|The LifeStory Institute
The writer's workshop for memoirists, autobiographers and family historians.
Founded in 1991 as a how-to newsletter/magazine, LifeStory, 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,
|WELCOME TO THE 8th LIFESTORY JOURNALONG. I am here to encourage you to
journal, that is write in a journal of your own every day and so you make it into a daily
habit that almost guarantees you will get the writing done that you want to get done.
So I write here every morning sometime around 7 am, you log on, read what I've written
and then write in your own journal at home. It is not my intention to write well here. It is
simply to write every day 500 words or more. If I write a good line or two, so be it. But
just now I'm most interested in training people, you perhaps, to develop the habit of
--Charley Kempthorne, editor and publisher
Mon., July 28, 2014
Back home. We rolled in around two yesterday afternoon. Ben and David were outside watering the chickens. “Go say hello to your
cousin and your Uncle Ben,” I said, as were starting to unload. So they did, and we unloaded, and all went in and happily talked and
then June and I quickly took our leave and went down for a nap in the cool of our bedroom. “It’s good to sleep in our own bed,” I said,
touching her arm. “It is,” she said, and we were asleep for a solid hour and a half.
When we woke up Ben said, “Look out your windows. They’re playing walnut baseball.” And they were. Melissa, who had come home
from a long day’s work, was sitting on an upturned five gallon bucket, watching the three boys. Kyle was batting—they had found the
aluminum bat behind the back door—and Max was pitching to him and David was in the outfield. June and I watched, enchanted. This
is what we live for, I thought. To see three of our grandchildren playing walnut baseball together. This is what we live for.
Ben found a real softball and they quickly began using that instead of walnuts, and they went on playing while we adults chatted and
watched. I took some pictures.
The whole point in bringing these lads here together is to get them to know one another, so that they can go through life being
sustained by their common roots. I write once a week or oftener to my cousin Jerry—the son of my father’s twin brother—and I am
always in touch with my brother and sister and other cousins too. Things like this, being close to people with a common past, helps us
This isn’t to say friends aren’t important too. Friends of course are. And keeping in touch with them is important. I saw some survey
the other day about the most common regrets of old people (people like me, and maybe you too) and one of those five or so things was
that they regretted not keeping in touch with old friends. That’s sure important to me. Some old friends I am very close to and talk to
on the phone regularly. Some I see right here in my hometown where I still live, see them every day or every week at the grocery or
the feed store or just walking along. That’s the joy of living in your old home town.
Roots. That’s the great book and movie that got the Memoir Movement started fifty years ago. It ran on TV as a serial every Thursday
night for six or eight weeks (I’d have to look it up) and it seared the nation with its relevance. What was wrong with this culture we had
created in America is that we had lost touch with our roots! And so we set about fixing that problem, and have been working at it ever
This is the 28th day we’re writing together and the last day of this LifeStory Journalong. Thank you for being with me, and I’ll think of
you every morning from now on when I’m writing, and I hope you’ll remember your roots (!) as a writer and go on to help others get
started on this very, very important project.
I’m going to take August off (not from writing, of course) from the Journalong and use that time to catch up on other LifeStory stuff,
including setting up a tour to the Upper Midwest. If you’d like to call or write me about your experience in this Journalong, I would be
honored to hear from you. (785-564-1118, and I answer my own phone.) I’ll start the next Journalong on September 1, 2014. (632
words, 34 minutes.)
Sun., July 27, 2014
This morning I am in Kansas City, but this is like no Kansas City I knew when I was a kid back in the 50s and 60s. We were teenage
kids who desperately wanted to be all grown up and say, 20 or so, or at least 18, and out in the world doing something. In the 50s we
used to drag Poyntz Avenue in Manhattan until late in the evening and then somebody would say, Hey, let’s go to Kansas City! Kansas
City was “big city.” It was our big city. It was the city whose name we gave to strangers who asked us where we were from.We didn’t
want to say we were from Manhattan or a farm near it. We wanted to be from someplace people would acknowledge and recognize,
so we said, Hey, I’m from Kansas City. And feel like real grownups.
So we’d dig down in our blue jeans pockets and find a few dollars for gas and off we’d go, eleven o’clock at night off to Kansas City,
perhaps the strains of Kansas City Woman playing on the radio, or memories of it: Kansas City! Kansas City here I come! I’m goin’ to
where they have those crazy little women, and I’m goin’ to get me one!
We’d roll the windows down and drive along 24-40 through Wamego, Rossville, Topeka, Lawrence, Tonganoxie…and then the lights,
the smell of the vast stockyards, one of the largest in the world, and we’d cross into sinful Missouri (for Kansas City Kansas didn’t
exist in our world…I’ve never been downtown there and wouldn’t know it from downtown Topeka), where they sold liquor day and
night in stores and almost anyplace. We wouldn’t have been surprised to walk into the First Baptist Church in Kansas City Mo and find
a rack of bottles of whiskey along the wall…not that we were going to go to the First Baptist or any church that night.
Inevitably we’d end up at 12th and Baltimore, “right smack dab downtown,” and we’d have a burger and fries at the Wagon Wheel on
the corner, eyeing the late night crowd, hearing the police cars with their sirens roaring past outside, hot after some miscreant or
other of a kind we did not have in Manhattan, Kansas, where I grew up and where I live today.
Maybe if we had enough gas we’d drive around awhile. More often than not, we didn’t have enough gas and so we’d get lost a couple
of times and finally find the bridge and head for home, smoking our cigarets and already fabricating stories we’d tell our friends about
how we went to Kansas City the night before.
The Kansas City I’m in this morning is an airport attachment, a farmer’s field long since grown up in a crop of huge motels and parking
lots and highways, a glitzy urban slum of glittering cars and joyless commercial life as travelers for their own unaccountable reasons
shuttle from city of cement to city of cement doing their business and making their money so that they too can live in some town part
of a bigger town where there are no sidewalks, no trees except those imported by the landscape designers… 546 words, 29 minutes.
Sat., July 26, 2014
“You could renew them online,” June said yesterday morning. We were in our office and had just paid most of our bills online. The
renewal of registration/license plates for our three vehicles, the two SUVs and the pickup, remained. “I’ll just go to the courthouse,” I
said. “It doesn’t take long and it’s kind of fun.”
So when I went to town I took the papers with me and, of course, my wallet. (It’s hard to believe there was a time when I was a lad
and didn’t carry a wallet—getting a wallet, a billfold, was I guess one of the rites of passage into manhood—and now if I don’t have my
wallet in my back pocket it’s non-presence is felt. Something is missing back there. So I go back to the house and get my wallet off
the cabinet in the hallway.)
At 1130 on the dot I walked into the courthouse office of the County Treasurer. The place, usually a beehive, was almost empty. I took
a number from the little machine but I didn’t need it. Two or three clerks were ready to wait on me. I sat down at the counter opposite
one of them—LuAnn, the sign said—and handed her my papers and she went to work looking me up on her computer screen. This
went on for several minutes while I glanced around at the large office. People were beginning to come in and now several of the
chairs like mine were taken as each taxpayer poured out his heart and his money to get new license plates. Or at least the little
stickers that you paste on the old ones.
It was a beautiful day. Warm, but sunny. I sat in the cool of the air conditioned office. I did want to get my stuff done by a quarter till or
so, so I wouldn’t be late for my 1205 meeting across town. But if I was a little late, I was: so be it. Lu Ann looked up at me, shuffled the
papers and said, “You have insurance on the pickup, don’t you?” I nodded. “Of course.” I reached in my wallet and found an
insurance card that said 1996 Chevrolet and pushed it across the smooth gray counter to her. She took it and examined it. “This is
expired,” she said, pushing it back.
Sure enough, the card was old: it had expired in 2012. “Probably my current one is in the glove compartment of the truck,” I said.
“Do you have your truck with you?”
“Oh, no. It’s at home sitting in front of the chicken house with a load of straw.”
Lu Ann was already on the phone. “I’ll just call your agent and have them fax a copy to me. It is Farm Bureau, isn’t it?”
I nodded and waited. She spoke to someone and then hung up. “It’ll just be a couple of minutes,” she said, and began working on a
pile of envelopes she had gotten in the day’s mail, evidently people who had sent a check to pay for their tag. I watched her. “It must
be nice,” I said, “to get a pile of checks in the mail every day.” She smiled and went on working. “Not really,” she murmured. “It’s just
In a minute she got up and went to the fax machine to get my fax. Five minutes went by—it was already a quarter to—and she came
back without a fax. She phoned the Farm Bureau office and chattered with someone there. “They have no record of such a truck,”
”Here, you can talk to them,” she said.
So I did. I told them about the card in front of me. The clerk there handed me over to her boss, a very nice man who was apologetic.
