|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 2017 by The LifeStory Institute.
THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG
28 days to writing more or less happily for the rest of your life!
PROMPTS are what you need to get past the problem of not having anything to write about. It leads to writer’s block, which is 100% fatal for a
writer. The only cure for writer’s block is to deny you have it and go on writing. Otherwise, you’re not a writer, you’re a wannabe writer. There
are numerous causes to writer’s block but prompts are the way to avoid it.
So make a list, a long list, of prompts to get you going and keep you going and keep it handy at your writing desk. Make the prompts in
advance. Have 10 or 20 at hand when you sit down to write, and don’t walk past the first one and say, Oh, I don’t feel like that one now. Start
writing with the next one that comes up.
Your prompts aren’t always mine. Your best prompts are those that come to you unbidden in the course of the day. Write things down. Make
a note and stick it under your keyboard or clip it to your monitor. Don’t say, Oh, that’s a good one, and then expect to find it there on the tip of
your fingers when you sit down to write. You’ll draw a blank.
I tend to have my ideas for writing come at me at the oddest moments (driving, bathing, always I seem to be doing something that prevents
note-taking), and so I cease what I’m doing just as soon as I can and start writing. The ideas usually come in batches. I have “idea attacks.”
Prompts are specific. They are not things like “write about Mom.” They are things like “write about the time Mom told the policeman she was
going to take his badge number and call the county.” Make a list of these narrative prompts. Make a written list!
DAY 28 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sun., May 28, 2017
Today is the last day of the Journalong. I get three days off before I start the next one, the June one.
The May Journalong draws to a close today. If you have written 500 words a day for the last 28 days—as I have here—then you have written
14000 words, about one-fifth the length of the average book. Even if you’ve only written on average 250 words a day, you have written 7,000
words, a hefty and very respectable amount and—you have formed the habit.
So by all means continue writing tomorrow. Don’t take the next three days “off,” because that will only detract from your habit of writing. I will
write tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow but I will not post a journalong. However, on Thurs., June 1, I will start posting again, and I hope
you’ll be there to join me.
All this emphasis on numbers may seem silly. But it’s a way of making sure you and I stay on our mission of writing our personal and family
history; our legacy; our autobiography or whatever you want to call it. Your careful attention to writing a certain amount every day is your
contribution to the history of the world and that cannot be minimized. Consider that some of what we know about Medieval history is due to the
diary of one Margery Kempe; that what we know about London in the time of Samuel Pepys is due to his ten year diary from 1660-1670; that
much of what we know about world history from the beginning of recorded time to now is due to a handful of people who took notes—who kept
a diary, a log, a chronicle.
Now in a world of 7 billion people your journal may seem a drop in the bucket. Perhaps so. But how about to your family? Or even if you don’t
have a family, how about to your circle of friends, even if they are “only” Facebook friends? How about to anybody who happens on what you
have written? If the story of your life adds some dimension to the life of one or two or three or four other persons, I would count that an
important. Wouldn’t you?
This is not even considering the most important thing daily writing does for you: it helps give your own life a certain necessary order, it relieves
your stress, it may well give your life meaning and direction.
So today I, and I hope you too, write. I write that I got up this morning and greeted the sun. I came out to my living room and made the coffee. I
poured a cup and sat down and opened this computer and I wrote, My name is Charley Kempthorne, and I write this today. Yesterday my son
and his wife and their daughter gathered with us in the backyard and had a picnic. Adah, who is nearly 5 now, picked a blossom from a showy
rhododendron in full bloom and gravely came up to each of us sitting around talking and gave us a single petal from the bloom. ###
DAY 27 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sat., May 27, 2017
When I was a kid there was a cereal called Pep. I have no idea what was in Pep, no doubt a good deal of sugar…but who paid any attention to
that back in the 40s? What I remember is that If you bought it and sent in a certain number of boxtops you could get a beanie. I ate a lot of Pep
but I either never sent in the boxtops or didn’t get enough. It might be that I traded my boxtops to some other kid for a comic book or two. A
beanie was a fine thing but comic books were—well, important.
It wasn’t like I was reading Classics Illustrated. I read Crime Does Not Pay, Superman, Superboy, Plastic Man, even Mary Marvel and Wonder
Woman, Green Hornet…oh, so many others. I had a stack three feet high in the corner of the bedroom I shared with my brother. I read them
over and over. My father, an ophthalmologist, said I’d ruin my eyes. And in truth I did become more and more myopic—near-sighted—but I didn’
t care, I guess I knew at the age of 60 I’d get cataracts and have an operation where they put the corrective lenses into my eyes so I wouldn’t
have to wear glasses.
I was not an athletic child, as the photo suggests: I was heading for a fall.
At Woodrow Wilson grade school I got one of those ribbons at a track meet that they give to the scrawny inept kids who didn’t place or show or
win anything. Nevertheless I saved the ribbon, which happened to have been wrinkled, permanently, at the factory. I think the color, green, was
a little off too.
My father was a four letter man in high school and I suppose college too. He was state pole vault champion and famous within the family and
his village of Rewey, Wisconsin because he got his name on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. He was athletic all his life, and even ran
with his heavy medical bag—ran from his office to the car, from his car to the hospital…in the Army he was nicknamed Tarzan or, for short, just
Now at 79 I am learning how to work out from my 37 year old son, who is 6’3” and works out several times a week in a gym he built here in his
house, where June and I live also. I now ride the stationary bike 12 minutes every day, do 12 lifts of a weight on the end of a pulley, and 12
stretches of a rubber cord to help my triceps or something. I also lift two two-pound barbells while I’m waiting for the computer to boot and I
walk a quarter mile or more while we shop at Winco, one of those ten acre discount groceries that has canyons of canned baked beans.
I find myself liking it, find myself actually pushing myself a little, and wondering if there might be a COPD division for the Senior Olympics where
I might finally be a winner.###
DAY 26 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Fri., May 26, 2017
On May 26, 1974, June and I stood up in front of a minister and said the words that made us officially married in the eyes of the State and in all
the world. For our own purposes, we had married the day and night we met, May 1,1973, more than a year earlier. Our true personal wedding
vow was, “Are you horny?” “I am.” And after less than eight hours together, we fell into the sack and consummated our marriage.
In order to be married, you need the 3 C’s. The most important one is Consent. And with our eyes and lips and words and deeds we did
make that consent in June’s little apartment on the top floor at 931 Moro St., Manhattan, Kansas, 66502. Whereupon and insofar and
notwithstanding we did theretofore have the wherewithal to Consummate our union, and thus accomplish the second C.
The third C, the least important, the public ceremony, did not occur until the day mentioned above exactly 43 years ago today. And it was a
wonderful day. It looked a little like rain at daybreak and throughout the morning. We had in the one year plus we’d been living together made
the farmhouse we lived in habitable and cheery if still more than a little funky. My mother had said she would come only if I built a real steps
into the house to replace the makeshift and somewhat dangerous collection of cement blocks stacked there; had it rained the driveway would
have become a muddy sea; the door to the bathroom tended to stick shut and then would not easily re-open; the floor in the living room was
three different styles of ancient lineoleum. Everywhere was improvisation and make-do, but everywhere June had magically decorated with
pictures and houseplants and knick-knacks and more or less startling objets d’art.
Happiness rang under the Four Cedars as we declared our vows under blue skies to one another before a crowd of fellow Hippies and
friends and relatives; and then we all came inside for a great potluck picnic. A few hours later, the festivities done, we sat and smiled at one
another on the makeshift yardsale couch, nuzzled and smooched and re-consummated our marriage yet once more.
Last night here in our wonderful in-law apartment in our son and daughter-in-law’s house where we have lived now for a year and a half, June
now 71 nearly and I pushing 80, we watched an old movie and fed each other the last of box of French vanilla ice cream. I dug a spoonful and
handed it to her, she swallowed it and handed me the spoon and I dug one for me, and so on and so forth. “This is real intimacy,” I said. June
laughed. “I’m getting all quivery,” I said, and we laughed together as we Consumed the last bit of ice cream.
And then we turned out the lights and fell asleep like babes in wonderland. ###
DAY 25 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG
Thu., May 25, 2017
I am up and at ‘em and sitting at my computer and out of the corner of my eye watching CNN, which of course is on MUTE with closed
captioning if I care to read. I don’t. It is 410 am and I am the only one in the house awake, maybe the only one awake in the whole town of
Olympia, Washington, where I live in a house three miles north of downtown.
So I am up, but why am I here?
Once I was doing a memoir writing workshop in some little city on the Kansas/Oklahoma border and during a break a lady in her 90s told me
how she was the “only one” left in her generation of the family and so, she looked wistfully at me as if I could really answer this question and
said, Why am I still here?
The directness of her question took me aback. Of course I should have smiled and said,To write your memoir. But somehow I had no answer. I
just smiled and shrugged.
She did write some that day, though, and I’m sure her family treasures it, and I am sure it is sustaining for them.
This morning having written my memoir—over and over and over to the tune of many millions of words—I wonder myself, once again: why am I
Perversely, I remember one of the old “sick jokes” of the 1950s: Q. Momma, why does Daddy look so pale? A. Shut up and keep digging.
So maybe that’s why I am here: to shut up and keep digging.
But of course I cannot shut up and now (reversely perversely) I remember another youthful joke: Someone tells you to shut up and you say,
dancing around saucily, I don’t shut up; I grow up. And when I Iook at you I throw up!
Perhaps that’s why I’m here: to remember all the old jokes. I took early on to jokes. I loved jokes. I remember them all. I never forget a joke. In
my parents’ library there was a book by a famous publisher and humorist, Bennett Cerf called “2,500 jokes for all occasions.” I memorized that
book and passed on every joke in it many, many times. I drove my friends crazy, my family even crazier.
Maybe I understood then—I couldn’t have been more than ten years old—but maybe I understood in some preternatural, dimbulb way, that the
final answer of man to the universe was the laugh.
A man was desperate for money to feed his family. He didn’t care what happened to him, he just wanted them to have enough money to have
food, clothing and shelter. So he went to a famous impresario and offered to go in front of an audience and commit suicide for $50,000. The
famous impresario rubbed his chin thoughtfully and turned in his leather chair. Well, that’s fine, he said. But what will you do for an encore?
So…top of the morning to you!###
DAY 24 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Wed., May 24, 2017
Never borrow money needlessly, I sang as I drove into a parking space in front of the bank. Just when you must/from folks you trust…. Oh, I
trusted my friends at the bank, I sure did. I got out of my pretty red truck—two payments behind, thought about what I would say to my banker
friends, and whistled my way inside. I nodded to Sandra, said hello to Diane, waved to Don…I knew everybody and everybody knew me. I was
out there working, moving the economy along.
It was 1983 and I was a comer. No longer a hippie, really, but a busy man in clean crisp white and a t-shirt on which was printed
KEMPTHORNE PAINTERS AND PAPERHANGERS along with the snappy logo that my friend at the advertising agency—I had paid them off
two months ago—last of four payments of $125.00 plus a little change. It was becoming recognized. In tonight’s paper there would be a 4 x 6
display ad—for which I’d not yet gotten the bill and could not pay it anyway but would be more than compensated for by the new business such
a snappy logo in such a snappy ad (I had written the copy myself, I could have made it, should have made it, as an advertisingwriter) would
bring into the coffers of “The Company,” as I called it more and more in my mind.
I sat down to wait for Don. He was with some guy and they were both on the phone. It might take a bit.
I was doing some fifteen thousand a month gross. Maybe I was obligating The Company for a little more than that, but I could keep up. This
was the way business was done. This was the way things got going. Keep one jump, preferably two, ahead of them.
I had started with nothing. I had lost my shirt in farming and I didn’t even have a shirt to begin with. Now I had t-shirts—and employees, some
fifteen of them out there…let’s see…if they were all hard at it, and they were, then 15 times the company labor rate of $12 per hour = $180 x8 =
$1440 per day times five (we didn’t work Saturdays, or they didn’t—new employee-conscious rules that I had set—that would add up to more
than $7000 per week times…
“Charley, you’re up.” It was Diana, waving me in.
Don and I shook hands. He was not smiling; I was. A little taken aback, nevertheless, I smiled broadly—be positive!—and asked how approval
of that SBA loan was going.
It’s not going to happen, Charley, Don said flatly, making a flat gesture with his hands that evidently meant the same thing.
It’s not? I said. They turned it down?
We didn’t even send it in. We can’t support your numbers.
And another thing, Charley, before this gets to be real trouble: stop writing checks on your First National account.
It’s just a little drawing account, I said.
Don leaned forward. Charley, what you’re doing has a name. It’s called kiting, and it’s illegal.
Kiting? I said. In my mind I saw a kite flying with one of my checks attached. Kiting? ###
DAY 23 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Tu.,May 23, 2017
I rather like myself this morning. If this seems ho-hum stuff, I have to report that it’s a new feeling. I’ve never felt this way before. Not in 79 years!
Not that I always woke up hating myself…that wasn’t usual, though it did happen. Most mornings of my life as far back as I can remember I sort
of work up and looked in the mirror and said something like, “Oh, you again.” Or “What’s your excuse?” But this morning I smiled easily and
saluted. “Good morning, sir!”
My parents always said things like, “Get your hands out of your pockets and make yourself useful.” Or, “Get a smile on your face,boy!”
Anyhow, I feel pretty good.
In the Navy, sailors always got up in the morning, pissed and counted their money. A reasonable routine, it always seemed to me.
Sometimes I think about all the things in life that I’ve done that, if I had it to do over, I would not have done. I would not have come home that
time I ran away to New Orleans when I was15. The friend I had run away with, and whose car we were driving, and who one morning two weeks
after we left home in Kansas said,”I’m going back home. Where shall Iet you out?” Generously, as he saw it, he was willing to take me all the
way down to the docks, because he knew I wanted to jump a ship and sail the Seven Seas. I said,Oh, uh, maybe I’ll just go back home too.
I should have taken him up on it and gone to the docks and stowed away.
That’s one thing I wished I could do over.
Another is, I should never have sold my beautiful pea-green 1950 Buick Special. It had thrown a rod, true, and the hood kept flying off; but I
should have kept it. Instead I sold it to a junk dealer in Augusta, Kansas six dollars and a ride to the bus depot downtown.
That’s two. Mistake no. 3 was selling that wonderful house I had in Stevens Point, Wisconsin at 1324 Shaurette Street. Especially not for
$16,500, which was just what I’d paid for it a couple of years before.
