Below are my journal entries for the first seven days of the world's first Journalong. I
invite you to read it and see how much a person reveals about his own and his family's
history when he writes 500 words a day, more or less randomly.
I doubt that I was wearing jeans with cuffs of at least two inches and a white t-shirt. That was my high
school uniform, the unspoken and unofficial uniform of every high school
boy then, but after high school and for my brief six week college career at summer school—June and
July, 1955!—I was more likely to wear tan chinos (I don’t think we had the
word then) and a sport-shirt. That was my dress when I went off to the Navy that morning of July 20,
1955, and my father, wearing probably a gray-pin striped suit, drove me
down to the railroad station and put me on the train. I guess I said goodbye to Mom, hugged her,
accepted her quick kiss, in the kitchen, and we got in the car. The car been
mine, maybe still was as far as the title went, but Dad had taken over the payments on it, a 1954
So we drove downtown. Maybe my head was filled with sentimental thoughts about leaving my
boyhood home forever, and all that. Or maybe it was filled with joy at leaving it,
this hated burg my parents had made me grow to such adulthood as being 17 could be considered
in. I was until quite recently embarrassed to say I was from Kansas. Kans-
ass, we called it. My Uncle Arthur, who had been stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, during the War,
had spoken derisively (he having grown up in the much more beautiful part of
the Midwest, Wisconsin) of Kansas as the place where one would put the syringe for an enema since
Kansas was “the asshole of the world.”
So, out into the wide world, Charley, with a handshake from Dad, an admonition not to take any
wooden nickels or to keep my nose clean, and maybe a wave as the train chugged
out of the station.
Three and a half years later, a different scene: I get off a plane in Kansas City wearing a gabardine
suit I’d bought in Bremerhaven, Germany, my last port, met my wife with a
rather theatrical hug and kiss session at the foot of the ramp, and we got in our car and drove to
Manhattan, back home, the old town still there, and within a day or two I changed
back into my college student pants and shirt and went off to class, feeling odd, weird we’d say now,
to be among these kids who were learning to shave and looked so very, very
young compared to me, the old vet.
Not only was I a vet, but I was a married veteran. No children yet, but married. If I looked at the girls
at all, it was through that lense. I made friends quickly, excelled in class,
was given respect by professor and student alike as a veteran, not a rarity in those days, but
unusual, someone who after high school had gone out and “gotten his military
obligation out of the way.” (That phrase just came to me, and now, here, 2013, I’m amazed not only
to remember it but aghast, almost, that we used such a phrase: military
obligation! Today no one would understand that at all. Maybe it’s worth a Veterans Day just to
realize that—the gap between then, 1959, and now, more than 50 years later.
It was 1935 or 1936. I wasn’t born yet, but my brother was, a year or two old then, and he and Mom
were driving one latesummer night through Indianapolis streets to pick up
my father at the University of Indiana Hospital where he was on the staff as a resident doctor. They
came to a railroad crossing just as the black and white striped arms came
down and the bell started dinging. So they had to stop. Very slowly a train locomotive and a few cars
pulled into sight and eased to a screeching stop. Shortly another
automobile pulled up behind them. The train was standing still on the tracks. In the rearview mirror
Mom saw two men get out of the car behind them. Strange, she thought, and
then when she saw them coming toward her They came up to her window, one on one side, and one
on the other. The man on her side had a gun and he stuck it in the open
window (it was a warm summer night).
The man had a handkerchief over his face up to his nose. “Give me your purse,” he said. Hal, sitting
in the back seat, began to squawl loudly. The man opened the purse and
looked in around, and found only a single dollar bill in the wallet. He cursed and threw the purse
back at her and grabbed her by the jaw and shook her. (Later she found his dirty
handprints on her face.) Shut that brat up, he said. But Mom did nothing, just glared at him. Not far
away on the train a trainman walked along the edge of the sitting locomotive
and looked her way. Let’s get out of here, the other man said. Hal bawled louder. Mom glared and
the robber shook her again, mumbling something about saying nothing. He
threatened her. She watched in the mirror as the men got in their car and backed up and roared
Now Mom was a tough cookie, a big city girl, from early childhood. She was born in a village in
Kentucky, West Point, and brought north by her father and mother as a child. So
she knew about stuff like this. It wasn’t exactly all in a day’s work, maybe, but as I recall her telling it
she just drove on to the hospital and told Dad (“Kempy” she always called
him) about it. Maybe she broke down a little then, or maybe not. I don’t know.
I heard her tell this story many times at family gatherings--anywhere, to anyone who would listen,
probably (a characteristic I inherited). She told it well, with relish and in all its
glorious detail. It was only the last time I heard her tell it that I got the detail about the trainman
possibly seeing what was going on and heading her way.