“You don’t have that insurance with someone else, do you?” “Oh, no,” I said, “Farm Bureau covers them all.”
“In the ten years I’ve been an agent,” he said, “this has never happened.” He was very apologetic and asked me to read the VIN
number of the card I had as well as the policy number. Which I did, feeling very competent because I knew VIN stood for Vehicle
Identification Number. I was being Mr. Calm and Efficient. So what if I was late to my meeting? All these folks were doing their best. I
felt very understanding. It was now 12 straight up.
“This will take a few minutes,” LuAnn said.
I had noticed a sign saying that advance voting in the primary election was going up upstairs. “Do I have time to go upstairs and vote?”
By the time I got back from voting the office was full of people at the counters being taken care of or sitting at the benches in the
center of the room, waiting. I saw a friend, Jack, and went over and shook hands with him. “Apparently my truck doesn’t exist,” I
said. Jack nodded. He’s even older than I am. “That’s just the way it works,” he said, grinning brightly. “First they say your truck
doesn’t exist, then you…” I laughed and went back to Lu Ann, who was by this time ready to do business and take my money.
I slid my debit card across the counter to her. “Uh, I have to add 2.5% on a card,” she said.
“Even on a debit card?”
She nodded. She fiddled with her calculator. “That’ll cost you another $14 and…twenty-seven cents.”
“But a check you’d take without any charge?”
“I don’t have my checkbook,” I said. “And I’ll bet you don’t have counter checks…in the old days..”
“No, we don’t have any check forms at all.”
“Tell you what,” I said, “if you could just take another customer my bank is just a block away. I’ll just go get the cash.”
So that’s what I did. I got $600 in cash, six of those crazy looking new 100s with a stripe down the middle and Ben Franklin’s weary
countenance thereon, and I gave them to Lu Ann, who went away and came back with a couple bucks in change and, at last, my little
green stickers to put on my vehicles.
When I left the building it was 1235 pm. Oh, well. 1060 words, twenty five minutes.
Fr., July 25, 2014
What I would like to do today, as opposed to what I’m going to do, is drive down to the office of Blue Cross and Blue Shield and put
under their noses the “Explanation of Benefits” that they just sent me and ask them to explain the explanation, especially stuff like
how I was billed $255.00 by a “provider” on May 7 last, but the amount paid was a mere $11.70. A footnote to which I am directed,
Note E, says "Medicare has either paid or explained any balance.” Any balance! A balance of something like $243!! Yeah, I’d like to
hear that explanation. I’d like to go into the office of (say) my blacksmith and pay him $11.70 for the welding he billed me $255.00 for. I
can imagine what would happen: he would weld my ass to the nearest steel beam and let me hang there until I paid up that “balance.”
Honestly, modern life! Couldn’t we just go back to 1938?
It is so pleasant in this early hour I would like to stop time. If it could just be this way…always. Always a gentle breeze coming through
the sliding screen door, always the hot coffee at my elbow, always the rhythmic tapping of the keys of my laptop, always the
consciousness of everyone else in the family asleep…
Of course if we could do things like that life wouldn’t be as life is, and so we wouldn’t want to do things like that. Does that make
Whatever you do, write with your whole heart. Don’t leave anything out, put it all in. What I mean by this is that your mind is working at
100% while your fingers are doing the writing at something less than that, maybe 10% or 50% or even higher. But your mind will always
be ahead of your fingers, although I would think the ideal is to have them working together totally. That is why I suggest writing as fast
as you can without thinking at all. Of course that’s not physiologically possible, but the more you can have your unconscious mind
doing the thinking, the better. Most of us when we sit down to write have our conscious minds, uh, in mind. That’s where we write
from. When I suggest to myself and to you that we write with our whole heart, I’m basically saying Let your fingers do the thinking.
That’s a trick, sort of, but it’s by no means an impossible task.
Right now as I pause to go to the next paragraph I am conscious of a pain in my lower left side, conscious of thinking that it is a kidney
stone (again), I am conscious of the gentle cool breeze coming in the sliding screen door beside me, conscious of the fact that
everyone is asleep, conscious of my tinnitus (conscious now of my little joke that one of the advantages of growing deaf is that I can’t
hear my tinnitis anymore)…conscious of all these things and more.
These aren’t bad things in themselves but they can interfere with my deepest stream of unconsciousness (conscious now of the
cleverness of thinking of that)… 583 words, 30 minutes.
Thu., July 24, 2014
This is from my Ancient Journal, 1997. I’ve been rummaging around in it and I came across this scene from my life teaching at one of
the many branches of the University of Wisconsin in 1967. Ray was my office mate for a year or two and we had a lot of laughs
together. Friday nights we’d all go downtown and drink that good Wisconsin beer, and get all the beer and fish we wanted for one
dollar. Can you believe that? Stevens Point was a Catholic town, and in those days, you ate fish on Friday.
Ray looked worn and tired.
What's wrong, I said. I was sitting at my desk, grading themes.
God, everything, Ray said. He dropped his briefcase on the floor with a thud and sat down in his swivel chair. He put his head in his
hands. Ray was only 30--same age as me--but he looked suddenly very old. "I quit," he said.
I laughed. "Oh, I know what this is about."
Ray look up, his blue eyes flicking like lights going out, not looking at me, not wanting to note what I said. "You won't believe this
What one? I tilted back my chair and put my feet on the desk.
"Ummmm," Ray said. "You know that story of Hemingway's about Krebs, the soldier from Kansas?"
Sure, Soldier's Home.
Ray nodded. Yeah.
Uh-huh. Well, anyway, it's Friday, three in the afternoon and I thought I'd give my students in Comp 1 a special treat.."
And so you read them the story? I laughed heartily.
It's my favorite story. It's a great story.
Oh, it is. It is.
I read it straight through and everyone was very attentive. When I finished no one said anything.
Okay, I said.
Then this kid in the back who's never said a goddamned word all semester--Ray underscored the word with a gesture of his fingers--
held up his hand.
I mean, I was really expecting something.
So the kid said, Uh, Mr. Whearty, will this be on the exam?
I laughed. Ray laughed, but ruefully. He looked about ready to cry. I couldn't help it, I laughed and laughed. If I didn't laugh, maybe
I'd have cried too.
Come on, Ray, I said. I'm buying.
I don’t know what became of Ray. I tried to google him a few times but got a dead end. He was a good guy, and I liked having him as an
office mate. He was married to a Mexican citizen and I think they went down to Mexico and for awhile he taught in a private school
there. Maybe he’s still there for all I know, trying to get those kids to read Hemingway and not worry about the exam.
On the other hand, maybe that could be what we used to call an existential question. Will this be on the exam? I could ask of God
when I get to the Pearly Gates. It’s a fair question…isn’t it?
Wed., July 23, 2014
I’m losing memory right and left. Yesterday in an email I couldn’t think of a word, an old one, meaning (ah—it just hit me!) literary stuff
that doesn’t last for long. The word I know now is ephemera. How could I have forgotten that? It’s my middle name practically.
Charles Ephemera Kempthorne. In fact I like that better than I do my actual parent-given middle name, Roosevelt, which I have always
hated. I guess it’s better than Lee or one of those little names just to get the right rhythm…but surely, Mom and Dad, you could have
One time signing up for a motel somewhere and they had to see my DL I told them I was President Roosevelt’s grandson and they
believed me until I laughed and said I was kidding. I did like FDR. He was Prez when I was born. I thank God every morning I was born
thirty years too soon to be named Nixon. Imagine what that would have done to my life.
My son Daniel Alexander Kempthorne was named for Alexander the Great, whom I much admired, and I think I led him to believe he
was actually on the birth certificate named Daniel Alexander the Great until one day he called me on the phone and plaintively asked if
that was so. I felt terrible then, and I had to tell him it wasn’t on the birth certificate that way. I told him he was great, anyway, but it
just didn’t help all that much just then. He was a disappointed eight-year-old.
It is hot. Not tonight, not bad right now, I have the slider open and a gentle cooling breeze is coming in. But yesterday it got to 106, they
said. I came home from town, pretty warm, came in the house—all closed up of course, blinds down, and I went into the bedroom and
turned on the overhead fan, on low, and slept the afternoon away. I turned the AC on about 5 and it ran until 10 or so, and then I turned
it off but left the windows and doors shut.