Four, that really pretty girl in Iowa City…so beautiful I just started walking out of the bookstore I had been standing in and followed her for..one
block. I should have walked right up to her with a book in my hand and said, Excuse me, I think you dropped this, and by the way, I love you,
and Would you like to run away with me to New Orleans?
Of course she would have, and I would have had a far more interesting life.
Five, and this is it—this is getting too complicated to endure—I should have taken that tenure year contract when it was offered to me in
If I had done all these things, or not done them as the case may be, I would today have a wonderful professor’s pension to live on, I’d be living
in a six bedroom house filled with books and beautiful girls, I’d have all those memories of sailing the Seven Seas before I got tenure at the
University and…I’d have a beautiful and shiny chromed Buick Special in my driveway.###
DAY 22 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNLONG.
Mon.,May 22, 2017
Remember “making conversation?”
Years ago when you starting dating or went anywhere socially you had to think about how to make conversation. It sounds funny (peculiar) now
but it wasn’t then. It might have been the times, it might have been because we were so young, twenty-something or even younger, but it was
something we had to learn to do—think of things to say so that you wouldn’t have disastrous lulls in the bonhommie, which meant that there
was no bonhommie.
Sometimes you made a list and carried it in your vest pocket. Girls, who had no vest pocket, would sometimes tape a list to their bodies—
somewhere. Or maybe put the list in their purse.
I still can’t dance the boxstep but I never had any trouble making conversation with anybody. I love to talk to people even more than I love to talk
period. Yes, I have been looked at strangely, and I have been told to mind my own business. More than once I was the butt of the old joke: Are
you writing a book? Well, leave my part out.
But this is the age of media, and most people are happy to talk about themselves. And I genuinely love to do it. I love hearing where people
are from: Murfreesboro, Arkansas. Fremont, Nebraska. Yreka, California. Reading, Pennsylvania.
Where are you from? I ask, smiling. I can’t wait to know. If they say something like “I’m from South Dakota,” I ask them Where in South
Dakota? And if they tell me they’re from Podunk, Kansas, I ask them if that’s near Salina?
I really want to know. These are “ice-breakers.” These are real questions for me. So what do you do in Yreka? Computer science? Whoa,
that’s big high tech stuff!
By now I have traveled a lot, most all of it by car, as in, stop in Yreka for gas and ask the folks what kind of town that is, is that really Mount
Shasta over our shoulder, and were you here during the gold rush?
Sure, now and then I put my foot in it. In my ancient years, like now, I sometimes have MEMORY LOSS and I ask the same question twice.
Oops, I grin and blush, senior moment. Sorry ‘bout that. And they understand.
The neat thing about interviewing people is that the more they tell you and the more you accept and appreciate (this has to be genuine—you
can’t fake it), the more they trust you and the more they tell you. Of course you have to be trustworthy. If they say don’t tell anybody I told you
this, then don’t tell anybody they told you that.
In my long and nosy career a few times someone has told me about a crime they committed. I try to avoid hearing that, I try to cut them off at the
pass right then and there. When that happened, years ago, usually drinking was involved and the tongue had been thereby loosened. I do not
drink anymore so it doesn’t happen that way on my side.
Luckily lots of things I don’t write down and I am increasingly forgetful…and hard of hearing at that.
Did you say something? ###
DAY 21 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sun., May 21, 2017
Life is very long. I can report that in all good faith.
When I was about 14 or 15, 15 I think, a friend gave me a small red plastic radio that he had boosted from the Sears store downtown where he
was a stockboy. I plugged the little radio in and began listening to it at night. I played it softly and our house was sturdily built, so no one heard it
but me. Or no one complained, anyway.
Now I am remembering that a few years before that I started listening to classical music. It wasn’t like one day I went to my parents and said,
Folks, I’d like to start listening to classical music, and they said, Okay, Charley, go for it. What happened was they bought a new “hi-fi” (a new
thing then, the very latest) to put in the parlor and with it came a demonstration record and on the record were several spectacular symphonic
pieces and also, somehow a set of records of the music of Tchaikovsky.
I began to listen to that, over and over. So when I got the little red radio from Tony, I naturally gravitated to a program of music that came on at
midnight—yes, midnight, and I was 13 or 14 or maybe 15, listening at that hour—and the program was called Music ‘til Dawn, hosted by one
Jay Andreas. Mr. Andreas’ easy style of speaking about great music as if he had been there when it was written…it was magical to me. The
WBBM Air Theatre…that was the name of the station, out of Chicago.
I always had trouble going to sleep so the music filled a need. I wasn’t bothering anybody. I may even have started smoking cigarets then. I’d
smoke, listen to the soft and yet very dramatic music, and eventually I’d fall asleep.
In school if we had any musical instruction at all it was really dumb stuff. Well, we had Christmas music around that time of year. Endlessly we
sang Joy to the World (the Lord is come, and why did they say “is come” rather than “has come”? I never figured that out. In Boy’s Chorus we
sang more or less stupid songs that someone thought up and put in a book. One was something about “where the owls go a-winging,” and
those of us with deeper voices in the back row would sometimes—when the teacher wasn’t looking—would hoot like owls.
But classical music—I liked it, and I listened to it later on my car radio, then in college I had my own stereo…once living in Kansas City I came
home from work (summer job) and I was jumping around, happy it was Friday and I had a date, I was listening (loudly) to the Waltz of the
Flowers and I grabbed a chinning bar my room-mate had put up in a doorway and the bar gave way (compression fitted as it was) and I went
flying across the room. I thought I was dead, and my date came and took me to the hospital for x-raying. I lived.###
DAY 20 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sat., May 20, 2017
This [photo] was taken in Brooklyn Heights, New York in August, 1965. I was 27 years old and I was on my honeymoon with my second
wife…really. Now more than sixty years later I can hardly imagine what I was thinking. That’s me: that was me, one of the many me’s that
make up the me I am now.
We had really honeymooned in Quebec and were on our way home. We stopped here to visit a friend and have a meal together at some
Italian restaurant and then, I guess, we drove back to Lawrence, Kansas, where we lived and where I would be starting my second year of
teaching as an assistant instructor (graduate student) at the University of Kansas.
I had started my journal—the very journal I’m writing in now—a year and a half before but I wasn’t doing much writing in it. I wish I had! I wish I’d
written every day from the day I swore I was a writer because I kept a journal—February 26, 1964. I do look like a young writer, don’t I? I was
big on looks. I wasn’t trying to look like Arthur Miller but it just came out that way.
Day leads onto day and then one day…here we are. This morning, three thousand miles from Brooklyn Heights, I sit here on the couch of the
house we live in with our son and his wife and their daughter in Olympia, Washington.
It seems odd to me that I remember nothing of the drive home. Not one thing. Why do we remember some things and not others? At 27, I had
answers. Now, at 79, I have only questions…is that what I’m saying? No, I have some answers now—different from the answers I had then.
It’s easy to say, with poor Macbeth, that “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But I don’t remember feeling that
then, nor do I feel that now. I would agree that life is a tale told by something we do not understand, full of sound and fury and…other
things…and signifying something we feel sure, but do not understand.
And children and grandchildren…why should I ever think that my life has any meaning apart from them? Looking at this young man’s face, it’s
easy to see that he had no thought of any of them then…isn’t it? We’re never alone, we only think we are. ###
DAY 18 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Thu., May 18, 2017
That summer at Stevens Point I signed up for a carrel on the top floor of the new university library. A carrel was library talk, I guess, for a tiny
room of my own where I could sit and study and keep any books that I wanted to.
So I’d go over there after breakfast and sit all morning and study. For some reason I studied Pali, an Indian language. I remember not a single
word nor even a single character of the alphabet of this language. And I cannot bring forth a single inkling of a reason as to why I devoted
myself to that for a good part of the summer.
Really, I would have been better off as a professor and as a human being to read Superman comic books. I was 29 years old and I had a BA
and an MA and I was an idiot. I think maybe I wanted to know everything in the world, and really I knew nothing.
I’d walk home slowly afterward and Patsy would make a lunch and we would eat sitting at the big restaurant booth in the kitchen. Maybe we’d
talk about what we did that morning. I don’t remember what she did. I don’t even remember what I did.
In the afternoon we would sit around and read. I read a lot of “Negro” (that’s what we called it then) literature that I’d never read before, and that
was interesting and it was good for me personally and professionally. I read writers like Jean Toomer, W.E. B.DuBois, Countee Cullen, and all
those guys. Maybe I’d write in my journal about what I was reading, a few lines.
Maybe I’d slump in my big overstuffed chair in my study (yes, I had a study, a library with several thousand books staring at me) and take a nap.
I don’t think it ever occurred to me to go for a walk, though if friends called and suggested it we might drive out to Jordan Pond and go for a
swim, then maybe a picnic on the beach or drive into town and eat somewhere, all of us, laughing and talking about…what we’d been reading.
Or we’d talk about politics and what was going on in the country then.
Just now I can’t remember what was going on then…but it was grist for our mill, no doubt.
Surely I was writing a novel or a short story or…something. I was always writing something. Or, that is to say, I was trying to get myself to write
something. I was, after all, a writer. I was “working.” That was what writers said when they sat around writing. They were “working.”
But it somehow didn’t make the cut for me in 1967, that summer, and within a couple of years I was absolutely fascinated with installing a hot
water heater in the basement.
The old one was all rusted out at the bottom and leaked. I bought a new one and carried it home in the back of the car sticking out of the trunk
and I borrowed some tools from my friend Tom, whose dad was a plumber, and he told me how to do it: It’s easy, Charley, you just unhook the
old stuff and hook up the new.
With that knowledge, I went forth and in a couple of sweaty days I had it installed and lit and bubbling merrily making hot water for us. Now that
was an adventure! ###
DAY 17 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG
Wed., May 17, 2017
In the summer of 1968 we put our house on the market and loaded up our car—a red and white 1959 Chevy stationwagon that I’d bought from
a friend for $150—loading about everything we owned, that is to say—and drove down through beautiful southwestern Wisconsin and northern
Iowa to Iowa City, where I’d been admitted to the Writer’s Workshop and had gotten a teaching assistantship/scholarship so that we could
Everything in those days seemed so easy and cheap! A car you could drive for $150? A gallon of gas was probably a quarter, candy bars a
nickel or a dime, first class postage 4 or 5 cents…tuition at a great state university probably $300 a semester…
Patsy was pregnant with Danny and I think the obstetrician’s bill was a little more than $200, which we paid off at the rate of $10 a month. We
rented a one bedroom apartment on Jefferson Street, 8 or 10 blocks from the campus, for probably less than $100 a month.
Shortly after we got to Iowa City the car gave out but I could drive it out to the edge of town where there was a junkyard and I sold it for about
$50 and a ride back to town. We walked everywhere after that.
I didn’t go to school that summer. Danny was due in August. I was working on a novel, and the Writer’s Workshop was all about writing… It
turned out to be an horrendous summer, what with the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the continuing storms of protests over the War in
Vietnam. We connected with some friends and mostly just stayed home and endured the heat.
We did not have anything to carry the baby in, so we advertised in the paper for a bassinette and bought one from a grandmother who had one
in her attic. We walked to her house on the other side of town, examined it, paid $6 or something for it, and carried it home.
We bought a can of spray paint and put it up on a sawhorse or something in the backyard and painted it. I borrowed some tools and made a
headboard with a bookshelf and light built into it for our bed. Patsy would be spending a lot of time in bed nursing the baby and reading.
I think on August 6 or thereabouts, Kennedy was shot down in California. Was that also the summer that Malcolm X was assassinated too? It
was a terrible time.
Then on August 12, late afternoon, Danny was born. “Doing Lamaze,” birth coaching by the husband, was a new thing then, and the nurses
didn’t want me in the delivery room but the obstetrician, Dr.Miller—who just happened to be the head of the Obstetrics Dept. at the school of
Medicine at Iowa, said, Oh,let him suit up and come in, and so they finally did, though I was made to stand in the corner, a position I vacated
gradually as Dan began coming out and no one was paying attention.
And so a child was born: Daniel Alexander Kempthorne, born August 12, 1968, now almost 49 years old and living in California with children of
DAY 16 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Tu., May 16, 2017
When I look back on my long life a lot of what I look back on I am inclined to say that I can’t believe. I can’t believe I spent so much time in the
Navy just sitting and staring at the sea and thinking how many days I had left in the Navy.
I can’t believe I spent so many years in college and learned only that I spent too many years in college.
I can’t believe I didn’t put some more money aside for a rainy day. (It looks like rain today.)
I can’t believe…well, you get the idea.
Actually everything I did made perfect sense, assuming that I wanted to get to where I am right now so that I could look back and write this. It
sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
My advice to the young: Don’t pay any attention to my advice.
Am I going through something? I would say so. I am going through life.
I think I’ve had it with eating at restaurants.
If we had some ham, we could have ham and eggs…if we had some eggs.
I can’t believe this: one morning in 1977 I got up at 5 and hurriedly dressed in jeans, a heavy shirt also made of jeans material, put on my plaid
cap, and went out into the chilly spring morning, everything wet from yesterday’s rain. I started up the truck and backed up to the hog chute very
carefully, inch by inch. I opened the gate on the back of the truck and jammed it open with a stick.
The hogs were grunting and shuffling around, thinking I was going to feed them. Not yet, girls, I said to them. Soon. They chuffed a few chuffs,
oinked irritably, and danced in circles. I climbed over the side gates of the truck, dropped to the ground, and went inside to wake June.
June was already up and dressed and fixing the bacon. We ate. We drank coffee and what was left June poured into the thermos for my trip. I
sat there drinking and smoking a cigarette. “Ben’s sound asleep?” I asked.
“I fed him and he went right back to sleep.”
“Let’s go,then,” I said. “Before he gets up again.”
We went out and June got a bucket of cracked milo from the barrel and scattered it on the truck bed. They were hungry and they ran right in.
They didn’t even see me drop the gate and wire it shut. “Slick,” June said, climbing out. We kissed goodbye lightly. “I should be back by noon,”
I said, “at the very latest.” “I put the coffee on the front seat,” she said.
The sun was now up and I could see readily without headlights. I turned onto the highway and eased into the middle lane and moved along,
drinking the hot coffee, feeling full and happy. Occasionally I glanced in the mirror at the hogs, who were still eating, oblivious to their travelling.
Except in matters of When do we eat? Hogs were not curious.###
DAY 15 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Mon., May 15, 2017
Then there are days when you just haven’t got anything to say. That’s when you write, Then there are days when you just haven’t got anything to
say over and over…and over.
But no, that doesn’t work. I’ve found that when I think I have nothing to say, that’s when I have too much to say. Everything is trying to come out
the door at once and so there is a jam. In school the teacher would look at me and say, What do you have to say for yourself? And I would look
blank, of course.