Maybe they reported the robbery to the police, maybe not. Probably not. I don’t know. She never got
her dollar back, I’m sure of that. (504 words).
When I was in school I took a lot of history and political science as well as lit courses. I read the
newspapers and I thought I was pretty smart. My poor father, who had only an
MD degree and that was forty years ago didn’t know much compared about politics and history
compared to me. So when I came home and one time in my enthusiasm told
him what I’d just learned in a history class about the IWW--“They were called Wobblies, you know,” I
explained condescendingly--and Dad not only nodded looked up from his
roast beef and mashed potatoes and said vigorously that yes, he did know about them, but also
said, “Do you know what IWW stands for?” And I replied, “Well, sure, it means
International Workers of the World.” Dad shook his head. “No, that’s not what it stands for.” “But--“ I
said. “It stands for I Won’t Work!”
And then he told me a story about going out west summers and working the wheat harvest and his
means of travel from place to place was hopping a freight trail. “Oh,” I said. I
didn’t know about this part of my dad’s life. He went on. “One time I got on in the train yard and there
were four other fellows already there. They didn’t do much but look at me
until we started moving and then one of them came up and asked me if I was a member of the IWW. I
said no and he said I ought to join them. “It costs a dollar,” he said, and
wanted me to join and give him a dollar. I told him no, I wouldn’t do it. He went back to the others and
sat down for awhile and pretty soon another one of them came over and
suggested I give him a dollar to sign up for the IWW. I told him no, too. He got kind of nasty and the
others got up and came over too. We were moving right along then, the
countryside sliding by at fifteen or twenty miles an hour. I wouldn’t pay up and so they grabbed me
and threatened to throw me off the train, calling me names and roughing me
up a little. I refused again, and they did throw me off. I knew it was coming and so I rolled with the fall
and I was okay, a little shaken up was all. They’re nothing but a bunch of
bums and freeloaders. If I had given them a dollar they’d have used it to buy whiskey.
I didn’t raise the subject of the IWW again. I figured he was probably right: that dollar wasn’t going to
be mailed into headquarters in Chicago or wherever it was. Dad didn’t
like unions at all and he bristled when I said once that the American Medical Association (of which he
was a member, of course) was just about like a union, insisting that it was
a “professional association” and entirely different. (506 words.)
On or about, as the military citations for heroism or crimes as well read--on or about November 18,
1971, I came here to this spot of earth for the first time. I looked around at the
mess: the four or five buildings cobbled and crumbling, especially the tiny four room house filled with
the trash of the old man who died here, and I rolled up my sleeves and I
went to work. I loved to clean up and I knew how to do it and I had a purpose.
In the room next to what appeared to have been the kitchen was a huge pile of musty and rumpled
paperback books, mostly mysteries and westerns. On top of the pile, maybe
four feet high, was a pee-stained old mattress. When I took hold of it to drag it from the room out into
the open air a couple of huge packrats lumbered out and scurried away. I
got a scoop shovel and finished the job of loading my pickup truck. Then I got a broom and swept up
the dirt in a pile in the center of the room. That must have been his
bedroom, “his” being the old man the previous owner identified as his uncle Odie (for O.D.
Fredericks) who had lived here and died here some dozen years earlier.
I lit a cigarette and sat on the bed of my pickup and looked the place over. It was a beautiful fall day,
yellow leaves drifting down like rain, and I felt good. Work was something I
could do. This was work that meant something to me. This was not grading themes. I was a man of
33 (the same age as Christ and Alexander the Great I had been telling
everybody all year), and I was finally doing a man’s work: I was carving out of the wilderness a place
where I and my family could live.
I went back inside. On to the next room. It didn’t have much in it, a couple of old wooden chairs
painted with ten coats of paint, the last one being a hideous beige. I took them
into the room I’d just cleaned and neatly lined them against the wall. Then I swept up this room, a
pile of dirt and old mud dauber’s nests and twigs into a pile of the center of the
room. Room no. 2 was done.
Room no. 3 had lots of fallen plaster along the walls. I shoveled that up, load after load, swept up a
pile in the center of the room, and then took another break outside, this time
not to smoke only but to, well, dump. I saw grown up in weeds and trees an ancient outhouse
teetering on an uncertain foundation of limestone flat rocks, and I walked past that
and went deeper into the woods.
I came back, poured a cup of coffee from the spiffy new thermos I had bought, and sat on the truck
bed again and smoked another Camel cigarette. I thought about a lady friend
I’d had some years before who had told me—and we had both laughed at this, lying in bed together
after making love in that magical time when you get to know in a different way
the person you had just slept with, Lil had told me about going on her very first date when she was a
rural girl of fifteen or sixteen and this man, much older than she, taking her
to a dance or something, had stopped the car along the way, pulled down a side road and said, Lil, I
just got to take me a good ol’ country shit, and had done just that and then,
saying something about feeling ten pounds lighter, had gotten behind the driver’s seat and driven
on just as if they were on their way to the debutante’s ball.