I have, as I think I’ve mentioned, put all my journals in a row on a long shelf in the bedroom. Just for lack of a better place. The 50
volumes fill the twenty foot shelf. It’s scary to look up and think I have to go through all that stuff and edit it, harvesting what’s worth
keeping, chucking the rest. Maybe I’ll just get myself buried with all of it lining my tomb. That’s not really a bad idea. Then should
anyone want to read anything all they’d have to do is exhume it. Of course that’s not practical. Ever since I saw Nebraska a few days
ago I’ve been imitating Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant, the old curmudgeon dreaming impossible dreams and insisting on his version of
In a way, perhaps, that is what we all do at the end: we insist on our version of reality even as we’re being cranked down into the cold
Tu., July 22, 2014
In 1968 or ’69, I was a dinner guest at the apartment home of a good friend and fellow student, a woman who was also a member of
the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who had married a guy who was a terrible drunk. He was a photographer, but he was always drunk. At
the dinner he was of course drunk, and nearly everyone else got drunk right along with him, maybe because he was, and yet I stayed
sober—having a few drinks, perhaps, but not many, and the guest of honor, a famous professor and scholar, was also sober, and so
there at the table where a dozen or so people were face down in their dinner plates, he and I had a great discussion. Basically I
interviewed him about Thoreau and Emerson, his area of expertise, and I learned a lot, which I’ve since of course forgotten. But I’ve
not forgotten that evening sitting among the snoring drunks and talking about Transcendentalism. I guess I’d have to say it was all
pretty damned transcendental.
I drove to Junction City this morning, thirty miles, to do my RT—respiratory therapy. This excellent facility is run by one Tammy Moser,
who outfits us with a gadget that records our respiration and all that, and then puts us on the various machines to work out. From PT
and RT I have learned a lot. Even since I got old, actually, I have learned a lot about being old. For a while there I thought I was a goner
but now I’m feeling pretty good. I maybe will feel like a goner again, and may even be a goner—obviously sooner or later—but I know I
just have to keep working and focus on what I can do to be helpful to others.
I drove through Fort Riley on the way back to Manhattan. I always enjoy that slow drive through that beautiful place, and have a special
kind of peace as I drive along. Maybe it’s because this post is so old, 150 years or so, old for the West, old for America.
To my utter surprise and delight, June has come up and sat down beside me. (I am in the Manhattan Public Library.) She has come
here where it’s cool to do some paperwork. “I’m surprised to see you here,” she said. I explained that I had to write somewhere, and
here it is cool. I have a meeting at noon, so if I drove home I’d just have to turn around and drive back in.
I wonder if people in New York, or some of the great cities of China ever run into their wives at the library? So many people, so many
strangers. No one looks at anybody.
Manhattan, Kansas is a nice place to live, though you probably wouldn’t like to visit here. What’s here? Just people you know. I came
here in 1942, stayed briefly (I was 4 and with my parents of course), then came back in 1946 after the War. But from 1955 to 1971,
except for a year or two, I lived elsewhere. Elsewhere was okay, too, of course, and I could have adjusted. I never lived anywhere I
really didn’t like. Even Norman, Oklahoma, had and probably still has its charms. I remember I had my first pizza there, and it was
Mon., July 21, 2014
That 1999 trip back east is still in my mind. On the way back home we stopped in Terre Haute, Indiana,
specifically because I knew it was the birthplace of Theodore Dreiser, and I wanted to see his home. I
assumed there would be huge billboards outside this big industrial town (also the home of Eugene V. Debs,
the great socialist who ran five times for President of the United States, the last time from Federal Prison,
and he got five million votes) advertising Dreiser's natal home but of course there was no such thing.
We had to go to the library and ask several people there before we found some lady who knew where it
was, and she gave us the address.
We drove there. To my astonishment, not only was the little house closed up tight (open by appointment
only), the sign in front said, BIRTHPLACE OF PAUL DRESSER, and told about Theodore's brother---who,
quisling that he was, changed his name from the German Dreiser to the more Anglo Dresser and who was a
well-known bandleader and songwriter who wrote The Wabash Cannon Ball. After telling all about Paul, the
last line said something like, he had a famous brother, Theodore.
That was all. I was incensed. I got on my literary high horse and galloped back to the library where I
breathlessly told the lady who'd directed me there of this outrage. She listened primly and then said of
Theodore Dreiser, arguably the greatest American novelist, author of Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy
and the great Frank Cowper trilogy among others, a luminary on the American scene for at least half a
century--of him the lady said, Well, he didn't say very nice things about Terre Haute.
I guess I don't have very nice things to say about Terre Haute, either.
I dreamed of being in lost in some city in Pennsylvania. No one seemed to know where anything was, and
no one seemed to know the way out of town.
Maybe this dream was occasioned by watching Nebraska, the funny but forlorn movie about the poor old
man who thought he won the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweetstakes. He had a letter saying that he'd won a
million dollars and he was going to go to Lincoln, Nebraska from Billings, Montana, to collect it. Bruce Dern
was the lead. His son finally drove him to Lincoln where he confronted the PC people and they pointed to
the fine print that says You are the winner if your number matches the one we have in our office, and of
course it didnt. Sad as it was old Bruce found his way back home and his son bought him a new pickup
truck as a kind of consolation prize.
It's going to be a hot one, we say to one another one mornings like this. I have the sliding door wide open
and I'm sitting here in the cool of the breeze that this afternoon will feel like a Saharan wind. Im ready for
some hot weather. I would much rather have hot weather than cold weather. Each day gets closer to
December and January and that's not pretty for me.
Sun., July 20, 2014
Today I celebrate joining the Navy 59 years ago. I didn’t always celebrate this day. What I can say this
morning is that it got me off the dime. I was sitting around just out of high school a few months and going to
college at K-State, whose big green campus I’d played on as a child growing up. I wasn’t doing much.
Mostly I hung out at the old Shamrock Tavern, which had just become Kite’s a couple of years before. I was
still too young (17) to drink legally, but in those days it wasn’t a big thing, and Kite, good-natured fellow that
he was, served me up beer after beer. I took a class in French 1 from a Spaniard, Mr. Ramirez, General
Psychology from an Arab, and…I don’t even remember the third course. I carried a nine hour load, a full
My older brother had been in the Navy for six months or so by then and the lure to do what he did, drop out
of college and join up, was strong. So that’s what I did. I had to get my parents to sign for me. My father
did that. He himself had just gotten out of the Army a mere nine years before when World War II ended.
I woke feeling sore and unrested. What did I learn during the night? I’m still tired. I could go back to bed
and sleep except that I know I’ll wake up in an hour or so sore all over again. In my lost youth I woke up
eager and thinking about all the stuff I was going to do, or at least that I had to do. This morning I sit here in
the still of the morning, dawn now, sipping the coffee and watching the cursor blink.
Or is it winking at me instead, trying to let me in on some cosmic joke? The other day I was talking about my
old life to some friends and I said that back then I believed that, at best, life was a cosmic joke--and at
worst, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Later that day I went to the library
and checked out a DVD of a recent version of MacBeth, just to hear those words spoken.
It is man’s fate to look for more in life than is there.
Now I do not think life is a cosmic joke because I know the cosmos doesn’t know how to make a joke. And
insofar as it is a tale told by an idiot, it is because we ourselves are the tellers, we are the idiots.
I am the idiot.
I almost ended my life and another’s yesterday, driving home on the road I know like the back of my hand,
broad daylight, and fiddling with some bits of paper, grocery receipts and the like, in the little box under the
radio. When I looked up I had drifted into the other lane and an approaching pickup truck, seeing me
coming at him, was pulling into the ditch. I caught the wheel and recovered my course, waved drunkenly (I
might just as well have been drunk) to the driver. I would have felt better had he stopped me and chewed
me out, but he drove on. I think I’m going to take the advice of an older friend and watch the road, both
hands on the wheel, no radio on, no conversation, no nothing except driving. 594 words, 32 minutes.
Sat., July 19, 2014
1999 was the year that I set up a tour to Pennsylvania and the Southeast and it flopped. I set up the tour,
motel reservations, routes, all that, but didn’t bother to set up workshops. We did one—in Newcastle, Pa.,
and then headed south to Pittsburgh. All the money that we had made at Newcastle was in a briefcase that
we left on the curb as we pulled out of the motel and drove down to Charlotte, Virginia. Just as we pulled
into the motel I’d reserved in Charlotte in my mind’s eye I saw that briefcase sitting on the curb 300 miles
north. So we turned around and drove back after calling the motel and they said they had taken it in and
kept it for us. Whew!
That same year (I’m looking at some photographs) we bought ten windows from a guy in Topeka who was
remodeling his house and we installed them on our new “dining porch,” as we have come to call it. I was
proud of myself for buying them and recycling them.
There’s Rip and their “new” dog, Dutch, at Owens Beach in Washington—they live in Tacoma—2007, five
years before Adah was born. Adah and Dutch are friends. We worried at first.
And Brock kissing Leslie on their wedding day in 1999. It was a beautiful wedding and they were happy for a
time, living on Golden Gate in the little city within a city. (I can’t remember the name of the town now…ah,
Fircrest, a community built all at once in the 1920s in the center of Tacoma.)