My name is Jan Jansen. I come from Wisconsin. I woke in the lumberyard there.
I got down to Griffith Lumber about 7. Jim, the manager, was already at his desk and writing some order or other in a big ledger. Mike, his
son, was making a ticket out for a carpenter I knew by face but not by name. The carpenter stood there, all action—waiting. He nodded at
Kelly, Jim’s other son, was half sitting, half lying on a pallet of sheetrock, his eyes closed.
The carpenter took his ticket and left, muttering something. Mike looked at me. Well, what do you want?
Astragal, I said, stepping up. Eight feet of astragal. I waited smugly for him to ask what that was but he didn’t.
Only have it in sixteens, he said.
How much is it?
Uh. He looked in his big black book with all the yellow pages. Twenty-two cents a foot. Sixteen will cost you... he turned to his machine.
Three fifty two. He turned to me, his severe face looking into mine. Plus tax. I handed him a five. Kelly! He barked. He opened the cash
register and made change, dropping the coins and a dollar bill into my hand. Then he quickly wrote out a ticket, gave me a pink copy and held
out a yellow copy toward Kelly, who had sat up and was now slipping off the pallet easily and heading toward us, hand out to take the ticket.
Get this man some astragal!
It’s… I started to say.
It’s a piece of molding, little brother, Mike said, already turning toward the next man in line.
I know where it is, Kelly muttered, half to me, half to himself. Follow me. We walked out the door into the morning cold and down the lane to
the very end. I could see my breath. God it’s cold, Kelly said to nobody in particular. At the end of the long lane there was a huge high rack of
upright sticks of lumber. Kelly fumbled through them and I stood beside him, looking too.
What’s it look like? He said. That it? He pushed a stick in front of me. That’s it, I said. Kelly took my ticket and handed me a pencil to initial it.
Cut it in two, will you? Two eights? I can’t get it in my truck.
You’re a carpenter and you ain’t got a saw? He laughed.
But we stopped halfway back where the saw was and he quickly laid the stick on the table and with a quick switch the saw started and zing! the
cut was made and the saw was turned off again.
There you go, Kelly said. I’m going back to bed. ###
DAY 14 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sun.,May 14, 2016
When you add it all up, it’s pretty amazing. Life, you know, it’s really very, very long. When I was, say, nine years old and raring back to throw a
firecracker, the fuse fizzing in my right ear, could I have guessed that seventy years later, right now, I’d be leaning back to fit a hearing aid into
that same ear? Because back then, that would be 1947, I did not know what a hearing aid was.
The thing exploded in my ear. Very close to it. It was one of those firecrackers we called “Chinesers” with a fuse that was kind of unstable, as
we might say today. My ear rang and rang and my hand was oh, so very sore, and I’m sure I bawled and bawled. But I lived, I went on, my
hearing was perhaps a little impaired but not so much, apparently—my dad examined me (he was an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist) and
apparently, well, I would get better. We are very resilient, you know, we kids. Besides, what was there to be done?
If I said “hunh?” a little more often than the other kids, well, I learned to say “Pardon?” and it wasn’t so offensive.
Later on in life there was loud music—I loved the crash of cymbals and the sound of the tenor and the deep bass drums, the feeling that I was
so caught up in the music that I was the music and oh, it was grand… and then there was the chainsaw roaring away as I held it up to limb the
trees. Zing! Zing! Zing!
So, well, we are born to die, aren’t we? Most hearing loss is age-related, anyway. I can live with it. I can live with dying. It’s not so bad. Make
way for the young! Absolutely. I am happy to do that. This way, please!
Now some sixty years ago I was diagnosed with “chronic severe anxiety.” And I was an anxious lad for several years. I saw a slew of
psychiatrists, I learned from them how to manage things a bit better, and I returned to school and then to work and have had a very good
life…and continue to do so right up to this minute, and I hope beyond. This anxiety didn’t go away entirely, but I learned to harness it to some
degree, and to put it to good use.
True, the anxiety made it hard for me to concentrate, all those little extra sidebar thoughts in my head, bits of music heard and remembered
and coming back, coming back, those snippets of old conversations, all that flimflammery—all those things at once so that if you had tried to
graph what was going on—you’d have had to use a musical staff kind of notation. It was countrapuntal as much as anything written by J.S.
Ever try to hear what your grandchild is whispering excitedly to you while the band is playing, the street is filled with car horns honking, the birds
are flying over and your football team just scored a touchdown? And the bits and pieces of memory, oh my!
DAY 13 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sat., May 13, 2017
“I, Sinuhe, the Egyptian, write this.”
Thus does the novel THE EGYPTIAN begin. Written maybe back in the 50s the wooden prose of this novel was story enough to get made into
a movie, which I saw, and then I read the book and found it boring. I don’t think I finished it.
But I was mesmerized by that first sentence. If Mika Waltari could do that, then so could I. If his Sinuhe could speak to me and all the world
across 5000 years, then why not…
I, Charley Kempthorne, the 8th grader at MJHS, write this.
Or even, I, Charley Kempthorne, the old man of 79, write this…
The simplicity of it…writing words on parchment or on a screen, tell what you know about your life, your world….the possibilities stagger my
ancient imagination as much as they did when I was 10 or 12 years old.
At the very least every word we wrote down could be read by everyone who would ever exist. I could write about my puny existence and it was
be there to be read—or ignored, sure—by anyone in any distance in the future.
When I started teaching memoir writing in 1976 at age 38 to a group of mostly ladies in their 70s and up, I would tell them in all seriousness
and yet to much laughter, “the words you write today will be read by your children’s children as they sit in their chair in their house on a space
platform whirling around the earth in 2050….”
Most laughed, yes, and didn’t write…much, or anything at all.
But Jessie Foveaux, a pert and pretty lady of 79 going on 80, then—just the age I am now—took up her pen and wrote a book about life and
nearly twenty years later sold it to a publisher for one million dollars, cash. More important, her words are there today for anyone to read them,
and especially for her children’s children.
The only problem with writing with all this in mind is that it’s kind of a showstopper. If you’re writing for the Ages—all ages for all the Ages—and
you write something like, “I went to the grocery today and I bought a six-pack of Diet Pepsi and a pound of bananas…well, what will the ages—
all ages for all the Ages—think of you in 2700 AD? You’ll be the laughingstock of the universe!
No, not right. Not write. Wrong. We write to reveal ourselves, we’re writing a history of our life and our mind, and that’s what you did—the Pepsi
and the bananas—then that’s what you did. That is part of your history. We are not here to report what we said and thought and did.
I may be writing here this morning just to get in a few hundred words in order to show that I did my journal for the day, that I didn’t really have
much to say this morning except I wanted to affirm the importance of what I’m doing—for me and for anyone out there who’s interested or just
passing by. Maybe the only reason I wrote anything today was so that I would keep the habit and write in here tomorrow, and tomorrow, and
DAY 11 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Thu., May 11, 2017
I have always made things hard for myself. It is a characteristic I am trying to fix. I am only 79; there is still time.
I made graduating high school quite a circuitous and labyrinthine thing that for most kids is just putting one foot in front of another until there you
are, being handed a diploma and shaking hands with the principal.
It wasn’t like that for me. In 1953, age15, my junior year, I ran away from home in the middle of the school year, and though I came back from
my adventure to New Orleans (where I was going to jump a ship and sail the seven seas but I chickened out) I would not return to school. I laid
out for an entire year and worked at several jobs and horsed around and finally got a girl friend and since she was in school, she got me to
I had to take some correspondence courses to catch up. I did that. But I didn’t take the final for one required correspondence course in
Kansas history until the day before graduation and the folks in the front office couldn’t certify me to graduate until they got the word just a few
hours before the service that evening.
People were very kind and helpful to me—kindness I really didn’t deserve, I had been such a sassy kid. But that got me into the group of
graduates that marched into the auditorium that rainy night in 1955 along with the other 160 graduating seniors. There was my name, that was
me, Charley Kempthorne, but my name came in too late to put it in alphabetical order like the others and so there was my name at the very end
after Larry Zentz.
The rainy night turned into a stormy rainy night and the wind blew and all the windows were closed and when the speaker for the ceremony, a
school superintendent from somewhere in Missouri, rose to give us our commencement address, the thunder roared and the lightning flashed
and the rain came down in torrents—and the lights went out. They didn’t flicker back on in a few minutes. In the huge auditorium with maybe
500 people, we tittered nervously and chuckled and a few voices were heard moving around. Someone had a flashlight and hurried plans
were made. The speaker, without a microphone, said something—nice guy, really—about how we’d forget him and what he said tonight but
we would remember this. And we all laughed. This was fun.
Someone from the cafeteria or somewhere brought out a box of tall candles of the kind sometimes put on banquet tables and they were
passed around and lit and pretty soon we could kind of see and the speaker went on with his speech—which of course we didn’t remember
but appreciated very much at the time.
My grandfather, who lived with us, was miserably ill, 80 years old in1950, and one sunny afternoon when I was in the next room looking at my
stamp collection and my mother and baby sister were lying down in another room for a nap, I heard him moaning and moving around in his
room down the hall. I went on examining my collection of commemorative stamps, very pretty, all very tidily pasted into my big Scott’s album of
United States Stamps.
And then I heard a shot. Very loud in the still afternoon. Clearly a gun shot. Mom came out of her room. My sister, age 2, toddled along
behind. I looked and followed her down the hall. And there he was, as if sitting for a portrait, a small round red hole in his forehead, the rifle
dropped a little onto his chest.
He had lived 80 good years. He had been my grandfather and even my father, really, during four long years of the War, when my real father
was in North Africa. Gramps was my real father then. And now he was dead.
I’m coming to the end of this story. I’m trying to explain the note shown. Congratulations to the Winnah! Elsie and Glenn.
I went downtown a year after that and got a part-time after school and on Saturdays job in a print shop working for Mr.and Mrs.Graham—Glenn
and Elsie. They were childless old people, so old, in their 60s (!) and with white hair. I was there for the taking, needful of them, they needful of
me. I became their grandson. And they cheered me on. Pinned to the note was a five dollar bill.
I loved them all. ###
DAY 8 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Mon., May 8, 2017
took me a long time to get around to graduating from college—nine years, actually. I started in 1955 at the age of 17, went a couple of months,
then dropped out and joined the Navy In those days there was something every male incurred called “military obligation” and it had to be
fulfilled sooner or later, one way or another. I re-started my college career in 1959, went three years, dropped out again—this time to go to
mental hospital inTopeka, the Menninger Clinic, for a year. Then I went down the river to the University of Kansas and finally finished up in
1964. Nine years!
Which was fine. I was just happy to graduate. I remember the ceremony one warm night in June in the big football stadium in Lawrence.
About five thousand of us new graduates filled one end of the stadium along with our parents, friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, our kids if
we had, our wives and husbands and children…all the folks who loved and supported us and were glad to see us there getting our diplomas.
I sat way up near the back, top row in the crowd along with all the others. We were a long, long way from the podium where little tiny people
were saying things and handing out round tubes with our diplomas in them—we thought. We passed a jug of wine, smoked cigarets (a few
years later the smell of marijuana would be heavily in the air), told jokes and just generally joshed around until it was our turn to go down the
long stairs to the stage and get the document we’d worked so hard for all these years.
I got mine, shook the hand of the Chancellor or somebody, took my tube, heard my name called and walked rapidly across the stage and back
up to my seat.
But later, when I opened the tube I found inside only a return reply postcard instructing me to sign the card certifying that I did indeed attend the
ceremony and my diploma would be mailed to me within thirty (30) days of their receipt of the card.
I was so touched. ##
DAY 7 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sun., May 7, 2017
Yesterday June and I went to the wedding of two older friends. Most of the guests were older too. We were all happy to be there and no doubt
very happy to be attending a wedding rather than a funeral. The wedding was outside in the back yard of a church in the open air except we
had a roof over our heads in a gazebo.
There weren’t more than fifty of us. Without a lot of fanfare here came the bride and groom and a pastor. Some music came on and we sang
along and the words were said and soon the handsome and happy couple were united in marriage.
But three small children stole the show. They were, I learned later, the grandchildren of the groom. They came in with baskets of rose petals
and a beautiful bouquet larger than they were of red carnations and orange tiger lilies. Solemnly and with eyes wide with curiosity they fulfilled
their duties. They stood on the stage in their best dresses, the two girls, and neatly pressed black trousers, the boy.
When you’re the age I am now, children always steal the show. We couldn’t bear old age without them, could we?
I have noted, and perhaps you have too, that Old Mortality teaches us everything we need to know.
What I have learned and am learning still, is that I’m falling apart physically—the signs are all around me and everywhere within me. But
spiritually I am growing daily, and when I look at the little children I am as filled with wonder at them as they are at the world that we have made
that they find, as the kids say, totally awesome. ### [284 words.]
DAY 6 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sat., May 6, 2017
I started teaching in 1964, and I immediately loved it—the “kids” (who were mostly 18 or 19 at the most, but I was all of 26), talk, the
discussions, the exchange of ideas and the prestige—well, I called it that—of being finally a graduate student and in a half-assed way, a
member of the faculty of the University of Kansas. And broke as I always was, I enjoyed the salary of $1,800 per year.
Where two years before I had been on the bottom—I was a mental patient, unhappy, embarrassed at where I was, occasionally running into old
high school mates and (I felt) having to explain that I was a mental patient… In those days the status of a patient in an institution, even in a
famous one like Menninger’s, was lower than lower. I felt I had fallen through the floor.
I had done my time in the service, honorably and that was one thing I had going for me.
I had gotten a divorce more or less amicably, and I had two young children, a boy 3 and a girl 2, and I was trying to become a responsible
human being again. I finally graduated with a BA, got an assistantship, got out of Menninger though I continued in therapy there 2 to 3 times a
week and still had many friends there.
And I had a decent car, a cute little black and white 1959 Renault, and…I had a steady girl friend I was going to marry the following year.
The students of course had their own life and knew nothing of mine, and though they were polite and even deferential (some of them), they
knew I was just a grad assistant and saw quickly saw through any pretentions I might put forth as just that…the pretentions of an insecure
overgrown kid trying to bluff his way through.
Many meetings ended like this discussion of how to define terms—and I have taken this from my journal for that year:
A student gave, as an example of the term evil, the act of killing.
"All right," I said, "a fly comes into the room. I raise my hand and kill him. Have I committed evil?"
"You have to the fly!" someone shouted, and the students laughed.
