|The LifeStory Institute
The writer's workshop for journalers, memoirists, autobiographers and family historians.
LifeStory was founded in 1991 as a how-to newsletter/magazine. It quickly became also 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 basic 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, historians. All contents copyright 2014 LifeStory unless otherwise noted.
LifeStory's March Journalong...won't you join in?
Here's how it works: You log on each day at your convenience and read what I've written in my journal that day and
then you write in your own journal 500 words or more. You do this faithfully for 28 days to form the habit of
journaling. Journaling is the Royal Road to writing history or memoir. If you have any questions or problems feel
free to call me, Charley Kempthorne, at 785-564-1118. There is no charge for any of this, no salesman will call,
though if you notice the DONATE button above and you want to give back a little, why, please go right ahead. It
helps us keep on keeping on.
It's good if you can start on Day One of each journalong (I start a new one the first of each month), but you can start
in anytime--just take it one day at a time.
DAY SEVEN, Fri., March 7. 2014
Howard Tubbs died. I knew Howard very well. Though we went to high school together he was one class behind me and we
didn’t run around together then. It was years later, when I came back from Wisconsin and started working out here, that I got to
know Howard. He made the cabinets we have out here in the kitchen and in the bathroom downstairs. They were cheap,
functional cabinets and that’s what I wanted. He told me up front that the doors were too large and that they might warp over
time and he was right. I didn’t and don’t care.
In 1977 or so when we remodeled Dad’s office to accommodate an apartment for him and Mom, we hired Howard at $9 per
hour—very good wage then—and he got me as his assistant. All that winter, he and I worked together at 519 N. 11th Street.
He was pleasant and easy to work with, and fun. I knew nothing about trim carpentry, and I was eager to be his helper and
student. He’d show me little things and say, “Here’s an old Indian trick,” and then he’d demonstrate some way to make a board
fit that didn’t want to fit. “Let’s put a Dutchman in there,” he’d say, and cut a little piece of wood and nail it in place. “It’ll paint,”
But he was very proud of his craftsmanship. We were both in the Navy out of high school. I was a yeoman, a typist and office
worker; Howard was a damage controlman, a carpenter. (He may have been called a pattern maker.) He was on a submarine
tender and it was his job to make patterns from which parts could be cast. I remember that he told me they worked in 1/64 of
I once asked him a question about woods that he couldn’t answer. “I don’t know,” he honestly said, cocking his big shaggy
head. (He always had a pencil behind his ear and carried a towel on his shoulder to wipe his brow.) “I’d ask Wayne…” –that
was his stepfather—“but he’d laugh at me.”
I thought that was curious—as an intellectual, I thought asking questions was the beginning of wisdom. But Howard wasn’t an
intellectual, and he didn’t ask a question unless he had to. When he did ask one, it was on the order of, “Where do you want
me to mount this cabinet?” or “What color do you want?”
So he wasn’t a philosopher but he had a philosophy, a workingman’s creed you might call it, that I took in and made part of my
own life. It modified my life considerably—coming not just from Howard but from the other workingmen I had the honor to work
with—and helped me over the hump of being an intellectual without portfolio, an ex-professor.
Howard was one of those people who became part of my life, and I am grateful to have known and worked with him. 501
words, 18 minutes. ###
DAY SIX Thu., March 6, 2014
It was snowing hard but it wasn’t so very cold when I stopped at Pleasant Valley to visit Mom’s grave. I got out of the car but left
Then I went over to Mom and Dad’s grave. I’d forgotten that their dates of birth and death were just in years. Mom’s full name
wasn’t given, nor her maiden name. The single stone for both of them simply said Lillian M. Kempthorne 1909-1997 and
Charles R. Kempthorne 1903-1983. There was a caduseus for Dad, nothing for Mom. What was the icon for housewife and
mother and great storyteller? There was none. Behind the main gravestone, of course, was the big brass plate for Dad,
Charles R Kempthorne LT COL US Army Medical Corps.
I recited aloud, quickly, The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner. It was after all a poem about being born from a mother, even if it
was a terribly negative poem about life in the 20th Century.
It was something to say. I said it and left.
When I got home the fire was out. I cleaned the firebox and made a new fire. I took a nap. After the nap I got up and dressed
and walked up to Bad Pond. I had my camera along. When I got to the Pond I caught my breath: it was half full or better. The
last time I saw it, it was empty. Now, solid ice but half full, maybe more. I took some pictures. This would mean we’d almost
certainly have full ponds come spring. How I would love to see the grandchildren playing in it, just as our children had thirty
years ago, forty years ago.