I’m having more and more trouble remembering names. So far it’s non-essential information… Last night
we were watching a bit of Lawrence of Arabia and I had to ask June, “Who’s that? Not Peter O’Toole, but the
other guy…?” June immediately replied that it was Omar Sharif, and didn’t I think he was handsome. “He’s
not my type,” I said, but just for the fun of it I went online to google him. He’s now 82, still at it.
Maybe I’m successful at journaling because I feel if I don’t journal I’ll no longer be a writer, only a wannabe
writer. Whatever the reason, I write 1,500 words a day, 500 plus here for the Journalong and a thousand
more for…my family, for history maybe (some), and for myself. June says of her cats (8 now, all outside
luckily) that they keep her sane. My journal keeps me sane. Or maybe it keeps me insane. I don’t really
know. Indisputably it does keep me alive.
The late (and now I can’t think of her name, a lady poet, early 20th Century, American…) what’shername
once said, “Life goes on, I forget just why.” I imagine she wrote that in her journal. The name that comes to
mind is Georgia Neese Clark, but of course she was no poet but rather Treasurer of the US under
Eisenhower. I think she was from Kansas.
So there you go, Charley, your 500 plus for the Journalong. 518 words, 23 minutes.
Fri., July 18, 2014
Last evening well before sundown June and David and I were outside working in the garden. We had let
the chickens and the ducks out and they were milling around pecking at the grass looking for what
chickens and ducks look for. June was sitting on an upturned five gallon bucket picking green beans,
moving along the rows, I was using the loppers and pruning the hackberry and green ash branches in the
fence row, and young David was happily taking the branches—carrying them instead of dragging them—and
running to the creekbank to throw them over the fence. We finished that and went inside. In a few
minutes we heard a commotion outside. June ran out, I came behind with the rifle and a handful of bullets.
But we were too late. A hen had escaped but was quickly dying after a bite or two from…what? Coyote,
raccoon? June kept saying coyote. Another younger hen, maybe two, were gone and left only a pile of
feathers. The predator had lain in the thick sumac growth by the hen house, lain waiting for us to leave,
and then made its quick move.
So we will not let the birds out today to graze. “They’ll be mad,” June said.
“They’ll be alive,” I said. But in the long run I knew we would we would have to let them out to free range,
and so I’d have to spend an hour or two cutting back the sumac growth.
We have just about eaten all of our peach crop, a half a bushel or so of red-golden beauties, very juicy and
sweet. They are unbelievably sweet, really, 10,000 times sweeter than a candy bar. Fruit, when it is ripe and
ready, is sweeter than anything the world.
Such is life on the farm. Today I’ll work the ground for planting fall potatoes. Maybe I’ll plant a row of yellow
wax beans. At our age we’ll only contemplate going out tonight, a Friday night. We won’t go, of course. We’
ll stay home, work until dark, come inside and stare glassy eyed at the inanities on TV for a short time, and
then work our way west to the bedroom where we’ll stare glassy eyed for a short time at newspapers and
then we’ll turn out the light and stare glassy eyed into the darkness until we fall asleep.
No doubt we will dream. June will not remember hers, if she is asked. I will remember mine. Some I will
write down, or think about writing down. Last night somehow I dreamed about reading the Topeka Capital
Journal. How exciting.
I have a great business idea: a shooting gallery where old computers are used as targets! Yesterday I
spent the better part of an hour trying to delete from my desktop a photograph someone had sent me for
LifeStory that I accidentally put there.
Now there’s something to be excited about. I have the image still in my mind of my grandfather smashing
his one dollar Ingersoll pocket watch flat on the chopping block down home in Indiana, circa 1943. 523
words, 34 minutes.
Thu., July 17, 2014
I couldn’t fall asleep last night and I couldn’t wake up this morning. So I’ve overslept an hour. It’s almost
broad daylight, 630 am, and here I am, and still in my morning pre-coffee stupor. I haven’t done my PT,
haven’t brushed my teeth or taken my meds. I feel like I could go back to bed and sleep until ten o’clock.
But I won’t.
Once when I was visiting my cousin’s in Wisconsin and had arrived there late in the evening, too late to say
hello to my Uncle Pete, who always went to bed early because he had to get up so early. So the next
morning he woke me up at 4 when he left for work in Dubuque at the John Deere factory. I remember that
that morning he taught me this poem: I’ll tell you a story/About Uncle Tom Dory,/And now my story’s begun./I’ll
tell you another/About this brother/And now my story’s done.
All these years I remember that. Even though I studied poetry in graduate school and even taught it for
several years, that is the poem I most remember. Of course I also remember We see poor Willie’s face no
more/For what he thought was H2O was H2SO4. Later on, as a fully grown man changing his occupation from
teacher to mechanic, I learned Righty-tighty/Lefty-loosey.
I used to have lunch once a week with a guy, Jonathan Holden, who was a real poet, taught poetry-writing,
and could recite from memory (and did) many many poems in English and French and maybe Watusi, I don’t
really remember. When he taught a poem in class, he said, the first thing he did was memorize it.
I do remember this:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Not a very pretty poem. Poor Randall Jarrell himself, the author, was in mid-life out for an evening walk and
was run over and killed by a car.
But except for that and snatches of this or that, in spite of the impact poems have had on my life, I haven’t
had much luck memorizing poems or anything else. I did used to remember my friend’s car’s license plate
numbers. But now even that has gone. June doesn’t even know her own social security number and
seems to be doing just fine. I remember it for her, and mine too, of course. My facility with numbers ends
with memorization. I never appreciated algebra, though a great uncle of mine wrote a book on it. I was okay
with arithmetic but when we got to the higher math and started using letters and parentheses, I lost my
way. Parentheses mean by the way and, in my opinion, should not be used to indicate multiplication. 503
words, 34 minutes.
Wed., July 16, 2014
I have been alive now for something like 27,570 days. It seems like more. I woke up this morning not
particularly eager to get up—in fact, depressed. Make the world go away, Elvis sang. In the Navy (the
memory of which I resort to with disturbing frequency—one would think I was in the Navy for about 27,000 of
those days, when really it was only 1,272 of them)—in the Navy we were awakened by someone running a
billy club around the inside of a shit can and the lights suddenly turned on and the watch yelling, Alright
sailors! Reveille! Reveille! Reveille! Drop your cocks and grab your socks! Reveille! Reveille!
We didn’t have a chance to be depressed.
When I was in my 30s, we farmed. We’d get up in the morning to see the sheep out, grazing in our yard,
sometimes right outside our window. That got us up and going. Oh, Francis, oh Francis, please tell me
whyyyyy…your mother is calling and you don’t reply. The soup is boiling and the cow’s in the corn! Your
mother is calling for you to come home.
Maybe I should drop everything and sing this morning.
When I was single and lived alone I’d get up and put on a few records and dance around. When I lived with
Patsy in Dewey Marsh in Wisconsin we’d put on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and we’d
dance. She’d dance—she was a dancer—and I’d jump around.
My father, an exemplary man, would get up in the dark of the morning, fry himself and egg and a couple of
pieces of fish, walk outside and get The Kansas City Times, unfold it and read it while he ate his breakfast,
still dark, and then he’d take a couple of puffs on a cigarette. Then he’d go back to bed for half an hour, get
up promptly and shower and dress and go off to work.
I need an office to go to. I could do that.
I need structure. I need to declare my book finished and print it and go on the road and like a Bible
salesman go around the country knocking on doors and offering it for sale. This I can do. This I can do.
But first I’ll have another cup of coffee.
Yesterday I bought a new mower blade and installed it. I mowed a little just to make sure it worked. It did.
I pruned away some branches that hung over the Art Shop and allowed leaves to dam up there and make a
little pond and thence to make the roof leak.
Today I’m going to plant once more some sweet corn. The last corn I planted never came up. Why? I have
no clue. I hoed it up and couldn’t even find the seed. Is it possible a bird ate it all? No tracks, no evidence
of scratching…? Actually come to think of it I don’t think there’s a variety out there that would make it to
crop before frost. It’s too late. Maybe I’ll plant…rutabagas!
Tu., July 15, 2014
I love writing but I also love, and need, physical work as a kind of antidote to the writing. Some writing,
some kinds of writing, generate a lot of anxiety in deep down me. So I go outside if at all possible, and do
something physical. Sometimes the dumber the work the better. I don’t usually go out and, say, build a tool
box for a grandchild like a friend of mine does. I need something really stupid to do. In the good old days I
could muscle up a pile of rocks and move them from one place to another, or get all the lumber down in the
shop loft and put it back in better order..oh, how I especially loved to put things in their proper order!