"How do you know that?" I replied. "Evil is a human concept."
"How about to someone raising flies? You've committed evil to them."
"I don’t know of anyone raising flies," I answered smugly.
"How about in the laboratory?" someone put in, and the students laughed heartily.
And on and on. It was all thrust and parry. Had one of those flies been on the wall, it would have laughed and laughed at my discomfiture as I
waited for the bell. ###
DAY 5 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Fr., May 5, 2017
I dreamed. Maybe they were so intense because yesterday, marooned in our car for a few minutes after we got home, we sang the old 60s
antiwar song, Last night I dreamed the strangest dream [that we put an end to war…] Or maybe it was just my night to be especially dreamy.
I used to have a lot of nightmares, really terrifying dreams, and sometimes I would yell for help and June would have to pat me and soothe me
as I wakened sweating and trembling. I don’t have those anymore. Usually I had dreams that were long and involved, explorations through
buildings with many rooms, or just jumbled and incomprehensible scene after scene. But last night I dreamed a happy dream…or so I would
My parents were both sports fans and athletes and…golfers. My mother was particularly good at golf and was club champion or something
one or two years. In those days, she played nearly every day and sometimes all day. I didn’t care for golf. I’ve played probably half a dozen
times in my entire and long life.
But last night in my dream I golfed. I wasn’t an experienced golfer, nothing like that. But somehow I played in a game and, improbably, on the
first hole I made a hole in one. This understandably attracted some attention.
Then I made a hole in one shot on the second hole, too. This really got people interested, and when I made another extremely difficult shot on
the third hole and got into the cup on just one shot, people were coming from all over and throwing money at me. Suddenly I was the hottest
thing in golfing around the world, and I went on to make five more holes in one until I got to the ninth hole, where it took me several strokes to
get into the cup or whatever the little round hole is called.
By this time I had somehow amassed a fortune of 160 billion dollars, and so I started a foundation and began taking in refugees and the poor
and trying to build a utopian community, and actually getting somewhere.
I don’t know what the significance of having a dream about becoming rich and famous is. Like everybody, I’d like to have more money, but I
didn’t have 160 billion in mind…that would, as it did in the dream, take over my life.
Even so, I woke up rather bemused and a little bit pleased with myself. What a good boy am I! [423 words.] ###
DAY 4 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Thu., May 4, 2017
We used to go to this place when we got into port in Brooklyn, a place in the neighborhood known as Red Hook, not a good neighborhood, a
neighborhood that supposedly, then, 1957, had “girl gangs” who went around mugging and roughing up people with weapons like swinging
chains. I don’t know how much of that was true, how much was rumor or outright fiction…I never saw a gang of girls, but then I never went
anywhere in New York at night by myself. We’d usually go to this bar, McGuinn’s Irish Bar, four or five of us in a cab, not just to share the cost
but also to share the risk of a run in.
McGuinn, the father, I don’t remember, but the son, who seemed always to be the bartender when I was there, was a friendly young man in his
30s, maybe, and would dispense the drinks and talk and keep the place in order, more or less. Sometimes there’d be singing, old Irish songs,
classics like My Wild Irish Rose or Danny Boy, and they had free clam chowder at a side bar, all you had to do was go over and take a cup and
put it under the spigot of this crock and draw yourself some just like you were drawing a beer.
Or so I seem to remember.
Often whole families would be in the bar, the kids playing in the corner, maybe even Grandpa would be there, sitting slumped in a chair in the
corner, asleep, while Mom and Dad, drinks in hand, joined in the singing .
Another place we went to, very different, not a family place, was the Hamilton, maybe called the Hamilton Inn or just the Hamilton and there I
don’t remember any singing but I do remember the barmaid or some lady would dance on the bar now and then, something all the sailors
enjoyed. I never saw that before or since. Sometimes I’d go in there in the morning when they first opened just before I was going
somewhere. I was waiting to get out of the Navy then and had a series of appointments with the dentist down at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. So I’
d check out first thing in the morning and take a bus down to the Yard and get my appointment over with and then I’d stop at the Hamilton on
the way back.
Often then you’d see old guys coming in for their first drink of the day, the old alkies whose hands trembled as they tilted up to have a seven
and seven or some other drink, maybe just plain water for a chase, or just plain shots, two or three one after the other, spilling most of their first
shot on the bar, the barman there to wipe the spill up and then pour them another, which they got down much quicker, and then another, and
then they’d kind of relax and look around at the world and smile and be happy and say good morning to one another.
Later in the day they’d be sleeping it off outside in the street, in colder weather sleeping on one of those grates that led to the furnace, I guess,
so they could keep warm.###
DAY 3 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Wed., May 3, 2017
Spring floods in the Midwest yet once more. I remember the Great Flood of 1951 in the Midwest, and especially in Kansas and Missouri. It
rained and it rained and I rained. I was 13 years old and my brother was 16 going on 17 and we all lived on the farm in Deep Creek, in the big
stone house known at The Docking Place.
I don’t remember the dates and the amounts but it rained a lot, hard rains that poured down on us by the hour. The rivers began to rise.
Eventually the Kansas River, one of the two rivers that Manhattan is built on, flooded so much there was no access to the bridge on the town
My father went to work in town as long as he could but on his last day he had to literally swim from his office downtown the three or four blocks
to the steel stairs that rose up to the bridge. After that, he set up shop at home and saw a few patients there, or went to patient’s homes. He
even delivered a baby, or maybe more than one, or so I seem to remember.
If my dad were alive today I would have a thousand questions for him about the flood. He died in 1983 with a lot of questions that I hadn’t even
thought of to ask. Both my folks of course are long gone. I have them up there in my head but they don’t always have a lot to say. Sometimes
if I really do pause and listen carefully, I remember things I didn’t know I remembered.
Normally in the spring my brother and I would be down at the creek when we weren’t in school or helping with the milking or feeding the
chickens or any of that stuff. But now—rain and more rain—I was more or less imprisoned in the house with Mom and my little sister, just 3.
My brother was somewhere in town, and we were all worried because for some days we didn’t know where. No internet then, no cell or smart
phones, none of that. We barely had a rural phone. We did have a radio and by then regular programming had ceased and the only radio
station, KMAN—which itself was pretty new—spent all day relaying emergency messages and stuff. One night—and I think I was up listening—
the announcer was reading off a list of names and he mentioned my brother and said he wants his parents to know he is safe, or something
like that. We were all relieved.
Power may have been cut off by then and I may have been sitting in our car listening on the car radio. I think so, now I think about it. Our power
was off and had been for days. I mean, this was a real emergency. People’s lives were at stake.
Later we heard that Hal (at that time we called him by his given name, Kuhrman) was on a boat rescuing people. You could go in a boat all the
way to 14th Street and the City Park. I missed all that part, I was just a little kid still.###
DAY TWO OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Tu., May 2, 2017
Dad would get home about 530. Hal and I came home on the bus then about 430 or so and in nice weather we’d be playing basketball or
working in the shop on the tractor.
We made a basketball hoop out of an old barrel stave, just nailed it up on the side of the machine shed as high as we could reach. I was
coming in for a jump shot one time and I jumped up and hit my eyebrow on the sharp underside of the barrel stave and cut it pretty bad. Blood
filled my eye and we ran to the house.
Dad was home then, a weekend, I think. He cleaned the wound and decided I needed some stitches. He had his bag and somehow he put a
little topical anesthetic (surely he did, or I would have screamed bloody murder) on it and sewed up the cut with a needle and ordinary sewing
thread that Mom provided. Everyone in the family stood around watching. He did a very good job and of course with the eyebrow there you can’
t see any scar at all.
All this would be between 1947 and 1951 when we lived on the farm in Deep Creek, just six miles from downtown. We loved it for awhile and
then everyone wanted to live in town again, and Dad lost a patient, he felt, because he didn’t get to the hospital in time.
So in late 1951 we moved to town to a brand new house that an architect (with a lot of help from Mom) had designed and was so good it won
first prize in residential architecture for that year in the whole state of Kansas.
The farm, however, had a long reach in my life. We all missed it and talked about it nostalgically, but of course we kids grew up and moved
away. But in 1968, when Mom and Dad were aging, out of sentiment and as an investment, they bought an 80 acre farm just two and a half
miles east on the Deep Creek Road. There was an old house on it, empty and somewhat dilapidated. They’d drive out and around the roads
and remember living there. I was living in Wisconsin and just quit my teaching job at the university in Stevens Point. I was going to finish the
novel I was supposedly working.
So Mom wrote and said, Why don’t you and Patsy and the kids move down here and you can live out there and fix the place up and then move
to wherever you want when you finish the book?
I thought in six months I could finish the book and fix up the house too. I didn’t know anything about building, of course, but hey, I could learn,
So in November of 1971, we moved from Wisconsin. We stayed at first at Mom and Dad’s in town, because, well, it was taking a little longer
than I’d thought to fix the place up. It took several weeks just to clean it out.
I got a divorce and June married me and we had two more kids and we lived there for more than forty years…and the house still wasn’t done
when we sold it in February of 2016. ###
DAY ONE OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Mon., May 1, 2017
I’ve been journaling long enough now to know that if I depended upon inspiration to write in it daily I would have lasted about three days. But I
was desperate enough back on February 24, 1966 that I said I’m going to keep a journal and I’m going to write in it every day. Still, I did not do
that. I wrote in it a few days straight, then skipped for awhile, but kept it in my mind. I felt guilty every day I didn’t write in it. I thought about it. I
obsessed about it.
Eventually I learned certain things. Do it every day and do it for a certain number of words. And it grew from that.
So here we are starting the umpteenth Journalong, an online thing that we do every day for 28 days. Don’t think much about it, just do it.
However, this month I am lowering the bar a little: instead of calling for 500 words minimum every day, I’m calling for 250. In my personal and
actual journal I write 3,000 words a day, usually, though my minimum is 2,740. Why the odd number? Because this year, kind of on a lark, I
want to write one million words in my journal—something I’ve never done before—and though it’s a publicity stunt, the idea of journaling needs
So let’s get going; I’m counting this preface as part of the day’s words, and I’m at 250 right now. Actually 256. 257. 258…
I’m going to go on a little bit just because I also think journaling goes best when it’s narrative—not an exposition like this but a little story.
My Uncle Pete is the inspiration for stories. One summer when we went up to Wisconsin to visit him and his family he sat me down and told me,
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. With that
he laughed at my puzzlement and took his lunch pail and went off to work. Pete worked in Dubuque, 35 miles away from Rewey, Wisconsin,
the village where my father and his brothers and sisters grew up.
Some mornings Gary and I would ride with him as far as the railroad crossing west of town. He drop us off and speed on down the road to
work, while we followed the tracks back into town. It would be very early in the morning, maybe not even five o’clock, growing light. We’d pick
wild asparagus that grew along the track. I was told, and I believed, that asparagus grew along the railroad track because the people in the
dining car threw asparagus out and it seeded in. I didn’t like asparagus and so it sounded reasonable to me. We picked bunches and maybe
tied them with a string, I don’t remember, and sold them to the old ladies of the village. ###.
Fri., April 28, 2017
DAY 28 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG
In late 1953 I was bored. School was beyond the pale, absolutely dull, stupid, predictable, uninteresting. Who cared about whether the angle
of incidence was equal to the angle of reflection? Who cared one whit whether the Manhattan Indians football team won the CKL
championship or not? I mean, really: what did any of that matter? Two bits, four bits, six bits a dollar: all for Manhattan, stand up and holler!
I wanted adventure. I ached for adventure. I wanted to go out into the wide world. And I wanted it NOW.
So on just such a murky and moony night as this, with only a small bag of my possessions I crept out the back way of our house at 232 Pine
Drive, Manhattan, Kansas and walked down the street to meet Johnny Rush, sitting there, motor running, in his ’47 Chevy Fleetwood. We
greeted one another, conspirators that we were, with a word or two, no more, and off we went.
We had less than a hundred dollars between us, and a full tank of gas. By dawn we were 400 miles away in Saint Louis, the great city waking
up. We ate breakfast at a diner. For a nickel I bought a copy of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch and examined the Help Wanteds over second
cups of coffee and cigarets. We spent the day driving around. No one came running up to our car to offer us work. I had experience working
in a print shop, but I didn’t see any ads in the Post-Dispatch saying, Wanted, kid to work in print shop. Good pay. Perhaps I could get a job on
the newspaper itself but I didn’t push it. We drove around town all day and then stayed the night at some creepy hotel at a cost of seven
dollars, which we could ill afford.
Next morning we got up and drove south and into a part of the country where neither one of us had ever been. We had read in the paper about
a terrible tornado in Jackson, Mississippi, and we figured we could get work there helping to clean up after the storm. We consulted a map we
got free at a gas station—another five dollars to fill the tank. We ate sparingly. We’d eat chitlins or something when we got really into the
south. We didn’t know what chitlins were, but we’d eat them, you bet.
We smoked cigarets, talked about what adventures we were going to have, and drove on, taking turns driving. Of course it was Johnny’s car,
so he drove the most. We drove through Memphis without stopping. No work there, we were sure.
Jackson, just a few hundred miles more—that was where the action was. We drove on through the night, driving, dozing, smoking cigarets,
stopping now and then for coffee and gas. The South! Neither of us had ever been there. Land of cotton, not forgotten, look away, look away!
!DAY 27 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Thu., April 27, 2017
I collected things when I was a kid. Stamps—I collected stamps, I collected matchbook covers, I collected pennants, I collected cigar boxes in
which I put some other things I collected. Isn’t that a sign of insanity? My father disapproved of my collecting matchbook covers, which I often
picked up out of the gutter as I walked along the street. He told me I could get typhoid but it didn’ t deter me—I just didn’t do it when he was
walking with me. God, boy, he’d say. God. You’ll get typhoid. And he’d shake his head, with a sad laugh. I mounted all my matchbook covers
on a huge piece of cardboard and marched with it in the annual Pet and Hobby Parade that fall. I even won a prize, a white ribbon, 4th place
honorable mention, something like that.
Matchbooks were everywhere in those days and various businesses advertised on them. Everybody smoked then, or so it seemed, and
everybody had to light their cigarets somehow or other—Zippo and Ronson lighters were around, but not everybody had one. So they used
books of matches, which were sold for a penny or even given away automatically if you bought a pack of cigarets, which cost a quarter or less.
The matchbooks were colorful and might advertise a bar or a grocery or even—I remember this now—high school correspondence courses.
I remember that one because I ran away from home when I was in high school.
