good morning, God. I am grateful for this lovely day you have
made, grateful to be part of this world You have made. How can I
help? Maybe by writing for a couple of hours—this Journal, and
on my new book (the very one You want me to write), the one I’m
calling Living It Up, Living It Down.
I went to bed at a little after 9, a rare time when I went to bed
before June. I had done all my evening chores—the dishes and
put things away all through our house (the downstairs) and I
thought I’d crawl in bed and read a book that (for once) I am
enjoying, The Catcher in the Rye. I read a chapter, enjoyed it,
turned out the light gingerly (I don’t want to knock the little lamp
onto the floor and break it), and slipped down, down, down and
the last thing I saw was June sitting at the desk and working at
the computer, at I don’t know what.
I got up at 345, felt slept out, but it was a little early so I went back
to bed for a few minutes.
It was a few minutes after 4 when I finally got up.
God, I forgot to say how grateful I am for my good health lately.
This above all. At 77, I can walk and I can breathe and speak and,
sort of, hear. I peed well this morning. I’m sitting up and
drinking my hot coffee and here writing at a rapid rate. God, it’s a
All those years I was not hard of hearing and yet I heard nothing.
I was emotionally deaf. Now I’m physically deaf but emotionally
my hearing gets better and better each day.
I’m not really deaf deaf. I’m not stone deaf. I’m hard of hearing.
The hearing aids help but not by a lot. I fiddle with them, take
them in and out, but they aren’t exactly revolutionary for my
hearing. I conclude, I should have listened when I was young.
Now I sit here, grateful and waiting for further instructions. I
listen with my inner ear, which works just fine.
I zone out. I zone in. I zone out. I zone in.
This is a moment: I am sitting with a friend in the drug store
downtown. He is showing me about pinching the straw as you
intone (he did not use that word, of course) “She loves me, pinch.
She loves me not, pinch. She loves me, pinch. She loves me
not.” When you get to the bottom of the straw, if it’s on a She
loves me, pinch, then she loves you. If you get to the bottom and
it’s on She loves me not, then you’re just plain SOL (a saying I
learned much later.) You call her up on the phone—the phone
then was a black tube about a foot tall with a base to keep it
upright, and a mouthpiece and a cord to a large cone-shaped ear
thingie—anyway, you call her up on the phone and break off your
relationship. Or (if you end on She loves me) you call her and
ask her for a date. ###
Tues., Nov.3, 2015
Patsy had made me for my black lunch pail a couple of meatloaf
sandwiches, and there was an apple and a brownie, and a
thermos of hot coffee. I peeked. Hungry, I walked through the
woods and following the path the animals had made—deer, I
guessed…who else? And up the hill to the top where in the
warm sunshine, I stretched out and ate. It was almost warm
enough to take off my jean jacket. I did pull off my plaid cap and
toss it aside. I used it to hold the tiny salt shaker Patsy had
included, and I salted the meat loaf—I loved meatloaf. I took a big
bite of the sandwich—brown bread—chewed and washed it all
down with a swig of the coffee. It was very good, a workingman’s
I looked out over the valley, the very valley—Pleasant Valley—
where I had grown up not two miles away in the old Pillsbury
place, a big stone house built a hundred years ago. I could see
from here the creek, Deep Creek, that my brother and I had spent
so much time in, swimming and wallowing around in the water
even this time of year.
I lit a cigarette and smoked it and stared at the wide valley. The
sun was warm on my back. I finished my cigarette, field stripped
it and carefully rubbed the ember against a rock and then with my
hat, covered it with dirt. When I stood it up for good measure I
stepped on it and ground it in to the dirt with the heel of my
No school today. I smiled and said it out loud to the air. No
school today! How did it go? No more teachers, no more books,
no more teachers’ dirty looks…here it was a Wednesday, and I
didn’t have to grade a paper or walk into a class and think of
something to say. I walked slowly down the hill, put my lunch
pail in the cab of my blue truck, and went back in the house and
The work was simple enough, sweeping up the eleven years’
accumulation of trash, shoveling it into a wheelbarrow and rolling
it to the pile thirty feet from the door. Pieces of old plaster, mud
dauber nests, rat turds, bits of wall paper and other debris. I
knew how to sweep. I was good at cleaning up and clearing out.
With only occasional breaks, sitting on the wooden steps having
a cigarette, I worked till past five.
All four rooms were cleared out by then. Maybe I’d have to hire
somebody to help me with the next step. I wasn’t even sure what
that would be. I guess knock the plaster walls down, what was
left of them. I’d get someone to help.
I was tired. I’d go home, watch the news with Dad, help Patsy a
bit with the kids while she and Mom fixed supper. After supper
and a smoke I’d stretch out on the living room floor and play a
little with Danny while Patsy got Leslie nursed and put to bed.