Doing this would ease my nerves and then I could happily get another cup of coffee and go back to writing.
I guess we all work out our own screwy ways of doing things, of getting things done—or not getting them
So today I have to make great advances in getting LifeStory no. 144 done. After doing 143 issues over more
than 20 years I have a system: put it off as long as possible, and then put it off a few more days until I am so
thoroughly ashamed of myself that I can’t put it off any longer. Then I put it off a couple more days and—
finally I seem to enter some kind of blessed zone of grace—and I go ahead and do it.
I haven’t quite gotten to that point yet but today may be the day. I wish one hundred subscribers would call
me up and just give me hell up one side and down the other for being late. That would help. I could
seethe with resentment at their impatience all the way through to the finish, and I would be very happy.
I am looking at an old photograph of my father taken in the summer of 1932, I know, because he is standing
in a yard next to an elaborate white wicket fence wearing his MD robe: he has just received the diploma
after four years of hard work at the University of Wisconsin. He looks bored and annoyed at having his
picture taken. He stands there like somebody in the outfield waiting for the batter to do his business and
bat a high pop fly.
He is 29 years old. He knows nothing of the life before him, how he will go down to Indianapolis, Indiana, to
be a resident in eye, ear, nose and throat; how he will meet my mother; how they will marry and have a child,
and thence move to North Dakota where he will work in a clinic and they will have another child, me…he
and the millions of people in his world of 1932 know nothing of the coming of World War II, of the invention
of the atomic bomb, jet planes, computers…pizza! 507 words, 34 minutes.
Mon., July 14, 2014
More dreams, bad dreams, I’m being mugged by some little young guy, and I’m fighting fiercely (the I isn’t
exactly I but is an old frail man) and I succeed for awhile but here comes a guy I went to high school with I
didn't particularly like, with a knife, and I fight him off too, hurt him bad, and he crawls away. People are
around us, we’re in NYC or some place like that…
I feel so alone. All night I was up and down but going right back to sleep each time, shifting my beaten and
sore body to a new position.
I wake with the knowledge that I am estranged from God, that I am unhappy, that I am alone.
A couple of days ago I wandered out to our orchard, where I haven’t been for several weeks. The
blackberries were gone, not a single one left. There was a fairly heavy crop, none very large because of
competition from other plants around (irises, mostly), but there were lots of them—now gone, eaten by
others, bugs, birds, others who had no hand in planting or nurturing them.
There were apples on the apple trees, not nearly ready of course, but the little peach tree had made a half a
bushel of bright and freckled red and yellow peaches. I picked a couple and brought them in to ripen. I ate
one just now. Mmmmm. There is nothing like a peach with flavor like that. I decided I’d go pick the whole
crop and bring them in to ripen. Leave them on the tree and the deer and everyone else will get them.
My sweet corn never came up. I do not have the faintest idea why. It had to be bad seed, but it was a name
brand, packed for this year. Burpee’s. I paid $3 for the little package that planted maybe 4 2o foot rows.
Usually corn comes up in a few days. We had good moisture. I don’t understand. I think I’ll have my soil
I have to finish this book. I have to get LifeStory no. 143 out. I have to finish this book on narrative
journaling, yes, yes, yes: I do. I have to get LifeStory no. 143 out, yes, yes, yes, yes. I wish I were a
dishwasher and busboy in a not very busy café in a bad part of town. Or just retired. I’m tired and I’m
retired. I’ve gone my 15 rounds. The bell has rung. I need to rest. When I finish the book, when I get 143
out, when I go on another road trip to sell the book and to sell LifeStory.
Old Molly Moose, the faithful old dog I brought here from Wisconsin, riding with us in the tiny Toyota all the
way, wife and two kids, all of our stuff, towing a U-Haul…Old Molly in a year or so went out under the big
Mulberry tree and laid down and died. We buried here right there. Molly Molly Moose, we used to croon,
petting her, and her big brown tail with a fringe of white would wag and wave in the wind. 502 words, 34
Sun., July 13, 2014
I woke and went outside in the dark, carrying only that tiny LED flashlight that I didn’t use very much. It was
dark and cool, some lightning off to the east. I came back inside in a few minutes. And now sitting here at
my desk with the slider open I hear the rain begin to fall. I just missed it. It’s a soft rain and I think now, ten
minutes later, it has stopped.
I am obsessed with having a routine. Is it true that the only things I have ever done in my life have been as
the result of a routine? The journal, finishing the current book…whacking away at a building project until
it’s done, or declared done…? Routine has worked for me, yes. What would I do if I did something and then
had to wait for the next thing to come along? And I know, knowing me, I’d just sit there (or lie there) and
think, Oh, I don’t want to do x, I don’t want to do y, and I’ll never do z. Why can’t I live and just glide through
life without thinking about things?
So here I am up and writing at my desk, five hundred words plus, yeah!
Routine is perhaps an attempt to override my impulses. Routine is my best thinking; impulses are the result
of no thinking at all, and therefore I do my worst. But I don’t know. Yesterday I swore off candy, never
again, and then I went to a meeting where they had candies out in a dish and I ate six pieces and took a few
home in my pocket and gobbled them down as I drove along. Routine is an attempt to manage my
weaknesses. I need handcuffs. Years ago when I still smoked I remember wishing again and again that I
could be sentenced to jail for one solid year and not be allowed to smoke. Sit in my cell and write, nothing
In fact I did quit smoking, finally, on December 31, 1982, ten minutes before midnight night, tossing my pack
of Camels, half-full, out the car window as we were leaving a New Year’s Eve party, risking being arrested
for littering. “I’m going to do one goddamn thing worthwhile this year,” I said to June. “I hereby quit
smoking forever.” Of course I had quit many, many times, but since that night I have not smoked—not
exactly forever but 32 years ago.
And then I quit drinking six years ago and that has held so far.
I began writing in this Journal in 1964 and have maintained in nearly daily (after the first few years) ever
since so that by the grace of God today it is 18000 + pages long, single-spaced, typewritten. Nine million
That’s what order routine and discipline and, in these later years, out and out prayer have done for me.
Now let’s just say that I live ten more years. 86. I might make that. If I save $10 every day for the next ten
years…ummm, that’s $3,650 a year, x ten = $36,500, which, by then, will probably be enough to buy a pack of
cigarettes and a nice bottle of wine.
As the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century, Popeye the Sailorman, said, “I am what I am! 523 words, 34
Sat., July 12, 2014
When I got out of the Navy in 1959 doing any simple civilian act was precious to me. I was tired of being US Government
property (people don’t remember that we were called GI’s because GI stood for Government Issue, meaning we were the
property of the US Government), tired to waking up wondering what the Navy was going to do today. Coming home,
deciding whether I was going to drive down to Aggieville and see friends, or was I going to stay home and have supper
with my folks and my wife…I wanted my own life, my own decisions.
But in fact had it not been for college it would have been boring. I started in at K-State where I’d left off four years
before, and though I felt a little out of place in the classes (I was older than most of the students of course), I loved
learning and was lapping it up. French language, Psychology, all literature of course…even the science course was
interesting in a hunh,whaddayuh know! kind of way. I remember in particular a political science course taught by a new
professor who had escaped from behind the Iron Curtain—he was Czech, I believe, a Mr. Hajda, pronounced Hi-dah—
who lectured with a thick accent but was a true intellectual, maybe the first one I’d ever met. I loved politics. I read four
newspapers a day, all the mags of the time…there wasn’t much in the way of television news then or I would have of
course oogled that too. Mr. Hajda, curious to find out what his American students knew of politics, gave us a twenty
question test, asking things like What was the GNP, and so on. I got 19 out of 20, the only one to do so. One other guy,
a thin nerdy looking guy with a clipped and practiced “educated” accent (he pronounced poor as pooer) got 17, but the
hoi polloi were down around 10. These were simple questions that anyone who read even one good newspaper a day
would have gotten right.
We lived in our parent’s walk-out basement, which was actually a separate apartment, had its own kitchen and
everything. It was quite large, two bedrooms, a spacious full bath, a huge living room and fireplace. Mom and Dad lived
upstairs and then there was also a one-room apartment at the southeast end of the basement, separate entrance and
all, where my brother lived when he got out of the Navy a couple of months later. He too was eager to be in school
again and the three of us—myself, Hal, and my wife, Betsy, ate many meals together and talked about ideas. My
brother was, and is today, a daring man with ideas and I tried to keep up and we had a great time. I remember Hal would
say things like he was surprised that all human beings didn’t speak the same language, that there were different
languages. Of course he was just exploring, but that’s the kind of mind he had. He accepted nothing as given. And so
we talked and relished our disagreements as much as our agreements. 531 words, 20 minutes.