I smiled to remember that, and then I went back inside to clean up the kitchen. (667 words)
For $300 we bought June's dad's old combine, a John Deere 55 self-propelled thing, a huge green
machine that would put me in business as Grain Producer! I couldn't wait. We
drove it on the highway--we couldn't afford to hire a truck to move it--the fifty miles down here from
Ernie's farm just south of Clay Center on the Broughton Road. Ernie had
gotten the motor running, and checked out the tires and all that, so away we went, June driving
along behind in our blue '64 Ford pickup. (This was 1974.)
It took three days (if memory serves, and sometimes it doesn't) to get it down here. We only had time
to drive a few hours a day and at the end of a session I'd pull off the road
and park the brute and then we'd go home in the pickup and do our other chores, eat supper, get
some sleep. Next day, on with the adventure!
We spent the next six weeks working on the thing in our driveway. I think I began to have dreams
about it. I know I did, and they weren't all pleasant. I certainly had day dreams.
I saw myself as part of the great bread-making movement of the world, mounting my combine and
sweeping into my 50 acre sea of wheat, stirring heroic music in my ears.
I say we. June helped some, but my main help came from my neighbor, Phil Montgomery, who came
down the road everyday with a big smile on his face and a wrench in his
hand. Had he not done that, I don't think I could have continued. Instead of a lonely struggle, it
became a kind of lark. If we needed a part, and we frequently did, that meant we
could go for a drive, take a break from working in the sun. Parts were not at the dealership. This
brute was ancient, and such parts as there were extant, were on old 55s
mouldering in various junkyards across this part of Kansas. We might drive to Junction City, thirty
miles away, troop through the yard of a dealership, and find an old 55 looming,
half cannibalized, but there we'd espy just what we needed: a pulley or an auger or a linkage or
I remember spending a lot of time in positions that I couldn't possible get into now without the help of
my doctor, uninstalling and installing.
Then the great day came: the wheat was ready, the machine was ready, and all systems were, I
thought, a go.
The wheat crop looked good. I had drilled it in the previous autumn with an ancient drill and,
beginner's luck, I got a good stand. (I hadn't know that phrase, to "get a good stand,"
and ex-English professor that I was, I loved mouthing the phrase, somehow this proved that I was a
genuine American farmer, to be able to use such phrases as if I'd lived with
them all my days!
So one morning with the sun rising in the heavens I fired up Old Greenie and, with June and the kids
standing in the drive, perhaps June with her hands clasped looking up at me
admiringly,saying "My hero!" we crept to the field to do our business. Into the wheat, I threw the
necessary levers and lowered the header (another new word) close to the
ground and the sickle bars roared and we moved forth. The wheat fell beautifully into the header
and the auger pushed it into the housing where it disappeared into the threshing
mechanisms and...the grain was to come a few seconds later out the spout just behind my shoulder,
feeding the wheat into the "hopper." I oozed along, my heart racing. I went
fifty feet, a hundred...and no grain was coming out! Nothing. Wheat was going in the front, but
nothing...it was disappearing somehow! (500 plus plus)
Sat., November 16, 2013
Half the time when I write the date I almost write 1913 instead of 2013. No, I’m not that old: I wasn’t
around in 1913, but my father was, and I’m really just a 20th Century guy, and
saying it’s 2013 sounds like something, still, to me, out of a science fiction story. I know my
grandchildren will laugh at that, all but one of them having been born in this century,
What I’m sick of in this health care debate is that it isn’t really a debate. Everybody says they're sick
of the debate, and for sure we all are, but no, we haven’t really had any
debating yet. That is, we haven’t talked at all about the ideas that are inherent in the question as to
whether or not to have universal health care. Some of the ideas are, duh, (1)
should every citizen have access to free health care? (2) should everyone have to pay something
for it, some “affordable” amount? (3)...
Oh, the whole thing is so bor-ing.
My mother was born in the 20th century too, of course. Dad was born in 1903, and Mom was born in
1909. Dad died in 1983, just eighty years, four months, and four days old. He
was ready to go. He was ill, hopelessly and terminally ill, with Parkinson’s Disease. He took his own
life. The minister at his funeral told us, privately, that he fully understood
what Dad had done. He was a doctor and he knew what was happening to him and he wanted to
spare us the pain of watching him fall apart utterly. Or something like that.
Dad was an athlete and one of his few vanities was his pride in his physical ability. To develop
Parkinson's, then, was one of the cruelest ways to die.