This was just 44 years ago: November, 1971, and I was 33 years
Mon., Nov. 2, 2015
Maybe it all began with the killing of Kennedy on November 22,
1963: that would be nearly 52 years ago. 52 years! I had voted for
JFK. It was the first time I ever voted. I was living in a little town
my wife was a teacher in, DeForest, Wisconsin, just half an hour
from Madison, where I was going to school. In fact when JFK was
still campaigning he did an early morning press conference at the
Memorial Union on the University of Wisconsin campus, and I
drove in early to see him.
He came into the small room with his wife and they sat down at
the front. It was a chilly morning and Jackie wore a fur hat and a
smile frozen on her face. Jack was all smiles, shaking hands with
university and government officials and members of the press,
who comprised most of the audience. He may have said a few
words, gotten a laugh or two, and then opened for questions,
which he answered directly and, as ever, with some wit. When he
left half an hour later to catch a plane back to Washington,
people crowded around him and I had a chance to shake hands
and maybe even say something but I was too shy and too slow: a
group of Hungarian students packed in around him, pushing me
back, and they peppered him with questions about US policy in
I loved JFK, he was just what we needed after the dull
Eisenhower personality, and when they killed him three years
later it was shocking and transformational. Something in America
had changed. I was by then a student at the University of Kansas
and the war in Vietnam was a big issue—violence, violence
throughout the world and violence in America. I found myself in
arguments with other students and friends about the war and
what we were doing there. I found myself at rallies against the
war. I got my MA in 1966 and went to Mexico for a summer with
my 2nd wife to write a novel (I didn’t; I froze solid) and came
home to take a job at one of the branches of the University of
Wisconsin and there I was influenced by one Jim Missey, a
colleague, who was a longtime activist for peace. We started a
Saturday morning protest every Saturday in front of the postoffice
downtown, lining up and holding signs.
People drove past and just stared at us or shouted mean things
or, occasionally, said something encouraging. When that
happened we all broke out in big grins and said up and down the
line, “Did you see that?” “They smiled and waved!” But by far
the reaction was hostile.
Even among the faculty, the reaction was mainly hostile—after
all, Stevens Point was mostly an undergraduate college for a
technical education in paper chemistry, forestry, or teacher
training. We few in the English or Philosophy departments
comprised most of the dissidents.
The effect on me was I felt more and more alone, an outsider. ###
Sunday, November 1, 2015
BAKED FRESH THIS MORNING!
When I look back on my long life I sometimes feel like going over
in the corner and having a good, long cry. I was always going
down for the count and then when the very bottom was reached, I
began to pull myself out of the fire. My luck (I would have called it
then but now I would call it God) changed and I put my shoulder
say to the wheel, at least a little bit, and I salvaged my life (I
would have said then) and was given a life back, an idea of a life,
In 1955, 17 years old I went into the Navy a real mess, barely
finished high school in spite of my high IQ and all that, but a
mess psychologically and in every way personally. I was a
juvenile deliquent,to put it bluntly. But in the Navy and over the
next four years things improved. I rose rapidly through the ranks
(isn’t that what they say?), an enlisted man with only a high
school education, but smart, oh so smart, and so I made my rates
on schedule and emerged as a Yeoman First Class, an E-6,or, as I
like to say, the equivalent of a Sergeant First Class. When I said
that, which technically was true—I was an E-6 and an SFC was an
E-6—I thought of myself looking like Burt Lancaster in From Here
to Eternity, sitting in the staff room and barking orders to the
other, lesser, sergeants. I was of course nothing like that but it
was indisputable that I had made First Class in less than four
years, an achievement not everyone attained--I was a “slick arm”
First Class: I did not have a hashmark yet, I had only 3 years and
some months. Wow. So I was, one might say, King Shit.
I was married too, a year and a half by the time I got out. Not
happily necessarily, but married on the outside if not on the
inside. And the Navy said I was eligible to ship over. I could
have. It would have been easy enough: just sign on the dotted
line and I’d get a bunch of money—the “reenlistment bonus,”
and probably after the sea duty that I’d had, my choice, virtually,
of shore duty, and I’d probably gone to Washington DC and been
part of some command bureaucracy. There (the fantasy might go,
but reasonably enough at that), I’d eventually get a commission
and a career leading, if not to an Admiralcy (here, here!) then at
least to Lieutenant Commander or maybe even Captain…a four
But of course I got out of the Navy, refused those gifts, and
became a lowly Freshman at Kansas State University—at that
time in fact not even a university but, as everyone added under
their breath, Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied
But after nearly four years of the Navy, which wasn’t exactly the
choice intellectual environment, I was delighted to sit in a
classroom and write themes and conjugate etre with all the boys
and girls four years younger, and some of those girls were pretty.
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