Fri., July 11, 2014
It’s five am, dark, cool, and dry and still. This is by far my favorite time of day. I like the heat and stillness of the
afternoon too, though, viewed from inside the house with the blinds drawn (no air conditioning, I hate air conditioning),
where, as Yeats says, “noon’s a purple glow.” If I wanted to be a poet—and who knows maybe today I’ll set out to do
that—I would start with Yeats.
Or else Charles Bukowski.
A list of men and women I learned and admired from would begin with my parents and aunts and uncles, of course, but
many, many people, for one reason or another or for no reason at all, bothered to take an interest in me. Glenn
Graham, the printer; Nick Talarico, also a printer; Harry Triplett, a disability retired Army officer and a maker of rubber
stamps; Calvin West, a Navy Yeoman; William L. Llewellyn, a Warrant officer and yeoman; Sven Armens, a professor of
English at Iowa; Charles Grayden, a psychotherapist; Bob Menninger, a psychiatrist and therapist; Sherman Sisco, a
psychotherpaist; Lori Cross, a psychotherapist; Teresa Bernardez, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist; and the list goes
on and on.
I am grateful to each of them, I cannot say how very grateful I am. These are the people who have guided me through
life. I depend on my memory of them and what they taught me (often things quite intangible and even unidentifiable)
each and every day that I go forth.
And I am going forth today. It is Friday, the end of the work week and the beginning of the weekend, nearly everyone’s
On my tombstone, beneath my name I ought to have an Acknowledgements. And then a long list including all the
people above and many, many more.
Grandiosity, it suddenly occurs to me, is occasioned and nurtured by a feeling of insignificance. Duh.
Ten years ago today…hmmm, that would be July 11, 2004. Where was I, what was I doing? What was I thinking?
I would have to look in my journal, of course. I was right here, probably writing in my journal (!), maybe reading a book
or a magazine or a newspaper or two, probably eating…
…I looked it up. I was complaining about the Republicans, my weight, my back and…I don’t know what all. It was
disappointing. At least in ten years I’ve muted a little my need to complain. Now my need is, if anything, to praise and
exclaim: what a wonderful world. I am not complaining about politics. They are what they are. My weight: well, it is what
it is too. This morning I was at 208.2, a considerable gain in the last six years, but manageable. I’m not worried.
As for my back, well, I’m lucky to have one, jiggly and worn out as it is. There are plenty of my compatriots who are lying
on their back, very comfortably I suppose, but under six feet of earth. 505 words, 23 minutes.
Thu., July 10, 2014
Howie’s Recycling is a big steel building on South 10th Street. Inside today it was dark and cavernous and, just before
noon, fairly quiet. I could see and hear a forklift at work in the back. Some guy over in the electronic section was
pounding on something. Finesse is all here at Howie’s.
I had my grocery cart piled high with the stuff Ben had loaded into the back of my SUV. I’d forgotten my gloves: I was
going to get my hands dirty. I rolled over to the plastics and walked back and forth from bin to bin, sorting them as I got
rid of them—old cottage cheese cartons, pop bottles large and small, even an old Spiriva inhaler, milk jugs…salad
containers from a deli. I dumped the big blue barrel into the cart and just did a sort of reverse shopping thing, rolling
around to the tin cans, then the newspapers, the mags, the aluminum, the foil, the cardboard (that’s a biggie)….and it all
took me the better part of half an hour.
On the way out I saw a pile of clean used large 3 ring notebook binders and I bought them all for $2 from the lady at the
window. A real buy: these things cost $5 each new and these were in fine shape, six for $2 = what? Not much. And I
need them, I’m not just accumulating. For the last three or four years my journal hasn’t been bound, just clipped
together and piled under my desk.
My back was sore. I guess it’s always going to be sore when I work. I miss being able to work, physical work, and then
feel just tired and happy and a little sore afterward. I long for the days when I could carry a concrete block in each
My father in the Army had the nickname Tarz (for Tarzan) because he was strong and well-built. Men didn’t “workout” in
those days. You didn’t go to a gym and lift weights unless you were Gorgeous George or somebody like that. Dad was
just a man in excellent physical condition who trotted along the street carrying his 40 pound medical bag that I, trotting
along behind, couldn’t lift very well with both hands.
He was very proud of his physical life and, in fact, I think that’s what killed him. At 80, he still had a good mind, good
memory, but he was falling apart physically and becoming more and more helpless from the Parkinson’s. He hated
being helpless and having people feel sorry for him. Once when he was in a hospital bed after a medical emergency
June put her hand on his and he pulled it away. Not because he didn’t love June, he certainly did, but he couldn’t
tolerate anyone’s pity. And that was a pity.
He had spent his life caring for others and now it was his turn, and he couldn’t deal with that. It is humbling. So I am
honored to go to Howie’s and recycle…it’s something I can still do, even if I can’t sling the bottles the way I used to. One
old guy was there with one of those three-pronged canes and he nosed his cart along with one hand. We nodded to
one another, acknowledging. 554 words, 23 minutes.
Wed., July 9, 2014
I was so happy. I was trying to fix a sickle bar mower and I finally figured out how to get the old broken triangle cutter
blade out (I forget what they’re called)…I could just drill it out and put in a new one. And I found a new one at Orscheln’
s Hardware and Farm Supply…oh, I was sooo happy and pleased. But then I realized that I was dreaming, and what’s
more, only in the dream had I dreamed that it was broken!
Figure that one out, Charley.
If you are given lemons, the corny saying goes, then make lemonade. God did indeed give me lemons, bushels of them,
bright and yellow and fresh. But I couldn’t figure out the recipe for lemonade. I’m still working on it.
Such are my deep morning thoughts.
I stretched out on the floor of the bathroom and did my PT. I only heard of PT (well, except when we did it in the Navy,
more on that below) a six or more weeks ago when I hurt my back in some screwy way and Dr. Wall said I had “lateral
radiculopathy,” and needed some PT. So I was turned over to my soon to be friend Dr. David Brandenburg, who
directed me in a course of exercises over the next month or so. The exercises were not rigorous and were immediately
very helpful. I got better and better. And then the other day I overdid it in garden work and mowing and I undid what I
had done. I was creeping around like Quasimodo and in great pain. I slowed down, kept up my PT in a muted way, and
now I’m better again. As the sign says in one of the medical offices I frequent these days, Do you want to exercise an
hour a day…or would you rather be dead 24 hours a day?
Of course I hate the PT but in the breathing part I am getting better and closing out all thoughts and simply being there.
In the Navy in boot camp we had PT with a vengeance. If we weren’t turned into mean, lean fighting machines exactly, at
least we had our bodies back. I was never the star student. I remember being yelled at, “Hey, you with the headlights
[eyeglasses]!” and made to step out of formation and do some very public and demeaning exercises while I was yelled
at further. I was also in the Goon Platoon in marching. Boot Camp wasn’t the happiest time of my life. I remember I kept
thinking, Can they say things like that to me? Is that legal? Why don’t my parents call? I was 17 years old, a good
middle class Midwestern boy, and I had been turned over to wolves.
My sweet corn hasn’t come up. I paid three dollars for a packet of seed, and it hasn’t come up…it’s been in the ground
for more than a week. Watered, babied, pampered in every possible way! What is the world coming to? I’m going out
there at daybreak and I want to see those little cornies up and at attention. 525 words, 35 minutes.
Tu., July 8, 2014
Do I dare disturb the sleeping and quiet universe this morning with my little tap-tap-tapping on the keys of my computer?
Maybe I should just sit here and listen, watching the pulsing cursor, the only noise the quiet percolating of my morning
coffee. I could lean over on the couch that I’m sitting on and go back to sleep.
But no, here I am, time’s a-wasting and I’m ready, if not rarin’, to go. I rarely rare anymore. I am olde. I move slowly and
sometimes painfully. Rarin’ is for my grandchildren.
Most of my future is behind me. I have a past. It has been a long, winding journey to right here and right now.
It rained last night.
In the summer of 1951 here in eastern Kansas where I still live it rained and it rained and it rained, day after day it
poured. Roofs leaked, basements flooded, then the whole town flooded, and the whole world flooded. We did not know
then that for many, many years afterward we would talk to one another and tell of events that took place “before the
flood,” or “after the flood.” “Oh, don’t you remember when Sam’s Store was on lower Poyntz? It was before the
Brass plates went up downtown on buildings to note the high water mark of nearly four feet. There were later floods,
one in ’93, but really they had no impact on downtown Manhattan, Kansas, the center of the universe that I am, this
morning in 2014, disturbing. A huge dam was built at great expense and stormy politicking, Tuttle Creek Dam, and it has
held fast and protected the town. It put a number of farmers out of business and a few towns, but there it is, a huge
impoundment of water two miles wide and eighty miles long.