I soon returned from that (just in time for Christmas) but wouldn’t go back to school. That’s a long story that I can’t tell right now—I’ve told it
before and it’s tucked away in my Journal—but what I want to tell now is about the matchbook angle. When I did finally go back to high
school—mostly because all my friends were there, including a girl friend—I had to do some extra work to catch up and I remembered a
matchbook that advertised the American School in Chicago. The matchbook said, Hands tied? And it showed a picture of a pair of hands tied
with a rope… Hands tied because you lack a high school education?
Well, yeah. So I wrote to this place and it turned out to be legitimate. I took a few courses and finished high school on time to graduate with
my friends, Manhattan High School, class of 1955. I remember now I also had to take a special course from K-State correspondence in
Kansas history which, naturally, I couldn’t take from the school in Chicago because they didn’t have such a course. I didn’t finish that course
until about two hours before graduation ceremony. I got the lady at K-State to call the secretary down at the high school before they closed for
the day and I was in. It was a real squeaker. That evening I sat in the audience with all my fellow scholars and I got my high school diploma. It’s
around here somewhere in a box.
Everybody was rooting for me, especially my mother. ###
DAY 26 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Wed., April 26, 2017
I’ve been sitting here for twenty minutes staring at the blinking cursor on my blank screen. I’m doing just what I tell (with my big mouth)
everybody NOT to do: don’t sit and think about what to write. Yet that’s what I’m doing.
So I’m not going to sit here anymore. I’m going to go to another computer where we have all our photos and I’m going to pick a photograph
and write about it. That’s always a good prompt.
This is my Aunt Pearl. Everybody needs an Aunt Pearl. I would say this was taken about 1935 when Pearl was a young lady in her twenties.
Pearl was pretty, lively, funny, interesting, hard-working, but she didn’t marry well. Gordon, her boyfriend, turned out to be a drunk and for years
they had troubles. My mom, who was a good friend of Pearl, told me about how they’d have to go get Gordon at some bar or other in
Dubuque, and often as not, he’d be lying on the floor, passed out. It was during the War, and he was 4F for the draft. But he did work, I think,
and eventually somehow Pearl sobered him up, the war ended, and a job that Pearl had worked at for years resulted in her inheriting the store
she worked in, and this saved their financial life. It was a store right across the street from the biggest hotel in Dubuque, the Julien, and they
did cleaning and pressing and alterations—Pearl was very good with a sewing machine—and they also rented tuxedos. Dubuque was a big
Catholic town, we always heard, and so they had lots of weddings where everybody was dressed up, and Pearl and Gordon made a lot of
money and worked very hard and eventually retired down in Arkansas and bought a house on a lake.
Why does everyone need an Aunt Pearl? They never had any children and so Pearl took all these children as her own supplemental mom and
big sister. She could listen, she’d help with advice and encouragement…and she’d laugh. She could laugh.
After Gordon died we went down to Hot Springs once or twice to visit. Thus she was the only aunt on my father’s side of the family whom my
kids came to know, and of course they liked her. One time she took us on a boat taxi to a place downtown and we all ate happily and looked
at the lights on the water.
So that was my Aunt Pearl. There’s a lot more to say about her, but I don’t think I’m in the best frame of mind this morning. I’m a little numb,
and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the weather. Yesterday I read in the paper that we’ve had record rainfall here in Olympia, something like 60
inches of rain since last October. And guess what, it’s raining this morning.
But I’m here, and I’m writing, and if only that writing keeps me journaling, that’s enough. I live to write another day. ###
DAY 25 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Tues., April 25, 2017
I didn’t do the dishes last night, a rare event. I don’t know that I didn’t feel like it, exactly, I just let them pile up, and there they are this morning,
awaiting my knowing hands. I will attack them directly, but it is early and others are still asleep and I don’t want the clatter to waken anyone. I
don’t shyly slip the dishes into one of these new-fangled machines for washing dishes that quietly gush and spray—I wash them by hand in the
grand manner revered and used by a million million housewives since the beginning of time.
Instead, last night June and I snuggled on the couch and watched an old movie, “I Died a Thousand Deaths,” with Jack Palance and Shelley
Winters and…Lee Marvin and Earl Holiman and…the old timers just kept rolling out to the point where we wondered if maybe that particular
movie wasn’t made just to put all those old character actors to work for a few months. The greatest joy of old age is being charmed by your
grandchildren; maybe somewhere on the same list is watching old movies.
Of course it was an awful movie, badly acted, mostly, terrible script, improbable plot…but, as we used to say, it had its moments. All the actors
in it are dead now except good old honest yokel, Earl Holiman, who, God bless him, is now 88 years old. But we stayed with it clear though to
the very predictable pseudo-arty end, where old Jack, the bad guy with a heart of gold, tries to escape by climbing a mountain to the very top
before he is killed his hiding place given up by his faithful dog, Pard , who surely won an Academy Award for his performance.
Well, where would we be without the movies that helped us get old?
Actually if I had another life to lead I would have gone to California and gotten into the movie business. I did have a chance for that, once, in
between marriages--a friend and I took a road trip and we were going to go to California and visit communes all along the way and write a
book about them. That would have been a good idea, too, perhaps, but the whole idea petered out and we ended up turning around and going
back to Tucson, where we’d been staying in a commune there… and soon enough I went back to Kansas where, the pot of gold at the end of
the rainbow, I met and married June, my wife of—coming up next week—44 years.
Does it sound crass to refer to one’s wife as a pot of gold? Well, yes. It’s just a metaphor. For sure, meeting June and marrying her on May 1,
1973 was the high point of my life. We did consummate our marriage the day we met. I like to tell friends that our wedding vows were, “Are
you horny? I am.” But that, too, is just a metaphor.###
DAY 24 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Mon., Apr. 24, 2017
I’ll be glad when I’m 80, so that I don’t have to say that “I’m pushing 80.” I will BE 80. Today I am 79 years and 3 months old.
Also, at the age of 80 you have a certain…coinage. You also have certain lapses in memory that prevent you from finding just the word you
want. It’s not vintage, apt as that word might be. It’s not exchequer. It’s not ex calibur. I just can’t think of it. Maybe it’s “acceptance”? Ah, it
has come to me: At 80 you have a certain cachet. I don’t even know, really, what the word means (it came to me late in life) but that’s what you
have when you’re 80.
Once years ago in Council Grove, Kansas, I interviewed an old man on his 100th birthday. “I can’t believe I made it,” he shouted. He was deaf
and so, I guess, couldn’t accurately gauge what level of sound was needed to be heard. He had a wonderful name: Earl Lord. Maybe his
middle name, which I didn’t ask, was the same as President Trump’s son, Baron. That would be covering all the bases, wouldn’t it?
Well, I can’t believe I’ve made it to 79.25, if you want to know the truth. This morning I woke, did my PT hamstring muscle pull before I got out of
bed, then went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. “Get a smile on your face,” I said to me in the remembered voice of my parents.
And then I saluted myself and said, “Good morning, sir.”
And then I came out here and started writing.
I’m lingering. I’m malingering, thinking way too much about what I should write “about.” I have written something like 12,000,000 words in this
Journal. Note that I capitalize the word: it’s important to me. Possibly it is the longest narrative journal in history. Woo-woo, Charley. Take a
Yesterday during a sunbreak and while June and I were sitting in our living room looking out into the backyard, here came Rip, our son, with
his daughter, Adah, and they were re-seeding part of the lawn. Rip had a rake; Adah had a little bucket with grass seed in it that she was
sprinkling while her daddy roughed up the ground a little bit with the rake. Adah, wearing her pink plastic bike helmet, was so happy she was
running around her daddy in circles while she sprinkled the seeds. “We should make a little movie of that,” I said to June. “We could put it on
Adah was happy to be helpful. She was happy to be participating in the world. We should be the same: what an honor to be participating in
the world, even in the small and silent way of writing about a very, very tiny part of it.
So I have I written my 500 for the morning. Have I added to the fund of knowledge? Or have I subtracted from it?###
DAY 23 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sun., April 23, 2017
What happened yesterday? I can’t even remember. I…we…went to the animal fair. The birds and the beasts were there.
Then what happened? I don’t remember.
When I was a boy I had a very good memory. I was especially good at remembering numbers. By the time I was 12 or 14 years old I knew
everybody’s license plate number. People would say, Oh, that’s Ed isn’t? He has a 47 Chevy, black and blue, doesn’t he? I’d look at the
number: RL 1047. Well, no, that wasn’t Ed. I don’t know who it is, I’d say, but Ed’s license plate number is RL 5640. And it’s wasn’t Ed. It
wasn’t anybody we knew, but we could see that it wasn’t Ed. And when we did see Ed, everybody ran to look at the license plate number,
except me. I knew what the number was. They came back and said, well, whaddayuh know, it’s 5640. And they’d look at me and marvel.
I loved that. They started calling me The Brain. I liked it a lot better than what they had been calling me. The Brain. It pursues me to this day. I
go to a class reunion, MHS, class of 1955, and someone for sure will say hello and say, I remember you. You’re the Brain. And I beam.
But life is long, isn’t it?
When I was well out of high school and out of the Navy—I just have to tell you this: I worked in the ship’s office, often with personnel records.
And so I just naturally gravitated to remembering other sailors’ service numbers. Mine was 467 87 08. Seven digits, spaced just like that. So
sometimes guys would come in and of course in the Navy whenever you apply or disapply or do anything, they want to know your service
number. I’d be typing up a form for some guy who just walked in and sat down at my desk and I’d just fill in the service number. If he didn’t
notice that I did that, I’d say, Let’s see, that’s 581 46 90, right? And he’d look astonished, and his lips would move speechlessly in wonder.
Sometimes I’d, just for fun, I’d make a mistake of a single digit. And when the guy said, no, it’s 581 46 91, I’d sort of theatrically slap my
forehead and exclaim, Oh! I knew that? How could I forget that? And I’d look at the guy. 91, of course. (By this time he wasn’t too sure of the
number himself, so thunderstruck was he.) The sailors were less inclined to call me The Brain—they had other names—but often I was
remembered by “the guy who knows your service number.”
Anyhoo, out of the Navy and into college and there I found plenty of things to remember. Not just numbers. Names, whole poems, bits of trivia,
foreign phrases, dates and what happened… I could remember everything that wasn’t important! I could remember a lot of important things
for the tests…I did pretty well and was mostly an A student “in the courses I took seriously.”
Of a certain failed writer it was said, “He had all the talents in the world…except the talent to make use of them.” I remember that, for sure.
And today standing at the other end of the line, I shudder. And try to forget.###
Sat., April 22, 2017
DAY 22 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
When I was stationed at Bainbridge Naval Training Center near Havre de Grace, Maryland, going to Yeoman School, every Friday at 1600 I’d
be with a shipmate or two and we’d walk or get a bus out to the highway and we’ hitch-hike into DC for the weekend. 16oo was 4 pm, and a
Yeoman was a ship’s secretary. Sometimes we were informally called Remington Raiders or, less politely by the more masculine ratings,
Titless Waves—because office work was sometimes considered women’s work. This was back in 1956 and women supposedly had their
work, and men had theirs. But out of a class of about 50, only five were women, and most of the guys were just as manly as any of us.
I had joined the Navy with the idea that I would become a journalist’s mate and I would sail the seven seas and write about it for the Navy
newspapers. That was appealing. I was reading novels then and every other one was by a newspaperman and about the great wild and
wonderful newspaper business then where every newspaperman from copy boy on up had a novel he was working on in his desk drawer,
unfinished of course, because he was too busy chasing ambulances and fire engines around the naked city and reporting the news.
The guy at the Recruiting Office in Manhattan, Kansas, where I joined, assured me that I’d be able to go to journalism school. That was how
they got people in, one of the lures: you were promised a certain job if you volunteered. And I swallowed it all hook, line and sinker.
The promise kept being made until the Moment of Truth came, halfway through bootcamp after we’d been tested for everything imaginable,
and I came up with a very high score on clerical tests, and so they said I was going to go to Yeoman School.
“What’s a yeoman, sir?” I said. I had learned by then to call everyone sir. He didn’t say anything about yeomen being titless waves, he just said
we kept the ship’s records and all that. But they told me I could go to journalist’s mate school, I said. You have to be 21 to go to that school, the
guy said. Why? I dared ask. Because you’ve got to go to all that diplomatic stuff and you’re got to be old enough to drink, the guy said. Then he
turned away. Next man! he called out.
I was crushed, of course, but I knew by then the Navy really didn’t care that I was crushed. So I moved on. At least I was being taught how to
type and being able to type was one step closer to being a newspaperman because you had to type up your stories. I knew that.
So there I was at the roadside, busy traffic into Washington, D.C., just thirty miles away, my thumb out, a smile on my face, America’s future,
headed into the fabled city for a little of the old wine, women and song. #j##
Fri., April 21, 2017
I joined the Navy with the vague goal of seeing the world. Well, no. Not actually. Actually—and I really have to squint to look back sixty years to
July, 1955, when I joined—I joined more for negative reasons than for anything positive, and—more to the point—underneath it all I don’t think I
had any rationality whatever in those days. I was driven by forces I did not understand.
Of course, that’s probably still where I am—at 79 years of age—I am driven by forces I do not understand.
Anyhow, there I was down at the post office at the Navy Recruiting place. I made some vague inquiries. I was told if I wanted to join up I’d have
to get my father to come down and sign for me. I was only 17.
It wasn’t a tough call for my father. He had served four full years and maybe a little more in the US Army in World War II, which had just ended a
few years earlier. It was well established that it was the job of every young man to serve his country. The idea that women should have to, also,
wasn’t even born then. My older brother had joined a few months earlier. I had finished high school and was going to college but everybody
knew, even me, that I wasn’t doing any good there. I was taking three summer school courses, one in French, one called General Psychology,
and one…in…I don’t even remember. The main course I was taking, however, was evenings down in Aggieville and, even later, carousing
around the town with various unsavory pals from midnight till dawn. It was an open ended course with a number of teachers with dubious
So Dad and I went down together and he signed giving his permission, and then I signed what the Navy called the “shipping articles,” also
known as the Enlistment Contract. The contract date was for “minority years.”
A few days later, away I went, off on a train to Kansas City for a day or two where I was “processed,” then another train to Chicago and the US
Naval Training Center at Great Lakes, Illinois.
Today we have the phrase, “buyer’s remorse.” We did not have it then. But oh, my, did I ever have second thoughts once I was in a barracks
with ten thousand other poor devils! My particular barracks was located just across the street from the brig, just in case I had any thoughts
about turning my remorse into action. At night the prisoners—obviously just kids like me—were brought out into the brig’s compound and
under the glare of bright lights, marched up and down, up and down and shouted at in the most unfair and even vile terms!