I was worn out from the walk. But I went over to Good Pond and saw that it had water too. Even the little froggie pond formed
by one of the old terraces had water in it.
June was home. We sat on the couch together and talked about the day. I smiled and rubbed her leg with my hand. She took
my hand and squeezed it. We were together again after a long day apart.
I watched KU play Texas Tech. I tidied up the kitchen and the living room. The mail had brought my meds from Right Source or
whatever they’re called. I was out of Montelucast and out of Irbesartan. Now I had plenty. I wouldn’t be found dead clutching
and empty medicine bottle. I would live. I would live to see the ponds overflowing and the grandchildren playing in the water
shooting out of the trickle tubes.
I should have asked Mom a million questions. I should have asked her about Kentucky, growing up in Indianapolis, meeting
Dad, driving all the way to New Jersey to see him off to Africa during the War, driving home afterward, and what was the air like
in the Old Holler where we lived, and what was it like after being just a silly girl growing up with a bow in her hair to be suddenly
the mother of two sons, the head of a family that included two elderly parents? 527 words, 19 minutes. ###
DAY FIVE, Wed., March 5, 2014
Mom would be 105 today. As of yesterday, however, she has been dead for seventeen years, having passed on
March 4, 1997, having lived just one day shy of 88 years. She was born March 5, 1909 in West Point, Kentucky, a
village on the Ohio River southwest of Louisville. She died in Manhattan, Kansas after several days in the hospital.
It is easy at my age to think that life is more or less meaningless. It was what it was, fun, pain sometimes, a huge
cosmic joke—but now…? Well, now, I think of my children and grandchildren. That is the salient fact that changes
everything. I have six children, five of whom are married or are “in relationships” as we say these days, and ten
grandchildren. That’s a total of 21 human beings, and they are certainly not meaningless. We could start a village…!
Or were it warmer today, I could go sit by a school and watch the kids at recess.
Do they still call it recess? When I was in school we did. We went outside at the ringing of a bell and came back in at
the ringing of a bell. We ran and we played. For fifteen or twenty minutes we were allowed to be raucous and free.
In primitive rural Indiana in the 1940s, we played in the woodpile. We made a fort that you could crawl into. We
made a mountain of it and climbed up it playing King of the Mountain. I think we had a merry-go-round and a teeter
totter. In Wisconsin and here in Kansas we played workup softball. We’d chose up sides and I would be among the
last to be chosen, so scrawny and maladroit was I.
But I won the spelling bees. I was the last one standing there. I knew how to spell ache. A-c-h-e. Others tried but
failed. They spelled it ake, as if it were part of a cake, and when that didn’t work they spelled it in exotic ways, like
aike, or akayke, or whatever. But I knew. And I spoke up. The teacher, Miss Julia Bebermeier, beamed. I beamed
back. Everyone else just stared. Maybe for a moment the lovely Carol Sitz deigned to glance at me. She was the
Queen of the May then, she was the one all us boys were so in love with that we hit her on the head with a book
every chance we got.
Carol died of cancer while she was still in her 50s. She was one of the first funerals of schoolmates that I went to
the funeral of. She hadn’t married me; she had married some guy from somewhere who was a photographer but
they later got divorced. Poor Carol.
At some point in a long life we begin to wonder, Why am I still here? There must be a reason, right?
God bless America and the Jayhawks of the University of Kansas. Even though I think now that universities should
be disbanded, I am going to send them a check for $5 today. And then I’m going to visit my mother’s grave. 528
words, 18 minutes. ###
DAY FOUR Tu., March 4, 2014
I just need a C to make my grades, she said, looking at me intently. If I don’t make my grades, I can’t pledge, you
see. She was a pretty girl, well turned out, very nicely dressed. She was wearing lipstick very carefully applied. Just
now her face, which in class always seemed to be somewhere else, was totally fixed on me.
Pledge? I said. Oh, you’re in a fra—I laughed. I mean a sorority, right?
That’s right, Mr. Kempthorne, she said. You see, if I don’t pledge, my mother will be crushed. I’m willing to do
anything to raise that grade. She reached over awkwardly, smiling and holding my eyes while she put her hand on
I froze. I heard a roaring in my ears. I probably said something about well, a grade is a grade, and I gave you a D
because you had too many misspellings. He hand on my leg was like the clamp of a vice. I was numb. I was dumb.