Two years later, in 1953, I was old enough and had saved some money from my job at Graham Printers to buy my first
car: a 1934 Chevrolet sedan, for $100. For another ten or fifteen dollars I got license plates for it. You had to have
those. RL 14530. As for insurance, I didn’t have that. You didn’t have to have insurance. After all, insurance might
cost as much as $25 a year. Since I was under 16 my driver’s license was restricted: “To and from school and on
errands for parents.” Of course, this was pretty much a joke. My parents wanted me to take my friends home. My
parents wanted me to go to the swimming pool and have a good time.
My wife now, had her own car then, a Model T, and she always carried a few egg cartons so that she could say she had
been delivering eggs for her parents.
Ben left a note on the kitchen counter to the effect that though it rained a lot during the night, the roof on the east porch
did not leak… “we must have fixed it.” Well, of course, he fixed it, and he is rightfully very proud thereof. And I am proud
of him. 522 words, 32 minutes.
Mon., July 7, 2014
It’s late, or early, depending on your perspective—nearly 1 am—and I can’t sleep. Gnats are crawling across my
Sometimes I think about my life and it seems so concocted and absurd that it can’t possibly be my life. I did all that
stuff? Who, me? I lived in all those places, I thought all those thoughts, I said all those things…?
I am standing at the counter in the Student Union at the University of Kansas trying to cash a check. I am a student
there. I have my student ID. I may even have been by then a graduate student and part-time faculty. But the kid at the
counter looks at my signature on the check and says he can’t read it. “It’s my signature,” I say. “Well, I can’t read it,” he
says again. “What’s your name?” “It’s the name on the ID Card, Charles Kempthorne.” It’s not a picture ID, though;
they didn’t have picture IDs back then. Nor is the check printed with my name on it. He looks at the card, then at me,
and very reluctantly, as if a voice in his head is saying that he is going to regret doing this, he cashes my check and
hands me a ten dollar bill. I take it and grump off, not saying thanks or anything.
I’m in the Navy, just a couple of days. I am in line with a hundred other half-dressed men and I am being issued my
uniforms, piece by piece. I am at the head of the line. “Should I go now?” I ask the petty officer standing there. He
glares at me with a look of absolute hatred. I start to say something else but before I can open my mouth he says, “You
idiot. Move!” And I dart off like the scared rabbit that I am.
I have just purchased a brand new 1969 Toyota Corona. On the way home without thinking I decide to try something we
used to do with our cars in high school: I’m going to turn off my engine and turn it back on suddenly. It would usually
produce a boom as the gases exploded. We did it—I don’t know why we did it in high school, but we did. So I do it with
my brand new Toyota for which I just wrote a check for more than $2,000. Not only does it go boom, it explodes with a
thundering volley and the muffler is blown apart. The car sounds like a tank. I get out and look. I’m pretty sure the
warranty won’t cover that. I roar home.
My mother smoked Chesterfield cigarets. I take one from the ashtray and light it and take a puff or two. It tastes awful. I
begin to cough. Mom comes and sees me, all of seven years old, standing there in a cloud of blue smoke. She gives
me a new one and lights it for me and makes me smoke it all until I am sick. I probably am more than a little green
around the gills. “There,” she says.
But five years later I smoke some more, like it, it makes me feel so grown up, and I begin smoking for the next thirty
years. 555 words. 24 minutes.
Sun., July 6, 2014
The village of Rewey, Wisconsin, had a sign on the edge of town that said Rewey, Pop. 263. Or maybe it was 264 or
262. The whole village was about one mile square, if that. Everybody knew everybody, of course. There was only one
bar when I was around there in the mid 40s, Irv Dixon’s Tavern. But I guess I’d have to count Del’s tavern too, which
was divided into a large barroom for adults and a somewhat smaller room for the younger crowd where they served
cokes and malts and such.
There were two general stores, Moffett’s Store and Charlie Eustace’s Grocery. There were two gas stations, and one of
them, William’s Garage, did major repairs to cars and trucks and tractors and such. The other, on the edge of town and
just across from the tiny house we lived in and waited for Dad to come home from the War in, was a gas station with
some repairs but mostly fixing flats and such.
To the untrained eye, Rewey was a place where nothing was going on. But for me, and any kid who lived there, it was
heaven. There was always stuff to do. You could go down to Moffet’s and get an ice cream cone, or a bottle of pop that
could be filled with a nickel bag of peanuts and then drank slowly or, you could shake the bottle and spray the stuff into
your mouth a bit at a time. I wasn’t too big on that but some of the boys swore by it. You could go play in the empty
house where it was dark and cold and mysterious. You could mow lawns for 35 cents. You could deliver the Dubuque
Telegraph Herald like my cousin Gary did. You could go swimming or fishing for trout in any number of meandering
pasture streams just outside town. You could hitch-hike to Platteville and use the money you made mowing lawns to
shoot pool at Mike’s Pool Room, accessed by an open stairway on main street down to a basement.
At night you could raid orchards or play a hide and seek game called Whistle, Whoop or Holler. Not a complicated and
intellectually demanding game, it required only that if you were hiding and “it,” and someone was looking for you and
they got close, you had to whistle, whoop, or holler. See?
So there was a lot to do.
Or you could even go to school if it was in session. A two or three storey brick building. I was in the 3rd grade, I think,
and a Mrs. Bray was the teacher. I attended only briefly, a few months at the most. I can’t remember a thing I learned.
When Dad came to town we packed up and left in just a few days and moved directly to Manhattan, Kansas, where I
finished my growing up and then came back to when I was 33 and where I have stayed ever since. Manhattan is much
bigger than Rewey, but less exciting to a boy. 516 words, 20 minutes.
Sat., July 5, 2014
I have to learn to move slowly and deliberately and to accept that. I watch old people and that’s the way they move.
They are moving consciously and they are often in pain, I can tell. Now I am old and I am moving that way too. You can
go on with your life, God is telling me, you just have to do it more carefully. But I’m having trouble accepting that. I will,
of course, I have to.
I have to accept too that I can’t do everything. I worked in the garden a good hour yesterday morning but I did only the
simplest things, picking up tools and putting them away, things like that. I hoed a teensy tiny bit and that was enough. I
could tell if I tried to chop away at the weeds I’d soon be yelping in pain and have to go back to the house to rest.
This is boring even to think about. Why can’t I accept the obvious and necessary and just get on with it?
I can still write. I can sit here and I can type on the keys of my little laptop. I only have a little sciatic pain sitting here.
My fingers are doing the walking…! If I could stop complaining I’d be happy. The happiest I ever was physically—after
childhood—was when I was in my 30s and 40s. I was here on the farm where I am now and I used to happily complain
that I felt like a horse. I spent the entire day lifting and moving and heaving and shoving and picking up and putting
down, all without so much as a murmur of pain. Some days just for the fun of it, almost, I’d move a huge stack of
concrete blocks from where they were by the chicken house to behind the garage, or pitch a pile of 2x4s up high in the
machine shed to store them out of the way. Ah, happy days. We never know what we had until we don’t have it
I wish I knew a joke I could tell and make myself laugh. When I was a child my folks had a book, “2,500 Jokes for All
Occasions.” Those were the days when they had books like that for people who had to give speeches or wanted to
“break the ice” at a party. That’s so funny to think of now. I’m sure that if I used the phrase breaking the ice with any of
the under 30s I know, they would look at me cross-culturally and frown with non-comprehension. There never was any
ice there, was there? We just thought there was, and so there was.
I remember now a joke that makes me smile, a Navy joke. A boot sailor was standing watch somewhere and he was
accosted by the Captain…oh, I can’t remember the rest of the joke. It was something about the Captain saying
something to the lad and the boy was asked later what the Captain said and the boy didn’t remember, saying that he just
thought the Captain was “just making conversation.” Hahahaha. It’s not very funny, but it gives me a tiny smile to
remember it on this still gray morning. "Just making conversation," hahahaha. 559 words, 30 minutes.
Fri., July 4, 2014
So Happy Birthday, America. Happy 240th! Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Amer-i-
caaaa. Happy birthday to yooouu!
You don’t look it. I remember you when you were just 170.
The house is still. Everyone’s asleep but me. We went to bed late. I hadn’t had a nap and I fell asleep just like that and
woke up at 5 something and was amazed. I stared at the red numbers on the clock for a minute and then I evidently
went back to sleep because I woke up an hour late at 6 something. I laid there looking up. I did a couple of pulling my
knees up to my chest exercises and then rolled out. I shuffled gingerly into the bathroom and then into the kitchen for
some coffee. I’m shuffling everywhere these days—shuffling gingerly—because I overdid it a couple of days ago with the
rototiller in the garden.