He had had by any and all accounts, a wonderful life. An outstanding athlete and student in high
school and teacher’s college at Platteville, Wisconsin (he grew up in the nearby
village of Rewey, the son of a blacksmith), after college he taught a couple of years and then went
back to school at the University of Wisconsin, some fifty miles to the east, to
Just why he went to medical school is obscure, but he didn’t like teaching.
Years later when I was a student at UW, I went into a drugstore on State Street to cash a check and
the guy at the counter looked at my check and mused, “Kempthorne…I used
to have a teacher named Kempthorne." He smiled at me as he opened the cash register to cash the
check. “He was a tough son-of-a-bitch!”
“Where was that?” I asked.
“Wauseka,” the man said.
“That was my father,” I said.
The man did a double take. “Oh…Uh, well, we sure respected him!”
I laughed, chatted a bit more about I don’t remember what, and got my $5 or whatever and went on
my way. Next time I was back home in Kansas I told Dad about that and he
laughed and laughed. Then he told me the rest of the story.
He taught in a very rural school, and among the students were a number of louts [he called them]
who were only in school because the law required it of them. One of these
boys stuck a girl seated in front of him in the rear end with a pin. Dad saw it. Of course the girl
yelped. Then Dad came over and asked the boy if he had stuck Suzie in the rear
end, and of course the boy lied. Dad lost his temper and grabbed the kid by the collar (maybe by the
hair, I don’t exactly remember) and dragged him from the room, out the front
door of the school and literally booted him out of school. Then he went to the superintendent’s office
“Oh, no,” the superintendent said, “don’t resign. You’re just the kind of teacher we want.”
I laugh now, five in the morning on this day 90 years after the event, and I smile to remember my
dad, a fair man, but who yes, did have a temper. (703 words)
About 10 Betsy was having some contractions but didn’t feel like going to the hospital yet. I felt like
we were in a movie, The Birth of Our First Child, but Betsy said, Let’s go over
to Mom and Dad’s and see what they say. So we went to my folks. They were up, watching the news
and reading the newspapers. We sat around talking and having some
coffee or something and smoking cigarets. This was 1961, and everyone smoked. Every room had
ashtrays. Everyone had cigarets and everyone had lighters. Matches were
everywhere. On the back of Time Magazine on Mom and Dad’s coffee table was a big color
photograph of a doctor coming out of surgery, taking off his mask and accepting a
Camel cigarette from one of the other surgeons standing around and yet another offers him a light.
The caption under the photo says FOUR OUT OF FIVE NEW YORK DOCTORS
SMOKE CAMEL CIGARETS!
My dad was a doctor and, guess what, he smoked Camel cigarettes. I smoked Camel cigarettes, too,
even though I had no intention of ever being a NY doctor, or any kind of
Dad was showing us pictures from one of his medical books of birth defects. There was a
photograph or a drawing, I don’t remember, of a child born with a condition called
cyclopsia. He had one eye in the middle of his forehead.
Somewhere in there we decided to go to the hospital. We may have dozed a little first in the living
At the hospital, Saint Mary’s, the nuns scurried around, smiling softly, efficient, being so nice. “Oh,
you’re Dr. Kempthorne’s daughter-in-law,” they said to Betsy, “well, we’ll
take good care of you. He’s such a nice man.”
I was more or less told to go away and sit down, that this was women’s work, and they would handle
it all. In the waiting room I looked at magazines, no doubt ones with
pictures on the back of those New York doctors smoking Camels. Perhaps I dozed. Maybe another
father-to-be came in and sat down. I think it was a Monday morning.
Monday’s child is fair of face, was that how the nursery rime went? Tuesday’s child…I couldn’t
remember. I lit another cigarette and tried to continue reading.
Somewhere around daybreak there was a flurry of activity in Betsy’s “pre-labor” room and then a bit
later she was wheeled into the Delivery Room. I was shooed off and back to
the waiting room. Before long—an hour, perhaps—Dr. Schwartz came in and smiled at me. “You
have a baby boy,” he said. “Mother and son are doing fine.” I stood up and
came over to him, questions on my mind. “How was the labor…is Betsy really okay…? And the baby,
will he be all right?” The doctor waved me off and said, “Oh, he’ll grow,”
he said as he walked down the hallway. And then again, as if to himself, in a kind of singsong voice,
“he’ll grow…he’ll grow…”
I stood there. In a few minutes two nurses came pushing Betsy on a gurney. She looked pale and
shaken. She barely recognized me. She didn’t smile. “Is she…” I said to one
of the nurses. “Oh, she’ll be fine,” she said. “We’ll get her and the baby cleaned up and you can see
them both soon. We’ll send for you. Just you go back to the waiting room
and wait.” I stood there. “You have a fine baby boy. You’ll be able to see him through the glass
soon.” I nodded dully. “We’ll send for you.” (601 words.)