I looked at the paper with all the red marks on it to save me. I—I—just don’t see any way, I stammered, blushing.
Finally I stood up. Her hand fell away. She looked at me angrily. I didn’t want her to be angry. I wanted her to make
her grades and make her mother proud. Probably, I thought later, if she hadn’t been so blatant I would have gone
into the closet with her, I don’t know.
But it was too much for me. My moment of possible corruption had come and gone. She was marching down the
hall and out the door. At 24, a grad student, my first year teaching, it was all too much for me. Probably that lady
rose to become the Director of All Sororities, or at least the first woman president of the Bank of England.
And I kept my little D, my red marks on her paper that she left on my desk, crumpled, my little comments in the
margin meant to soften the blow, like “Normally, this is spelled…” I unwadded it and smoothed in out and kept it in
her file in case she wanted it.
Lately I have had this desire to be rich come over me. Perhaps it is aided by my desire to live on another planet until
springtime, but it is, I can report, very intense. If I were rich, for one thing, I would hire someone permanently to
stand by me and open things for me. I believe that there is a world-wide conspiracy against older people—by the
younger people of this world, yes—to cause our premature demise by starvation because we couldn’t open
packages in time to continue our nutritional needs. This is particularly true of jars of pickles, of course—of course—
but also it is quite true of bags of potato chips and candy bars. I mean those little crimped ends of things that do not
have an evident place to be torn, and will not admit of an easy tearing anywhere. I can hardly count the number of
times I have reached into a drawer, sputtering and gasping for air, hoping to find a pair of scissors to simply cut the
This is unfair. It is brutal. If I were rich…! 560 words, 24 minutes.###
DAY THREE, 4TH JOURNALONG: TODAY! Monday, March 3, 2014
It’s below zero, I don’t know by how much. We are 18 days from the first day of spring. It was 50 this morning here
in the living room, and the hot water to the kitchen sink is frozen. It is hard not to be below our own zero at this time,
at this place. But we make our own weather. George Carlin had it about right when he said, “People say positive
thinking is a good thing, but I don’t think it’d work for me.”
Yet it’s likely to be clear and sunny today, and I’m inside, not frozen solid, and I have tucked $30 so far in the
envelope in my top dresser drawer, so that at the end of the month I can take another $310 to the savings account
and add it to the Escape Reality Fund.
Even in the NY Times, the headline suggests that someone we (the US) can and should run the world: MOUNTING
PRESSURE ON OBAMA TO REIN IN RUSSIA. What is this? As if Russia were a horse we have rigged up to ride as
we might? Thank God Obama, while having an eye on that loony reality (for so does madness become part of what
the world has to work with, in this case the madness of the US establishment), does not have the macho need to
“rein in” anybody except the American Right Wing.
So we create our own weather. I create my own weather. Today I am determined to try to be sunny and warmer.
My mother, if alive, would be 105 come Wednesday. What should we get her? June suggested a new dish for her
cat, Bubba. Mom had two cats, Bubba and Heidi. Usually they were on her lap as she sat in bed and watched golf
and bowling on television. They were pampered almost beyond belief, and when Mom died, Bubba’s dish was taken
to her gravesite and put on the entablature (the base stone, I mean to say) of her stone and left there. It sat there
untouched until just a couple of years ago when evidently water froze in it and it cracked. We picked up the pieces
and took them to the Art Shop, where they await repair and return to her grave. So if we just finished that little
project I know Mom would be happy. But in this weather, the Art Shop isn’t all that comfortable. Sooo…S O N Y.
When Danny’s band was owned by SONY, and all the corporate people would let them do was stay in the studio and
practice and make records (I guess), and pay them for that, not allowing them to go out on tour, and when implored
by the band members, Danny most of all, to let them go on tour, the corporates would reply, Soon…Only Not Yet.
As soon as they could, they got out from under that contract and went on their own private tour.
I am like a man at prayer here. I am safe. God will not let anything happen to me that He doesn’t want to happen. If I
am blown to smithereens, so be it. (When did I last use the word, smithereens? It was one we always used as a
kid. I have no idea even what a smithereen is.) 561 words, twenty-one minutes.
Sun., March 2,2014
When I was little and learning to read by reading the comic strips in the newspaper (Indianapolis Star), one of the
comics was a single panel of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. One of remember very well showed a bunch of Chinese
people marching. The believe it or not part was something like, “If all the Chinese people were marched past a given
point four abreast the line would never end. And why, we were asked, rhetorically, and then answered: Because the
Chinese were being born at a faster rate than they could be counted!