We non-prisoners weren’t treated much better. We were prisoners too, prisoners of the United States Government.
I was for some days in a state of profound shock. The only consolation was that I was in the company of hundreds of other boys, just teenage
kids really, mere striplings from Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and other central Midwestern states, kids just like me…and then the fact was that
we weren’t given a lot of time to think over our dilemma. ###
DAY 19 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Wed., Apr. 19, 2017
I've made a discovery, I think, about journaling. It may only apply to me, but it may apply to you too. It’s about the power of narrative writing to
Anxiety is a condition I have lived with since I was a small child. I was officially and medically diagnosed in 1962 at the Menninger Clinic:
chronic severe anxiety. I went through four years of treatment there and further self-treatment over the next 50+ years in life, other therapies,
even some medication, and the wonderful anonymous organization sometimes called the “greatest organization in the world that nobody wants
But mostly my treatment has been this journal that I’ve kept for more than fifty years, and the use of it has gotten better and better as I have
done it more and more.
So, what have I “discovered”?
I have found that the simple written narration of a part of my life can be, and usually is, very soothing and anxiety reducing. A psychologist at the
University of Texas, one James Pennbacker, has written several books and devoted much of his career to developing the notion of
“expressive writing.” I have one or two of his books around here though I’ve yet to sit down and read either one. Clare Ansberry, a columnist at
the Wall Street Journal, wrote an article about what I was doing in my journal back in January or February of 2016, and in it she featured also
the ideas and comments of Pennbacker. What I’m saying is a kind of footnote or elaboration to that article.
And so I write this morning:
Rip came home from Tacoma a little early and went right to work outside in the sun on the shelves he’s adding onto the back end of their big
shop. Joni was out in the garden, first dry day in a long time, and starting to work the rich dark soil that she has built up there. So Adah came
around back and down into our place to hang out with us. She rushed to us and hugged each of us, saying, I love you, Grandpa, and I love you,
Grandma. Then she went to Grandma with a book to read to her. You are getting so big, Grandma said as Adah squeezed into the chair with
her to look at the book. I went on writing and half-watching CNN, the sound off, just looking at the pictures and now and then the captions.
Trump this and Trump that, the usual stuff.
Now just writing this and feeling the reality of the scene now gone by is restful to me. I don’t know that it’s restful to anybody else to read it, but it’
s restful to me to write it.
I hope you’ll take a stab at it, right now. Just write a few words, 100 or less, about a plain and ordinary moment from your day and see what it
feels like, post it here as a comment …how about it?###
DAY 18 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Tue., April 18, 2017
I am thinking now about clothing stops. I have not thought about clothing stops for maybe sixty years. In the Navy we had to wash our own
clothes. We did this by hand the way Grandma used to: on a washboard. We rinsed them out by hand too of course. Then we hung them up
in a room called “the dry room.” Okay, fine, but how did we hang the clothes up?
With clothing stops, of course. Little pieces of think string with bound ends so that the thing wouldn’t “unlay,” as the Navy puts it when a rope or
string unravels. We bought these clothing stops at the Navy store. Then, say, you want to hang up a jumper that you just washed. You had to
hang it a certain way, and you had to use the clothing stops to tie the jumper to the clothes line.
It didn’t end there. You had to tie the clothing stop a certain way, and God forgive me, I’ve forgotten exactly how, but it involved, of course, tying
it off with a square knot. The knot was dead set on all of us learning to tie a square knot in our sleep. When we had liberty, which only
happened once and for just twelve hours in Boot Camp, we had to wear our black silk neckerchief tied in a square knot.
I remember waking in the night in a barracks full of sleeping boys (the oldest among us was 23, I think, and most were closer to my age, 17)
and looking out the window and down the street at the fully lit compound known as the Brig. You could hear the commands being barked at the
prisoners as they were being marched up and down the road. There it was, 2 in the morning on a hot August night, and other boys—whose
infractions were alarmingly minor, failure to salute, insolent remark, stuff like that—were marched up and down the road. This was called “re-
training.” The boys in the brig, I heard, were treated far, far worse than we were. It was hard to imagine. Why was everybody so cruel. Lying
there, looking out at them, thinking of myself and my own situation, I thought about going AWOL. That means, of course, Absent WithOut
Leave. I knew that I could probably simply walk away and keep walking until I reached, say, Los Angeles, and I could just disappear. I’d
better. I’d have to disappear from the face of the earth, forever.
Gone would be my dreams of being the world’s greatest living writer. I would have to live in total obscurity in wild mountains or some vast
forest, like Tarzan, swinging through trees. I would be glimpsed occasionally by frightened tourists, a sort of human Loch Ness monster. Even
then, say ten years later, the Navy would be hunting me down. The truth would come out. A search party would be sent into the jungle where I
lived and I would be pulled down from my tree and taken back to civilization and sentenced to life in prison. I’d be one of those guys marching
up and down, counting off in the middle of an otherwise peaceful night.
So I decided to stay, and learn to live with clothing stops. Boot Camp didn’t last forever…did it?
DAY 17 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Mon., April 17, 2017
If I had any doubts about being a writer they were dispelled with the reading of a novel by one Harlan Ware called Come, Fill the Cup.
I must have been 14 or 15 when I picked that paperback novel out of the huge trash barrel in the building where my father had his medical
office. It would be fun to say it was therefore a trashy novel, but it wasn’t, really, it was a novel published by Random House, originally, a great
publishing house then and now.
But it wasn’t a great novel—the review by Kirkus says the story line was “handled with assurance rather than distinction,” and refers to the
entire book as “whiskey-soured.” That was enough for me. I read the story and I loved it.
Everything wonderful in life started with the letter w: whiskey, writing, and wild, wild women. I was in love with the drinking life, the
newspaperman life as I imagined it then, and in truth many a writer of that era apprenticed on a newspaper.
But my version of a life that—as one of my psychiatrists later on said—was a life that could end only in dereliction. Luckily he and half a dozen
other psychiatrists over a five year period of close instruction saved me from that kind of life so that today, six decades later, I can say that I
escaped to tell the story.
The last and best straw was that the novel had been originally published under the title—get this—The Kansas City Milkman. And the
provenance of that title, according to the narrator of the novel, was a remark by an editor on the Kansas City Star to the young reporter/narrator
that he should strive to write so that a Kansas City Milkman could understand what he wrote.
I have been striving to write for Kansas City milkmen ever since—long after I left Kansas City and long after there were milkmen. It wasn’t bad
advice. Write clearly and simply. Hemingway, another young man who done a little time in Kansas City working on the then-great Star, had
picked up the same advice there and attributed his learning to write to his apprenticeship on that newspaper. He had probably also learned
something about drinking whiskey there.
It helped also the grandfatherly printer I worked after school and on Saturdays, Glenn Graham, had worked on the Star as a printer and had
known Hemingway, and perhaps had tilted a few shots of whiskey with him at one or more of the nearby bars down at 18th and Grand. My
imagination was on fire.
Kansas City in 1917…just think of it, the gateway then to the Wild West, the city itself two-fisted and rough and tough…ah, the idea filled my 15
year old head as I sat in class in Manhattan, Kansas, a mere 120 miles away, and dreamed of my writing career that would include plenty of
adventure, plenty of wild women, and a little bit of writing, just enough to keep the fantasy alive that that’s what I was: a writer. ###
DAY 16 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sun., Apr. 16, 2017
I hated Saturday mornings in those days. Others loved them and loved the demonstrations, but I hated them. I’m not naturally confrontational, at
least not in that way. I was a coward. I was a lover, I told myself, not a fighter. I hated the War in Vietnam and all the space it occupied in the
The war, the war, the war.
But for my wife, who willingly demonstrated, and for my friends, who seemed to love it, I would probably have dropped out, stayed home,
saying I have to write, something like that. But I went, every time, without fail.
We’d trickle downtown, maybe walk—I guess we did walk, it was only six or eight blocks, and we’d have some signs or we’d just be part of the
rest of the group of twenty or thirty of us, sometimes even fewer, with our signs wagging, the signs we wanted everyone to read and say, Oh,
they’re right. Let’s stop the war.
We demonstrated. We had meetings after every demonstration. Meetings with speeches and counter-speeches and coffee and smiles and
(no hugs in those days, but we were moving in that direction, we just knew it) mutual reassurances of…peace and love. The women made
cookies. Maybe we’d have a potluck. At our big house with the big living room more often than not, or at someone else’s house. Or maybe we’
d all meet at the Union, stacking our signs in the hall like soldiers stacking arms, we were the good soldiers of peace, we were good soldiers
of the war against war. We held up our little V signs. We talked.
We sang,earnestly, sometimes even teary eyed:
Last night I had the strangest dream
I ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with men
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again
And when the papers all were signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands end bowed their heads
And grateful prayers were prayed
And the people in the streets below
Were dancing round and round
And guns and swords and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground.
And of course the War went on and on, and thousands died on both sides. Most of the people suffered, the people—people like us—we were
made to suffer.
I do not have any marching boots anymore. I sold them or gave them away years ago.
A few years ago we were at war with…just who I’m not sure. Iraq. I guess we were at war with Iraq. And we marched then, and June and I were
part of it. We just lined up in front of the main campus gate—Kansas State University—and we stood there while the traffic went past, most
people smiling and waving but some honking and giving us the finger.
We smiled and waved back, even at the ones, maybe especially at the ones giving us the finger. ###
DAY 15 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sat., April 15, 2017
Inchon was just another port to me. I wanted out of the Navy so bad that I could taste it. I had long since learned what I needed to learn from the
Navy…it wasn’t fair that I wasn’t already out and back in college looking at the pretty girls and conjugating etre in all its tenses.
I had put off even the pretense of going ashore to learn something about the country. Everyone had said Inchon was a hole and I was willing to
Of course the war was still on, technically, and so we couldn’t go anywhere, anyway….anyhow.
Plus we had to wear our uniforms. By this time I hated the uniform and wore nothing but dungarees and argyle socks and black penny loafers
and, in the cool of the evening sometimes, my light brown cashmere sweater I’d bought in Germany a couple of years before.
So. Inchon, Korea. It was already dark when we got a cab to go to the NCO club. I remember nothing. No-thing! We drank. I bought two bottles
of Gilbey’s gin for 60 cents each—fifths. For form’s sake I tucked them under my jumper when we re-boarded the ship. Everyone was drunk.
No one cared.
Everyone just kept saying what a hole Inchon was.
I’m going downstairs and go to bed, I said to someone. I always said that, I didn’t want to use Navy lingo anymore. I’d had it with “going below.”
I woke in the middle of the night with a headache. Maybe my bunk was whirling, I don’t remember. I may have been sick and run to the head to
puke. I don’t remember. I splashed some water on my face. I was already dressed: in fact I hadn’t bothered to undress.
I groped my way down the passageway to the galley and the night pantry. Henry was on. Good old Henry. Henry was ancient, white-haired, a
quiet, grandfatherly presence. He had been, it was said, the Chief Salad Chef at the Waldorf-Astoria before he went to sea. He certainly had a
lot of class, always nattily dressed in a crisp white tunic and black gabardine pants.
Several others were there besides old Henry, and they were talking. Henry gave me a black coffee and I smiled my thank you and sat down
and sipped at it. One of the others, a man from the engine room I’d seen but didn’t really know, an older man, was saying that Inchon had the
highest tide of any seaport in the world, and he said he had been in the Navy Reserves on a training cruise and he was the captain, then, of a
small ship, Navy ship of course, and they had come into Inchon late at night, dropped anchor and everyone went to sleep.
Maybe they didn’t even post a watch. When they got up next morning, broad daylight, they found they were stuck in the mud of the low tide and
everyone in the fleet was looking at them and laughing. ###
DAY 14 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Fri., April 14, 2017
Frank dropped me at my car. “I’m going into the club for a minute or two,” he said. “Thanks for the ride,” I said, “I really appreciate it.”
I had worried all during the meeting that I’d left my car unlocked, camera inside, nothing much besides that, but an expensive camera, and I
didn’t want to lose that. I checked the door. Locked—of course.
Back in the day we used to leave our cars unlocked. We’d even leave the key in the ignition. It was pretty rare to have a car stolen in those
days, unless you lived in some big dark evil city like Chicago or New York. So we’d just leave the key in the ignition. And if we were just
running into a store to get a bottle of pop or a pack of cigarets or something, we’d just leave the motor running.
But that was then. This is now. You leave your motor running, you’ll get a ticket. You leave your key in the ignition and it’s stolen, your
insurance company might not pay off. At the very least you’d be called dumb or careless. Parking here on the street in Olympia, not exactly
Chicago, even so, I had learned to lock the car—always.
I felt in my pockets for the key. Not in that pocket. I’d been trying always to remember to put the car key in my right pants pocket. Not there. In
my jacket pocket then—nope. Left pants pocket—an old candy wrapper, my little recorder I used for interviews, and—nothing else.
One more. I reached in my left jacket pocket. My phone, nothing else. Uh-oh. I went through all my pockets again. No key. Oh…I was
carrying a bag with my meeting papers in it. I probably just tossed it in there. I stood by my car and took everything out of my pockets and laid
it on the hood of my car. Then I took everything out of my bag and put that on the hood too. No key.
No key, no get in car, no drive home. Stand there all night, or call June, have her get out of the nice warm comfy house and ask her to get our
son to drive her down here to give ailing and aging old grandpa the key. One more step toward dementia. “Maybe you should drive him
places, Mom,” our son might say. “From now on, you know, he’s nearly 80. Maybe he shouldn’t be out this late by himself.”
One last place. I could have accidentally dropped it, reaching in my pocket for a pen to write something down, and my little pad of paper, I
could have dragged the key out and dropped it on the seat of his car. It was possible. I went inside the club and there was Frank. “Charley,”
he said. “What’s wrong?” I guess my face must have told a story. “I can’t find my car key,” I said. “Can we look in your car?”
“Sure,” Frank said, “I’m just leaving here anyway.” So we looked. Frank looked. And look what he had in his hand. My key! “What’s this?” he
said, smiling. I took the key and clumsily hugged him as he was closing his car door. “Frank,” I said. “Frank, don’t let anyone ever tell you you
aren’t the greatest human being that ever existed.” Frank laughed.
I got in my car and drove happily home, singing. ###
Thu., April 13, 2017
DAY 13 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG
The point of the Journalong is not to write well. The point of the Journalong is to learn to write readily every day. That’s all. If you are just starting
journaling and you’re trying to write well, I can only say, Good luck with that.