The French used to execute people with the guillotine. Now we can do it with the rototiller. Nothing is more deadly. I
started it up on the second pull and it fired to life and I grabbed it and it dragged me up and down and around for half an
hour or so. I made a furrow and planted some beets seeds, bending over as much as I could and throwing the funny
little seeds in and then I covered them with dirt and tamped it all down. Beet seeds are funny looking little things. They
look like tiny mines with little bumpies sticking out of them.
I limped to the house and went back to work here. I had the beets in the ground. If I was flopped on the couch now icing
my back and didn’t have my boots on the ground anymore at least I had my beets in the ground. Ho-h0, ha-ha, and now
two days later I am suffering the consequences. Death by rototiller!
It must have been pretty weird, really, 240 years ago, when everyone turned to and chased the British all the way back
to England. Just imagine that, the poor guys in red coats having to pack up their muskets and go home. In fact I’ll bet a
lot of them just melted down their muskets and made ploughshares and took up farming…and invented the rototiller to
get even. I would happily become a British colony if I could have my back back.
The first year I gardened on my own was in Wisconsin where we rented this old farmhouse and there was plenty of land
so I spaded up a huge garden maybe 30 x 60. I think I bought a new spade at the hardware store and just went at it. It
felt good to do some manual labor after teaching all day. I wasn’t talking about Herman Melville or Henry James, I was
spading up the earth and making a garden. And my, how that garden grew! I planted things that wanted to grow. I
planted zucchini squash, radishes, tomatoes, potatoes, corn…the weather was great and I was eager. It was 1970 and I
was 32 years old. 532 words, 40 minutes.
Thu., July 3, 2014
“2014” is such an odd name for a year. It’s like some sci-fi year. Isn’t there a song, In the year 2014? 1914 sounds
more realistic to me, though that wasn’t a good year now, was it?
It was a long, dreamy night of getting up every hour to pee a few drops and shuffle back to bed. I overdid things
yesterday physically—garden work, then carpentry, twisting and lifting—and so my back is a mess. Nobody knows the
trouble I’ve seen, etc.
The last several evenings June has been scanning ten photos per evening. I organize the event, get the photos out and
put them on the desk by the scanner, and at some point in the evening, she’ll come in and zap the things into the
computer. This way everyone in the family can have an exact copy of every photograph in the family. If she does ten
every day, I tell her, for a year, then we’ll have 3,650 of our photographs scanned. That’s a lot. I don’t know, though, if
that’s all there’ll be. Luckily most of the new photographs all of us take are digital to begin with.
I’m looking right now at a photograph taken in 1976 (stamped on the back) of my Aunt Pearl and her do, Button II. Pearl
and Gordon had no children, so Pearl loved her dogs, parrots—and I don’t know what all. Pearl and Gordon worked
their tails off year after year in a tuxedo rental store in downtown Dubuque, Iowa. It was a good business and they
thrived and became rich. They never went much of anywhere and drove an ancient Buick but one day they bought a
Cadillac. The parrot, whose name I forget, sat on the counter in the store and Gordon taught it to say “Gordon’s got a
Cadillac” to customers.
Pearl was my father’s youngest sister and the youngest kid in the batch of six children. I think Pearl was born about
1913 or so. She and my mom were great pals for many years. Pearl lived to be upper 80s or low 90s. She and Gordon
had retired to Hot Springs, Arkansas, and lived in a nice little house on Lake Hamilton. It was five miles from the center
of downtown but everyday Pearl would walk her dogs downtown and back. I guess it took most of the day. What Pearl
had was an IMMENSE quantity of moxie. Everyone loved Pearl and Pearl loved everyone.
I am suddenly stopped, sitting here staring at the computer cursor blinking at me—insolently. My mind has gone numb.
The day looms. The television is black, just waiting to begin its day. I’ll have another cup of coffee. We are about out of
coffee. I drink too much coffee but I love every single cup. I have a cup that says I [heart] My Grandpa. I have another
that says Cook Paint Makes You Look Good, a handsome deep blue cup that is left over from my days as a
housepainter. 514 words, 34 minutes.
., July 2, 2014
I’m sentimental…is that the word? So I love to google people who used to be in my life I’ve lost track of. There was a
French boy who spent a month with us twenty years ago…he’s now a research director for some oil and gas company in
Lille, France. I know where Lille is but I’ve never been there. Though I’ve studied French and France in my
lackadaisical, desultory way for many years, I’ve only been in France one time, and that was for about eight hours in the
port town of La Rochelle. I walked from our ship, The USNS Rose, a long way into town and went to the US Army PX
there and bought a pipe that I smoked for a couple of months. I thought it made me look cool. I was 19 or 20. I laugh
out loud now to remember that.
Also to look cool a few years later when I was at Menninger and met, or at least saw, all those sophisticated European
psychiatrists with their topcoats slung carelessly over their shoulders without using the arms I took to doing the same
when I went in town. No one laughed—openly. Maybe the doctors thought they looked cool. No doubt they did.
Fifty years later I’m still trying to look cool. I look in the mirror after washing my hair and I let it all hang down to my
shoulder blades and I think I look like (say) the actor Mickey Rourke in that movie with Danny DeVito where he plays a
shyster lawyer named…Brute? The movie was called The Rain Maker, I think—rainmaker being the name given to the
lawyer in a company who brings in business. Well, do I look like him? I look at myself and smile. Not exactly, I have to
admit. I grasp my hair and tie up my usual ponytail.
Of course I think the pony tail is somewhat cool. A couple of years ago I did a workshop in a big town in Alberta, and
drew a good crowd, the room full with fifty or sixty people, and as I talked I saw a woman maybe 40 or so who so
resembled my wife when she was that age that I almost stopped speaking and went over to say hello. Of course I didn’t,
it wasn’t June, but she could have been her twin. The whole workshop, several hours, as I smiled and talked I glanced
over at her.
Well, you know, when you’re giving a talk you have to look at somebody, and she was pleasant to look at. After the
workshop, back in my hotel, I rifled through the evaluations to read what she said about the workshop. I found it—I knew
her name but I can’t think of it now—and the boxes she checked were all good to excellent, enjoyed the workshop,
learned a lot, and so on, but at the bottom she wrote Why do old professors always wear their hair in a ponytail? It's like
a uniform? (509 words, 23 minutes.)
Tu., July 1, 2014
I got in last night at 11 from a trip to Salina. Now it’s nearly 6 am and I have to leave in an hour for a trip to
Junction City. Then I have to come back, make a meeting, and teach a class at Meadowlark from 2 to 330.
Oh me or my Oh why did I ever leave Ohio?
When I was in college just out of the Navy in 1959 I had to take a course they called Oral Communications.
Someone up there had thought that calling Speech 1 Oral Communications would make us all feel better, I
guess. We called it Oral Comm and took it because we had to. We had to give about 8 speeches in the
semester. All of us were terrified. I was probably the oldest one there, the only veteran. By the 7th or 8th
speech I was enjoying myself. Most of the students never got over their terror; I did.
Since then as a teacher I have given thousands of speeches to groups of just a few to a thousand. I almost
always enjoy it if the audience is even halfway attentive. I’m used to it.
One time I gave a workshop/talk to three people and a dead elk at the Elk’s Lodge in Missoula, Montana. I
had rented the hall for $25 for the day. It turned out to be an auditorium that seat about two thousand people.
We pushed a couple of tables together and sat down and went to work. I had a good time and so did those
attending except for one lady who sat across from me who had a terrible cold. She sneezed and sniffled and
coughed her way through the day, and by the end of it we all had colds. I bought a lug of apples out of an
orchard in Washington and holed up a couple of days until the worst was over, and then I went on with what
was left of my tour.
My son Dan and his band years ago were on tour in Wisconsin. They did a gig in Milwaukee and parked their
van with all their instruments in it in the parking lot of the hotel right downtown, The Wisconsin, the biggest and
best hotel in town. During the night somebody stole the van with all their instruments in it. It was later found by
the police on the edge of town, empty. They had no instruments and so they had to cancel their tour. Even if
they got their insurance money immediately and bought new instruments they could play professional concerts
with instruments they’d never played before. So they just packed up and went back to Seattle. How
demoralizing! I think there were six or eight people in the band then.
On the other hand, Theodore Roosevelt was to give a campaign speech in…Milwaukee, I think, but on the way
in to the auditorium some nut shot him. TR was luckily carrying his glasses in his vest pocket in a steel case,
and so the bullet struck that and grazed him. Some medic stopped the bleeding and patched him up. Of the
would-be assassin, TR said, “The poor man!” And then he went to the podium and gave a 45 minute long
Now that’s keeping cool.
559 words, 25 minutes.