I was agog at that. I must have been all of 5 years old, and I remember that today!
Well. Now here I am 76 and I’m not even Chinese but I have a somewhat similar problem. I have kept a Journal for
fifty years. It is 9,000,000 words long. I want to edit the Journal, but if I edit even at the rather vigorous rate of more
than 3,000 words per day, I will never finish because I am hard-wired now to write 2,000 or more words per day,
every day. I will not live long enough! In 9 years I will have edited the 9,000,000 words but I will have produced
another (let’s say) 6,000,000 that need to be edited. I will then be 85. By the time I finish the 6,000,000 I will be 91
and will have produced another…you see the problem.
How, we used to say back in the 60s, do we live the way we think best? “Act as if the Revolution has already
occurred.” Yep, that’s what we revolutionaries said to one another in 1968 or 1970 or whatever. So being a good
hippie, that’s what I did. Of course it didn’t really work out, but we did do a lot of living just the way we thought we
ought to. We avoided or quit our cushy jobs, we moved back to the land, we scrutinized seed catalogs rather than
career track ads in the back of the Wall Street Journal…we spent the time with our kids that our parents had not. We
pulled over into the Slow Lane and lived the life of the mind.
I had always been fascinated with the idea of opting out, doing it my way, and marching to a different drummer.
(Actually I had long since told the drummer to go away, anyway, so I (a) didn’t march but rather simply walked and
(b) had no drummer at all.)
Well, brag, brag, Charley. Roll on, Columbia, roll on.
And here you are, six am nearly, sitting in the dark, wearily throwing another log on the fire and wondering what to
do about Ukrania when you don’t even know what to do with your own crania. If only we had learned how to go to
heaven rather than how the heavens go…! In fact if I had my life to live over I would have…what?
My mother died just one day short of 88. She was in a coma, or at least a deeply diminished state, when she asked
what day it was. I don’t remember, oddly, what we told her. Maybe we said something dumb like, It’s Tuesday, or
Wednesday. But I think she wanted to know what the date was, and whether she was 88 free and clear yet. 562
words, 28 minutes.###
Sat., March 1, 2014
I will have to look it up, but March 21st is the first day of Spring isn’t it? Spring being that season when this nasty,
brutal and all-too-long winter ends? “Worst winter in decades,” the weatherman chortles from his vantage point at a
warm desk in the studio by all his maps and computers while I, poor suffering moi, sits here bound in stocking cap,
afghans, robes, scarves, even mittens on occasions, warm fuzzy wood slippers…I sit here shivering and counting
the days till spring. 20 more days. If spring doesn’t begin on that day, I’m putting in for a transfer.
A skunk may have taken up residence in the Art Shop, which we haven’t been using much because of the terrible
cold. I went in yesterday to get something, smelled the smell, and tiptoed out. I have never been bathed by a skunk,
never had that honor. But one came two nights ago and ate the remains of the cat’s food on the north deck by our
office. He didn’t mind our watching him at all. We have had skunks around before. I once shot one years ago. I
was under the impression that if they were coming around to human habitats they might well be rabid, as they
commonly or at least sometimes carry that disease. So with that rationale (rationalization) I shot the poor thing and
left it lying for days. I’ve been told that their skins are valued for fur coats but I wasn’t about to touch the thing, let
alone skin it and tan its hide.
Skunks, snakes, venomous and harmless; rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, wild dogs, neighbors’ dogs, cats
our own and others and nobody’s…even a human being or two, have come here uninvited and stayed at their
pleasure in the nearly 43 years I have been here come November. If I am not the Ancient Mariner, then I guess I’m
the Ancient Landlubber out here. I have outlived most of the people who came here or were born here before I
Now next winter, or that is this summer before next winter, I’m going to build a virtual Kublai Khan here with a big
plastic bubble around and over it. Yes, I am. Or at least I’m going to get about 10 really good books to read.
Honestly, it’s a shame and a disgrace that I haven’t done some project to while away the desperate hours.
Well, of course I have: this blessed Journal! Last night I totaled the words I’d written and posted on the LIfeStory
website—something more than 45,000 words in the three Journalongs since early November; and then of course
probably another 90,000 that I didn’t post. So that’s 135,000 words. That has been my while-away-the-winter
project. I don’t do marquetry, I don’t shoot baskets or weave them or sew or saw or sing: I write. I guess it is as
useless and entertaining as anything.
So be it. Amen. 500 words, 18 minutes.