And quickly. If you’re spending more than an hour writing your words for the day, whether 100 or 500 or somewhere in between, you’ll have
trouble staying with it. Do it quickly; trust your instinct to tell you what to write.
This morning I’m going to write about…what?
I went through the White House once. I was in the Navy and I was stationed north of DC at the huge Naval Training Center at Bainbridge,
Maryland. I was going to service school in order to learn how to be a—what could only be called a ship’s secretary or, less glamorously, an
office worker. I learned how to type, how to file papers, how to fill out forms, how to write letters…and more. I actually liked it.
But on weekends I’d get with one or two other guys and we’d hitch-hike down to DC. Baltimore was along the way but it looked to be a pretty
glum place and, anyway, you had to be 21 to drink. And I was only 17. In DC your could drink beer and wine at 18, and I could pass for 18, so it
was off to DC. We’d get a hotel room downtown at a special rate for sailors and other servicemen, three or four of us staying in one room, and
so we’d check in and then go out on the town.
That meant getting a cab. A bunch of us in a cab each chipping in a dollar or so toward the fare and joshing with the cabby as he drove (wildly
it always seemed) through the dark streets to take us to some dive.
One time I was sitting behind the cabby and there were four or five of us stuffed in the cab and he began to grope me. We didn’t have the word
grope then, and I was pretty naïve anyhow, and for a bit I wondered what the hell was this guy trying to do? He was driving like crazy with one
hand and reaching around with the other in the darkened cab and grabbing at my crotch. I was too scared to say anything. We got to where we
were going and the doors opened and we got out. I don’t think I had enough nerve to even say anything. Why was he grabbing me?
We went to some place called Johnnie’s something or other. We’d drink and talk and pretend we weren’t from places like Manhattan, Kansas,
or Klucksville, Minnesota or maybe if we were from Klucksville and it was 300 miles from Minneapolis, we’d say we were from Minneapolis.
Often as not I said I was from Kansas City, which was more than a hundred miles from Manhattan, the little college town I was from.#journaling
DAY 12 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Wed., April 12, 2017
Sometimes just making a list is relaxing and fulfilling.
1. I was born in Minot, North Dakota in 1938.
2. We moved to Kansas in 1940.
3. Because my dad joined the Army, we moved to Texas for a short time in 1942.
4. When he was sent overseas we moved to the Old Holler in southern Indiana later that same year.
5. Some time later we moved to a small farm Mom bought near the town of Poland, Indiana.
6. In 1946 we moved to the village of Rewey, Wisconsin to await my father’s homecoming.
7. Later that same year we moved to 1610 Humboldt in Manhattan, Kansas.
8. Later we moved to 1030 Bluemont.
9. In 1947 we moved to 1819 Poyntz.
10. Later that year we moved to a large farm of 322 acres southeast of Manhattan in the Deep Creek Community.
11. In 1951 we moved back into Manhattan to 232 Pine Drive, where my parents built a new house.
12. In 1955 I joined the Navy and for the next 3.5 years I was in Great Lakes, Illinois; Bainbridge, Maryland; Norman, Oklahoma, and
Brooklyn, New York from whence I was a member of the Military Department of three different ships, one after another: the Rose, the Eltinge,
and the Darby.
13. In 1959 I was discharged from the Navy at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, 58th St. and 2nd Avenue, Brooklyn, New York; and moved
back to Manhattan and 232 Pine Drive.
14. In 1960 I moved to Rt. 3, Lake Waubesa Road, Madison, Wisconsin.
15. In 1961 I moved to 415 Holum St., DeForest, Wisconsin.
16. Later that year I moved to 519 N. 11th Street, Manhattan, Kansas.
17. In 1962, I moved to the Menninger Clinic, Topeka, Kansas.
18. Later that year I moved to 12 something Clay St., Topeka.
19. In 1963 I moved to 6th & Tyler, Hick’s Block, Topeka.
20. Later that year I moved to 1305 Tennessee St., Lawrence, Kansas.
21. Later that year I moved to 14 something Tennessee St., Lawrence.
22. Still later I moved to a cabin on Lone Star Lake south of Lawrence 16 miles.
23. In 1966 I moved to the Hotel Tlaxcala, Tlaxcala, Mexico.
24. Later that year I moved to 1324 Shaurette St., Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
25. In 1968 I moved to 937 E. Jefferson St., Iowa City, Iowa.
26. In 1969 I moved to a farmhouse in Dewey Marsh, Mosinee, Wisconsin.
27. In 1971 I moved to Rt. 3, Deep Creek Community, Manhattan, Kansas.
28. In 2015 I moved to 4427 Boston Harbor Rd., Olympia, Washington.
Whew! I’m sure I’ve left a place or two out. Listing those places wasn’t just relaxing, it was exhausting! I’m tired of all that moving around. Life
is very, very long. I plan one more move: we own some property, still, in the Deep Creek Community at the Pleasant Valley Cemetery, and I
will have a lot there. I will not have to do the packing this time, nor will I ever have to unpack and figure out where to set up to write.###
DAY 11 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Tu., April 11, 2017
I suppose I and others like me (meaning you, probably, because you’re reading this) are emblems of what William Faulkner said: The past is
not dead; it isn’t even past.
I love the past, my past, and I honor the past of everyone else when they honor me by telling about it.
Sixty years ago aboard ship after dinner I’d wander back to the fantail to smoke and watch the sun go down amid the chatter and carryings on
of our civilian crew…and to hear their stories if they would tell them.
One I remember was told by John O’Connor, an old man (probably all of 60!) who bragged that in 40 years of marriage he had never seen his
wife naked and that he grew up on a small farm in Brooklyn with milk cows and chickens and hogs. He sat there telling us his in 1957 when of
course Brooklyn was nothing but city and the crush of millions of people, but he was remembering a time in the early 1900s. They had a
garden, of course, and probably a horse or two.
My father helped his father shoe horses in his blacksmith shop in the village of Rewey, Wisconsin. I myself remember the milkman in the town
where I grew up, Manhattan, Kansas, who worked out of a horsedrawn wagon. The horse knew all the stops. Most people today cannot
imagine the time when milk was delivered to houses, let alone out of a wagon drawn by a horse.
When I started teaching old folks I was a mere lad of 37. One lady who came to the class was close to 100 years old, Lula York, and she told
about having been in the group of “Sooners” who took part in the land rush into the newly opened territory of Oklahoma in the early 1900s. She
was just a little girl in her parents’ wagon…but she was there.
I remember talking to them about the importance of writing to remember their past, and when they were writing they were writing to the future,
that their grandchildren’s children would probably be living on space platforms or even other planets as they talk and (we hope) wrote about
their ancient ancestors who lived on earth. The old folks chuckled, as I suppose their ancestors chuckled about going to a new world in
Yesterday…yesterday I went shopping with June. It was raining hard as we drove along Pacific Avenue and stopped at Verizon to get my
phone “paired” with the Blue Tooth device in our car radio. (Would my grandparents know what I am talking about? I barely know!) A little girl
came out to the car in the rain to show us how to do it. The three of us chatted a minute. She was a pretty little thing, and June and I looked at
one another and were no doubt thinking alike: was she old enough to be working?
With her breathless voice and brown hair she couldn’t have been long out of high school. But no, she said, she was going to be 30 in a week
and was terrified at getting old!###
DAY 10 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Mon., April 10, 2017
In the Navy everything had a special name. Candy was called “pogey-bait.” To the best of my knowledge this was from the old Navy when,
many days and even months at sea, the men turned to the young men or boys on board for sex. Someone who took it in the ass was called a
“pogue.” Hence, candy was offered to lure the lad on, and so was called pogey-bait.
Fair enough. The ship’s store was called a “geedunk.” I have no idea where that word came from. A stairs was a ladder, no matter how
elaborate it was. You could be Scarlett O’Hara coming down a palatial golden curved stairway to meet Rhett Butler and a good sailor would
say, Scarlett O’Hara is coming down the ladder.
Upstairs was called “topside,” as in, “I am going topside to the geedunk to get some pogey-bait.” Downstairs was “below.” “Go below and
fetch me a burger with everything from the galley.” The galley was of course the kitchen, and it wasn’t like anyone there was going to know
about a burger and fries in 1955. Maybe.
There were dozens, maybe hundreds, of other terms, and many of them were required use by boot sailors. That’s what we were, guys like me,
just signed up. We were “boot sailors.” After all our hair was cut off—not fashionable in those days---and it was not accompanied by head
shaving—we had our picture taken and an ID card was issued. In the box for rank it said in capital letters NON-RATED. When after I finished
Boot I went home and I happened to show that to my father, who had been a lieutenant colonel, laughed. It wasn’t our finest moment together.
If you asked your company commander or anyone who was in the real Navy, for permission to go to the bathroom, he would stare at you until
you wet your parents. He would look at you as if you were not from this planet. Finally, if you were speechless and he took pity on you he might
ask, You want to do what? And maybe then you’d get it, and you’d say, I request permission to go to the head, sir. And permission would be
Just why a room (oh-oh, I mean a compartment!) where you sat on your behind was called a head I do not know. There were many things I did
not understand about the Navy. Some eventually were explained, some were not.
As with everything in this life, about the time you caught on and felt at home, everything was changed. When I got out of the Navy I almost had to
take lessons when I went back to civilian life and had to learn to say bathroom, downstairs, hallway (“passageway”), and downtown instead of
“ashore”---well, it was a whole new world.
Actually it was fairly easy to get with it when I went to college. Books were called “books,” libraries were called “libraries,” beer was called
“beer” or, jocularly, “the student’s favorite beverage.”###
DAY 9 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG
Sun., April 9, 2017
What was I doing fifty years ago today? That would be April 9, 1967. I was living in Wisconsin, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and I was employed
as an instructor at Wisconsin State University there. I was 29 years old and lived in a big house my second wife and I had purchased the year
before when we came to Stevens Point. We lived at 1324 Shaurette Street on the southwest side of town just a few blocks from the Wisconsin
River. It was Sunday, just like today.
I smoked cigarets then, and I probably got up and made the coffee, got the newspapers off the front porch and sat down to read. We took the
Milwaukee Journal, the Milwaukee Sentinel, the Wisconsin State Journal, the Madison Capital Times and the Stevens Point Daily Journal. You
might say I was a newspaper junkie, though I don’t know that we had that phrase then. I would spend several hours going over the papers. I
would smoke cigarets (Camels, probably), and I would drink several cups of coffee.
We did not have any pets or children. Well, I did have two children by a previous marriage, and these children, one 5 and one 4, lived with their
mother, my ex-wife, in Topeka, Kansas. We did not have any pets, not even a goldfish.
I sat in the big living room of the big house and read the newspapers, probably starting with the Milwaukee Journal, at that time one of the great
urban newspapers in the US. We did have a TV somewhere around the house but we rarely watched it.
LBJ was president. I had voted for him, but I was concerned about the war, about race relations, about poverty in America…lots of things.
We lived in a ridiculously large house with five bedrooms, maybe six. I don’t remember. We had a basement with a rec room (oh, that’s where
we kept the TV, I remember now) and a laundry. We had a huge kitchen and a dining alcove in it as well as a dining room with a chandelier
next to it on the other side; we had a living room with a fireplace, stairs up to 2nd floor where we had…one, two, three, four, five bedrooms—
one of which was used as my book-lined study—and then on the 3rd floor we had a full attic where we could have put a couple more bedrooms.
And we were two people, and just ordinary sized at that. What were we doing with all that space? It was an old house and it came on the
market. That was the only explanation we could offer.
So there I sat, turning the pages of the Milwaukee Journal, smoking my Camel cigarette, and drinking my cup of coffee. Perhaps I would make
a few notes on a pad of paper on the coffee table. I was, after all, a writer, the author of Bellissima, a short novel, not yet published but no
doubt one day would be. After all, I was soon to be widely known as one of the coming leaders of my literary generation.
One day, perhaps not till I was dead, English departments across the land would teach courses in me. It was pleasant to consider, sitting
there smoking, the names of the courses: Introduction to Kempthorne, Kempthorne 1, Kempthorne 2—of course—but also The Age of
Kempthorne, Kempthorne and His Times, and so on.
Yes, it was all very pleasant to contemplate.
Perhaps, after a nap that afternoon, I would even do a little writing, an entry in my Journal, a few lines at least. ###
DAY 7 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Fri., April 7, 2017
When I came back to Deep Creek in 1971 it was to fix up and live in an old and long abandoned farmhouse there, close to the Creek but not
on it, a quarter mile from it, but the place—eighty acres, the house and outbuildings in the center of it—the place had a couple of little streams
that came out of the hills above and joined at the middle as one somewhat larger stream that fed into Deep Creek.
Often in mid or late summer in dry years this Y-shaped stream would dry up. But I never knew Deep Creek to dry up. As kids when we lived at
the old Pillsbury place we swam in Deep Creek, had three very nice swimming holes, and it was a big part of our life then.
The house—if I’d known then what I was to know later—should have been quietly burned or simply dismantled and stacked. I was at that time,
as were many others, very much the believer in recycling and reusing. The house basically had four rooms. An old bachelor farmer had lived
there, a man named O. D. Frederick.
He had died about 1960 and since then the house was empty. One of the neighbors stored his combine in the big machine shed. Otherwise
the place was the habitat of packrats and other varmints. The water well, which then was a good enough well, had been laid up with flat
limestones round and round, not mortared so groundwater could seep in, and dozens of huge black snakes laid in there on the rock ledges all
In addition to the rats and snakes and squirrels in the attic, the house had thousands and thousands of wasps. They were quite a nuisance but I
found that if you left them alone and stayed away from their nests, they weren’t bothersome. But of course as I remodeled the place it was
necessary to bother them: it was time to move out, guys, I told them, and I got some spray and occasionally would empty a can on a group. I
got stung more than once. In 44 years there, we never really got rid of them entirely. In the machine shed and the grain bin and the other small
buildings we didn’t bother them at all, knowing that they did more harm than good, killing and eating all kinds of other insects.
For the previous dozen years I had lived in the university world except for one year in the middle of that time I lived in a psychiatric community,
not a lot different—no joke intended—from an academic community.
I had made assistant professor and had been offered a tenure contract and was approved for a solid lifetime career. But it was just at that
point that I decided I wanted to be a hippy and go back to the land. I told the president of the university, who had kindly called me and asked
me if I was sure this was what I wanted to do—“I’m going back to the land and start my own university.” #journaling.
DAY 6 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Thu., April 6, 2017
Every night it’s the same: June heads south (as in going south, just a metaphor) to bed where she may read an hour or more, and I am left
sitting here on the couch in our big living room/dining room/kitchen—and I look over my shoulder at the kitchen counter to see if I’ve done the
dishes. Usually I have not.
I sit there in crisis mode: shall I let the dishes go till morning? Or shall I do the right thing and do them up now?
For in our 40+ years of marriage we have worked out a deal, a deal we implicitly brokered almost from the beginning: June cooks, I do the
dishes. June loves to cook, it relaxes her and she’s good at it. Sometimes she even asks me what I want her to cook, and I will say something
like, I will have the pate de fois gras to start, and then croquetes of lamb with Chinese master sauce with fresh baby peas on the side, and for
dessert, perhaps crème brule? June will nod and go out to the kitchen and rattle dishes and pots and pans around for as much as an hour
while I read the newspaper and watch the news. At length she will call that dinner is served (“Let’s EEEEAAATTT!”) and we will sit down to our
liverwurst sandwich and leftovers.
Sometimes I will clear the table and put the dishes in the sink, more often I only help. But the bottom line, to come back to the evening, is I am
faced with doing the right thing and doing the dishes this night, or doing the wrong thing and quietly turning off the kitchen light and sauntering
down the long hallway to our bedroom.
Over the years I have learned to say to myself as I’m sitting here: Charley, just go out over to the kitchen sink and have a look. So I do. When I’
m standing there looking I say to myself, just stack them and let it go. You can finish in the morning. So I quickly rinse the dishes and stack
them. Sometimes then without thinking further—usually then—I find myself running hot water into the sink and squeezing the bottle of dish soap
to make hot, soapy water that I love to put my arthritic hands in and splash around like a child in his bath, and then, there I am putting in the
Obviously once I have done all that, I’m not going to finish the dishes in the morning. I sigh, half disappointed at the task I’ve taken on, have
happy that—apparently—I’m doing the right thing.
So I slog away at them, putting in the glasses and cups first, then the silverware, and I do these up in jig time. (Oh, of course I do not use a
dishwasher—once in the early 80s we bought a dishwasher at a yardsale for $75, and I duly washed the dishes and put them in the
dishwasher for about a week until we sold the dishwasher for $50 and got on with our lives.)
Then I do the rest of the dishes, stacking everything in the drying rack or neat it, and then I look around at what I’ve done, turn out the light, and
go to bed happy.###
DAY 5 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG
Wed., April 5, 2017
I had not been a Boy Scout. I had not gone to a camp in my entire life—not 4-H, Boy Scouts…certainly not any military reserve unit. My father’
s army uniform still hung in the front closet of our house, cleaned and pressed and in a clear plastic wrapper, waiting. It was 1955. He had
gotten out of the Army at the end of the War in 1946. I suppose Mom sent his uniforms off to be pressed. He wouldn’t have. He was busy
probably from the moment he started practicing medicine again as a civilian doctor. He wouldn’t have had time had he even had the
inclination. But there it was, all I knew of military life, that and a few fragments of memories of his being in uniform. I had never worn a uniform
of any kind—well, unless you count the uniform we wore for boy’s gym class: white shorts and white t-shirt and tennies.
I had never called anyone sir, nor had I ever been called sir other than by a waiter or a clerk in a store.
It was a whole new world, then, when I joined the Navy on July 20, 1955. I was an enlisted man, a white hat, the lowest of the low, a Seaman
Recruit, an E-1. No one called me sir. I was told to call anything that moved Sir. And so I did. I wasn’t a question of submitting, it was a
question of survival. I learned early on in Boot Camp that if I didn’t do what I was told, I was be executed on the spot. You! Step over here.
Now kneel. Hold your head still. Bang! Someone carry this man away.
And that would be all there was to it. My life as a human being was over.
I was given a number and told to memorize it. I could do that, I was good with numbers. 467 87 08. That was my service number. Not a serial
number, you idiot! Not your girl friend’s phone number! This is your fucking service number, do you understand? Can you possibly fathom
that, you complete dipshit? Can you? Speak up, idiot!
Yes, sir. I understood that.
Nothing in my life had prepared me for this. I had been born into a loving home. My father was an ophthalmologist and an
otorhinolaryngologist. I had an older brother. We were white people. I was white.
No one ever called me any of those names. The worst that had ever been said about me was on my high school report cards when the
teachers wrote, in red ink, “Charles disturbs others,” or “Charles is inattentive in class.”
Now I was a dipshit, an idiot, a number.
Clearly, I had accidentally been dropped into someone else’s life. Soon this would all be cleared up and I would be sent home to the pleasant
little college town of Manhattan, Kansas. I would be sent back to my French I class where I would be politely addressed by the instructor,
Bonjour, Monsieur Kempthorne.
But no. Now it was bonjour, boot camp. Bonjour, dipshit, idiot, 467 87 08. Au revoir, happiness.###
DAY FOUR OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG
Tue., April 4, 2017
Can I go with you? I said to Dad. Can I, please? Dad looked at me. All right, he said.
I ran to my room to get on my shoes and to get something to read. I came back with my shoes on and with two comic books, Crime Does Not
Pay and Plastic Man. Oh, no, Dad said. Not while we’re moving, he said. It’s bad for your eyes.
I said nothing and followed him to the car. Can I drive? I said.
Oh, sure, he said. Here’s the key. He tossed it to me and I didn’t catch it. I picked it up and looked at him.
He was getting in on the passenger side. Well, come on, Charley. You wanted to drive. He made a shoving motion toward me. Get in, let’s go.
He was laughing, of course.
Da-ud, I said. Da-ud. You know what I mean.
Dad turned and came over to the driver’s side and I got in on the passenger side and Dad pushed the little key into the ignition and started up
the engine. I loved the sound of it when he pressed the gas pedal a couple of times. Let’s get out on the road. Maybe you can steer a little.
Thanks, Dad, I said.
Out on the gravel road Dad looked in the rear view mirror and pulled over. Always look in the mirror before you do anything, Dad said. You
never know what’s behind you. I looked at him looking.
Uh-huh, I said. I know.
Now, he said, slide over here.
I slid across the seat and climbed onto his lap and took hold of the steering wheel.
Both hands, he said. At the top, one on each side. He pushed my left hand a little farther left. There.
The car started to move gently forward. Dad had his hands on the bottom of the steering wheel, only now and then touching the wheel himself,
only when it needed it. We were rolling along.
Look at Mr. Barr’s cows over there, Dad said.
Hey, watch the road! Dad said with a surprised laugh. Always keep your eyes on the road. I laughed too.
My feet can’t reach the pedals yet, I said. I looked down.
Eyes on the road.
I know, Dad.
You know, Dad said. You know. Do you know the cemetery is filled with people who said I know.
I know, I said, and Dad had to laugh too.
He let me drive until we got to the bend leading up to Big Hill. Pull over, he said, guiding my hands and braking to a stop. You did very well. I
almost went to sleep there for a bit, he said. Slide over now.
I slid back onto the passenger side and Dad took the wheel again and pushed on the gas pedal and away we went, faster now. In a few
minutes he had gone up one side of the hill, along the top where you could see the whole valley, the little barns and houses and dots on the
hillside that were cows grazing.
Then we went down the steep side, along through the trees and came out at the stop sign where the main road was. ###
Mon., April 3, 2017
There aren’t too many things in my life where I can say, simply, God told me to do this and I did it. But giving blood has been one.
I suppose I’m too old now, 79, my health compromised some by having chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), they might turn me
away. Maybe I’ll go next time I know about a drive, though, just to see if they can still get a needle in.
I don’t have any ten gallon pins, but I did it probably 30 or 40 times over the course of my long life, and I’m proud of that. I think maybe I did it
first in the 1960s at the University where I taught at Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
I was a hippie, and I think everyone thought then that hippies were nothing but self-serving adolescent adults who did nothing but smoke dope
and snap their fingers and say, Hey, man. So I went just to show them. Knowing me and my ways, I probably engaged the Needler in a
conversation about Dostoyevsky and existentialism, 1, in order to take my mind off my fear of impending death, and 2, to demonstrate that not
all hippies were know-nothings.
I’m not an especially brave man and I suspected each time I went that I could very well die on the table. I mean, you know, anything can
happen…right? The phlebotomist might be a vampire, or might accidentally inject me with air like I was a flat tire or something…if the odds are
1,000,000 to 1 that x or y could happen, then I’m the kind of person who thinks hard about being that unfortunate 1: even if they say it’s never
happened well, you know what they say about never: never say never.
I’m a little neurotic, you might say. But I did give blood all those times, and somewhere in there they started giving me free t-shirts. I’m pictured
here with my old friend, Evelyn Wray, whom I haven’t seen or talked to in years…I hope she is doing well.
I’ve never had a blood transfusion. But never say never.
Still thinking about death, and still thinking about being a hippie in Wisconsin in the 60s, and still thinking about virtuous things I willingly did, I
have to mention being in anti-war demonstrations. I was in a lot of them and there was not one single one that I went to willingly or happily. I was
motivated by a desire for peace, of course, but really what got me off my dead ass and out on the street with my little sign I hoped nobody
would notice was the implicit intimidation by all my friends. Where were you, Charley?
So I went.
We had this ongoing demonstration every Saturday morning in front of the US Post Office downtown. It ruined my Saturdays, which used to be
one of my favorite days, for two years. And one time I was standing there with my fellow sacrificial lambs and a car drove past, took a look, and
screeched to a stop. Two guys got out, GIs home on leave from Vietnam, and one came right up to me and put his face in mine and said
something unpleasant and pulled back his fist to belt me one.
I just sort of stood there waiting to be killed when, whaddayuh know, a police car pulled right up by us and a cop jumped out and stopped the
guy, saying, Don’t son, don’t do it. He’s not worth it.
At that moment, I couldn’t have agreed with him more. #journaling
.DAY TWO OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sun., Apr. 2, 2017
After breakfast Mom said I could go with Gramps to feed Miss White, our hog. The slop was on the stove and Gramma was stirring in the rest
of the table scraps left over from last night. Gramps looking in as he patted me on the head. Are you going to help me feed Miss White? I
said yes, I was. She’s getting big enough now that if we aren’t careful she might just eat you too. I braced a little and returned his grin. I won’t
let her do that, Gramps said. Then to Gramma he said, We’ll throw a little corn in with all that. He lifted the heavy bucket from the stove. Watch
out now, boy. Can you open the door?
I ran to open the side door. There was the water pump and then beyond, the pig pen, where Miss White was looking through the slots of the
board fence, waiting, her breath turning to steam in the cold morning air. When she saw us she grunted several times and ran in a circle,
stopping when she heard calling to her. So-wee, Gramps said, so-wee. He made a smacking sound with his lips, and the hog jumped a little
with each smack. She was very excited and danced back and forth, back and forth. She snorted and grunted, the steam coming out.
Last night the book that Mom read to me had the pigs in there saying Oink-oink, but Gramps said real pigs don’t oink, they kind of bark. Like
dogs? I said. And Gramps grinned and made a pig face. I laughed. Arf-foink, he said. Art-foing. And then he opened his mouth and sucked
air through his nose. I laughed. He looked so funny.
Now he spoke to me. Now boy you stay here. Aw, can’t I come in too? No. You stay here. You can climb up and look over the fence. Can
you climb up? He turned, holding the bucket. Miss White was snorting and dancing and pushing with her pink slobbery snout at the gate. Hold
on, little mother, Gramps said. Hold on now. He held the slop while from the wooden barrel beside the pen he took a few handsful of dry
yellow corn pieces and threw them into the bucket and then put the bucket down and mixed it all in with a stick. Miss White was almost crazy
now, snorting and running back and forth, steam coming out of her nose.
Gramps stepped inside with the bucket and quickly walked to the trough. He held the bucket high while Miss White ran along beside him, half
leaping at the bucket. Quickly Gramps poured it all out in the wooden trough, and she instantly ran along sucking it up noisily. I laughed to see
that. I didn’t eat like that. Gramps was speaking to her, calling her Little Mother, and then Miss White, and then while she ate and he had
emptied the slop, he patted her side. I would say very soon she’s going to pig, he said. It could be this week. He looked at me. Then you’ll
have pigs running all around the place. Really, Gramps? I said, watching Miss White gobble up the slop. Really?###
DAY 1 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sat., April 1, 2017
The guy before me had evidently walked off the job. Dishes were stacked up and it was in the middle of the noon rush and the boss, a guy with
short curly red hair, quickly showed me what to do. Scrape the garbage in here, he said, showing me the twenty gallon can. He looked at me
to make sure I saw where. Then put the scraped dishes in this tub. Wash them off, then put them in the next tub and rinse them, then put them
here in this rack and when the rack is full, turn on the washer, and it’ll automatically pull them through. He looked at me again. Got it? What’s
your name again?
Okay, Charley. When the dishes are out of the bath and dried, then put them away on these racks up here. He pointed to the racks at the front
of the big kitchen. Okay? He looked at me again. I was eyeing the dirty dishes piled up. I knew how to wash dishes. Now let’s get these
dishes washed, he said..
It wasn’t hard. He had already filled the first tub with hot soapy water. The soap was right there in a big box. I scraped the plates first, maybe
twenty or thirty of them, then put them in the water and so on. It wasn’t hard.
The boss, whose name was Earl, he had told me, was taking orders from the waitresses through the slit window in the kitchen wall looking out
at the customers eating. The place was full, maybe forty people or more out there, all eating or waiting for their food. Some were finishing up,
standing, wiping their mouths with napkins. The lady at the cash register, Nadine, had been introduced to me. She was Earl’s wife. I could
hear her voice saying Thank you, come again! And then she had a kind of funny, loud laugh that went Hoy-yoy-yoy-yoy, and I could hear the bell
on the cash register do ding.
I washed all the plates easily and put them in the next tub for rinsing and then into the dryer. I turned on the little switch that Earl had showed me
and the machine took them through the drying thing. They were already coming out the other end. I ran to get the rest of the dishes, glasses,
saucers, cups, and I gathered up the silverware and dropped that into the deep sink too. I could feel the boss watching me.
It was summer, 1952, and the pay was fifty cents an hour. I came at noon and worked till they closed at 8 pm. So I got $4 every shift. That was
okay for the time for a kid. I was 14. The only catch was, I didn’t get paid for kitchen clean-up. Sometimes that took almost two hours,
washing skillets and pots and pans. Sometimes meat had burned in the big heavy skillets and had to be scraped with a wire brush. The smell
wasn’t too great either. ###
Write along with me every day for the next 28 days and you will form the habit of journaling every day, one day at a time. In one
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